A writer’s review on Germaine Greer’s White Beech.
“Greer has a better time relating to animals than she does humans.”
ON the 2006 death of ‘Crocodile Hunter’ Steve Irwin at the barb of a stingray, Germaine Greer infamously declared: “The animal world has finally taken its revenge”.
Portrayed as uncaring in the international media, Greer was at the time custodian of a piece of South East Queensland rainforest, in the midst of rehabilitating it from a dairy farm, banana plantation and logging resource.
The habits of local flora and fauna were commanding her attention as a cross-section of living ecology and heritage, but she was also making it the subject of what surely ranks as the greatest feat of research ever undertaken on the one plot of Australian land.
The result was published as White Beech, and it’s quite a read.
Once again, Greer provides an enormous wealth of research, so much that White Beech is as much a textbook as it is a memoir.
Her deft search for any semblance of Aboriginal ownership of the land is bravely captured, and it’s a necessity in a book which tackles the very notion of land being property, but it’s so dispassionate the writer opens herself to controversy in a manner which has now become like clockwork.
Greer pushes the boundaries of archival knowledge further with each of her books, but as a memoir I felt White Beech to be a bit of a let down. Surely there is plenty more to know about the process of rehabilitating the forest, the obstacles Greer faced and the stories of those who helped her.
While she describes pivotal encounters with several animals at Cave Creek over the years (particularly the bower bird who Greer says called her to purchase the place), these vignettes reveal plenty about the author’s true affection for the natural world, but they also suggest Greer has a better time relating to animals than she does humans, and this is perhaps why there is little human drama in the tale… but let us in on the reasons!
Can this be the same writer as Daddy We Hardly Knew You, which blended tremendous accounts of human frailty with the elemental environments that story traversed?
Revisiting where she was at with the rainforest at the time of Irwin’s death would have been an interesting plot point. Perhaps the controversy was painful, but it would have made for more courageous storytelling.
Yet you can see Greer trying. Whole conversations are published in inverted commas, but they don’t ring true as real dialogue, despite having the odd colloquialism thrown in. Great literary non-fiction this would be, if it framed the story of Cave Creek in a classic story arc, which I refuse to believe was impossible, given ‘one woman and her forest’ has all the hallmarks of the greatest plots.
Greer lets her academic front down for a rare moment in the chapter ‘Bloody Botanists’ when she speculates on the sexual orientation of naturalist and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, after revealing she also feels Australian icon Sir Joseph Banks may have been a perennial bachelor for a reason.
“You have to wonder whether plant-hunting was a way for gay men to escape from societal pressure,” she writes.
Do we have to wonder? Given her ability to research literally anything, what prevented Greer from leaching the archives on this subject? Evidence on Banks and Leichhardt’s contemporary Matthew Flinders has fleshed-out a living, breathing homosexual mariner.
She could also take a leaf out of other writer’s forests, like that of E.M. Forster, to find what she has in common with LGBTI wordsmiths, plantsmen and women, and their sense of place.
If Greer was willing to do more than write about her gut feelings, it would set her apart from the one-dimensional approach to nature (human and otherwise) she observed so bravely in Steve Irwin.
“The one lesson any conservationist must labour to drive home is that habitat loss is the principal cause of species loss,” Greer wrote in The Guardian on the occasion of Irwin’s death, just one peak on her climb to the summit of understanding what she so deftly captures in White Beech.
‘Diary of a Conservationist’ would have been a better subtitle, had White Beech revealed more about Greer than her cracking research skills, for a conservationist is what she became in her rainforest years.
Because I suspect this transformation involved much more than research.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.