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On a misty Friday morning in May a dozen of us stand in a circle on the banks of the Birrarung (the Yarra) in Melbourne’s inner north. Dressed in parkas, beanies and scarves, our greetings breathe halos into the fog. A smaller circle sits within ours, a ring of rocks containing the charred remains of a fire.
“What is the quietest sound you can hear in the east?” I ask, and extend my own awareness in the direction of the sunrise. I strain to pick up nuances over the sound of the nearby freeway. Sometimes I imagine the roar is that of a mountain river. However when the southerly wind blows during peak hour I can’t pretend I live in the wilderness anymore. Despite the bushy outlook, the drone of the trucks is a gritty reality check.
“A small chirp,” someone offers, their eyes closed and concentrating. “The wind in the sheoaks,” offers another who has cupped her hands around her ears to help “catch” sound like a kangaroo. We continue collecting the soundscape from all the directions, grey currawongs calling in the north, willie wagtails from the west.
Our senses now awakened, the group shifts into action, dividing into the tasks required for matchless fire making—carving the notch on the fireboard, foraging for tinder and kindling, splitting wood. One team begins spinning the fire stalk in turn, shedding jackets as the internal fire builds with the effort. I stand back and reflect at the sight of this ancient technology back in action on these banks that have seen countless campfires like this for thousands of years. A yelp of success. The small red ember transferred to a nest of tinder is handed to Rachel, a mother of two from the eastern suburbs, who slowly breathes her first fire into flames.
“That’s so amazing!” she exclaims as we high-five over the crackle.
It’s Rachel’s first Rewild Friday, a program I started with a friend at the beginning of the year that offers city dwellers deep nature connection practices and bushcraft skills in their urban backyards. Our Facebook group snapshots have us harvesting reedsand weaving them into baskets, foraging for wild weeds and berries, blindfold stalking up Darebin creek, mapping the language of the birds, carving symbols into staffs, collecting acorns, climbing trees, examining animal tracks, playing games, sketching in our nature journals, and sharing stories around lunchtime fires.
Although the skills are ancient, they are new again for many in the western world now seeking to (re)learn the ways of our ancestors—re-examining everything from our food to our footwear. Learning daily practices to ground ourselves in the rhythms of nature, and acquainting ourselves with the plants, animals and elements of our bio-region, the movement dubbed “rewilding” is an attempt to reclaim once again our birthright of connection and belonging; an antidote to the sedentary, screen-addicted and often alienating culture of the modern human.
That’s the theory, but really—rewilding in the city? Isn’t it an oxymoron? A paleo-inspired fad? If rewilding is about deconditioning domestication, how wild can we really go within the very citadels of suburbia?
It’s certainly a question I’m holding since returning to city life after a year-long bush retreat, which set the aliveness bar pretty high.
After apprenticing in wilderness survival skills for a few years, in 2010 I immersed myself in the wilds for four full seasons as a kind of self-designed initiation. Building a shelter from natural materials, lighting fires by rubbing sticks together, eating bush food, tanning hides to make into clothing and learning all the skills of long-term wilderness living, I gradually felt my civilised self drop away in lieu of a more real and instinctive way of being. Wandering the land without time or destination, I turned my attention to what David Abrams calls the “more-than-human world.” The wild woman awoke. I felt alive, connected, responsive, free.
And yet for reasons of work, study and love, since “my year without matches,” I have moved between three different cities. Although no longer in the wilderness, I have lost none of the yearning for the aliveness. I often feel like a caged bird, temporarily perched until the next time I can “get out” and escape the complexity that characterises my life in the city. And yet I know this is not tenable long-term. Not just for me, but for the vast majority of Australians who live in urban settings. We need our dose of “Vitamin N” (Vitamin Nature) as Richard Louv calls it, not on the occasional weekend trip away or as a superfluous backdrop to our human drama, but as a rich part of the fabric of daily life. Equally we need “Vitamin C”—the essential connection with each other in a way that recreates vibrant community.
At a workshop I offered at the National Sustainable Living Festival this year I had people take a tourist test, with questions like: where does your tap water come from? Where is the moon in its lunar cycle right now? What is the nearest wild edible plant at your backdoor? What’s the first bird that calls of a morning? What are your neighbour’s names and birthdays? Most people were shocked at how little they knew about their immediate environment.
With this in mind I am experimenting with applying the practices that rooted me in country during my bush year.
Like a sit spot. Down in the wild recesses of my backyard is a spot I return to, as often as I can, to sit. With my back resting on the trunk of a tree, I soak in the life around me. I watch the birds and their companionable feeding flocks and territorial skirmishes, I listen to the sounds of the wind and notice where the weather comes in from. I’m gradually identifying the medicinal and edible plants. I munch on dandelion greens and blackberries. This week, the sight of the azure kingfisher hunting and hovering filled my heart with as much joy as an old friend visiting. The screech of birds above alerted me to the passing of a stealthy brown goshawk, strong and silent. A pair of tawny frogmouths camouflaged and cuddled up on the branch of an oak. There are secrets I am uncovering, like the night heron I spied with my binoculars hiding in the shadows. After 18 months of visiting I’m now seeing patterns and cycles. It’s this growing familiarity that I am loving more than the excitement of the unusual visitor. I don’t feel like a tourist so much but part of this changing landscape. It’s quiet time with myself too, a pause in my day to say hello to my own inner landscape.
Inspired by my sit spot, a friend now takes her first tea of the morning to a tree in a nearby park. Despite it being mown and cultivated, it’s working its own wild magic. “I woke up the other day and couldn’t wait to go and sit in the early morning mist,” she told me. In thanks, Guiliana has begun gifting the tree a drink from her cup. It’s a ritual that expresses her growing appreciation, not just for the tree but with the invisible web of life that supports both it and her to thrive.
Food is a big part of rewilding. Apart from foraging, I tend my garden and compost. I pay attention to where my food is grown or farmed. I avoid single use plastic. Urban agriculture and systems like sharewaste.com are bringing our food awareness right up close. It’s connective. Cycling or walking through the suburbs, I find myself unconsciously scanning for things to eat, weave, build, furnish, make fire or medicine from. They are small connective acts that bring meaning and, yes, belonging.
However, less than the hard skills of wilderness survival, rewilding is really about remembering that we are wild nature; that wildness is not about a place “out there” but a true authenticity of being; an aliveness in body, mind and spirit. Walking barefoot in the park, sharing stories around a backyard campfire, turning food scraps into soil or learning the birds are all opportunities to help me remember that I too am wild. Because if I stay inside too long it’s all too easy to forget.
This article is part of our wilding campaign at Dumbo Feather. For more stories, inspiration and ideas for re-connecting with the wild and protecting what you love, purchase Issue 56—”Embracing the Wild” or subscribe.