Understory: A Life with Trees reviewed by Annie

I have loved Inga Simson’s novels more and more each time. Her last, Where the Trees Were, was my favourite book of 2016. I was interested when she told me, when I was lucky enough to meet her, that she felt her memoir was her best work yet.

She writes so beautifully in any format. For this book she has broken it up into chapters, each headed with a different species of tree. She starts with some details about the trees, their history from both an Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. Most of them are the trees surrounding the property she bought with her then partner. They left their city jobs and sought to set up a retreat for writers like them.

This is Kabi Kabi country, with a history as long as human memory. In the relative blink of an eye, it has been stolen, logged, cleared, farmed, developed, bought and sold. Somewhere at the heart of things is my unease at loving a place while knowing how I came to it, and an understanding that whatever connection I might feel lacks the depth of culture and language. It’s a lot to reconcile.

They face all sorts of setbacks. ‘It was insult on injury. Despite the massive lines running six hundred metres from the house, we didn’t have enough power to run an oven’,. but ‘finally working for myself, on our own place, doing something I was passionate about, my energy never seemed to run out’.

Then her partner leaves and she has to learn to survive alone. ‘I used to wish I had a little more quiet, a little more time to myself. Now there is too much’.

She keeps going with the tenacity that is clearly within her. When she skinned her nose ‘the previous scab had not healed before I did it again. There is probably a metaphor there for the way I live my life, beginning a long history of damage to my face’.

She clearly has a passion for the environment and the trees themselves, almost humanising them.

Living among these trunks, surrounded by them day and night, in all weather, all seasons, I have come to think of them as company, as fellow creatures. Individual trees have a presence, and different parts of the property have a different sound and feeling, depending on the dominant trees and the groupings of species.

And

It is probably foolish to listen to trees: the rustle of their leaves, the surge of their sap, their limbs squeaking against those of others. Yet it makes much more sense than what I hear from the world outside.

It seems she does ‘learn the language of trees’ and found that ‘living among trees, amid the green, has allowed further regrowth. I came here to look after them, but the truth is, they look after me’.

This is quite different to her works of fiction. It is what she refers to as nature writing. There is also an intensely personal layer to it, and that was what was most fascinating to me.

 

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