Answering the Call of the Wild: One Woman’s Year in the Australian Bush
The priority of survival is shelter. Then comes water, fire and lastly, food. Shelter. Water. Fire. Food. Shelter. Water. Fire. Food. For journalist and nature advocate, Claire Dunn, this became somewhat of a mantra as she toiled with her bare hands to survive a year in the unforgiving Australian bush. Many people might wonder what would compel a woman to leave behind a job, a five-year relationship and the comforts of urban living to rough it in the wilderness for an entire year. For Claire, it wasn’t a question of: Is this wise? Can I do this? Rather, it was an unwavering, burning and soul-defining need to answer the call of the wild.
After working as an environmental campaigner for the better part of a decade, Claire’s call to the wild shook her to the core. Lying on the coffee-stained floor of her former office, Claire was overcome with disillusionment and exhaustion. She no longer felt passionate about her advocacy work; she just felt employed and completely disconnected from what she was fighting for. “It was a turning point for me. I was lying there thinking, ‘this life is not what I need. And my body is telling me that’. It was a clear signal that this was not where I should be. I couldn’t ignore it anymore.”
The universe has a funny way of pushing us towards our purpose, whether we are ready for it or not, and soon after Claire’s realisation, an email popped into her inbox advertising a workshop in nature philosophy. Over a few days, she learnt how to build a survival shelter from leaf litter, pounded wattleseed for pancakes, sewed a corner of a piece of hide into a pouch and had her first go at making fire from sticks. She says, “In those moments, I felt so alive.” For Claire, this was the beginning of rediscovering her place and purpose in the world.
It wasn’t long before Claire quit her job and started enrolling in more short courses to build her bush skills and knowledge. Armed with new skills, Claire and five other participants began their year-long sojourn into the bush as part of the Guunuwa Independent Wilderness Studies Program. Over the next year, the group would be living on a 40ha bush block on the edge of Sherwood Nature Reserve, 25km south of Grafton on the NSW North Coast. They would learn from ecologists how to read the landscape and weather, understand birdsong and classify plants. They would also spend time with local Gumbayanggir elders, who would impart their knowledge of the Aboriginal use of the land. From the initial requirement of building their own primitive shelters, Claire and the group would go on to learn how to make fire without matches, skin and tan hides, hunt and trap, mould pottery, track, gather bush food, weave baskets and navigate the bush. For Claire, learning these skills was her “birthright”.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve spent a lot of time in nature because I grew up on a farm by a river. I’ve always had that connection to nature. I spent a lot of my childhood swimming in the river, making mud houses and playing around.” Despite all her wilderness and survival skills training, she still had no real way of knowing what it would be like to spend an entire year living in the wild. It’s easy enough to spend time in the bush, getting muddy and pushing your body to exhaustion when you know you have a warm bed and shower back home. But what happens with the bush is your home?
The rules of the program were – well – there weren’t any rules. Initially heading into the program, Claire craved solitude, yet over the course of the year, she came to learn that she didn’t need to do it all alone. “I needed the support of a tribe,” she says. She even coined a term for it – ‘supported solitude’. “You’re alone, but you’re not alone. It’s not as fierce or raw, but it almost allows you to go deeper into the soul because you’re not having to confront all the fear and isolation that comes with really being alone.”
However, Claire’s primary decision to enter the wild did not come from a desire for solitude – but a deep yearning to reconnect with nature. “It’s part of our original design. Through the bulk of human history, we have been intimately connected with the earth. It’s in our genetic makeup. Our nervous system expects a very strong connection to nature and others. So when we don’t get that, we do not develop the full potential of the human being. Nature is a healer; it’s a teacher. If we want to thrive, we need strong connections to nature – like a kind of nature literacy.”
Claire uses the term ‘re-wilding’ – which she sees as an integral part of fully developing as a human. Re-wilding for Claire meant reducing the ‘busyness’ of her mind and just being present in humankind’s natural habitat. She read books, walked barefoot in nature, reflected and absorbed her surroundings. She fasted, danced naked in a storm and built a shelter. She created fire without matches. She learnt not to self-judge so harshly. And maybe most importantly, she learnt how to be a ‘wild woman’.
“My year in the bush was a kind of rite of passage. It was a truly transformational time. The term wildness has all sorts of connotations, and the wild woman is a powerful archetype throughout history. There is a time in one’s life when the wild within and often the wild outside calls you. You can keep ignoring that call, but it will keep popping up at different times of your life until you say yes.”
The original article first appeared in Travel Play Live Issue 7 Autumn 2017
Written By Ally Burnie