About a mile into the woods on the western edge of Brown County, a narrow path led to a clearing and a campfire. A collection of adults and children gathered around, discussing the day’s plans.
They hadn’t had running water in almost three days. A well-groomed stranger wandering up in a polo shirt was quickly noticed and just as quickly invited into the circle.
It was the last day of the first-ever Indiana Earthskills Gathering — a weekend that organizer Kevin Glenn said he wants to become annual.
The group was invited to offer up their best animal imitations to show gratitude to the wildlife whose woods they shared.
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Some in the circle have serious jobs in serious industries. Yet, they all joined in, wearing the same smiles as their children and teens.
Earthskills gatherings are a growing trend around the country, Glenn said.
“It’s educating people about skills, primitive skills,” he said — “skills of living close to the earth, looking at the forest and not just seeing the green but seeing beyond and what we can gather and what we can make.”
Participants are responsible for their own breakfast, but the other meals are a combination of fresh produce and meats, augmented with edibles gathered from the area.
“They’ll come back with 20 pounds of hen of the woods mushroom, or handfuls of herbs,” said “head kitchen guy” Nathan Harman — whose day job is as a plant and soil health consultant with an agricultural company.
There is no propane or electricity to give his camp kitchen a predictable heat supply, no recipes or temperature gauges — and he couldn’t be happier.
“That’s the whole joy of cooking to me: It’s always different. So, you multiply that by the weather and the quality of the wood and the quality of the soil and the number of the people that you don’t really know and produce donations — you have no idea what’s going to be coming in.”
Those who couldn’t afford the full admission price of $150 for three days or $50 per day could volunteer in the kitchen or teach a trade skill. Many taught just to share.
Coming together helps to feed a craving for connection that is missing in their modern life, said Monique Philpot, a fellow organizer who operates Wild Nature Project in Bloomington with Glenn.
“It’s so complicated nowadays to be able to relate to people,” said Mariam Fitzgerald, using an axe to cut excess wood from what would become a bowl.
“We all are so different and come from different backgrounds, and in a situation like this, it’s pretty simple, because we’re all very basic,” she said.
Light glinted off a glassy, black object in 7-year-old Eli Larson’s hands. He sat as any modern child might: head down, hands busy and eyes focused.
Daniel Wakolbinger said he was impressed by how eagerly the children had taken to flintknapping — using pressure or striking to flake pieces from flint and shape it into tools.
The night before, a group of children had spent four hours shaping stone, and it had been tough to get them to stop and go to sleep, Glenn said.
It was Eli’s first time trying it, and he liked the challenge. It’s something he’d like to keep doing at home, he said.
Now in his 30s, Wakolbinger first picked up flintknapping when he was 8, after seeing a demonstration at the Illinois State Fair. He still has some of his early pieces.
Kyle Pearson carved his first spoon around the time his 4-year-old daughter was born. Now living in a Bloomington apartment with his wife and their six children, he has to work a little to find fallen trees or branches he can use.
Pearson was impressed with how quickly many of the children took to carving bowls and spoons. One of the boys hadn’t set his spoon down since he made it, carrying it around the camp with him.
The children weren’t the only ones showing pride; many of the adults were already making use of their work to eat their lunch.
Pearson is formally trained as a jeweler. He wasn’t always the outdoors type. Living as a bachelor in Indianapolis, he felt a need to escape.
He started camping on weekends. He recalled hours spent by himself practicing flintknapping, taking time lapse photos of streams, and spending an entire day tracking a family of deer simply to follow their path.
“The more time I spent out there, the more I made the connection that, that’s where I need to be,” he said. “It’s good for me. Good for my soul. Good for my head.”
For Philpot, much of the weekend in the woods comes back to connecting: “It’s connection to ourselves, in that we’re learning these skills and we’re gaining confidence from them and we’re learning how to be capable,” she said.
There’s also a chance to connect with the natural world, and to understand it as more than just scenery. For some, that dovetails with a sense of the sacred, or simply how incredible it all is.
“You see all this amazing stuff all around you, and you can’t help but feel like there’s something special,” she said.
There’s also connection with each other. Recalling the animal noises around the fire, Philpot grinned.
“You’re standing around with a group of people that are willing to sing songs together and play games together — ‘cause we always sing songs and play games — or willing to step out and be goofy and be embarrassing ourselves,” she said. “And it’s connective. I can just be myself, whoever I am, while I’m here.”
Learn more about the gathering at indianaearthskills.com.