Gumtree in the city street,
Hard bitumen around your feet,
Rather you should be
In the cool world of leafy forest halls
And wild bird calls.
Here you seem to me
Like that poor cart-horse
Castrated, broken, a thing wronged,
Strapped and buckled, its hell prolonged,
Whose hung head and listless mien express
Municipal gum, it is dolorous
To see you thus
Set in your black grass of bitumen--
O fellow citizen,
What have they done to us?
The author of “Municipal Gum” was born in 1920 on an island in southeast Queensland. Her father belonged to the Noonuccal people. Her family named her Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska, and she was known as “Kath.” From age 13, Kath worked as a domestic servant in Brisbane. When she was 21, she enlisted in the Australian Women’s Army Service and soon after married Bruce Walker, a member of the Gugingin people. After a severe ear infection forced her to leave the Army Service, Kath worked at a variety of jobs and became interested in politics, particularly in fighting for the rights of indigenous Australians. She had separated from her husband before their son was born and raised the child alone. Kath began writing poetry in the 1950s.
Her first collection of poetry, We Are Going, was published in 1964. It sold well, and other books followed. The poem “Municipal Gum” appeared in My People: A Kath Walker Collection, published in 1970.She continued writing and was known internationally as a protest poet, political activist, and educator. In 1988, she took the name of her people Noonuccal and the tribal name Oodgeroo (which means “paperbark”). Her final collection of poems was published in 1988, and she died on 16 September 1993.