Review: White Beech by Germaine Greer

What’s that saying about heroes living long enough to become the villains? Academic, journalist and feminist thinker Germaine Greer has spent her recent years fueling hate for trans people and going down dead ends about rape. She has always been a provocateur, better described these days as a troll. But as she writes in the preface of White Beech, published in 2014, her proudest life achievement is not her writing but her work restoring the land.

In 2001, an “old woman” of 62, academic, Greer bought 60 hectares of degraded Queensland rainforest near the border with New South Wales. “I needed,” she writes, “to heal a part of the country.” Over the following decade, working with many others, she set out to restore the forest, which became known as the Cave Creek Rainforest Rehabilitation Scheme. White Beech is the story of how she did it and the hurdles that had to be overcome.

Greer was looking for a patch of Australia to heal for many years before she found the rainforest, looking first in southern New South Wales and central Australia. She rejected the former because she knew she would drawn into local political battles against munitions and forestry, and the latter because she realised her ownership would interfere with Aboriginal claims to the land. As she explains, finding the property in the hinterland of the Gold Coast, one of the brashest and glitziest urban areas in the country, was a stroke of extraordinary luck.

The rainforest found on Greer’s property is the oldest in Australia, home to trees that have their ancestral roots in Gondwana, the dinosaur-era union of all the Southern Hemisphere continents. The tree white beech, Gmelina leichardtii, was an important timber on the east coast of Australia, until it became scarce in the early-20th century. It is symbol of the changes wrought to the continent.

Greer uses her patch of rainforest to tell a continental history on a local scale. The story of settlement, dispossession of Aboriginal custodians and environmental degradation is familiar, even if the particulars are unique. Chapters explore the settlement of the valley by sheep graziers and timber getters and various other attempts to extract economic value from the forest. Others delve into the structure of the forest itself, the animals and plants and the invasive species such as lantana that must be controlled. I found the amount of detail equally impressive and ultimately overwhelming. Greer pored through the archives (attested by the extensive bibliography and referencing) to unearth the story of her forest. Even as an avowed earth nerd, I found a chapter on botanists’ attempts to classify the forest plants much too much in the weeds, and could not muster the same apparent delight that Greer finds in umpiring their esoteric disputes.

More problematic is a chapter on the traditional owners of her land. Greer trawls archives in apparent mounting frustration as she assesses the various possible claimants (dismissively referring to one later as “Kombumerri nonsense”). Although her scholarship is impressive and her hypothesis that the region was never claimed because it was believed to be inhabited by ogres and vampires is intriguing (now “sacred to a single friendless ogress,” she writes), her approach comes across as patronising. Who is Greer to be the arbiter of these claims, I wondered, and there are obvious problems in using the colonial record.

For Greer, expecting governments to fix the environment is a lost cause. Programs such as Landcare and Land for Wildlife attract her ire specifically, which she characterises as “making a virtue of doing nothing”. Instead, it will be up to private individuals There’s much merit to this argument given the continuing decline of Australian ecosystems (recent research found that 19 ecosystems are in danger of imminent collapse) and many groups across Australia are working on just this.

Throughout White Beech, Greer offsets her radicalism by staging self-aware conversations with her pragmatic sister Jane, leading to the book’s most amusing passages. Her enthusiasm for historical figures like explorer Ludwig Leichhardt and the botanist Robert Brown is infectious, as is her impatience with Ferninand von Mueller, whose egotism made a hash of Australian plant classification. There are some lovely and fiery passages on the importance of trees and the forest:

The forest is the bottom line. Without it the thousands of species that have evolved with it will fade from the earth. Technology has no solutions to the problem of biodepletion. There is little point in accumulating gene banks and none whatever in breeding threatened species in captivity. The only way of keeping the extraordinary richness and exuberance of this small planet is to rebuild habitat.

But as sympathetic as I am to her argument, and as inspired as I am by her dedication to restoration, ultimately I found this a mixed read. Tedious and at times misguided, White Beech is Greer as she has been of late (and perhaps always): taking no prisoners, making few friends.

Gay rating: 1/5 for Greer’s intriguing idea that many of Australia’s solo male botanists and explorers were gay

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