Wild woman Claire Dunn: a Me V Myself survival story

IT WAS another morning of missing lunchbox lids and avoided voicemails when a familiar voice cut through my muted fear and loathing.

It was my former uni housemate Claire Dunn. The Hunter Valley girl is all grown up and she's promoting her new book A Year Without Matches on breakfast television.

Her book chronicles her year spent in Gumbaynggirr Nation near Grafton with six others.

In search of herself, Claire spent 12 months in "supported solitude", triggering an unexpected detoxification process, an "emotional cleansing" that flushed her system with old memories and "monkey-mind" voices. It wasn't on her agenda, but it was good; re-introducing her to the wild woman - an archetypal energy resisting domestication.

"I was burnt out. Exhausted and getting really disillusioned. I felt like I was skimming the surface," she explained to her TV hosts when asked why she decided to give up her stressful job and relationship to find herself in the forest.

Claire and I hadn't connected properly for 15 years. Her path as a forest campaigner with the Wilderness Society running parallel to mine as a working mum from Lismore with Tupperware issues. But clearly we'd ended up in the same place. Deskbound, Domesticated. Desperately disillusioned.

So when she later toured town as a "rewilding" advocate and author, our paths crossed. Unlike the TV hosts, I wasn't interested in a Bear Grylls-style Man versus Wild narrative. Hers was clearly a Me versus Myself survival story.

I had to know. How did her wild woman come out on top?

With temperatures below minus 10 degrees recorded nearby over winter, a fire provides central heating and also allows indoor cooking during long periods of summer rain. But building your house from dried grass has its hazards.
With temperatures below minus 10 degrees recorded nearby over winter, a fire provides central heating and also allows indoor cooking during long periods of summer rain. But building your house from dried grass has its hazards. Ben Ey

Why did you heed the call to the wild?

I was feeling the relentless onwardsness of everything. There was a momentum behind my life that felt out of my control, me merely a passenger on it. A naturopath said I was on the brink of chronic fatigue. But it wasn't just the job, but the tight-knit community that I was nested in, and the long-term partner, were all more demands on my energy and my time. I felt like a bulk of me lay under the surface waiting to be discovered and it wasn't until I took myself away, alone, and in the wilds, that I would discover what that looked like.

Around that time, I attended a course in wilderness survival skills and nature awareness. Over the next few days, I learnt how to build a survival shelter from leaf litter, collected rainforest spinach down a wild creek and had my first go at making fires from sticks. I pounded wattle seed for pancakes, scrubbed a kangaroo hide and slept by the fire. All thoughts of the election campaign and the endless to-do list vanished. I felt more alive than I could ever remember feeling.

The experience awakened in me a Call to the Wild - a deep desire to dive beneath the surface of civilised life.

 

Who was this wild woman you discovered?

It was really instinctive and wild, and very elemental. It wanted to absolutely know through physical form: earth, air, fire, water. It didn't want to play nice anymore. This woman wanted to tell absolute truth and be in absolute integrity, and sometimes that would feel very fierce.

 

Why is change so scary?

On a survival level humans are hard-wired to fear change - a perceived threat to our very survival. And yet above or beyond that is a desire for coming into greater self-awareness and knowledge, for greater meaning and connection with something larger than us. The desire for transformation and evolution is as strong as the fear of it.

Of course we often have a romantic notion of what change looks like - like we just open up and in floods happiness, calm and wisdom. Yet anyone who has learnt meditation knows that is not usually the case. Just as the caterpillar has to turn to goo before being reassembled as a butterfly - so too do we often need to dissolve our old patterns and ways of being to make space for the new. This is often a painful process, and if we're open to it, happens again and again through our lifetime.

A short hike from home, the Sunrise Tree provides an elevated view of the banksia heath around Claire Dunn’s camp. Though morning mist obscured the sun on this visit, on clear days it’s one of the few places nearby with a view of the early morning sun.
A short hike from home, the Sunrise Tree provides an elevated view of the banksia heath around Claire Dunn’s camp. Though morning mist obscured the sun on this visit, on clear days it’s one of the few places nearby with a view of the early morning sun. Ben Ey

There seems to be so many problems in the world. Taking the time to focus on yourself seems so selfish …

I have come to understand activism in a much broader sense these days which helps me place where my contribution lies. According to Joanna Macy, there are three spheres of activism. The first is "holding actions" which is what we traditionally think of as activism - saving forests, protecting species, stopping wars, feeding the homeless - those immediate on-ground actions to slow down the destruction.

Then there are "alternative structures" which are all the new and innovative ideas replacing the old. The third sphere is the foundation - creating the very values shift in our hearts, minds and spirits that is necessary if we are to make a change from an industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society. Healing the separation between nature and humans is part of this, and my desire to remember and deeply experience my ecological identity and then write about it in my book lies firmly within that sphere.

 

How did immersing yourself in wild places change your perspective and benefit those around you?

There is currently a call to "rewild" our landscapes - to bring back top order predators and repopulate the land with wild creatures. So too do we need to cultivate and repopulate the wilds of our inner environment. We have become too domestic, our minds and senses dulled by constant stimulation.

By immersing ourselves in more-than-human environments, we provide an opportunity to enter more fully into conversation with the wild outside and the wild within. Our wild imaginations awaken to the possibilities of what our individual and collective lives can embody, what stories they might tell.

Rewilding as I see it is a re-awakening of our instinctual selves; playful, imaginative, fierce, animal-like, embodied. It is a raw and unfiltered intimacy both with the external world and the internal. Through this process we can rub up against our "essential self" which is unconditioned by society and remember the forgotten passions and visions we hold in our hearts. Rewilding is about cultivating a wild and passionate heart, and following those impulses without doubt or fear.

 

What are some things that people can do to live a more wild, passionate and authentic life?

For me, spending time in nature both alone and with others provides this trigger for me to feel vibrant and alive, to remember what I really love, and to translate that into what next steps I need to take in my life. For others that may come through dance or music or gardening or mountain biking. I don't know. But doing what really brings your heart and soul alive, and asking the deeper questions of "How I can best serve in the healing of the world?" is a good start.

 

How can a wild woman live in the city?

I'm much more aware of the trees and birds and wild things growing around me. On another level my entire way of relating to the world and to myself has shifted. My relationship with the natural world is much more intimate. Not a distant cousin any more but a good friend whose presence is palpable. I go to wild places regularly and just sit with this friend and experience myself as part of a larger web of relations.



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