Inga Simpson is a Writer and Woman of the Trees
Nature, and trees in particularly, have always been a theme in Inga Simpson’s award-winning books of fiction – Mr Wigg; Nest and Where the Trees Were. Inga’s latest offering is her first book of nature writing, Understory, a memoir of her and her former partner’s tale of abandon, leaving their lives and careers in Brisbane behind in order to follow their dream of living and writing amongst the trees. It’s a story of boldness, of dropping out in order to drop in to a life defined by nature.
We chat to Inga about taking a leap, her discovery of a creative and inspired life, and what it means to spend one’s time grounded in the rhythms, wisdom and observation of trees.
You and your partner made a bold step in leaving your lives in Brisbane behind in order to buy and commit to living on your property in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. Initially, did you feel as if you were abandoning a conventional, urban life? Was this a good feeling, terrifying, or a mix of both? It was good. And a little terrifying. But I had wanted to do it for a long time. I’d been spending my weekends and holidays up the coast. I wanted that to be my life, to not have to go back to the city. Initially when we moved we still had those lifelines, we were still working, commuting into the city. So it was a parachute kind of jump, not a freefall. Though I soon came to resent having to commute, turn up to an office. After we moved, I’d go back to the city on Monday morning and going to work through all the construction, into an office building, felt like a bit of an assault. On Sunday afternoon before work I felt really depressed about going back to the thoughtless life, in the sense of not being aware of what’s happening in the natural world, not having the mental space to think and daydream.
It did feel like being on a conveyor belt; in a rat race. I was dedicated to the idea of living self-sufficiently, sustainably, privately.”
You’re not quite ready for your treechange, but seize the opportunity when it presents itself. A lot of things happen in this memoir before you’re quite ready, but you jump at the chance anyhow. I’m interested in this philosophy of living (although perhaps it isn’t a philosophy for you). This leap first and ask most of the questions later attitude. Have you always approached life like this, do you think? I am a bit reckless, I guess. I’m an Aries. I prefer to act now, not yesterday, not tomorrow. It makes me a bit impulsive, perhaps. We [Inga’s partner, described as ‘N’ in the memoir] thought we were bulletproof together, and liked the idea of making something out of nothing [Inga and N decide to buy the block of land next door too, in order to create a writers’ retreat and protect the land from clearing]. But financially it was reckless, particularly the retreat. I look back on that decision a lot; a for sale sign can seem like fate. It seemed good to put the properties back together. I did regret it for a long time but now, not really. How can you? You can’t take one part of your life out without impacting on all the others. I’ve landed on my feet. It taught me a lesson, which was an important one to learn. I had made a treechange but was still buying into all that crap about ownership, property, the market.
Each chapter of Understory explores a different species of tree, found on your property. What inspired this device of storytelling? Did you explore each tree species individually as a way of organising your nature writing, and also of triggering your own memories and reflections on your personal life? That was a way of organising the material and stories that I had, and allowed me to focus on one species at a time. It’s partly me learning about each tree as I went, so it was a genuine, rather than completely imposed structure. I found that some of those species triggered stories, of animals and people, my childhood. But the overall structure [Inga’s memoir is divided into three parts – canopy; middlestorey and understorey] happened very late. I was searching for something that made sense; often it can be the months or the seasons, but that’s been done. I was talking with my publisher and editor about the title. I think she actually suggested ‘canopy’. I thought, that’s not quite right, but it’s good. I came up with understory, and in the process of doing that I broke the forest up, and my personal story too.
How would you articulate the ways in which the trees on your property inform and ground your writing? Were trees your inspiration, your companions, your overarching metaphors? In the chapter on rose gums, you write: ‘This rose gum is part of a mini-forest on the pocket of ground between the two studios, with an ironbark, three young mahogany gums, a lilly pilly, three wattles and a dogwood for company… Through the square windows looking over the orchard I can see the base of the slender young rose gum curving into the embrace of her brush box companion. Whenever I write, this triumvirate of grand trees have my back.’ They were definitely protection, from the road, from the human made world, and they were certainly a comfort and company when I was there on my own. I had to learn how to live there. They hadn’t changed, they were the same, whatever had happened, and I found that very steady and sturdy.
It was solace, but it was more than that. I was learning how to live as part of that forest, trying to be more like them, slow everything down, think big picture.”
To be writing about them felt like a treat but also a challenge in how to represent that for the reader to convey some of what I felt, how they sparked up my imagination. When I feel good it’s being surrounded by trees. It must be something very deep and subconscious. They’re very important to me, and I didn’t really know that till I lived there. I think that’s why it brought out the very best of my writing.
