Back to nature
Popular gathering underscores ancestral skills and connection to community
“The smell is intoxicating to me,” said Summer Maroste, a Forest Ranch resident and schoolteacher. The woven willow basket in her hands filled the room with a very particular fragrance. The deep, rounded basket—the first she’s ever made—was closely woven with thick willow shoots of various shades of brown, gray, even a reddish tan, and she held it with care. “At first, I was like, oh, that’s really strong—and now I can’t get enough of it!” She leaned down, closed her eyes, and inhaled.
Maroste had just returned from the Buckeye Gathering, an annual ancestral skills campout that relocated this year to the Lake Concow Campground, and her basket was the tangible result of a week of learning.
She, along with the 600 members of the gathering, attended workshops like beginner’s backstrap weaving (using a basic loom), braintanning (curing animal hides with brains to make soft leather) and dogbane cordage (making rope from the broken-up fibers of dogbane bush bark).
The workshop titles might sound foreign, but the skills are the building blocks of all the technologies we have today, said co-organizer Tamara Wilder. “These are the roots of everything we’ve got, and it’s very grounding” to learn basic techniques, she explained. “In our modern world, we’re dependent on all these technologies.
“A lot of people have fear over what would happen if the electricity went out,” she continued. “If you get the skills and you get grounded, then you no longer have any fear around that anymore.”
These types of skills are called a number of names: primitive technologies, native arts, wilderness survival skills, Stone Age living skills, Earth skills—and they’re growing in popularity. Buckeye, which held its fifth annual event in early May, regularly sells out within days. This year, despite the move from the Bay Area to Concow, tickets were almost sold out within 20 hours. In addition, there are two other gatherings in Southern California this year, both of which began last year and are offering similar week-long activities. Yet another brand-new gathering, Sharpening Stone, was held last week in southern Oregon.
“I think people are hungry for it. They want to learn these old ways because the new ways aren’t working,” said Maroste, who herself sought out and attended Buckeye for the first time this year. “People are feeling tired and stressed and burned out. The best way to re-energize our minds, bodies and spirits is to go out in nature and just be.”
Many of those in attendance at the Buckeye Gathering seemed to be not only searching for the ancestral skills as alternatives to the unsustainability of our modern culture, but also connection to a community. This is no surprise to co-organizer Chris Sparks.
“I think people crave village, and crave community. The gatherings are sort of an overlay or excuse: ‘Hey, I’m going to go learn this ….’ But what people really want is community… the way that our society is structured right now, that’s not something that’s fostered very easily.”
Wilder agreed: “If they really just wanted the skills, they could just take a workshop,” rather than committing to a whole week.
“Or look them up on YouTube,” Sparks added.
Four of the seven core organizers—Russell Sparks, the founder and primary organizer, his brother Chris, Wilder and Edward Willie—met this reporter near the campground’s “old village,” where a creek winds past dwellings made mostly from cedar bark and tule reeds. As they spoke, they could hear the sounds of nearby workshops (singing in the women’s lodge, the clanging of primitive blacksmithing, chatter among a group working on “membraning” animal hides) mixed with the jarringly modern beeps and static of the walkie-talkies the organizers carried.
Russell Sparks, barefoot and sitting in the dirt against a log, seemed pleased with his creation and credited Buckeye’s “parent” organization, the Society of Primitive Technology, and other longer-running gatherings with paving the way. He views the week as a chance for participants to question, “What are the best parts [of our human cultures] that serve humanity, and how do we let go of the parts that aren’t serving us?” he said.
The gathering has been popular since Sparks started it in Sonoma County in 2010. Despite the event selling out quickly, Sparks is adamant about capping ticket sales to maintain the small-community atmosphere, where, by the end of the week, the group has coalesced and participants no longer see a strange face. “We’re in a gathering—we’re not a festival,” Sparks insisted. “We’re trying to retain some intimacy.”
Each morning, the group gathered at the main fire pit for an opening circle. On the first day, when Sparks asked how many had previously attended Buckeye, he said, about half the participants raised their hands.
