“Trees tell stories about places … When you first stand in a forest, the trees all seem the same. But if you look more closely, they are each a little different, like people.” (The Book of Australian Trees)
I have read and loved all of Inga Simpson’s novels for adults – Mr Wigg, Nest and Where the Trees Were, as well as her memoir, Understory: a life with trees. Understory, in particular, has changed my awareness of trees and my response to them.
Inga’s books are all immersed in the natural world
I was very excited to see that Inga has now written a book for children, The Book of Australian Trees (Lothian Children’s Books).
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Inga.
After writing for adults, why have you now decided to write a children’s book, The Book of Australian Trees?
When Understory came out a few people suggested a version for younger people, with illustrations or pictures. And the sense of wonder I have for trees is often characterised as childlike! When I went looking to see what was already out there, I was shocked to find that there were no books exclusively on Australian trees – and that settled it, really.
These days my main reason for writing is to (re)connect people with the natural world. Where better to start, than with a young audience. I find that young people don’t need much help appreciating trees, once you point out a couple of things they really engage: physically, emotionally and intellectually.
From an environmental perspective, it is our young people who will inherit the world we made. I’m hoping that seeing trees as individual species, even characters – and their importance for us and other animals – inspires more care and understanding in readers of all ages.
In what settings were you writing this book? Sitting under trees? Viewing trees from your home? …
The actual writing of the book took place at an ironbark table looking out through southern mahogany gums (Eucalyptus botryoides) and coastal banksias (Banksia Integrifolia), to the sea. There are lots of old man banksias (banksia serrata) and spotted gums (Corymbia Maculata) nearby, casuarinas, too. So I was also able to refine many of my sentences while I walked each day.
I imagine it must have difficult to decide which trees to include, or which to leave out. How did you decide?
It was hard to leave trees out. I have enough material for at least two more books. And I keep meeting more amazing trees! I wanted to feature a broad spread of species, not just eucalypts, and a range of landscapes. I also wanted to stick to trees I had seen myself, so as to be able to describe them better.
How have you organised or sequenced the book?
Again, just mixing up the different species and attributes. From the outset, I knew that the spotted gum would be first, and the mountain ash would come last. The rest just flowed.
You are highly regarded for your nature writing. What does nature writing mean to you?
It’s really just how I live my life. Walking, keeping a nature journal, reading, writing, and, more recently, taking photographs, are all part of my daily practice. My writing inspiration comes from the overlap between the natural world and my imagination. Increasingly, I’m trying to live as part of nature. And in my writing, I’m trying to break down the separation between us and the more-than-human world – a rewilding or restorying, if you like.
I get so much joy, inspiration, and calm from the natural world, but there’s a burden, too. Of knowing how much damage has been done, the threats so many species are facing. My writing is how I’m trying to make a difference.
Did you provide illustrator Alicia Rogerson with photos of the trees you’ve featured in the book or were you involved in some other way with the research into the pictures?
Alicia worked only from my words, and her own research – and has done an amazing job. Coming from the west coast, there were trees Alicia probably hasn’t seen a lot of. I sent through pictures of old man banksia flowers late in the piece – they are so distinctive and different from most other banksias. But really it was Alicia’s brilliance with the brush.
You probably like all the trees you have included them in the book, but which one would you like to highlight here and why?
The spotted gums are my favourite. Their markings are so distinctive. And forests of them, undersown with cycads, are so beautiful and calming to my eye. In my region, they also survived the fires of Black Summer better than many other species, including the biggest recorded spotted gum, Old Blotchy, so they seem even more remarkable to me now.
What are you working on now?
I’m in the later stages of a new literary novel for adults, called Willowman. It’s about a traditional cricket batmaker and an opening batter, set in Australia’s recent past.
What else are you reading and keen to recommend at the moment?
A lovely book of essays called Where We Swim by NZ author, Ingrid Horrocks (UQP). Janine Burke’s new book, My Forests: travels with trees (Miegunyah Press). And, for younger readers, the gorgeous Bindi by Kirli Saunders (Magabala Books), which has swept the awards pools.
I very much enjoyed reading your factual text in The Book of Australian Trees, Inga. You incorporate information which sparks curiosity as well as the imagination. This book will help another generation love trees.
Thanks, Joy! And thank you for the opportunity. 😊
The Book of Australian Trees at Hachette