We start early, woken by the keen energy of other Camino pilgrims and greeted outside by a star, falling through crisp, dark sky. Since we began our walk, the moon has waned from a full, bright round to craggy quarter. A dirt road takes us around lanes, between village homes still quiet with sleep, until we reach an intersection where a highway, already busy at this early hour, leads us precariously onward. Spooked by huge trucks passing at fierce speed, we’re relieved to see the beckoning lights of a cafe, countertop replete with warm empanadas, fresh croissants and an almond cake named for Saint Santiago. As we offer our credential booklets for the pligrim’s stamp I wonder, are cafes the new churches?
Although there is some sadness in this being the final section in our Camino Way, my feet will be glad to finish. These past few days, I’ve been walking with the assistance of efficient painkillers that I’m pretty sure were not available to the first pilgrims in mediaeval times. Blisters upon blisters upon blisters. Ouch. I blame the asphalt roads – hard and unyielding to human feet. There are too many of these for me. I prefer the quiet of forests which, being full of eucalypts, are achingly reminiscent of our time in the forests of Tasmania. Imported to control erosion and as fast-growing timber, eucalypts are causing havoc in Portugal, covering up to 7% of the land. As in Australia, they make great fuel for forest fires, and as climate change ramps up the summer temperatures, both these countries are re-considering how to manage these magnificent trees.
Stepping aside from the path, we lie down on dry, sweet-smelling leaf litter and gaze up through the cathedral of trees to a denim blue patch of sky. After a scramble for beds at the auberge on the first two days, we took the decision from then on to book ahead and skip the stress. After all, what Way does not include time to stand and stare? In addition to soulful wayside dreamings, my companions and I make time for daily reflections. These practices add richness and meaningfulness to our journey – an inner element to weave alongside the outer scenery.
During the tough bits, I plugged one ear into my i-pod and listened to The Good People by Hannah Kent. Kent iridescently imagines rural Ireland in the 1800s when the local “doctress” – a local medicine woman – finds her ‘old ways’ outlawed by the church. Treading these ancient Galician pathways graced with autumn fruits and nuts, elderberries, blackberries and hedgerow mint, I am reminded how the land holds so many cures for our ills and how women were mostly the ones who held the knowledge of how to use them. It was a male-dominated clergy who helped push them out and a patriarchal university system which monopolised the medical profession to which women – no matter how skilled or priviliged – were not admitted. What was I doing then, walking along a Christian pilgrim route? And amongst the masculine icons, where were the peregrinas – the symbols of female power? I sit quietly in a wayside chapel to contemplate this, but am interrupted by a babble of pilgrims, bustling into the chapel to take pictures and gather a stamp for their Camino credencial. Once again I question – what am I doing here, hoping for a spiritual experience at a time when the spiritual path has been replaced by the route to the next coffee shop?
The following morning, we arrive in Pontevedra, its ancient town centre now lauded for extensive pedestrianisation. Walking the quiet streets, we are drawn into a rounded church where, to my surprise, the image of a woman gazes down at us from the vestry. The frieze above her depicts a donkey on which rides a pregnant woman. In this way, the elegant Capela da Virxe Peregrina seems to answer my question. Yes, there is still magic to be found on the Camino and yes, it’s available for all of us.
“When times are easy and there’s plenty to go around, individual species can go it alone. But when conditions are harsh and life is tenuous, it takes a team sworn to reciprocity to keep life going forward. In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival. So say the lichens.”
This is a quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass, a book so inspiring that I used another excerpt to begin a recent article for The Ecologist. That article draws a parallel between the way sweetgrass is grown and the way wisdom is passed on “hand to earth to hand” and how, in places such as Off Grid Festival, we can practice this reciprocity whilst learning tools and techiques to help bring about a more resilient world.
The Economist article discusses the permaculture principle of the edge effect, which is about all the juicy stuff that goes on at the edges and how the zones between systems and cultures tend to be creative, fertile, abundant places. Off Grid Festival is one such space, perched as it is on the edge of mainstream culture. Braiding Sweetgrass is an example of this too – a book exploring the intersection between modern science and traditional lore. A botanist who is also a member of the native Potawatomi people, the writer speaks from the margins – between two cultures each running counter to society’s established norms.
