JOSEPH E. TRUMPEY
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Myrmecological Literacy 

Leaf Cutters (Atta sp.) are one of the few animals living on 
the planet that humans can see and understand as “farmers.” 
These animals de-foliate trees and plants around their colonies 
by cutting small pieces of leaf from the larger plants and carry 
the pieces back to their colony. The harvested leaves are not 
eaten, but rather are shredded and used as a nutrient substrate 
upon which they cultivate a specific species of fungus. This 
species of fungus is only found in Leaf Cutter colonies. It is 
this farmed fungus that is eaten by the members of the colony. 

I have found Leaf Cutter Ants to be powerful metaphors for 
Human society. These animals organize themselves into large 
colonies (cities) made up of millions of related individuals 
(society) and make their living as farmers (deforesters). 
Despite modern society’s disconnect from the Earth, we are 
still an agrarian society. We live in an age dubbed as the 
“Information Age.” Information and Technology certainly 
assist in our own food production, but it is the farms that 
convert photons into calories. We do not have Star Trek food 
replicators that materialize our dinners out of resequenced 
molecules. Technology does not feed us, it is the farms that 
feed humans.  

According to the US 2000 Census the actual number of farmers 
living and working in the US is unknown. The census does not 
specifically track occupations that occupy less than 2% of our 
population. For the first time in our nation’s history, less 
than 2% of our population is now responsible for growing all 
of the calories that feed us and a significant portion of our 
world’s population. A brief 100 years ago close to 40% of our 
population was occupied with farming. The loss of family farms 
and rural life has had many affects on our modern society, the 
least of which is a basic link and understanding of the out of 
doors. 

I live and work on a small farm. I use my farm as a way to stay 
close with Nature and understand the cycles of the planet and 
life itself. I have been using ants in paintings and sculptures 
for several years to expand on my understanding of life, humans, 
the notion of frontier and most recently the notion of “farm.” 
Over my years of obsession with these little animals, I have 
wondered what they might be thinking while they accomplish their 
amazing farming feats. I have recently developed a system that 
allows me to “develop” letters and words created by the ants 
themselves. I see this work as a mysterious communication across 
the interspecies gap. I present them in a manner consistent with 
scientific study and archival processes. As botanical mounts they 
retain their strength and mystery as natural objects. Upon closer 
inspection the words start to appear. Millions of ants all obsessed 
with growing food. The very essence of “farm.”  

I would like to acknowledge Dr. Randy Morgan and the Entomology 
Department at the Cincinnati Zoo for so generously letting me work 
with their ant colonies in an effort to teach them how to spell.