thomas m wilson

The land was ours before we were the land’s.

July 9th, 2009

This flower from a Banksia ilicifolia tree, endemic to south-west Australia, was something I noticed in the woodland around North Lake.  It is the flower of one of Perth’s most special trees.  This flower will soon turn pink and then red.  The Western Spinebill, one of my favourite birds in Perth, likes to come and drink the nectar from it when it is yellow.  This tree doesn’t look like the other banksia trees around Perth, and it reminds me of the sacred live oaks in southern Europe.  The Western Australian state government is planning on putting a six-lane highway (an extension of Roe Highway) through here, and if it goes ahead this tree would be knocked down (find out more here).  We will never see the beauty of its yellow, pink or red flowers again.  The Western Spinebill will lose its food source.  This should not happen.  There will be resistance.

At the start of George Seddon’s 1972 book Sense of Place he quotes Robert Frost’s poem ‘The gift outright’.  I’m going to quote from this poem as well, changing a few of the words as Seddon does to suit it to the Australian context:

The land was ours before we were the land’s.

She was our land more than a hundred years

Before we were her people.  She was ours

In Western Australia, and in Tasmania;

But we were England’s, still colonials,

Something we were withholding made us weak

Until we found out that it was ourselves

We were withholding from our land of living,

And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

It seems to me that many Western Australians, including myself, need to learn a lot more about the land in order that the people of Perth become truly indigenous, truly of this place.  When, for example, I see a Banksia ilicifolia tree in flower and learn what it is, or that I could steep bunches of it in fresh water and drink an energy-rich drink, then I feel like I’m getting closer.  Once Western Australians stop withholding ourselves from this place we will become stronger.  We will become the land’s people.