“This group of people here is a tribe that is united by a desire specifically for basketry and hides and hand-drill fires,” Sparks explained, but they end up uniting “to find moments and ways to touch or model or experiment in having a more healthy culture.”
Willie added that many people end up leaving Buckeye with a better understanding of basic living skills and a better ability to coexist with others. He pointed to workshops on healthy communication and on building community as examples of how the gathering fosters community as well as skills-building.
The organizers agreed that “disconnection” in modern times is multileveled: alienation from our own ecosystems, alienation from our technology and how things are made, and alienation from each other.
Several pioneers in addressing the overlapping layers of disconnection were in attendance, including Jon Young, founder of 8 Shields in Santa Cruz, and Will Scott, a member of Weaving Earth, based in Penngrove. Both nonprofits have multifaceted approaches; 8 Shields’ website states its goal is to “support the development of an emerging international network of deep nature connection, mentoring, and culture repair.”
“You can’t have the community without that connection to nature,” Maroste said, referencing Young’s teachings at the gathering, where he spoke of Western society’s disconnections. “They’re essential to each other.”
Stephanie Elliott, Chico resident and director of GRUB Education, was similarly inspired by the gathering’s focus on community. She said she was impressed that the organizers realize that “it’s not just about learning these practical skills—on how to carve your own spoon or make your own fire—but how to do that with other people. I think that’s a really strong component in our culture that we’ve lost. I’m really excited that they’re dedicated to bringing both of those together in this gathering.”
Elliott attended with her two young children, mostly staying with the family camp program headed by Robin Blankenship, who is the founder of another gathering, in Colorado, called Earth Knack. The program provided daily story hours, outdoor games and hands-on activities for both the parents and children.
“We don’t sit in a corner and glue popsicle sticks together,” said Blankenship, while behind her children practiced flint-knapping with two instructors, using a heavy rock to break obsidian into useful tools like arrowheads.
In the middle of the week, Matthew Knight and Jahnia Mitchell, part of the Chico-based survivalist collective Earthbound Skills, gathered under some ponderosa pines, between the campground’s stage and the main fire pit, to offer a short workshop on acorns. Mitchell passed around toasted acorn bits for participants to chew on, and discussed which oak varieties had the fewest bitter tannins (which, locally, is the valley oak). While participants asked questions and shared tips (“Have you ever tried leaching the acorns in the tank of a toilet?” one man asked; Mitchell had not.), some also kept their hands busy: two women were sewing leather moccasins, another pulled out a journal to take notes.
Instructors are unpaid at Buckeye, but they use the opportunity to network and promote their own survival schools around the state and the country. Buckeye was modeled after “parent gatherings” Rabbitstick, which has been running for 26 years in Idaho, and Winter Count in Arizona. As such, most instructors already understood the general rhythm of the week, even if they had never attended Buckeye before.
Knight and Mitchell both taught a number of workshops throughout the week, including how to make coal-burned bowls and spoons, process acorns, and make cordage from local plants.
They had attended Buckeye’s first gathering in 2010, as participants. They have attended a number of gatherings nationwide, including Rabbitstick and Winter Count. This year’s Buckeye was the first where they attended as instructors.
Knight and Mitchell were just two of more than a dozen instructors who taught a multitude of courses, from those on peaceful communication to health consultations with an herbalist, a cultural appropriation discussion, and a land management by fire course. Skills taught were drawn from cultures throughout the world—for example, shoemaking techniques from the Plains tribes, yoga, Mayan weaving, and fire-starting from Botswana. The volume of offerings were overwhelming.
Although the majority of participants stayed close to the main fire pit and in the old village, where most of the workshops were taught throughout the day, many were found lingering by their tents, or dozing in hammocks strung between pine trees, enjoying the solitude and sipping tea.
Buckeye’s move to Concow was welcomed by local primitive skills enthusiasts—“We were super stoked it was right here in our own backyard,” Knight said—and bemoaned by the Bay Area hordes who had several more hours to drive to arrive at the camp.
