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: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.