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lit reviews

Termites eat New Orleans

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.