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Firefly Gathering 2013

26 June 2013

I just returned from this year’s Firefly Gathering. I knew what to expect this time around, and it was just as awesome as last year. See my post about last year’s event for a general overview of what Firefly is.

The classes I took this year were on permaculture principles, home orchards, establishing a homestead for the first time, agroforestry, succession planting with annuals, fire by friction, and making survival bracelets. This year, Firefly was in a new location: a largely undeveloped stretch of land on the side of a mountain bordering the Pisgah National Forest.

Just like last year, this is a long but very interesting post.

Apparently, before Firefly started, the setup crew tapped a spring on the site for drinking water and built a few temporary structures. Last year’s gathering was at an established camp, so there were already a number of working facilities. All of the usual spots were present: Firefly Central, the shared kitchen, separate tents for classes, but there was no existing infrastructure for them. It’s impressive that the staff got so much set up so quickly. Another nice thing about this year’s site is that it was a bit more spread out, so my camp site was pretty far from everything else, meaning it was quieter when I was trying to sleep.

The permaculture and agriculture classes were all very interesting. I’m already doing a good bit of what was in those classes, but I learned lots of helpful new information and techniques. I’d never even heard of agroforestry before, but it’s based on several permaculture principles I was already familiar with. I can’t implement it here on my parents’ land, but I will certainly be thinking about it. The succession planting class will be the most immediately useful. I’ll implement that in my garden the next time I plant. The orchards class will also be immediately useful, since I’m planning on planting more fruit trees.

I went on a plant walk with Doug Elliot. It was awesome. If you ever get a chance to do one with him, it’s very informative and entertaining. He knows lots about plants, but he also tells stories, jokes, and sings songs that are relevant.  I really can’t do justice to him, he has to be seen to be believed.

I took a class on making survival bracelets. Apparently these are fairly popular among Appalachian Trail hikers and survivalists, but this is the first time I’d encountered one. According to the teacher, Coyote, it was developed by paratroopers after cutting and reusing their parachute cords. It’s a technique of coiling a single strand of paracord into a worn item. It compresses a foot of rope into about an inch. Pretty handy!

I’ll take a video of me making a belt or another bracelet in the future.

The most exciting class I took was Fire by Friction with Derry Wood.  Derry taught us how to make a bowdrill with foraged materials, what all the crucial components are, alternate materials, and more.  He also went on several very informative tangents about hide tanning and knife sharpening.  I will be sure to look for his name again, because he has quite a lot to teach.

The main components are the bow, the string, the drill, the bearing stone, the fire board, and the nest.

  • Bow: A long, straight or slightly curved piece of wood, preferably a hardwood like maple or oak.  This is effectively the handle of the tool.
  • String: Used sort of like a gear or a transmission belt to transfer force to the drill.  It is tied to either end of the bow.  For the string, Derry used a nylon rope, but cedar roots, buckskin, sinew, hickory root bark, sturdy vines, or a number of other things also work.
  • Drill: The central component and one of the points of friction.  It should be a perfectly straight stick about 3/4th inch wide, preferably red cedar, buckeye willow, or basswood.
  • Bearing stone: is used to hold everything in place, be a buffer between the moving parts and the user’s hand, and apply pressure to the drill.  It can be a palm-sized piece of hardwood or a soft rock like mudstone or soapstone.  It needs to be possible to dig a small indentation into the bearing stone.
  • Fire board: The other point of friction, this is a flat, straight piece of wood.  The drill is applied to this.  It should be a soft wood that splits easily like white pine, red cedar, or hemlock.  It can’t be resinous.  If you can’t make a mark in the wood easily with your fingernail, it’s too hard.
  • Nest: The bed for the ember and initial fuel for the fire.  This is very much like a bird’s nest, made of a variety of materials, including small twigs, pine needles, and cattail down.  Many things can be substituted like moss, some fungus, paper, and drier lint.

Derry first split some wood with a hatchet to make the fire board, then carved a stick into a round shape for the drill.  He already had a bow made with two holes drilled into it and the nylon rope run through it.  He also had a rock with a hole drilled by machine for the bearing stone, but he showed us how easy it is to use a piece of mudstone by carving a hole into it with a sharp quartz rock.  He lubricated the hole in the bearing stone with some pencil lead, but he said body oil from your face, large animal fat, or earwax work great.

Derry demonstrated proper posture, bracing his left hand against his shin to keep it as stationary as possible.

Derry drilled briefly to form a hole, then cut a small notch in the fire board.  He said this is important to give the ember somewhere to go or it’ll just be smothered by the drill.

Then he went to work.

He let the ember drop onto a small wood chip, allowed it to burn for about 30 seconds, then transferred it into the nest.  Watching him subtlely manipulate it with his fingertips and carefully blow on it to create fire was like magic, but there was a time when most humans knew how to do this.  It reminded me why I come to Firefly.

After this, we all practiced it for a couple hours.  I’m happy to say I was successful after a few attempts.  I will try to recreate this with foraged materials and post about it!

Firefly is truly a sublime event once it all comes together, and the purpose is to reinvigorate humans with an understanding of how sublime the world is.  All this became clear to me the first night as I sat by the pond, listening to the bullfrogs under a full moon, watching thousands of fireflies flit across the valley and all around me, hearing the music circle around the main fire, and drifting in and out of sleep.  The communities (which include all the nonhumans involved as well) that form around Firefly and other gatherings and people living with the skills and principles taught here may not be perfect, and they certainly aren’t utopian or idyllic, but they are awesomely beautiful.

More pictures, mostly of Derry making a fire, in today’s photo set.

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