One of the first sessions of the 2018 Byron Writers Festival took us off the beaten track with Jessie Cole, Miriam Lancewood and Gregory Smith, who all lived, for various reasons, in the wilderness for years at a time.
Out of the Forest author Gregory Smith had been living in the forest in the Byron Bay hinterland for a decade as a virtual recluse. He had been traumatised and abused as a young boy and had spent his teenage years in institutions and foster care.
‘I made a mess of living in society; I had no skills to survive, so I ended up in the forest because I had nowhere else to go,’ Smith explained.
In his memoir, Smith recounts his incredible journey from a homeless, drug addicted alcoholic to a Southern Cross University lecturer; someone who advocates for the homeless and has written a PhD thesis on the negative effects of institutional out-of-home childcare on children.
‘The forest was my teacher: I learned if you’re hungry, you’ll eat anything; if you don’t talk to anybody for a long time, funny things happen in your head; and if you don’t look after yourself, you get very sick.’
This was common theme across the panel: how the forest encouraged healing after trauma, and enabled self-growth and understanding.
Cole used her Northern NSW forest garden to heal after a series of traumatic incidents in her life – her older sister committed suicide when Cole was 12, a cataclysmic event which she said sent her father mad. He never recovered and killed himself six years later.
‘When I was very young, my parents planted a garden in and around our house which grew alongside me into a rainforest,’ Cole said.
‘Each room in the house is separated by sections of this garden-forest, so to pass from room to room, I also pass through the plants. The forest was forthright in its affection for me – it would literally caress me as I passed through.’
For Miriam Lancewood, who spent eight years living a nomadic hunter-gatherer life with her husband in the New Zealand wilderness, the forest represents real life as opposed to the more abstract constructs given to it by modern society.
‘The things we do in the forest – crossing rivers, hunting an animal for food, using its skin to make clothing – that is real,’ Lancewood said.
‘Our fears are real too – when a thunderstorm strikes in the forest, and you’re in a little plastic tent with trees and branches falling all around, we’re afraid and with good reason.’
The panellists said they had learned to explore the edges of their own wildness within their forest. Even now that Smith has re-entered society, he still likes to keep a foot in both worlds.
‘I have a little house in town where I stay during the week for work, and I have a place in the forest where I return on the weekends, where I practice hearing and smelling. I go quiet, feel the planet turn, and listen to the music of the forest, the birds,’ said Smith.
Lancewood got a taste of her own wildness when hunting her first goat.
‘I was a terrible hunter in the beginning, and I made myself a promise that I would be successful. I hunted a wild goat, used all my arrows, then had to chase it down with a knife. Afterwards I thought, ‘what a horrific story’, and how strange I should be doing this, because I grew up a vegetarian!’
But Cole is wary of her wildness, having witnessed the destruction left behind by suicide and madness in her own family.
‘I’m trying to be less afraid of wildness. My parents encouraged us to be ourselves as much as possible, to test the edges of our wildness, so my time in the forest has been a journey to regain my wild child self.’
Lancewood noted how the gender constructs given to us by society just dissolve in the forest.
‘My husband is 30 years older than me; I do all the hunting and he does all the cooking, so it’s a total reversal for us,’ she said.
‘I love the feeling of being strong in my body, and I feel that when my body is strong, my mind is also strong.’
Smith agreed, acknowledging there are many strong women he has met who he would be proud to have at his side.
This discussion was a reminder of the powerful healing potential of our forests and wild areas, for it is in the forest that we humans can get to know our wild selves.
Sara Runciman is a Southern Cross University Digital Media and Communications student.