Canaries in the coal mine

Fumes seep and spiral,
Canaries in the coal mine
Chirp their last faint song.

RonovanWrites’ prompts of the week (trill and final) made me think of canaries in a coal mine.  Initially, I had an image of canaries singing to warn of danger.  However the canary warning is not their chirping–it’s their death.  Miners used to bring caged canaries into mines to warn them of dangerous gas leaks. When their feathered friends passed out, they knew it was time to get out of the mine.

As Wednesday is the day I do a quotations post, I searched for  a ‘canary in the coal mine’ quote.  I was not disappointed.  I found three interesting candidates–the first two have an environmental theme and the third one offers artistic inspiration.


“Whales are humanity’s canary in the coal mine,…As ocean pollution levels increase, marine mammals like whales will be among the first to go.”

Roger Searle Payne (born January 29, 1935) is an American biologist and environmentalist famous for the 1967 discovery (with Scott McVay) of whale song among humpback whales. Payne later became an important figure in the worldwide campaign to end commercial whaling.



“I believe that these sea lions that are washing up along the coast are actually acting as important canaries in the coal mine, warning us of some ocean changes that contribute in fact to human health.”

Dr. Frances Gulland is the Director of Veterinary Science at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA. Dr. Gulland has been actively involved in the veterinary care of stranded marine mammals and research into marine mammal diseases since 1994.

State of California Ocean Protection Council

I-sometimes-wondered kurt vonnegut

I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts.  This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive.  They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.”

What do you think about Kurt Vonnegut’s theory?  I believe he was pondering human survival and asking ‘how do the arts promote the survival of humankind?’  His answer, quoted above, is that artists (writers, painters, photographers, dancers, actors, musicians, etc) are more sensitive; in touch with feelings, senses, imagination, intuition, and such.  Artists notice more of what is going on in the world.

A bit elitist or grandiose?  Perhaps, but Vonnegut may have been onto something.  Another approach would be to attribute sensitivity to artistic endeavour rather than to those who pursue it full-time.  In other words, people are more fulfilled and aware when they can incorporate the arts into their lives. We all have the potential to be canaries in the coal mine.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) was an American novelist known for works blending satire, black comedy, and science fiction.



In the mood for more quotes? Visit RonovanWrites and SilverThreading.


29 thoughts on “Canaries in the coal mine

  1. What a thoughtful post and the quotes are fabulous! I think the pursuit of the arts used to be used as a way of distinguishing the educated elite from the working men. I could be reaching here, but I think the arts also produce free thinking. I loved your haiku too, Janice. Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have to say I have mixed feelings about Kurt’s quote. There is a truth I believe to what he is saying, but the real issue I take with it is that it diminishes the value of the creative process in and of itself. What he is in effect doing is looking at the arts through an utilitarian & mechanization lens and thus reaffirming it, the same lens that keeps us having to keep fighting to keep arts (and the humanities) in the school system.

    I think he is also reinforcing a notion (which plays into the utilitarian & mechanization lens) that there are people who are artists and there are those who are not artists, as if it were one of many “career” or occupations choices: Do you want to be a dentist, a human resource specialist or an artist? Everyone is an artist for everyone has the flow of creativity in them.

    There are some who make a living through their arts, and some make some money through the arts, yet this is irrelevant to quality or authenticity of their work or their creative process.

    I guess I’ll just wrap it up by saying that we wouldn’t need the canary artists if our culture embraced and cultivated the artist which resides in each of us in the community.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I was trying to get that last point in my mind and words. You laid it out well. Our society tends to undervalue creativity in general and relies too heavily on markers such as money and critical acclaim. That which is recognized has value but it shouldn’t negate value in everything else. I have to stop now but I’ll come back.

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    2. Thank you so much for your thoughts on the quote. To the extent that he was buying into a utilitarian discourse I too would object. Our culture tends to dismiss the value of being expressive and creative.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A very interesting and thoughtful post, Janice. Reflecting on the health of the oceans and life dependent on them, I think the warning signs continue and are not effectively dealt with by governments. I still wonder about the evolving disastrous effects on the Pacific Ocean from the nuclear waste that had flowed continuously from the Japanese nuclear catastrophe. I hear wild salmon are already showing signs. Sad state of affairs!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I like the artist/canary analogy. I had heard of canary death as a warning to coal miners, but I didn’t know it was extended to whales and sea lions. Interesting. Glad to stuff that in my book of knowledge (brain).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very interesting and necessary post, Janice. Your haiku is beautiful and sad. I love your use of the prompt words. The quotes are fantastic. It always makes me sad to read about animals dying and suffering because of pollution and basically the greed and carelessness of human beings but it’s great that you’re creating awareness.

    Liked by 1 person

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