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Rewilding in the City – Part One: The Body

  • April 25, 2024
  • 11 min read
Rewilding in the City – Part One: The Body

Lately I’ve been thinking about how to exist as a human animal in the city. How can I stay connected to the seasons, the elements, my body and my community in this world of plastic, technology and invisible funds? The impact of living in square spaces, everyone walled into their suburban gardens, spending hours daily staring at bright little portals, zooming around in fossil fuel boxes, buying plastic-wrapped salads, constantly on, constantly more, more, more is so high and no one seems to notice. I want to rewild and stay wild. I want to dig up roots, brush the dirt off and eat them raw. I want a relationship with this land, the plants that heal me, the guardian animals. I want to be able to dance between gym mats and rock pools, computer and campfire, Bluetooth and blue wren. Leaving is too costly in terms of human relationships.

Take care if you experiment with going barefoot in the city.

I read Claire Dunn’s book ‘Rewilding the Urban Soul’ last year, about her grappling with coming from a year-long survival living experiment back to Melbourne city and finding ways to weave her knowledge from living on the land back into life in the city. I identify so much with this book, and I haven’t even done the hardcore twelve months without civilisation. All the layers I’ve learnt about permaculture, traditional skills, Indigenous relationship with country, herbs, gardening and spirituality have shifted my lenses bit by bit. The effect of becoming more aligned to place, of becoming aware of yourself as a human animal, of returning to the body, is wrenching dissonance when you try to continue participating in systems of oppression, in planet-destroying capitalism, in colonialist culture that has overpowered a functioning stable human system to create dysfunction and collapse. It hurts to wear these glasses and I couldn’t take them off if I wanted to. AND ‘it is no measure of health to be adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’ – Jiddu Krishnamurti

Oak tree in the city

I feel the older I get, the more my life is about learning to live in paradox. Somehow I have to find a path through, reconcile wilderness with WiFi. I found it immensely reassuring to read Claire’s book, to hear I’m not the only one trying to hold this grief and the longing to build deeper human connections, to connect with creatures and land. I read her chapters like a to do list. And it was settling to realise I already do a lot of these things. Those I have not yet experimented with, I am keenly interested in. This makes sense, this is how we should live. Of course. And you don’t even have to leave home. Rewilding isn’t just something that happens on retreat from society.

Trampling dry broccoli plants barefoot

Let’s start with the body. No matter where you live, in a cottage in the forest, 30 stories high in the city, a hospital or army base, you live in a body. I hope it is never any other way. Because you are in your body, you can breathe. You can move. You can sing. While I was staying in my sister’s apartment in Melbourne last year, I read through her books on wild movement and barefoot living. Humans are not designed to walk on even surfaces only, from floor to car to street to floor again, caged in shoes that deform our toes and tilt our spine all our waking hours. Take your shoes off. If you are buying shoes, look for these four things: thin flexible sole, wide or open toe box, completely flat sole (not even a slight heel rise, as in most ‘flats’) and ankle support. Shoes need to have every one of these features for healthy physiology and happy hips and spines. Her books talk about ‘vitamin texture’, walking on a variety of soft, hard, sloping, sandy, lumpy surfaces. Walk barefoot on the beach or on a pillow trail at home – or trample some seeds! You can strengthen your ankles and all the little support muscles in your feet by balancing on rocks and logs, leaping, climbing. Seek out uneven surfaces. I use my bare feet in Brazilian jiu jitsu to help me grip people or push them away, and I find myself using my feet at home to open drawers or point at things if my hands are full. Even very slow mindful walking or deliberate gentle leaping on one foot east, south, north and west on a flat surface will activate the stabilising muscles in your feet and ankles.

Go Play – local oval. Plenty of green space

Just moving your body more in any way will help you feel more regulated and present. Getting outside in nature is also good (usually you can access a park even in the city) but if all you can manage is Youtube yoga in your lounge room (I recommend Yoga with Adriene), walking the city streets or going to the gym, start there. We’re designed to move. Add movement breaks into your day at the office. Add in one minute micro workouts to your morning routine. Claire tries animal movement workshops at a public park, climbing fences and walking on rails. Remember how you used to do that as a kid? I did a parkour session in Melbourne and it was like the whole city turned into a playground. It felt like the right way to interact with all the concrete – leaping, balancing, hopping, spinning. Turn upside down. Curl up, stretch out, embody a jellyfish or fox, dance, swing. It gets all the body systems pumping, wakes you up, it’s good for your muscles and heart, but what I think is less recognised is how good it is for your mind. I go to martial arts four nights a week for my mental health. The physical strength, flexibility, cardio, bone health and improved balance are side benefits for me. Even choosing to sit on the ground, bending down, doing gardening or house chores can be a path into mindful movement. Come home to your body.

