The modern primitive: Firefly Gathering blends traditions

BACK TO BASICS: Todd Elliott makes music around the campfire at the Firefly Gathering. Photo by Mike Bellame
BACK TO BASICS: Todd Elliott makes music around the campfire at the Firefly Gathering. Photo by Mike Bellame

If you’re looking to learn how to make your own bow and arrow, weave a belt or carve a wooden spoon, the Firefly Gathering is the place to be. But Natalie Bogwalker, director of the festival, is quick to point out that it isn’t simply a chance to get barefoot, sing around a campfire and learn quaint skills (though to be clear, those things will take place). “I think that the Firefly Gathering has in a lot of ways been kind of pigeonholed, or people just think of it as rubbing sticks together and breaking rocks,” says Bogwalker. While the gathering does focus on know-how that some would consider to be hobbies, “We are [also] looking at permaculture, organic gardening, natural building, nonviolent communication and rites of passage,” she says. “So we have the connection with nature and connection with each other, and then we have the hard skills for living a more sustainable lifestyle.”

The festival is now in its seventh year, but this is the first time that it will be held in Bell’s Cove in Barnardsville. The four-day gathering takes place Thursday-Sunday, June 12-15. Attendees will set up camp for the weekend and cook their own food in community and primitive kitchens (the latter uses fire only). Vendors will also be on-site selling food and snacks. Three hundred classes are offered over the weekend, as well as evening storytelling and music performances. The gathering is followed by optional post-camp intensives Wednesday-Saturday, June 18-21, with classes ranging from “Intro to permaculture and eco-homesteading” to “Fiber Fantasia: Spinning, dyeing, felting, weaving.”

Of course, creating too strong a delineation between the Appalachian craft side of the festival and the permaculture side isn’t always accurate or helpful. Bogwalker takes what she calls a holistic view of the buzzword, and for her, that means that permaculture is inseparable from place. “The thing with permaculture is that it is a global movement, which is awesome,” she says, “but I think that sometimes because it’s a global movement, it’s not as rooted in a particular place as it should be. The basic concept of permaculture, in my mind, is creating a permanent culture, and in order to do that you have to know the place really, really well. So bringing in teachers and reading books that were written in Australia and that kind of thing is not as relevant and important as learning these old-timey skills that were preserved so well in these mountains and are really compatible with these mountains and the resources that we have here.”

The festival is a celebration, says Bogwalker, but it’s also a response to serious problems that people are recognizing in our society and environment. “I think the desire to learn these primitive skills is in our bones,” she says. On another level, learning these techniques is a direct response to contemporary issues. “The communication skills and the gardening skills and the permaculture skills — these sort of things appeal to people because a lot of people see what’s going on in the world and see all the destruction and are really disturbed by it,” she says. “They see the taking over of nature and climate change and know that something has to give and something has to change.

“Instead of feeling desperate and sad, they want to do something about it, and Firefly really offers the tools for being proactive in making positive change with the way that humans interact with our planet and our everyday lives.”

In the end, the Firefly Gathering is a place for all kinds of people to make connections and have a good time. Bogwalker says the festival regularly draws families with children, elders, right-wingers and left-wingers, barefoot hippies and even medical doctors who are eager to learn about stone tool scalpels. “People can go to Firefly and connect with people, with teachers and other learners who are excited about the same things,” says Bogwalker. “It really makes it a celebration. You’re doing these things that are vital to humanity right now and making it a fun and exciting way to connect with people.”

WHAT Seventh Annual Firefly Gathering

WHERE Bell’s Cove, Barnardsville

WHEN Thursday to Sunday, June 12-15 with post-camp intensives Wednesday to Saturday, June 18-21. Full pass $150-400 sliding scale, day pass $55 -$150, reduced rate for children age 8 to 12, under 8 free. fireflygathering.org

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About Lea McLellan
Lea McLellan is an editorial assistant and staff writer for the Mountain Xpress. She can be reached at lmclellan@mountainx.com.

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