Canary in the mine

No matter how many times I hear it, I still won’t pay attention to it. I promise myself to keep an eye on it, to heed the warning, to consider the evidence for it. But I simply won’t remember. I will forget and I will err. Not on the side of caution, but in spite of early awareness and in open defiance of all caveats. Against caution.

Seneca expressed a wild hope, not an anthropological or philosophical truth, when he proclaimed, unreliably, that to err is human but to persevere is diabolical. And yet, the proverb is most often regarded as a reflection of human nature.

It is curious that the saying hasn’t been challenged or upgraded. A better, more accurate dictum should be, to err is human, but more human is to persevere. To forget, to enter the circle of the eternal return, the renewed, inescapable, mis-step.

We all make mistakes, and we all make them again and again. Don’t revolt against this indictment, you know you do.

The proverbial canary in the mine, the best known example of so-called sentinel species, animals who can warn humans of impending dangers, is, as far as I know, absent from mythology, despite the long history of mining and of humans using animals to improve their ability to control and respond to the environment.

Instead, Greek mythology give us a strange sentinel species, that of the Cassandra in the mine.

Cassandra was cursed by the god Apollo to tell the future but never to be believed. She foretold the fall of Troy, the cost of misguided action, the doom deep inside the horse, but in vain. Cassandra died with prophecy on her lips, and with a deaf audience around her.

Perfect accuracy operating in total ignorance. A figure of tragedy leaving tragedy in her wake. The canary that nobody paid any attention to. And the mines of the world collapsed on her and on those around her.

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