Firstly Mr Wigg and then Where the Trees Were made me realise what an affinity with nature that Inga Simpson has. Each of her books has remained with me long afterwards, and after reading Understory, I realise why – she puts herself into them. Her eco-warrior values, her passion for preserving nature and landscape, and also small glimpses into her own persona, private yet completely peeled back to her own vulnerable layer.
Understory is the intimate and honest telling of her time living in the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast Queensland. She and her partner escape the confines of hectic city life, and work schedules, for a tree change on a leafy ten-acre block with dreams of finding time to fulfil their need for a simpler more authentic life in a place that reflects their love of the trees and of course nature itself.
The narrative is from the perspective of the language of trees. Inga exquisitely details the life of our Australian bushland by putting it into the layers that provide the ecosystem that allow it to flourish. There is the canopy, the middle story and the understory.
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The canopy layer provides an in-depth commentary on the nature of gum trees. I had previously not realised how different each one of the species is, and actually looked up photographs for a visual representation of each one so that her descriptions made more sense. However, her writing is so precise and so detailed, that I could see the picture of each leaf, limb, bough, trunk and bark in my mind’s eye. I felt such a sense of peace from her words as I learned more of the brush box, cedar, grey and rose gums, ironbarks, spotted gum, bloodwood, tallowwood and white mahogany. These trees shelter the layers below and are an integral part of the forest.
Inga threads her own life into the limbs of these trees. We see glimpses of her own childhood growing on a farm, of being an only child and of her career choices and relationships. Yet as she tells her story, she is at times economical with how she speaks of her own life and at others savagely raw in her honesty.
This really resonated with me as the details of her day to day life of writing, family, gardening and building up a writer’s retreat are woven into the forest itself. Her’s and her partner’s skirmishes with nature, the visits of koalas, snakes, frogs and birds, the petulance and uncertainty of the seasons and their effects on their wooden cottage all shimmer through the writing so beautifully that it was like I was watching the story, and not just reading it.
As a nature writer and ‘eco’ warrior, the approaching tide of bureaucracy and degradation from both electricity and real estate companies threaten this tiny paradise and Inga’s need to save the trees.
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In the Middlestory section, the layer between canopy and understory, her battle is reflected in her descriptions of how trunk and limb support the life of the tree. We read of the personalities of the trees, of lilly pilly, sheoaks and dogwood. There are frequent references to the Tolkien trilogy and the rising up of the ents as in our twenty-first century the trees are threatened by the GFC and the greed of human nature.
Understory, the third part of the memoir, tells of the sighting and plantings of the rare and beautiful Bunya, and how the more mundane creeper, vines and seedlings support and nourish the other layers. There is a sense of the grandeur and the sheer power of nature as severe heat waves, tropical storms and the degradation resulting from poorly made decisions by human beings impact the forest.
But what is probably most empowering about this book is that we see the path of her own growth as a writer as Inga faces a deep sadness due to the losses in her own life. What is so wonderful about this story is that it is so deeply personal, so brutally honest at times and yet it is not just another torrid ‘spill your guts’ celebrity memoir penned by another idealistic city dweller off to find themselves in nature.
Understory is a brilliant, insightful memoir, exquisitely written. It will remain with me for a long time. When I gaze up into the green canopies above me, I will never look at a gum tree the same way again. Thank you, Inga Simpson.