By Germaine GreerNon-fiction Bloomsbury
Germaine Greer excels at turning the political into the personal. In White Beech, the world-renowned academic and bestselling author tells the story of how she bought and transformed 50 hectares of Queensland rainforest.
Greer worked to clear and restore the land with her own hands, and help from an army of workers; from her botanist sister, she learned the names of the trees and plants on her property as she restored them. These names are woven through the text, educating the reader much as Greer was educated herself. Reviewing the book in the Australian, Felicity Plunkett says ‘the best writing here reads like blazonry, the poetic catalogue of a beloved’s features’. Greer also worked to research and discover the original owners of her land.
The book is, first and foremost, a passionate argument for restoring our natural landscape – and the personal and conversational value of getting directly involved. But it also provides intriguing glimpses of Greer herself, and her relationship with her botanist sister.
White Beech tells the story of how Europeanisation has devastated our landscape and what we can do to restore its biodiversity and uniqueness. Greer explains why conservation is too important to be left to politicians; it is time ordinary Australians began doing it for themselves. No activity, she believes, could be more rewarding.
‘White Beech captures a trend in contemporary Australia that is manifesting across the country,’ says Tim Flannery in the Age. ‘It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that if splendid achievements such as Greer’s are to be sustained, some consolidation of the many disparate efforts at restoring our country will be required.’
White Beech is an important contribution to the discussion about the country we live in. Information-rich in local and environmental history, the author’s account of the rehabilitation of her own piece of Queensland rainforest is contrary, uncompromising, controversial, and sometimes spiky: vintage Greer.
Amid Greer’s vivid botanical descriptions, much of the dialogue is between Greer and her sister, a botanist, providing an unexpected but touching portrayal of a well-weathered friendship between siblings.
The non-fiction judging panel also wished to commend Traditional Healers of Central Australia: Ngangkari, by Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council Aboriginal Corporation.
Understanding the natural environment, including the land, weather systems, and our flora and fauna: this is now the challenge we have set ourselves, and though it’s a bar possibly set too impossibly high, we’ll try our damnedest to wrap our minds around the world anyway, because we believe that if we can understand something then we believe we can then control it, and being human is nothing else more than the ongoing tussle for control (and also the shying away from the frail notion that believing itself requires belief).
Germaine Greer has always been a implacable believer, and this unwavering quality permeates her latest book, White Beech, a testament to the years she spent searching for a patch of Australia that could be returned to the native ecosystems that she fervently argues were destroyed by the greed and folly of Europeans. Buying a parcel of semi-wild Queensland country near the border New South Wales in December 2001, Greer has spent millions founding what she has named the Cave Creek Rainforest Rehabilitation Scheme in an attempt to conserve a living museum, one that she hopes will provide an example to other private conservators, a place that ‘might even survive global warming’.
After two years of searching for somewhere in Australia to work back to something resembling its original indigenous state (and at that stage, a place to house her Greer archive), she stumbled across an abandoned dairy farm that was for sale. It was the last thing she wanted, totally unsuitable as a site for a library, but the battered subtropical rainforest that clothed the upper slopes of the property — or more specifically, a dancing Regent Bowerbird — called to her, coaxed her in. Since then she has apparently spent every spare cent on rehabilitating the forest, and set up a charity to continue the work after she has gone to be recycled.
Greer believes that with ‘governments having failed, the restoration of the most biodiverse rainforest outside the wet tropics will have to be done by dedicated individuals … it is clear to me that is conservation is to be done at all, it will have to be done by dedicated individuals and organisations of privately owned land.’ She doesn’t delve too far into the political whys and wherefores, stopping only to say that ‘the received wisdom is that only plant and animal species surviving and public land can be protected. In fact, public nature reserves generally suffer from system lack of funding. They are usually poorly staffed, poorly equipped and poorly managed. What little funding they receive has to be justified by providing a public amenity.’
The book is a work of a enormous mind – a literary demonstration of intellectual diligence and tenacity. Although it has neither the breadth and diversity of historical investigation nor the poetical turns-of-phrase that elevated Bill Gammage’s award-winner of last year’s VLPAs (which I also reviewed, and quoted Greer), White Beech does feature the beauty that stems from a repetition of message, a beauty brought about by the aforementioned cogent and dedicated research. Greer references 216 distinct works throughout, tying these threads together neatly. Although veering towards negativity at times, especially in regards to ‘mistakes’ made by those in the past (which are at times exceedingly foolish, particularly with respect to the introducing of foreign flora and fauna; as Greer mentions in one example how ‘even as they headed out to collect specimens of an astonishing variety of native plants, the first explorers took with them cherry pips and peach stones to plant as they went along’) White Beech is a resounding work, one that drums home its message.
As expected, the figure of Germaine Greer looms as large as any of the giant trees she evokes, but this enlivens the work, for it is her interaction with family, friends and co-workers that provide some much-needed narrative propulsion. Some of her dialogue is clunky (quotation marks around a reworked and researched memory does not a conversation make) and the links between chapters or even paragraphs can seem vague or nonexistent, but the overall point punches true, such that I will be a stringent safekeeper of native flora and flora, if and when I come to tend a plot of my own.
White Beech is full of taxonomical detail and historical storytelling of a range of indigenous plants and animals, with the eponymous White Beech trees certainly featuring throughout. But as in nature this species plays only a part, a yardstick for Greer’s overarching lesson: “when I see the White Beeches along the boulevards of the Gold Coast, marooned between roaring carriageways, buffeted by fume-laden draughts, far from their in-dwelling invertebrates, their phalangers and parrots, their festoons of vines and garlands of epiphytes, I pray for them to disqualify themselves for such ignominy by dying soon, but instead, dwarfed, filthy and ragged, they suffer on.’ Let us end the suffering, Greer argues in her indomitable way. Let us believe we can.
Sam Cooney is editor of The Lifted Brow.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist