Donna is the author of eco-memoir, Wild Roots: Coming Alive in the French Amazon, written from her home in French Guiana where she worked from a platform high in the rainforest canopy.
A nature enthusiast, excerpts from her books, along with several other works, have been published in various newspapers, magazines and online publications. When not tending to her food forest, Donna can be found reading from her sea kayak or hurtling along one of the world’s wild rivers in a sprint canoe.
Donna is currently focused on a book with Margi Prideaux, Shock and Awe, to be released by Stormbird Press in early 2020. In the lead up to the book’s release she and Margi are posting a series of short essays to whet the appetite for some of the topics they explore in Shock and Awe.
Stormbird Press books
An Interview with Donna
Donna Mulvenna is a horticulturalist and nature writer living in the Amazon rainforest in French Guiana. Her writing offers a close-up glimpse into the fascinating world within the rainforest, reveals the profound effect it has on each of us, and encourages people to form a personal connection with the natural world. When she isn’t writing from her treetop office, reading from a sea kayak off the coast, or plunging head first through the jungle, she is hurtling along wild untamed rivers in a sprint canoe. She is the author of Wild Roots—Coming Alive in the French Amazon, Happiness is Green, and The Awe of Nature, why we should seek it out.
Donna, please tell us a little about yourself. You live in French Guiana now, but where are you from?
Sure. Thank you for talking to me today. It’s always a pleasure to talk about the Amazon rainforest, what led me to here, and what inspires me to stay.
I was born in Australia during the ‘60s hippie revolution; grew up on the Gold Coast, an imitation of Miami, alongside surfing, bodybuilding and bikini contests; kicked off my working career during the ‘me’ decade of economic greed and consumption; and set off to travel the world before my 25th birthday. Perhaps that explains why I’m a person always on the move, whether that is time or place, or at least I was until life slowed down in the Amazon.
You live in a carbet? Tell us about that.
A carbet is the name used for an Amerindian dwelling. They vary between tribes—oblong, rectangular, or round—as much as carbets built by the Guianese range from ramshackle to luxurious. Carbets are the epitome of building to allow the outdoors in—especially airflow—in a land where mould and humidity makes short work of everything not stored in airtight drums.
Our carbet, completely surrounded by rainforest, sits on the fringe of a nature reserve. Having snakes and tarantulas as regular guests, waking up to a rainforest canopy view, and seeing abundant wildlife—morpho blue butterflies, hummingbirds, and agouti—makes our home delightfully unique.
The house is super easy to clean, cheap to run, and didn’t require a mortgage, unlike my previous home which was heavy on all those things. At first glance, I didn’t expect to be happy here but it has proven to be the perfect living and working space. It represents a massive shift in our lifestyle and the next phase of our lives. We feel very in tune with our surroundings and it offers the sanctuary we craved.
You’re a horticulturalist and a nature writer. When did you know you wanted to work with plants and to write?
I basically always wanted to write, but sitting down at a computer or desk wasn’t suited to my manic lifestyle. Horticultural science was something I studied as a mature age student spurred on by my obsession to grow ‘clean’ food. I’m not the statistical norm when it comes to a career. It has changed eight times and includes working in legal administration, communications, and naturopathy. When you combine travel with work you need to be flexible so I’ve been employed as an equestrian trek leader, a farm veterinary assistant, a cocktail waitress, and a cheese maker. Somewhere in between I started two small enterprises—an organic health food store and an international farm sitting business.
Gosh that does sound hectic. Did you have time for hobbies? I know you love paddling.
(Laughs) I more than love it. Paddling is my life. Like writing, I couldn’t imagine going without it for a day. That makes sense when you discover my father was a surf life-saver for much of his life. Until I was old enough to go solo, he had me on the front of his double surf-ski most weekends. He also made sure I was a strong swimmer. I think I learned to swim when I was about six, 6 weeks old that is. Of course, I took my hobby to a whole new level when I met my boyfriend, a former Olympian sprint canoeist. Now I spend a lot of time helping him put kids in canoes.
French Guiana is such an unusual and ‘off the beaten track’ location – who or what inspired the move?