As a female scientist, Kimmerer faces the derision of male counterparts who consider her thinking irrelevant, insignificant or just plain wrong. Her Native American wisdom exists only thanks to the stubborn refusal of her ancestors to surrender their world view to those who thought they knew better. From these cultural edges, she creates a fusion which is a powerful testimony to motherhood, belonging and indigenous wisdom that manages to be both unique and universal.
Braiding Sweetgrass was recommended to me by Claire Dunn, an Australian writer and wilderness guide who has made it her mission to bring nature wisdom to urban dwellers. In this way she, too, creates meaning from the intersection of two cultures – three, if you count also the culture of the feminine. In addition to ancient and modern wisdoms, both Claire and Robin Wall Kimmerer offer a perspective that my Catalan friend and healer Esther Pallejá Lozeno might call mano izquierda.
“No tener mano izquierda” is an expression said to originate in the bull fighting ring, where the right hand – mano derecho – is the hand of action and force, and the left – mano izquierda – is the hand which is linked to intuition and skilful means. A person with mano izquierda has the ability to handle difficult situations with sensitivity, even using a ‘sixth sense’, whereas someone said to be lacking in this will appear tactless and undiplomatic. It’s not hard to see someone with mano izquierda is displaying qualities associated with the feminine.
In traditional medicine and yoga, the left side of the body is linked to the feminine, but as with many other left-handed associations, the expression in Spanish also has the sense of acting with cunning and trickery. In some cultures, left-handedness is said to be linked with the devil and children have been discouraged from writing with their left hand. It is painful, yet unsurprising that in a patriarchal world, this left-handed/ left sidedness, along with many other ‘feminine’ qualities, has been devalued.
Gently yet persuasively, Kimmerer asks us to re-evaluate. What if, along with honouring Mother Nature and Mother Earth, we could honour this more intuitive, feminine approach? Might it bring about a more gentle, respectful way of being in the world? A more attentive way of listening – to ourselves, to each other and to Nature herself? And in so doing, might we facilitate a more reciprocal kind of culture, the kind of culture about which indigenous people – both male and female – speak so wistfully?
“Science and traditonal knowledge may ask different questions and speak different languages, but they may converge when both truly listen to the plants.”
Reciprocity requires that we recognise the value of the other and enter into a mutual relationship. We see that masculine energy allows us to act decisively and with strength, while the feminine brings a more feeling tone, concerning itself with the WAY that we do things – or sometimes, the way that we do NOT do things. A feminine way of being might ask that we wait longer, rest often, take more time to be. Between these two cultures – the culture of the masculine and the culture of the feminine, we can find harmony, balance and equality as well as reciprocity.
The recent revelation that Theresa May’s UK government is set to override the wishes of folk in Lancashire and pave the way for fracking in their county. Locals petitioned their council to bar the practice on the grounds that it is potentially environmentally damaging and dangerous and the council agreed. Now the government have overturned that decision and given the go-ahead for exploratory exploration of coal seam gas in Lancashire. This authoritarian, dismissive act started me thinking about a discussion I was having the other day about “average, normal people”
It was early on a Saturday morning after a wedding party and we were having a fry-up in a seafront cafe. I had picked up a newspaper from the ones available at the cafe and it started there. The paper was one I wouldn’t usually read. Its views are pretty much diametrically opposed to mine, but as it turns out, so were my friend’s.
My habit with a weekend paper is to read out an article which has caught my eye and offer my opinion. “Hey!” I say. “Listen to this!” On this occasion, the exchange began with a journalist who thought that offering a help-line after the Archers’ storyline of domestic abuse was namby-pamby. “Who could possibly be upset by that?” he asked. “Surely there are more noble recipients of our sympathy, like soldiers, for instance?” Well I don’t wish to take anything from soldiers, of course, PTSD is a real thing and they could do with more recognition for it, not less. However…
The latest figures show that seven women a month are killed by their partners in England and Wales. 1.4 million women will suffer domestic abuse in the UK this year, mostly at the hands of their (male) partners. if that were a virus, it would be an epidemic. It follows that there must be a huge number of women affected by trauma, sometimes after years of emotional and physical abuse which too often ends in hospitalisation and in many cases, death. I pointed out that the author of the piece was a white middle aged man. I thought it relevant. White, middle-aged men hold a lot of power in the world. Their collective voice is pretty loud. In contrast, the voices of abused women are small and easy to drown out. Like I say, I thought it relevant.
