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Night view of fire in shelter-crop

Rewilding the Feminine

A Review of “My Year Without Matches” by Claire Dunn

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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”.

Blowing on coal-web

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.

Wide shot of shelter spot-web

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.”

Spinning fire, shelter background-web

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.
Further information
My Year Without Matches has just gone into its second edition :
http://www.claire-dunn.com/the-book/

Contact Claire for speaking engagements, writers festivals and earth wisdom retreats around Australia.

photographs by Australian Geographic – see a sample of Claire’s writing on their website

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Changing Gears

I’ve been reflecting on how many authors I seem to have met since coming to Melbourne. When we moved here, knowing that we would eventually have to pack up and leave again, I made a pact with myself not to buy any books unless I knew the author. That way, I wouldn’t have so many new things to ship back across the planet. It worked, sort of.

My local library in Fitzroy is a vibrant hub of activity and has loaned me a wealth of reading matter – both fiction and non-fiction, to educate, inform and entertain me during my stay in Australia. But all the same, I have acquired a teetering case-full of new books.

How come?

Is Melbourne really such a ripe place for writers, or is it that I am mixing with particularly creative company? Either way, it occurs to me that I could share some of these gems with you all, rather than keeping them to myself.

So I’m going to start reviewing some of the new books on my over-crowded shelf, and then you’ll see what talented people I get to hang out with!

First up is Greg Foyster, and his book “Changing Gears“. I first met Greg when I went over to Murundaka Housing Co-op in Heidelberg, a suburb of Melbourne. I was interested to include an urban example of community living in my new documentary, and so one rainy winter afternoon, we rode out to meet the residents.
Huddled around the wood burning fire in the common house were two people who, at the time, were not residents. Greg and Sophie were house sitting for a couple who were away for a while and we got chatting about their bike ride around Australia in search of a more simple way of livening. As they mentioned Commonground, Moora Moora and then David Holmgren and Fryer’s Forest, a penny dropped and I realised that I had been using Greg’s “Simple Lives” blog for my own research!

Greg was very generous with his contacts and helped me get in touch with a few people who turned out to be key characters in the doco, so let me take this opportunity to thank him. Murundaka, also, became a character in its own right and not too long after, Greg and Sophie got their own place there. They are now an active part of what is a vibrant and healthful community, and you can see them in action as part of the finished documentary Deep Listening: Dadirri.

Greg’s book is an inspiring tour from Melbourne to Queensland (via Tasmania) and in the future, will be a wonderful reminder of why we loved our time, and the people here in the land down under.
In “Changing Gears”, Greg comes across as a bit of a wimp. In a funny way. He bungles his way through setting up a tent; campfire cooking and directions, all the while giving the impression that it is Sophie who is the brains behind the team. Sophie, it must be said, is a formidable woman. She handles whatever the trip, and life, throws at her with grace and ease. She has a steady, frank gaze which seems not to suffer fools, and I can well imagine some of the eye-rolling that goes on at Greg’s buffoonery. But together, they tackle the adventure with focus and determination. They have experienced the disconnect of a society plunging towards an uncertain future and they want to make a difference.

After visiting the intentional communities in Victoria, they start to have an idea of what changes can be made to make a life more sustainable. Off grid, small scale solar electricity; tiny homes instead of great sprawling mansions; shared resources rather than each household having their own washing machine/ lawn mower/power drill/car; home offices versus long commutes. The people they meet along their way demonstrate that there are other ways of doing things. That perhaps there is hope for us yet.

As they travel up the East Coast to Northern New South Wales, Greg and Sophie meet the  old school hippies of the Rainbow Region. Many of the communes which began here in the seventies fell victim to internal conflict, or just fell apart. But several still remain. The pair look closely at the contrast between the downscaled, rural lifestyles of these people and the high-rised bling of the Gold Coast and start to seriously ask themselves – what now for us?

A cathartic meeting with indigenous representatives on the far north coast convinces the intrepid travellers that they want to pursue a way of living which is easier on the planet and they return to Melbourne armed with a lot of information and a new resolve.
The rest, as they say, is history.

For an inspiring, humorous and informative whizz through the alternative-lifestylers of Australia, I thoroughly recommend Greg Foyster’s book. You can get it on Amazon, or if you’re in Australia, via the Readings website.

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