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Veldt, Plain And Prairie
by [?]

Among the problems which remain perpetually interesting are those which deal with the influence of environment on races, and that of races on environment. What happens when the people are plastic and their circumstances rigid? What when the people are rigid and unyielding, and their surroundings fluent and unabiding? And does character depend on what is outside, or does the dominant quality of a race remain, as some vainly think, for ever? These are puzzling questions, but not entirely beyond conjecture for one who has heard the siren songs of the African veldt, the Australian plain, and the American prairie.

He who consciously observes usually observes the obvious, and may rank as a discoverer only among the unobservant. Truth may be looked for, but he who hunts her shall rarely find when the truth he seeks is something not suited for scientific formulae. The real observer is he who does not observe, but is gradually aware that he knows. Sometimes he does not learn that he is wise till long years have passed, and then perhaps the mechanical maxim of a mechanical eye-server of Nature shall startle him into a sense of deep abiding, but perhaps incommunicable, knowledge. So comes the knowledge of mountain, moor and stream; so rises the Aphrodite truth of the sea, born from the foam that surges round the Horn, or floats silently upon the beach of some lonely coral island; and so grows the knowledge of vast stretches of dim inland continents.

I spent my hours (let them be called months) in Africa seeking vainly after facts that after all were of no importance. Politics are of to-day, but human nature is of eternity. And while I sought what I could hardly find, in one cold clear dawn I stumbled upon the truth concerning the white people of the veldt, whom we call Boers. And yet it was not stumbling; I had but rediscovered something that I had known of old in other lands, far east and far west of Africa. When first I entered on the terraces of the Karroo I tried to build up for myself the character of the lone horsemen who ride across these spaces, and though I was solitary, and saw sunrises, the construction of the type eluded me. I saw the big plain and the flat-topped banded hills that had sunk into their minds. I saw the ruddy dawn glow, and the ruddier glory of sundown as the sun bit into the edge of the horizon, and I knew that here somewhere lay the secret of the race, even though I could not find it. And I knew too that I had discovered sister secrets in long past days; and I saw that, not in the intellect as one knows it, but in some revived instinct, revived it might be by one of the senses, lay the clue to what I sought. What did these people think, or what lay beneath thought in them? It was something akin to what I had felt somewhere, that I knew. But the sun went down and left me in the dark; or it rose clear of the distant hills and drowned me in daylight, and still I did not know. Then there was the babble of politics in my ears, and I spoke of Reform and such urgent matters in the dusty streets of windy Johannesburg.

But one day, as it chanced, I came upon the secret; and then I found it was incommunicable, as all real secrets are. For your true secret is an informing sensation, and no sensation can resolve itself other than by negatives. I had spent a weary, an unutterably weary, day in a coach upon the Transvaal uplands, and came in the dark to the house of a Boer who served travellers with unspeakable food and gave them such accommodation as might be. It was midnight when I arrived, and all his beds were full of those who were journeying in the opposite direction. He made me a couch on the floor in a kind of lumber-room, and, softened child of civilisation that I had become, I growled by myself at what he gave, and wondered what, in the name of the devil who wanders over the earth, I was doing there. And how could he endure it? How, indeed. I fell asleep, and the next minute, which was six hours later, I awoke, and stumbled with a dusty mouth into the remaining night, not yet become dawn. Such an hour seemed unpropitious. My bones ached; I lamented my ancient hardness in the time when a board or a sheet of stringy bark was soft; I felt a touch of fever, my throat was dry, a hard hot day of discomfort was before me. In the dim dusk I saw the mules gathered by the coach, which had yet to do sixty miles. A bucket invited me; I washed my hot hands and face, and walked away from the buildings into the open. Then very suddenly and without any warning I understood why the Boer existed, and why, in his absurd perversity, he rather preferred existing as he was; and I saw that even I, like other Englishmen, could be subdued to the veldt. The air was crisp and chill; the dawn began to break in a pale olive band in the lower east; the stars were bright overhead; the morning star was even yet resplendent. But these things I had seen on the southern Karroo. It was not my eyes alone that told me the old secret, the same old secret that I had known. I knew then, and at once, as an infinite peace poured over me, that all my senses were required to bring me back to nature, and that one alone was helpless. Now with what I saw came what I heard. I heard the clatter of harness, the jingle of a bell, the low of a cow, the trampling of the mules. And I smelt with rapture, with delight, the complex odours of the farm that sat so solitary in the world; but above all the chill moving odour of the great plain itself. This, or these, made a strange, primitive pleasure that I had known in Australia, in Texas, even in a farm upon the edge of a wild Westmorland moor. My senses informed my intellect. I shook hands with the creatures of the veldt, for I was of their tribe. Even my feet trod the earth pounded by the mules, the horses and the oxen, with a sensation that was new and old. Why did not spurs jingle on my heels? I felt strong and once more a man. So feels the Boer, and so does he love, but he cannot even try to communicate the incommunicable. For, after all, the secret is like the smell of a flower that few have seen. Its odour is not the odour of the rose, not that of any lily, not that of any herb; it is its own odour only.

What is the difference, then, in those who ride the high Texan plateaux or scour the sage-bush plains of Nevada, or follow sheep or cattle in the salt bush country of the lingering Lachlan? There is much difference; there is little difference; there is no difference. The great difference is racial, the small difference is human, the lack of any difference is animal and primaeval. In all alike, in any country where spaces are wide, the child that was the ancestor of the man arises with its truthful unconscious curiosity and faith in Nature. Here it may be that one gallops, here one trots, here again one walks. But all alike pull the bridle and snuff the air and find it good, and see the grass grow or dwindle, and watch the stars and the passing seasons, and find the world very fresh and very sweet and very simple.