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Book review: 'White Beech' by Germaine Greer


Germaine Greer planting some trees, is there a whole book in that? The answer is a resounding “yes” after reading this heartfelt, sharp and meticulously researched account of the author’s decade-long efforts to rebuild a small corner of rainforest in her home country of Australia.

In 2001, the academic, journalist and all-round firebrand bought 60 hectares of derelict dairy farm in the Numinbah Valley in Queensland. Prior to being a dairy the Cave Creek site had been used for harvesting bananas and timber production among other things, but one patch remained close to traditional rainforest, and Greer spent the next 10 years coaxing out that promise into an extraordinary ecosystem, a template for ecological biodiversity that is now a benchmark for others.

White Beech is an impossible book to categorise. There are elements of travelogue in here, as well as some smatterings of memoir. The nature writing in particular is highly effective and evocative. There is also a lot of academic writing on ecology, taxonomy, ethnology and botany, as well as a comprehensive account of the historical destruction of the Australian landscape at the hands of white discoverers and developers. The result is a deep book, one that tackles big themes of land ownership, sustainability and how humans should interact with their environment in the future.

Although she claims otherwise Greer is an accomplished botanist, having taught herself huge amounts about rainforest flora, fuelled by her obvious love for the subject. That infatuation can make her seem a little over-zealous at times, and there are long conversations between Greer and her sister, a professional botanist, about the exact definitions and provenance of countless plants and trees that perhaps stretch the reader’s patience. Also, these dialogues are delivered as recorded speech, and their highly technical content makes that construction feel rather stilted.

But that’s a minor quibble in what is other-wise a beautifully written book. Greer’s style is methodical and unsensational, a fact that most comes to the fore in her historical passages, where she painstakingly traces the evolution and subsequent destruction of her corner of the world, laying it bare for the reader to empathise with.

But the best writing here is saved for the final two chapters, in which she describes the remarkable grubs, insects, lizards, snakes, birds, mammals and marsupials that have come to live in The Cave Creek Rainforest Rehabilitation Scheme, as she’s called it. Simple, effective descriptions of everything from pythons to pademelons, filled with telling detail, and no little amount of love and respect.

It was never Greer’s intention to lay claim to Cave Creek, so despite sinking half a million dollars and 10 years of her life into it, she has selflessly turned the whole thing over to a charitable trust to take forward. As she says late on here: “If I have not learnt in my 74 years that to love and care for something you don’t need to own it, then I have learnt nothing.”