My friend disagreed and took offence. Or rather defence. My feminist analysis clearly touched a nerve and he rejected the idea that patriarchy was a force for the oppression of women. “Patriarchy is an historical fact”. I argued, admittedly taking the bait. I treated him to a brief outline of the ways that patriarchy was evident in modern society – in the system of patrilineage that had rubbed out generations of women from the records and robbed millions of their inheritances; in the fact that men sit at the top of a vast majority of global organisations, hold power in the media, in education, in politics. He argued that we have a female prime minister. I countered that in order for women to hold such a role, they had to play a game of politics defined by machismo and strength. He said he’d rather have a leader strong in negotiations than a wimp.
This week, journalist Zoe Williams said it better than I could when commenting on Donald Trump’s boasting about assaulting women. Although loathe to argue that a female point of view exists in politics, Zoe suggests starting with freedom from violence and reproductive autonomy as good “muster points”. She goes on to point out “A constant eye on the future, a calm assurance that not everything of value can be counted, a love of international co-operation and respect for the institutions it has created, a knowledge that some things are too important to be left to the market, an empathy with the dispossessed : there is nothing essentially feminine about these ideas, yet where no women are, you never hear them.” I wished she had been there to put those ideas before my friend.
Our argument, for argument it was by now, lurched on, until my friend came out with the phrase “Average normal people”. That was it. The voice of Nigel Farage and his Brexit crowing ringing in my ears, I got up and left the cafe.
Outside in the early autumn sunshine, locals and tourists wandered up and down the promenade, enjoying their weekend stroll. I all but collapsed into one of the seafront seats. Tears came. If even my friends think like this, what hope is there? I moaned inwardly. I re-ran the discussion in my mind, trying to come to a place of peace and trying to understand what on earth he, and Nigel Farage meant by the phrase “Average normal people”.
This conversation mattered little. It was just a weekend morning chat in a lazy cafe in Wales, but when the words are uttered by a politician, they matter a lot. By uttering these words, a politician is inferring that you and s/he are the same, which, merely by virtue of their privileged position, let alone the opportunities that probably came about to help them get there, is rarely the case. (I acknowledge there are some notable exceptions to this but they are the exceptions that prove the rule). The language of politicians is designed to make us feel that we are all in the same boat, but we’re not. At least, we might be, but it is only they who have access to the first class suite and the life rafts.
A Review of “My Year Without Matches” by Claire Dunn
At what cost? At what cost does a woman pursue “the path less travelled” and focus on her inner life? Although the subject of women’s spiritual journeys has been habitually scrubbed from history, can it be true that lately, we are witnessing an unearthing of the divine feminine?
In these times of great challenge for our world, there is a need to balance the strong, extrovert, “doing” masculine energy which dominates the western culture with something that is more gentle, more yielding, more “being”. This is just the re-balancing that Claire Dunn is undertaking in her book “My Year Without Matches”.
Australia, surely, is a land made for men. Tough and unforgiving, the landscape reveals how humans are vulnerable to nature. Lethal snakes, poisonous spiders, a harsh and deadly sun. This is the landscape that Claire is encountering. She intuits a need to connect with the land. A need to learn nature’s ways and fall into step with Her rhythm. With the rhythm of herself. And in the process, she awakens to the feminine within.
As I turn the pages, Claire Dunn’s voice changes from young, scared girl to mature, wise woman. Leaving the comfort of suburban society, she enrols in a bush programme and takes to the wild for a year. Schooled in the basic skills of shelter-building, fire-starting, tracking and trapping, she makes a place for herself in the landscape. She sets strong boundaries, sometimes too strong, and learns what it is to both stick to her principles and to go with the flow.
