It’s a sunny morning. From the deck of my tiny cabin I look down to a sparkling lake. I reach out and pick from the saskatoon berry bush that I share with towhees, robins, sparrows, and a chipmunk. It’s gonna be another day for shorts and swimming.
Today is day three of a new event, the Earthkin Ancestral Skills Gathering. There are people here I haven’t seen for a week and some I last spent time with ten years ago at a different gathering. It feels like a reunion. We come together as instructors and students, as families, singles, friends. Ages range from two months to 76 years. For five days we practice the old ways, including hard skills of survival and living as well as the skills needed for a healthy community, sharing skills that are beyond even the imagination of much of mainstream society. Instructors are here because they love the skills and the teaching. They’re all volunteers – none of them is paid a penny for what they so generously offer.
People here are connecting with their ancestral skills in ways that are new to some, familiar to others. One of the things that doesn’t change from one year to the next is that we always see new faces: in a fire-making course, following the tracks of the wild four-leggeds, learning what birds are telling us when they make their different calls, picking berries, playing games, or just sitting in the shade having lunch. Today, after two days of high energy, there’s a different feel. Things happen more easily, in a way that’s difficult to describe but feels right.
In one of the workshops, people are skinning animals and tanning their hides while cooking and eating the meat. We have to keep in mind when we work with raw hides and meat that this is grizzly country. We’re watchful, but no one is particularly worried. A hundred and twenty people make a lot of noise, and the bears here are wild. They avoid humans. They also share an abundance of ripening berries with us, the birds, and other critters, so they’re not hungry enough to risk venturing into a human encampment even when the aromas of fresh meat mingle with the smells of our presence. There are cougars too, but they stay well away from noisy human activity.
The range of accents among both instructors and participants is impressive: Indian, Israeli, American, French, Japanese, German, Canadian. Some of the instructors bring ancient skills common to all of our ancestors, some share specific skills from their culture. One Indian woman showed off her stunningly bright blouses and taught the skills of dyeing cloth with plants in the old ways she knows, pounding the color into the cloth with rounded stones.
We were welcomed with song and words to this territory by a representative of the St’át’imc Nation. A guest from the Tla-0-qui-aht Nation shared some teachings and songs of his people. They and other First Nations people have told stories of institutional and personal dehumanization, and we have held them as we witness the grief of what they have experienced and continue to live with, from their ancestors and in themselves and their children.
I’ve been invited here to hold space as an elder. I will offer two workshops, one on the “Mystery and Magic of Eldering” and the other presenting a gift from the Haudenosaunee called the Peacemaker Principles.
This morning I rose early to offer a departure blessing to a woman who was going out to do a 24 hour solo as part of her experience here. After the blessing, I sang a song for her as she walked away to her time of solitude and reflection. Then I got my coffee and watched people gather for breakfast. A mule deer walked calmly through the middle of the dining area, snacking on little green apples that have fallen from the old trees on the 120 acres of the camp, relaxed but keeping her distance.
That deer has been around the camp since well before we arrived. This is her territory. Her tracks and signs are everywhere. I knew why she felt comfortable coming into camp today, because I have finally relaxed into the gathering myself this morning, after a day of travel and two days of slowing down. I’ve found over the years that when I go camping in cold weather, spend time in the bush, or come to a gathering, it takes me two days to become really present to nature and my surroundings. I give off a different energy today than I did yesterday, and the deer and birds feel that.
When I looked around the circle this morning after breakfast I saw in the faces of the people there that they too had truly arrived. We are all becoming a little wilder every day. People are walking slower and noticing more of their surroundings. The birds are coming closer around us too, mirroring our gentler states of mind. The kids too are playing more with each other, more gently than yesterday.
After lunch I swam naked into the lake, far enough out that I could see up to my cabin. Returning, I dried in the sun and breeze, then came back up to write more of this piece. As I write, not far from my cabin five people are softly and skilfully playing bongo drums, something I haven’t liked until this week because volume had always seemed more important than skill in my previous exposure to bongos.
Tonight there will be opportunities to sing together, listen to a Native elder share his teachings and wisdom, tell the story of our day to others who will share their own day with us, pick saskatoons for a promised cake, or just be: chat with friends, tend to kids, be alone, swim,…
It’s day five now, the last day of classes. The saskatoon-and-chocolate cake, by the way, was delicious! Last night was the time for Trade Blankets. Instructors and participants lay out whatever they have to trade or sell, and we wander from blanket to blanket around the big circle in the meadow, looking for a treasure or even a good story of how something was created or worked. We saw newly tanned sheepskins, jewelry, books, dyeing kits and dyed cloth, salves… – all of it at prices too low for the work that went into making it.
Tonight I will facilitate our closing ceremony. It will be a bittersweet time. Participants and instructors will speak of their experience of our time together. I will invite them all to go away whole, back to that other world, letting the experience go while taking with them the gifts of their time here. There will be tears and laughter, and we’ll all be better for it. Tomorrow early, we’ll clean up our camping and workshop areas, pack up, and head back out there.
I invite you to feel the same call we’ve all followed, and find your way to reconnecting as we’ve done, in your own way. Maybe I’ll see you at Earthkin next year.
There are many opportunities to do what we’ve done this week. These gatherings happen all over North America and in Europe, and likely other places too, from February to October. They go by a variety of names, including longstanding ones such as Rabbitstick and Wintercount in the US and Firemaker on Vancouver Island in Canada. You can see a full list of North American gatherings – forty of them! – at https://www.hollowtop.com/Primitive_Skills_Gatherings.htm.