Essay

Ants on highways

GOOGLE AND MUNGO. I am sitting at my desk staring at Google Earth. My computer is short of memory and the program seems to take an eon to finish loading. When it does, I can see the lonely planet in cloudless clarity, surrounded by a thin, cobalt haze depicting the atmosphere. Yellow lines, contrasting with the cerulean oceans and seas, circumscribe landmasses. When I press the left mouse button I can grab and rotate the globe. This helps me navigate. The latitude and longitude of the cursor appear near a window that records my apparent height. I scroll, zoom in and out until I am at about three hundred kilometres above the Earth – about the altitude of the international space station. From this point, the planet looks serene, encased within its eggshell-thin atmosphere.

I type in ‘Paris' and the globe rotates quickly. I zoom in until the French capital fills the screen and hover above its epicentre, Place de Grève, infamous as once being a place of brutal execution. Circular roads overlaid by an incoherent maze of alleys, lanes, streets and canals emanate from this central point. The River Seine wanders through the city on its way to the English Channel. I can see enough detail to make out cars, buses and trucks. A crowd of people, frozen in the very moment the satellite stole their image, waits to cross a pedestrian crossing on the Rue de Rivoli. The roads uniformity is pleasing; the route watched over by the statues of saints and despots.

 

I JUMP FROM city to city: New York, London, Kuala Lumpur, then Sydney, where similar scenes prevail. Each city centre is a maze. Each city fringe rambles to nothing. A web of highways radiates to join towns and other cities.

I spend several hours criss-crossing the planet. I look down upon mountain peaks capped in snow; some crowned by human endeavour. I follow the courses of power-filled rivers and drift over the canopy of potent Amazonian jungle. I contemplate the remoteness of some islands, sentinels, bound by capricious seas or swelling ocean.

I stare down on the epicentre of American military power, the Pentagon. The building's severe, precise geometry contrasts with the chaotic spaghetti of roads and highways around it.

I fly to the billion-year-old monolith Uluru. Massive, splendid and regal, sacred to the Pitjantjatjara people. Most of its bulk lies hidden beneath the ochre desert. At a height of seven hundred metres, the image blurs but I can see the crevices and folds that hide its secrets.

I type in ‘Lake Mungo', where archaeologists have found some of the most ancient of human remains. I arrive in an instant and hover above. From on high, the dry lake looks like a human foetus lying on its right side. The Arumpo-Mungo National Park Highway joins the middle of the lake, the unborn child's belly, and appears as a too-thin umbilical chord. On the lake's shores, twenty thousand years ago, a tribe of adults, adolescents and children left over four hundred and fifty footprints in the muddy clay flat on which they walked. The wet clay contained calcium carbonate, which later hardened like concrete. A layer of wind-driven sand protected them until recently. Now revealed, the footprints are prized by the world beyond the Dreamtime.

Prehistoric people trod ancient paths between their world and ours, often following the migratory routes of the great herds of beasts upon which they preyed. Many of their migratory routes, hunting trails and sacred paths ultimately became the roads and highways that linked civilisations and great cities.

Highways, as much as the cities they connect, symbolise human endeavour and achievement. But, like cities, they also represent the extent to which we have become dislocated from a more ancient and natural world. Autobahn, autoroute, expressway, freeway, autostrade, autostrasse – each has a name or number. We know where they start and where they end. Vehicle occupants sit strapped into ergonomically designed leather or vinyl seats, cocooned by hi-tech gadgetry and composite metal. On-board computers control braking and fuel consumption. Toll booths direct entry and exit.

Vehicles travelling along our modern highways move at speeds beyond the wildest imaginings of ancient people. Close objects pass as blurs of sound and colour; distant scenes linger and like vague thoughts, they lack the detail needed to understand their true nature. At night, the world along a highway is restricted to what we can see in the headlights – fleeting glimpses of signposts, the lights of other cars and, on occasion, the reflective eyes of the creatures that lurk in the shadowy verges.

 

ROAD KILL AND statistics. High above the city, a shimmering plane arcs across the sky; unnoticed by those far below, its passing fades gradually to nothing. Inside the fuselage, airborne commuters ingest synthetic food, and breathe conditioned, desiccating air. Wide-eyed children peer through the aircraft's elliptical windows and daydream. Below, far below, a highway cuts its own arc, through the city, through suburbia and through the land. The nugget-black road provides a sharp contrast to the aircraft's white vapour trail.

