Re-wilding with Claire Dunn
On a mission to deeply reconnect with nature, author and wildness expert Claire Dunn went to live in the bush for twelve months, with only the clothes on her back. Now a city dweller, Claire is showing, through her latest research, that you can re-wild yourself anywhere, even in your own backyard.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m based in Melbourne, and my focus for the past fifteen years has been researching and exploring nature connection and ways we can reconnect with communities. I run a business called Nature’s Apprentice, which offers wilderness rites of passage, deep nature connections, reconnection workshops, retreats and one-on-one mentoring. I’ve also written about my experiments in the two books My Year Without Matches and Rewilding the Urban Soul.
What kind of childhood did you have?
I had a free-ranging childhood with not much screen time. I grew up in a family of five kids on a farm in the Hunter Valley, on a river. It was very much an outdoors lifestyle. My parents are both horticulturalists and farmers. We were constantly surrounded by plants and food growing, rivers, trees and adventures. We were also a very high-achieving, academic, sporty type of family. But it was quite a nature-connected childhood, which I feel really grateful for.
Before you started Nature’s Apprentice, what were you doing?
I worked for lots of grassroots environmental organisations, including working as a campaign manager for the Wilderness Society for many years.
I started realising that the root cause of the ecological crisis, and the reason we keep having to save all these places and species, is Western culture’s profound disconnection—its separation from the natural world and also from the sense of community. It was a really strong pivot for me to start addressing the human–nature connection and ways we can experience our interconnectedness.
The first book you wrote was My Year Without Matches. It’s the story of how you lived and survived in the bush for a year. Was this a result of you wanting to connect more deeply?
It was such a strong calling and it was way beyond what the rational mind could understand. All I know is that wilderness survival skills, bushcraft and shamanic practice—like ceremony and so forth—became a thread I had to follow. It was compelling.
I certainly knew that it was about reconnecting myself to more than the human world. I knew I had to leave the busy city world behind, and the campaigning life behind, and enter into a deep listening place and ask myself the really important questions of who am I, what am I doing here, what’s my purpose here on earth, and who am I without all my names and labels. It was more an initiatory journey than anything else.
How do you prepare to go live in the bush for a year?
One of the things I did was spend time at a tracker school in New Jersey. It was such a fascinating place. It’s run by Tom Brown Jr, who’s the best-selling author of The Tracker, among many other books. Tom was mentored by an Apache elder by the name of Stalking Wolf, so he has direct connection to someone who lived entirely off the land for many years.
It was incredible to be part of this thriving school. It was teaching wilderness survival skills from a spiritual perspective. And it was deeply embedded in connection to spirit and a real depth of connection to all the elements. But it was everything from very practical bushcraft skills to incredibly detailed, almost miraculous animal tracking.
There was a program there called the Caretaker Program, where you lived as close to the earth as possible for twelve months. I knew I wanted to do that program to experience all these practices I’d been collecting. So the idea of doing a program in Australia was suggested—on Australian soil with plants and animals I wanted to relate to. I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I knew it was something I needed support to do. So, I put the call out to friends and colleagues and six of us came together.
Talk us through the practicalities of living in the bush for twelve months.
The main purpose was to live as closely and intimately with the earth as possible, so that meant attending to what is called the ‘sacred order of survival’, which is shelter, water, fire and food.
That meant building a shelter that I could live in, by my own hands, without power tools or metal, and that would keep me warm and dry. And lighting fires by rubbing sticks together, and attempting to forage as much as I could. Above and beyond the survival needs, it was as much about cultivating deep listening and deep observation skills. Learning the forest, learning the patterns of the forest. Learning the language of the forest, in a way, and how I related to it. There was a lot of observation and a lot of field guide study, a lot of wandering, a lot of opening up my senses and letting the world flood in, in a way that it hadn’t before.
What were the biggest things you learnt about yourself during that year?
I think the biggest challenge, which is also the biggest learning, was seeing how conditioned I was to be focused on productivity and on what I was achieving through my days. So even though I’d take myself out to this place that didn’t demand anything of me, I was demanding a lot of myself and really noticing how critical I could be of myself and how driven I was.
It was about unpicking a lot of that conditioning, which was around striving and success and self-worth. All based on how skilled I was, or what I was doing through my day, rather than just being one more creature in the forest.
What happened after the twelve months ended?
I had a few years before I moved back to the city. And eventually moved to Melbourne, which was a foreign city to me. I found myself living there because I followed a love interest.
Moving to the city definitely was a shock, especially because I moved into a share house in the inner city. This forced me to see who I was when mirrored back by a human community.
That’s the gift that Melbourne has given me: living in a community that is wild in its own way. It requires us to relate authentically and show up for each other in a way I couldn’t have learnt out in the bush.
Your second book was about rewilding in the city. When did you realise you could rewild in the city?
It was a slow realisation, and it was a slow coming to understand what rewilding actually is. It doesn’t actually require being out in wilderness. Instead, it’s about aliveness, a health of being. It’s more about asking the questions about what connects us and what disconnects us.
The city can be a wild landscape if you encounter it in that way, if you really lend your ear to the wildish places. And I certainly had the luxury of living in a place surrounded by lots of park land and a river, which gave me opportunity to turn my attention to the mysteries at my doorstop. One of the doorways in was foraging for my own food.
The city has a lot of indigenous plants and also lots of introduced plants, and that actually means there’s more food here than I found out in the bush. There’s this variety of native and non-native species. Foraging especially for wild weeds and using what’s around me became one of the main connective practices, one of the ways that I felt like I could feel my wildness, my ancestry of living off the land.