After four years at the Ya-Ka-Ma Indian Educational Center in Forestville, in Sonoma County, the center’s board of directors did not renew the contract for the event to continue on their property, which exists to provide space for “the traditional practices … for the local tribes in the area,” said Mario Hermosillo Jr., chair of Ya-Ka-Ma’s board. “[The Buckeye organizers] were always very respectful,” he said, but the board decided to keep the focus on tribal use. By winter, after an exhaustive search throughout Northern California, the Buckeye organizers settled on the Concow Campground, which is privately owned by eight partners who together are called Konkow Partnership LLC. The group, which took ownership of the campground only last year, was impressed by the gathering.
“What we’re trying to do here is preserve the land,” said Clara Barber, one of the partners.
“And, it fits perfect here,” added partner Raychel Smith.
Most of the week, Smith’s and Barber’s children could be found racing around the campground on bikes, stopping to watch workshops and crafts being made. Many of the partners even participated in workshops. Smith said she was pleased that she didn’t have to worry about her children overhearing inappropriate conversation, as the participants were focused on the skills at hand—and drugs and alcohol were prohibited.
The location was ideal for local enthusiasts; Elliott estimated somewhere around 25 Butte County residents were in attendance.
“[Local] people who went there are definitely really excited” about the skills they acquired at the gathering, said Mitchell, but an ancestral skills community has not yet coalesced. “It’s a rock-drop in the pond of the consciousness for the people of Chico and Butte County” who attended, Knight said. “It’s definitely going to have an affect.”
The effects certainly seem to be lingering for Maroste and her partner, Beau Henegar, who also attended. They both say they feel more aware of their surroundings and actions since returning.
Maroste looked back on her basket-weaving class as more than just teaching her the skills of creating something.
“As [my instructor] is showing us the beginnings of how to weave a basket, she pauses and explains that, the way she was taught, when you weave a basket, you are weaving your intentions, your hopes, your dreams and prayers into your basket, so it’s important to keep your thoughts… really focused, because it’s all going into your basket,” Maroste explained. She met with her instructor daily during the gathering to guide her progress. At the end of the week, she had her basket just about completed. “To sit there and dwell on the flaws or mistakes is unproductive,” her instructor told her. “I got a really sharp focus, and I realized … why we were all gathering there.”
Henegar had a similar experience when he attended a “plant spirit medicine walk”—which ended up having very little to do with walking. “[The instructor] sat us down for an hour and a half out of his two-hour [course] and just talked about how to approach a plant, how to act, how to connect, and all that she can offer you … in her guidance and support in your life,” said Henegar, using the female pronoun to refer to the plant.
That awareness of the task at hand followed Maroste and Henegar back home. “For me … the feelings I have in these first couple of days since coming back, and what I’m taking with me, is that slowing down of whatever you are looking at, [despite being back] in this fast-paced, gimme-that, instant, turn-on, flip-a-switch culture that we’ve created and supported consciously,” Henegar said.
Other effects can be more tangible. Maroste noted that, as she got more inspired by these skills, her “spaces got smaller and smaller”—she needed less indoor space. Russell Sparks noted that a focus on the skills and learning more about the basic things we need to get by, like simple tools and clothing, can help participants in needing less.
Mitchell and Knight have experienced the opposite as instructors—their house is full of harvested basket materials and pieces of cedar for fire kits—but they understand the sentiment. “Your house is extended. It’s not just what’s between your four walls, it’s what lies outside too,” said Mitchell. “Your food is out there, your recreation is out there, and your relaxation—all that stuff.”
Elliott, on the other hand, brought back a heightened awareness of community. “I’ve been living in community for five years now” as a member of the GRUB Cooperative, “but I still can be reluctant about asking for help, because I still want to hold that composure of, ‘I can do all of this—I don’t need help,’” she noted. “Going deeper with why I have that block, and how to [get] rid of that block, is something that I feel really inspired [me] to continue to investigate.”
As for Maroste’s basket, it won’t be gathering dust on her shelf. She is following a tradition of giving away her first basket as an offering to the world, a lesson in nonattachment.
“I haven’t given my basket away yet,” she said, “but I’d like to pass it on to someone in the family, so I can visit it and enjoy the magnificent scent of the willow.”