Seeing the Forest for the White Beech Tree: Germaine Greer and Ecofeminism
Feminist icon Germaine Greer’s latest book White Beech: The Rainforest Years (2014) is a memoir and natural history in which Greer turns her attention to the history of environmental degradation in Australia. It recounts the period of her life that she devoted to the rehabilitation of a sixty-hectare rainforest (what she calls the Cave Creek Rainforest Rehabilitation Scheme or CCRRS) that she purchased in the Numinbah Valley in southeast Queensland in 2001. The book marks the culmination of Greer’s commitment to environmental advocacy, activism and education that spans decades, a body of work undertaken primarily in Britain and thus largely unknown to most Australians.
In Plumwood Mountain (Volume 1, Number 2), Environmental Humanities scholar Rod Giblett reviews White Beech. In the review, Giblett (2014) takes Greer to task for failing to “unpack the complex interrelationships and interactions between people and place, humans and Earth”. Giblett is critical of Greer’s political ecology, which he sees as lacking a clear theoretical framework. He contends that, even though Greer claims her own subservience to the needs and wonders of the forest, it is Greer herself who ends up being the hero of her own story. Giblett argues that by not engaging with key advances in biological, anthropological and ecological thinking, such as the work of Lynn Margulis or Tim Flannery, Greer fails to connect the individual elements of the forest, such as the White Beech tree, to the broader rainforest systems and its sociocultural exchanges.
While Giblett is correct in noting that Greer does not clearly attribute or position her thinking and ecological work in relation to the traditions that have preceded her, he misses the more subtle indications that Greer is well aware of these important discoveries and ideas. Although she does not explain Margulis’ endosymbiotic theory or Flannery’s arguments around co-adaptation, the broad range of topics explored in White Beech and the structure of the book show that Greer is keenly aware that the current state of the Australian environment is intimately connected to much broader systems of domination and mastery. In particular, Greer’s lifelong interest and knowledge of feminist issues inflect her critique of the patriarchal nature of white settler attitudes towards Australian flora, fauna, weather patterns and uniquely Australian biological processes. In White Beech, discussions of native edible fruits, nuts and vegetables that were ignored by white settlers are placed alongside her thoughts on the role and treatment of women in Australia historically and today.
Val Plumwood’s (1994: 78) ecocritical viewpoint conceives “oppression as a network of multiple interlocking forms of domination linked by a flexible, common ideology and structure of identity”. Plumwood (1993: 1) names this mode of critique “critical ecological feminism” or “environmental feminism”. In the absence of what Giblett calls an “explicit theory of ecology” in White Beech, I suggest that Greer’s memoir can be usefully read and understood within the framework of critical ecological feminism. White Beech focuses on the interlocking forms of environmental domination, linking the power structures of patriarchy, colonialism, feminism and capitalism to cultural and scientific representations, rainforest topography, botanists naming Australian species and the relationships of Indigenous Australians to the land.
Plumwood’s theories of ecological feminism are not only concerned with the ways in which the environment impacts on women’s lives and vice versa, but in these theories she also traces how attitudes towards women and nature / the environment converge within a broader set of systemic oppressions. Given the Western Enlightenment project of ordering “chaotic” nature, Plumwood (1994: 64, 74) argues that the treatment of women and the destruction of nature are linked by an ideology of control that privileges reason over nature. For Plumwood, unravelling the systems and attitudes that keep women and nature subordinate can only be achieved by acknowledging their shared history of oppression.
