Musée des Petroleums Arts


About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;


How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:


They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.


In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure;


the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green


and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

 The suffering of the oil-laden Gulf of Mexico goes on. Like the suffering of Icarus in W.H. Auden’s insightful Musée des Beaux Arts, it is in some ways a strange suffering, partly accidental, partly brought about by hubris and nearly invisible to the world surrounding it.  But it is suffering, nonetheless, and Brueghel’s depiction of its reality is masterful.

Through it all and despite the suffering, corporations, politicians and a President have lied, bullied, concealed and dithered, apparently believing this latest horror can be left behind as easily as a rotting pelican on the beach.  This time, it will not be so easy. 

This is not the Nigerian Delta, where a flood of spilling oil has destroyed lives and ecosystems for years. This is not Ixtoc, conveniently ignored in the American Petroleum Institute’s current ads.  This is a production disaster in the very heart of an end-user community with access to technologies of its own and a preference for hard data and truth over “spin control” and “transparency”.

To put it another way, what is happening in the Gulf is not an anomaly. It is only that other affected peoples around the world have not been able to publicize their own experiences with these New Colonialists quite so effectively.  I use the term “colonialist”  advisedly, and yet it seems apt. From its days as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, when it marked its water fountains “Not For Iranians” , to its current attempts to curtail journalists’ access to the consequences of its spill, BP has taken a distinctly colonial approach to the communities in which it works. 

BP hardly is alone. Royal Dutch Shell, embroiled in battle after battle with Nigerians whose lives have been devastated by its presence in their country, often insists its spills are the result of sabotage. No doubt some are.  It is equally certain that at least some of the sabotage is born of Nigerians’ unutterable frustration with a company which has been decimating their land.   Sadly, the oil-rich Niger delta and this country’s beloved Mississippi delta now share more than their geographic features. Nigeria has experienced what the American Gulf Coast is about to experience – unimaginable damage to if not irreversable destruction of an entire ecosystem .

In the coming months and years, a new awareness of shared experience and a deeper appreciation for the ambiguities inherent in oil-based economies may lead the world’s people to begin a new battle – a fight not necessarily against oil per se, but against the arrogance, contempt and willful exploitation that occasionally gush from the heart of the oil community and its regulators.  

One can only hope.  To borrow the poet’s metaphor, Icarus still is falling. There is more suffering to come, and the time for turning away has passed.


Comments are welcome.  To leave a comment or respond, please click below. 

20 thoughts on “Musée des Petroleums Arts

  1. Auden’s poem, the images, the Gulf disaster are brought together brilliantly, Linda. I’m touched, deeply.

    Once again, Art is a comfort. I heard Mary Oliver say that she wants to be incendiary, but she feels she is not. I thought immediately that maybe she is a comfort, but sometimes even a comfort can incite a person to do something more when they can. Comfort does not mean inaction. It means we find a way to live.

    I too hope the people of the world, as it gets worse, will bond and keep creating things of beauty to comfort one another.


    We sometimes forget that the very word, “comfort”, is rooted in the Latin for strength. To comfort someone not only means to console them, to ease their pain or make them “comfortable”, it means we strengthen them, lending them our strength in a time of weakness.

    And surely the artists do that. Their words and images embed themselves so deeply that, when the time is right, they re-emerge in a new context to engage our minds and enliven our vision. When did I learn Auden’s poem? I can’t say. But after too many days of looking at the photographs and thinking of the innocent suffering of the creatures, the first line was simply “there”. And it is a comfort.


  2. Oh, and the amazing connection between Icarus, and the falling bird image, and the fallen birds. I keep scrolling through the poem and images. Thank you.


    The image of the pelican is so poignant to me, just so distressing. The brown pelican dives to feed. Increasingly, their natural impulse to sustain life is bringing about their death – and we are responsible.

    Who could fail to see the pelican as a symbol for our predicament? Needing to feed continually on oil for the life we have created, we may find ourselves risking death. The difference of course, is that many of the Gulf’s pelicans (and other creatures) have no choice. We still do.


  3. Oh, Linda. I keep thinking I will wake up from this nightmare… it can’t really be happening… and then reality does strike, and it is panic stations. It is horrible to feel so powerless.

    I can’t even imagine what it is like to see the incongruous oil on top of the sea, to come upon animals dying in the muck, to lose my life’s work to the smug Colonialists (yes, aptly named).

