Flashing lights in the forest

How many of us can start a fire using only a stick, tree fiber and our hands? How about butchering a deer and turning its hide into clothing? Or identifying the innumerable medicinal and edible plants that grow in the Blue Ridge Mountains?

In modern society, it’s all too easy to disconnect from the basic technologies that once empowered our very existence. In her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver wonders how many people could (without help from Google) identify the season in which fresh asparagus grows? The point being that, for better or worse, such everyday conveniences as matches, ovens and grocery stores have fundamentally changed the way we live and relate to the natural world.

The third annual Firefly Gathering, to be held in the forest at Camp Pinnacle in Hendersonville Thursday through Sunday, July 22-25 is a chance to return to our ancestral roots (see box). The four-day retreat will offer hands-on instruction in various primitive skills designed to bring participants closer to the earth while supporting a sort of grass-roots sustainability. More than 40 teachers and naturalists from across the region will be on hand, including Juliet Blankespoor of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, Steve Watts of the Schiele Museum, Janell Kapoor of the Ashevillage Institute, and author/storyteller Doug Elliott, who wrote Wildwoods Wisdom: Encounters With the Natural World.

“Our bodies are not made to be sitting in front of computers or driving cars all day long: They are made to be interacting with nature,” notes event organizer Natalie Bogwalker. “That’s what Firefly is all about: creating opportunities for people to get back in sync with nature’s patterns and cycles [while working with] other people who are yearning to reconnect.” Wearing a handmade deerskin dress and a leather-sheathed dagger that dangles from her neck, Bogwalker adds, “If I’m not getting my hands on plants or real [earthen] materials, there is a different quality to my life.”

Organizer David Brown, who teaches compassionate communication skills at Firefly, adds: “People derive a real sense of meaning and purpose from learning skills that all of our ancestors knew that, very recently, we’ve disconnected from. There’s a sense of remembrance — a connection to the past, to plants and place.”

Firefly’s diverse array of programs includes: butchery, bow making, hide tanning, archery, blacksmithing, leather working, trapping, wilderness first aid and river-cane basket weaving. Forest walks will focus on foraging for wild foods and identifying healing herbs. Other courses will cover beekeeping, permaculture, building and maintaining solar panels, making wine and sauerkraut, and learning how to run a gas stove on methane produced from yard and toilet wastes. Evenings will be devoted to cooking over campfires, playing games, drumming and dancing.

“A real moment for me, when a spark caught in my heart in terms of a sense of love for primitive skills, was when I took a class on making fire using hand drills,” Brown recalls. “I was sitting in a circle with three other people — a little kid, an older woman and a woman my age — and we were each taking turns, working as a team, to try to make this spark together. Our hands were getting hot and kind of blistery, and we were sharing in the excitement. When we finally got a spark, after a lot of sweat, there was this sense of achievement and empowerment.”

Firefly makes a point of creating a family-friendly environment, with a cooperative day care center for children ages 1-1/2 to 7 and special programs for youngsters ages 8 to 12. “It’s so vital for kids to be getting into this when they’re forming their ways of being,” says Bogwalker, calling the gathering a summer camp for the whole family.

New this year are pre-camp intensives aimed at folks looking to gain more extensive hands-on experience in a specific skill set. Intensives are being offered at Camp Pinnacle Sunday through Wednesday, July 18-21, in hide tanning, river-cane splitting and basketry, bow making and basic traditional living skills/woodcraft (see box).

“Crazy woods hippies meet urban office-worker, left-wing and right-wing survivalists meet and get to know each other — it’s so wide open,” notes Bogwalker. describing the diversity of the gathering. And amid ongoing global factors that are encouraging us to think locally, these are skills that everyone may come to depend on “to provide for ourselves and our community’s basic needs.”

About Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt
Aiyanna grew up on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. She was educated at The Cambridge School of Weston, Sarah Lawrence College, and Oxford University. Aiyanna lives in Asheville, North Carolina where she proudly works for Mountain Xpress, the city’s independent local newspaper.

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