Monday, April 16, 2012

Pillage, Plunder & Pollute, LLC

My "treetise", which has been accepted for publication in the new magazine from the Coming Crisis website that will debut next month, can be downloaded today(!) from DropBox as a pdf.  The subtitle is:  A Global Glut of Invisible Trace Gases is Destroying Life on Earth.  [Update:  for people who are having trouble downloading the pdf or just want a paperback copy, it is available now too(!) and can be ordered by clicking here.  NO guarantees as to quality of printing, I have only seen an online proof.  But it looks okay.]

The painting on the cover is Bruegel's "Fall of Icarus".  It seems like such a simple depiction of the myth, and I was surprised to learn that its most minor attribute is infused with fulsome meaning.  In Peasant Imagery and Bruegel's “Fall of Icarus” (link) Robert Baldwin elucidates a richly textured and erudite analysis.  The entire essay is a delight to read - following are some excerpts that I particularly liked (no quote marks - everything that follows is from Baldwin's work)


Bruegel's paintings of the Seasons and his Fall of Icarus celebrate peasant life for an industrious harmony with nature. This view of peasants is particularly clear in the Icarus where the sweeping panorama is anchored around the heroic figure of the plowman.

To date, no scholar has explored the Good Plowman theme and its importance in sixteenth-century Northern art. To do so will allow a more balanced understanding of Bruegel's peasants and a richer sense of the Icarus as a mythological image phrased in vernacular terms.

The husbandman was a familiar paragon of industry, moderation, and moral integrity...

Virgil's account offers intriguing parallels to Bruegel with its extensive description of the peaceful, moderate plowman ignorant of the bellicose, avaricious ambitions of
city dwellers seeking “kingdoms doomed to fall”.7 Horace, Columella, and Pliny also contrasted a past, moral country life to the present immorality of cities.

Virtuous plowing found its most common expression in sixteenth-century Netherlandish art in allegories of Peace, Diligence, and Hope. The peaceful plowman, of course, developed from the prophecized beating of “swords into plowshares” and the fulfillment of this prophecy in the Prince of Peace. Interwoven with this was a classical tradition of agricultural abundance and pastoral harmony as images of peace.

If diligence, good works, and obedience were qualities associated with plowing, hope was equally important, drawing of I Cor. 9-10: “he that ploweth should plow with hope”.

Beyond peace, diligence, and hope, plowing could also be used to symbolize prudence, as in the rear of Bruegel's engraving of that virtue.

Seen from this perspective, the plowman in Bruegel's Fall of Icarus takes on a richer, sharper contrast to Icarus than has previously been noted. If Icarus' flight towards the heavens results in a fatal plunge to the earth, the plowman's earthbound labors lead him to eternal life in heaven.

As scholars have noted, the Icarus borrowed its plowman, fisherman, shepherd, and partridge from Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Lucian, whose works were well known to the Renaissance, cited Icarus twice as an example of foolish ambition and pride.  He was the only classical author to describe an Icarus “falling head first into deep waters”.  Perhaps then he was the source for Bruegel's unprecedented choice of a drowning rather than falling Icarus, his head submerged beneath the sea.

In the Oedipus, similar nautical metaphors for moderation introduce the Icarian example.

"Were it mine to shape fate at my will, I would trim my sails to gentle winds... May soft breezes, gently blowing, unvarying, carry my untroubled barque along; my life bear me on safely, running in middle course. While, in fear of the Cretan king, madly the lad sought the stars, in strange devices trusting, and strove to vanquish true birds in flight…"

From Ovid, Dio, Lucian, and Seneca, the Icarian myth became a Medieval and
Renaissance moral topos, showing the dangers of excess, political or philosophical ambition, pride, self-deception, and ignorance of natural orders in general.

…the self-deception of Icarus is remedied only by self-knowledge, by a sense of one's true limitations and proper place in the wider orders of society and nature. Moderation, in short, is inseparable from self-knowledge.

In Bruegel's painted as well as engraved Icarus, death and damnation are the price for ambition and self-deception.

Presumably this is why he abandoned iconographic tradition by painting Icarus drowning rather than falling. If the print used a cross to imply deliverance from the whale, the painting chose another familiar metaphor of salvation, the harbor-bound ship, also seen in Bruegel's Hope.

Bruegel's ship, for example, sails past the watery grave of Icarus, its sailors as absorbed in their mission of reaching the harbor as is the plowman in his earthly work. While serving as a metaphor for salvation and Senecan moderation, the boat presents a simpler visual contrast to Icarus. For sailors utilize air and water in a sensible manner to get on with the business of life.

Icarus' unnatural flying, already remarked by Ovid and Dio Chrysostom, is followed by an equally unnatural and iconographically unusual thrashing in the water where he proves no better as a fish. Bruegel developed further watery contrasts with Icarus through the nearby fisherman who also makes good use of the sea.

With respect to the element of air, Icarus' head was submerged beneath the waves, shut off from the breath of life.

More importantly, Bruegel juxtaposed Icarus' falling feathers with the ship's wind-filled sails.  This prudent use of air was strengthened by the sail trimming needed as the ship nears the dangerous rocky shore. This contrast between unnatural and natural air technology, feathers, and sails, acquired greater irony in the context of Pliny's statement that Icarus invented sails and sailing.