Traffic crawls along the road's hot surface. Exhaust fumes rise above the cacophony of rumbling engines. Progress slows as vehicles attempt to pass a broken-down truck. The driver sits in the shade of a billboard advertising Radio 2GB. He smokes a cigarette, and swats at a swarm of black flies attracted by his sweat. After some minutes, he takes a final drag, inhaling deeply, and flicks the cigarette butt on to the highway. It lies on the road for a few seconds, smouldering, until extinguished by the wheels of a passing bus.

Scattered along the road's shoulder, discarded and dead things bake, blacken and moulder. The sickly-sweet smell of decay mixes with exhaust fumes. Pungent aroma wafts into the closed cabins of cars and trucks through open vents. The stench is short lived. Every other day, a worker in a bright yellow safety jacket scours the road for the dead and shovels the battered remains into a large, black plastic bag. Anything left behind is food for foxes and inky crows.

Thousands of people, and hundreds of thousands of animals, die in Australian road accidents each year, victims of bad driving, bad luck or poor judgement. More than 1.2 million people perish on roads across the globe, transcending the human death toll from hurricanes or wars on terror or neighbours. The dead are mourned, the statistic a part of modern life.

Along the margins of our highways, floral tributes mark the places of loss. For some, these roadside shrines are integral to the grieving process, a way of remembering loved ones whose lives ended so violently.

I am driving on the Hume Highway, south of Goulburn. Ahead, on a long, straight stretch of dual carriageway, I see a small roadside shrine; a bunch of plastic daffodils tied with a white ribbon to a gnarled gum tree. I wonder what happened. Who died? Did they car hit the tree? It appears undamaged. Did the victims get to hospital before they passed on? Are the flowers real or plastic? Who tends the shrine? Where do they come from and when?

Nobody wants their life's journey to end on the weedy verge of a highway, their passing marked by a bouquet of plastic daffodils tied to a tree. As I pass the memorial, it transforms into a flickering blur of yellow, white and green. Then it's gone. I glance at the speedometer. I am travelling too fast. I ease off the accelerator and set the cruise control a smidgin above the speed limit. A few deep breaths clear my head and improve my vigilance. Seconds later, I have forgotten the shrine.

In 2003, the economic cost of Australian traffic accidents was over $17 billion, enough to buy an unimaginable number of plastic daffodils. The figure is almost twice the federal health budget for the year.

Despite the figures and mathematical extrapolations that predict the probability of road trauma, the unexpected happens. In mid-2007, on an autobahn near Budapest, a truck, transporting rabbits to a slaughterhouse crashed. Five thousand rabbits swarmed on to the road, causing havoc with commuters and blocking traffic for several hours. Over five hundred rabbits died in the accident and about one hundred escaped into nearby woods. The rest preferred to sit on the road, chatting in ‘bunny' and enjoying the sun's warmth – only to be recaptured and transported to their fatal destination.

 

ROAD TRAUMA. I was a highway victim – perhaps I still am. In 1999, I was riding my triathlon bike along the Hume Highway, west of Sydney, when a truck carrying house bricks smashed into me. I suffered multiple fractures, a closed head injury and pain – lots of pain. I retain vague memories of that day, snippets of images, some possibly rendered post hoc when I tried to glue the pieces together.

I recall being surprised when I slammed into the bitumen. It was harder than I expected. I remember the wind knocked from my lungs and a paramedic placing an oxygen mask on my face: ‘Breathe mate, take long slow breaths.' I wanted to tell her how much I hurt, that I couldn't breathe, that I was scared of dying. I tried to reach out and grab her arm. I wanted my wife to be there. She's an emergency nurse and could tell the paramedic what to do to make the pain go away.

I recall the spindly weeds growing in the cracks in the road, covered in brown dust. I tried to make the pain go away by focusing on them. Weeds thrive along Australia's rubbish-strewn highways. Their common names sound menacing: serrated tussock, parthenium weed, gorse, Chilean needle grass, bone seed.

I am lying on my side. I can see the weeds growing from the cracks in the concrete. Nearby lies a crumpled bike and smashed bike helmet. A crowd of onlookers has gathered to watch. Two paramedics work their magic. I am wearing a face-mask connected to a bottle of oxygen.

‘That's it – long slow breaths.'

My heart stopped.

