I probably would have loved My Year Without Matches for its subject matter alone: solo woman spends a year in the Australian bush and, as well as learning survival skills, finds the wildness in herself.
A bit of background: Burned out by her work as an environmental campaigner, Claire joined an experimental, year-long Wilderness Studies Program on a 100-acre block of bushland halfway between Grafton and Coffs Harbour on the NSW north coast.
For six months, she and five others learned how to build their own shelters, make baskets and pots, understand bird-talk, track animals, find bush tucker and, most critically, make fire with sticks. Then they had six months to apply these skills.
|Claire gathering bush tucker|
All pics by Australian Geographic
And I'm not the only one: the book has had an incredible reception worldwide, which Claire puts down to a "hunger for intimacy with the wild, and for wildness in ourselves".
A couple of weeks ago, I got to meet Claire in Newcastle, where she now lives - in a house, though she often still sleeps on the floor in her swag. We spent one of the loveliest afternoons I can remember, swimming, hanging out by the beach and talking.
Here are the highlights of our rather lengthy "chat"...
|Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson |
in Tracks, the movie
I think the seed was planted quite a long time ago when I read Robyn Davidson’s Tracks in my early 20s [Claire's now 35] and that really spoke to me – just the experiences she describes of the spaciousness and the rawness of being in the desert, and confronting parts of herself that she never knew existed, and the sense of empowerment that can come from those kinds of challenges.
Also I felt intrigued by what it would be like to be alone in that vast landscape and what that could do to you, for you, how it could transform you.
What did you miss most, out there?
In summer, air-conditioning! When it was cold, anything hot - kettles, hot water bottles. I missed my friends and family. And matches - though that was the challenge I'd set myself, could I live without matches for a year? And simple things like walking down the street, getting a chai latte and reading the paper. But in the end I loved the things I had during that year more than the things I missed.
|Claire making fire, in front of her shelter|
I didn't expect to love my shelter so much but I really did. It was my friend, my ally, my confidant. It was where I felt safe.
I loved my sit-spot [where Claire sat for an hour a day, just listening and taking in her surroundings] - it was like a doorway into this magical land. I was mad with curiosity, so I would hear or see things then want to know: What was that? Where do birds go when it rains?
And [despite being a forest campaigner for The Wilderness Society for many years] I wasn't ready for how much I'd fall in love with the forest.
Did you have any home comforts?
I had toothpaste and a toothbrush, a few knives, a mosquito net. But I survived without soap and shampoo (my hair got really shiny from the tannins in the river) and I never wore sunscreen or moisturiser; I didn't have a mirror either.
In fact, another thing I loved was getting into camouflage: smearing mud on my face and arms and legs, adding leaf litter, it was like putting on a costume, then becoming invisible; it really makes you feel close to the earth like nothing else.
|Claire's hands, dreaming of matches|
Before I went, I did picture myself having a very simple time and wondered: how am I going to fill an entire year? But I often struggled to find that simplicity, partly because we had workshops the first six months and were given this suite of wilderness survival skills, each of which is a lifetime study in itself.
So part of me wanted to make the most of this fantastic opportunity to learn how to track, tan hides and do all these crafts - even while another part of me wanted to sit around doing nothing. Time can so easily be filled up. It’s much more of a challenge to un-fill time, to empty yourself of obligations and plans.
|Claire at home, |
in a tree, in the bush
At the same time, breaking down the sense of who I am has created this fluidity which is great in some ways, because I’m much more willing to go with where the energy is and follow where I’m drawn, but things also feel a lot more groundless and uncertain.