Interviewed by SMWS alumna & current Alumni Coordinator, Nita DaVanzo
From your time of graduation from SMWS in 2001 to now, where have your steps taken you?
Down some expected and some very unexpected paths. I started my college career at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. After a year of academics I was invited on a 3-month world music tour of the US with a wonderful group of singers called Northern Harmony. We went coast-to-coast singing music, from old American shape note, to music from South Africa and everywhere in between. This semester away from college gave me some perspective on my life and I soon transferred to Warren Wilson College in North Carolina where my passions were sparked and my soul was fed. After graduating in 2006 with a BA in Integrative Studies (the major of choice for those of us that love too many things) I found myself on a plane to Europe where I traveled solo for 4 months, only to return for a few weeks and get on another plane to hitchhike my away down Central and South America with my future husband, Neal Ritter. We had $2000 and a return flight out of Brazil 4 months later. Needless to say we are still telling the many stories of our adventures, but best of all is that that trip was the birthplace of our thriving non-profit organization: Laughing Coyote Project. Our dream was to create a program for youth in our area that would encourage them to connect more closely to the earth through primitive and ancestral skills.
Neal and I are now a family of four. We have a three-year-old son Lutreo, and a four-month-old daughter Fianna. We live about 5 minutes from the house where I grew up, on Nelson Rd and live and work the land around our house trying to grow all our own food (vegetables, grains, and livestock) raise our children, enrich the land, run our programs and live more lightly.
What initially inspired you to begin pursuing your current work as educator of primitive skills and founder / owner of Laughing Coyote Project, a Primitive Skills School?
When Neal and I were traveling, many of our conversations kept coming back to the same themes: our education (what worked and what didn’t); living more lightly on the earth; craving more outdoor time in school; and wanting to understand more deeply the ways of our ancestors. I have always loved art, but buying art supplies was expensive and I kept asking myself: before one could just go into a store and by watercolors and brushes, what did people do? They made their own… but how? So at Warren Wilson I started designing classes for myself that encouraged me to go deeper. I learned to make different colored pigments from the earth all around the College; I learned to make binders (so the pigment would not rub off the paper) from eggs, milks, and glues. At the time I did not realize it, but I was well on my way to teaching myself primitive and ancestral skills. So when Neal and I met and started sharing our passions with each other, we realized that we were both obsessed with learning the skills of our ancestors and teaching and being our own masters. And thus our school was born. Over the past 10 years Laughing Coyote has evolved immensely, so today we work with youth, teens, adults and families. We participate in our landscape, dive deeply into the rhythms of the natural world and follow the living skills left by ancestral peoples. We play games, run and hide. We use tools of steel, antler, wood and stone. We track the wild animals that infuse our surroundings. We seek a lifeway that embraces the future while honoring the past, to serve as stewards for future generations. We believe that community is grown slowly and organically through simple authentic human interactions. We hunt, forage, garden, compost, build structures, and run barefoot.
How has the Laughing Coyote Project developed over the years since its creation, and what are the joys and challenges of this work for you as individual and in the greater context of the world today?
The first day of Laughing Coyote Project started in the Fall of 2007 with five homeschool students. We now enroll about 40 students for our yearlong homeschool programs for both youth and teens, and have about 120 students that move through our vibrant summer camps and an eclectic workshop schedule. To be quite honest, we have been flying by the seat of our pants since day one. Neither of us took any business classes, I took a couple of education classes in college, but that is really the extent of it. We had a vision and we started making it happen. Student by student, day by day, year by year. Basically we are learning as we go and we would have it no other way. We absolutely LOVE what we do. We live and breathe Laughing Coyote and barely an hour passes in each day that Laughing Coyote is not mentioned. I would say that this is both joy and challenge, as sometime we get lost in this thriving, rolling story. Sometimes it feels like we are working 4 full time jobs: the administrative side, the teaching side, the farming side, and the family side. This is the life we have created for ourselves and it is a full one. The way I answer this question depends on the day you catch me. Today, things are looking up, but tomorrow, the overwhelm might be too much to bear. Bringing two young children into this vision has also been an interesting change, as I am now teaching less and spending more time raising our children. In the last year we have hired a full time instructor to teach alongside Neal and it has been an amazing experience to convey all that we do and how we do it and why we do it. It has helped us think more deeply and gain a better understanding of our constantly evolving vision.
