Germaine Greer's mad, passionate quest to heal Australia

The author bought bushland, replanted trees and befriended birds, as she recounts in White Beech. Then she tried to find its former Aboriginal owners...

8 February 2014

9:00 AM

8 February 2014

9:00 AM

White Beech Germaine Greer

Bloomsbury, pp.370, £25, ISBN: 9781408846711

Like an old woman in a fairy story, Germaine Greer, now in her late seventies, has taken to lurking in a forest. Always inclined to reinterpret the world through her own changing needs and perceptions, and to instruct the rest of us accordingly, she has now written a book of passionate didactic energy about her quest for regeneration, personal, national and global. She explores in exquisite, sometimes  overwhelming detail the story of how in 2001 she bought a patch of subtropical rainforest in southern New South Wales, what she found there and what it has taught her and could teach the rest of us if we would only pay attention.

In its slightly mad way, this is a rather marvellous book. But then the whole venture was more than a little mad. Greer recounts how some 15 years ago she decided to sink her savings in a piece of land in her native Australia, despite having previously declared that she would never call it home until aboriginal sovereignty was recognised. She got round this by declaring that she was not buying a home but a project; she had decided to do what she could to put right the damage the European invaders had done to the land and its people. Money was no object. ‘I didn’t need anything nearly as much as I needed to heal some part of the fabulous country where I was born.’

So she sets off, accompanied and advised by her splendid, sensible sister, Jane, a qualified professional botanist famous, we learn, for her wallaby grass lawn on the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne, to find the right place. She had originally envisaged buying a patch of desert, and almost did,  before an encounter with a dancing bird (a regent bowerbird, with black, yellow and red plumage,‘a sort of crow in fancy dress’) in a clearing in the forest at Cave Creek in the Numinbah Valley settled the matter.

Greer’s account of the forest’s flora and fauna is both meticulous, as befits an academic, and deeply emotional. She loves the poetry of the species names, both in Latin and English: her text is full of them, of cinnamon fungus and white-browed scrub wren, of the bladder cicada and spiny rainforest katydid, of torrents of blossom and heart-shaped leaves of apple green silk velvet.

Having acquired the land and rebuilt a wrecked house, she hires helpers and they get to work, clearing, replanting and replacing alien species with the original native trees and plants, including the great white beech of her title. Greer comes and goes,  but undertakes plenty of backbreaking work herself, tramping through the undergrowth, battling brambles and stinger vines, marking plants for later annihilation by herbicide.

But this book is not only the story of her own adventures. She takes the opportunity to tell the story of how the Europeans first explored and exploited the Australian bush, how they discovered and named innumerable new plants and creatures, how they introduced new varieties with often disastrous results — the rabbit and the blackberry bush being striking examples — and how long it has taken them to begin to appreciate the richness and subtlety of the continent they appropriated and the aboriginal culture they subjugated. It is not a new story, but Greer tells it with a special passion and indignation.

Always conscious that she too is an interloper, she tried very hard to find the traditional owners of her land, but met a wall of silence and evasion. Eventually she concluded that a dramatic waterfall and arch of rock hiding a deep cave was very likely a sacred site, perhaps connected with ‘serious women’s business’, puberty and fertility, about which no one would speak.

After ten years, she turned the Cave Creek Rainforest Rehabilitation Scheme into a charity (now called Friends of Gondwana Rainforest) so that she no longer owns the land; but the work of rehabilitation continues. She hopes, somewhat vainly one suspects, that her example may be followed by others, and that even suburban gardeners may dig up their rose beds and lawns and carports and encourage the native bush to flourish.

Meanwhile, it sounds as if she knows that she herself has been the main beneficiary of her splendid, quixotic venture. ‘My horizons flew away, my notion of time expanded and deepened, and my self disappeared.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • Eddie

    Well I hope Greer can add up better than you can, or she’ll have got her sums terrible wrong.
    ‘Now in her late seventies…’ you say.
    Bah! She celebrated her 75th birthday last month.
    She is also stinking rich and sold her archive for millions to some university or other. Thus, she resembles one of those dowager duchesses – aristocrats with time and money on their hands – who didn’t have to work to put their energies into creating charities and sitting on committees. It’s all vanity and egomania really – the great desire for a legacy (and a bit silly really too, as she herself clearly benefited from a British-style Australia).
    I have always thought Greer to be more interested in Greer than anything else – after all, as a childless well-off woman without a husband/partner, how can she tell other women how to live their lives? Most women have kids, male partners, and most are not rich!

    • Pip

      Spot on, she has always come across as full of hate and self serving, she is in my mind the worst advert for Feminism.

      • Eddie

        When I consider people like Greer I am minded to remember what a friend told me many years ago – namely, that 80% of the word WOMAN consists of the word MOAN.

        And maybe 80% of that endless moaning comes from atypical and privileged women like Greer (who are unelected and unrepresentative of women as a whole, despite their noisy voices drowning out those of most women).

