Lessons from the rainforest

I am a person who needs time alone to recharge. I have always been this way. Social interactions take a lot of energy for me and I get quite frazzled if I am not able to retreat from time to time. A small, un-powered camp-site in the Otways National Park has become my favourite place in the world for this reason and I go there as often as I can, even if it is just for one night. I was so fortunate to be able to spend three weeks in this peaceful paradise earlier this year.

rainforestlessons-3My days are divine. I wake up naturally in my tent to the sound of the resident king parrot mother-daughter pair chattering happily to each other in a nearby tree. A territorial Koala grunts his mating call in the distance and if I sit quietly I can hear the tiny fairy wrens chirping to each other as they hop, impossibly quick, past my tent. The tide won’t be right for surfing for a few hours so I change out of my pajamas, which consist of thermals and thick woolen socks, put on shorts and a t-shirt and drag my yoga mat outside. It is always much cooler in the rainforest but there is a small gap in the trees that provides a warm patch of sunlight and I put my mat down there. Days of surfing and bush walking leave me with sore muscles and I spend 20 minutes or so stretching, enjoying the feeling of the tension leaving my body.

Hungry now, I make some simple oat porridge and boil the kettle which will be used for tea and dish washing water. While breakfast cooks I organise my lunch for the day – a salad wrap – and then settle down with my bowl of oats and cup of earl grey to read for a while. The air is so still up here, even if the tops of the trees are blowing in the wind I rarely feel the breeze. The peacefulness is complete and I feel so lucky.

My little tent home is about a 15 minute drive down dirt roads to the nearest town (and surf spot) so once I am done with breakfast I pack all my belongings into the car except the tent and my bedding and head off, hoping to find the local point breaking. If I’m in luck, I will quickly put my wetsuit on, smother on some sunscreen and zinc and head in. The water is usually cold but I warm up quickly and for the next two hours or so there will be no time for thinking about anything but the waves. It feels good to work my body hard and even though I am still very much a novice surfer it is thrilling to see myself improving incrementally every day. I am coming to know the other local surfers and it’s nice to sit in the water with other people who share my passion. I come in when exhaustion hits me and I can no longer physically paddle fast enough to get on a wave.rainforestlessons-4

The rest of my days usually consist of a nap in the shade, reading, writing or drawing, another surf if conditions are right later on, or a bush walk if not, and then a quiet dinner back at camp. I drink my tea, play music and write or read as the sun goes down.

Living in the rainforest can be challenging. There is no running water, no power, no electricity and no heating. You can’t charge your phone or laptop and there is a whole host of curious forest creatures that are very interested in what you are doing. Living this simple lifestyle made me reflect on the lifestyle I live back home and on the things that I really need to be happy. Hint: Not a lot

1) Sleeping when it is dark

One of the loveliest things about camping has got to be the relief of having your sleep-wake cycles move into synch with the sun. I would find myself getting sleepy at around 8:30 when the sun started to go down and by 9:30 and last light I was well and truly ready for bed. It was a good thing too because I also woke up with the sun (and the absurdly excited birds) around 6:30am. I am not alone in this. In 2013 researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder found that it only took a week of camping with no artificial light to synchronise the internal clocks of all eight participants with sunrise and sunset. I have since discovered that this is because of a tiny region of the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) that is located just above the optic nerves in the brain. This region receives signals about the light entering our eyes and controls the production of melatonin, which makes you want to sleep. The SCN can be affected by working night shift, artificial lighting, computers and mobile phones and the disruption caused has been linked to a range of disorders from depression to cardiovascular disease. Having been a shift worker, I really appreciate having my circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycle in order. We drag our bodies into unnatural rhythms created by the modern world and this causes constant tension. When was the last time you didn’t feel tired? Being away in the bush with no phone reception and no power gives you an excuse to listen to your body instead of living by the clock and snap back into a more natural way – it feels amazing.

2) Natural Resources

When it got dark, all I had was a torch, when it was cold I layered up or boiled the kettle for a hot water bottle and when I needed to wash the dishes all I used was one kettle full of water. Bush wees don’t use any water and showering was minimal because I was swimming so much but when I did shower it was an automated three minutes at the public shower block near the beach. It wasn’t until I got back home that I realised how easily I survived on so little. Comparing this to the length of my showers at home and the amount of water I used to wash the dishes is embarrassing and I can’t come up with a good reason for why it is necessary to use so much. ABS data released in 2014 shows that in the 2012-2013 recording year Australians used just under 20 billion litres of fresh water, with 13 billion litres of this being for agriculture. To try and reduce my water usage I have put the plastic tub I use for dishes whilst camping into my sink at home. I try to fill the tub only once and use a grey water safe washing detergent so when the tub gets full I use it to water my balcony vegetable garden. This means I’m not filling the watering can with fresh water a few times a day. I have also started to keep a bucket in the shower and use the water that collects in it to flush the toilet, saving even more fresh water. In researching ways to reduce water usage I stumbled upon some shocking data. In America one pound of beef requires 2500 gallons of water to produce and one gallon of milk requires 1000 gallons of water to produce. Regardless of your familiarity with imperial measurements (I have no concept of how much this is) the ratios are still impressive! There are no Australian breakdowns of which animals or plants use what but the overwhelming majority of water usage in Australia goes to agriculture. To this end I have stopped eating meat and started avoiding dairy as well but even a small reduction in meat consumption will help! If you would like to contribute to the conservation of water, having one meat free meal a week will be more effective than any personal water saving measures. There is a movement called “Meatless Monday” which you can find out about here, that provides recipes and useful information on reducing the environmental impact of your food choices.