    Thank you for continuing to focus on this sad disaster.


    Writing about this situation has been terribly difficult. One of the conscious decisions I made was to avoid photographs of oiled wildlife, partly because everyone has seen them. They’re part of our collective consciousness, now, and gratuitous death isn’t any more helpful in a piece than gratuitous violence or sex.

    Another difficulty is finding a way to broaden the context. Deepwater Horizon is being marketed as a single, unfortunate accident. It is, rather, a natural consequence of a way of doing business. And the propaganda is being carefully crafted. The American Petroleum Institute is saturating Houston radio with a “Public Service” advertisement. At one point, it says that Deepwater Horizon represents the only instance of such an accident in 60 years of drilling in American Gulf waters.

    Well, yes. But that’s a rather fine point, since the Ixtoc blowout in the Bay of Campeche also qualifies as “Gulf of Mexico” and the Texas beaches took quite a hit from it. This was in 1979, and the parallels with DWH are amazing, both in terms of the rig disaster and the cleanup afterward. You might think someone would have learned something.

    It’s also worth noting that Ixtoc was not a deepwater well. Any move to end deepwater drilling is not a guarantee that such spills won’t happen again. I am not against drilling – I am against corrupt regulatory agencies, companies that disregard standard safety practices and the casual assumption that the public’s appetite for cheap oil makes a spill now and then acceptable.

    One other note: oil on the surface of the water is a distressing sight. There’s good reason to believe that’s why BP has engaged in massive use of dispersants, to create vast, underwater plumes of oil that won’t be seen on the evening news. The combination of suspended oil and chemical contamination may be far more deadly than what we’ve been able to see. Unfortunately, BP’s unwillingness to grant access or share information is making scientific analysis somewhat difficult.


  4. Brilliant, Linda. The poem, the pictures, your passionate eloquence. The Icarus pelican is especially searing. We will feel this one for a long, long time.
    Thank you.


    Having heard the President’s speech last night, I am even more distressed.

    This is not a time for political posturing, or promoting a long-term agenda. Clearly, we need changes to national energy policies – and changes in our personal use of energy – but it is not yet a given that this well can be safely sealed, or done so in a timely manner. That must come first, and BP deserves support for its efforts in that direction.

    Despite my criticisms of BP management and industry practices as a whole, I have nothing but admiration for the people attempting to deal with the realities facing us in the Gulf. Our own government is making effective response nearly impossible in some locations, and they need to shut up and get out of the way. Instead of imposing new regulations and bringing in the lawyers, they need to streamline the response process and make room for local people who understand their local waters.

    Oh has been pondering deadlines over on her blog. We’re facing a terrible deadline – that first Gulf storm. The only problem is, we don’t know when it will appear. Being prepared this year is going to be a whole lot more complicated.


  5. As always it is a pleasant surprise when you post a new work.
    We read this this morning:

    BP To Drill Controversial Rockies Site


    What an interesting article – thanks for bringing it here. It’s very interesting how much is going on elsewhere while the world is focused on the Gulf. I was amazed May’s leaking pipeline in Alaska didn’t get more press.

    It will be interesting to follow what transpires in your area with the tankers, too. Apparently when it comes to oil, we’re all going to be in this together, whether we want to be or not.


  6. Your use of the term “colonial” makes an important point about the complex of government and industrial entanglements that have underlay so much that has gone wrong in our history. Every time I see that sunny logo on a can of Dole pineapple I want to cry for Hawaii.


    I spent some years in Liberia in the early 70s. Its leaders and American supporters loved to distinguish it from nations with British or French colonial histories by pointing to its unique background – the founding by repatriated American slaves and so on.

    And yet, when I arrived, Firestone rubber plantations were everywhere. President Tubman had just died, but he left the country a powerful symbol of a different kind of colonialism. The road from Monrovia to his up-country farm (rubber plantation) was blacktopped. The hard surface ended precisely at his gate, and Firestone maintained it for him.

    People trying to navigate the Liberian bureaucracy often would ask, “Can you pave the road for me?” If someone was evaluating the possibility of a project’s success, it was perfectly appropriate to ask, “Has the road been paved?” Everyone knew what it meant. PanAm still was flying at the time. There was a Friday flight in from New York that brought champagne, strawberries and so on for weekend events at the embassies. I once heard it said, “PanAm paves the road between Monrovia and New York.”