        • Jeffrey Vernon

          Greer is not at all a cartoon feminist. She’s got no patience with witchy womyn, and is no kind of separatist. She gets invited onto panels because she has pointed things to say, not because she’s any kind of ‘representative.’ She is close to her own brother, and wrote an intriguing book about her father.

        • Jeffrey Vernon

          When you consider people like Greer, I recall that 100% of the word MALE consists of the word LAME.

          • Eddie

            I think you’re on the blob, mate…
            Calm down, dear!
            Maybe read the valid points I make and address them, instead of resorting to insults.

          • Jeffrey Vernon

            Happy to hear your valid points. Your post implied that Greer is a moaning privileged woman, a mad man-hater. Even if all that was true, why is this relevant to her restoration project? Greer is actually despised by rad fems because she sleeps with men, criticises her ‘sisters’, is not obsessed with rape, and wrote a book about her father.

        • Sane and reasonable. Just don’t expect them to trade fairly or pay their own way. Every object knows her true worth must be concealed as she wants patiently for what she deserves.

          For waiting?

          “Good things come to those who wait.”
          – the Cargo Cult logic of entitled women

          Domestic violence, dependency, slavery.

      • Jeffrey Vernon

        Worse than lesbian separatist mythmongers and over-heated rape campaigners? Greer is smart, blunt and pungent, and has little sympathy for feminist pieties.

    • Jeffrey Vernon

      The last line of her first book, ‘The female eunuch’, asks: ‘What will YOU do?’ She’s not telling anyone how to live their lives, and she’s clever enough to know that this would be a waste of breath. Why would women trade in one form of hectoring for another? As feminists go, she’s quite trad – catholic, believes in marriage, not especially gay-friendly.

    • …as a childless well-off woman without a husband/partner, how can she tell other women how to live their lives?

      How can Daniel-Day Lewis tell aspiring actors how to act? Only dependent women can tell dependent women how to be independent?

  • grutchyngfysch

    With the disclaimer that I have not read Greer’s most recent book, and that I am sure that *as a book* it deserves the praise given here, I remain more than slightly bemused as to the nature of the project.

    Is Greer making a point about communal ownership? Or about ecological “wilding”? If the former, would she have been as happy with the creation of a community hospital on the land? If the latter, would she ultimately tell aboriginal land-users to go hop if they weren’t able to sustain her jungle with the same care for biodiversity?

    The whole thing strikes me as a classic fudge whereby the “native inhabitants” of a land are associated with a kind of virtuous primitivism (cf. all that speculation about “serious women’s business”) that, paradoxically, requires the crusading western defender to survive.

    Will Greer turn her eye to advancing IT training (say) amongst the aboriginal community? Not if she thinks she can keep them in traditional dress in her little zoo.

  • scampy1

    You ever thought of investigating incest in the Aboriginal community Ms Greer

    • Jeffrey Vernon

      Ah, THAT’s why we drove them off their land. I knew there must be a good reason.

      • mohdanga

        As has happened all through human history, even amongst the Aborigines. Why is it only whitey who is pilloried and must self flaggelate continually? The tribes of Africa did this for thousands of years and continue to do so, as did the Indians, Arabs, Chinese, etc. Never a peep about ‘invasions’ when the left discuss the history of non-white societies.
        Greer and her white guilt liberal friends don’t mind enjoying the fruits of Western society….I can just imagine her swanning around the outback eating grubs and wallabies.
        If Australia hadn’t been settled by the dreaded English some other country would have done so. And now the same white guilt liberals approve of massive non-white third world immigration to the West….funny that.

        • Jeffrey Vernon

          If I was driven off my land by a neighbouring clan, I’d resent it but I could probably have seen it coming.It would fit with the local rules, and my clan could probably have a go at someone else. When people you’ve never heard of come from overseas and then tell you it was for your own good….I think there’s a difference. Especially if the official pretext is incest.

          • Mike Anderson

            Ah, incest is a bad pretext, but its alright if your a neighbouring clan who knew about the local ‘rools’. Talk about straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.

          • Jeffrey Vernon

            I mean that incest is *merely* a pretext; look, we’ve dispossessed the filthy creatures out of a sense of morality. I don’t know about Australia, but there are Brazilian rainforest tribes constantly at war – the male life expectancy is about 30. If I come along and occupy the forest, mining for silver, it might be beneficial all round – no more internecine war! Jobs and development! But was that my real intention when I took the land? Perhaps I was really preoccupied by cheap labour and resources. If there are to be jobs and development, maybe the locals should have a say in whether they want them, and how they’re developed. This isn’t ‘being nice to the natives’ – it’s making sure that the locals can actually run the facilities that are springing up around them.

  • Perseus Slade

    Actually, I feel sorry for her.
    She had some very bad luck very early on.

