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White Beech: The Rainforest Years by Germaine Greer; Book review


Mohammed Ali  used to boast that when boxing,  he would float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. So it is with Germiane Greer. She writes lightly, gracefully even when agitating for a cause. But the words still sting. And unsettle. Here she consciously creates a quasi-religious epic out of a part of her remarkable life when she decided to restore a small, wrecked rainforest in Australia, her homeland. The tone is apocalyptic, themes existential and critical: (wo)man not against, but ardently for wondrous, pitiless and predatory nature. She, the Lionheart, is awed, meets devastation, fears cataclysms, intuits prophecies, bears historical and biological guilt,  seeks redemption and takes stupendous, fervent  action. It really is some story.

Greer longed someday to own a small part of arid desert land so she could set it free, turn feral again. That never happened. Then, in 2001, the middle-aged feminist went through an epiphany. As you do. It wasn’t a toy boy or sudden urge to take off to the Andes. Her life was ‘was taken over by a forest’, sixty hectares of rock, trees and scrub. While walking around it, she heard weird sounds, saw gigantic trees- among them the logged and endangered  White Beech. A Regent Bowerbird, deep blue and brilliant yellow, danced before her- a dance of seduction. She wrote out a very large cheque – £268,000- and bought the place. It was an act not of towering vanity ( Greer can be toweringly vain) but seemingly of penitence and an expression of her intense eco-sensibility: ‘Give me a chance to clean something up, sort something out, make it right’. The prayer is authentic, sentiments pure.    

Land tended and revered by indigenous Aborigines has been ravaged by ‘whitefellas’ to Greer ‘the most dangerous animals’ on the island continent. Europeans destroyed local flora and fauna all around the colonised world, with holy blessings. In the Bible, God makes humans predominant, the highest beings.  Religious supremacy, capitalism and expansionism led inevitably to ecological imperialism. The long tentacles of  the civilizing mission extended to man, beast and greenery.

 Australian settlers burnt native trees and plants  ‘[and] were happy to spend proper money on...species of exotic trees round their houses. Anyone who didn’t plant a Coral tree and a Jacaranda in the front garden was deemed insensible to beauty’. Animals like koalas were slaughtered, cattle brought in. The same deadly mindset and eradication compulsion engendered the systematic massacres of Aborigines. Their stories and complex world views are handled with veneration by Greer throughout the book.

In contrast, fellow Antipodean do- gooders get little respect. Since the 70s, environmental consciousness has grown and led to some effective restorative schemes. Greer is ( unfairly) dismissive of all that and green tourism too. As she has sometimes been of younger feminists. This meanness of spirit diminishes the great intellectual. Furthermore, to damn all imported species is reactionary and too close to the objectionable discourse about national cultural purity  resurgent in the globalised world. I get the importance of preserving rainforests but humans have always migrated, taken with them ideas, goods, seeds, tools and customs.

I wish the book had been better edited so readers were spared excessive textbook botany and haranguing. The author tries so, so hard to let her ego deflate, but just can’t. It often distorts the eyeline, blots the landscape.  Most of those who she enlists on this project remain shadowy figures. But not her sister Jane, an assiduous, attentive botanist. 

Greer looks up to Jane, not something one would expect. Their propinquity, the animated  and honest conversations between them humanize and liven the project, rescue it from deadly worthiness. Jane is the expert, the voice of reason, the helpful sceptic, the realist; Germaine is impetuous, the dreamer of impossible dreams. Together they make an unassailable duo.

The rehabilitation of Cave Creek is incredibly arduous. It is a hard place to love, with pythons, ‘sliding as slowly as a glacier’, toads, lizards and vegetation that fights back. Greer eventually passed control of it on to a charity. At that point, her ego did recede and she became a ‘servant of the forest’, its supplicant. She sounds as if she has finally made peace with history, found spiritual solace.

Though you may have to skip pages, do read this searching and rousing book. It made me think more deeply about our planet and what we humans call civilization. Greer, now 75,  is a force of nature and among its most erudite defenders.