    Eventually, that “paved road”, together with an assortment of other social and economic complexities, led to revolution and a bloody civil war. It’s impossible to remember the history or the paved road without the words “hell” and “good intentions” coming to mind.


  7. My five-year-old son was playing at the top of the stairs swaying back and forth in the railing. I told him to stop, because if he lost his grip he would fall down the stairs.

    “I won’t, mom” he replied.
    “Maybe not, but IF you do, you fall hard, and it’s not worth it” I tried.

    Drilling for oil out on the seas feels like the thinking of a five-year-old. What happens if they loose their grip?


    I fear we may discover the answer to your question, later if not sooner. The explosion, the sinking, the gushing, the dispersing – all of it seems to point to a pattern of behavior rather than a single, quite unpredictable accident.

    The fact that other nations had technology available to deal with such a disaster while we did not approaches criminal negligence, in my opinion. The fact that our leaders refused offers of help from other nations IS criminal. The fact that BP itself engaged in the magical thinking of a child – “Because it hasn’t happened, it won’t happen” – is simply unbelievable.

    But there we are. And I love your analogy. It helps to explain why I keep listening to politicians, our President and assorted business leaders with an overwhelming desire to scream, “Would you please get a grip?!?”


  8. Amazing. I don’t know how you manage to offer perspective while still in the midst of this disaster. I do believe you are right about a new awareness. I pray this horror will be the tipping point that unites and drives us forward in all the right ways. If this doesn’t do it, I can’t imagine what will.


    Well, of course, I’m not literally in the midst of the disaster. We’ve been blessed to this point in Texas. Our beaches still are clean and our waters open. Nevertheless, ocean currents have a mind of their own, and a hurricane is the wild card. It’s going to be a very nervous summer for everyone.

    Despite the bit of distance, I’m having to work a little to find and maintain perspective. I do think perspective is going to be increasingly important. Now that we’re past “Top Kill”, “Junk Shot” and other such reality-show-worthy attempts to deal with this thing, people not immediately affected are getting bored. The apocalyptic sorts are getting onto the message boards and Twitter with their “OMG teh seebed gonna open up and swallow us WHOLE” stuff, and it feeds peoples’ natural anxieties. We’ve got proponents of nuking the thing, folks who want to pour in 30,000 gallons of latex and cosmic vibration sorts who think if we just align our crystals…..

    Well, you take my point. We need a whole lot of grownups right now more than we need grand agendas, political posturing or turf battles. And we need to let the people with real-world experience into the decision making process. If I could replace President Obama with a tool pusher or a Louisiana charter captain right now, I ‘d do it in a flash.


  9. Oh… when will this all end? I sure hope this is a wake-up call to more responsible drilling and exploration of natural resources. Your Icarus analogy and the falling bird image are just poignant. While I’m still weighing on BP’s apology, all of a sudden there’s the reverse apology from Texas Republican Joe Barton. I’m more and more at a loss these days of the unfolding of events…


    This isn’t going to end for a long, long time. Even if the well were closed in by the time I finish my current cup of coffee, the damage has been done. The amount of oil in the Gulf may be in question, but it’s clearly far larger than BP and our government would like us to believe, though smaller than the doom-sayers might prefer.

    An entirely new set of questions is just now beginning to appear, having to do with a nearly total lack of equipment to deal with such an event, let alone the absence of planning. If the Dutch, for example, have equipment to loan and procedures in place, why could the US not have the same? Millions and millions of dollars allocated to the EPA (our environmental protection agency) simply have disappeared – and we end by despoiling the Gulf.

    Incompetence? Corruption? Intentional destruction of the environment and economy? Everyone has a theory, but the truth is prbobably a toxic stew of all three – as toxic as the oil streaming through the Gulf.


  10. Really heart-wrenching post. You are right – we forget that this kind of devastation has happened before in other parts of the world, effectively ruining them – but they don’t have the kind of access to the press to bring attention to the tragedies.

    I have been so heartbroken over the gulf coast and I just keep hoping that somehow, somehow – it will just. be. fixed. Cleaned and fixed and restored. In my mind that is the only option but the news just keeps getting worse. It is hard to not harbor hate in my heart for those responsible but I know hate will get us nowhere. I wish I could move down and help.


