After listening to me rant about the state of modern agriculture in the Anthropocene, a colleague in Australia sent me this poem by C.J. Dennis (1876 – 1938) written long before most of us were born. I reprint it here as a reminder that many of our ecological problems are not new, that we have perhaps made progress on some but that in many areas Dennis’s poem about agriculture could have been published today. A powerful poem that in a classroom discussion might lead us to second thoughts that we now live in the best of all possible worlds. Vale C.J. Dennis.
C.J. Dennis in the Herald in 1935 in Australia
“Because overstocking and continuous grazing have denuded the land of vegetation and removed all resistance to wind and flood, it has now been suddenly realised that erosion in the Western districts of N.S.W. has reduced thousands of acres to little better than desert. A descendant of the original black inhabitants of this country might regard this as just retribution.
Ye are the Great White People, masters and lords of the earth,
Spreading your stern dominion over the world’s wide girth.
Here, where my fathers hunted since Time’s primordial morn,
To our land’s sweet, fecund places, you came with your kine and corn.
Mouthing your creed of Culture to cover a baser creed,
Your talk was of White Man’s magic, but your secret god was Greed.
And now that your generations to the second, the third have run,
White Man, what of my country? Answer, what have you done?
Now the God of my Simple People was a simple, kindly God,
Meting his treasure wisely that sprang from this generous sod,
With never a beast too many and never a beast too few,
Thro’ the lean years and the fruitful, he held the balance true.
Then the White Lords came in their glory; and their cry was: “More! Yet more!”
And to make them rich for a season they filched Earth’s age-old store,
And they hunted my Simple People — hunters of yester-year —
And they drove us into the desert — while they wrought fresh deserts here.
They ravaged the verdant uplands and spoiled wealth ages old,
Laid waste with their pumps and sluices for a gunny-bag of gold;
They raided the primal forests and the kind, rain-bringing trees
That poured wealth over the lowlands thro’ countless centuries;
They fed their kine on the grasslands, crowding them over the land,
Till blade and root in the lean years gave place to hungry sand.
Then, warned too late of their folly, the White Lords grew afraid,
And they cried to their great god Science; but Science could not aid.
This have you done to our country, lords of the air and the seas,
This to the hoarded riches of countless centuries —
Life-yielding loam, uncovered, unsheltered in the drought,
In the floods your hand unbridled, to the age-old sea drifts out.
You have sold man’s one true birthright for a White Man’s holiday,
And the smothering sands drift over where once green fields turn grey —
Filched by the White Man’s folly to pamper the White Lords’ vice;
And leave to your sons a desert where you found a paradise.”
Herald, 6 December 1935, page 6