At the very beginning of last summer, I drove out into the high country — Taungurung country — to meet a group of people. I then spent four days and four nights fasting alone in the bush. Just me, a lot of birds and caterpillars, a thousand eucalypts, a yabby (or maybe it was a freshwater crayfish) and, at one moment, a wombat. I camped beside a crystal-clear waterway called Sugarloaf Creek. I slept under a tarp strung between two trees and fastened with knots tied as my boyfriend had taught me.
On the first morning, a gum tree fell behind my campsite with a deafening crack — a sound like a gunshot or a whip being cracked. I scurried under my tarp. (I don’t know what sound a falling tree makes if there is no one to hear it, I thought to myself, equal parts laughing and terrified, but now I know what it sounds like when there is). Half an hour later, another tree fell with the same incredible sound. If a third falls, I decided, I’ll get the hell out of here.
That day was hot. I took off my clothes and bathed in the sun and the creek. I sought shade under the trees when I needed to, looking up and analysing which tree or branch was likely to fall next, and where it would land if it did. The next three days rained on and off. I was too cold to change my clothes, so I didn’t. When it rained I lay under my tarp; when the sun came out I sat on a boulder in the creek and warmed myself. I spent hours watching the ball of the sun slowly roll across the sky, trying to guess the time.
At night I buried myself in my sleeping bag. I don’t remember looking at the stars much, even though I had a dream before I arrived in which the message seemed to be, No matter what happens, you will still have the stars above you. I prayed to my ancestors and the ancestors of the land that the wind wouldn’t get up again, and it didn’t. I reminded myself that this is how so many people before me had existed — camped by a creek using the trees for shelter and shade, and the sun to thaw out. I resisted the urge to escape into the entertainment of my mind and forced myself to be where I was instead. At one point I wrote in the journal I wasn’t supposed to have, I am extravagantly bored.
On the fifth morning, I woke up in the half-light with the dawn chorus, made my way across the creek and followed the sound of drumming back to the main campsite. The other Vision Questers slowly emerged from their various campsites scattered across the land. There was a welcome party and a campfire waiting to receive us. They fed us miso soup.
We talked, before venturing out on our Vision Quests, about the way humans shift — must shift — between the centre and the edge of life; between the spheres of comfort and discomfort. I’ve thought about that a lot before and since. When I set out on the Vision Quest I’d spent most of the year in lockdown with the rest of Melbourne; prior to that I’d been in a kind of self-imposed lockdown while I nurtured myself back to feeling human again after burning out. By the end of 2020, spurred by the call to adventure, I was ready to wander back out to the edge.
And while researching the nervous system earlier this year, I realised that this ability to oscillate between the centre and the edge — between a parasympathetic and sympathetic state — is part of healthy human functioning. Some of us get stuck out at the edge and don’t know how to find our way back to centre. Others get frozen in the safety of the cocoon and can’t imagine leaving. There was a time when I operated off adrenaline and forgot how to retreat into the restful comfort of the centre. Courage is making a clearing in the forest, I wrote at the time. Then, I momentarily forgot how to re-emerge from the comfortable clearing I’d made.
The thing is that we never know when the trees around us are going to fall. In the months since I left my spot beside Sugarloaf Creek, I’ve been blindsided and rocked by all kinds of physical pain and discomfort. Did my experience alone in the bush help me? I don’t know, but I do know that — as Paul Kelly sings about in Deeper Water — life will keep bringing us to our edge whether or not we want to go there. And that when we return, we need to have some fire and soup waiting. The edge is unbearable without the centre, and the centre means nothing without the edge.
Learn more about the Vision Quests facilitated by Dumbo Feather friend Claire Dunn here.