    Well, moving down to help isn’t a particularly useful idea at this point. BP and governmental regulations and continually clashing bureaucracies have created the most ineffectrive cleanup process I’ve ever seen. My personal favorite: workers are allowed to work only 20 minutes of every hour because it’s just not safe to work for a full hour, don’t you know? I believe that one’s from OSHA, but it’s real. As someone who makes her living working outdoors on the Gulf coast – and who knows what the summers are like – this just enrages me. Of course it’s hot. Of course you take precautions. Of course you get in the shade if you feel woozy. But 20 minutes per hour? Tell it to anyone who works for a living and see what response you get.

    We are beginning to reap what we have sown as a society. Dependence, laziness and lack of initiative combined with a conviction that it’s somehow “their” responsibility to take care of every problem are going to bite us in this one. And handing over a real-world problem to people accustomed to pushing paper and issuing “statements” already has led to a few temper tantrums. That gushing oil doesn’t particularly care who’s yelling “Just plug the damn hole!” It’s going to do what it’s going to do until some very, very smart people with experience and expertise manage to get it under control.


  11. Icarus flew too close to the sun. We fly, but simply too much. We’re addicted to oil and other fossil fuels, cannot live without them, will never EVER be able to find a replacement for the fuel that delivers enough thrust to lift a multi-ton jet airplane with hundreds of people aboard tens of thousands times over every single day. All the windmills destroying the landscape and nuke plants holding future generations hostage to the deadly poison they produce and fuel cells that never seem to work just right… they’re just no replacement to what’s still under the ground.

    The world’s economy is a petroleum-addicted vampire wandering aimlessly 10 minutes before sunrise. Entire tax systems are based on the income it produces, as are millions upon millions of very well-paying jobs. This is what makes it frustrating when you feel like lashing back at BP and boycotting them. Once you figure out who you’re buying gas from, and go to the other guy, you find out that BP is us. We are the problem.


    Exactly so. And our addiction to oil reaches far beyond transportation, heating and cooling. I’m sitting here right now looking at a plastic monitor, typing on a molded plastic keyboard. I can “see” the petro-chemical industry in my cell phone, mouse, printer. If I look into the kitchen, from where I sit I see a plastic container, plastic bags, my watering bucket for the plants, the coffee-maker… And so on. Even when I used to head off to the little cabin in the woods, where there was no electricity, there was a plethora of products that made life easier, including a submersible pump in the spring to pump water up to a barrel – plastic parts, powered by gasoline.

    Boycotts are equally complex. Boycotting a BP station doesn’t hurt anyone except the poor guy who thought he’d buy a franchise and support his family. The BP station may not have BP gas, and non-BP station very well may.

    Even though it’s been sixty days, the frustration and rage is beginning to build. It’s been held under some control by BP’s ability to keep oil sub-surface and restrict access to places where it is coming onshore. Slowly, that protective barrier to the flow of information is eroding, and some unusual alliances are being formed.

    It will be interesting to see how this event shapes things in the future. But that well has to be killed. I spend a lot of time making myself not think about the consequences of a complete blowout.


  12. “Build it and they will come.”

    Ocean Technology


    Yup. There are lots of folks with lots of ideas. The good news is that many of them have merit or a proven track record. The bad news is that those proven methods are the ones our government/bureaucracy seem intent on ignoring.


  13. All I can say on this, Linda, is that it is a fabulous post and so beautifully illustrated — you were doing your homework to find these images, and they are so perfect.

    I can barely watch the news, my heart aches so for the Gulf and all who live in it and near it. For all of us, actually, for it is a part of our world, even if we are so very far away.


    Looking at the forecast for invest 93L this morning, I fear we may soon get our first lesson in what happens when oil and water try mixing. Some computer models take our first storm right through the middle of the Gulf – we’ll cut the forecasters a little slack if they happen to be wrong on this one!

    It’s such a shame. We’ve had two months of nearly perfect weather for stopping the well and cleaning up oil, but lack of preparation for such an event and truly bad decision making by the President and his advisors have made things far worse than they might have been. BP’s luck ran out with Deepwater Horizon, and our weather-luck may be about to run out, too.

