What I learned by starting fires

Images via Australia Geographic

I used to be an A-grade tea addict. Tea was my go-to: morning upper and evening downer, elevenses break and afternoon fix. Outside those times it was available on a needs basis. Bored? Procrastinating? Feeling the slightest emotional discomfort? Float that tea bag.

However a few years ago, much to my dismay, tea began to lose its efficacy. No longer was it a guaranteed relief or reprieve. Something about the ease of it – a mere flick of a kettle switch and puff it appeared – felt increasingly unsatisfactory.

Tea wasn’t the only thing losing its magic.

Once a passionate environmental advocate, my job with The Wilderness Society was making me passionless. I had become one of those office-pale greenocrats, the ones that say the right words but in a hollow voice. It wasn’t just the job – the whole package of partner, social life and community was getting to me. It was just the busyness of it all. The onwardsness of everything.

I felt like a tourist of my own life. The shortcuts were short-changing me. I wanted more than 10-second media grabs and instant hot water. I wanted to know the underbelly of things, to know in my bones what it actually takes to make a cup of tea from scratch; to live life off my own steam, literally.

One day an email popped into my inbox – a year-long 'Independent Wilderness Studies Program' on the north coast of NSW. My heart did a cartwheel. This was it; my invitation to whittle life down to its barest of essentials, to taste the purity of existence without the convenience.

The image of myself sitting under a thatched roof, watching a billy of tea bubble on a bed of flames I created with my own hands clinched the deal. I signed up and left my city life far behind.

Although there were no hard and fast rules about life in the bush, running with the 'greater the need, greater the result' theory, I decided to surrender all matches and lighters. No more instant fires for me. However, despite following the technique I had learnt for the indigenous 'hand-drill' method to the letter, I was lucky if I produced a bum-puff of smoke. What I did produce, though, were two enormous and painful blood blisters on both palms. And there was no cup of tea to comfort me.


Three things stopped me from running straight back to my packet of matches. The first was the season – an exceptionally hot summer made it easier to forgo hot beverages. The second was the bow-drill, an alternative fire-by-friction method that I found (some) success with.

However, the store-bought string required for bow-drilling still made it cheating in my books; and besides, the significant grunt work involved was still a deterrent from spur of the moment tea drinking. The third, and most successful, prevention method was pure stubbornness.

Three months in to my year in the wild and still all I could do was produce plumes of smoke. “Trying negates the effort,” my fire instructor once told me. “You have to want it more than anything, but give up the striving.”

I began doing push-ups to build up my biceps (crucial for rubbing sticks together for hours on end) and upped my practise. I watched as the other bush-goers in the program casually sat down and busted out flames. “Cool,” they said, as if it were nothing more than finding five dollars on the side of the road. I fumed. But the harder I tried, the more it eluded me. My fire failure threatened to undermine the whole year. Maybe I would never find the spark again, I despaired.

One evening, cursing my fire kit as my arms shuddered to a halt, I remembered the Yoda-like words of my instructor – “Trying negates the effort” – and spontaneously reached to tie a scarf over my eyes. I started spinning again, this time blind to any marker of progress, focusing instead on the sensation of the stick moving from fingertip to fingertip, evenly, steadily. My shoulders relaxed and I dropped to a fast, fluid stroke, power coursing through my core.

I knew it before I saw it – the red-hot ember glowing at my feet. This is what it was asking – to love it without attachment, to let go of the goal and enjoy the journey itself. Tears welled in my eyes as the first bubbles appeared in the billy and I settled in for the best cup of tea I had ever tasted.

Claire Dunn’s memoir, My Year Without Matches, is published by Nero and available in bookshops now.

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