3) Mindfulnessrainforestlessons-2

This is a growing movement and for those who haven’t stumbled upon it yet, practicing mindfulness simply involves being present with whatever it is you are doing. Practically this means doing one thing at a time, paying attention to your senses and slowing right down. When you are living in the bush this is almost enforced. Everything takes a little bit longer and requires a little bit more concentration. You can’t have the TV on while you are cooking and no power means no phone battery or Internet. For more information on mindfulness check out this website, or download the Smiling Mind app.

rainforestlessons-54) ‘Stuff’

For the three weeks I was living in the bush, everything I needed except my tent, bedding and my big esky had to fit in my car. I wanted to have everything with me all the time to avoid trips back to the campsite and unnecessary driving. The incredible thing is that everything did fit, and easily at that. There was even enough room left to pick up the occasional backpackers hitchhiking to the area’s various attractions. I had only basic cooking supplies and I usually made dinner in one pot and then ate it from that pot. I had one cup, one plate and one set of cutlery. Nevertheless I ate very well. I realised about two weeks in that I didn’t miss any of my stuff and it became quite apparent to me which things that I did value. The notion that having less possessions is a good thing is not a new one and it is called Minimalism. I read a blog called Becoming Minimalist and if the thought of de-cluttering your house and giving yourself more time and space to focus on the things that really make you happy is interesting to you I highly recommend having a look. As for me I found that my books, my drawing supplies and my note book were my most used and prized possessions, along with my tea cup, beanie and thick socks. Everything else was forgotten.

5) I have way too much clothing:

In the three weeks I was in the rainforest I wore about three different outfits. I had my sleeping clothes, something for warm weather and something when it got cold. I will concede that I didn’t have many social engagements in the bush and the weather was fairly warm while I was there but I still maintain that I don’t need anywhere near as many articles of clothing as I currently own. I have six pairs of jeans! Six! I am not the only one who has noticed that they could get by on less clothing – there is a challenge called ‘Project 333’ that involves cycling 33 items of clothing (including outer wear, shoes and accessories) for 3 months. This is an intriguing idea and believers tout benefits such as saving time when getting ready, less stress and developing more of a personal style, not to mention saving money. Might be worth giving it a go?

Aside from a wonderfully relaxing holiday, my time in the bush taught me a lot about the simple life, living more in tune with nature and gave me more of an appreciation for the joy of a hot cup of tea and a good book. Not falling back into old habits is difficult but I am certainly going to try and apply the things I have learned here into my every day life. We are the same people whether we are on holidays or whether we are at work and remembering that can help you build a life that you don’t need to get away from.

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Our grandmothers guard a wealth of untold stories.

I went to lunch with my grandmother and two of her friends at the local RSL recently. We went to play the pokies and enjoy the $9.95 seniors menu. This is not an uncommon occurrence but for some reason the conversation on this day stayed with me long afterwards. We often think of old ladies in fairly simplistic terms. They stereotypically like their knitting, a cup of tea (lots of milk) and bake a great scone/tea cake/chocolate chip cookie. Perhaps on this occasion I actually listened to them or perhaps they were more candid then usual, but I came away with the acute realisation that they exist in a world that is completely alien to mine. These women have experienced so much. In between stories of incontinent late husbands, haemorrhoids and hernias they throw in casual references to recently dead friends or those still languishing in nursing homes. I discovered that between them they have nursed four dying husbands, two sisters, a brother and helped to nurse countless friends. Despite this all three had a wicked sense of humour. They joked about sex, how difficult it is to wipe up after a trip to the toilet when you have haemorrhoids and how they were trying out online dating (“I’m looking for a friend WITHOUT benefits”).

I was fascinated. How, having witnessed and suffered so much misery were they able to continue to face life, and their not so distant death with such humour and courage? The familiar Nana that I had grown up with started to take on new dimensions. Somehow I had never considered this before. Elderly women are invisible in Australian culture. I have never read a book by or about a woman of this age. I have never seen a movie or watched a TV show that has an elderly lady as the leading character. I have so few reference points. Then another thought struck me, with startling clarity – if I live long enough this is going to happen to me too. Statistically speaking women live longer than men and more often than not it is women who take time off work to care for elderly relatives.

