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Firefly Gathering 2012

25 July 2012

I attended Firefly Gathering, and it was quite an experience.  It will be difficult to cover everything I learned there without making this post excessively long.  It’s likely that many of the things I learned will pop up in posts here and there throughout the next year.  Basically, Firefly Gathering is an event where hundreds of people come together to learn wilderness, survival, homesteading, and crafting skills, as well as a variety of other skills that may not seem directly related to those topics (but the organizers maintain they are by way of interrelatedness).  Basically, if you’re at all interested in living things, nutrition, farming, hunting, crafting, DIY projects, sustainability, or anything in between, there’s probably a class for you.

This is a long post, so click on the “jump” for more.

Most people who stay on-site camp.  This year there were some cabins available, but next year it’ll be at a new place, so I don’t know if there will be cabins again.  This year it was also fairly close to Hendersonville, and it is possible to stay in a hotel there and drive to the site each day, but I recommend staying on-site for the full experience (though it’d be nice to get out of earshot of the late-night drum circle).  I borrowed my sister’s tent and crammed in all the essentials for this experience.  (Yes, Thoreau is essential reading for this event, at least for me with my philosophy and religion background.)

The event lasts for four days, Thursday-Sunday, and each day contains a morning session and an afternoon session, for a total of 8 sessions.  Each session had a huge variety of classes to choose from, over 30 simultaneous classes occurring during each session.  It was so hard to choose what to take, but I did two plant and tree identification classes for both Thursday sessions, a bamboo carving class on Friday morning, a massage class Friday afternoon, a nutrition class Saturday morning, a knot and lash class Saturday afternoon, a seed saving class Sunday morning, and an archery class Sunday afternoon.  Check out the full list of classes to see the huge variety of things to choose from.  How would you only pick 8 of those?

The plant classes were great.  I learned how to identify plants, obviously, but I also learned about a number of things that are edible, like sourwood leaves (which, sadly, don’t grow in Raleigh).  I got to spend a few minutes with each teacher asking questions about specific properties of some plants in my garden, like mountain mint (pycnanthemum) or wild plants I’d like to cultivate, like spicebush (lindera benzoin).  The bamboo class was fantastic and you will definitely see bamboo constructions showing up in future posts.  The knot teacher was incredibly knowledgeable, but unfortunately I just have a hard time memorizing all those similar knots.  He recommended a good book to me, The Ashley Book of Knots.  Seed saving will probably show up in later posts, too, and the teacher let me take pictures of his winnowing screens, which I hope to replicate.  Archery is a lot of fun and I’d like to learn to hunt some day.

I learned so much in the nutrition class, and I don’t want to claim to be knowledgeable in any way and I can’t verify that all of this is true (there seems to be a lot of debate among nutritionists anyway), but here are some of the teacher’s main points.  Veganism is a terrible diet because it’s completely lacking certain vitamins and proteins that cannot be obtained without eating some kind of animal product.  For example, vegetables don’t have vitamin A in any assimilable form, and there’s no way to get sufficient omega-3 from plant matter.  Vitamin supplements should always be taken with a meal.  Eating a meal with no fat content whatsoever actually prevents your body from assimilating many of the nutrients in your food, so you should always add at least a little fat, like coconut oil or nut oils, preferably unrefined and cold-pressed.  Beware of fortified foods in grocery stores, they do contain the nutrient they claim to have, but the FDA does not require them to be in an assimilable form, and companies WILL put unassimilable minerals in their food (like iron filings) just so they can put it on the nutrition label.  Overcooking your food decreases its nutrient value substantially; steaming is the best way to cook vegetables because water boils at a lower temperature than oil.  Obviously, you want to cook your meat well to kill parasites, though (especially chicken and possum).  Fish is really healthy for you and if you don’t eat it every day, you should take fish oil supplements.  There are no foods that contain significant assimilable amounts of vitamin D, so everyone living north of Atlanta should take vitamin D supplements from November to March because the atmosphere filters out all the UV that creates vitamin D during the winter.  Most Americans are chronically deficient in vitamin D year round because of how little time we spend outside.  The recommended way to get vitamin D is from direct exposure to the sun.  The skin on your exposed torso creates vitamin D far more efficiently than on your arms, legs, or head.  Most people need no more than 10 minutes of direct exposure on the torso each day to produce sufficient vitamin D.  Fair-skinned people produce vitamin D far faster and more efficiently since the mechanics are similar to tanning and burning, so adjusting how much exposure you need based on how quickly you burn is a very effective metric.  If you burn while doing this, then you stayed out too long and you already produced enough vitamin D for the day long before you started burning.  The teacher admitted he really doesn’t know if the health benefits from direct exposure outweigh the increased cancer risk associated with direct exposure, and said studies he’s read on the matter are very conflicted.  If you’re concerned about this, then you can always avoid exposure and take vitamin D supplements year round, but there may be other benefits to direct sunlight exposure that medical science has yet to prove.  This is just a tiny amount of what I learned from that guy.  He’s brilliant.  I have started taking fish oil supplements, steaming all my vegetables instead of frying them, and adding a little peanut oil to the vegetable-only meals I eat during the summer because of what I learned from him.

