With all the hoopla surrounding green products these days, it’s easy to believe that in order to become one with nature, all you have to do is don some organic-cotton yoga pants, bike to an eco-friendly grocery and stroll the aisles, armed with a reusable canvas tote and a keen understanding of the “Nutrition Facts” label.
But to the organizers of the upcoming Firefly Gathering, living close to the Earth requires more: patience, resourcefulness, hard-won skills, sacrificing certain creature comforts and, quite often, getting messy. Even that is not the whole story, however: Mastering skills for living in tune with the earth also holds the promise of personal empowerment and sheer fun, event organizers say.
Slated for June 27 to 30 (see box, “Winging It”), the Firefly Gathering will offer anyone from dabbler to mud-hut dweller a rare chance to learn arts that haven’t been common knowledge since Western North Carolina was Cherokee territory. Some 50 instructors from throughout the region and beyond will offer classes in archery, starting fires by friction (i.e. sans BIC), primitive weaponry, building huts out of debris, pine-needle basketry, tanning hides, woodcarving, creating buckskin pouches, flint-knapping, plant identification, making herbal tinctures and more.
For some, it’s a great opportunity to pick up a craft that can be added to a summer-camp curriculum. For others, it’s a hands-on history lesson. But for event co-organizer Natalie “Bogwalker” Nicklett, integrating primitive skills is a lifestyle. “I live out at a community where we all live in fairly primitive structures, such as bark lodges,” she explains. “I live in a straw/clay house that I built. We start most of our fires by friction, we gather and forage a lot of food, and we cook all of our meals over the fire.” Clad in a handmade buckskin dress and a porcupine-quill necklace, Nicklett says she makes her living selling nature-inspired jewelry and teaching primitive crafts. Asked about the buckskin, she says: “I’m not a hunter. But I love to butcher.”
Kaleb Wallace—an herbalist with a knack for making mead, sauerkraut and other fermented foods—used to live in the same community. Having helped organize similar gatherings, such as the Earthskills Rendezvous in north Georgia, he’s heading up a work/trade program for the Firefly Gathering and will probably also lead a workshop or two.
There are multiple entry points for people who want to learn primitive skills, Wallace notes. “For some people it’s a hobby, and for some it’s about the whole peak-oil crisis and potential shakiness of the global economy. For other people, they just really enjoy living outside.” But once everyone is out there together sharing food, skills, stories and music, he says, “It builds a feeling of community. It’s like you’re in a village.”
The Firefly Gathering will take place on a 150-acre farm in Swannanoa. Limited space will be available for participants who want to camp, and activities will range from identifying edible plants to animal-processing to a whole track of kid-friendly workshops. There’ll also be a bonfire, drumming and storytelling in the evenings, and a “primitive cook-off” where participants can share an array of wild food prepared over a fire or in a pit. Organizers say they’re expecting about 150 people to attend.
Michael “Fuzz” Sanderson, an endangered-species biologist who works in Raleigh, has been attending such gatherings for more than a decade. He’ll lead an ecology walk, explaining how clues in the landscape can help an observer piece together an area’s biological history. He’ll also teach a few bird songs. Sanderson says he’s intrigued by the concept of “re-wilding”—the growing interest in embracing wilderness skills as a rejection of hypermaterialism. “They call it a back-to-nature movement, but nature has always been there,” muses Sanderson. “It’s just how we interact with it.”
Other workshop presenters will include Juliet Blankespoor, a Leicester-based herbalist who heads up the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, local author and entertainer Doug Elliott, and Scott Jones—an expert in primitive tools who’s the president of an international group called the Society of Primitive Technology.
“I’m really interested in empowering people to do things for themselves and helping them realize that they’re able to,” notes Wallace. “And that they don’t have to rely on all this easy-living infrastructure that’s all around us.”
“One thing that really excites me about these skills and this type of gathering is that it allows people to learn how to be part of nature,” says Nicklett, “and participate in it, rather than being an outside observer.
“It’s ancient,” she adds. “And people have gotten further and further away from basic living. But they’re coming full circle.”