When the 100-degree weather that typically smothers Texas in July and August arrived in May last year, my wife, son and I pulled up stakes and moved to Asheville. Ever since, I’ve been consumed with learning more skills that might free me from my dependence on the electrical grid and the global food supply chain. So, when I heard about the Firefly Gathering, I scrambled for ways to attend this year’s event, which ran June 20-25.
The weather forecast was bleak. There was a high chance of rain the four days I planned to be there. But that didn’t faze me as much as the prospect of bringing my 9-year-old son. Given my wife’s hectic work schedule, there was no way I was making it to Firefly unless I brought him with me.
Why the anxiety? Many people would rely on labels and acronyms to describe my son, but his personality is more nuanced than that. The closest I can come is to say that his feelings lie as close to the skin as possible and any little thing can inspire a flood of big emotions, whether it be joy or anger. To forestall any negative incidents, someone needs to keep an eye on him at all times (unless he’s on his iPad, in which case his behavior is disturbingly easy to predict).
Given the weather, my son’s needs and my own emotional volatility, I arrived at this year’s Firefly Gathering on June 20 plagued by a nagging question: Would my son and I enjoy the experience, or was it going to be a total sh*tshow?
‘Summer camp for the whole family’
Firefly Gathering is the largest earth-skills happening in the country. Held at Deerfields, the 940-acre retreat center in the Mills River area, the annual event transforms a quiet mountain hollow into a self-sufficient village where people come to laugh, cry, dance, listen and take classes that focus on living in harmony with the earth and its inhabitants.
After Wednesday’s morning circle, the daily meeting in which announcements are made and wisdom dispensed, my son and I walked to the Youth Village, where kids ages 3-17 are invited to hang out while their parents attend workshops.
Firefly wasn’t always this kid-friendly. Soon after Natalie Bogwalker and Kaleb Wallace held the first get-together at Old Coggins Farm in 2007, the event began to earn a party reputation. Unlike the other big earth-skills gatherings in the Southeast, including the Earthskills Rendezvous and the Florida Earthskills Gathering, Firefly offered nighttime entertainment, and drinking was common.
Youth programming became more prominent once some of the gathering’s instructors, regular attendees and organizers began having kids. In 2015, Bogwalker approached Marissa Percoco, Firefly’s current executive director who was an instructor at the time, and asked her if she could make the annual event more family-friendly. A mother of four home-schooled children, Percoco thrived in her new role, creating Firefly’s Youth Village as well as the system guiding it, which remains in place today.
“When you can come as an adult and drop your child off at a wonderful kids program and go take classes, that’s a game changer,” Percoco told me several days after the festival had ended. “It’s like summer camp for the whole family.”
In theory, the Youth Village sounded great to me. But over the years, I’d received enough phone calls about my son from aggrieved teachers, principals and camp counselors that I still had my doubts. After talking to Brooke Holdren and Katie Costanzo, who were looking after my son’s age group, I relaxed enough to leave him and attend Luke Cannon’s tree identification class, which I’d signed up for the night before.
I caught up with the group on a trail in the forest in time to hear Cannon talk about the tulip poplar, sweet birch and sourwood trees. I was delighted I’d discovered a great local teacher and promised myself I’d take classes with him at Astounding Earth in the future.
When I left my son in the Youth Village that afternoon for my subsequent workshop, there was a new set of instructors, which renewed my anxiety. But as I turned to go, my son was already happily playing chess with another kid, allowing me to attend Barron Brown’s timber framing class. Brown has taught at Firefly ever since its inception and looks the part of the elder statesman. His white beard hangs lower than his armpits.
Brown presented timber framing as an environmentally friendly and beautiful alternative to “the tyranny of 4-by-8 sheets of plywood and drywall.” As he and his assistant, Andrew Vice, showed us how to make a “bent,” I fell in love with the idea of building a timber-frame structure.
My reverie was punctured, though, when I spotted my son’s chess partner strolling down the road. I hurried back to the Youth Village with grim visions in my head. But when I arrived, I found my son cooking potatoes over the fire with an almost manic glee with another kid he’d just met.
Beyond earth skills
Recognized as a driving force within the Firefly organization, Percoco was named a co-coordinator (along with Chloe Tipton) in 2018. While Tipton dealt with a health issue the following year, Percoco took over as executive director and began implementing her vision of Firefly, transforming it into a more inclusive gathering.
“We redirected some of the focus,” she told me during our conversation after this year’s gathering. “Earth skills are still central, but social healing and community building are just as important.”
Percoco says she has gone to great lengths to make the event welcoming to a much wider range of people.
