Rod Giblett reviews White Beech by Germaine Greer

Germaine Greer, White Beech: The Rainforest Years. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. ISBN: 9781408846711

 

Rod Giblett

 

Germaine Greer bought a block of land in degraded rainforest in south-eastern Queensland after “hunting for [her] own patch of ground for over twenty years” (55). Over the following decade she attempted to rehabilitate the rainforest back to its pre-European contact and settler state. She also recorded her observations of the place, its plants and animals, as well as the process of rehabilitation, both of which resulted in her recently published book, White Beech: The Rainforest Years. Greer describes not only how “the forest became my responsibility”, but also how “I became the servant of the forest” (1–2). Even though she “could call it ‘my’ forest”, she writes: “[I] never thought of the forest as mine” (2).

Later the relationship of ownership is reversed when she comes to the realisation that “I don’t own the forest; the forest owns me” (141). The process for Greer becomes one of letting go, giving up and reverting ownership, or, as she concludes, “giving the forest back to itself” (339). These formulations of “the forest is not mine, I am the forest’s” are a problematic cliché that does not address and unpack the complex interrelationships and interactions between people and place, humans and Earth in which each has affected and impacted on the other in habitat and human ecology. In fact, Greer does not have an explicit theory of ecology. How does, and indeed can, the forest give back to itself? What sort of agency does the forest have? These and other questions in environmental philosophy, Greer does not ask or address.

Yet rather than the forest being the central character, or main proponent of the narrative, it is a tree, or tree species that is the hero of its own eponymous story. In the tradition of good stories, “the hero of this story” for Greer is “a tree or, rather, a tree species”, the White Beech, which is “neither white nor a beech” (13). The hero is thus a shape-shifter who is not what it appears to be, or what it is named to be, perhaps like Greer herself, or perhaps how Greer would like to think of herself. This preference for the tree over the forest, for the individual over the community, for the small scale over the big picture, is symptomatic of a problem I see with the whole book.

Trees grow either individually or communally in forests. “The key to the forest’s survival” for Greer “is competition” (16). She goes on to describe, how:

Even as the forest trees vie with each other for light, they are protected from extreme weather, from wind and frost and parching sun [by other trees, I would add]; often they are bound together by vines. (16)

The latter part of this statement sounds like cooperation to me. Forest trees compete with each for light and for water but they also cooperate with each other against common adversaries and for common goals with other plants species for mutual support. Greer concludes that, “the more time you spend in a forest the more aware you become that it is an organism intent upon its own survival” (16). Yet an organism whose organs only compete, and which never cooperate, with each other is doomed to die an untimely death, whereas forest organisms and their organs live for hundreds of years. Greer reminds us that “the longest-lived and biggest creatures on Earth are not whales, but trees” (18). A marine biologist might demur that the biggest creature on Earth is the Great Barrier Reef.

Greer’s attempt at rehabilitating 60 hectares of “steep rocky country most of it impenetrable scrub” (1) was undertaken in the name of biodiversity which, for her, is “our real heritage” (3). She wanted (though she never articulates or theorises it in these terms) to conserve long-term heritage of native or pre-settlement biodiversity still present in some places in the remnant rainforest, whilst simultaneously eradicating short-term settler heritage bio-undiversity, such as weeds and feral animals, which destroy native biodiversity. In writing the book she says that if she has done so “properly it will convey the deep joy that rebuilding wild nature can bring” (12). The book is not particularly concerned by the paradox, or oxymoron, of “rebuilding” wild nature, nor with defining what “wild nature” is. Greer does not define the term. “Wild nature” may be considered not to be built at all, or to be built by indigenous hands. Nor does Greer discuss the extensive literature on the problematic concepts of “wild” and “nature”. The book operates within a vacuum in this regard. “Rebuilding a forest” (110), as she later more precisely describes her project, seems a more modest and less problematic descriptor or, perhaps “rebuild[ing] the original plant community” (112), though this implies the question of original for whom? For settlers?

In the prologue to the book Greer relates how, she “had all but finished the book” when she was told that the area had been poisoned “with the deadliest compound that man has ever made”, 2,4,5-T, that goes into making “the defoliant known as Agent Orange” (7–8). Greer goes on to describe how US forces used Agent Orange in Vietnam in what she calls “the most colossal onslaught ever inflicted on any natural system anywhere” (8). This is the closest Greer ever comes to a Carson-like critique of the military-industrial-capitalist complex and of the militarisation of civilian and plant life. Greer places 2,4,5-T and Agent Orange within the context of her own life story, but not within the history of military-industrial-capitalist manipulation and exploitation of chemical compounds, and of civilian and plant life.

