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Figlio, K. (1996). The ominous in nature. Free Associations, 6(2):276-296.

(1996). Free Associations, 6(2):276-296

The ominous in nature

Karl Figlio

A short time ago, Alistair Cooke wound up his weekly Letter From America with a report on the multiple forest fires raging out of control in the United States, one of them having destroyed a quarter of Yellowstone National Park. He commented briefly, and with no change of voice, that the long drought had made tinder of the forests and that Americans were beginning to wonder if they were seeing the climatic effects of massive pollution. He was putting his finger to the wind of public sentiment, sensing a hint of change, perhaps noticing a shudder of fear in the midst of the rumble-tumble of everyday American political life. Coming at the end of his letter, his dry end note was left either to work in the imagination—a portent, a focus for mediation—or to give way to the Radio Four presenter.

More recently, the U.K. Meteorological Office announced computer-based long-term climatic modelling, according to which the earth's average temperature might rise by five degrees Celsius. In addition to the melting of the polar ice caps and the consequent rise in average sea levels, the modelling suggested extreme levels far beyond that and wide variations in rainfall, which could affect agriculture drastically. Once again it was a short report, after which something like sports results reminded the listener that the dream had ended.

These two reports evoke powerful images—fire and water beyond our capacity to restrain them; maybe we've finally gone too far; the greed, dirtying and arrogant neglect of our natural environment has finally brought revenge. But they also refer beyond the dramatic events, and use fire and water as signs that nature is reacting to long-standing maltreatment inflicted in the course of everyday life.

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