Germaine Greer’s new book, White Beech, is essential reading for everyone who cares about the future of the planet – and a revelation to anyone who, like me, has ever fallen in love with the area of the Mount Warning caldera and the Numinbah Valley.
In Byron Bay on October 24 we joined a packed audience who listened enthralled as she spoke about her rainforest rehabilitation project at Cave Creek, near Natural Bridge on the border between Queensland and New South Wales. She began with an impassioned plea for a treaty with Aboriginal Australians and a mighty serve to the main political parties, as a prelude to talking about the 12-year endeavour that has absorbed all her hard-won resources and the greater part of her time.
Since then I’ve been reading the book, and it’s fascinating. A second memoir, it’s a sequel to her 1989 publication Daddy We Hardly Knew You. In it she tells how she set out to locate an Australian desert home for her extensive archive and found herself instead locked in a struggle to rebuild the native rainforest.
A mad endeavour, said some. But knowing the magnitude of the task, Germaine Greer brought that formidable intellect of hers to bear with extraordinary results. With the help of her botanist sister Jane she learned everything science could teach about local species. She researched the history of the area, and the results are all set out here – its contested Aboriginal history, the records of the early timber-getters, the dairy farmers and banana growers. She found out how and why it has been denuded of its original vegetation. Then, with her team of handpicked professional workers, she set about propagating and planting what belongs there, spending all the time there she could away from the academic and media commitments that help to fund the operation.
A future for the planet
There are magical moments in the story – the dance of the Regent bowerbird that told her to buy the property; the moment, after months of frustration, when she succeeded in propagating the rare white beech that gives the book its name; the exultation of freeing an endangered tree from a mountain of lantana. The thread running through the book is the joy of exploring biodiversity, of finding that you can work alongside a myriad creatures who are our fellow Earthlings – her term – to give some hope of a future for the planet.
She doesn’t have all the answers. How, after all, can we protect our remaining rainforest pockets from bushfires when they’re surrounded by sclerophyll, where the eucalypts – torches waiting to be lit – grow faster than the trees that can form a cooling canopy? And when authorities fail to backburn to protect the forests? Perhaps all individuals can do is what she has done, and plant the right things.
This brilliant and impassioned book gives the lie to all the professional Germaine-haters – like Louis Nowra, who made that appalling attack on her in The Monthly three years ago. On the 40th anniversary of The Female Eunuch, he described her as resembling “a befuddled and exhausted old woman”. Well, Mr Nowra, what have you been doing with your life while Germaine Greer has been quietly working away – very quietly for her – to give us all such hope?
Five years ago I had the privilege of visiting her Cave Creek property on a wet and misty day. She took us round the already thriving plantings and the propagation sheds, and when it was time to go, generously sent us on our way with dozens of seedlings she had picked out as suitable for our much drier place on the coastal side of the caldera. They thrived, although the fate of the property where we planted them is a story yet to be told.
But ever since, when I see her holding her ground on Q&A or read her feisty columns, the image always returns to me of her waving us farewell from the verandah of her rickety Queenslander, an indomitable Gaia-like figure who belongs, heart and soul, to the land she has worked so hard to salvage. And you still hear fools say: Germaine, what does she know, she doesn’t even live here.
In The Female Eunuch she spoke for all women. In White Beech she speaks for all Earthlings. But she still has a rule at public appearances like the one in Byron: the first question cannot come from a man.