I’m three months into my new life in Barcelona, this city of sunshine and history where millions of tourists every year take selfies in front of ancient ruins topped off by a blue sky. The visitors all seem excited and the locals love it, but some days, I just can’t find my joy. Despite the sunshine flooding the city, our comfortable flat in the Gothic quarter is shrouded in gloomy shade and I find myself staring at the Roman wall outside our window as if to ask it, what now? Despite its undoubted sense of history, the wall, like any other wall, is cold and hard, whereas my longing is for something soft and green.
On Saturdays, I take the Metro to the top of the city, where a group of anarchists have created Can Masdeu, a community in an abandoned building that used to be a leper colony. I join with a group of permaculture gardeners to weed vegetable beds and plant seeds. The soil is thirsty and even in February, when my friends at home in Wales are brushing the snow from their boots, I have to tie my hair up from the nape of my neck to seek relief from a cooling breeze. The sun warms my back as I bend to pull the ragged stems from the ground. It’s therapeutic, weeding, and the company is convivial. Our communal lunch afterwards is a protracted, Spanish-style affair, held outside on a long table under the trees.
Something is different here at Can Masdeu. The consumerist grind of life in the city is stalled. It is not all about money, or reputation, or getting ahead. Here, I can relax and be myself. However, living in the city doesn’t need to be an inherently disconnecting experience. In Melbourne, for instance, the amount of spare land, rooftops and shared space that is being turned over to community gardening grows (!) year upon year. Quite aside from its ample parkland, Melbourne’s people have decided that it’s time to grow food in the city. Barcelona is catching on to this. In the urban barrios of El Born and Poble Nou and here, in Can Masdeu, I have spent time learning about vertical gardening, balcony composting and most importantly, I’ve made friends. There’s something about gardening that frees my soul to connect. After all, if someone has made time in their busy life to mess about in the dirt, I feel it says something fundamental about their character, their priorities and, in this context, their politics.
When I lived in Wales, I heard and watched stories of guerilla gardeners, thinking all the time how cool it was that people were digging up the concrete to plant trees, but never realising how essential it was for their well-being. After all, I lived in the countryside and tended my own garden whenever I liked. How could I know the deep importance of this radical act? An article I read the other day told about some research that measured to what extent people become depressed while living amongst concrete pavements and bland street architechture. The writer proposed that what the brain needs to function well is natural landscape. My first reaction was ‘duh!’. Another piece of stupid research to prove something we all knew already. But the planning of modern cities tells us different. We don’t know these things. We don’t understand the degree to which humans need nature. We are only just beginning to quantify the damage to our own mental and physical well-being from being cooped up in grey, dull labyrinths. Bob Marley published Concrete Jungle in 1973, but then, the poets and mystics always know these things first. For the rest of society, it might take an epidemic of mental illness, an avalanche of child obesity and ADHD, or a wave of climatic emergency to prove what the ancients have always known.
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.
This afternoon I had a filming appointment at a food forest garden nearby. To get there would take a half hour walk or ten minute cycle. It was raining. Hard. I was a bit worried about slipping off my bike and smashing my camera, but by the time I’d finished faffing – looking up directions; making a note of the organiser’s number – it was a bit late to walk.
I rode slowly and carefully, avoiding puddles and tram lines. I got there in plenty of time and as I arrived, I realised I was smiling. My inner mantra had changed from “Oh, it’s raining again” to “I’m so happy” and it only took a moment to work out why. I loved being in the rain.
The food garden was lush and fruitful, with lovingly tended plots abundant with beans, herbs and salads. Since moving to the city, I’ve become a big fan of urban agriculture and I heard that Kevin McCloud, of Grand Designs fame, was recently advocating turning Melbourne’s parks into food gardens. That would be great! Yarra Council is really forward thinking in that respect and has appointed an urban agriculture officer. He’s been responsible for putting planter boxes all around the neighbourhood so that we see herbs and veggies growing on many street corners. Today, the garden shone and twinkled with raindrops. You could almost hear the plants inhaling the fresh moist air.
Only this morning, I was thinking how Nature was enjoyable in any weather. Sunshine is great, obviously, but the beach in winter is wild and when the waves crash the shore, some primal energy is released not only in them, but in me. City life is short on primal energy and I often find myself flatlining in a dullness of being. When you’re used to being stirred by Nature, a caffe latte in a funky cafe and an illicit freewheel through the park at night can only take you so far. Mostly, I find it’s not far enough.
When I got back from my bicycle shower, I went out again. Just for fun. I don’t own an umbrella and I left my hat at home. I wanted to feel the rain on my face, the wind in my hair. I bounced up the street, focused only on the feel of Nature washing me down. My stupid grin could have been mistaken for love, or madness. I just felt so relieved to have found a way to be in Nature, even here, in the depths of the city. Melbourne is known for its “four seasons in a day” but usually, it’s a bit of a pain. Early in our stay here, a friend showed me the contents of her oversized handbag. She routinely carried both leggings and an umbrella, however the day began. “It can change at any time!” she warned.
I wandered up to the post office to send a leisurely letter, strolling lightly as people hurried by, heads down against the weather. I smiled and smiled to myself.
On the way back, I looked up to see a line of pigeons perched on a telegraph wire. They were mostly hunched, like the pedestrians. Heads tucked into their necks, feathers ruffled and damp. The wire hung over the middle of the street. Could they not have chosen a more sheltered spot to huddle? Thirty-one, I counted. Why that wire? And why was there only one single pigeon on the wire next door?
I spent a contented time, in the rain, watching the pigeons and realised that in one lucky afternoon, I had discovered that the city weather could allow me to immerse in Nature and city animals were also wildlife worth watching.