November 2013

Arts & Letters

Germaine Greer’s ‘White Beech’

By Amanda Lohrey
The hero of this story is a tree or rather a species of tree

A sense of a country violated is at the heart of the Australian environment movement. The decision in 1972 to flood the unique bioregion of Tasmania’s Lake Pedder in the interests of hydro power was widely condemned as a “desecration” and led to the formation of the Wilderness Society. In later campaigns, the former Greens leader, Bob Brown, famously declared the south-west wilderness of Tasmania his “cathedral”, a sentiment at the heart of the newly emergent Green ethos. In its defence of the bush as a sacred site, it was a long way from the unease of the early settlers who found the antipodean landscape alien and disorienting. Many of them saw monotony where there was almost infinite variety (there are more species of flora in the state of Victoria alone than in the whole of Europe). Australia was a gritty colonial outpost waiting to be exploited – that, or an intractable world in need of civilising pastures so that it might be made fit for the white man. The title of William J Lines’s magnum opus says it all: Taming the Great South Land: A history of the conquest of nature in Australia (1991). Although cultural historian Tim Bonyhady has argued that there were more colonial conservationists than is commonly recognised, the consensus among historians of ecology, a category that barely existed 40 years ago, is at the Lines end of the spectrum.

The 1960s saw a new model of the pastoral when denizens of the counter-culture opted for small bush properties: a rustic dwelling, a vegetable garden, a dope patch tucked away in the hills and a dog called Gandalf. During the sea- and tree-change phenomenon that began in the 1980s, a more middle-aged and middle-class demographic sought retreat and renewal in the bush, albeit via their expensive four-wheel drives. Over time, some of these ex-urbanites chose to put covenants on their properties and establish them as wildlife reserves, all part of what the English poet and critic, Terry Gifford, calls our post-pastoral moment, in which a burgeoning ecological consciousness and a new sense of responsibility for the land has enlarged any simple desire to escape the city and enjoy the “scenery”. Now we must atone for the depredations of our forebears.

In December 2001, Germaine Greer bought a property at Cave Creek in south-eastern Queensland, “60 hectares of steep rocky country, most of it impenetrable scrub”, and set out to restore its original rainforest. Because she felt that no one could ever really own such a place, she named the property Cave Creek Rainforest Rehabilitation Scheme (CCRRS), which, as she writes, described the project rather than the place itself. “I wasn’t doing it out of altruism; I didn’t think I was saving the world. I was in search of heart’s ease and this was my chance to find it.”

White Beech (Bloomsbury; $39.99) is Greer’s account of her half-million-dollar investment in planting trees on an abandoned dairy farm that had earlier been used as a banana plantation and for logging timber. “The hero of this story,” she writes, “is a tree or rather a species of tree”, the white beech, or Gmelina leichhardtii. By the beginning of the 20th century, most of the white beeches in Queensland had been logged. The rugged terrain of Cave Creek meant that it was one of the very few places where they survived, though at the time of Greer’s purchase there were fewer than a dozen mature specimens on the property. For Greer, the beech became the totem of her rehabilitation project, and of Cave Creek as a “Gondwanan refugium”.

Greer’s early intention was to find a property where she could house her archive. Accompanied by her younger sister, Jane, a botanist, she spent two years searching in desert country and eventually made a cash offer on a lucerne farm 90 kilometres south of Alice Springs before abandoning the idea on the advice of the ever-practical Jane. Some time later, she gave a fundraising talk for a women’s health centre in Logan City, between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, and was led by chance to Cave Creek, where she made an impulsive purchase. It was a long way from dry country (good for archives) and Jane was sceptical. “Rainforests are the most intricate systems on earth,” she warned. “You might think you’re restoring what was there, but in fact you’re just another interloper doing more harm than good.” “Typically,” writes Greer, “I hadn’t consulted her.”