However, this is far more than just an educational experience, though education is its focus and mission.  There’s a strong social aspect, a lot of community building, dancing, and some religious rituals (I personally witnessed a pagan solstice ritual, some Taoist and animist symbols and practices, a good bit of Christian prayer, and I participated in a mind-blowing interfaith public grief ritual).  There is a daily morning meeting for everyone, a central gathering spot where a lot of impromptu jam sessions and the nightly entertainment occur, and a central eating area where most of the attendees mingle and share food.  I particularly enjoyed the shared meals.  I felt like I could really bond with people I had just met when we were sharing our food.  I even brought some herbs from my garden and cooked up a “stir-fry” (I actually steamed everything and mixed it, so it’s a “stir-steam”?) for the camp-wide potluck on Friday night.

I had a hard time getting pictures because it was hectic and I was busy taking notes everywhere I went.  I had so much to learn and I was furiously scribbling for hours every day trying to write down all the things people were teaching.  But, you can see the few pictures I did take in today’s gallery.

There are a lot of things that made me think at this event beyond just the highly informative classes.  There was a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction with American economics, and many attendees brought goods (usually hand-made) to barter with each other.  People came from all sorts of educational and economic backgrounds, and while many people there had different political views and religious beliefs, nearly everyone shared certain environmentalist ethics that people should actively maintain relationships with all forms of life and with the Earth as a whole, and a great number of attendees held some degree of anti-consumerist sentiment, though how they practiced this varied wildly.  People of all ages were present, and many multi-generational families attended together.  However, the overwhelming majority of attendees were white Americans, and I’m unsure why this is the case.  I’m pretty sure that’s not representative of the racial distribution in the mountains of NC.  Perhaps there is an element of racial or economic privilege in this event, but I cannot analyze it adequately to make meaningful statements about it.  However, nearly every man was bearded, and this pleased me greatly.

There was a lot of music at the event.  Every evening had at least one major musical event, and impromptu musical performances happened at all hours for the entire duration of the event.  As could be expected, the music was mostly folk or bluegrass, with drum circles late at night.  I took a video of one of the jam sessions.  There were also a number of cultural events that to me epitomize southern Appalachian culture, like storytelling and a country waltz.

Clothing definitely caught my eye.  A number of people there wore handmade clothes, often from raw linens or buckskin, though I heard some other people (even some instructors) comment on how that seemed like a somewhat superficial sub-cultural fad.  Many people went barefoot for the entire event, and a number of men wore no shirt or even just a loincloth (usually made of buckskin).  There was also a good deal of nudity, including a nude swimming area and frequent nude dancing (usually at night).  It certainly wasn’t sexual, but it was definitely taboo-breaking.  There were also a lot of kids that I’m not sure even brought any clothing with them.  Sometimes I found the frequent nudity awkward and sometimes I found it refreshing.  After the first day, I stopped thinking about it much.

Another interesting behavior I noticed was a tradition of unusual names, like “Wren”, “Everest”, “Ohmdoc”, and more.  My sister’s husband said it sounded like Appalachian Trail names to him, which is another tradition I don’t quite understand.  Many people did not use their legal names at all during the event, and some people were giving other people new names.  I don’t really understand this tradition, and I spent a lot of time thinking about it without learning much.

There were a lot of children present.  There were classes specifically for children.  There was a daycare center (I use this term loosely), and it was asked that if you put your children in it during the event that you volunteer to work at the daycare center for at least one class session.  Parents attending to their children was a very public affair.  I was worried that so many children would detract from the event, but I found that it added to it.  I had some interesting conversations with some children, and many of the older children tried to contribute to the event as best as they could.  Often they had unique perspectives to contribute.

Probably my favorite quality of Firefly is how open and warm everyone was.  People would hug me the second time they saw me, even if it was just in passing.  Many of the men were just as open to this kind of touch as the women, and I found that incredibly refreshing.  Men smiling and expressing joy for my company and hugging me freely is something I could use a lot more of in this world.  Most of the time, I hold back how much I touch people because I am worried they will think it’s inappropriate or interpret my actions differently from how I intend them, or often because I am concerned about perpetuating the patriarchal behavior of men entering women’s personal space without invitation.  But at Firefly, I felt very comfortable hugging almost anyone, and the few people that I was uncertain about, I would ask, and they always welcomed a hug.  I want to live in a world like that all the time.


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  1. Firefly Gathering 2013 | CountryFriedRyan

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