thomas m wilson

A. E. Housman: An Aboriginal in England

November 24th, 2008

I feel that I belong in nature wherever and whenever I’m in it.  The English poet A. E. Housman, in his poem ‘Tell me not here…’ expresses my position nicely:

On russet floors, by waters idle,

The pine lets fall its cone;

The cuckoo shouts all day at nothing

In leafy dells alone;

And traveller’s joy beguiles in autumn

Hearts that have lost their own.

On acres of the seeded grasses

The changing  burnish heaves;

Or marshalled under moons of harvest

Stand still all night the Sheaves;

Or beeches strip in storms for winter

And stains the wind with leaves.

Possess, as I possessed a season,

The countries I resign,

Where over elmy plains the highway

Would mount the hills and shine,

And full of shade the pillared forest

Would murmur and be mine.

For nature, heartless, witless nature,

Will neither care nor know

What stranger’s feet may find the meadow

And trespass there and go,

Nor ask amid the dews of morning

If they are mine or no.

Since Housman’s time in the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century a few things have changed.  You can’t find ‘sheaves’ of wheat anymore, the bundles of the stuff that people used to sit upright while they were harvesting the fields by hand many years ago.  The ‘elmy plains’ aren’t as ‘elmy’ anymore due to the spread of Dutch elm disease in the late 1960s in England, and being made from dark tarmac the highways don’t shine under a harvest moon in the same way as when they were crushed limestone.  One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is that walking through a forest or a meadow is not a transgression of a tree’s right to private property.

But hang on, I’m an Australian living in Australia.  Housman’s wondering poet is an aboriginal in England, but here on the Swan coastal plain in south-west Australia the Nyngar people are the rightful owners of most of this land.  Most of the Aboriginal people in this area were wiped out by epidemics of measles and other imported diseases in the years leading up to the 1860s, but those that persisted and remained still have a claim on much of this land.

Hmm… I support Aboriginal land rights in Australia, but it doesn’t matter if I’m on a white fella’s wooded estate in England or a black fella’s coastal plain in Perth, I do not feel alienated from the living earth I walk over.  My position is that, wherever I am in the biosphere, I belong in field or forest.  Laws to do with private property, and the fences and guns that back them up, do not comprehend the deep sense in which ecosystems and landscapes operate irrespective of the cultural constructions of clever primates.  They do not comprehend the deep sense in which we are all interlinked organisms in a grand, million-year old biological fabric.  Wherever I am, when I leave the pavement and get back to the land, I’m coming home.

As Gil Scott Heron famously sang – much more recently than Housman’s poem – it’s your world!