INGA SIMPSON Understory: A life with trees. Reviewed by Tracy Sorensen
In Understory Inga Simpson invites us to be more truly here than we were before.
This memoir of a life among trees – and all their attendant and nearby species, from other trees, to geckos, robins, goannas and more – is set on ten acres of forest in the hinterland of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Writer Inga Simpson tells us the story of moving in, getting to know the place and failing spectacularly in business and in love. She also shows us how one might not just live among trees but allow oneself to fall into rhythm with them and learn their language.
The memoir is divided into three: Canopy, Middlestorey and Understorey. Sections within the three parts are named after the species and elements that one finds in this lush part of the continent: cedar, bloodwood, she-oak, lilly pilly, bunya, flame tree.
Simpson’s writing is alive with the life force of sap and blood, bark and fur, hide and skin. Nature has its own agency that often resists human interference. Living in a cottage in the forest is an embodied struggle, a repetition of daily chores, cuts and bruises, dirt and aching muscles:
The lawyer vine grabs hold of my clothing when I am weeding and planting but I don’t mind. Its new leaves, in late winter and early spring, are pink like a tongue, and the morning sun, peeking over the ridge, lights them like flesh.
Simpson presents herself as an apprentice nature writer learning from the greats, starting with Henry David Thoreau and flowing through time to the living writers Rick Bass and Annie Dillard and, closer to home, our own late Eric Rolls. Thoreau’s template – a physical and psychic separation from human and urban concerns and a surrendering to the rhythms of nature – is followed here.
As the seasons come and go, Simpson learns more and more about the lives and behaviours of the plant and animal life that teems around her. She tunes in, notices, notices new things, tunes in differently. She shares her deepening knowledge simply, without fanfare.
Understory has a very different tone to Germaine Greer’s White Beech, reviewed here a few years ago. Where Greer’s memoir of the restoration of a plot of land at Cave Creek in south-east Queensland comes with torrents of historical research and a polemical position in favour of ecological nativism, Simpson’s is a quieter, more observational presence. It takes a while to slow to the rhythm of it, but once you do, it is satisfying and nourishing.
When Simpson arrives, she is part of a suite of humans. She’s with her partner and her partner’s children, a boy and a girl growing into their teens. It’s a busy commuting household. Simpson and her partner, referred to only as N, dream some wild dreams about this land and their future. Both writers, they want to give up their day jobs and run a writers’ retreat. To do this, they buy the place next door, stretching their finances to the edge of possibility:
We wanted a quiet life, a simpler life. A writing life – a life that revolves around writing, rather than squeezing it into the cracks.
Well, that’s a dream shared by many. For a while, it seems to be working. Groups of writers come and go, generously fed, watered and mentored.
But then the global financial crisis – the dreaded GFC – of 2008 hits, and the couple teeter and then topple down the wrong side of viability. The relationship, too, founders, leaving Simpson alone with the gecko shit, mice, snakes, mould and a dizzying debt. When the electric lights go out, she lives in the dark.
She should probably leave, but she hangs on. Her ten acres are like Scarlet O’Hara’s Tara; they are now woven through Simpson’s body and she can’t think of living anywhere else. Whether she’ll be able to stay in her home among the trees is the question that gently swirls through this memoir.
Meanwhile, the encroachments upon and devastations of nature in this time of extinction and climate change march on around and through Simpson’s home. Population growth and development encroach on habitat; both wet and dry periods become more intense. Masses of hopping frogs disappear. The energy company fells trees across a great swathe of the property to make way for power lines.
In the difficult moments – handled delicately by Simpson, clearly mindful of her memoir’s impact on others – it’s the cycles of renewal in nature that bring hope. She gets going again, weeding, planting, tending, watching, listening, writing.
There was one element of this memoir that did not float my particular boat. Simpson is a fan of Tolkien, and her relationship to trees is a little too Middle-Earth for me. I found myself irritated by references to the Ents, Tolkien’s magical tree-like beings. Australian trees are already vibrating with stories told over millennia. Do we really need to keep reaching back into European myth-making to enliven the landscape we inhabit?
I remind myself that this is memoir, and we are witnessing the journey of one particular white child, growing to womanhood, as she traverses a stolen continent. If the Ents are her way in to enchantment, then so be it.
As it turns out, Simpson’s sensibility is already moving and changing. Later in the memoir we see that she is beginning to learn the words for trees used by the Kabi Kabi people. She holds her hand against the trunk of a tree and says its ancient name:
I live in the forest, bambee, surrounded by trees live (djoo) and dead (duawa-djoo). Aboriginal languages afford trees sentience, not insisting on such a division between us and them. The grammar shows relationships – between humans, the land and other species. I haven’t figured it all out yet, but I’m learning their names.
This willingness to witness, tend and learn infuses Inga Simpson’s memoir. Like Simpson herself, looking at the renewed forest after rain, we can look up from these pages refreshed, reoriented. She invites us to be more truly here than we were before.
Inga Simpson Understory: A life with trees Hachette 2017 PB 272pp $32.99
Tracy Sorensen is the author of The Lucky Galah (Picador, 2018). She lived in Newtown in the 1990s but is now in Bathurst, where the landscape was over-cleared a long time ago and consequently there are not enough birds for a decent dawn chorus. You can visit her website here.
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.