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White Beech: The Rainforest Years, by Germaine Greer, Bloomsbury, RRP£25, 384 pages
Germaine Greer is one of the most outspoken of that generation of prominent Australian cultural figures, including Clive James, Barry Humphries and Robert Hughes, who left for Europe in the 1960s. Her relationship with her country has often seemed particularly fraught, peppered with antagonistic statements that have not always been well received back home. In White Beech, a powerful account of Greer’s attempt to reverse the calamitous environmental impact of Australian history on one patch of land, it soon becomes clear that roots and rootedness will play a central part in the human story as well as the botanical one.
We begin in December 2001, when, at the age of 62, Greer bought 150 acres of abandoned dairy farm in southeast Queensland that had been left teetering on the edge of ecological collapse. She was compelled to do this, she says, because she felt heartsick at the wider devastation wrought on the Australian landscape by intensive clearing, logging, and the use of European farming methods and crops, which has caused the groundwater to rise and bring to the surface salts locked in the soil for thousands of years. Greer describes with sadness the “eroded slopes, weeds from all over the world, feral animals, open-cut mines as big as cities, salt rivers, salt earth, abandoned townships, whole beaches made of beer cans”.
After looking at a number of possible sites in different parts of Australia, Greer made her choice and began to weed out non-native trees and plants, reintroduce indigenous species, and to see if it was possible to undo some of the damage. She weaves her story of restoration together with a variety of digressions on the species she encounters, the history of the land and the people that previously lived there.
It’s quite an endeavour, and, if at first the reader might be forgiven for wondering whether they need a machete to hack their way through the thickets of botanical terminology and Latin names, Greer’s passion and storytelling gifts keep us pressing onwards. A chapter entitled “Bloody Botanists”, which gives us an (un) potted history of botany, will probably be particularly hard going for anyone unfamiliar with this sort of thing but it is symptomatic of Greer’s desire to do things properly, to not be the whimsical humanities graduate wittering on about the majesty of nature untrammelled but actually to learn, understand and put this knowledge to practical use. Even so, her sister Jane, a botanist, remains rather wonderfully exasperated by her (relative) lack of knowledge.
While Greer is unwavering in her descriptions of the damage done by logging during the 19th century, she is not interested in demonising those who lived on the land before her. There is room for empathy as she describes finding a broken cable as thick as her wrist, once used to drag fallen trees, and imagines what damage might have been done to flesh and bone as it lashed about among the workers.
There were, of course, already people managing the forests when the first white settlers arrived. Some of the most interesting parts of the book relate to the lengths Greer goes to find the traditional owners of her land. It’s impossible here to miss the parallels with the forest as we glimpse the cultural and linguistic ecosystems teeming with variety that have been wiped out, their interconnections lost to us forever. Greer is forced to the unsatisfactory conclusion that no tribes claim the land, and ultimately decides that “I don’t own the forest; the forest owns me.” This is not empty rhetoric; after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on the project, she has now handed ownership to a charity, which will continue the good work.
If there are some elements of the book that feel a little sketched in – the team of people that help her on the land remain undifferentiated, merely names – Greer remains a winning, funny, indomitable figure throughout, and it is fascinating to follow her as she works through so much of her messy, complicated relationship with Australia. Like a rainforest canopy, White Beech is thick, tangled and occasionally impenetrable but full of life.
Evie Wyld is author of ‘All the Birds, Singing’ (Jonathan Cape)