This passionate account of one woman’s engagement with the natural world is also a plea for conservation and rehabilitation.
Under suburban tarmac, says Germaine Greer, there is memory. There are geological strata. There are seed banks suggestive of lush vegetation, of ecosystems evolved through millennia of competition and mutual dependence. Above the tarmac, some might see the comforting signs of human habitation: driveways, letterboxes, white roses. For Germaine Greer, it’s a wasteland. In White Beech, Greer takes us with her as she dives under the surface of a devastated continent, hunting for signs of the stupendous biodiversity that was here just a couple of centuries ago.
For four months of the year, Greer lives on a failed dairy farm that was carved out of subtropical rainforest in the Numinbah Valley in south-east Queensland. For the past decade or so, she has overseen the gradual restoration of the forest, clearing away thickets of lantana, propagating rainforest trees, watching native creatures return and flourish.
We get a picture of Greer keeping an eye on her patch from the verandah of a home surrounded by the flapping pennants of python skins (moulted ones, of course) and impregnated with the piss and shit of the antechinus, a tiny marsupial sometimes mistaken for a mouse. The pythons flow languidly around the walls, seeking out the warm bodies of their prey. Greer’s gate is kept locked and surrounded by stinging plants that can inflict excruciating pain for the unwary.
If this is a rather crone-like portrait, it’s one that Greer would be happy with and one that we shouldn’t be surprised about. She discussed her impending cronehood in The Change, her 1991 book about ageing and the menopause. In that, she speaks of the onset of sexual invisibility as a freedom, an opportunity to let go of the self and start looking out at the world, particularly the natural world. It would seem she has been following this trajectory (appearances on Big Brother and gob-smacking criticisms of Julia Gillard’s bum on Q&A notwithstanding). In White Beech, she reveals an ardent, encyclopaedic knowledge of all that grows, flows, scurries, bursts and rots on her piece of land. Her mastery – the fanaticism of the convert, perhaps – of botanical names and the history of botany in Australia is impressive, if a little showy.
Then there are beautiful passages in which Greer simply describes what she sees:
The Rufous Fantail turns hunting into an aerial circus, whirling her wings and tail so that she tumbles and spins, only feet from my face. Her fanned brick-red tail is edged with a white so bright that it seems to leave tracks in the sunlit air.
At the same time, Greer gives a forensic account of the history of European settlement of the district, stretching back through landowner families descended from the owners of slave plantations in the Caribbean to the smaller farmers who came later and tried to raise dairy cattle (the cows died) and grow bananas (the slips died in the frost that sank over the land following the clearing of the forest). She tells of the timber-getters who felled almost all of the magnificent red cedar trees, leaving many to rot because it was too expensive to haul them out. And then there was simple wanton destruction: setting off a domino effect down a hill, for example, in which a massive tree is made to fell those below it, which do the same to those below them, and so on in a cascade of destruction that was simply an afternoon’s entertainment for a family of farmers and their friends. There’s also an account of her exhaustive search for the Aboriginal people who might have been connected with her property: a search made difficult by the speed and thoroughness of their dispossession.
On her land at Cave Creek, Greer is slowly making amends to the forest through her rehabilitation project. At first she says she has no illusions that this will save the world; she is looking for her own ‘heart’s ease’. It makes her happy to be there, even if, in the big scheme of things, it might not make a difference: ‘You may find me on my knees weeding the rainforest like Canute trying to hold back the tide.’ But by the end of the book, she is proselytising, urging her readers to take up the cause. Unlock those buried seed banks, find out about your local grasses, do your bit!
Her opposition to exotic plants is very thorough: even the jacarandas lining the streets of Grafton, celebrated by that small town in its yearly festival, are described as ‘a massive error of taste’. She hates willows, agapanthus (I’m heartily with her there) and every other hardy exotic lurking in our midst.
Disappointed with Queensland’s national parks regime, she concludes that the best way to rehabilitate the land is to do it on private property; through other landowners spending time and money doing what she has spent time and money doing.
In the face of impending climate change (the paralysis tick has just arrived in Sydney, possibly lured by warmer temperatures) and the overwhelming changes to the landscape that have already occurred, some environmentalists have adopted a less ‘purist’ approach to landscape management than Greer proposes. Peter Andrews, author of Back from the Brink (2006), for example, argues that willows, while exotic, are performing an important role in the altered ecosystem by holding water in the landscape. And urban environmentalists are keen to maintain mature exotic street trees (including jacarandas) for the shade and cooling they provide.
And while it may be true that Australia’s national parks are becoming more about ‘car parks and toilets’ than preserving or rehabilitating biodiversity, it does seem a little counterproductive to write them off like that. The average Australian (a city-dweller, after all) is unlikely to start growing kangaroo grass in meaningful quantities (not that this is a bad idea). And very few of us have the time or money to go out into the countryside and do what Germaine Greer has impressively done.
Ultimately, though, White Beech is not about policy but an account of one woman’s passionate, intelligent engagement with the natural world that we are all a part of and that we’re all watching fall apart with a sense of rising despair. Instead of turning away or giving up, we can pay careful attention to what is happening around us. We can try to come to terms with the truth that we’re not only part of the cycle of life but players with the ability, for better or for worse, to alter that cycle. Germaine Greer, arguably one of our most important public intellectuals, has always caught and heightened the zeitgeist. Second-wave feminism was there before her, but she gave it oomph by writing The Female Eunuch and talking about it on television. If she can do even a little of the same for the environment, then we – and the pythons – are lucky indeed.
Germaine Greer White Beech: The Rainforest Years Bloomsbury 2013 HB 384pp $39.99
Tracy Sorensen is a writer and filmmaker. She lived in Newtown in the 1990s but is now in Bathurst, where the landscape was over-cleared a long time ago and consequently there are not enough birds for a decent dawn chorus. You can visit her website here.
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