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When Germaine Greer arrived at Sydney University to take up an appointment in the Department of English, I was graduating to a respectable profession and conventional life style. Although we had friends and acquaintances in common, we did not meet. This was perhaps just as well - callow youth that I was, she would have scared the pants on to me. Her dramatic and distinguished career is well known. She has a string of books to her credit, mostly in one way or another affirming the feminist cause.
"White Beech" is different in theme, though not without feminist polemic here and there. Moved by man's degradation of the environment and determined to do something about it Greer sought an Australian rural property that she could rehabilitate. Over a decade ago, she acquired Cave Creek, in the hinterland of South East Queensland, devoting money and time to her project. She has now capped her generosity by transferring the title to an English charitable trust, the Friends of Gondwana Rainforest, with a view to soon transferring it to a similar Australian charity. This book describes the story.
I wondered if I might find myself reading something like the account of the restoration of a medieval French cottage ("The Normandy House" by Patricia M Page), which I reviewed for Amazon. Patsy Page, who is a friend since University days, there charmingly describes the progress of the work and her interactions with workers and neighbours, and members of her family.
Greer tackles things differently, documenting not only the flora and fauna of Cave Creek, but the settlement of the region and the attempts of settlers to raise dairy cattle, or bananas, or sugar, and eventually the indigenous macadamia nut. Her research is detailed, to the point where there is almost too much information about the etymology of Aboriginal languages or the genealogy of the Nixon family, the first settlers at Cave Creek. She does not get bogged down, however, and the book is clear and readable.
The efforts of the workers on the project are generously credited, but there is scant account of human interaction, other than with Greer's younger sister, a professional botanist, with whom there is sisterly affection. She provided some of the detailed botanical information: I should have liked even more of this, especially on orchids and other epiphytes. The sisters sometimes disagree, notably about the status of the eminent nineteenth century botanist Ferdinand von Mueller. Germaine Greer does not think much of him, and contemptuously omits the honorific "von" when referring to him.
Greer's support for both Aboriginal and feminist causes emerges clearly in her account of a striking rock formation, the Natural Bridge. She convincingly defends the concept of secret women's business, referring to a notorious court case in South Australia. She thinks that the Natural Bridge was sacred to women, and sees powerful sexual symbolism in the landscape. (Those prone to see landscape in such ways might like to view the 1862 painting "Waterfall, Strath Creek" by Eugene von Guérard in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, or on that Gallery's website).
The book "White Beech" contains no illustrations, but it refers to photos and videos of plants and animals taken by Greer and her sister. These are available on the Cave Creek section of the Friends of Gondwana Rainforest website; the video of the Spiny Blue Crayfish is particularly charming. Here also is a brief account of the Cave Creek project, in which Germaine Greer is referred to only by the term the Foundress - a word that is fresh, powerful and evocative, like the woman herself.
I thoroughly recommend this enjoyable and informative book.
Sydney, November 2013