Although firmly set in the outer world of survival, the strength of the story, for me, is in the depiction of Claire’s inner world. We watch as she revisits her relationship with her parents, enlisting their help but noticing her reluctance to gracefully receive it. The surly teenager grows up. We see her wrestle with the need for, and rejection of companionship. Walking the line between loneliness and solitude, she discovers the push and pull of neediness and interdependence.
Claire’s self-imposed celibacy and fasting resonates strongly with a path of renunciation, which has come to mean self-denial but more traditionally, was a way to find your edges. Spiritual traditions have a way of testing you, so that you come to know yourself fully. So that your actions, where once they were mechanical or driven by habit, become full of purpose and intent. And this is Claire’s striving. To find meaning in her life. To be able to walk a road which makes sense to her, to her fellows and to the earth herself.
The courage with which she undertakes this task inspires awe. Awesome is a word somewhat overused in Australia, but Claire’s journey, and the book which emerges from it, deserve the phrase. Awesome.
After reading “My Year Without Matches”, I’m raving to my husband about it and he picks up the book. “She lives in Newcastle”, he says. ”So you won’t be able to add her to your signed book collection.”
“Mmm”, I respond. “You never know.”
The book is still sitting on the coffee table when I am invited to attend a gathering at the Urban Temple – a small shared-house community in Brunswick, in Melbourne’s trendy inner North. I’m circling the laden pot-luck table when I notice, out of the corner of my eye, a woman chatting. I wonder, thinking that I recognise her. The man speaking with her mentions “Newcastle” and I know that it is her. “Are you Claire?” I ask, shyly.
We chat over dinner and I ask if I may interview her. She agrees good naturedly. When I get home, I thrust the book into my husband’s hands, pointing to the image of Claire on the back cover. “Guess who I met this evening!”
A couple of weeks later, Claire and I are sitting in my apartment in Fitzroy, drinking tea. She has only recently moved to Melbourne. After finishing her book a year ago, she has been engaged in the world of promotion.
“I’m still enjoying this part of the process”, she says. “It’s kind of ‘out from under a rock’. It’s why I’ve come to Melbourne. It feels like there’s a community down here that’s very interested in this work. Earth-connectedness and personal transformation through that doorway. It feels much stronger down here than anywhere else I’ve been. I always thought it was an urban myth that Sydney and Melbourne were so different, but they feel like very different beasts. Very different jungles.”
I can only agree. Not having lived in Sydney, I don’t know what that’s like, but the Melbourne community – especially the inner North, has responded very well to my own work on conscious communities. I ask her if she is making any money from the book, given that it has just gone into its second edition.
“I’ve just been given my first royalty cheque after my advance. So it was the first money I’ve been given since 18 months ago for my book. I’m making my living doing freelance journalism for Fairfax – Sydney Morning Herald and the Newcastle Herald. I think there’s only a handful of writers in Australia – novelists or non-fiction – who make a living from their writing – writing books, anyway.”
If it’s not the money keeping her going, why does she do it? I ask.
It was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.” says Claire. “When I finished writing that book I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m writing another book’. I can see how easily you could get caught up in ‘well I’ve written a book, everyone’s expecting the next one, ok, I’ll just do something’. But I can really see how it could become a case of not really embodying what I’m passionate about because I’m too busy talking about it or writing about it.”
And embodying it – walking her talk – is important to Claire. She’s started running “Earth Wisdom” courses and gets invitations to collaborate with other people doing the same kind of work. It was a determination she arrived at in the final pages of “My Year Without Matches”. That she wanted to work as a “bridge builder” between mainstream society and the natural world.
“I’m feeling the call back to the earth.” she says. “Back to the land. Back to what inspired me on this journey in the first place. It’s like a spiralling back.”
It wasn’t until I actually sat down to write the review that I fully realised what a spiritual book “My Year Without Matches” is. I ask Claire how that spiritual journey is unfolding, now that she has left the forest.
