Rewilding: Primitivists Take it Back to Basics

on Thursday, May. 24th

[Content Advisory: The following article contains graphic content that may unsettle some readers.]

In a culture obsessed with progress, we live in a perpetual state of change and adaptation. It can feel like technology and knowledge become obsolete almost immediately. We don’t often stop to think about what we are leaving behind or forgetting along the way. At the Firefly Gathering in Hendersonville, North Carolina you can find people who are not only thinking about it, but have created an entire community around their philosophies. But is this ideal that they strive for the key to true progress and innovation for a sustainable future, or are they just romanticizing a golden age that we should safely leave in our past?

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The rolling green hills of Western North Carolina and some of the oldest mountains in the world are the backdrop for the four-day festivities that make up the Firefly Gathering in Hendersonville. Days at Firefly, like other primitive skills gatherings, are spent learning about harvesting wild foods, permaculture, making crafts from available local plants and rocks, processing wild game/road kill using the whole animal and learning the various methods of fire starting using friction. Many of the classes are led by people with years of experience homesteading or living in the wild. As the sun sets, people slowly make their way to the fire pit. A few lone drummers call to the rest with a simple slow rhythm that can be heard throughout the grounds. People come flocking in from all directions out of the darkness like moths attracted to the light. Soon the sound of drums engulf the space and dancers circle the fire, moving with the drumbeat and mimicking the motion of the flames with hands flailing upward. The scene is a visual enactment of the connectedness that is continuously emphasized at Firefly .

At Firefly this human connection is sacred as is the connection with all things that live or provide life.  Tanning a hide and making buckskin shorts is hard work, and making fire by rubbing sticks together is frustrating and tedious, butparticipants say the result is a profound sense of understanding the materials that you work with. Firefly co-founder Natalie Bogwalker explained, “Firefly is here to stave off the amnesia of modern techno-cratic culture…When normal people come here they are really inspired and feel that things are possible.”

For the hardcore primitivists and naturalists who teach the classes, it offers an opportunity to broaden their knowledge and hone skills that they can apply practically in their daily life. Matt Hansen, one of the teachers at Firefly, credits much of his knowledge to gatherings like this, and now comes with a sense of responsibility. “I’ve actually been approached by elders requesting that I carry on the torch and I’m like yeah, I’m there.”

To some who attend the Firefly gathering, the primitive skills that they learn simply serve as a novelty or a fun way to spend a weekend. To others, the skills that are taught and shared at the gathering are a part of daily life and survival. If the predictions of many of the primitivists at Firefly are accurate, the imminent collapse of civilization will soon make these skills a matter of life or death for us all. If there is one theme that seems to permeate all aspects of the gathering it is connectedness. “It’s all about rooting ourselves deep into the earth and into our connections with each other,” said Bogwalker. She continued, “…when we look all around us and people aren’t interacting with each other, they’re like, looking at their iPads…they’re all like robots, half human half machine… it’s really creepy to me.”

Bogwalker founded Firefly with Kaleb Wallace five years ago. The gathering has grown greatly in popularity since its humble beginnings at a family farm near Asheville, NC and now boasts over 100 instructors with expertise in a broad range of subjects. Similar gatherings have popped up all over the country, some of which have been going strong since the 80s. Rabbit Stick Gathering, for example, was started in 1976 in Utah by the grandfather of the current primitivism movement, Larry Dean Olsen. Rabbit Stick was then reintroduced in Idaho by David Wescott and remains the largest primitive/earth skill gathering.

Steve Watts directs the Aboriginal Studies Program at the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia, North Carolina. His replicas of prehistoric tools and weapons are featured in museums throughout the US. He attended Firefly for the first two years but is usually too busy teaching an annual series of primitive technology workshops at Scheile to make the trip.

Watts explained that the lure of primitivism goes way back. “The stone age is the great common denominator of humanness.” He continued, “Primitive skills are our shared heritage.  The fascination comes from a “longing (usually romanticized) for a golden age.” Obviously, primitivism seems to be driven primarily by a backlash to modern culture, but as Watts pointed out, “That has been stated as a reason/cause for several centuries now. But, I suppose high tech does demand high touch in response.” The other great irony surrounding the current primitivism movement regards what Watts calls “neo-primitives.” Much of the spread of information and networking within the movement is now done via the Internet, cell phones and all types of modern gadgetry. The newfound ability to spread information about gatherings and primitive skills classes is a large part of what is keeping the movement alive. “It’s just folks using new tools to discover old ones,” said Watts.

Hansen has spent years living in the woods in wattle and daub huts gathering his own food without use of money or cars. He believes that technology should evolve in a responsible way. “It needs to be interacting with an ecology, not just people. Without that there is not going to be any human progress.” With his vast understanding of the way the natural world works and the way humans are affecting it, he does not fear the collapse of civilization as many do, he said. “I’m way more scared of civilization continuing as it is for twenty more years than for a collapse situation. I embrace that idea. It’s necessary.”

Mike Belleme is a freelance photographer living in Asheville. He is a seeker of profound truths, constantly in search of untold stories and new perspectives on humans and the world around him. Belleme has worked for such publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, Time magazine and His primary focus is long-term documentary projects, where he’s able to fully immerse himself in the story. Belleme has lived in Western North Carolina his entire life. You can see his work at


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