  • stephengreen

    So she’s replanting native flora but why is she rebuilding a house? Surely, this is an oppressive western form, that privileges itself as the preferred model and is an imperial imposition on the Australian landscape? Why not go with a native form, aboriginal peoples preferred caves and temporary wooden huts and why in fact is she wearing clothes, where does her food come from, does she sleep in a bed and take water from a tap or energy from an external source, does she take any Western medicines to alleviate her advancing age and likely senility?

    • Jeffrey Vernon

      Why not go with a native form? Because she’s a modern Australian who knows that aborigines live in tower blocks and drive trucks. She doesn’t have these noble savage ideas you’re trying to foist onto her.

      • mohdanga

        So, Aborigines can use white man’s technology when it suits them but in the next breath we’re supposed to feel guilty for subsuming a culture that only trots out it’s ancient culture when it comes time for white guilt apologies and more money.
        If a garden should be dug up to encourage the native flora to flourish surely all houses should be torn down, no?
        If native flora, fauna and landscape is to be protected then we should stop sending money to the third world countries so they can build wells and schools and irrigate the land. Then the current inhabitants can wander the country, scrabbling out a living and being even more miserable than they are today. At least we won’t be guilty of being ‘invaders’.

        • Jeffrey Vernon

          Who said we’re supposed to feel guilty? I didn’t , and nor did Germaine Greer. I think everyone reading the article has made up their minds in advance that she’s a muddle-headed PC ‘noble savage’ econ-warrier.

          She pulled up nettles and brambles, and left the ground to self-seed. My guess is that she didn’t like the brambles, and thought that white beech is a pretty tree. This explains why she didn’t build huts; she’s not trying to go native or turn back time.

          You are over-interpreting her gardening project as an implicit criticism of you and your lifestyle. Try not to take everything so personally.

          • mohdanga

            “My guess is that she didn’t like the brambles, and thought that white beech is a pretty tree. This explains why she didn’t build huts; she’s not trying to go native or turn back time.”
            Please see Stephen Green’s comment. As well, Greer has made a career of bashing whites for the ‘invasion’ and her love for all things Aborginal so this as well as the reviewers comments about Greer wanting the land to return to its original state under the Aboriginals suggests her project was more than just not liking brambles.

          • Jeffrey Vernon

            Greer laments the destruction of the landscape by the settlers. She also finds aspects of native australian culture intriguing. That’s not equivalent to ‘hating whites’ (if that’s what you’re suggesting), and she knows there’s no way back. She’s a white australian herself, and no-one now alive was responsible for what happened. She’s got a few acres in NSW – it’s not a project to clear white men out of the Pacific or anything mad and grandiose like that. The most sympathetic readers of the book might be botanists and zoologists – it is possible to take an interest in the rare australian plants, insects and mammals that have colonised her bit of forest without yearning for a mythical golden age.

      • stephengreen

        Jeffrey, I guess that I would need to read the book to comprehend her position fully, but the fact she has returned to her native Australia against her original stated intention on a missionary cause, the purchasing of property in a rainforest that she wishes to live in sync with native nature, the attempt to find the original aboriginal inhabitants of the area to give the land back to, all suggests that she wishes for an earlier harmony that she feels has been lost. How else to harmonise aboriginals and herself with nature locally if she wishes to maintain the trappings of modernity?

        • Jeffrey Vernon

          Me too – I haven’t read it either, but most readers of this page have gone for the antifeminist jugular; she must be a dumb deluded PC man-hating tree-hugger. I suspect it started off as a subtropical gardening project; look, here’s some land and it’s got lianas on it. She can’t live there herself (she still has a house in Essex and a connection to Cambridge Uni) and wanted to give it to someone to look after. There’s no suggestion in the article that she’s on a back-to-nature kick or opposed to civilisation – she’s spent her whole life writing about Shakespeare and Sappho and women’s work and architecture and the media. She knows that bush medicine might be fine and well for bushmen if they want it, but it’s not for her. She didn’t get to Australia in a dug-out, after all.

          • stephengreen

            Well, maybe it’s a subjective battle of interpretation, but when I read that she wants her project to “put right the damage the European invaders had done to the land and its people.” and that she had initially intended to do this by buying a desert, but then “clearing, replanting and replacing alien species with the original native trees and plants, including the great white beech” and also “always conscious that she too is an interloper, she tried very hard to find the traditional owners of her land” then my interpretation is that he wishes to revert the land to an earlier time and find some harmony with its original native inhabitants.

          • Jeffrey Vernon

            She restored a tiny bit of rainforest; the settlers did undoubtedly damage it, but Greer knows fine well that her ancestors were not conservationists and had different priorities. If the forest is re-populated by native plants and animals this is not turning back time, any more than setting up a tiger reserve or planting Kew Gardens. It’s more of a restoration/conservation effort. Since she can’t live there herself, she wanted to find an occupant – who better than the past inhabitants, if they could be traced? She soon discovered the limitations of this idea.