““Well, it feels like all the stuff I wrote about in the book I’m absolutely needing to embody and trust in a new way. It’s almost like that year in the bush gave me that first insight, and those first new, very powerful experiences of this new way of being, which at the time I referred to as the feminine way. I was discovering this much more feminine way of showing up in the world, which was much more motivated and moved by desire, impulse, intuition and feeling, than by thought, and rationality and logic. And so the last few years I’ve been given the opportunity to practice that, both with the uncertainty of choosing to write a book with no publisher confirmed, and also the way that I’ve chosen to live my life, which is moving around a lot, and not having a stable job as such, and feeling the fear in that, but also the deeper desire to walk the talk, to really live from that place. My old identity fell away. All the certainties and the youthful idealism or ‘this is the way life will unfold’ – that’s all dissolved. It’s much more about inhabiting that fluid space of ‘where am i drawn, where do I feel that I want to contribute. what wants to come through me? What stories, what gifts to I have to bring right now? Is it a learning time or a teaching time? Is it a giving time or a receiving time?’ Knowing that life is seasonal and cyclical and and flowing with that. So it feels to me that living from that place, embodying that feminine pattern of energy which is all about receptivity, intuition, really puts into practice all the concepts that i’ve learnt about a spiritual life. It’s easy to just agree with them when you hear about them – uncertainty, unknowing, emptiness, fullness, but living from this place is putting it into practice for me.”
I can only agree.
My Year Without Matches has just gone into its second edition :
Contact Claire for speaking engagements, writers festivals and earth wisdom retreats around Australia.
When I was in school, the girls studied Home Economics. It was mostly cookery, baking apple crumble, rhubarb pie, scones, and on Shrove Tuesday – pancakes. I remember the mad scramble to get the ingredients together the night before. My Mum worked, so it was often late when we ransacked the kitchen cupboards for basic ingredients. A visit to the shop in the morning was often necessary. That evening, I bestowed my valiant effort upon the household, where my offering took pride of place at the tea table.
Although we baked at home, it was probably in school that I learnt the technique for making pastry, for “rubbing in” the hard fat into the fingertip-soft, always-white flour, adding just a pinch of salt. It was certainly there that I mastered rock cakes and developed my gift for creating sweet, sticky, oaty flapjack remains to this day.
I never gave much thought to the term “Home Economics”. To me, it was a cookery class and as I progressed through school, it became obvious that this was simply a ruse to keep women in the home. They even taught us how to wash up, first taking the glasses through the hot, soapy hot water, then the cutlery, then the plates, and finally the pots and pans. It’s a lesson I learned well and I still wash up in that order today. Why did boys not learn to cook and wash up? While we were “slaving over a hot stove”, they got to play with wood. When I was thirteen, I challenged the system and demanded to be accepted into the metalwork class. I wanted to do woodwork, but as it happened, they were doing metalwork that term. I gritted my teeth and took the teasing which went along with my presence at the workbench. I can’t say that my ashtray was the best in the class, but I got some satisfaction from finishing the exams in third place! Of course, this has now become the norm, with boys everywhere making pizzas and girls turning bowls, but then, I caused quite a storm.
I recently visited the small holding of David Holmgren, co-founder of permaculture, and his partner Su Dennett. They live in rural Victoria, near the sprawling city of Melbourne in Australia. Su and David walk the talk. Committed to a life of organic homesteading, they grow vegetables, keep goats and recycle their waste products (including humanure). They live a life which to some, might look frugal, but which is in fact, abundant. Su calls herself a radical homemaker and takes care of the food creation. Using the natural glut of the land, she bottles fruit, which she stores in her underground larder. Down there in the darkness, rich red succulence lurks under tightly screwed lids. Pears, nectarines, cherries. All preserved under her intrepid care. Bottles of cold pressed apple juice sit waiting patiently and pickles and chutneys of onion, beetroot and artichoke glisten lustily.
The business of Home Economics is, for Su, a reality. “I like making food. I love the sense of where the food comes from, that you’re getting everything that you eat locally…Food is a connection. It’s the centre of life, really.”
We share lunch out in the cool of a veranda shaded by curling grape vines, their fruit hanging temptingly in neat, tight bunches. We are joined by Su and David’s son, Oliver, and a pal of his and soon the conversation is flowing merrily as we pass around fresh goat cheese, home-baked bread and salad grown not six feet away.
