White Beech

White

Author: Germaine Greer

Finished on: 29 May 2016

Where did I get this book: Scarthin Books, Cromford

This is my first Greer. And by all accounts it’s a bit of an odd one to start with, being completely atypical of her literary output. For a long time, I kept my eyes open for a second hand copy of The Female Eunuch (I’m ashamed to say I have not read any ‘proper’ feminist writing since university, and even then I can’t pretend I was paying attention for purposes other than just getting my next essay done and dusted). But instead I spotted this at Scarthin, and couldn’t resist. I was fresh from my new found love of the nature writing of Roger Deakin, and this sounded similarly enticing.

White Beech begins as the story of Greer’s search for a part of Australia to call her own. Or rather, to not call her own as “I don’t own the forest: the forest owns me.” She sets out to find an area of desert to buy, and ends up with rainforest instead after being seduced by the dance of a Regent Bowerbird. Her sister teases her: “You’re the only person I know who would spend two years shopping for desert and come back with rainforest.” But is then her strongest ally in the attempts to rehabilitate the forest to something approaching its former glory.

The insight into Greer’s relationship with her sister Jane is one of the highlights of this book. A lot of technical, ecological, historical and biological information is communicated through dialogue, largely between the two sisters. She obviously admires and respects Jane enormously, and for someone who is often described as egotistical, this book shows Greer in a softer light as she defers to her little sister’s greater scientific knowledge for much of the story.

There are some horribly moving sections where Greer describes how the ancient rainforest was, if not quite destroyed, then not far from it. Essentially, people are arseholes. We go around stomping on things when we don’t understand what the consequences will be. If an activity provides us with short term financial gain, pleasure or entertainment, then we’ll jump in feet first without thought for any longer term implications of what we’re doing.

Destruction of the forest was the best entertainment going; sometimes it was done simply for the hell of it. In about 1897 Carl Lentz and his sister were invited by friends who lived at Pine Mountain to explore Connell’s Creek and view the spectacular falls: “We had an axe, cut a strong sapling, stuck one end to a glut, levered, canted it over. It rolled down against a big bloodwood tree, pushed it over, rolled along it. Near the tree head was a low sharp rock ledge. As the enormous weighty boulder rolled over that, it cut the tree clean off, catapulted the great stem, roots and all, clean over itself and speared it ahead, way down into the scrub below. The boulder gained more momentum, took everything before it and started more rocks going. It was an avalanche, the rumbling noise was terrific, and lasted a good while too”.

Heartbreaking. This rainforest dates back millenia to the geological supercontinent of Gondwana that later became South America, Africa and Australasia. And we just trashed it.

Greer’s descriptions of the effort to rehabilitate the forest get very technical, and she lost me several times in complex ecological side-stories and side-side-stories. But much of the book is reminiscent of Deakin in that you lose yourself in mesmerising description of the joy of being outside and immersed in the natural world. The final two chapters of the book brilliantly detail the animal inhabitants of the rainforest: from close encounters with snakes, to the dark side of ornithology, to frog mating. These sections are probably the best in the whole book. As someone whose garden was the site of an incredible annual frog orgy, I was particularly interested in the latter.

When frogs mate the male does not penetrate the female, who simply ejects her eggs into the water while the male frog ejaculates in the same water, so all this embracing was hardly necessary, but the frogs were hugging anyway. Altogether it was the wildest party that could ever be imagined.

I witnessed the yearly Bristol-terraced-house-garden version of this, I can concur it’s a pretty extraordinary sight (and sound!)

If you have anything more than a passing interest in conservation, Australian history, ecology , Greer or amphibian group sex, then I would highly recommend this book.

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3 comments

  1. She has her critics but I admire the way she doesn’t pontificate and grandstand about the environment or fly in with a camera crew in tow like so many celebs. She just gets out and does things.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It has to be The Female Eunuch – a seminal book that opened my eyes as a young woman. It’s still the best work on feminism that I’ve come across. I know people talk a lot about Caitlin Moran How to be a Woman but it’s really not a patch on Greer.

    Liked by 1 person

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