Another thing you can always do is breathe. Deep breathing calms you down because your body can’t be in fight/flight (sympathetic) and rest/digest (parasympathetic) at the same time and breathing is a lever in the system that you can manually override. Some people can deliberately control their heartbeat, but the breath is much easier. There are all kinds of deep breathing exercises. Pick one and try it. Just do three deep breaths to start with. Do it before bed, on a bushwalk, before a meeting, in the bath, in a heated conversation. It’s simple and effective.

Slivers of green space in the city. River views!

Similar to breathing is singing. I don’t think I have a good singing voice, but I like singing in the car and the shower. Sometimes when I’m watering the garden. I started singing two or three simple repetitive songs in the car on the way to martial arts after I read about how it benefits the vagus nerve and stress. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic (rest/digest) nervous system that affects your digestion, heart rate and immune system. The deep breathing necessary for singing is supposed to pressure the vagus nerve deep in the centre of the body and help to reduce the stress response or fight/flight. Do you find you’re calmer after singing loudly? If you sing with friends, family or church, there’s a whole pile of social benefits that come from belonging, being part of something bigger and experiencing emotion together. When I’m travelling, I play songs to sing to but for this daily commute to the gym I sing unaccompanied and experiment with making my voice higher or lower, faster or slower, softer or louder, holding notes, drawing breath at different intervals, etc. I repeat the same few songs so I don’t have to think about the lyrics any more. I feel like my singing has improved a lot by doing this! But the purpose for it is stress regulation. I think it has helped over time. Doing it without an audience removes the performance stress. I’ve stacked it onto another habit so I don’t have to think about when to do it.

Another part of rewilding the body is respect and awe for the things we cannot see. How do you care for your inner garden, your microflora? I made a sign for my fridge, ‘How will this impact my microbiome?’. We depend on a healthy balance of gut bacteria for survival and wellness. Serotonin is mostly made in the gut. In many interconnected ways, good gut health is essential for the health of the rest of the body and the mind. We are literally made of elements that need to be efficiently integrated from the world into our body via the gut. We consist of more bacteria than human cells. If you haven’t read ‘I Contain Multitudes’ you should, or listen to the audio book, or sub to his newsletter or at least look up Ed Yong on Youtube. This stuff is mindblowing. Since the pandemic, I limit my use of hand sanitiser as much as possible. I’ll wash my hands with soap wherever I can, because I don’t want to bomb my microbiome. Have you heard about Australian scientists experimenting with snot transplants to permanently heal people’s sinus problems? Legit. We can now buy toothpaste and tablets with oral probiotics to restore balance to the mouth microbiome and feminine products to restore balance to the vag (both expensive). Look after your gut, mouth, nose, skin, vagina and the rest by limiting antibiotics to only when absolutely necessary, choosing soap over antibacterial skin products, choosing organic produce to eat and organic products for your skin, and completely avoiding antibacterial-impregnated plastics, douches and antibacterial cleaning products. I have wiped my benches with plain water for years and no one has gotten sick. It’s not just unnecessary, it’s harmful to you and your family. Use a little detergent if needed, but it’s usually not. Protect your microbiome by avoiding things that will kill it (literally the meaning of antibacterial) and then nourish it with things that will feed the good bacteria. This means fermented foods, raw foods, a high fibre diet (basically fruit & veg) and a diverse diet. Yes it’s expensive to buy fermented food and probiotics. It’s cheap to make your own, it’s super easy, it’s easy to store and it’s tasty. Even if you buy non-organic cabbage on special, it will still ferment and be a lot healthier than no fermented foods. You need less than a teaspoon per day to get a huge dose of living probiotics. Start with kraut and kombucha and expand from there. Tend your inner garden.

Kneading hot cross buns

Lastly, for the body, we can make something with our hands. In this world of instant gratification and a global market that provides everything you’ve never thought of, it’s an both act of resistance to mend or make something yourself and also a tangible manifestation of hope. When you craft or cook something yourself, there’s a story to it. It means you changed something to create utility or beauty, you made a difference in this tiny corner of the world. There’s meaning. It’s empowering. Even if you buy all your food at the supermarket, learning how to ID dandelions in your backyard and making flower fritters, leaf salad or roasted root tea is very satisfying and grounding. Stick some garlic bulbs in the ground (it’s the right time of year now in southern Australia), even if you bought them from the supermarket. Forage some lilly pillies or acorns (both in season now, April) and make lilly pilly jelly or acorn coffee, flour or ink. Mend a patch on your jeans. Fix a broken thing. Draw something – even better, with acorn ink or homemade charcoal. Brew thyme tea. Knead bread. Knit a scarf.

Dandelion flowers
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