The Huldras proving hope in the 21st Century

Donna M Cameron green floral by Una Davis 1024x576 1

Donna M Cameron is the author of The Rewilding, published by Transit Lounge and now available at all leading bookstores

I’d heard the rumours that occasionally there were squatters living in the sandstone caves peppering the surrounding cliff face of the 1500 hectare national park near where I live. My partner and children and I found one of the caves a few years back. Someone had dragged an old vinyl couch into its honeycombed interior. There was a pile of bedding, a blackened stone circle full of ash, and an eerie feeling that we were being watched.

Another day, when I was bushwalking not far from that cave, a barefooted young woman stepped out of the bush onto the path ahead of me. We both stopped, momentarily surprised be each other’s presence. She was eerily pretty and smelt of body odour and patchouli. Her brown cotton dress was edged with lace, and her dreadlocked hair was tied into a knot on the top of her head. From her arm hung a cloth bag, out of which poked warrigal greens. Stitched onto the side of the bag were the words #metoo said Mother Earth. She briefly glared at me before disappearing into the scrub on the other side of the track. Heading for the cave, I suspected.

The look the young woman had given me was one of defiance, a complete absence of fear. She made me feel like a trespasser, and brought to mind the Huldra, or Skogsra, sometimes known as the Lady of the Forest; a Scandinavian mythical being in the guise of a beautiful woman who has a distinctive wild quality which is only obvious if you see her from behind. Her back can appear like a hollowed-out log, or is covered in bark, and often she has an animal’s tail. She lives in caves and woodlands and is a keeper and protector, often luring unsuspecting humans to their death. However, if you treat her with respect, she can be kind and help preserve human life.

I thought of the Huldra the day I met ‘Violet Coco,’ who, at 27, dropped out of a philosophy degree at Macquarie University to protest the Indian mining giant Adani’s plans to dig a new thermal coal mine in Queensland. She is now a full-time eco-warrior who lives in her car and moves around Australia from ‘front-line to front-line,’ wherever the major protest is happening. That was until a year ago when she was forced to stay-put and placed under what is technically termed a 24-hour curfew, for 12 weeks. Her crime? Live streaming in which she lit a flare and asked people to join her protest, all while standing on top of a car parked on the harbour bridge, obstructing traffic.

Her barrister managed to negotiate a few hours of freedom as the days went on, but it was during Violet’s ‘quasi house arrest’ as she refers to it, that she was diagnosed with PTSD.

‘Feeling trapped in that house, the repression was taking its toll, I woke up at 3am every morning, crying,’ she told me.

‘From a particular incident?’ I asked.

‘No, just from the general police violence which seems to be getting nastier. Statistically there are more women in the non-violent, civil disobedience movement than men, so often it’s male cops against women. The worst thing is when cops hold you in what’s known as a pain compliance bend. I’ve seen a cop hold a young mother’s wrist to the point where she was screaming in pain. She wasn’t even resisting. I’ve been threatened with sexual violence. I’ve been held in custody for 36 hours without being fed. When the cops raid our gatherings, they use uncalled for violence to try and frighten and cause damage, like smashing windows of unlocked cars. They steal from us – when we collect our belongings after being arrested, there are often things missing. They use pepper spray on us all the time even though it’s defined as a toxic chemical. Toxic chemicals are banned in warfare, so how are our domestic police getting away with it?’ As she says this, her anger flares, and within a flick of tail, she is ferocious, wild, unstoppable.

Oleoresin capsicum is a weaponised form of the chemical that adds heat to chilli peppers, intended to cause extreme sensory irritation. I wondered if constant, regular exposure could lead to detrimental long-term physical effects, but I didn’t voice my concern, instead I asked her if she thought increased repression was making protestors more radicalised?

‘Absolutely. That, and the continued lack of action by our government to reduce emissions. If things don’t change soon…’ Her voice trailed out.

‘Do you have hope things will change for the better?’ I asked.

She laughed a strange bitter laugh and said, ‘some days are better than others. The thing that scares me most is the younger generation. I keep meeting 17, 18 years-olds who are suffering from doomerism. “It’s too late. There’s nothing we can do,” kind of attitude. They’re the ones who’ve lost hope. That’s frightening.’

‘Eva Angophora,’ founder of ‘Wild Beings,’ has taken her activism one step further. She labels it, ‘the ultimate act of rebellion.’ As a 26 year-old protestor she began to feel hypocritical, as if she wasn’t fully living in alignment with what she was fighting for, so she unleashed her inner Huldra, ‘dropped out of the machine,’ started squatting in caves or living in a tent, dumpster diving for food or foraging for wild food, ‘car surfing’ as she puts it (if she needed to get somewhere she would find a lift), her bathroom was a creek, her toilet was a freshly dug hole in the ground, for money she sold her wares at craft markets.

This lifestyle led to the mastery of many survival skills. Eva is knowledgeable in wild butchery. She can process the whole animal, making use of every part from nose to tail. (For the past five years she is proud to say the only meat she has eaten is wild game). She knows how to traditionally tan the hide and makes her own clothes, shoes and hats from it. She is an expert in making fire through friction, weaving with natural fibres, she knows many wild foods and medicines (native and invasive) and has become an aficionado in bird language.

‘Understanding the language of birds is essential for this lifestyle. If you can recognise what type of call it is – contact call, alarm call, mating call…it’s particularly helpful for hunting.’

When I asked Eva if she had hope, she replied, ‘It’s seasonal. It comes and goes, but when it’s not there now, I feel the land holding me until it returns. That gives me strength.’

These days Eva has a less radical approach as she now owns a car and runs a small business with her partner, in which she passes on the knowledge she has learned. She is part of a growing Rewilding movement in Australia, predominantly filled with women.

All over Australia, and the world, there are young women living their life guided by a deeply rooted need to fight for a brighter future (Greta Thunberg immediately comes to mind). I can’t help but see these brave, fiercely committed women as 21st century Huldras; protectors of this land, torchbearers for that little four-letter word on all our lips – hope.

Donna M Cameron is the author of The Rewilding, published by Transit Lounge and now available at all leading bookstores


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