Last year as part of my studies, I completed a creative writing unit called Writing About Place. We conducted roving workshops in the natural and urban environment, explored personal essays and short stories about the importance of place and were required to select two texts to review, as well as write our own fiction and non-fiction pieces. When choosing a nature book to review, Inga Simpson’s book, Where the Trees Were (2016), immediately came to mind. Inga Simpson is an Australian writer known for her love of nature.
First of all, the blurb…
Finding a grove of carved trees forged a bond between Jay and her four childhood friends and opened their eyes to a wider world. But their attempt to protect the grove ends in disaster, and that one day on the river changes their lives forever.
Seventeen years later, Jay finally has her chance to make amends. But at what cost? Not every wrong can be put right, but sometimes looking the other way is no longer an option.
and now the review…
In the summer holidays of 1987, Jay and her friends spend their days on the river, swimming, climbing trees and catching yabbies. When they discover a grove of carved trees, they immediately sense the need for secrecy and swear an oath to protect the trees. Inga Simpson’s Where the Trees Were follows Jay and her friends as they negotiate adolescence, relationships and high school, while trying to keep their promise to each other and the trees. However, two incidents occur that will test their friendship and change their lives forever.
Moving back and forth in time, from Jay’s childhood home in the Lachlan Valley to Canberra 2004, where she works as a conservator at the National Museum, the story pulls together the themes of identity, Indigenous Land Rights, conservation and the consequences of secrets. Simpson deftly negotiates the shifts in time and place by alternating the narration between first and third person, while still maintaining Jay’s point of view.
Where the Trees Were is Simpson’s third book and was shortlisted for an Indie Book Award, as well as being longlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Australian Book Industry Awards, and the Green Carnation Prize. Simpson has also been a winner of the Eric Rolls Nature Essay Prize. She describes Where the Trees Were as “a deeply personal story” and her passion for nature is evident throughout the book. Nature is everywhere. It is not just in Jay’s observations of the stringy barks and red gums that line the river, or the dragonflies, cockatoos and platypus, but the way the river and the trees speak to her. Even in Canberra, Jay is constantly aware of the plane trees and currawongs, the crimson rosellas and the fresh snow on the Brindabellas. Simpson brings an attention to the detail of nature that enlivens the senses.
However, Where the Trees Were does more than just draw the reader’s attention to the nature that surrounds them. While Jay carts grain before heading off to university, she notes, “That harvest was theirs; they were part of it, almost part of the land itself.” Food, and the harvesting of food from nature, is everywhere, from the simple roast pork and vegetables, to the fancy dishes of the Canberra cafés, from gathering blackberries and apples along the river, to drinking a nice red from the local winery. Simpson gently underscores the relationship we have with nature, no matter how urbane our lives might be, and our responsibility for its protection.
Where the Trees Were is a beautifully told story that evokes memories of a more carefree time, when children could wander and explore from dawn to dusk, discover the secrets of the natural world, climb trees and camp out under the stars. It calls us away from our screens, to see and hear and reconnect with nature and each other.
Reconnecting with Nature
As I read Where the Trees Were, I was inspired by Inga to recapture some of that connection we have with nature. Living in a regional city, it is easy to forget that the food from the supermarket, packaged and labelled in plastic, once started life as a living, growing plant. I wanted to reconnect with nature by growing and harvesting food from our garden, to feel it’s freshness as we prepare it in our own kitchen, and taste the textures and flavours straight from our plate.
We only have a small courtyard, but we have started growing a few vegetables and herbs in pots. We’ve planted spring onions, leeks, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, capsicums, lettuce and a wide range of herbs. It is quite surprising how much you can grow in a small courtyard when you put your mind to it. We’ve even got some climbing snow peas.
There were a few stops and starts, like remembering that plants need water too, but finally we achieved our goal – a garden salad where everything came from our garden. It was actually pretty exciting. I’m having to wait now for the next handful of cherry tomatoes to ripen, but it feels good to add a little something from the garden, even if it’s only some fresh herbs.
I love the way a book can have a direct impact on your life. It is one of the things that I think is so important about literature. It can take us physical places like the Lachlan Valley or Canberra, but it can also take us to places in our mind, where we can reflect on the one question that sits at the heart of our being: what does it mean to be human? As we read, we discover a little more about ourselves, our relationship with the world and with each other. Where the Trees Were invites us to leave the office once in a while and reconnect with nature. It may even rekindle some childhood memories of your own.
Inga Simpson (2016), Where the Trees Were, Hachette.