Monday, June 5, 2017

What a Community Can Do

I’m often unjustifiably credited with making “something from nothing.” A couple weekends ago, we performed one of those feats - making a fired clay bowl that holds both water and its shape. Of course, the clay pot was not made from nothing, but rather without things purchased at a strip mall. I was only able to shape the pot through thousands of years of human ingenuity, through the hands, minds and passion of a group of people, and with some basic, but skillfully collected, materials. The bowl, to me, is a symbol of what a community can do. This is why I say that ‘we’ made the bowl. I simply kneaded (wedged) the clay and shaped it, with expert guidance.

It holds water and doesn't become amorphous!

We made the clay bowl at the Mid-Atlantic Primitive Skills Gathering over Memorial Day weekend in West Virginia. Having gone to the event last year, arriving Friday after dark was almost no problem. I knew where to park, where to set up my tent, and where to find people gathered around the fire. After accidentally stepping in a small artificial pond with my then-dry shoe, I met some friendly people by the fire. We exchanged stories of picking up and processing road-killed animals until about 1 AM, and then headed to bed.

The next day I took classes on rabbit hide tanning and flint-knapping (breaking rock to make stone tools). It was a long day, and I did little besides make some rabbit hides smell like smoke and make a big rock smaller. Two skills I certainly need to refine some more! When dinnertime came, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed because I didn’t have a firm grasp of the skills I had just learned. But, when night fell, a father-son duo kicked off some storytelling and music by the fire. They had the group of at least 100 captivated, telling folk stories about possums and people, pushing the bounds of believability and leaving me wondering whether their stories could be true! I was feeling good at the end of the night, grateful for the campfire, the storytellers, meeting new people and seeing old friends.

I decided that Sunday would be pottery day. I had taken a pottery class the year before, but I did a shitty job. I rushed and skipped important steps. This year, I was determined to make a good pot and take my time. Our trusty instructor was there, dedicated as always, helping probably over 100 people make pots throughout the weekend, and often forgetting or neglecting to eat meals. Under his guidance, I wedged some clay, and started shaping it. I took my time, smoothing out any small cracks that started to form, knowing that these fissures would only intensify once the pot was dried and fired. I eventually got the bowl into a shape I was satisfied with, and left it to dry while attending an afternoon wild edibles class.

When I got back to the central fire, my pots were already there. The primitive pot virtuoso was collecting wood and arranging pots by the fire, making sure that none of them dried too quickly. He had two very dedicated people working with him to fire 100 or so pots. There were a few of us chipping in here and there to help, but the trio was doing the bulk of the work. I wanted to learn as much as I could, having forgotten much of the process from last year.

Second kiln being fired (right), pots being dried for the third kiln (left).

At this final night of the Gathering, something suddenly started to click. I was not a master of any of the skills that I had just learned, and of course it was ridiculous to think that I could be. It did take me some time to be OK with that, though! My realization was that this Gathering was not just about skills; it was about people coming together from different places, geographically and philosophically, to learn and to teach. I was overcome with a strong feeling that these are my people, that this was my pack. The people I interacted with see the value in old ways and have a true appreciation for what has been largely lost in North America and elsewhere. We are actively passing on and learning skills that are teetering on the brink of extinction. Besides these skills being a part of our humanness, they are becoming more vital as our dependence on functioning ecosystems becomes obvious and real.

I continued collecting raw materials for the kilns, but was mostly observing the trio moving pots around, building platforms with coals under them, and fitting tight wood pieces around the pots for firing, making sure that no flames would lick the pots. The smoke from the large fire was often blinding and choking. With determination, focus, and teamwork, the trio built and fired three kilns. Someone literally slept next to the kilns to keep an eye on them.

The next morning, I came back to the fire pit to remove one of my pots. The expert potter's rule is that no pots should be moved from the kiln until they are cool enough for bare hands. As I looked at the pot, noticing some of its glistening mica, I remembered the music by the fire the night before. A musician shared the following thought (paraphrasing): “Why is it that we come here (to the Gathering), and feel so good? It’s because we come together and work together in a way that we want to see in the rest of our lives.” There is something truly special about coming together in the context of primitive skills. Coming together happens in other aspects of my life, for jobs, school, religious observances, etc., but these often feel like obligations. Meeting to practice skills that are foundational to being human and are used to provide basic needs feels very different to me. When we come together for this purpose, it is easy to see glimpses of how small groups of people, working together, can live without all of the maddening complexity and destruction that industrial society has created and caused.

The upside down pot with the 'M' at the bottom is the one I shaped.

As I’ve said here before, I just want to be a person, with other people: a human animal. The titles of man, scientist, pay grade level, hunter, young professional, PhD, mean little to me. I am satisfied with being a person, and am learning and relearning the physical and emotional skills to be a true and effective person. I’m continuing to put together what that means for the way I live, and it’s invigorating to be with others who are working through the same challenges.


  1. Hey Matt, I enjoyed your post. It was great to meet you at MAPS this year and learn to tan hides!


    1. Great to meet you too, Becky! Thanks for reading.

  2. Beautiful expression of your MAPS experience. I can relate to that feeling of overwhelm, integrating new skills! Last year I left with a couple of beautiful, finished items is made. This year, I didn't finish anything. By the middle of the weekend, I decided that for me, this year was about deep connection. I did work on some skills, but the relationships that were nurtured were my take home, heart and soul food! I am truly grateful for this community and experience that we bring, to each other.

    1. Hi, Heather! Thank you for reading. Skills are important, but relationships are just as important! I hope to meet you next year, if not before.