The truck pulverised me. I woke in hospital, my pelvis broken in two places, my lower back badly bruised and my left eye swollen shut, the orbit fractured. Four broken ribs made breathing difficult. I also fractured my right scapula, left ulna and right wrist. For some weeks after the accident, laughter was unbearable – and I like to laugh.

The bike accident bruised my brain, stealing a few weeks of memory and some fine motor skills.

I sometimes dream about the accident. In my dream, I am riding alongside the truck and know it's about to hit me. I try to get the driver's attention and tell him what is about to happen. I scream but he doesn't hear me.

My wife recovered my helmet from the police station. I keep it in a box in my closet. The impact of my head hitting the road shattered its thin outer casing. It is broken into three pieces and marked with black tyre rubber.

 

ANTS. ON THE highway's fringe, a discarded soft drink can lies next to the jagged remnants of a cast-off truck-tyre retread.

A colony of black ants feeds upon the remnants of the can's chemical nectar. Each insect is a tiny ball of energy, a clone, driven by genetic programming and pheremones. Buried safely below the road, deep inside the colony's nest, a million pulsing eggs ripen in humid warmth.

Ants first appeared on Earth over one hundred and forty million years ago, during the Cretaceous period. They survived the great extinction event that marked the end of the dinosaurs and developed in concert with the rise of mammals. Ants picked clean the bones of the first humans and will probably devour the remains of the last. There are now more than six billion humans living on Earth. Scientists estimate there are two million ants for each human.

From high above, humans look like ants. Like insects, we scuttle about our cities, scurry along our highways and spread our ‘nests' over the big, blue planet.

 

TOLL BOOTHS AND harleys. Vehicles form a queue at the highway toll booth. The operator is a crab-like man. A comb-over of grey hair amplifies his baldness, his eyes bulge. Somewhere in his sixties, the lustre of youth has long departed. With a clatter of bony fingers, he collects cash then shoves a receipt and change into the driver's hand. The light turns from red to green. Within a few seconds, the incessant flood of traffic consumes the car.

For hours each day, much of the nation drives to work and home again, ensnared in a highway conga-line. Engines rev and air-conditioners pump chilly air into vinyl-clad cabins. A million jumbled thoughts fight for recognition among ringtones, radio shock-jocks, news flashes, commercials, sport commentary and the drub-drub-drub of deadbeat pop. In most vehicles, people sit alone with their thoughts. Interaction is limited to indicating intent, a lane change, a diversion on to an exit or a rude gesture.

There are tens of thousands driving home this evening. In one steel and plastic cocoon, Sarah Ahmad's fingers tap upon her steering wheel. Traffic has slowed. She hears on the radio that a broken-down truck has blocked an entire lane. ‘Traffic delays are expected.' Sarah's brow crumples in frustration. She glances in the rear-view mirror – by reflex more than need – and catches a glimpse of her tired eyes. She is anxious about her family. She wants to make sure her children have finished their homework and that her mother's dressings are changed. Sarah tries to merge into a faster moving lane but no driver yields. She inhales slowly through her nose, exhales out her mouth. She plays a classical CD, hoping Ludwig and Wolfgang will help make the journey home bearable.

Consider this: some people spend at least two hours each weekday commuting to and from their place of work. That's the equivalent of twenty days a year, or two years over the span of a working life – driving along a highway. Death by a thousand cuts.

A troupe of Harleys rumbles up the inside lane, freely passing less nimble cars trapped by the delay. Drivers curse the motorcyclists: ‘bloody bikers'.

In his gunmetal grey BMW, Jared McNab accelerates through a gap in the traffic. It's late in the day and he has one more appointment. The meeting is his last chance to close the sale before the end of the quarter. Jared takes a swig from a can of caffeine and guarana, savouring the final tangy dregs, lowers the passenger window and tosses the can – he hates rubbish in his car.

Ahead, the traffic is slowing. Jared accelerates into a gap, ignoring the abuse from other drivers. He's a strong closer – the meeting is a must. He can almost see the commission cheque ... The traffic stops suddenly and Jarred slams his foot hard on to the brake. He feels the staccato vibration of the anti-skid brakes; the computerised reflexes of the BMW stops him rear-ending the car in front. The traffic has stopped. ‘Fuck!' He thumps the steering wheel with his clenched fist.

 

TURKEY SHOOT. A Greyhound tour bus leaves the city terminal and heads down the M5 towards Canberra. Most of the passengers are pensioners.

