The Uncivilize Podcast

Prairie Mountain Folk School - Greg Hennes

Photos: Greg Hennes via  Prairie Mountain Folk School

Photos: Greg Hennes via Prairie Mountain Folk School

You can take people who have virtually no experience, and at the end of it you have a building or a chair or a basket or a weaving ... There’s a beautiful thing at the end of it which has a story.
— Greg Hennes

My interview today is with Greg Hennes, the brainchild behind the newly launched Prairie Mountain Folk School, a center for folk education and traditional craft set amidst the breathtaking natural landscape of Joseph, Oregon. In this tiny, remote town (population: 1,089) tucked into the vast wilderness of the Wallowa Mountains and the Zumwalt Prairie, Hennes hopes to foster a community where people from all over the world can relearn the traditional crafts of our ancestors that are on the brink of extinction -- blacksmithing, weaving, spoon carving, even cabin building -- from the actual local craftspeople and artisans preserving this heritage.

In this episode, Greg guides us through the history of folk education and the makings of Prairie Mountain Folk School along with his other no-less-ambitious project, the Kickstarter-funded and artist-powered restoration of Joseph’s historic Jennings Hotel (warning: one click and you’ll be planning your next vacation). I for, one, loved hearing more about life in this stunning little-known corner of America, but was particularly moved by what Greg had to say about what is really driving the renewed interest (some might say fervor) toward traditional skills: namely, the deeply human need for real human interaction and community that’s missing from our modern world. 

Here’s the breakdown of our conversation: 

  • How Greg first came to folk and traditional craft education via Minnesota’s North House Folk School

  • The near 200-year-old history behind folk schools and N.F.S. Grundtvig

  • A childhood of tinkering: Building treehouses, igloos and BMX bike ramps

  • The path to Prairie Mountain Folk School

  • “Three really impressive and special ecosystems come together in this place”: Hell’s Canyon, the Wallowa Mountains and Zumwalt Prairie

  • The local folks of Joseph, OR: Self-sufficiency and a bootstraps attitude with a tightly knit community

  • “The skills were here”: ceramists, blacksmiths, saddle-makers and leather workers, loggers and sawyers and bowyers

  • The first round of Prairie Mountain Folk School classes: natural dyeing, blacksmithing, weaving, Japanese-style timber framing

  • Why Greg chose the nonprofit route: “I didn’t want to have any profit motive associated with giving people these opportunities”

  • From zero skills to learning to build a cabin

  • Creating something that has a story

  • Why folk education is important at this point in time: “It’s not just about stepping away from our screens”

  • The Prairie Mountain Folk School teachers

  • “You literally dig your face in the dirt”: Making wilderness perfume with Hall Newbigen

  • The romantic idea of living in a small town in the mountains versus the reality

  • The Kickstarter-funded Jennings Hotel: hotel + hostel + sauna + artist residency

  • Advice for learning about folk education / starting a folk school

  • Greg’s vision for the future

You can learn more about Greg’s work (or plan a visit) on the Prairie Mountain Folk School and Jennings Hotel websites. You can also connect with Greg via his gorgeous Instagram accounts: @greghennes, @thejenningshotel and @prairiemountainschool. Want to support Greg’s mission and learn more about the future of folk education? Subscribe to Greg's newsletter here

If you enjoyed this show, subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss the next one (and don’t forget to leave a rating and review). The theme music is by Paul Damian Hogan. Want to chime in on this episode or have an idea for a future show? Connect with me via my Instagram page, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Learn more about folk schools:

North House Folk School (MN)
John C. Campbell Folk School (NC)
Yestermorrow Design/Build School (VT)

Some of the teachers/artists mentioned on the show:

Tom Bonamici
Amber Jensen
Juniper Ridge wild harvested fragrance
Robert Maddox and Karie Reinertson of Shelter Collective in Asheville, OR

