Logging in White’s Woods, John Clare, and the Enclosure Acts

John Clare by William Hilton, oil on canvas, 1820

Wednesday May 6th (Indiana, Pennsylvania, USA)

From “Helpstone” by John Clare:

To see the woodman’s cruel axe employ’d,
A tree beheaded, or a bush destroy’d:
Nay e’en a post, old standard, or a stone
Moss’d o’er by Age, and branded as her own,
Would in my mind a strong attachment gain,
A fond desire that there they might remain;
And all old favourites, fond Taste approves,
Griev’d me at heart to witness their removes. (Lines 72-78)

I walked in White’s Woods today and Clare decided to join me (5.2 miles). She brought my dad’s binoculars on the walk to try and spot some birds. I showed her the area where wood peckers live, and they were there pecking away. She was thrilled.

Woodpeckers in White’s Woods (2019)

As we arrived in this area, we started noticing bright green spray paint on the trees from a local logging (forest management) company. Clare asked what they were, so I explained, and she was clearly upset. She asked, “Dad, can we go get some brown spray paint, so that the loggers wouldn’t know what trees to take?” I felt her pain as I had been walking in this area regularly for 16 years. Many of the trees that were marked were right on the trail. After passing them, often daily, for so long, it felt as if I were losing friends.

This created a great opportunity to discuss logging, forest management, and preservation. I explained that some forest management is sometimes necessary, but that it needs to be done well, especially in protected areas like White’s Woods. There has been a lot of criticism of this forest management plan. Clare shared that the parent of a student in her class owns a logging company. Then, I shared what groups like Friends of White’s Woods were doing to advocate for responsible use of the area. (Please consider signing their petition here).

This discussion reminded me of my dissertation and John Clare’s poetry based on the Enclosure Acts. The Enclosure Acts eliminated many of the public lands that Clare had wandered freely on in his youth. The simple explanation is that public land was seized by the government and then doled out to create a form of private property. This was extremely tough on the poor and itinerant laborers like John Clare. Often, the poor in his era would set up gardens, farms, or even houses on these public lands. For Clare, it also represented a loss of freedom from his youth. He regularly personified streams, animals, and tracks of land that were lost to him in this process.

Almost twenty-five years ago, I began studying John Clare’s poetry. I read his most famous poems, “I Am”, “What is Life?”, and “Clock – a – Clay” and could feel his wonder and pain. In “Clock – a – Clay”, Clare portrays the world through the eyes of a lady bug. While a simple poem, it shows the power of literature to give the reader a different perspective. I will never know what it is like to be a peasant two hundred years ago in England, to be a woman, or even a lady bug, but for a few brief moments, I might get a glimpse into that world. “I Am” and “What is Life?” are both meditations on the loss of land from enclosure and on the transitory nature of life in general. As I read those poems, I was struggling with many of the same emotions and struggles as Clare. I was questioning why life sometimes felt meaningless and brief. At the time, it gave me comfort to think that someone two hundred years ago in a different country had the same emotional struggles. I no longer felt alone.

Clare writes about the wanton destruction of the land of his youth for privatization and profit throughout his work. In yet another area, from two hundred years ago and in another country, I feel a camaraderie with Clare’s soul that continues on.

The full poem “Enclosure” is listed below, but a few powerful lines:

Enclosure came, and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights, and left the poor a slave;
And memory’s pride, ere want to wealth did bow,
Is both the shadow and the substance now.

And, a few more:

In little parcels little minds to please,
With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease.

Picture Credit: John Lawrence from “On Common Ground: The Enclosure of John Clare” by Hugh Lupton and Chris Wood

“Enclosure” by John Clare

Far spread the moory ground, a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green,
That never felt the rage of blundering plough,
Though centuries wreathed spring blossoms on its brow.
Autumn met plains that stretched them far away
In unchecked shadows of green, brown, and grey.

Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene;
No fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect from the gazing eye;
Its only bondage was the circling sky.
A mighty flat, undwarfed by bush and tree,
Spread its faint shadow of immensity.

And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds,
In the blue mist the horizon’s edge surrounds.
Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours,
Free as spring clouds and wild as forest flowers,
Is faded all—a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once as it no more shall be.

Enclosure came, and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights, and left the poor a slave;
And memory’s pride, ere want to wealth did bow,
Is both the shadow and the substance now.
The sheep and cows were free to range as then
Where change might prompt, nor felt the bonds of men.

Cows went and came with every morn and night
To the wild pasture as their common right;
And sheep, unfolded with the rising sun,
Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won,
Tracked the red fallow field and heath and plain,
Or sought the brook to drink, and roamed again.

While the glad shepherd traced their tracks along,
Free as the lark and happy as her song.
But now all’s fled, and flats of many a dye
That seemed to lengthen with the following eye,
Moors losing from the sight, far, smooth, and blea,
Where swopt the plover in its pleasure free.

Are banished now with heaths once wild and gay
As poet’s visions of life’s early day.
Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft,
The skybound wastes in mangled garbs are left,
Fence meeting fence in owner’s little bounds
Of field and meadow, large as garden-grounds.

In little parcels little minds to please,
With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease.
For with the poor scared freedom bade farewell,
And fortune-hunters totter where they fell;
They dreamed of riches in the rebel scheme
And find too truly that they did but dream.

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