White Beech: the Rainforest Years
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)