After Hurricane Katrina, the recent Harper's magazine feature about the uncontrollable, unfathomed termite infestation of the French Quarter seems downright eerie. Equal parts information and meditation, Duncan Murrell's "The Swarm" is an effective, moving blend of first-hand reporting on blizzard-like termite swarms, spooky interviews with insect experts, and genuine Southern gothic moments:
Where the Formosans are foraging — in the studs of a wall, for instance — the carton sometimes takes the shape of the very thing they're eating. Pest-control operators in New Orleans told me many of stories of ripping out drywall to expose what looked from a distance like solid two-by-four framing pieces, only to find that they were looking at carton nests, the ghosts of a wall long since consumed.
It also provides a peek into the world of the termitologist, touching on the tragic tale of a manic-depressive South African entomologist who became so obsessed with termites that he began to view their behavior in perhaps overly sophisticated terms:
[Eugene] Marais believed that colonies of termites were distinct, compound organisms not unlike the human body, that every component from queen to worker served a function not just analogous but identical to the function of our own hearts and livers and brains and blood cells. Marais thought that the termite colony lacked only the power to move together as one organism, and that someday they would develop even that skill.
Next on my reading list: Marais's "classic work of obsessive observation," The Soul of the White Ant.