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Book Review

Germaine Greer - White Beech: The Rainforest Years
Bloomsbury 2014

Germaine Greer is an academic who became famous in 1970 as a writer on feminism, she is less well known as an ecologist. This is an unusual book to review for a gardening society but she raises important issues which we as gardeners should be aware of. In 2001 Greer returned to her native Australia and witnessed, as she puts it, a devastation on a grand scale. Weeds from all over the world, feral animals, open cast mines, denuded hills, eroded slopes, salt rivers and more. She describes what she considers to be mistakes made by farmers, early settlers, officials and well-meaning planners, botanists and conservationists, and the consequences.

The book recounts her search to find a piece of Australian bush and her passion to return it to its original flora and fauna, a mammoth task for anyone. With her life savings she eventually purchases Cave Creek, a 64 hectare block of rainforest cum dairy farm on the New South Wales/Queensland border which had been farmed and extensively logged.

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Gmelina leichhardtii forest in New South Wales

The hero of the book is the White Beech, Gmelina leichhardtii, a 40 metre giant tree. There were fewer than a dozen White Beeches on the property when she bought it in 2001. Greer sets about germinating seeds and finds to her delight and surprise, five plantlings (her words) when she returns after being away for 6 months. In 2006 her dream comes true when she starts the long rehabilitation process and begins planting her baby beeches. When told of Greer's ambition to restore the forest, her botanist sister says: "That will take 800 years". Greer's reply: "Then I'd better get started".

Greer explains that the removal of the tree canopy allows light to reach the forest floor which in turn kills the plant and animal habitat. She returns again and again to this subject and the fact that by restoring the canopy the native species will return. This is her mission statement: "Once you have the acacias you get the dedicated butterflies and the mistletoes and the Mistletoe birds and all the other birds and the wildflowers" and again "once the vanished trees return, an invasion will follow. Mosses, lichens, ferns.... orchids, mites, weevils, snakes, lizards will reappear in their own sweet time". "It is the tree canopy which governs the microclimate. ...that makes possible the massive diversity of species living in the forests." "The forest is the bottom line, without it thousands of species .... will die from the face of the earth".

Unfortunately, early immigrants wanting to recreate their European gardens began importing flowering plants including Lantana camara and Verbena bonariensis, and from South America, jacaranda and Erythrina crista-galli. All have become weeds in the rain forests with lantana now infesting 4 million hectares. At Cave Creek tons of lantana are removed every year. Lantana needs light to grow, once the canopy is restored lantana and the weeds associated with it are eliminated.

She describes the results of poor decisions to import plants rather than to engage in selective breeding of native species, for example Rubus rosifolius, the roseleaf bramble. European blackberries were introduced and now infest 9 million hectares of land. Similarly the indigenous Olea paniculata was overlooked in favour of the European olive which has now become a weed in much of Eastern Australia. Native pennisetums were discarded for imported species which are now found as roadside weeds in remote Australia.

To me the book is a revelation of brand new plant names, botanical descriptions and new genera, many from Gondwana, the ancient land mass of the southern hemisphere. Rare plants were found on the property which were carefully nurtured and multiplied for distribution. Davidsonia johnsonii, the smooth Davidson's plum, is now no longer rare as a result of Greer’s efforts. As she points out "the general wisdom was that rare plants do not survive well on private land", a belief she manages to turn on its head. She also believes that ecotourism is not the answer to conservation. Conservation needs to be carried out on private land rather than public, where budgets for toilets and recreational areas take precedence over conservation. Private owners, big or small, can defend endemism.

There are other chapters which deal with the aborigines (traditional owners of the land), the pioneers, the timber-getters, the dairy farmers, the bloody botanists who endlessly change Latin names, the plants, the animals.

This is a fascinating book written by a lay person looking afresh at conservation and trying to make it happen, something which many of us talk about, but never get round to doing.

Review by David Bracey - Mediterranean Gardening France

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