A chance encounter with Professor Germaine Greer via a paging announcement at Sydney Airport has led me to totally unexpected reading pleasure. As I was searching for the exact titles of books of hers I’d read, I came across “White beech”, which I’d never even heard of. It’s a fat hardback, 340 pages, about her rainforest property in the Gold Coast hinterland: its history, its ecology, and her attempts to rehabilitate it.
I was drawn into it by a number of familiarities. Her part of south-east Queensland is close to where my son and his family live; a few years ago I spent every weekend dropping over the edge into steep gulleys in search of rainforest patches; I have an ongoing interest in Aboriginal culture and language; and my post-retirement project led me into intermittent research into my south-coast local history. These are all threads in her account of her rainforest years. I’m fascinated by the discoveries made by a practised and dedicated researcher in a new field, and by the survival of her biting certainties into a new sphere. I’m also amused that the cowering student (me) and the towering and intimidating tutor (her) have arrived in a common place after fifty years.
Greer begins hunting for land in desert country near Alice Springs, and on the coast near Eden, motivated by a desire “to clean something up, sort something out, make it right”: she was finally charmed into buying 60 hectares of rainforest buried under lantana by an encounter with a superb bower bird “a sort of crow in fancy dress … clad in a tabard of yellow and a cap of the same with a frosting of red on the crown … He began dancing. Up and down bobbed his gaudy head, in and out went his hips, and all the time he kept a golden eye fixed on my face.” She decided to buy that night.
She spent eleven years rehabilitating her sixty hectares into a patch of Gondwanan rainforest, rich in animals, birds, mosses, grasses and of course trees. She documents her encounters with plants and creatures, many of which are familiar to me: possums, gliders, diamond pythons, red-bellied black snakes, antechinus, echidnas, dingoes, black beans, lawyer vine, stingers, treefrogs, flying foxes, powerful owls, quandongs and quolls, just for a start.
I learnt many things that shocked me. I discover that Poznan Zoo in Poland is breeding feather tail gliders, and supplying them to zoos all over Europe. That possums were classed as vermin from the early days of European settlement in Australia, and a million possum skins were sold to the Queensland fur market in 1921. That 2, 4, 5 – T, one of the two compounds in Agent Orange, was used in forestry and agriculture in south east Queensland in the late 1960s.
Greer mounts a full-scale campaign against Ferdinand Mueller (she refuses him his von), nineteenth century government botanist in Victoria, who not only got a lot wrong, but brown-nosed dignitaries by giving their cumbersome names to species, and planted blackberries wherever he went. Her botanist sister Jane does not agree with Greer’s assessment of von Mueller, nor does the entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, but some contemporaries certainly did. George Bentham, an English botanist, wrote “it grieves me to think that you should have devoted so much of your valuable time to a work which, botanically speaking, is not only absolutely useless but worse than useless.” The chapter devoted to botanists and the virulent ongoing taxonomy wars was one of my favourites.
I also relished and envied her descriptions of plant and animal life. Basket grass has a “complicated inflorescence (that) appears as pale fur hovering over the neat patterning of the woven stolons and their short leaves.” Topknot pigeons “wear a toupee of swept-back ginger plumes and fly in battalions.” Iridescent blue flies have “sizzling gold eyes.” Antechinuses “can flatten themselves until they are no thicker than a credit card with a minute paw at each corner … and limbo dance under a door.”
The day I finished reading “White beech” I ordered a copy to own and spread around: that’s a rare accolade from this stingy book-buyer.
If you want to know more about the ongoing Cave Creek project, you can visit http://gondwanarainforest.org/