The Ghosts of Empire

Walking to the bus stop this morning, I noticed the effort people put forth in cities to contain the growing environment. The streets, sidewalks, alleys, trees circled by grates and other holding devices – all of this to keep things in place which wouldn’t otherwise stay in place.

"The Course of Empire - Destruction" by Thomas Cole

“The Course of Empire – Destruction” by Thomas Cole

Over 150 years ago, American artist Thomas Cole painted a series of paintings charting the rise and fall of Empire. I remember first discovering them during a traveling show of 19th century American landscapes several years ago, and being in awe of the grandness of the images. Now, though, they feel like ghosts taunting us modern Americans, living as we do in a crumbling empire.

As a child in the 1980s, I remember discussions of what the world might look like after nuclear war. After the bombs fell, what would remain? Rats. Cockroaches. Twisted up trees perhaps. It’s hard to have a real sense of what nuclear bombs can do when you are nine years old, but your mind is open to possibilities in a way adult minds rarely are. So, things get strange, very strange. Like seeing elephants with rat heads flying through black smoke. Today, I suppose children are more worried about terrorists destroying their homes and schools than a nuclear war, but I imagine the images of the imagined aftermath are no less strange and vivid.

There are an endless array of future specters to haunt us, when those of the past don’t spook us enough. But which ones are worth listening to, and which ones are minor spirits, or mere distractions?

Somehow, I think too many of us are listening to the wrong ghosts. Transfixed by gross horrors like terrorist attacks, we miss the more subtle, deeper voices beyond. Like Thomas Cole’s paintings. Reminders of a past that could easily become our future.

Photo Credit:

The Course of Empire – Destruction by Thomas Cole via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

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