You write too that ‘it was such a rich and fertile time, my imagination unfurling before me…’ Did your capacity to imagine and write expand, mimicking the fertility of the natural world outside your windows, living amongst the trees? Definitely. The more time I spent there, the more I would see. I read Victoria Whitworth’s ‘Swimming with Seals’ and she writes, ‘I may come here every day, but I have never yet come to the same place twice.’ I just kept noticing right up to the last day. It did seem like this endless pit of material for the nurturing of my imagination. It was this really rapid expansion of my writing, much more than a uni degree…
Nature writing is not just about place, it’s the writers’ reflection or feelings for, and perception of, a particular place. I felt like the landscape was feeding my imagination and then I was writing this stuff that was coming out of that.”
Certainly when I was living there I was in a sort of dream state. A lot of the time I wasn’t talking to anyone from outside. I was alone with my thoughts but surrounded by all those trees. There was a merging of the physical world and my imaginative space. I was almost held by those trees, wherever I went.
You weren’t published before you moved to the property. Was there a significant change to your practice as a writer after you abandoned the city for your cedar cottage in the hinterland? I think having a studio, the time, and a designated space that was inspiring, as well as privacy and quiet, no man made noise, all calmed me down, and gave me that imaginative and intellectual space. Without that white noise I could just focus. At the same time I was reading all this nature writing. It helped me realise that’s what I wanted to do; write about the natural world. The minute I finished reading Walden, it brought everything together. I’d finished my creative writing PhD after we moved as well, so I guess I was in a good space to start. I followed that advice to write what you know or only you could write, so I was finding my unique voice. But ultimately, I think the property gave me the space to calm down. To sleep inside a forest at night is very peaceful, and calmed me on a very deep level. It’s very grounding to live that way, to get around in work boots, get dirty. I felt more real.
When things fall apart a bit, financially and personally, you are left on the property alone. You write: ‘A tree out on its own grows much stronger than one in the shade of others. It has to fend for itself, put out root systems strong and deep enough to withstand winds and rain from all directions… A lone tree does not have to compete for light or space or nutrients; it can grow as tall and wide as it likes, drop its limbs with freedom… This, it seems, is what I must do.’ I got strength from the trees, for sure. At a certain point I thought, ‘I am just going to continue on. I wanted this life, I love this life’. I was taking lessons from trees. I guess I imposed that metaphor on the story later; there’s some art in that. I had to come up with metaphors to talk about the loss of my relationship. I was observing myself from a position of hindsight and thinking, ‘you’re a lone tree now’.
You also abandon some of the heaviness of your emotional load on a visit to the Bunya forest. You write: ‘For a moment, I drift into geologic time, conceiving the millions of years of memory in these trees’ DNA. All of the things that I worry so much about fall away. I am nothing, and yet – part of everything. The clarity, while beautiful, brings me to my knees.’ The trees that were the impetus for your original leap to abandon your city life deliver you an epiphany, another message of letting go. Being in such an ancient forests gives you perspective. Bunya is a link for me to the indigenous people of this country. It reminds me of the length of time indigenous Australians have been here compared with non-indigenous.
I have no genetic links to this continent, but the majesty of those trees – there’s something almost otherwordly about that forest I could still feel.”
That was a good long walk, which worked for me as a kind of therapy, letting thoughts bubble to the surface, getting that perspective back, considering where I fit on the scale of things. I was hesitant to put things like that in the book; but I was able to walk away lighter.
In the epilogue, you write about having to leave your home, that you were ‘forced out of your habitat, like so many other creatures.’ It’s a financial thing. You worry about what will happen to the place, the koalas, wallabies, small birds, frogs, trees, seedlings. And what will happen to you. But you reflect: ‘… if the forest has taught me anything, it is that everything changes, nothing is permanent. It was never really mine.’ Was that lesson from the trees integral in you letting the property go? It was very hard to come up with that paragraph. It took me a long time, but when it came, it was like, ‘thankgod’ in terms of the writing process. It was an epiphany. Letting go of it, really in the end, was just as important as buying it. It helped me let go of this idea of ownership and assets. I was engaged in a legal battle about debt, I was quite caught up in that, and it was quite liberating to know I didn’t have to own it. Why did I have to own it? What a weird idea, to think I owned it. That was the completion of something, that realisation brought a resolution, or a greater sense of enlightenment in my journey of living close to nature, and more in tune. The forest did teach me that. It also meant I could walk away from other things, like the emotional baggage I was walking with. It meant I could be free of that, as well as debt. It was scary, but I felt a lot of relief.
Lastly, you have a PhD in nature writing. Can you recommend some of your favourite nature writers for Planthunter readers to explore? Mark Tredinnick’s The Blue Plateau – he writes really beautifully and reading him and meeting him part of my journey into nature writing
Kim Mahood writes about our desert landscapes and indigenous Australia. I recommend Craft For a Dry Lake and Position Doubtful: Mapping Landscapes and Memories
Annamaria Weldon’s essay Threshold Country, about a unique landscape near Margaret River, is a good model for those interested in nature writing in my view. It’s a best practice example of acknowledging prior ownership of the first people’s and combining that with her own story in a respectful way.