“If you’ve got friends, you will often invite them around to dinner and what better than to offer them something that you’ve grown yourself, or that’s come from your local community.” says Su.
“I’m very happy to be the main cook and bottle washer and I think that the household arts have actually been maligned and that the place of the woman in the home has also been very badly maligned. It’s not that the woman should do this and nothing else, that’s not the case, but to take away the value of the household economy is very sad.”
David speaks even more vehemently about these ideas. In an essay published in 2010, he writes about what happened to the home economy after the industrial revolution.
“Women joined the workforce to help pay rising mortgage debts and support expanding personal consumption habits. The almost total collapse of the household economy followed. Much of the growth in fast food, home services, child care and entertainment industries simply reflected this shift of activity from non-monetary household self-reliance to the formal taxable economies dominated by corporations. Mounting psychosocial dysfunction expanded the need for the helping professions of health, social welfare and education as well as those of control from police and security services to deal with addiction, family violence and social fragmentation, both real and imagined.”
In these times when sauerkraut is the new pavlova, and “home-made” seems to be the ultimate hipster prerequisite. And at a time when social isolation is almost the norm, perhaps the Home Economy has something to teach us about a new (old) way of being.
I’ve been to a funeral. Not unusual, you say, but this one was. This one was for one of the founders of Commonground, an intentional community outside of Melbourne established in 1984. So as they celebrate their thirtieth anniversary, they lose one of their “dinosaurs”, as they call them. Their pillars.
Glen Ochre was a remarkable woman. She spent most of her adult life challenging the status quo in one way or another. She left home under violent circumstances, faking her birth certificate to become a nurse at age 15. She married young, and nursed a dying child at home, long before it was popular to do so. She was a feminist, and during the seventies, before there was such a thing as a refuge, hid women from their violent partners in her own home.
Glen had faith in the power of collaboration and qualified as a social worker, training especially in group work. This came to define her later life.
Over the last few months, I’ve been working with Glen to tell her life story. It has been such a privilege. Our work together has been interrupted. By hospital visits to try to get the pain under control. By last-time trips to the wilds of Australia to see her beloved red earth.
Some of that which we intended to do is left unfinished. But perhaps that was inevitable. With Glen, the work never stopped.
Together with her four co-founders – Phil Bourne, Kate Lewer, Ed McKinley and Terry Melvin, Glen set up Commonground Co-operative as both an intentional community and a space where groups could come and do their own work together. The house was build by hand and is a maze of mud brick corridors, with huge rooms as communal spaces; big, well-equipped kitchen and dining areas and lots of toilets fed with water from their own dam. They seem to have thought of everything. An outside area to play and let off steam. A garden packed with fresh home grown veggies. Big fireplaces inside and out, to keep you warm on those chilly winter nights.
The space is well-designed for parties and they hold a festival here most years. Some people remarked how Glen’s funeral was a lot like a festival. The bathtubs held ice for beer and soft drinks. The bar was set up by the pizza oven with rows and rows of glasses. Lines of chairs encircled a stage area, where tall speakers and tv screens prepared to broadcast the proceedings.
But one thing was different. Glen lay in an open coffin in the Great Room and people wandered up to say their tearful goodbyes. To the last, Glen challenged the “normal” way of doing things, as we were all invited to speak at the microphone and all invited to place a leaf in her coffin as a final ritual.
As well as the amazing space which is Commonground, Glen set up and ran the Groupwork Institute. Together with her partner Ed, she wrote the world’s first nationally accredited course for facilitation training, teaching a skillset for working with groups of all kinds for improved communication, better teamwork, efficient decision-making and happier individuals.
The skills which Glen taught are key to the success of communities. The book she wrote called “Getting Our Act Together” encompasses the range of tools Glen developed over years of working with groups. Her wisdom and clarity has helped to guide the story in the latest Living in the Future documentary, which is all about how communities in Australia have survived over time. In fact, Glen’s life has embodied so many of the ways in which we can all take back some of the power we have given away and live from a place of connection and harmony – both with ourselves, with each other and with Nature.