I'm reading
Weaving back into the web
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Weaving back into the web
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Weaving back into the web
Pass it on
Pass it on
3 December 2019

Weaving back into the web

An evening with neighbours, flatmates and friends to discuss climate emergency provided Claire Dunn, with a set of guiding principles for resilience in the face of crisis.

Written by Claire Dunn

This story originally ran in issue #61 of Dumbo Feather

The fireplace my sharehouse affectionately calls “the little howler” burns in one corner of the loungeroom as the visitors arrive. It’s fake, but elicits enough real and imagined warmth to provide a hearth of a kind for the dozen neighbours, flatmates and friends pulling up cushions and balancing plates piled high with homegrown radish, kale, rocket and Chinese cabbage. On one wall hangs a bundle of nettle harvested from a nearby backyard. Finding a spot in the circle, I’m suddenly nervous. I’ve called people here for a potluck conversation about climate emergency, deep adaptation and community response but suddenly want to reach for the bottle of red wine someone has placed on the table.

This is exactly the reason I need this, I remind myself. Because it’s too big to contemplate alone. Too easy to create systems of denial or distraction. And it’s not a conversation to put on hold. It’s the conversation of our times.

Making a significant splash in the dialogue recently was Dr Jem Bendall with his 2018 paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. I’ve had his podcasted voice in my ear all afternoon as I walked in the park. It was a beautiful day; couples on picnic rugs, lunchbreak joggers and happy babies in prams. There was not a small amount of cognitive dissonance to be simultaneously immersed in Bendall’s reality of climate emergency and inevitable collapse; that hard rains are going to fall on all of us in the not- too-distant future and that radical psychological and physical changes are required… now.

“With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbours for food and some warmth,” said Bendall with a kind of surety that sent chills down my spine.

I look around at the group—community facilitators and government leaders, an academic, activist, artist, permaculturist, renewable energy bureaucrat, psychotherapist—all mostly dwelling within a kilometre of each other in rented properties.

What could it look like to really plan for this kind of future together? What would we need to reimagine about our lives? How would we need to organise? What kinds of new connections would we need to make with each other, with the land we live on, within ourselves? And is it even feasible to make radical changes while the water still runs freely from the tap and the pantry is full?

Breaking into groups, the neighbourly small talk shifts into a potluck of stories, ideas, feelings and concerns, scribes taking notes on big sheets of paper I’ve spread around the room. The conversation has begun.

“Resilience is the immune system of the city,” says Maree, “And resilience relies on strong community.” Now heading up the resilience project at the City of Melbourne, it’s a far cry from her previous life.

“I used to live in the rainforest, I had incredible night vision. I knew how to make things, fix things. Now I don’t even have a rainwater tank. It causes me so much grief. I hate relying on the system.” The solar panel connected to a battery on the verandah of her apartment is an act of defiance against the extractive rather than generative economy Maree now find herself living in. “We need to bring people together in ways that people lean towards already: gardening, seasonal celebrations, music in the park, conversations, learning skills, cooking.”

“We need to be asking each other courageous questions, like what are seven plants on the landscape that you could make flour from? Or what are the things your grandmother used to do that you would like to learn? At some point we’re going to depend on how connected we are,” Maree says.

My grandmother might not be around to teach me, but there is one in my street who might. Yesterday I found a delivery of several sourdough loaves of bread at my open front door care of Caz, my down-the-road neighbour and full-time homesteader. Their garden was the first thing I noticed on the street when I moved a few years ago, my daily walk to the park necessitating a ducking under their fejoja, fig, macadamia and carob tree while chooks cackled in the background. Caz and her partner Chris’s retirement life choice was more than a hobby I realised when the “declare a climate emergency” corflute went up on the fence. Their gate was always open, and so I began to pop in, returning home with arms laden. Caz gradually let me into their self-sufficiency secrets: collecting coffee grinds and chook scraps daily from the local café, taking me along to the horse stables in the city to collect wheelbarrow loads of poo, inducting me into the source of the dumpster-dived bread, even gifting me a long-handled garbage picker for easy reach.
“In my family you didn’t waste anything,” she said.