Guyane (the local name for French Guiana) is so far off the beaten track neither I nor any of my friends had heard of it. The staff at the International medical centre where I had my compulsory yellow fever vaccination had to look it up and a nurse told me, ‘I’m sorry but French Guiana is no longer a place.’ I tried to buy a guide book at my local store but the lady told me, ‘They don’t write books on places where nobody goes,’ so I thought it only proper I write something about it.
I’m came here because I tagged along with my boyfriend and his sprint canoe. I stayed because it’s home now.
How easy was it to adjust to life on the edge of the Amazon rain forest?
It was both the best and the hardest thing I have ever done.
The first 6 months were tough because everything was so uncomfortable. My normal lifestyle became suddenly abnormal, as values, expectations—and definitely customer service—are very different here.
Also, although everybody spoke at least three languages none of them were English. The first phrase I learned and heard all the time was, ‘Pas de soucis,’ which means don’t worry. ‘No worries’ in Australia means, ‘Relax we’ll take care of everything,” but in Guyane it means, ‘Don’t worry because we’re sure as hell not going to.’
Life in Guyane was so far removed from anything I could control that I had no choice but to adapt. Within weeks I started to shake off the stress, anxiety, and discontentment I think I’d always carried. In that respect coming here is the best thing I’ve ever done.
To give our readers a better idea of life in the Amazon, can you share a photograph depicting a snapshot of daily life.
Sure. This is my treetop office. The canoe was undergoing repairs. Too many ants, flies, and lizards tried to cement themselves in the unset resin when it was on the ground. The trampoline is for my health. A message to all fellow writers out there—sitting down for more than thirty minutes is bad, bad, bad. I know because I do it all the time.
Which of your books is your favourite and why?
That’s a tough call. I only write about things I’m 100% passionate about, so all the books have a special place in my heart. If I’m pushed, I’d say Wild Roots and Happiness is Green. Wild Roots is a memoir about my day to day life in the Amazon. Happiness is Green is a story about the intimate relationship I share with nature. Also, I’m immensely proud to have co-authored Shock and Awe with Margi Prideaux. She is an amazingly dedicated woman who writes about important issues of our time and delivers a powerful message I pray people will hear.
Wild Roots has been widely read and received very positive reviews. Why do you think that is?
I’d like to think it’s my humorous writing (laughs) but it’s more likely because most of us, at some point in our lives, want to pick up and start afresh in a new place. I suspect that feeling is part of life today. My journey in Wild Roots started off as an escape but became something much deeper. It wasn’t so much about escaping as it was about going more deeply into myself. The message of the book is: If you step outside your comfort zone, you’re going to return changed.
You shared some scary moments in the book. You couldn’t make up that stuff, could you?
I believe working in the right environment is as essential to writing as it is to life. I’m sure there are writers who work in an office cubicle that make stuff up but with Wild Roots I had more things happening in my day-to-day life than I could cram into the book.
What are some of the main differences between living in an Australian suburb and living in French Guiana?
Suburbs are defined by property lines and income. In Guyane, a tin shack has just as much right to stand, in any place, as a concrete mansion. It would never be considered out-of-place because it is someone’s home. In suburbs there’s an expectation for neighbours to maintain a particular image, you know, to keep property values up. Here nobody cares if you have an untended yard or flaky paint. (Laughs) I challenge any average home owner to take on the Jungle. It rebels against anything manmade.
How you treat others within your community is deemed more important here than expressions of wealth. We earn a high enough income to own a car and live in a probably nicer than average house, but every morning our neighbours wait on the street corner for us to give them a lift. If Grandma isn’t ready in time, one of her relatives will flag us down and tell us to wait. It would be absurd to drive past without picking them up and catching up on their daily lives. There’s been instances when I’ve walked outside to find a heat-dazed neighbour resting in my hammock and another one using my tap to fill his water drums because my mains water tastes better than that from his bore. Back in the suburbs, I would have been so freaked out by that I’d have probably called the police.
Also, there was a time when I thought of my house as an extension of myself. Like my car and clothing, I used it to project my identity, to elevate myself. That would be such a futile exercise here, ‘keeping-up-with-the-jones’. There’s such a massive contrast in people, culture, heritage, religion, beliefs, expectations, values and morals that nobody knows what the expected standard is.
Thank you so much Donna. It has been a pleasure to learn about your unusual and exciting life.
(Laughs) Thank you. It is my normal now.