Tell us about the challenge you set to only eat food you’d foraged in the city.
During the first lockdown last year, a friend and I decided to see if we could eat only from what we’d grown, or what other people had grown, and we could barter for it. It was such a fantastic challenge, and one I was a bit nervous about. It was definitely supplemented by eggs from my chickens, which helped a lot. But I found new food because I was walking around knowing I had to eat from the landscape.
We were also gifted some homegrown lamb. I tried my first garden-variety snails, which were not too bad when covered in garlic and lemon juice and oil. It was also an exercise in community sufficiency. We put the call out on Facebook and rode our bikes around Melbourne, collecting different foods from people’s gardens, which was also collecting stories about people’s lives during lockdowns. That was really interesting.
How important is community?
To thrive, community is one of the things that came out most strongly in my experience and research. Rewilding is about seeing what we’ve lost in our modern lifestyle and seeing what we can create to fill those gaps. For most of our ancestry we lived in small villages, where we were known to many people every day. And we had our particular niche within the village.
Finding ways to build and foster community has been one of the main ways I have most successfully felt like we’ve been recreating village technologies. It’s quite a radical act in these times, to form non-monetary ways of gathering together and sharing knowledge and sharing resources and sharing food and building a sense of a connected village.
What are some of the ways and rituals to foster a community?
Rituals are a beautiful way to foster community. Our imaginations have forgotten how to re-create ways of connecting. One way is by holding space. For example, in May we came together for a Celtic celebration. It’s the Day of the Dead, which is Halloween in the northern hemisphere.
This time is about honouring our ancestors and those who have passed. We used it to also open up the space for a grief ceremony. We had a fire burning for twenty-four hours and particular protocols in which to be welcomed into the space. It was a really incredible experience. Around 150 people cycled through over twenty-four hours. It looked many different ways at different times.
Sometimes it was about story sharing or tears, lots of singing. There was a big potluck that night. And just a very special experience of being in a sacred place. There are ways that we can be with each other and create ceremony that our beings crave. Part of our humanness is being in ceremony together. We created it based on what we thought we would need and what would work for us. It was a very beautiful, very powerful twenty-four hours.
Why do you think we’re so disconnected?
Because we’re coming from a history of, essentially, trauma. We’re coming from a history of being uprooted from our home countries and moving to a colonised land, displacing First Nations people, and coming from a Western cultural mindset of disconnection and a separation between the material world and the spiritual world. So it’s embedded in our very cultural structures. It’s a big job to find our way back. That’s not going to look like winding back the clock. It’s going to look like remembering ourselves as wild beings, remembering our wild imagination, remembering that for the bulk of human history it’s in our bones and genes, that we live and thrive in close connection to each other, to the earth and to ourselves. It’s bringing back those technologies of connection.
How do you think rewilding ourselves helps with the climate emergency?
The climate emergency is a product of this disconnected state. We’re not seeing or feeling the result of our actions. We’re burning up fossil fuels at a rate that’s fuelling runaway climate change. And we’re actively doing that, but there’s the disconnect between our actions and their consequences.
We’re so removed from seeing what happens when we take that flight or put our money into funding mining, et cetera. If rewilding is about falling in love with the world again, really falling in love with the web of life, we’re going to stand up for it. We’re going to protect it.
Tell us about the work you do with kids.
I was co-facilitating Wild by Nature Village Camps, which are large family camps of about 150 people—lots of families and their kids. We explored our connection to nature, learnt skills, sat around the fire telling stories. It’s about re-creating that kind of unstructured playtime in nature, where the mentoring isn’t about education, but it’s about fuelling a child’s natural curiosity, to encourage them to connect with the land, to connect with their adventurous spirit. It’s been a really fun project.
What do you notice about the kids you work with?
I notice quite a few kids being unfamiliar and uncomfortable in wild places. They’re scared of leeches or ants or ticks or getting dirty. They’re often screen-addicted and don’t have much ecological literacy. And, they don’t really know plants or animals particularly well.
Richard Louv, a journalist, came up with the phrase “nature deficit disorder”, which talked about this generation of kids really suffering from a lack of what he called “Vitamin N” or nature time, which has a range of physical and psychological impacts and really affects a child’s wellbeing. Bringing that nature back, bringing that essential vitamin back into their lives and making it palatable, making it accessible for them to enter, is one of the tasks of our times.
What do you notice about the parents on these camps?
In a lot of the families I’ve worked with, the adults really value nature connection. That’s why they bring their kids to the camps. And a lot of them have grown up connected to nature themselves but they’re struggling to give their kids that same experience. Maybe they live in a more urban area, or kids have accessibility to screens in a way they didn’t before. So the adults want to give their kids a similar kind of outdoorsy life that they had.
There is a study that shows nature-connected kids are usually the product of a nature-connected parent, so the modelling of nature connection is really important to give kids that foundation of being nature-connected themselves. Parents need to get nature-connected themselves to model that back to their kids.
How can we use our backyards to connect more deeply?
Encouraging some wildish qualities about the backyard is important. So trees and shrubs and hiding spots. You can have a fire circle in your backyard. Encouraging micro habitats for frogs, birds—basically, converting grass into something that’s going to encourage wildlife. Having enough diversity to spark kids’ imaginations is really important and not too hard. But also finding park land nearby that has that wildish quality, that is not manicured, is usually quite doable and important. But converting some of our outdoor living spaces into habitat—kids love that. They can track the changes and get really excited about birds that come in. They can see the frogs spawning and track their seasonal changes. That’s all doable in a backyard.