UNITY, Maine — Trevanna Grenfell dropped into a crouch, arranged her skirt so it wouldn’t get in her way and began the work of making a fire the old-fashioned way.
The really old-fashioned way, that is. Grenfell, 32, eschewed matches for a bit of stone-age technology, using a bow and spindle to create enough friction to drill a hole in the fireboard. As she spun the bow, her brother, Trevanion Grenfell, and his partner, Ali Palm, lifted their voices in a song meant to encourage the wisp of smoke that wafted up from the small pile of wood dust she was making. Long minutes later, when there was enough smoke, she placed the hot dust in a small nest of tinder she had on hand and started blowing on it, gently at first and then with more vigor.
As the singing came to a crescendo in the otherwise quiet forest around them, the tiny spark in the tinder began to smolder and catch. The Grenfell siblings smiled as they placed the glowing tinder into the kindling they’d arranged in the fire pit on the ground, looking forward to a smoky campfire that would keep away the blackflies and mosquitos. But they also were glad to have shown a bit of the skill and style that goes into Northwood Natural Learning, the educational business they started three years ago to help people to connect with nature, and, in the process, to support what they call “regenerative community.”
“Just making the fire isn’t enough,” Trevanion Grenfell, 30, said. “You’ve got to do it with singing and ceremony. We’re making a culture. That’s what we’re doing — we’re making a nature-connected culture.”
Beginnings in Maine
Trevanna and Trevanion Grenfell did not land in the woods of Unity by accident. Their parents were itinerant Methodist ministers and the family spent several years in the Waldo County town when the children were young. Even after they moved away, it has always felt like home to them. Trevanion came back to Maine to attend Unity College, where he studied biology and education, becoming a Maine state certified teacher before living for several years in the American Southwest. There, he lived for a time in a Navajo reservation in Arizona, working to support the indigenous elders. Then he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he taught at a democratic — or student-led — school.
“That was a really formative experience,” he said of his time in the Southwest.
Meanwhile, his older sister had studied conflict resolution in college and did international development work for awhile after graduation. She lived in Senegal for a year, and traveled around other African nations, studying local efforts to build community and heal after conflicts. But the work began to seem hollow.
“I realized that I was trying to address conflict,” Trevanna said. “But I thought it would be more effective if we started from the beginning and built communities that didn’t develop so much conflict.”
First, though, she had some work of her own to do. She started taking classes in traditional wilderness skills, striving to learn skills like building shelters, finding food in the woods, building fires and understanding the language of birds. In summer 2008, she and a boyfriend went to a patch of remote forest her family owned off Route 9 in the town of Beddington. They brought a tarp and a store of dried lentils and tried their best to live off the land. It was a rainy summer — “my clothes literally molded on my body,” she recalled — and the living wasn’t very easy. They built a shelter from birch bark, made a lot of tea from hemlock and balsam fir and even ate pine bark.
“Which is better than it sounds,” she said. “We really tried to be very minimalistic.”
They did make periodic trips back to civilization during their sojourn in the woods, and after several months, they left the land for good. Still, the experience was a good one for her.
“It was peaceful, despite the rain and the mosquitos,” she said.
After that summer, Trevanna — who had split up from her boyfriend — found work as the sustainability coordinator for the Bryant Pond 4-H Camp in western Maine. Then she moved to Colorado, where she worked for a group that studied the impact of wolves on mountain ecosystems. After that, she worked at a nature skills school in Boulder, Colorado, and then she began to feel pulled back home to Maine.
So, Trevanna and Trevanion, both of whom were living in the western mountains, talked about starting a program that would incorporate elements from what they had been doing: education, wilderness skills and community building.
“Why isn’t anyone trying this?” Trevanion remembers thinking.
They wanted to give it a go, and decided to do so in Unity.
Worthwhile balancing act
The town seemed like a natural fit for Northwood Natural Learning for several reasons. Most importantly, they were from here and still had connections with local folks. Through one of those connections, they learned about a property for sale that bordered miles of conserved land. Their mother, now a 67-year-old Maine guide based in Wells, decided to purchase this parcel, which she rents to her children. They settled in to the property that they call Paridae Grove after the Latin name for the family of birds that includes the chickadee and there, they started to develop the different programs that have become part of Northwood Natural Learning.
For adults, they offer evening and weekend workshops in subjects including how to harvest brown ash, wilderness first aid, bird identification and language, harvesting clay and making pottery with it, and more. For women and transgender people, there is “ The Wildwood Path,” a deep exploration of wilderness skills, naturalist knowledge and earth-based ceremonies, with meetings one weekend a month for nine months. For youth, there are summer camps, weekend workshops and a Friday all-season outdoor learning experience called Village Day that is intended to supplement home schooling, alternative or public school. Also, they are working on developing a two day a week, democratically run school with an academic component that will be called the Greenwood Community School.
It’s important to them that their programs be affordable, and so they offer a sliding scale or even, sometimes, barter with students who want to attend but aren’t able to pay money. And they are working on getting nonprofit status for Northwood Natural Learning so they can have more ability to accept donations.
“We grew up low-income in Waldo County,” Trevanion said. “It is a core value for us to make this accessible.”
The programs are becoming more and more popular, they said. Earlier in June, 100 people came to the closing ceremony for Village Day and the Wildwood Path has had 16 participants this year.
“They’re learning how to be whole people, and how to be right with their landscape and each other,” Trevanion said of the Village Day participants.
The students come from a mix of backgrounds, including mainstream families, conservative folks and hippie folks.
“It’s a balancing act,” Trevanna said. “We sing the songs, and some people are very uncomfortable with the singing. We skin animals, and some people are very uncomfortable with that.”
But it is a balancing act that is worth doing, they said.
“If we continue our isolated, nature-disconnected lifestyle, we’re not going to make it,” Trevanion said of the mainstream lifestyle in America. “Being part of a healthy, nature-connected community — that’s why we do this. That is the driving force behind all of this.”