Greer concludes later that “the much-vaunted equilibrium of the rainforest is actually a state of constant war” (240). This view reverts to the Hobbesian view of the state of nature as war against all and to the Darwinian view of natural selection through violence and ignores counter views, such as Kropotkin’s view of mutual aid, Benjamin’s critique of violence as the main driver in Darwin’s theory of evolution and recent work on Australia, such as Tim Flannery (1994: 15 and 84) who argues:

evolution in Australia is not driven solely by nature “red in tooth and claw”. Here, a more gentle force—that of coadaptation—is important. … It is cooperation rather than competition which has been selected for in many Australian environments.

Greer even sees “the rainforest symbiosis as an eternal war” (244) without seeming to be aware that the concept of symbiosis developed by Anton de Bary, Eugene Warming and Lynn Margulis is eternal cooperation and not everlasting war. Greer’s comments sits uneasily with her previous remark made early on that, as they have no sting, “the native bees are a perfect emblem of the gentleness of a country that, instead of lions and tigers, has kangaroos and koalas” (58). Nature in Australia is not so much “red in tooth and claw” as Tennyson said, and green in leaf and branch, but golden sweet in tooth and stinglessness.

Greer’s lack of allusion or reference to other environmental thinkers highlights another problem with the book. White Beech is underpinned by an immense amount of minute research into local history and individual species, but not into recent research into the Australian biota, such as Flannery. The book functions in a localised vacuum cut off not only from recent work about Australian biota, but also from environmental history, philosophy and science.

Greer’s account of “conservation in Australia” is over-simplified, for example when she claims that it is “largely a matter of pious intentions” (40). Try telling that to the thousands of volunteers around Australia pulling up weeds and planting local native species! Try telling that to the thousands of members of local conservation group, to their peak bodies in state bushland councils and conservation councils, and to national conservation societies! As an environmental activist and conservationist she seems to be largely a loner, not a member of a community of like-minded and like-acting people around Australia. She is certainly a member of the “Cave Creek Rainforest Rehabilitation Scheme”, but the other human members are largely unnamed and invisible, as is much of their labour. Greer appears as a tree isolated from the forest, both her own and conservation in Australia and much environmental thinking. She is the hero of her own story.

Greer’s account of conservation in Australia is nevertheless valid at the legislative and law enforcement level. She goes on to argue, largely rightly, that “people are neither constrained by law to care for land nor encouraged and rewarded for doing it on their own initiative” (40). State and federal legislation that constrains people who own land of conservation value not to destroy those values is mostly unenforced except when large-scale illegal clearing of native vegetation occurs. Along similar lines, governmental schemes for people to care for their own land on their own initiative do not reward them economically, only ecologically. Greer critiques the Land for Wildlife scheme in New South Wales and her criticisms can be generalised to other states, if Western Australia is anything to go by.

Greer’s book seems cut off from the tradition of nature, bioregional and environmental writing, such as Carson, Leopold and Thoreau, and the ecological paradigm within which they operate. In White Beech her observations of the rainforest are primarily visual with little or no reference to her other senses and little sense of a multi-sensory engagement and embodied experience with the rainforest, such as one finds in these three writers at their best. Nor is there the prose-poetry that one also finds in these writers in which this multi-sensory engagement and embodied experience is expressed in engaging and moving language, and in supple and mellifluous writing. Much of the book either recounts long conversations or summarises bureaucratic reports, and includes throwaway critiques of what she calls “conservation bureaucrats” (246), who often work in highly politicised and under-resourced contexts, a fact of life for these people not acknowledged by Greer. Again the book operates within a vacuum in this regard and would have benefitted and been enriched by the inclusion of some sense of engagement with the tradition of environmental and nature writing and by being located within an ecological paradigm that could have more critically informed the narrative.

Bibliography

Flannery, T. (1994). The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People. Chatswood: Reed.

Greer, Germaine (2014). White Beech: The Rainforest Years. London: Bloomsbury.

 

Black Swan Lake: Life of a Wetland, Rod Giblett’s venture into nature and bioregional writing with environmental philosophy and history, was published in 2013 by Intellect Books. He is Associate Professor and Co-Convenor of the International Centre for Landscape and Language at Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia where he researches and teaches environmental humanities. He has published twelve other books in the field. His next book, Canadian Wetlands: People and Places, is forthcoming from Intellect Books later this year. He is currently researching and writing several books, including one on cities and wetlands.

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