There’s no way I could sleep in that!’ exclaims Michelle as she watches Laura shuffle feet first into a corridor of sticks just large enough to fit her small frame inside. Laura wriggles down so that her head is just inside the two interlocked Y-sticks at the entrance. The A-frame shape is shoulder width at ground level, tapering down to a narrow funnel at the feet. ‘My toes are tickling sticks,’ Laura says, pushing out a few of the sticks with her feet. Her brown curls and green top are camouflaged against the floor of leaf litter. ‘Can you roll over?’ Elena asks.
Laura gingerly shifts to her left side, her right shoulder barely shy of the top of the frame. ‘Just,’ she murmurs. ‘Its affectionate name is “the claustro”,’ I laugh. ‘But it’s a survival shelter, remember, not something you’d live in.’ ‘Time for leaves?’ Lucy asks, with a tarp already in her hand. ‘Yep. Leaves, leaves, and then more leaves,’ I say. Laura shimmies out of the shelter, and the group gets busy raking and scraping debris from the ground onto small tarps and tipping them over the shelter’s frame. The design is the most basic of survival shelters — a stick frame just large enough to scaffold the body, which is then insulated with piles of forest debris. The leaves act like a sleeping bag, trapping warm air in the gaps. We’ve chosen an out-of-the-way place in a park bordered by spiky bushes and under the cover of a small eucalypt plantation, which affords enough leaf litter for the roof. Two hours later, the shelter has amassed enough leaves to keep someone alive, if not warm.
The group stand back to admire their handiwork. ‘It looks a bit like a dinosaur burrow,’ says Lucy, wiping the back of her hand across her face. ‘It’s actually really beautiful,’ says Michelle. ‘Like earth art.’ ‘Anyone tempted to stay the night?’ I ask jokingly. ‘Not I, said the fly,’ says Michelle. ‘Can you imagine the bugs?’ Laura stands back looking at it thoughtfully but says nothing. ‘Hey, look, a nest!’ says Elena. ‘So it is!’ says Lucy, and we follow her to the edge of the prickly moses, where we can see a small clay and mud nest, perfectly protected in amongst the spiky thicket of leaves. A scrubwren flies in and flits around, obviously distressed with our attention. It’s a small group today, and the half-dozen of us wander down to the river and spread out rugs out on the bank for lunch. The chatter is buoyant, faces streaked with dirt, and hair strung with twigs. As I bite into my sandwich, I notice the dirt etched in lines on my palms.
‘Why is this stuff so satisfying?’ asks Lucy. ‘I mean all we really did was make a huge pile of sticks and leaves. I didn’t need six years of university to equip me for the task, but I’m loving it.’ ‘Same with fire-making for me last week,’ says Elena, who sits a little further back from the group so as not to be tempted by food. She’s begun fasting one day a fortnight in order to prepare herself for a four-day fast as part of a Vision Quest at the end of the year. ‘I’ve been spinning the sticks between my palms at night. It’s keeping something alight.’ Last Friday, we made fire with a hand drill, employing the Indigenous method that uses one stick — in this case, a grass-tree flower stalk — spun with enough friction onto a base board that’s notched to size. To begin with, I had everyone whittle their own kit before splitting into small groups to make fire. I crouched next to Elena’s group and encouraged them to get a feel for the stalk moving between their palms. I remembered my own first time: it looks so easy until you try to coordinate the speed and pressure necessary for smoke to appear. I held back the urge to help as the group rode waves of exhaustion and hope, as smoke appeared and disappeared, whispering its promise, seemingly in equal measure unattainable and potently close. Their first attempt failed, drilling through the board and into the ground. Elena wasn’t going to give up, though, and roused her two companions to try again. Despite the crisp autumn day, sweat dripped from their foreheads by the time a small red glowing ember rolled out of the notch like a tiny snake. Elena could hardly believe it, and I guided her to cup the coal in the tinder bundle and gently blow. When it erupted into flames, her smile was a burst of golden fire from her soul itself. ‘Why do you think it is?’ Mel asks. ‘Why do we keep showing up week after week?’ The group munches on the sweet potato chips I offer around as they contemplate the question.
‘There’s something for me about using my body for a purpose that feels meaningful,’ says Elena. ‘Sitting all day drains me.’ ‘It’s just so real. So much is conceptual these days, and you can’t argue with fire or food or shelter. It’s authentic,’ says Lucy. ‘I like being uncomfortable sometimes too,’ says Laura. ‘Makes me feel alive.’ ‘Me too,’ says Elena. ‘That’s why I’ve been doing the cold showers and ice baths.’ I’ve noticed a shift in Elena since she started the cold exposure and the fasting. She’s got more spine, more substance. ‘I’ve noticed that my sensitivity to clients has changed,’ says Tas of his osteopathic practice. ‘Since sensing more in my body, I’m sensing more about others.’ ‘But there’s also fear of pleasure too,’ says Michelle. ‘Like some guilt kicks in that tells me I should be more productive than just sitting here soaking in the sun and observing nature.’ Post-lunch, the conversation trickles down into a contemplation of the sound of the water bubbling past. We’re all just standing to head back when Laura says with quiet assurance, ‘I’m going to sleep in the shelter tonight.’ The resolve lands with the splash of a rock in the languid group pond. Questions rain down. What, really? But you don’t have warm things. What if you get too cold? It’s forecast to rain tonight. You’ve only got your bike, and it’s an hour’s ride home. What about food? What about strangers? Laura sits back, listening, and fends them off with a single statement: ‘The soul grows strong when the body does too.’ Once the group feels Laura’s commitment, the energy shifts into a motivated responsibility. There’s talk of adding more leaves and constructing a door plug that Laura can pull in behind her to keep the cold wind out. I recommend smudging the inside of the shelter with smouldering green gum leaves to deter bugs. Survival practice has suddenly turned real: it has to keep one of our tribe warm. We head up the hill with purpose in our stride.
When we farewell Laura, a southerly breeze has blown in, and I wonder how she’ll go without so much as a blanket. We’re leaving her with a supply of snacks, having topped up her water bottle and showered her with blessings. ‘I trust the earth,’ she says as we cluck around her. ‘And I trust my body.’ As I ride my bike into a headwind, I think about how it’s really one and the same: earth being body, and body being earth. Trust in one is trust in the other.
This is an edited extract from Rewilding the Urban Soul: Searching for the Wild in the City by Claire Dunn (Scribe) out June 1, 2021.