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

Cave Creek: Germaine Greer in the rainforest she is helping return to its natural state. Photograph: Newspix/Rex

Sat, Feb 15, 2014, 01:00

   
 

Book Title:
White Beech The Rainforest Years

ISBN-13:
9781408846711

Author:
Germaine Greer

Publisher:
Bloomsbury

Guideline Price:
Sterling25.00

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.

But White Beech 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.

In a painfully honest moment the author portrays herself losing an argument with a farmer. He holds that the spread of invasive exotics is simply nature taking its course, with the strongest species winning out. She flounders in her response. This is a rather different Greer from the one we have learned to love or hate.

When a chance encounter leads her to impulsively purchase Cave Creek Rainforest, her theories are tested in a hard school of practice. Most of its great trees have been lost to logging; much land has been cleared for grazing. The gaps have been filled with fast-growing alien plants, whose shade and density prevent the natives from making a comeback. Even her sister initially doubts whether it can ever recover.


Forest ecstasy
“If I have written this book properly,” she declares early on, “it will convey the deep joy that rebuilding wild nature can bring.” To her great credit she does convey this joy, many times over, especially in the delightful, almost ecstatic, concluding chapters on the return of the forest’s extraordinary fauna.

Fans of the earlier Greer will be fascinated by her tender, sometimes hilarious accounts of their sexual behaviour, and note with amusement the consideration she displays towards the males.

Rather more seriously, she also stresses the heartbreaking frustrations, and the disturbing knowledge gaps, both bitterly familiar to all restorationists.

Whether she has written this book “properly”, however, is another question. One waits, and waits in vain, to learn exactly how the restoration was planned, what targets were set according to what ecological yardsticks, and what lessons were and are being learned from successes and failures in meeting those targets.

Some of this information can indeed be gleaned from the text, but only haphazardly. There is no narrative timeline for the project, and many links are missing. The contributions of scientific collaborators and a long-suffering “workforce” are repeatedly acknowledged but remain frustratingly vague.

This is hardly because Greer wants to spare her readers the tedium of technical material. On the contrary, entire chapters fairly scream for an editor, as they collapse repeatedly under avalanches of poorly organised botanical and sociohistorical data. She repeatedly indulges an obsession with dry taxonomical trivia that often has only the faintest relevance to her subject.

If she had given half as much attention to describing her project in terms of the ecological science that underpins good restoration, in which Australia has been such a great pioneer, this would have been a better book. Her failure here fits disturbingly with her occasional coy acknowledgments of personal caprices in its biological management. It also fits with her shrill insistence on the inherently superior quality of privately owned restoration enterprises, and her ill-considered dismissals of projects led by public agencies, nongovernmental organisations, volunteers and universities.

Greer may claim to be but the servant of her forest, and she has rightly handed its finances over to a charity to protect it in perpetuity. But it’s hard to believe that she will not continue to boss it around a bit as long as she lives.

If she has really restored the canopy of a lost rainforest, however, and created a sanctuary for as many creatures as she claims, it remains a most remarkable, and surprising, legacy.

Paddy Woodworth’s most recent book is Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century (University of Chicago Press).