Science writer Margonelli (Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline, 2007) explores the mysterious realms of an insect that has always gotten a bad rap.
The author’s obsession with understanding termites began as idle curiosity and morphed into magazine articles and then this book. At times, Margonelli’s musings about termites become deeply philosophical. Early in the book, she writes, “where I had thought of landscapes as the product of growth, on that afternoon they inverted to become the opposite….Termites have made the world by unmaking parts of it. They are the architects of negative space. The engineers of not.” Becoming fascinated with not just the insects themselves, but the researchers who study them, the author traveled with them to Namibia, Australia, Nevada, and Arizona to observe and collect termites in their environments. Her interest in oil as a crucial fossil fuel led her to wonder, along with research scientists, whether the wood that termites consumed (along with grass) could be converted to gasoline. Throughout the book, Margonelli asserts herself, as she helps the scientists collect termites for laboratory study and enters the usually sealed-off labs to view the dissections firsthand. Occasionally, the author focuses the narrative on the destructiveness of termites when they come into contact with man-made structures. Elsewhere, she demonstrates pure interest in termite behaviors without consequences attached. She wonders why colonizing insects such as bees and ants are portrayed as mostly noble while termites are inevitably considered pests by most people. Climate change might alter the already negative perception of termites by forcing two different invasive types to intermingle, thus ratcheting up the destruction. Humans have been hoping to re-engineer the inherent traits of termites, but climate change is allowing termites to re-engineer themselves.
Margonelli does not always clearly convey the technical nature of
termite research for general readers, but she succeeds in piquing interest in
an unlikely subject.