TO understand Claire Dunn's extraordinary decision to leave her comfortable home, career and five-year relationship for a rudimentary self-made hut on a bushy north coast property, you have to picture her lying on the thinly carpeted floor of her former Hunter Street office overwhelmed by bone-deep exhaustion.
The seasoned Wilderness Society campaigner had grown disillusioned with her role and disconnected from the very environment she was working so determinedly to protect. One day, after organising an early-morning action to take advantage of a Newcastle visit by then prime minister, John Howard, she found herself on the floor. An election was looming and local media were chasing her for comment, but Dunn didn't have the energy or will to answer the phone.
"I tried to bring the magic back, upping the pace, working longer hours, telling myself what a privilege it was to have this job," she writes in My Year Without Matches, her just-published account of her escape to the bush. " . . . It's just the busyness of it all. Nothing's ever finished. Nothing ever stops. The life that was once a consuming passion is now consuming me."
"I was burnt out," Dunn acknowledges above the mid-morning din at Merewether's bustling Surfhouse cafe. Raised in Paterson, she nows live by the beach. "The job kept getting bigger and bigger, the ground crew kept getting smaller and smaller. On the outside I was waging a federal election campaign and on the inside there was a campaign being waged just as strongly.
"As much as I could talk about the issues, people weren't connecting with the messages. I came to see more and more that the underlying cause of the ecological crisis was more about our relationship with nature and how we'd become disconnected. Words just bounced off people, and then I realised I was starting to be like that. I was stuck in an office and I didn't have the day-to-day contact with the bush."
Slowly, but surely, a radical way forward took shape - and it didn't involve fleeing to an upmarket health retreat or Thai beach. Dunn yearned to get back to basics and to the bush. "An email popped into my inbox advertising a short course in nature philosophy and I went along. It was all about wilderness survival skills and training. We were doing everything from lighting fire from sticks, sleeping in shelters made from leaf litter, walking blindfolded in the bush at night. I just felt so alive and something within me woke up.
"At the same time, I started having all these incredible dreams about being taken to the forest."
Dunn quit her job, began consulting and enrolled in more short courses, building her bush knowledge and skills. She also headed to the US for a couple of months to attend the respected Tom Brown Jnr's Tracker School in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. She considered participating in their intensive year-long program but "couldn't bear the thought of being among raccoons and deer. I wanted my animals, trees and smells."
Amazingly, when Dunn approached the Australian facilitators of the short courses, the couple agreed to host a year-long program, even buying a property near Grafton to accommodate Dunn and five other participants, a couple of whom were friends of Dunn's.
She left Newcastle in 2010 to be a guinea pig in the first - and last, as it turned out - Guunuwa Independent Wilderness Studies Program. "It took me a while to warm to the land," the quietly-spoken 35-year-old remembers. "I was picturing old growth forests; I was picturing Barrington [Tops], which is my home country, but it was spiky sandstone country, with banksias and scribbly gums. It had been logged, quarried and initially I was like, 'I'm not spending a year here', but it grew on me.
"It was a slow-burning relationship and by the end of it, I'd seen platypus in the creek and the powerful owl had visited at night, and there were yellow-bellied gliders, and wallabies and so many birds."
Her experiences, from the mundane to the profound, unfold in My Year Without Matches in four parts in line with the seasons and the "sacred order of survival": shelter, water, fire and food. It is not always pretty, though with a journalist's attention to detail - Dunn has a communications degree from Macquarie University and has freelanced - she captures the affecting beauty of her environment as well as her tumultuous internal struggle to rediscover her place in the world. Her year on "The Block", as the 100-acre property became known, forced her to her knees.
"If you'd asked me at the time [about expectations] I would have said, 'I don't have many, I'm an open book, whatever the experience offers me'," she says with a knowing grin, "but then I realised I had a swag of expectations and some of them were quite conflicting which is where some of the struggles fitted in."
The other participants had different goals and their commitment varied - one had a car and would come and go, another had a mobile phone he used constantly, and two partnered up. It is not surprising that politics came into play and Dunn, with her all-or-nothing approach and intense desire for solitude, comes across at times as too earnest and judgemental.
Deciding to be upfront about her behaviour and document her changing moods as well as the tension between the participants proved challenging. "I really expose my vulnerabilities and the grit of my internal journey [in the book]," she reflects. "The experience took my to places I didn't know existed. I explored the internal wilderness as I was exploring the outer."
She ate diamond python, road kill dropped off by a neighbour, and even a wallaby she trapped herself. She tanned hide, made fire, crafted ceramic bowls, wove baskets, and built a shelter with the help of her parents, Pauline and Bob, known to Hunter residents as the owners of Heritage Gardens Nursery at East Maitland. She sobbed, danced naked in a storm, fasted and walked barefoot through the forest.
Once a week, she pedalled a bike four kilometres along a dirt road to the property owners' house and indulged in 30 minutes of email access. Occasionally, she ventured into town to stock up on pantry items, though her diet seems to have consisted mainly of rice and lentils, native berries and the occasional animal.
She read, walked, observed, analysed, reflected, absorbed. By the end of the year, she was the last participant standing and walked out of The Block forever changed - though not before slipping into a creek and drenching her "city" clothes.
"I felt ready to leave," she says. "I was craving cafes, the movies, a dress to wear, but I ended up finding it quite hard to adjust. I also found it really difficult to be in four walls again; I felt confined and claustrophobic. It was hard to hold on to that stillness and sense of spaciousness I experienced. It's kind of like I got cracked open in some way that year and it's been a process of living all those lessons in daily life. I feared losing it."
As we chat, British teenager Birdy's rendition of the Bon Iver song Skinny Love, about the souring of a relationship, is playing. The lyrics seem especially apt.
"Come on skinny love just last the year
Pour a little salt, we were never here . . ."
Dunn's relationship breakdown and gradual rebuilding essentially involved only one person - her.
"I think as a woman it has been powerful at some level to be liberated from limitations [thanks to feminism], but the message I absorbed was, 'you can do whatever you want in life'. I read that as, I've got to do everything and I've got to do it really well.
"The new way is learning how to slow down and realising that what's most fulfilling in life is actually doing less and finding what gives you the most joy and not being distracted. I was so scared I was going to fail that year, but what would failing mean? No one was judging but me."
Dunn has spent the past three years writing My Year Without Matches and when we meet, she is understandably anxious about how it will be received. Only close friends and family have read it so far and she is stuck in that discomforting state between completing the book and waiting for it to find an audience. The writing journey has been harder than the year she went bush - and that's saying something.
"Every morning I'd sit at my desk and feel fear," she explains. "I tried to stop writing, but I couldn't. I felt compelled to finish. It comes back to that idea that the journey isn't over until the story's been told."