Claire Dunn is interviewed By John Bennett

Claire Dunn is a freelance journalist, workshop facilitator, and writer interested in the human-nature connection. She lives in Newcastle and was a guest of the 2012 Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival (BRWF).

In 2010 Claire spent a year in the bush learning wilderness survival skills, building her own shelter, lighting fires without matches etc. Articles about the experience have appeared in The Australian Geographic (Spring 2011), and the essay anthology Fire published in 2013.
First of all welcome back Claire to the BRWF and congratulations on your new book ‘A Year Without Matches: Escaping the City in Search of the Wild’, which will be published by Black Inc just in time for this year’s festival.

1. What was most difficult about that year of living wild?
The most difficult experience of the year in the wild was my expectations of what I thought the year would be smacking up against the reality. Despite unburdening myself of most of my belongings, I brought with me swags of ideals about what I wanted to do with my days. In reality, just looking after the basics – shelter, water, fire and food – was often all consuming. The weather dictated much else. The freedom and spaciousness I sought was often marred by a critical voice telling me that what I was doing wasn’t up to scratch.

2. How have the experiences of that wild year affected your daily life today?
I find it hard to be on a computer for more than a few hours a day, living within four walls is claustrophobic, and I often roll out my swag and sleep on the floor next to the bed. 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 anymore 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.

3. You won the Byron Bay manuscript pitch competition in August, how did you approach that opportunity?
I probably would have been too scared to apply had it not been for my friend David Roland who won the pitch the year before me. The thought of putting my work out there in a competitive arena like the pitch was terrifying. What if the publishers thought it was uncommercial? It would be hard to finish the manuscript if I didn’t receive good feedback. Instead I took the wise advice of seizing any opportunity to make visible your work and your passion. Before I went on stage my knees were shaking. Once I starting talking about the year, I almost felt like I was back there in my shelter by the fire, and a powerful calm came over me. I knew the story was touching people.

4. The win got you published, an achievement – how was publication process?
The win got me an agent, which then opened doors to publishers. I signed with a publisher (Black Inc) who wasn’t represented at the pitch but who loved my work and who I felt had a great track record for promoting new writers in innovative ways. Suddenly I had a team – publisher, publicist, editor. When my editor said to think of her as my personal cheerleader, and to contact her whenever my doubts arose, that’s when I knew I had entered into a completing different world of writing. It was an amazing relief to be suddenly supported after going it alone for so long.

5. Your manuscript was called ‘My Wild Heart’, how did the change come about?
The title has had a few incarnations. My Wild Heart was my initial idea. At the NWRC residential, the feedback was that it was a bit wishy-washy. I came up with A Year Without Matches but then before the pitch changed it to Rewilding the Soul which I still really love. My publishers changed it back to My Year Without Matches: Escaping the City in Search of the Wild which I agree describes more clearly what the story is.

6. For 99% of our history, humans lived solely by hunting and gathering before the invention of farming. Now only a few thousand (at a guess) still live this way. This is a huge change. What are we losing in your opinion?
By its very nature surviving on the land by way of nomadic hunting and gathering necessitates an incredibly close relationship to the earth. Your senses have to be fine-tuned. You have to know the seasons and the weather and the directions. You have to know your prey almost like they were kin in order to have the skill to hunt them. Farming is another kind of intimacy but it’s not the same. I don’t have any rose coloured glasses about wanting to return to hunting and gathering however its demise has come at a cost. We no longer see ourselves as inextricably linked to the natural world. It’s a dangerous illusion to live by. There is much to be gained from relearning these skills and integrating them into our modern life.

7. Thoreau’s essay ‘Walking’ began as a lecture called ‘The Wild’, famous for the line, “In wildness is the preservation of the world”, a rallying cry of environmental movements. Is there enough wildness left in the world and in us?
There is a scene early in my book where I am lying on the floor of The Wilderness Society office where I worked as a campaigner, exhausted and disillusioned. “What really needed saving here?” I wondered. “Was I too busy “saving” something else to see what was dying within? Something just as wild, just as threatened, something only I could save?”
I was pouring all my energy into saving wild places and had forgotten to feed and nurture the wild within. It is a key theme of the book.
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 protect the wilds of our inner environment. We have become too domestic, our minds and sense dulled by constant stimulation. By hanging out 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.

8. Are you an optimist about our future when many predict water and food wars as the natural environment stresses under the weight of 7 billion people and rising, all wanting a good standard of living. I.e. do you think learning to make fire with sticks will become a useful skill?
My motivation for learning survival skills was not in preparation for the apocalypse. I don’t have a bunker stacked with baked bean tins and snare wire. I was drawn to learning these skills because it was the most powerful and direct way I discovered to reconnect with the earth. They make me feel truly alive. I’m neither an optimist or a pessimist about the future. I am a believer in Harold Thurman’s philosophy: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

9. In the last issue of Southerly, I ask “How can humans connect with the wild and natural? Making these connections can slow the momentum of our ecological crisis.” My argument is that through natural aesthetics: experiencing nature directly and creating or becoming intimate with art about nature, we can come to appreciate a nature when so many are urban dwellers alienated from natural processes and environments. What would your take on this be?
The way we spend time in wild places is important. Of course it’s lovely to go on a bushwalk or to have your daily walk or jog in the forest or dig in your garden. But there also needs to be time where we enter into wild places without an agenda. Instead of a walk from point A to B we enter with openness, with curiosity, a willingness to be taken someplace and discover something new. Our senses re-engage, and our imaginations blossom. This is often the originations of nature-based art, and ignites a heart-felt sense of belonging to the larger world, which as you say, naturally flows to how sensitively we live within our ecological niche.

10. In your first BRWF as well as being on panels (one with me, ‘Writing as a daily practice’) you hosted a ‘Weaving stories / weaving string: Busy hands loosens tongues’ event. Is there anything you’d like to do in this year’s festival?
I’m looking forward to having a book to read from this year! Perhaps around a fire that has been lit by hand, and shared with many other wild hearts.

Thanks very much for your time Claire and we look forward to seeing at BRWF 2104, June Long weekend.