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The quintessential Germaine Greer

Evergreen words (clockwise from left) Germaine Greer; Badminton Ball tree at Kanakakunnu Palace grounds; Tabebuia; Red Lucky Seed

Evergreen words (clockwise from left) Germaine Greer; Badminton Ball tree at Kanakakunnu Palace grounds; Tabebuia; Red Lucky Seed   | Photo Credit: S GOPAKUMAR

One can’t help but turn over a new leaf after a conversation with this thorough-bred nature conservationist

Under the shade and greenery of a huge tree on the premises of Kanakakunnu Palace, we listened to Germaine Greer on a late forenoon as the sun reached its zenith.

While sharing her thoughts on reading, the gaze of the octogenarian would occasionally turn up to the leafy canopy of the grand old tree swaying in the gentle breeze. Then, as if she read my thoughts, she asked the people around her about the tree. And I was lucky that I knew the answer: it was the Tabebuia tree, a resident of the Neotropics but now in harmony with wider areas having crossed all borders without visa and passport. In the few moments we shared the tree knowledge, her eyes lit up when she came to to know that her identification of the teak trees that stood in a row close to the venue was right. It was then that she recalled the meticulousness with which she learnt Botany, names of plants and also learnt to identify birds and smaller forms of life, all at 62 when she, with a “creaky knee and shockingly arthritic feet”, bought “60 acres of steep rocky country, most of it impenetrable scrub”.

This transformation of one the world’s greatest thinkers of freedom and identity of women into a nature conservationist also led to her to penning the book White Beech: The Rainforest Years in 2013. Her botanical learning to write the deeply-researched book with over 10 pages of cited works is what made her point out with ease that the teak tree on the premises of the Kanakakunnu Palace grounds belongs to the same family as her landmark White Beech – Lamiacaea.

Badminton Ball tree at Kankakunnu Palace grounds

Badminton Ball tree at Kankakunnu Palace grounds   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

She was amazed that both the White Beech, also known as grey teak that is found in the rainforests of Eastern Australia, and our teak, which grows in the tropics of south-east Asia, have been ruthlessly extracted and exploited for commercial purposes. This indiscriminate extraction has made the White Beech an uncommon tree in the wild.

The momentary encounter we had showed her deep interest in trees around the venue — the bamboo grove, the Red Lucky seed tree, the huge Ficus, the Badminton ball tree — all of which caught her eye. To be able to understand the original homeland of each tree seems to be one way in which a non-botanist like Greer could remember the tree.

Red Lucky seed tree at Kankakunnu Palace grounds

Red Lucky seed tree at Kankakunnu Palace grounds   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Thus, our conversation during the limited time we had shifted to the global spread of the nitrogen-fixing Red Lucky Seed tree (manjadi seed tree), the African locust tree or Badminton Ball tree from West Africa, the Ficus with its green foliage from India, the Tabebuia with lilac and yellow flowers that has acclimatised so well in avenues and gardens of India.

In White Beech, Greer describes the forests as an organism that is intent on its own survival. She described briefly how plants that grow in nurseries are unhappy and less virulent than ones that germinate from seeds that grow naturally or are planted by a loving hand. She mentioned her womanly perspectives on how women are the best planters and nurturers. During the process, Greer shifted her focus to becoming “ the servant of the forest where I was just one more organism in its biomass, the sister of its mosses and fungi, its mites and worms...”

Tabebuia tree at Kankakunnu Palace grounds

Tabebuia tree at Kankakunnu Palace grounds   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Her message that rings clear in the book is “Give me just a chance to clean something up, sort something out, and make it right. I do not think I was saving the world. I was in search of heart’s ease and this was my chance to find it.” Greer’s definition of biodiversity is a biologist’s best ever one – “it is our real heritage as the ostentation of extinct aristocracies is not. Biodiversity is the name we give to the extravagant elaboration in our planet, to the continuing creativity of evolution”.

To be able to write with simple, honest clarity that a tree species is the hero of the story is what makes her book so special and unique. Greer has a poignant message that trees have feelings and perceptions that have stood the test of time. “Never hug trees, they do not like it one bit,” she said.

Teak trees at Kankakunnu Palace grounds

Teak trees at Kankakunnu Palace grounds   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Our conversation reached a mutual point of silence after we shared common issues of a “wonky leg”, the concern about poisons that contaminate waterways, accumulate in soil and make it unfit for seeds to germinate, and the tell-tale signs of climate change all around.

The perky mynahs on the palace campus strutted around the lawns like the Regent Bowerbird that paraded before Greer, tempting her to return and rejuvenate the land “battered by clearing, by logging, by spraying and worse”.

The simple yet evocative message she gives is to let “our threatened plant and animal life have space and quiet so that Life will survive”.

Greer was in Thiruvananthapuram as part of the Mathrubhumi Books International Festival of Letters 2019.

The author is an ecologist and Coordinator of Tree Walk — Thiruvananthapuram

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 3:07:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/authors/one-cant-help-but-turn-over-a-new-leaf-after-a-conversation-with-germaine-greer-writer-and-nature-conservationist/article26215278.ece

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