Tag Archives: Isaiah (book)

Taking a stick to the environment

John Dunmore Lang (1799-1878), Presbyterian minister, member of Parliament and author of An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, relates in that work an incident which occurred as he was travelling alone on horse-back from the Hunter River to Sydney in March 1830. He writes (pp. 205-206):

I was trotting along the side of a hill, when a black snake, of upwards of four feet in length, which had been basking in the sun on the bare foot-path—for such was the only road at the time for a considerable distance among the mountains—sprang out from among my horse’s feet, and tried to escape. As it is considered a matter of duty in the colony to kill an animal of this kind, when it can be done without danger or inconvenience, I immediately dismounted, and, breaking off a twig from a bush, pursued and wounded the venomous reptile.

He had struck it a few inches from the head. The snake turned and glared, and the part of its body between the head and wound swelled up, but it could not attack and tried again to escape, whereupon the traveller killed it with a few more strokes.

It is usual in such cases to leave the animal extended, as a sort of trophy, across the footpath, to inform the next traveller that the country has been cleared of another nuisance, and to remind him, perhaps, of his own duty to do all that in him lies to clear it of every remaining nuisance; that it may become a goodly and a pleasant land, in which there shall be nothing left to hurt or to destroy.

The last allusion recalls Isaiah 11:9 and 65:25. The snake-destroying cleric, thinking himself to have the best interests of humanity at heart, concludes his narrative with an elegant quotation from Vergil’s Aeneid, which gives (he says) a ‘beautiful and most accurate description of the appearance the snake exhibited when half-dead’ (p. 206 n. 2).

John Dunmore Lang, An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, from the Founding of the Colony in 1788 to the Present Day, 4th ed., vol. I, London, Sampson Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1875, pp. 205-206 [previous editions, 1834, 1837, 1852]; for the date of the incident see p. 203. ‘Pleasant land’ occurs in a number of Old Testament passages; ‘goodly and pleasant land’ perhaps combines ‘good and pleasant’ as found in Psalm 133:1 with ‘green & pleasant Land’ in the last line of William Blake’s poem ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ (which like the passages in Isaiah makes reference to Jerusalem). The OED (s.v.) records ‘twig’ as dialectal for a stout stick. Lang’s text of Vergil, Aeneid 5.273-279 corresponds to that in the Bibliotheca Augustana (which uses Mynors, 1969) except for nodos in line 279 (the BA has nodis) and punctuation differences. The passage describes a snake, wounded on the highway by a wheel or rock, glaring, hissing and twisting as it tries in vain to escape. D.W.A. Baker, ‘Lang, John Dunmore (1799-1878)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 2, 1967, pp. 76-83, and online.