    Thanks so much for stopping by, and for noticing the images. The pelican is truly perfect as an illustration. It’s so sad that the reality it represents is equally true.


  14. The falling of Icarus…what an image to pair with the oil that pours forth even as I write this. We watched the live cam only minutes ago, each time and always thinking it’s false, that someone has inadvertently left a faucet running.

    Yet it’s no mistake. Despite its unbelievability, we get whiteknuckled and grimace at the complete helplessness of the life surrounding the oil-spoiled waters and can’t stop talking about it, finding little things to do, people to call that we know there and get “closer” updates. And select a “fund” that we hope has some direct input and maybe some magic to deal with this unreasonable spout below the water’s surface. It is so so difficult to have faith in those we have hired and elected.

    Please keep it coming – it matters. IT helps (it hurts) but it helps. Yes, we have faith; it’s just been displaced. The pictures that are coming out of this (inevitably) global disaster are heartrending. Hang tight. Keep us current from your place on the water. Hugs.


    Slowly, people are coming to consensus: BP did not have an “accident”, it reaped the inevitable result of a history of corporate risk-taking on behalf of increased profits. In the same way, the people of Louisiana, AL, MS and FL have suffered and will suffer not solely because of incompetence and klutziness, but because of quite intentional decisions taken in full knowledge those decisions would destroy lives and economies.

    I suspect those who say President Obama and his advisors welcomed this catastrophe in order to push a political agenda are correct. There are too many things which could have been done which have not been done, and the proposed drilling ban will be another catastrophe. I am in favor of alternate forms of energy. I pay attention to my carbon footprint. I agree that rigs should be inspected and bureaucracies reformed to ensure safety to the degree possible.

    But there is no energy fairy who’s going to wave her wand and transform rigs into windmills. We are the ones who are going to have to do it, and it’s going to be hard work. And it will take time. To further punish people by taking away even more livelihoods is not right. If it were possible to post photograph after photograph of oiled people, they might get as much sympathy as the pelicans. There is a culture in danger of dying as surely as the birds.


  15. Linda, Yes, it’s inevitable that all life will be impacted. And this oil splurge is already two months old!To your point, perhaps pictures of oiled people would render the necessary shock to those “in charge.” Still, we’re on our own on this one and can just keep at it,helping in whatever ways and keeping the word out there.

    Go here for some of the pictures that bring tears and realization of what is and what’s to come.


    I think that sense of being “on our own” with this one is a good part of what’s fueling such rage – and despair. Some things – like killing the well – we can’t do. But there are things we can do, or some of us can, and the refusal of the government and BP to accept help is still a reality. Wildlife rehabbers here in Houston, with every certification in the world, decades of experience and mobile units at the ready are being told to stay home. It makes no sense.

    In any event, it’s going to take a combination of luck, pluck and damned good lawyers to help out the people who never should have had to deal with this in the first place. And perseverance. This isn’t going to be resolved easily or soon.


  16. The lines

    “and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
    Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
    Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on”

    remind me of the ending of Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out”:

    “And they, since they
    Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”

    As for Icarus, I did a take on that legend too:

    1. Steve,

      I’m always happy to be reminded of another Frost poem. This one’s clearly related to the subject at hand – at least in emotional tone. Can’t you just hear the ship’s crew and Frost’s doctor saying, “Whatever…”?

      As for the ants in the resin, there are times when I hardly can bear the little dramas I see playing out around me on the docks: the baby duck snatched by the alligator gar, the grackle-parents mourning a baby fallen from the nest, and so on.

      But I do laugh from time to time. Your ants remind me of love-bugs, which go crazy at the smell of varnish. At the height of their season, they come flying to a newly-opened can as though they just heard there’s an open bar. Their fate’s about the same as the ants, although they don’t get to hang around to have the photo taken.

      Wonderful addition – thanks!


  17. You’re welcome, Linda, and thanks for letting us know about your experience with the intoxicated love-bugs. I’ve known them to end up on the front ends of cars, but never to be drawn to open cans of varnish. I have occasionally managed to get pictures of them, but sans varnish can.

    1. Rick,

      I’ve seen a couple of them, but most are new to me. In the immediate aftermath, some appeared as banners on the fence around the BP facility down the road from me. They didn’t stay there long, but there are photos. I’m sure they’re on tee-shirts, too, and probably still being worn. The anger’s still alive.


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