A wood of one's own: Germaine Greer's mission to save the trees

In <em>White Beech: the Rainforest Years</em>, Germaine Greer is on a mission to save the ecology of southern Australia.

White Beech: the Rainforest Years
Germaine Greer
Bloomsbury, 384pp, £25

In the late 1980s I blew my savings on a Chiltern beech wood. I didn’t want to “own” it (a preposterous claim to make on a half-natural place) but I fancied trying to rescue it from the abuses of the previous tenants and restore it as a parish amenity. I also, frankly, wanted somewhere to play among the trees, and the bonus of an inexhaustible outdoor library of writing prompts.

In essence, this is the kind of project Germaine Greer describes in White Beech, except that her estate is ten times bigger than mine and immeasurably richer biologically. It is a 60-hectare patch of Australian rainforest, a relic of the archaic vegetation that cloaked the southern supercontinent 100 million years ago. And its “white beech” isn’t a true beech at all but an unrelated Gmelina, an arboreal verbena and a foretaste of the prodigious life forms – water dragons, proteas, flying foxes, strangler figs – that teem through the pages. You rapidly understand why the Antipodes were given their upside-down name.

Greer has a mission. Southern Australia is now one of the most ecologically compromised regions on earth, assaulted by open-cast mining, clear-cut logging, bush clearance, salinated rivers and an immense cast of invasive organisms from every other continent. She wants to rescue a bit, create an ark for the native wildings of her birthland. More specifically, she wants to restore – though repatriate might be a better word – the ancient Gondwanan forest of which Queensland still has some fragments.

“Restoration” is a concept that sparks off intellectual bush fires among conservationists. Is it philosophically possible, let alone practicable? Are we talking “past naturalness” or “future naturalness”; authenticity or simulacra? Walter Benjamin could have written a useful essay entitled “Original Ecosystems in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Greer brushes off such introspective niceties, opting for the fast track: heavy weed control, with chemical poisons if necessary, and replanting the lost trees.

It’s a long journey even to find the right site. Much of the book is structured around Greer’s search for a place that chimed with her heart and then with unravelling its dark history. She began by dreaming of a patch of bush or desert, but ended – after a magical encounter with a dancing bowerbird – with a half-ruined plot of rainforest attached to a dairy farm. Cove Creek’s history proves to be an allegory of the Fall of Australia’s Eden and a sickening account of the frontier mindset. Some of the deforestation was done almost for the hell of it, using a technique known as the “drive”. A single big tree is felled at the top of a slope in such a way that it will indiscriminately take out every tree below it as it tumbles down. There are stories of koala massacres and the wilful introduction of aggressive pasture grasses from Africa. Just as Greer was about to finish the book, she discovered that the land surrounding Cove Creek had been regularly but illegally sprayed with one of the compounds in Agent Orange, the defoliant that the US used with horrifying effects in Vietnam.

But beyond the politics and history and narratives of redemption, White Beech is a hymn to botany as a discipline and a vehicle of heritage. After words, plants have always been Greer’s second love, a passion she learned from her academic sister, Jane. (The Socratic dialogue between teacher and tyro as they key out plants is delicious: “What’s the word for kind of tough?” “Coriaceous?” “Go on. Shape?” “Egg-shaped. I mean, ovate or subovate”.) But don’t expect any Romantic epiphanies about the extraordinary vegetation she discovers once the alien creepers have been peeled off. Even when she’s lyrical, her botany is rigorous.

Greer is happy with vernacular names – and the likes of bush lolly, bopple nut and Miss Hodgkinson’s lilly pilly give a vivid sense of the melting pot of cultures and ecologies that make up Australia – but she far prefers the precision of Latin and scientific description. This may earn her the displeasure of fellow feminist cultural historians such as Mary-Louise Pratt, who has written sternly of the replacement of indigenous taxonomies by “European-based patterns of global unity and order”. But Greer sees advances such as molecular dating and DNA “bar-coding” not as the victory of this or that human cultural system but of the plant itself. This leads to one of the most exacting and exciting sections in the book, the unravelling of the complex evolution of the macadamia species and the revelation that they spread out from an Australian focus by floating their nuts out across the Pacific.

Greer loves macadamias, “their stiff geometric habit, the ruby glow of the young foliage”. She used to love balloon milkweeds and float their inflated seed capsules in a dish of water “because with their curved stems they looked like green swans”. Now that she knows their provenance (invasive garden escape from Africa), “I yank them out by the hundreds.” It’s an odd change of sensibility, as if she blamed the plant itself for arriving in Queensland, and it typifies the one jarring note in the book – an over-certainty about what was and what should be. This isn’t always a useful approach to ancient ecosystems. My Chiltern wood ridiculed our nostrums for its improvement and went off on its own internal agenda, swamping our token plantings with benign natural regeneration and producing the most sublime explosion of native rarities precisely where we’d bulldozed a new track.

But we had nothing we regarded as “weeds” – and no one whose experience of invasive vegetation is limited to a few acres of Japanese knotweed can have any idea of what is happening to Australia. More than 3,000 non-native plant species ramp across the wilderness. European blackberries now occur across nine million hectares, South American lantanas across 4.5 million.

In the end, Greer’s aggressive approach is justified. The Cove Creek reserve has become a registered charity. Greer’s mite of hubris dissolves as she realises that creatures are doing it for themselves. The white beech saplings prosper, the epiphytic orchids and honeyeaters have returned, or re-emerged. Even an echidna – “A creature more ancient than a marsupial! A monotreme!” – materialises in front of her study window.

But for how long? Australia is being convulsed by climate change. Gondwanan vegetation may not be viable in the future and Queenslandians may yet give thanks for the pesky globetrotters that can weather such changes. In Britain, faced by an ash fungus that originated in the Far East, conservationists who once yanked out sycamores (earlier invaders from the Near East) as enthusiastically as Greer’s volunteers pull down lantanas, now hold back from removing the tree that may be the best replacement for ash.

Like it or not, Australia is now a laboratory for a gigantic experiment in biological multiculturalism, a schemata of future ecosystems that are liable to occur more and more on a thoroughly globalised planet. The vegetation genies are out of the bottle and there is no putting them back. So I hope that somewhere someone as dedicated and sharp-eyed as Greer is watching the invaders, seeing how they compete with each other, when they get their own pests and predators, and how – unfettered by human short-term visions and hallowed vegetational models – ruination heals itself. The answers might surprise us.

Richard Mabey’s books include “The Ash and the Beech: the Drama of Woodland Change” (Vintage, £9.99)

Tree-hugger: Germaine Greer at Cove Creek, her 60-hectare area of rainforest in southern Australia. Photo: Rex.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The seven per cent problem

Photo: Barry Lewis / Alamy
Show Hide image

Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496