Q&A: Marissa Percoco discusses earth skills and the perks of nonprofit status

IN TUNE WITH NATURE: "We all have this cyclical nature, and that's been taken away from us through modern culture with alarm clocks and climate-controlled buildings," says Marissa Percoco, executive director of Firefly Gathering. Photo courtesy of Percoco

When Marissa Percoco, the executive director of Firefly Gathering, relocated to the southeast from the west coast, she’d never seen fireflies. “I remember opening my door and yelling, ‘Fairies!’” she says. “And then I was like, ‘No, they’re fireflies!’”

Long before leading the nonprofit, Percoco participated in its 2010 annual summer solstice event. The gathering offers courses in earth skills and traditional Indigenous skills such as flintknapping and friction fire.

“I was so relieved to know that I wasn’t alone in my awareness of the unsustainability of our modern consumptive culture and that there was a whole community of folks committed to living with the land and trying to create a sustainable culture,” she says.

By 2015, Percoco was hired as the organization’s youth programs coordinator. Four years later, she became Firefly Gathering’s executive director, just as it obtained its new nonprofit status. The change has allowed the organization to expand its education program and introduce low- to no-cost options to attendees who qualify.

The name, Firefly Gathering, was inspired by the fact that fireflies communicate through illumination. “You see one firefly blink, and you’ll see a couple around it blink. They’re passing messages back and forth,” Percoco explains. “We were just really inspired by a critter that could communicate through flashing light in the darkness.”

Xpress sat down with Percoco to learn more about the organization’s process of becoming a nonprofit, the inspiration to attain the status and some of the pitfalls aspiring nonprofits should aim to avoid.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What inspired Firefly Gathering to become a nonprofit?

We feel like these skills and experiences [we offer] are crucial for everybody because of that deep satisfaction we get when we make something. So many people don’t get that. They’re in the grind — I got to work, I got to feed my kids, I got to go to bed, I got to pay the bills. In this reactive stress mode, we don’t have creative flow. Becoming a nonprofit makes it possible for us to start to look at grants to fulfill this bigger dream of helping folks reconnect to creative process, power and healing.

How has the nonprofit status changed your mode of operations?

It’s been awesome since we’ve become a nonprofit. We used to just have one event every summer. Now we have perennial workshops and year-round classes. We also have a community connections program in the works, which is more outreach and more collaboration with [organizations] like Black Wall Street AVL.

What classes are you offering this year?

We start with traditional Indigenous skills like flintknapping, hide tanning, friction fire and cordage. They’re core essential skills that people all over the planet have been doing since we have recorded time.

Firefly is unique in that we branch out from there. We do sacred sexuality classes [as well as] Thai massage. We have a robust cooking class — everything from fermenting cabbage to making alcohol to butchering animals. We have an awesome kids program for all ages. We do things like spoon carving and basket making and sacred tattoo classes. We’re trying to touch on all the facets that it takes to be a well-rounded, happy, connected human.

There’s a big conversation about appropriation, because a lot of the skills that we’re teaching come from Indigenous peoples. We’re trying to address that and have more Indigenous teachers teaching these traditional crafts. Being a nonprofit, we can start to have funding to pay Indigenous teachers.

How do you practice your earth skills here in WNC?

I like to pick up a lot of roadkill and take them apart. A dead animal on the side of the road is just a treasure trove for me. I like to process hides, and then I make tools and jewelry out of the bones.

I have walnut trees on my little farmstead, and I collect the black walnuts when they fall in the spring to make dye out of them. Then in the fall, I spin wool and dye it with the walnut.

Our craft life becomes synced up with nature. We make bark baskets out of tulip poplars, and you can only slip their bark in the spring. Spring becomes bark time. Picking up hides is better in the winter. Also there’s no flies, so it’s much better processing animals in the fall and winter.

That’s what I love about earth skills. Each one cycles you back around and connects you with the rhythms of the earth, our seasons, the moon, our bodies. We all have this cyclical nature, and that’s been taken away from us through modern culture with alarm clocks and climate-controlled buildings. Earth skills crafting realigns folks with that rhythm and with those harmonies that come from nature.

What pitfalls should aspiring nonprofits try to avoid?

We started the switch in 2018. Our lawyer retired and didn’t tell us. He just stopped working on the case, and we had to start over, which was a huge financial burden and a big pain in the butt. So, it’s not fast, and it’s not cheap. And make sure your lawyer is not about to retire.

The second lawyer wanted to sit and ask questions about the gathering. And I was like, “Wait, are you charging me by that $10 per minute price schedule out there?” She said, “Oh, yeah.” I was like, “I don’t have time to talk about all my feelings and mission with you! I want to get through the paperwork and get this done because you’re charging me.”

It’s really important to be concise.


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