Honing the Urban Homestead - Erik Knutzen

Uncivilize Podcast Erik Knutzen.jpg
The point with what we do is not to be self-sufficient; I don’t like that word, actually. I think that’s a fool’s errand. We’re in community with each other.
— Erik Knutzen

As we hurtle toward a world of digital jobs and automated consumerism (hello, Instacart and Amazon Dash), we urbanites who long for a deeper connection to the natural world, to our food sources and to do something real with our own two hands that doesn’t involve the pushing of a button, often think the lifestyle choice has to be either-or: Either we sock those dreams away in the “one day” file and surrender to the economic leviathan of modern city life, or we leave the city (and our livelihoods) behind to pioneer a homestead somewhere out in the country. But seven years ago, Root Simple founders Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne delivered us an alternate path forward with the release of their bestselling book The Urban Homestead and seminal follow-up, Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World. From their hilltop bungalow set on 1/12 acre in Eastside Los Angeles, the pair sparked a DIY revolution -- bringing permaculture front yards, backyard chickens, wild-fermented beer and home-constructed milk crate dry toilets forever into the (almost) mainstream.

I’ve been following Erik and Kelly’s work here in LA for nearly a decade now, and was excited to have the opportunity to check in with Erik to hear how far he and Kelly have progressed on the path toward self-reliance, since the book’s release. But as so often happens in these interviews, what transpired turned out to be a much different conversation than the one I had anticipated. Erik and Kelly have faced some serious life circumstances in the past year, and as a result Erik came to our talk with some new truths to reveal about the realities of running an “urban homestead,” the fool’s errand of self-sufficiency, and the real importance of community.

Here’s more of what we dive into:

  • Erik’s co-founding of the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, slow-fermented sourdough and furthering a community of traditional bread baking in (gluten-phobic) LA

  • Milling your own flour, the KoMo Grain Mill, grain diversity and the history of Sonora wheat

  • His mother’s work as a crafts teacher, and his childhood of “making things”

  • Working with your hands as the antidote to our overly abstract, digital lives

  • Growing up in Southern California “back when the phone rang and there was no answering machine”

  • The origins of Erik and Kelly’s first blog and book, The Urban Homestead

  • Erik’s urban homesteading philosophy: “You don’t need to do everything. Pick something you like. Spend some time working with your hands. You don’t need a house; in fact, maybe it’s good not to have a house”

  • The reality of their urban “farm” and how to pare down/prioritize

  • Brussels sprouts frustration and why smaller vegetable gardens are better

  • The myth of self-sufficiency

  • Wasted space, the water crisis and the unintended consequences of short-sighted city planning

  • A virtual tour of Eric and Kelly’s bungalow homestead

  • Why you should throw a neighborhood cocktail party

  • Mom activism and the 1970s Stop de Kindermoord safe neighborhood movement

  • Natural beekeeping

  • What Erik and Kelly are growing now

  • How Erik “balances” life in LA

  • Dunkirk and digital media frustration: “Why am I seeding all this time to these tech bros in Silicon Valley who are profiting off of our distraction?’

  • Erik’s thoughts on the future: preparedness versus a doomsday mentality

  • Community and boxed macaroni and cheese

You can follow Erik’s (and wife Kelly’s) work and writing on the Root Simple website, connect with him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, check out the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, and tune into the bi-weekly Root Simple podcast here.

Erik’s books (permanent fixtures on my own bookshelf):


If you enjoyed this show, subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss the next one (and don’t forget to leave a rating and review). The theme music is by Paul Damian Hogan. Want to chime in on this episode or have an idea for a future show? Connect with me via my Instagram page, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Links from the show:

Good (bought) bread in LA: Lodge Bread, Seed Bakery, Clark Street Bread, Bub & Grandma’s
Chad Robertson
Neighbor Jennie Cook 
Natural beekeeper Kirk Anderson 
LA's bee rescue: The Backwards Beekeepers 
Pascal Baudar
Mia Wasilevich
Franchi Italian Seeds