Once the documents were transferred, Greer went in search of the traditional owners. After getting the brush-off from the local Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Tweed Heads, she undertook her own research to discover that CCRRS was in an area regarded by the local indigenous peoples as “a place of demons”, a kind of “no-man’s-land”. It meant that Greer was beholden to no one. Next, she employed a local amateur botanist as a consultant along with a number of local “lads” to work on the property after she returned to her home in Cambridge. The botanist was meant to direct the project, but Greer deemed progress too slow and took over, only to discover that the work was harder than she had anticipated. After several more years of hard yakka and serious money, and of being “the forest’s fool”, she has now handed the project over to the Friends of Gondwana Rainforest, a UK registered charity, and, she writes, “we are well on the way to transferring the property to an Australian not-for-profit company”. Greer remains a co-director.

Greer’s restoration project is admirable, but White Beech is disjointed and less than the sum of its parts. The book begins with an engaging quest narrative, as Greer searches for a suitable property, but the later chapters on botany, zoology and local history are somewhat dry. Like a true autodidact, Greer is bent on showing us how much she knows, and the outcome is long passages that are excessively detailed and read like a textbook. For those with a special interest in the region, this documentation may prove to be a treasure-trove, but for others it will be heavy going, especially since Greer is not one for the vivid or unsettling anecdote (in the section on snakes, for example, she refers in passing to several “near misses” but doesn’t feel moved to dramatise the moment). Similarly, her account of the early pioneers and their timber and dairy industries is a dutiful chronicle that too often reads like tidied-up research notes that have not yet been shaped into a compelling narrative.

There must at times have been some human drama arising out of her rehabilitation of Cave Creek, but Greer is not inclined to tell us about it. White Beech is a long book but the only felt presence is Greer herself. She comes and goes between the UK and Cave Creek while “the helpers” get on with it, but who are they? A name is occasionally dropped – Will, Simon, Garry – but Greer tells us nothing about them: how they got to be there, their backgrounds, their experiences and their idiosyncrasies. I would like at least to have caught the tenor of their voices. When, for example, she tells us that they sometimes find her approach “a bit girly”, our interest is piqued, but they remain otherwise unheard. More visible are sister Jane and Greer’s friend Ann. Occasionally they come to stay at CCRRS, and Greer attempts to animate her botany lessons with dialogues in which she and the women discuss the local flora, but the device is clunky. Like “the workforce”, Jane and Ann are stage props who never come to life.

The work of bush restoration in Australia is ongoing in many forms, public and private. It has gathered momentum since the ’60s, when the Bradley sisters, Eileen and Joan, began their work in, of all places, Mosman in suburban Sydney. A number of local councils have adopted a “bush-it” ethic, and organisations such as Landcare continue to thrive, sometimes with corporate sponsorship, although Greer regards these, with some justification, as mere tinkering. She is also dismissive of eco-tourism and the compromises demanded within state projects such as national parks, and makes a strong case that private landholders have a better chance of maintaining conservation values than public entities that are required to function as public amenities. Meanwhile, in the gap between the wholly private and the wholly public, some remarkable restoration projects are underway, including Keith Bradby’s ambitious Gondwana Link that aims to establish a bush corridor across south-western Australia. In north-eastern Tasmania, longtime activist Todd Dudley and his North East Bioregional Network  began by persuading a private forestry company to allow 360 hectares of pine plantation to be restored to native ironbark forest. Dudley works in an area of high unemployment, and a part of his workforce is made up of men and women formerly opposed to the conservation movement who are now happy just to have a job, especially one outdoors. It’s a strain of environmental thinking that seeks to integrate bush regeneration within the depressed economies of regional communities, and to make some headway in uniting former foes in a common goal that might ultimately reshape the way in which white Australians care for country.

Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey is the author of The Reading Group, Camille’s BreadA Short History of Richard Kline, and the Quarterly Essays Groundswell and Voting for Jesus.

Subtropical beech forest, northern NSW © Paul Curtis

November 2013

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