Fire and leather

Students learn ancestors’ ways at Piedmont Earthskills Gathering
Mar. 21, 2013 @ 06:21 PM

Natalie Bogwalker picks up a tanned buckskin hide, one of many she has made, and shows it to a group of students. “This is what you’re going to end up with,” Bogwalker said.

The hide feels soft, almost like cloth. She compares the process of hide tanning to alchemy, “harvesting bacterial action” to create leather from a raw hide.

Each student in this session used a scraper to remove the hair from a hide that had been soaked to make it pliable. Each hide was draped around a beam so the students could scrap them and move them as needed. “See how this is smooth and this is rough?” Bogwalker said. “You want the rough.”

Bogwalker is one of the instructors teaching earth skills (sometimes called primitive skills) during the Piedmont Earthskills Gathering at Shakori Hills Community Arts Center. Thursday was the first full day of the gathering, which continues today, Saturday, and part of Sunday. Spaces are still available for those who want to learn blacksmithing, how to make fire without matches, basket making and other skills.  

Earth skills are sometimes called Indian skills, but as Fuz Sanderson, a coordinator of this gathering, pointed out, “they’re the skills of all our ancestors,” no matter where we originate.

And even a brief observation of some classes at this gathering illustrates that these skills are not really as primitive as one might think. Tanning, for example, requires some finesse in addition to muscle. Bogwalker points to a portion of a hide that had been scraped: “This deer has a lot of sub-grain, so you need to be super methodical,” she said. Bogwalker said she gets hides from a butcher near Asheville who pulls the hides from the deer. Many hunters cut the hides, and Bogwalker encouraged her students not to work with a hide that had been cut because the end product will not be as good.

Bogwalker is teaching brain tanning. Deer brains provide the basis of the chemical reaction needed for tanning.

Friction fire also requires several skills, and one intangible quality. Tres MonCeret, who was helping with the class Alex Kilgore was teaching, said that while his students are learning to make fire, what he is really teaching them is patience. With practice, the technique “becomes part of you,” MonCeret said. “You and the kit just become a symbiotic system that works together.”

Kilgore was teaching students how to make two different fire-making kits – bow drilling and hand drilling. In the first kit, you take string, rope or Kilgore’s favorite, buckskin, and link it to the ends of a stick. This bow is used to turn another stick, which by being turned on a notched piece of wood, makes fire. The hand method is a variation on the bow method.

MonCeret demonstrated hand drilling. When smoke appeared, he showed a reporter a thin piece of wood. “That’s an ember – you drop that into some dried grass [or other kindling] and you’ve got a fire,” he said.

Kilgore showed the students some pointers in making a good bow. “The tension in your string is really important,” he said. “You want your tension on your string to be just right.”

Anna Alexander was working to make fire with a bow. “That’s a really good technique, Anna,” MonCeret said. “You’re doing good.”

Erika Nelson, who teaches summer camps with the Piedmont Wildlife Center, was attending her first earth skills event, and plans to use some of what she learns at the wildlife center camps. She was making a hand hold out of stone for the hand drilling friction fire technique. “Once you have a kit like this, you’re all set,” Nelson said.

Besides the skills, Piedmont Earthskills Gathering is about fostering connections with the land, and an appreciation for how our ancestors lived. Learning earth skills that our ancestors knew is “just such a rich part of being human,” Bogwalker said.

Chris Carter of Saxapahaw, who has worked with the Haw River Assembly’s summer camps, was tanning his first hide, and wants the earth skills gathering to continue. “I’m very excited this is happening here,” he said, “and I’m hoping it happens year after year.”


Spaces are still available at the gate for the Piedmont Earthskills Gathering, which continues through Sunday. For information, visit