In need of pruning: Germaine Greer’s tale of rainforest rebirth
‘The Female Eunuch’ author’s ecological efforts are brave. But her details are vague or overkill
Cave Creek: Germaine Greer in the rainforest she is helping return to its natural state. Photograph: Newspix/Rex
White Beech The Rainforest Years
Germaine Greer made her name as a strident, sometimes cruel and often wickedly accurate polemicist with her classic feminist manifesto, The Female Eunuch , from 1970. She has largely maintained that tone throughout her career, and has attracted equally cruel counterblasts. Her fellow Australian Louis Nowra concluded a harsh but well-argued 2010 assessment in the Monthly by writing: “Greer’s violent and impulsive tendencies . . . and her abrasive comments have become like the irrelevant noise of a shock jock few people listen to anymore.”
But Greer has always been able to surprise us. Had Nowra read her latest book, I think he would have had to come to a kinder conclusion. White Beech: The Rainforest Years is an occasionally brilliant, if infuriatingly patchy, account of the rebirth of some terribly degraded land through ecological restoration. This new and counterintuitive conservation strategy uses intensive and often radical human management – poisoning alien invasive plants, for example – to bring back “natural” qualities to ecosystems impoverished by previous human interventions.
is also a moving and mostly convincing story of an old woman – her words – in search of heart’s ease. It would be too much to claim that Greer’s tendency to sneer at lesser mortals has entirely evaporated in the healing airs of the forest. But it has diminished, and when it does arise she often bats it away with wry self-awareness.
Nature reserve as home
Greer wasn’t looking for a rainforest, and she knew very little about ecological restoration, when the story begins, some 15 years ago. She was approaching 60, and searching for a final home for her ageing self and her substantial archive. She had a vague idea of managing it as a “nature reserve”.
She imagined it would be somewhere in the desert areas she has always loved. Her initial road-trip quest in these underappreciated ecosystems inspires some lyrical writing here. It also elicits a series of sparky discussions exploring the environmental catastrophe that has overwhelmed so much of Australia’s unique biodiversity, and debating whether it can be even partially reversed.
As white settlers spread across the continent over the past two centuries, they encountered geologically ancient landscapes long isolated from the rest of the world. Its ecosystems had produced many species they found utterly bizarre, most obviously the marsupials. But these landscapes were not “pristine”, as the colonists liked to imagine. They had been managed, often through judicious use of fire, by aboriginal peoples for many millenniums.
Fatally ignorant of the true nature of nature on the “new” continent, the settlers raced headlong to remake the land in the image of Europe. They “cleared” territory – of Aboriginals, animals and plants – to make way for vast sheep ranches and exotic tree plantations, on unfamiliar and often totally unsuitable soils. They logged the “valuable” hardwoods out of the forests, often to the last tree, with no concern for the survival of the systems that had sustained such bounteous abundance.
And when the great farming and forest schemes failed, the native species could rarely regenerate. Sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not, the settlers had introduced a host of alien invasive species, from rabbits to lantana, which devastated land, occupied ruined land, or both.
The grim details of this human and ecological holocaust are teased out in conversations between Greer, her botanist sister, Jane, and the landowners they meet. Both women are passionate advocates of the conservation of native species and the eradication of harmful aliens, but their consensual bubble is often burst.