The movie Three Kings is playing on the small LCD TVs that hang from the bus's ceiling. In the film, George and his band of American soldier anti-heroes right the wrongs of the United States' failure to defeat Saddam by saving some ‘good' Iraqis.

One of the Gulf War's unforgettable images was the complete annihilation of a convoy fleeing along the ‘Highway of Death' – the road between Kuwait and Basra. Coalition aircraft attacked and destroyed the remnants of the fleeing Iraqi Army and many civilians. Described by some participants as a ‘turkey shoot', the rout was complete and clinical. Over several hours, Coalition pilots destroyed at least fourteen hundred vehicles and killed an unknown number of people. The US military claimed the casualties were minimal – maybe one hundred. Other sources believed the number to be as high as fifteen hundred. In burnt-out vehicles, charcoaled bodies sat and stared at the road ahead, a morbid peak-hour traffic jam. The Coalition didn't gain any strategic or tactical advantage from the massacre, but someone, somewhere, justified the act.

SOMETIMES PREDATORS KILL without need. I too have been a predator.

As a boy, friends who lived on a farm near Goulburn took me hunting. My friend's dad armed me with a rusted Remington 870 shotgun and a handful of blood-red cartridges.

I had killed before. I'd shot sparrows and starlings with a BB rifle, and tallied the body count on the garage wall in pink chalk. I'd burnt ants with a magnifying glass and dripped burning plastic onto their nest; the tiny balls of fire made a strange sound as they fell – ‘phfttt, phfttt'.

Armed with our twelve-gauge shotguns, we walked slowly across the dry paddocks for about half an hour until we got to the far side of a lake. There were dozens of ducks and waterfowl. Most flew off, but for the few that remained there was no escape.

After a minute, or perhaps longer, the shooting stopped.

Someone crushed the head of a wounded bird under his boot. We gathered the dead birds and stuffed them into hessian sacks. Victorious, we returned to the farmhouse where the men drank cold beer and cleaned their shotguns.

EXIT AHEAD. THREE cyclists pedal in tight formation. Their legs pump in unison, at a cadence of ninety revolutions per minute. They avoid the traffic jam easily and pass the broken-down truck and the driver who is still waiting for assistance. Wheel to wheel, each bends forward on aero-bars to cut wind resistance and increase speed. Their shaved, muscled legs are lathered in a film of silky sweat. Large, wrap-around sunglasses, giving each an insect-like appearance, shield their eyes from sun, wind, and road grit.

One rider spits, another reaches for his water bottle and squirts a stream of water on his neck. The third tears open a chocolate bar wrapper with his teeth and scoffs the morsel of rich nougat. He crumples the wrapper and throws it away. The riders communicate with simple arm gestures – a subtle movement of the elbow or hand. They change the lead position rhythmically, in a swaying dance, each taking his turn to attack the wind. The riders pass a swollen roo carcass, sending the two large, black birds feeding on it to flight, then they divert onto an off-ramp.

By 7 pm, the traffic will have dissipated and most commuters will be home, eating their dinner and perhaps talking to their children about their day at school:

‘How was school?'

‘Good.'

On the highway, the truck that stopped the traffic is repaired and moving south. The driver settles into a long night heading towards some distance place.

Sarah Ahmad has changed her mother's dressings. The old woman suffers from dementia. She looks at Sarah. She knows who she is, but can't recall her name.

Jared is home. He has finished his second scotch and wonders what to do next; his numbers don't look too healthy.

The Harley riders have changed and ordered a three-course meal and a few bottles of expensive Australian wine.

The cyclists have showered.

The greyhound bus is parked at the back of the Sutton Forest McDonald's. The driver sits in the restaurant alone with his thoughts, sipping hot black coffee. He absentmindedly clenches his fists to relieve stiffness in his knuckles.

High above, a passenger jet cruises in the darkness. The ride is smooth. The evening meal is over. The cabin lights dim – some passengers kick off their shoes and cocoon themselves in blankets. A few whispered conversations hang in the air.

I am sitting at my desk staring at Google Earth. It is boring. Everywhere I go is familiar. Webs of black tar and concrete highways bind the planet. Every city looks alike, every suburb sprawls into nowhere, every mountain has a summit, every river flows aimlessly towards the sea. I zoom in on my home.

On the Hume Highway, a wombat looks into a swarm of bright headlights and blinks. Nearby, the colony of ants continues to sup upon the can's sticky sweetness.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review