On the Wings of a Butterfly
"I should like to arrive in front of the young painters of the year 2000 on the wings of a butterfly." In 1946, when the great French post-impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard wrote those words, perhaps inferring that his paintings, like the luminous, jewel-like surfaces of butterflies' wings, might inspire flights of poetic imagination and shimmering color in the artists of the future, there were plenty of butterflies soaring amidst the gardens, fields and forests of the planet. Today, the delightful, fluttering forms of these beautiful iconic insects have dramatically diminished in numbers. Casualties of climate changes induced by fossil fuel driven global capitalism, butterflies and other insects may be facing extinction along with a plethora of other endangered species, including Homo Sapiens. According to a new study from Germany, insect abundance has fallen by 75 percent over the last 27 years. The once ubiquitous Bumble Bee has also been added to the endangered list along with butterflies.
The plight of the butterflies and bees is symptomatic of a crisis in American agriculture. The wild bumblebee is rapidly disappearing along with its more prominent domesticated cousin, the honeybee. It all started after World War Two when industrial agriculture got underway in earnest. The number of commercial hives declined from six million during the war to approximately 2.6 million by 2005, and in 2006 the number fell below two million for the first time in memory. The media called the phenomenon CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder), a crisis that necessitated the advent of "migratory" beekeeping, the $200 million a year practice big growers rely on to ensure pollination of their crops. Bees must now be trucked around the country to pollinate the nearly 100 varieties of fruit and vegetable crops that depend on them for reproduction, about 80 percent of the food we eat. Of all the insects, the honeybee is the most important pollinator, having evolved for more than 100 million years along with flowering plants in a symbiotic relationship which is crucial to vegetable, fruit and flower production. The value of the crops that depend on the honeybee exceeds $15 billion a year. At least 35 states have been affected by CCD so far and in some areas of the country, 80 percent of the honeybees have vanished. If losses continue at the current pace, scientists predict that honeybees in America will be extinct by 2035.
"Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on earth, but it appears there has been some kind of horrific decline," says Professor Dave Coulson of Sussex University, UK, who is part of the team studying the problem. "We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon." Topping the list of suspected causes is the heavy use of pesticides and herbicides as part of the industrial-scale farming methods that push crop yields far beyond natural limits. The rapid transformation from an agrarian to an industrial petrochemical-based food system has taken its toll on butterflies as well. While butterflies are not essential pollinators like wild bumblebees and honeybees, they do produce caterpillars which are essential bird food. The rapid decline of butterflies has seriously affected bird populations throughout the nation. In Delaware, for example, 41 percent of forest birds are endangered as well as 40 percent of native plants. I don't know if mere art can be a force in raising awareness and possibly turning things around, but it's worth a try . . . Long live the birds, bees and butterflies!
A TERRIBLE WRECKAGE OF LIFE
Homo Sapiens now live in a geological period known as the Anthropocene, a time when human beings are having a greater impact on the environment than the planet's biophysical forces can cope with. In short, ecologically speaking, modern man and his technology have upset the natural balance of nature. Human agency in the Anthropocene has caused "a terrible wreckage of life," says anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose in her magical essay, When All You Love is Being Trashed. Technology obsessed, globalist consumer culture is causing a "cascade of extinctions" and is destroying Bir'Yun, a term that refers to "the brilliant shimmer of life" Rose learned about while living with the Aboriginal people in the Victoria River region of Australia's northern territory. In her essay, professor Rose cites the work of fellow anthropologist Howard Morphy in explaining the meaning of Bir'Yun, as the primal aesthetic that pervades all aspects of Aboriginal art and life.
"Bir'Yun is the shimmer," she writes, "the brilliance of life, and the artists say, it is
a kind of motion . . . characteristic of a lively pulsating world, not a mechanistic
one . . . Brilliance actually grabs you. Brilliance allows you, or brings you, into the experience of being part of a vibrant and vibrating world . . ." Howard Morphy describes the phenomenon when applied to paintings as "the flash of light--the sensation of light that one gets and carries in one's mind's eye." There's much more to the idea than what's revealed here, but suffice it to say that art infused with the spirit of Bir'Yun is just what the doctor ordered to assuage the anomie of neoliberalism and its evil paradigm of everlasting growth, rabid consumerism and perpetual war.
"Art makes us happier, healthier, better people," writes Peter Aspen in his February 8/9, 2020, Financial Times column. "Art lifts the spirits, refines them, tutors them. It rewards creativity and awakens the senses. It can be relished individually, yet it also celebrates our shared humanity. And when enough of us come together to enjoy it, it encourages us to behave with social awareness and inculcates a sense of the common good." As they say at The New Yorker magazine, "ONWARD AND UPWARD WITH THE ARTS."