Germaine Greer on the environment

Germaine Greer

White Beech: the Rainforest Years
@Bristol, 12 June

The packed audience for Germaine Greer’s talk at Bristol Festival of Ideas were mostly women, as you might expect, but for once the topic at hand was not feminism but the environment and conservation. Greer was introducing her new book White Beech: the Rainforest Years by giving some background to what might seem like a surprising episode of her life.

In 2001 Greer bought an abandoned farm in Australia with the sole intention of returning the land to the sub-tropical rainforest it once had been, a small area of which remained. She had very clear ideas about how and why she wanted to do this and had spent some time choosing the right piece of land, but where did this unusual idea come from?

Greer spoke eloquently and passionately about her lifelong love for nature and her growing realisation, as she got older, that she preferred “real” nature to anything artificially managed. She spoke about the difference between the artistic notion of “landscape” and the Aboriginal term “country”, which encompasses not only land and vegetation but also sky above and creatures living there. (I say “creatures” deliberately because as president of the charity Bug Life, Greer tends to be more concerned with insects, crustaceans and the like rather than birds or mammals). While landscaped land can be pretty or picturesque, Greer finds real beauty in wilder nature. She also finds that natural plants in their natural habitat tend to make sense and work together, creating more biodiversity than anything artificial manages.

Which led her to begin educating herself about natural vegetation versus introduced species. She has become pretty knowledgeable on this subject about both the UK and Australia. The UK’s long history of landscaped gardens and parks hasn’t done our native species any favours. There are now more monkey puzzle trees in the UK than in their native Chile but the very British larch tree is struggling.

Greer is nothing if not opinionated and while her passion and her project are both wonderful, there are points on which she seems wilfully naïve. For instance, she is very against captive breeding programmes for endangered animals and says that we should instead declare their habitats protected areas and leave them to regenerate. It would be a wonderful world if that were possible but look at the number of protected reserves around the world that have failed to protect animals from poachers or illegal tree felling or other damaging human activity. Humans are just not that easy to control.

Greer also says that her hope with this project is to start a trend, to encourage others to do as she has. Which is all very well for her to say but most of us don’t have the time or the money for such a huge project, or even a smaller version of it. She employs a staff of botanists on her bit of Australian rainforest and made sure we all knew that she pays them a decent wage (apparently paid work is a bit of a rarity for botanists these days). I’m glad for them but perhaps this section of the talk would be better saved for audiences of the very rich, rather than having multiple questions from the audience about what the average person can do be dismissed out of hand. Not a lot, was the largely disguised answer. This is a rich person’s solution.

However, Greer’s eagerness to do what she considers to be the right thing and her pleasure in the success she has had so far on her own project shone through. She describes the experience as “fun, surprising, joyful, unalloyed, exciting and dramatic”.