A simple statement mirrored by the provocative questions asked when I visited North Melbourne Town Hall last month for “Refuge,” an art-come- climate emergency planning event. Under heavy colonial architecture a packed audience was asked to consider, “If North Melbourne was evacuated what would you do? What skills and knowledge do you have? And do you know your neighbours well enough to ask for their help?” A ripple ran through the crowd like distant thunder. I looked over at the emergency shelters set up around the room and wondered.

Upstairs in a darkened room were two large bamboo rafts with white sails the size of sheets. The sirens and flashing lights reminded us this was no romantic relic from the past, but a possible future, when we may need to take to the water as climate refugees. I followed traditional weavers to the Royal Park grasslands nearby. Lomandra, poa, kangaroo grass; all familiar friends to me. One of the guides, a woman with fingers bent from years of weaving or arthritis or both looked at us fiercely, “Could you weave yourself a basket for your belongings? Do you know where the materials are for your survival?”

Learning ancient skills for an uncertain future is part of “rewilding,” a movement that seeks to cultivate a wilder and less domesticated way of life, even in the city. Foraging, frugality, physicality, creative self-sufficiency, new community structures and deep nature connection are some of the life hacks of the urban rewilder. Most Fridays I lead a group of city dwellers into pockets of Melbourne’s inner northern bushland areas to rewild— lighting fires without matches, foraging for wild food and medicinals, making water filters from discarded plastic bottles, weaving baskets from ivy, tanning hides, carving traps, cooking over a fire, learning the language of the birds. “I feel a sense of belonging in the city that I never thought was possible,” one participant said.

Human heritage is animistic in nature, our conversations once including birds, trees, animals, rivers.

It’s a bit like a rehearsal, though, I sometimes think as we all disband at the end of the day. So how could we turn a cool-thing-to-do-with-my-Friday into a deeply adaptive lifestyle? Self-proclaimed “neo-peasants” Meg Ulman and Patrick Jones are living and teaching their philosophy on a quarter acre block in Daylesford, their days filled with foraging, hunting, preserving, brewing, bartering, fermenting and community gardening.

“We’re reclaiming the skills, resilience and adaptability everyone is going to need in the future,” says Patrick. “While the neo locates our privilege in choosing to be peasant-like in our daily modes—goat-herding on public land to mitigate climate era bushfire, growing and cellaring food, salvaging waste from affluence, celebrating the seasons with song, poems and community dinners, washing in the lake, foraging for weeds, herbs and mushrooms, and generally living a dirt-rich life—the term is also a reaching back to our carbon positive ancestors who knew how to live in relationship with more-than-human life.”

Embedded in this lifestyle is a reimagining of relationship with place. Human heritage is animistic in nature, our conversations once including birds, trees, animals, rivers. It will require our deep imagination to weave us back into this web. It’s a soft skill compared to putting food on the table, but resilience rich. Displacement will be easy without a home that we love, and that perhaps loves us too.

It’s both love and grief that we need to make space for in these times, says Beth Hill from Psychology for a Safe Climate. “Healthy cultures hold regular grief rituals. Given what we are witnessing in these times we need them more than ever,” Beth says. “The process of coming together to grieve serves two purposes—one is marking what is being lost and having those feelings validated and acknowledged. The other is that the process of grieving breaks down barriers and builds community. It’s not just about grief but the way it opens people to connection and support.”

In my backyard this year, over 140 people dropped in around the fire to a 24-hour grief ritual held over Samhain, the traditional Day of the Dead on May 1. Throughout the day and night people gathered to share stories, feelings, songs, poems, laughter. Mike sobbed as he spoke of his grief for the world, for the collapse of the living systems, for the future generations. “I ask myself what can I do in these times, and the only answer I return to is love,” he said.

We’re wrapping up for the night. After farewelling the guests I look down at the notes. It’s definitely not a plan, but looking closer the themes emerge like a set of guiding principles. I print them in bold and courageous marker across the top.

Know your neighbours. Know your place. Get skills. Grieve. Create. Celebrate.

Claire Dunn

Claire Dunn is the author of My Year Without Matches: Escaping the City in Search of the Wild. She is currently working on another memoir about rewilding in the urban landscape. www.naturesapprentice.com.au

Image supplied by Claire Dunn

Dumbo Feather has evolved, follow the journey by signing up for the Small Giants Academy newsletter