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Infected “zombie ant” — photo by D Hughes, Penn State University

Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis

A spore of family Cordyceps infects the brains of ants
and chemically convinces them to scale the local plants.
The hijacked ant climbs to the height that Cordyceps prefers,
and seeks the type of leaf that suits its tiny passengers.
At Cordyceps’ discretion the ant’s brief journey ends:
it digs in with its mandibles — and never moves again.
Frozen on its chosen leaf, the ant will starve and die,
while inside its useless armour spores consume and multiply,
until an ant-shaped fungus fills the stolen carapace.
A slender stalk emerges then, from thorax or from face;
the fruiting body sporulates — with a reasonable chance
that of the drifting millions, a few spores will find… more ants.

This curious story has no moral, or none that’s clear to me;
and yet it haunts my ponderings on human history.
What subtle spore, I ask myself, infects the human brain
and makes us climb the steps of Empire, over and again?

From clan to tribe to nation, and thence to nation-state;
from chiefs to kings to Emperors who style themselves the Great;
ossifying hierarchy; Byzantine codes of law;
ever-stretching borders; never-ending war;
monumental architecture; resource bankruptcy —
up the steps of Empire we proceed, predictably…
Until we reach a certain leaf, too far from solid ground,
unable to let go, unable to back down:
frozen on our chosen leaf, rotten to the core,
an addled ant whose fate was sealed quite some time before —
the moment it ingested the Empire-building spore.

What slender stalk emerges then, from thorax or from face
of Empire at its apogee and final resting place?
And what mad aspiration comes drifting down the wind
to infect unwary hominids and start it all again?

— © D. A. Clarke 2015

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