Signs of that effort could be seen throughout the event. All the speakers who introduced themselves during the morning circles included their pronouns, and “they/them” was as common as anything else. In the “neighborhood” section of the gathering, which Percoco described as a cluster of “special spaces to be able to retreat to,” there was not only a “moon” (women’s) and “sun” (men’s) camp but also a “star” (LGBTQIA+) and “culture” (people of color) camp. And many of the keynote speakers and evening entertainers came from the latter two communities.
As a queer woman, Percoco explained how personal and vital inclusivity is for her. “What I saw happening at other events and at Firefly was folks from the global majority or LGBTQIA folks coming and being like, ‘I don’t have peers here. I don’t have people that look and feel like me.’ And eventually, those people don’t come back.”
Percoco’s progressivism isn’t universally beloved. She’s lost some friends who’ve told her some variation of “Do you really think this is an earth-skills gathering anymore? This isn’t what earth skills is about.”
Her response? “It is now.”
“As much pushback as I get from people who fear we’re taking something away from them,” she told me, “it’s minor compared to the gratitude I receive from people who are seeking to have access to these things.”
To make the event accessible to even more people, Firefly has a robust work-trade program as well as an equity fund, and there’s never a cap on attendance. Firefly typically attracts 1,000 people but maintains an infrastructure that would allow for many more. This policy hasn’t been kind to the nonprofit organization’s bottom line lately — last year’s event lost $12,000 and thanks to the monsoonlike rains, this year’s event seems likely to do the same — but the hope is that as the gathering continues to grow, it will start to bring in more money.
Percoco understands how transformational Firefly can be for people struggling to make ends meet. “People come to my place [a tiny house on a farm in Barnardsville surrounded by gardens], and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, how do you do this?’ It doesn’t cost a lot to do what I do because I’ve learned things, and I want that for people who need it the most. By keeping Firefly larger, it’s an opportunity for people who haven’t had access to these kinds of events to get access.”
As I made my way around this year’s gathering and talked to people from all walks of life, I patted myself on the back for bringing my son to such an amazing event, but I also worried that if he couldn’t fit in at Firefly, where everyone is invited and embraced, he was going to have a really hard time fitting in anywhere.
In my son’s defense, there are plenty of reasons for his anxiety. I talk about climate change so often that “carbon footprint” and “sea-level rise” have become a regular part of his vocabulary. I can also be prone to bad dad moments, such as when I discovered that I’d only packed him one shirt for Firefly — and that one got soaked pretty early.
Oh, yeah, the weather. If my son and I hadn’t enjoyed ourselves at this year’s gathering, it would have been easy to blame the 8 inches of rain that hit Deerfields that week. It rained so much that whenever it briefly receded to a drizzle, it almost felt as if the sun had come out. By the third day, people started referring to the event as “Rainfly,” and the joke never failed to get a laugh.
Remarkably, though, not a single person I met at Firefly complained about the weather, and many went out of their way to help others because of the trying conditions. For example, two young women from Wilmington helped my son and me load our gear onto the shuttle that ferried us to the campground during a downpour.
That was just one of many magical moments we enjoyed at this year’s gathering. Another occurred right after my son and I had finished eating some tacos made with quinoa tortillas from The Garden food truck. We were looking for a place to discard our trash when a woman, taking the “Leave no trace” philosophy to a beautiful extreme, swooped in and insisted on reusing our forks.
Yet another occurred after our Thursday lunch, when I decided to skip the afternoon classes and roam Deerfields with my son instead. At a site known as “the farm,” we met Barnardsville-based farmer Amanda Coxe and her small herd of goats. My son latched onto Coxe’s daughter, who led us to Jeff Gottlieb’s trade blanket in a tent close to the pavilion. The trade blanket is a reenactment of the way fur trappers and Native Americans used to barter. When it’s your turn, you place the items you’re looking to trade in the center of the blanket, and everyone gets a chance to bid on them by adding their own possessions into the mix. In one of the more exciting exchanges, we watched a little boy trade a small jar of honey and a beeswax candle for a beaver’s foot and the scapula of a deer because, the boy admitted, “I want to paddle my sister with the bone.”
The last magical moment I enjoyed, the one I’ll look back on with the most fondness, occurred after Thursday’s dinner, when my son and I went to see what was happening at the pavilion. A folk band was playing, but thanks to a brief respite from the rain, a bunch of people began hanging out in the adjacent field, practically giddy.
Suddenly, a game of tag broke out, with about 30 adults treating a handful of kids to the time of their lives. I recognized a few faces. There was Katie Costanzo, one of the instructors from the Youth Village, and instructor Elijah Strongheart, whose tracking class I’d taken and loved. Many of the kids I’d also seen time and again at the Youth Village.
And then I spotted him. There in the middle of the scrum, running and laughing with his shoes kicked off and his hair flying behind him, was my son.