This week, Brennan Smith writes a beautiful reflection on how he was introduced to Earth Skills and the joyful time that connecting with others in a natural setting to learn these skills can offer—as well as providing a good antidote to our ecophobia and another way to connect to the living Earth. I invited Brennan to write on this topic after joining him at the Groundnut Gathering in Western Massachusetts—what I hope will be an annual tradition (even if camping in below freezing weather made for a tough night!).
A farm in Western Massachusetts where 70-80 people gathered this past fall to learn Earth Skills. (Images by Erik Assadourian)
I remember Earth Day in 4th grade, which was the first year it was celebrated at my Catholic grade school. On the surface, it was a poster competition about recycling, but underneath the events I felt a compelling, magnetic pull – a voice saying, “this is what good people do; it’s the right thing . . the moral thing.”
Sign me up! I mean, what altar boy doesn’t want to be more good, more right and more moral than their neighbor? From that day on, I was about as resolute and consistent as any American when it came to reducing, reusing and recycling. Washing aluminum foil and Ziploc bags for reuse, recycling anything that came close to qualifying, eschewing every single-use item in the book and spreading the Gospel of Al Gore.
Did I ever go out into nature? Nah. An equally compelling inner voice would say, “I don’t know enough about how to stay safe in the wild (or semi-wild, or non-air-conditioned) places.” For years, I was out to save a world that I wasn’t even enjoying. And didn’t know how to enjoy. If my partner wanted to go camping with me and the kids, I really wanted to love it, but I gritted my teeth (and poured cocktails) to avoid feeling the anxiety of being outside my comforts and rhythms.
And the same thing was true when, in the autumn of 2014, my older brother Teak invited me to attend Earthskills Rendezvous in South Carolina. Earthskills Rendezvous is the longest-running primitive skills gathering in the US. A primitive skills* gathering is exactly what it sounds like: a communal camping gathering with the intention of re-connecting participants to the Earth, to themselves, to living in community and to the skills we humans relied upon to feed, clothe and shelter ourselves for millennia.
Did I still need a couple of hard ciders to make it through that one? Sure. But it was a lot easier to say Yes to because Teak would be camping right next to me – and he’s a pro at this stuff! What I didn’t consider was the other 200 pros attending. An entire village of people who are comfortable on the land, who can eat directly off the land, who can shelter from cold or heat with little technology or energy use and who are there specifically to teach others how it’s done.
The Myriad Earth Skills
Every day, multiple times a day, you can find someone offering a class on skills such as:
Some of the steps involved in processing acorn flour.
- Rope-making (cordage) using natural fibers
- Skinning & tanning of hides
- Using available materials to: trap animals, fish, start a fire, make shelter
- Flint knapping
- Basket weaving
- Fly fishing
- Plant identification, food foraging, and mushroom walks
- Clay harvesting, pottery, and clay firing
- Stone pigment or plant-based dye
- Making everything from bamboo flutes to copper spoons to wooden bowls to timber-framed buildings
- Acorn processing for food
That’s how it all began. My brother and this village of people, all welcoming my family alongside the other newbies, and helping us feel connected again (or for the first time) to the very Earth I had been talking about saving for decades.
Eight years and nine gatherings at six different locations along the Appalachian Mountain range later, I’m delighting in the wild foraging that my boys and I do around our house (and in the “weed collection” we call a lawn). Delighting in a calm evening spent whittling something around the fire while we sing or tell stories. Delighting in recognizing my tree-neighbors, and the tracks of my four-legged neighbors, and the calls of my winged neighbors. Delighting in being an expression of Earth in human form – not because it’s good, right or moral – but because it’s who we are.
Instructor teaching a class on fly fishing at the Groundnut Gathering.
If this sense of community and place-based learning sounds fun and interesting, then you can find the gathering nearest you by checking out Thomas J. Elpel’s excellent list of gatherings around the United States and Canada. As you can imagine, primitive skills folks are not always web-savvy or active on social media, so if none of the gatherings listed there are close to you, call the closest one and ask if there’s anything closer – primitive skills people all know each other and will happily support you to find what you’re looking for.
Enjoy, and Go with Gaia.
*Others call these “ancestral skills,” a way to show their ancient roots without the negative connotation that “primitive” brings with it.