Understory: A Life With Trees

Inga Simpson

Understory: A Life With Trees
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Understory: A Life With Trees

Inga Simpson

A memoir about staying in one place, told through trees, by the award-winning author of Mr Wigg, Nest and Where The Trees Were.

The understorey is where I live, alongside these plants and creatures. I tend the forest, stand at the foot of trees and look up, gather what has fallen.

Each chapter of this absorbing memoir explores a particular species of tree, layering description, anecdote, and natural history to tell the story of a scrap of forest in the Sunshine Coast hinterland - how the author came to be there and the ways it has shaped her life. In many ways, it’s the story of a tree-change, of escaping suburban Brisbane for a cottage on ten acres in search of a quiet life. Of establishing a writers' retreat shortly before the Global Financial Crisis hit, and losing just about everything when it did. It is also the story of what the author found there: the literature of nature and her own path as a writer.

Understory is about connection to place as a white settler descendant, and the search for a language appropriate to describe that experience.

Review

‘I see the world through trees. Every window and doorway frames trunks, limbs and leaves.’ Inga Simpson’s memoir Understory, in the tradition of the best nature writing, leads us into an internal landscape made external, and an external landscape internalised.

Taking the chance to plunge into the writing lives they want to live, Simpson and her partner buy a cabin in the bush. It is an impulsive move, one they are not quite prepared for, that happens faster than they expect. It’s immersive; we are all thrust into the woods, into the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast.

What follows, as Inga Simpson merges with her environment, is a story told through trees, both literally and figuratively. It’s told in three parts: beginning in the heights of the canopy, ‘where all trees aspire to be’, down through the trunks of the middle storey, where it is hard to find a view out from the woods, down to the understorey, where everything starts and eventually ends. This memoir is the story of a writer embracing the craft she has always wanted to practice, as the life she has hoped to one day lead emerges.

The frame of the tree holds the internal and external experience carefully, as Simpson situates herself within the bush and starts to look around, to contemplate each tree as it expresses a drive to reach the canopy from the understorey. Chapters focus in on individual trees and open out into the memory of the land, the memory of the writer.

The writer as tree, the nature writer in situ, frames this beautiful memoir, yet it is the everyday detail of moving to a new and challenging environment, the all-consuming and yet completely mundane triumphs and setbacks that characterise trying to make your imagined life real, that carry the emotional weight of the book.


Marie Matteson is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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