The Most Important Poem I've ever Written
Last August, I was sitting at my table at the NE Women’s Herbal Conference, completely bored. I was vending. It was slow.
I had brought a notebook, so I took it out, and began to tug at a thread that had appeared in my mind a few days prior: “The Ants were the first to leave. Nobody noticed.” Where had the ants gone? Why had they left? I wanted to find out.
The result was a narrative poem that I now feel is the most important thing I’ve ever written.
This poem is the story that flows through my mind at most moments, as I watch land being bulldozed for housing developments, lawns being sprayed and mown, decorative annuals being planted and mulched.
It is the story of magic, what it does for us, and how we drive it away.
I hope you’ll watch it. And I hope you’ll share it. It’s a story that we all need to hear.
“Flat” by Amanda Midkiff
The Ants were the first to leave. Nobody noticed.
They were so caught up in the dire ills of their day — screen sickness, political corruption, unending police brutality, the rains, the droughts, the fires, the floods —
the didn’t notice the ants, masterful and methodical, pack up and leave.
These were not the ants that live in human dwellings, tracking a gentle path from the sink to the cabinet to the unknown place behind the stove.
Those ants were human kin, and wouldn’t leave before them.
The ants that left first were the ants that live in places Unseen by humans —
Yes toadstool, yes leaf mold;
Yes also grassy swaths where the verdage is so thick it cushions against human trod,
Places where humans no longer stoop to peer.
(Once the human knee lost its ability to squat, stooping and peering happened at a much lower rate).
The ants left some smells behind:
The fragrance of pizza parlors, and gasoline dripping from fuel nozzles onto hot tarmac;
the aroma of roasting chestnuts, and the mystery scent that floats up from subway grates.
These were human-owned smells.
The ants took the smell of gathering clouds and impending rain, and the lustful smell as the water soaks into the damp earth after.
They took the electric aroma that precedes a snowfall, and the smell of the static stillness after.
The ants took the fruity fragrance of the deepening of summer, and the muddy agitation of spring.
The smells that the ants took were the smells of before and after:
The aroma of “just around the corner” and “slipping away,”
the smells that stretch time on a continuum from anticipation to nostalgia.
They left behind a hormone trail of breadcrumbs, a guide for the next to give up.
It was the gnomes.
Who could blame them?
Creatures that exist at such a delicate vibration, retreating as far as possible from noise and machines:
weed whackers, mowers, brush hogs, car tires, beeping, buzzing, back-up beeping, more back-up beeping —
tire treads and mower blades flattening toadstools of every variety,
indiscriminate of the gathering spots, the nectar stations, the sweetwater posts, the nut-and-leaf bars, the joyful noise platoons.
Too many flattened, too many gone,
the gnomes retreating inward and inward until the remaining patches of forest and meadow were become overcrowded with refugee gnomes and the situation was becoming untenable.
The gnomes caught the whiff of the ants trail, filled their flasks with the dew of their home moss, and trekked away.
The humans didn’t notice the gnomes’ absence, either. Not at first.
It was the hikers, hunters, and forest bathers who grew concerned when, upon entering their usual haunts — the forest or the meadow or the brook at the edge of the field — it felt flat.
It felt one-dimensional, no different from the sidewalk or the Staples parking lot.
Where was the sensation of centering you got when you entered the forest, the feeling of grounding?
Even leaning their backs against the trunk of a tree, they could no longer feel its life-pulse the way they used to,
could no longer feel their spirits sending roots deep into the loamy soil.
could no longer taste the fullness of the earth in the damp forest air.
They couldn’t sense the ancestral timelessness that permeates the land.
The fairies thought they wouldn’t miss the gnomes, dull, ground-dwelling creatures that they were.
The fairies passed much time plucking stamen from flowers and dropping them on the gnomes’ heads,
which erupted the gnomes in ferocious bouts of sneezing and left golden smears of pollen down their caps.
The fairies thought this uproariously funny, until — inevitably — the gnomes would retaliate by shaking the stems of flowers within whose blossoms the fairies took their deep afternoon repose, which allowed them to delight through the eve and morn.
Lacking a solid nap, the fairies were too drowsy for Starlight Twinkle Carousing and could barely make it through their morning task of helping the flowers wake up.
At first, the fairies were glad to be freed of their ground-dwelling adversaries, who could only reach height by climbing the fungal shelf ladders they so diligently installed in the sides of trees.
But soon, the fairies noticed that it was becoming more and more difficult to alight upon a flower.
Lacking the counterbalance of Roots and Gravitas, the fairies grew more buoyant each day.
And so, concerned that they would float away forever, the fairies fashioned traveling capes from their favorite flower petals, picked up the scent of the ants’ trail, and left.
It was then that the bees began to leave.
Without the fairies stationed at the morning blossoms, waving and pointing and directing and generally harassing the bees,
they had little motivation — or resource — to perform the drudgery of pollination.
For some flowers, the pollination situation is straightforward enough:
Go in, do your business, and leave.
But for others, the instructions are wildly complicated:
To get into the flower you have to hook your leg in a notch and twist just so,
go in, do your business, and then to get out you have to find and wiggle your way through an escape hatch —
no getting out the way you came in!
A bee could die if she gets it wrong — not worth it.
Not without the fairies sitting at the edge of the petals, barking instructions the whole time.
The honeybees left first, thankless servants to humans all these years.
It was then that people began to notice.
Facebook posts were shared and re-shared.
Marketing appeared that was just subtle enough to not outright suggest that climate change was real.
There were campaigns by farmers, gardeners, and naturalists to plant larval hosts and pollinator attractants.
But it was too late.
The wasps & hornets held out as long as they could,
stubborn as always,
maligned and murdered by humans all these years, yet long willing to perform the pesky duty of pollination.
It wasn’t until the bumble bees left that everyone noticed.
Everyone — even the people who only experienced the outdoors via windows and walks to and from their car — even they noticed.
This is because the bumble bees took with them the first layer of sound, the sound that creates an amphitheater of space around human life, layers of existence, the symphony that holds life within a Place.
Everyone noticed the loss of this first layer of sound, and panicked.
For a moment, there was hysteria.
But once the bumblers left, the crickets follows. And the cicadas, the katydids, the harvest flies, and the tree toads. Then the morning songbirds, and stray crows.
Each taking with them a layer of sound, a layer of existence, a supporting beam in the frame of dimension around human life.
And by the time the last pigeon had flown the stoop, human life had become thin and strung out, lacking in any dimension, completely flat. So flat, in fact, that they didn’t even notice.