Lessons from a Leafcutter Ant

by Beverly Hutchinson McNeff

The other day, I was watching a documentary on the tropical rainforest. Out of six million square miles of tropical rainforest that once existed worldwide, only 2.4 million square miles remain. But they are still there. As you can imagine, those rainforests are not only critical to our survival as a planet, but they can teach us something about living together.

The goal of everything in the forest is to rise to the sun. Because of the dense and lush flora, the forests must grow fast to rise above the mass of others for their existence. There are many barriers to its growth, one being the leafcutter ant.

The leafcutter ant lives beneath the ground in a fungus colony. This fungus feeds off the leaves the ants bring, which produces proteins and sugars for the ants’ survival. Therefore, the leafcutter ant climbs to the surface and cuts leaves with its mighty jaw, which serves as a type of chainsaw, to bring back the leaves for their survival. Of course, ants cutting leaves sounds harmless until you see how these little chainsaws move. At only a quarter of an inch long, they can travel at a speed of 16 mph, which is faster than Usain Bolt’s sprint considering the ants’ size. They can carry 50 times their body weight by their jaws, like an average-sized human carrying a minivan in their mouth. And they can completely strip a tree of its life-giving leaves in 24 hours.

With this kind of destructive behavior, you might wonder how any trees survive! As plants and trees detect the threat of the leafcutter ant, they send poison to their leaves that, when brought back to the fungus, begin to kill it. As the ants detect the destruction of their food source, they avoid the poisonous leaves and move on to other food sources. This process will continue with other plants so that the ants cannot destroy the entire foliage of any one plant or tree. But don’t worry about the ants; there is plenty of food for their survival.

You may wonder what benefit the leafcutter ants provide. Well, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, studies of the leafcutter ants have contributed to scientific advancements in pharmaceuticals and clean energy alternatives. This is because of their cellulose intake, which they can’t digest, but their fungus crops can break it down. It is a fascinating example of what we can achieve in symbiotic relationships. Plus, leafcutter ants coat their bodies with an antibiotic-producing bacteria that has played an integral role in research on human antibiotics. It’s amazing!

You might be wondering why I am telling you this story; well, think for a moment if you have ever felt attacked. Maybe an unforeseen event, person, law, or even a physical disease has made you feel powerless. But you are not. That is the point of the message of A Course in Miracles. It is the reminder that no matter how powerful the world may seem, how destructive the event may be, or how hopeless the reconciliation, a miracle can shift it from disillusionment to victory! Just as the trees and plants have developed a way to survive the leafcutter ants and even benefit from their presence, we can develop our survival skills. The Course is our manual for survival that helps us rise above the battlegrounds of the world to the light of truth.

When we are faced with challenges in this world, this is what our brother Jesus is telling us,

In this world you need not have tribulation because I have overcome the world. That is why you should be of good cheer. (T-4.I.13)

If it is possible for Jesus, who is our elder brother, it is possible for us. And that is his promise to us. Just as trees in the rainforest develop their resistance to the leafcutter ant, we can find a new approach to the destructive experiences of fear and separation – not by destroying them but by allowing them to be transformed into a miracle of awareness. A miracle can lift us to a new perception and possibility, and those miracles are ever present.

This world is full of miracles. They stand in shining silence next to every dream of pain and suffering, of sin and guilt. (T-28.II.12)

So let us not be troubled by the world of illusions but be transformed by the renewing of our minds through the power of miracles.

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