If various activities relating to earth, air, and water were stressed visually in Bruegel's Icarus, the importance of fire emerged in the iconographically unusual setting sun.

"…the hot sun in Bruegel's Icarus brings fertile crops and life to the farmer, but death to Icarus. The introduction of a setting sun may also suggest the timeless cycles of a golden age and a natural order indifferent to folly. See thus, the whole picture emerges as a cosmological panorama which goes on with its elemental rhythms, its husbandry and commerce, its life and death, its labor and folly, until the final day when those who have “plowed diligently” enter the harbor of God's kingdom.

In the Praise of Folly, Folly celebrated Phythagoras who “came to the conclusion that no creature is more miserable than man; for all the others are satisfied with their natural limitations, but man alone strives to go beyond the bounds proper to his station”.  In the early days of history, before folly reigned, mankind had too much piety to search out, with a profane curiosity, the secrets of nature; to investigate the dimensions, motions, and influences of the stars, or the hidden causes of things; deeming it a sacrilege for mortal man to try to know more than is proper to his station. This madness of inquiring what may lie beyond the sky never entered their heads.

We have seen this Icarian violation of nature's laws Ovid where wings were a rash attempt to “change man's very nature”. Perhaps inspired by this phrase, Bruegel combined his own landscape talents and humanistic interests to develop an unprecedented cosmological Icarus, an Icarus exploring the nature of human nature.


  1. Just read 91 pages. Will finish tomorrow.

    The spring leafout here near Chicago does not look good. Every tree is very much thinner. The maples are shedding their helicopter seeds in green clusters that have no seeds within. Last years catalpa cigars have finally dropped and they have no seeds within the pod either. It does look like the stored energy of the trees nears exhaustion. Imagining the future is very hard.

  2. Talking about plowing and folly:

    "The task of this book is to show that our soil problems have been to a considerable extent psychological; that, except for our sabotage of nature’s design for growth, there is no soil problem."

    Plowman's Folly
    Edward H. Faulkner
    University of Oklahoma Press, 1943

  3. Yikes anon, I have noticed small-sized acorns but it never even occurred to me to look at other seeds. I will check around today.

    Around here the maples are making enormous amounts of seeds, which they did last year and if I recall the year before. It seems odd for even very young trees to make so many seeds but since I wasn't really paying attention before I can't remember if it was always that way.

    Yesterday however, I went to the Chester Shopright mall which has maybe 20 or so stores. Since the last time I was there they have replaced every single tree - about 1000 of them! Must have cost a pretty penny.

  4. So far in 2012, Northeastern US states are suffering moderate to severe drought ... averaging 50% less rainfall, because HAARP is intercepting moisture laden jet streams in the far west for later release into severe storms up and down the Mississippi River Valley, thus robbing the eastern states of their fair share of Mother Nature's rain water. Plainly said, the drought in the East is no accident.

  5. is very very dry. Not good.

  6. I think they are calling for cool wet weather in the NE coming up next.

  7. I can't wait to check out some seed pods; I hadn't thought of this, either, Anon. Ditto, Yikes!

  8. The maple "helicopter" seeds have also dropped in my neighbor's woods here in northern Ohio, all very small.

    Last year, our area had both a D1 moderate drought[1] and a record-breaking annual rainfall.[2]

    On March 18, I removed the snow blade from the tractor, which was unused on the lane all winter, and I mowed grass around the farm here -- 2 days before astronomical winter was officially done. And now all the fruit and grapes have been frozen out multiple mornings.[3]

    It's really weird.

    I can almost hear the little girl's prophecy[4] about that which will "scratch you out, and end your world."

    [1] Corn crop wilts under heat, drought: Extreme weather follows cold, wet spring

    [2] Toledo rainfall eclipses record

    [3]"It’s been a nail-biting spring for farmers"

    [4] Apocalypto - Little girl scene

  9. Another hit for the farmers, Brian:

  10. Since I have everyone running around checking things in the yard, an update. The first maple seeds to drop here in Evanston IL were tiny and the seed head was empty. Now bigger seeds are dropping, mostly in clusters but also singly. There's something in there. In my inexpert opinion it's mush and not a viable seed. Yes, they are profuse and no, I cant recall seeing anything like this profusion before.

    Conifers of many types are forming too many cones and malformed cones and any seasonal schedule for that is gone.

  11. From An Appalachian Tragedy, p. 113. The Story of Mast:

    "Mast is the collective term forest ecologists use for all the different kinds of nuts from woodland trees that accumulate on the ground and are used for food by the creatures of the forest...By any measure, Appalachian ast should be bountiful, even without the chestnut. However, such is not the case. As the impacts of air pollution have taken their toll on the health of the forest over the years, mast production has steadily decreased. In some areas it is down by between 50 and 80 percent. This not only reduces the food supply for mast-dependent animals, but also greatly reduces the regeneration of mast-producing trees..."

    The same can be said for trees and shrubs that produce edible seeds and fruits.


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