Driving through acres of Canberra as yet unsettled - hills and slopes blanketed with verdure under a wide blue sky - I had a vision of their future: razored of trees, plotted with a brick patchwork of leggo houses, threaded through with concrete driveways. I hope somehow these acres are spared that fate, but the hope is slim. That fate seems to overtake most empty spaces in the bush capital sooner or later. It’s odd to me that the more we know about our environment’s needs or our own social needs, the less we seem able to meet them. The more we learn about environmental degradation, the more efficient we become at doing it.
The sense of loss that came with my vision - aesthetic as much as moral - is at least as old as the industrial revolution. It was behind the protest poems of Blake and Wordsworth long before it infused the environmentalist movement of a generation ago. You can find it in just about any nature poet of the past two centuries - and probably as far back as you care to go. I’m not familiar with Virgil’s Georgics, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they contained a lament for the spoliation of land.
On the eve of last century, Gerard Manly Hopkins wrote this poem because some of his favourite trees had been cut down. A small thing, perhaps, to cut down a dozen trees, but Hopkins saw more in it than that act. Uncannily, he saw the future. ‘If we but knew what we do.’ Indeed. The thing is we after-comers do know now, but we reck still less our strokes of havoc. This is ‘Binsey Poplars’, written in 1879.
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.