How does it feel it be nearly 80? To not just outlive, but nurse one or even two dying husbands on your own. To lose a son, a best friend, a brother or sister and support your friends through their own losses. To have collections of equipment in your home for when the next person you love needs to be nursed. Bed poles, commodes, walking frames and boxes of medications to lower your blood pressure, raise your iron levels, lower your cholesterol, soften or harden your stools as the need arises. To visit friends and relatives in nursing homes and know that you too are getting older. To watch them waste away, looked after by staff who don’t seem to care in an organisation that seems to be more of a business than a care facility. To know that you are closer to death than birth and to know intimately what it means to die. To have lived with a partner for fifty years and lose him. To watch him slowly fade away as dementia steals all the particular special things that made him who he is, that you loved. To have had a busy loving family who needed you for such a long time and wake up one day to find yourself alone in your house. No one to care for and no one to care for you. To go to family dinners and events and feel like you and your opinions and experiences are no longer relevant. You are from a different era. To have your family start treating you like a child.

There are women like this everywhere. Mothers, sisters, wives, grandmothers. They have spent their lives doing all the unglamorous unpaid caring work that goes unnoticed. Raising a family, caring for relatives. They get up every morning, pull on their comfortable slacks, sensible non-slip shoes, white singlet and a blouse they got half price at Harris Scarf. They vacuum the floor that only three people have walked on this week and wash the two dishes from their dinner last night. They start giving away and donating the things they don’t need any more. “Can’t take anything with you where I’m going.” my Nana often says.

These women find the time and caring and the fucks to give about the countless, trivial problems of their children and grandchildren and then quietly go and have a mammogram, a mole scan, a blood test. Simultaneously preparing for death and doing their best to delay it. They unanimously agree over lunch that they want to go quickly. A nice stroke or a heart attack. They lament that voluntary euthanasia isn’t an option and then in the same breath tell me about how one of them took their terminally ill husband to a sex shop for the first time while he was still in a wheelchair. With the three of them cackling, the kettle is put on again as some more chocolate slice is retrieved from the fridge.

These women know how life starts and they know how it ends. They can reconcile the inevitability of death and illness whilst finding the motivation to get up every morning and face their lives with hope and love. I want to know how they think. I want to know what they think is important in life and what isn’t. What they would change and what they wouldn’t give up for the world.

I resolve to come back and start recording their stories.

It is all about how you define success.

Over the past year I have read a lot of self-help, reinvention, how to be happy, simple living and lifestyle altering books. Unanimously they seem to be written by people who have a few things in common. Firstly they are successful. They are on top of their game and have the money or the power or the fame or whatever it is they were after. Then they worked themselves into the ground and prioritised the wrong things and this resulted in some sort of ‘event’. Perhaps a breakdown, relationship troubles or maybe just a sudden realisation that they were wasting their lives or missing out on seeing their family, but whatever it was something made the sit down and re-evaluate what was important to them. They do this, and then they write a book about it.

Don’t get me wrong, I love these books. I have been incredibly inspired by these stories and as a result have identified which things make me happy and started trying to focus more on what is important to me.

I do wonder though, where are all the self-help books written by people that discovered these principals at a young age? People who dedicated their time and energy to the things that make them happy, eschewing our cultures standard measures of success, and are currently living their dreams? Can you be a CEO whilst maintaining work life balance? Can a highly respected journalist have achieved their success whilst insisting on decent holiday time, family leave, actually taking lunch breaks and not replying to emails after 9pm?

Perhaps the lack of literature produced by people with work-life balance and people who know what is really important is a direct result of their different priorities. They don’t want to be CEO. They know that happiness is not found in money and power. They don’t want to be a famous journalist because they feel that the cost of that kind of success isn’t worth it in the long run. They don’t write a book about their lives because they are too busy actually living their lives, playing with their kids or going on weekends away with friends.

For these magic people the whole definition of success may be different. Success might be the ability to take their kids on regular camping trips. It might be to cultivate a beautiful and thriving garden. It might be to create a supportive community around them. Success could be knitting a scarf for a friend, perfecting a bolognese recipe or harvesting a bountiful vegetable crop.

It follows on then that using the generic societal definition of success isn’t going to make everyone happy. Some people may enjoy nothing more than being responsible for hundreds or even thousands of employees, maintaining the entire image of a news network or being in possession of enough money to have holiday houses all over Europe. I have no doubt that there are people who get a real buzz out of the responsibility, importance and decision-making power involved in this and if this is you then fantastic. Pursue it with everything you have. The reality is though that most people don’t need this to find happiness.

What we need to do is create our own definition of success.