Firefly Gathering teaches primitive skills as a culturally transformative experience

Firefly Gathering 2014 at Bell's Cove, a 300-acre, private lot in Barnardsville. The Gathering will be held here for the 3rd year. Photog: Oliver Fleming.

Last summer, Diana Parra, a Colombia native and mother of a toddler, picked up her life and relocated to Asheville after having what she describes as a “transformative experience” at a Firefly Gathering.

“I was living in New Orleans, and I had heard about Asheville being cool, but I didn’t have a job or house or anything,” she recalls, “but then some friends told us about Firefly, and we looked it up.”

She says she purchased tickets two days before the event, packed everything she owned into her car and drove up to North Carolina from New Orleans.

“And then the gathering was amazing. It changed our life,” says Parra. After it ended, she camped just outside Asheville for a week, then found a job teaching Spanish at a Weaverville elementary school. A week later, she moved into a house.

This year’s Firefly Gathering, being held June 25-28 in Barnardsville, aims to take its transformation potential a step further, putting cultural transformation at the forefront, explains Frank Salzano, class coordinator for the event.

“Really what we’re doing with the event,” adds Natalie Bogwalker, co-founder and general coordinator of the Firefly Gathering, “is trying to create and foster and give people tools for cultural change.”

The gathering, now in its eighth year, has always been geared toward changing participants’ lives through a variety of classes based on radical ideas and concepts, but this summer, directors are working to make that goal explicit instead of implicit, Bogwalker says.

A group taking a plant walk during Firefly 2014 at Bell's Cove in Barnardsville. Photo by Oliver Fleming
A group takes a plant walk during Firefly 2014 at Bell’s Cove in Barnardsville. Photo by Oliver Fleming

“The cultural transformation — [which is] the next layer that’s evolving and building on top of the self-sufficiency and the hard skills — is the practical stuff,” says Salzano. “It’s what can hold a community together and actually build communities.”

“We actually created an entire new track of classes this year,” he says.

The first gathering consisted of about 60 classes, Bogwalker notes. This year’s gathering will have 300, including 100 new classes. Highlighted themes this year include sustainable living, traditional crafts, healing arts and the overarching theme of self-sufficiency.

Attendees will have the opportunity to integrate biology, ecology, botany, propagation, linguistics, forestry, artistry and other fields during the four-day, primitive-skills camp, and, depending on the courses they choose, participants may receive up to 30 hours of instruction, Salzano says.

“The gathering just brings so many subcultures together. It really is kind of this cultural renaissance,” he says. “A lot of people just teach whatever they’re most passionate about.”

The community environment

Firefly 2014. Photog: Oliver Fleming.
Firefly 2014. Photo by Oliver Fleming.

Firefly offers “not just one person who knows something leading the way, but it’s like 20 people who know a lot, so it gets to be a pretty rich experience,” says Justin Holt, a local permaculturalist who is teaching this year.

The intimate, community-based experience is nourishing, he says, and is what sets Firefly Gathering apart from other seemingly similar events.

“It’s really humbling to be around all these people with so many great skills that are offered to the community,” he says. “These teachers aren’t doing this because it’s lucrative. They’re doing it because it’s worth it.”

One of Holt’s classes is intended to foster a better understanding of kudzu. He says he appreciates the ability to share his interests and learn more about the interests of others.

Firefly 2014. Photo by Oliver Fleming
Firefly 2014. Photo by Oliver Fleming

Parra says one of the most valuable things she learned from Firefly was how to connect with nature in new ways, and even though she was new to the community, it was a safe place to ask questions and learn the ropes.

Tickets sales are capped this year at 700, but an additional 300 people will participate as instructors, staff or work-trade attendees, according to Bogwalker. Attendees share communal, camp-style kitchens, stocked with stoves and supplies, and can choose from evening activities staged in several group areas, she says.

“There’s a pretty strong community of people who come back every year, and a lot of people know each other,” Salzano says.

For the past three years, the organization has rented a 300-acre, private lot in Barnardsville called Bell’s Cove, which offers ample campsites, trails, forests, meadows and a pond, Bogwalker says.

“It’s really convenient,” she notes. “It’s only, like, 25 minutes from Asheville.”

Beyond the festival

John Kraus engaging a small crowd at Firefly 2014.  Photo by Oliver Fleming
John Kraus engages a small crowd at Firefly 2014. Photo by Oliver Fleming

For Holt, who has been involved with Firefly Gathering for four years, each new gathering is an opportunity to glean more knowledge.

“Every year I go, I get to learn a little bit more deeply,” he says.

His passion for learning skills at the gathering has evolved into a yearning to deepen his connection to community. His first year, Holt recalls, he took “pages and pages of notes,” fervently scribbling every word each instructor uttered, in an effort to absorb as much information as possible.

Bogwalker says she has seen this desire, within the general public, to learn more about self-sufficiency skills, which helped birth the concept of the gathering. “I saw a big need in this community for the passing-on of skills and passing-on of knowledge, and I saw a lot of hunger within the community for learning a lot of these land-based skills,” she says.

Firefly 2014. Photo by Oliver Fleming
Firefly 2014. Photo by Oliver Fleming

For others, though, she says, the goal is more relational-oriented than skills-oriented. “People get to know each other and make connections at Firefly,” she says.

The personal connections forged at the gathering are what Salzano says distinguish it from traditional festivals. “There’s kind of that festival feeling, you know,” Salzano explains, “but it’s not a festival. It’s not a big, crazy music festival where you have this feeling of being surrounded by strangers and you’re being entertained.”

And nobody leaves the gathering empty-handed, Salzano adds. “Whether it’s relationships or skills,” he says, “people are taking that stuff home with them.”

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About Rachel Ingram
Rachel freelances for Mountain Xpress. She still can't believe she gets paid to meet new people and explore Western North Carolina on her days off from her "real" job as a direct care provider at a residential treatment center for youth (which she also thoroughly enjoys). To round it out, she also likes to drink wine, swim, backpack and cook, but not in that order.

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