Apprentice of the Wild - Sean Critchfield

sean critchfield uncivlize podcast.jpg
The city has become [the] survival environment, because if you don’t have money in a city, typically you perish. But in the woods, it’s all there; we’ve just forgotten how to listen and how to receive it.
— Sean Critchfield

When I first came up with the idea for the Uncivilize Podcast, I knew that my first interview had to be with veteran outdoorsman Sean Critchfield, lead instructor for the Wisdom Keepers School Apprentice of the Wild program here in Los Angeles, via which he teaches ancient and wilderness skills to more than 200 children, including my own two kiddos. My girls and I began taking Sean’s classes last spring (adults accompany younger students plus he teaches adult classes, too), and since then we can’t imagine life in LA without him. He has become a much beloved mentor as our family transitions from mere outdoor enthusiasts to people with a true outdoor skill set.

But it is also Sean who undoubtedly inspired this podcast, because he has opened up a world of possibility by doing what so many others in the wilderness / primitive skills movement wouldn’t dream of doing: choosing to reside in the midst of a megacity while he pursues a life immersed in the natural world and the fundamental skills of self-reliance. As a result of that seemingly paradoxical choice, he is not only living proof of the idea that nature is not, in fact, “somewhere else,” but an essential facet of the human existence with which we must all find a way to make our home; he has been able to share his knowledge with so many. 

Whether like me, you’re just entering the exciting world of plant identifying, animal tracking, fire making and shelter building and are overwhelmed about where to start, or you’re a veteran outdoorsperson struggling with navigating the realities of our hyper-modern world, I know you’ll appreciate the urban rewilding wisdom Sean brings to this interview. He’s also a gentle soul and a gifted storyteller (you should see this man hold rapt a dozen-plus otherwise rowdy kids in the woods), and I promise you’ll find yourself mesmerized by the profundity of his thoughts on nature, on learning, and on using the circumstances of our reality to more fully connect with the world around us, wherever that may be. 

Here’s what we delve into in this first episode:

  • Navigating urban life and finding pockets of beauty everywhere

  • Sean’s work on the East Coast with renowned forager Carmen Corradino: “I now look at the woods differently”

  • The city as the “survival” environment

  • Sean’s childhood as an Air Force brat and learning bushcraft skills from his father

  • Fly fishing, rock climbing, summit hiking, backpacking

  • How Sean came to primitive skills and wilderness survival

  • “I don’t care who you are; The more you learn, the less you know”

  • Modern learning versus ancient learning: Transference of ideas versus a transformation of lives

  • Becoming a Nevada Naturalist

  • The rabbit hole of interconnected skills and Sean’s advice for getting started

  • Meeting Chris Morasky and the importance of finding mentors

  • Why “the only perfect survival shelter is in a survival guide”

  • Learning to make a coal with a bow-drill fire kit (and what is a coal, anyway?)

  • “There is a presence that we’re unaware of that is demanding gratitude and respect”

  • Teaching wilderness skills to young kids and failure as a tool for learning

  • Why discomfort is OK

  • An encounter with angry wasps

  • The risks that come with nature versus accepted risks in the modern world

  • Rock climbing and accepting the circumstances of your reality

  • Why Sean lives in LA, Apprentice of the Wild and how he balances the natural and modern worlds

  • Sean’s thoughts on technology and his vision for the future: “It’s the only ending I see that works”

You can follow Sean’s work or check out his workshop/class offerings via the Apprentice of the Wild page on the Wisdomkeepers site, learn more at the Apprentice of the Wild Facebook page or reach out to Sean directly at apprenticeofthewild[at]gmail[dot]com. 

If you enjoyed this show, subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss the next one (and don’t forget to leave a rating and review). The theme music is by Paul Damian Hogan. Want to chime in on this episode or have an idea for a future show? Connect with me via my Instagram page, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Further reading/watching:

The Nevada Naturalist program
The California Naturalist program
Steven Pinker’s TED talk: The Surprising Decline in Violence