Why do you feel the work that you do is essential and vital to the world today? (you may have already answered this in the first question! I am hoping to hear from you how and why you feel what you are teaching is of value and NEED in the world today! I certainly think it is vital learning – but would love to hear in your words why this may be so…)
“The Earth is our Mother, we must take care of her…” The best way to establish a relationship with anything, especially the earth that we live on, is to spend time with it, her. Over the years we have developed programs that facilitate a simple way to connect to the earth. We play games, running along the landscape, sliding down muddy banks, getting jabbed by Russian Olive thorns. We remember the skills of our ancestors: gathering willow along the pond to weave baskets, learning to start a fire so that we can keep ourselves warm, coal burning a spoon or a bowl. We are out in all weather, the only indoor space we have is a tipi, so the experience of the changing seasons is full on. This is the way Neal and I wish that we could have been educated, and so this is the way that we are trying to educate future generations. We want them to be at ease when they are outside, feel the freedom of being self-sufficient, trust their instincts, rely on their peer group, and find joy in remembering the past. Our world is moving so quickly and more and more time is spent indoors staring at a screen, whether it is a phone screen, computer screen, TV screen, it doesn’t matter. We all need to spend more time doing and less time observing others doing. We offer an antidote to the speed of the current state of the world. We are about living deeply engaged in our surroundings. For example, new students that join us usually learn make a fire within the first couple of weeks that they are out here. We start them in the present, they quickly master the match, then they learn the intricacies of flint and steel, and blowing a tinder bundle into flame; soon after that they learn the excruciatingly difficult skill of friction fire, many of our students spend years working on this. But it never gets old, because it is alive, they are working with living materials that are always changing, and their mood effect the outcome, the weather effects the materials. We are slowing everything down and empowering each person who steps foot on our land to allow themselves to be swept away by the power of nature and ancestral skills. For some that pass through Laughing Coyote, this way of living is interesting and may give them deeper perspective or assist them later it life, but it stops there. For others this opens up a whole new outlook on the world and changes their life forever. As educators both make us deeply happy.
You are a mama now! As you raise your children, what are some of your core values that you wish to share with them.
In our household this is a continuous conversation and it seems to change from day to day as we watch our children grow and change, and as our lives evolve and grow. I would say that currently we are working on very simple core values, which in the future we hope our children and our family will be able to live more elaborately. One of the most important things to both Neal and me that we feel quite strongly about is understanding where our food comes from. This is why at the dinner table our son Lutreo will often ask: “Mamma, are these carrots from our garden? Who gave us these potatoes? Is this bacon from Jamie’s pigs?” It is a continuous discussion about where things came from and what kind of animal it is from. “Is this meat from a steer or a bull?” We would have it no other way. We want our children to be asking these questions, to know the name of each famer, to plant the seeds in the garden, water them, weed them, watch them grow, harvest them and then eat them. Another wonderful quote: “Jake, thank you for this delicious sweet milk.” To us this is the best way to deeply understand the earth and all that she provides for us. We look forward to the day that our farm will provide us with almost everything that we need so that our children can directly be involved in the process. We also believe that children should be outside. So, that is what we do, we spend a lot of time outside with the kids, whether it is taking the goats on walks around the land, doing farm chores, hunting, foraging in the wilderness, splashing in our pond, putzing and working on a project. All weather, hot, cold, windy, wet, no matter what we are out there teaching our children that it is normal and if you are a little uncomfortable it is all going to be OK and we look forward to the days when our children can experience timeless hours of freedom, creativity, and exploration.
How do you think your education at SMWS shaped your current work and lifestyle today?
There is no doubt Shining Mountain influenced my life, as I spent thirteen of my 33 years playing in the playground, walking the pathways, and sitting in each classroom. The art, music, peer cohesiveness, questioning, wonder are all things I continue pursue and deeply appreciate in my adult life. I would say that though I had a bit of a rough ride in high school, the richness of the Waldorf education supported me in staying engaged. So, through questioning and pushing against the only educational system I had experienced I started to forge my own path and wind my way around to where I am today.
20 years ago, did you have any idea that you would be where you are today? If you could, what would you tell your high school self today?
I would probably say: The high school years are some of the most self absorbed years of your life. Make sure to not lose perspective. Do something meaningful for someone or an organization in the greater community, regularly, so that you remember how small you are in the scheme of things, but also how important each helping hand can be. It is impossible to not get caught up in peer pressure and peer group socializing, but make sure it is not all consuming. Balance it out by pursing things that inspire you, so that you don’t completely lose yourself. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you cannot do something, or that something cannot be done. That doesn’t mean close them out. Always listen to what others have to say and weigh all the different opinions, but be sure that you are not disregarding your heart and what you believe is true for you. Last of all, you never know what life is going to throw at you, so practice living each day fully and just make the best decisions that you can, because you can always change course and things usually have a way of working themselves out.