Greer lays out this shared history of oppression throughout White Beech. In one section of the book she describes how male botanists named many of the trees that populate CCRRS after themselves, their family and friends. In the case of British botanist and explorer Allan Cunningham, his legacy is present in species such as: the Hoop Pine (Araucaria cunninghamii), the Bangalow Palm (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana), the Casuarina (Allocasuarina cunninghamiana), the Native Tamarind (Diploglottis cunninghamii), and the Brown Beech (Pennantia cunninghamii) (Greer 2014: 222). By contrast, the female botanists among the early settlers, many of whom made large contributions to knowledge in the field, rarely named plants after themselves or their friends. The naming of species by male botanists ignored local indigenous names and knowledge and was thus part of a broader practice of colonial expansion and ownership, a mode of asserting mastery over what was viewed as a harsh and un-cooperative landscape. Greer’s critique shows how the use of patronymics demonstrates an attitude towards the Australian land that played out in other ways, such as in the introduction of inappropriate European plant and animal species that were destructive to Australia’s native biodiversity, the consequences of which are still being felt today.
The history of oppression as described by Plumwood also plays out in White Beech in Greer’s discussion of the treatment of Indigenous Australian women and their relationship to the land. Key to Plumwood’s (1994: 64) feminist ecological criticism of Western scientific and philosophical systems is her interest in showing how patriarchal control over nature is linked to control over human beings, especially women. Despite Giblett’s (2014) claim that Greer offers “little sense of a multi-sensory engagement and embodied experience with the rainforest”, one of the most powerful sections of White Beech is when Greer attempts to read the topography of a location in CCRRS called “Natural Bridge”. Through engaging with the sounds and geography of the site (that includes a waterfall, cave and unique rock formation), Greer conjectures that Natural Bridge was, or possibly still is, a site of secret women’s business for certain Indigenous tribes. She extends her discussion to the case of Ngarrindjeri women whose land rights claims to a sacred burial site on Hindmarsh Island were ignored for a long time (Greer 2014: 127). Once again, the attitudes of white settlers towards Indigenous cultural and spiritual practices that European culture cannot understand, are set alongside the descriptions of the introduced lantana plant that has overrun and is choking the trees at CCRRS.
It is not only the content of White Beech that reflects feminist ecocritical concerns. The forms and modes of argumentation employed in White Beech reveal the interconnectedness of systems of domination that is key to a feminist ecocritical methodology. Greer is not a natural historian and certainly not theorist, but she has a long history as a highly effective polemicist. True to her strengths, the rhetorical mode of argumentation in White Beech is impassioned, performative, iconoclastic and often didactic. Her prose moves between first person anecdotes and historical accounts that aim to politicise readers and raise consciousness about pertinent feminist and environmental issues.
White Beech shows how systemic problems of domination are interconnected across racial, sexual, environmental and gendered lines. As such, neither the domination of nature nor the domination of women can be fully understood without reference to the other branches of these networked systems. For Plumwood (1994: 3), the Western tradition has set up the privileged domain of the master scientist “beneath” which nature is conceived as wife or subordinate other. As an alternative to such hierarchical thinking, Plumwood (1993: 2) advocates an “ethics and politics of mutuality”. The sheer range of topics that Greer covers in White Beech connect the web of patriarchal relations in which we live to show its mutually affecting components: from the use of DDT as a pesticide in Australia after the Vietnam War to issues of Indigenous women’s land rights; from the problem of introduced weeds to the acute hardships endured by female Asian migrants to Australia; from questions of female selfhood to the immensity of the rainforest ecosystems and the place of the human within it. All this is artfully connected in White Beech in a way that suggests that Greer practices an “ethics and politics of mutuality” and that her latest book might best be understood through the lens of Plumwood’s “critical ecological feminism”.
Giblett, Rod. 2014. “Rod Giblett reviews White Beech by Germaine Greer.” Plumwood Mountain: An Australian Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics 1, no. 2.
Greer, Germaine. 2014. White Beech: The Rainforest Years. London: Bloomsbury.
Plumwood, Val. 1993. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London : Routledge.
Plumwood, Val. 1994. “The Ecopolitics Debate and the Politics of Nature ” In Ecological Feminism, edited by Karen J. Warren. London: Routledge.
Lara Stevens is the Hugh Williamson Postdoctoral Fellow in the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne where she researches ecofeminist art and performance and the writings of Germaine Greer. Lara’s research areas include twenty-first century anti-war theatre and performance, feminist philosophy, performance and ecology.