When middle-aged ladies fall in love, they fall hard. I owe this fact to none other than Germaine Greer. She is the same Greer who magnetised us men by writing in 1970 that the essential factor in the liberation of the married woman is an understanding of her condition, that “no sooner does a girl’s pubic hair appear than she has to learn how to obliterate it” and best of all, that “psychologists cannot fix the world, so they fix women”.
The author of The Female Eunuch’s most recent love affair is with 150 acres of degenerating forest in southeast Queensland. In her mid-seventies, she has become an impassioned Female Digger.
Greer has always been memorable on the subject of gardening. In the 1970s I recall her remarking in the Sunday press that anyone who had heard an Australian pronouncing the word “hydrangea” would be put off flower gardening for life. She then took up gardening in England, far from those Aussie “hydies”, and acutely observed that if she spent as much on her evening clothes as she was spending on her garden, she would be the best-dressed and most resented woman in London.
At its sharpest, her memoir of her new love affair, White Beech, is first rate. She went off to find a “natural” expanse of Australia on which to realise her ecological aims.
She was stung, scratched and terrorised by her first meeting with a stretch of forest which had been halved in price after five long years on the market. So, she set off to find lunch. On the edge of nowhere she found Angela’s, “a colonial style pseudo-farmhouse with a curving drive bordered with agapanthus”.
According to its sign, Angela’s “sold hot pies in inverted commas”. She was introduced as Germaine. “I hope,” said Angela, “you’re nothing to do with that bloody Germaine Greer.”
Undeterred by Angela, she returned to the rundown forest for another look. While the sun set, the monarch butterflies copulated in mid-air and the place teemed with life. A regent bowerbird emerged from the wild raspberries and “pranced and twisted”, but refused to give her a mating display. Evidently, he had done his research.
Greer decided to act on this welcome meeting and offer the revised asking price – A$500,000. How ever could she justify buying a bit of land for her non-aboriginal self? For years she has been a forthright champion of aborigines’ rights to the Australia they have had to surrender. She reclassifies her purchase as a “project”, not a house and home. She has lived up to her logic. After a 10-year battle with nature, she has now given her money to support it in a related charitable trust. “The day I gave away all the cash I had to the rainforest was one of the happiest days of my life.”
How many male dominators can say the same? With it she has founded the Cave Creek Rainforest Rehabilitation Scheme. The rehab is for the land, but it has also done wonders for herself.
Sometimes, Greer’s story digresses into dense history and the difficulties of documenting this or that arrival or aboriginal departure from her surrounds. She has had the expert help of two trained botanists, her sister, Jennie, and the nearby David Jinks. She has also attracted keen volunteers.
It is never entirely clear how long she herself has spent at any one time alone among lace monitors, yellow-crested cockatoos and the snakes which fascinate her but which would send me on the first plane back to Oxford. Her scholarly training shows in her citation of so much research, but the book lives for me because of two well-posed questions. One was put to her over a slow-moving college dinner back in England (“the fatty lump of farmed salmon in front of me was cold”). It was posed by a “gentleman” who interrupted her female neighbour. Why was she bothering to work on this land? Could she not just leave the subtropical forest to regenerate itself? If it did so, well and good. If it could not, why bother?
Greer admirably defends her game plan. Whereas this male called her efforts a “very expensive version of gardening”, she realised that a forest would never rebuild itself without assistance. Gardening is essential.
Without it, the “vines go berserk.” Pioneer species run all over the gaps and block out earlier inhabitants as efficiently as the Aussies have pushed out the Bundjalung – the “traditional owners”. As she well puts it, “all the forest volunteers are in it for their own species”.
One of her concerns is to restore the white beech trees of her book’s title, not the pale-trunked Fagus which glows in the evening light on flood-free hills in southwest England, but a rare and, to me, unknown tree called Gmelina liechthardtii. It used to grow in quantity on Project Greer, but the wood was so prized by timber yards that they stripped it by the thousands, risking lives, as she says, to topple the gigantic specimens.
Nowadays Greer rattles off botanical names as a truly sustainable gardener. She credits a television programme by the expert David Bellamy for first teaching her that Australia’s own wild flowers are just as fascinating as imported jacarandas and begonias in the British fashion.
In her eco project she is right to go native. In gardens, I disagree. Gardens are artificial by their very nature. If somebody wants to grow nothing but nettles and “native” hawthorn, let them do it, but jacarandas are so much more beautiful. There is no reason why a garden should have to be filled with supposedly “native” plants like a sanctuary site for Ukip.
She is on sounder ground with her second question, the assault on Australia’s nature by so many Aussies in the past 200 years. They have not only felled our English batsmen and driven them out of the game, they have snared possums by the million. They have massacred koala bears, sometimes because they were spoiling their imported peach trees. They have blasted the rocks, the prelude to a future orgy of fracking. They have felled wondrous forest trees. They have compounded their rape of nature by introducing disastrously rampant foreign species.
Wild blackberries and “superior” raspberries have become as grave a menace as rabbits. The banana is a rampant nightmare. Of course there are Aussies nowadays who have repented and gone green. In sympathy, Greer now watches the local yellow-footed antechinus, a marsupial whose one thought when winter passes is “sex and nothing but sex.” It has excreted all over her house, “particularly copiously” in the hood of her D.Litt. gown from Sydney University. After 12 hours of “acrobatic sexual intercourse”, the male dies. It makes The Wolf of Wall Street look like a tame warm-up act.
Greer has learnt that to love something you do not have to own it. She also feels she has made some small amends. It even turned out that Agent Orange, the US’s chemical decimator of the jungle in Vietnam, was once used to clear bits of her land.
“For years, I carried a can of Agent Orange in my luggage, ready to spray it at the first opportunity on the White House rhododendrons.” Now, she has regenerated a patch which it once infected. I admire her. Once, she warned us, “wherever you see nail varnish, lipstick, brassieres and high heels, the Female Eunuch has set up her camp. You find her triumphant even under her veil”. We now learn how to defeat her, in shorts among the rainforest, keeping Lantana canes from overrunning seedlings of endangered white beech.