Once, when the world was open, I stole a book.
I stole Flemish Painting from a chain café in Boston. I used to live in the city, before the advent of restaurants and hotels that use books as decoration, bought by the lot to add color to vapid commercial spaces. Now wonderful old books, retired from their lives in public and private libraries, end up as props in the farce of modern life.
In town for a conference, I dropped in for coffee and saw, at my elbow, a rare ten by twelve volume of paintings from Bosch to Rubens. I almost cried; in Café X, it was Art for kitsch’s sake.
I pulled it from the shelf where it lay developing scoliosis and opened to a remarkable plate: a detail of Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow (1565). It focuses on four bundled figures, one of which is a child, tending a fire next to a house; they appear to be burning dried straw over wood, but it’s hard to tell—Bruegel has made the flames look so much like straw, and the straw like grown sunlight, that it’s hard to see where and how nature is changing. One figure, a woman in a headscarf, is carrying a bundle next to her babushka, a head floating from the smoke like a phoenix. And all around this spun gold, icicled roofs and branches shadow blue on white. This small corner of Bruegel’s painting, a tiny fraction of the canvas on the far left, seems to say: look here if you can see past the men and their dogs, the ice fishermen and circling bird. While some hunt and strive, others gather, preserve, and destroy. I left my coffee and gathered the book. Miraculously, it’s missing only one plate; if anyone reading this has a spare copy of number II 100, Cornelius de Vos, Family Portrait (detail, 1631), please let me know if I might steal it.
Helena Feder is the author of Ecocriticism and the Idea of Culture (2014/2016) and many articles, essays, interviews, and poems, and the editor of two books: You Are the River and Close Reading the Anthropocene.
The Hunters in the Snow is a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The oil-on-wood painting depicts three hunters returning from a winter expedition. The painting is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.