Harmony Tribe’s Sacred Harvest Festival 2021: Notes from the Field

  • This was both a new experience and a homecoming for me. During my dissertation research years, Harmony Tribe welcomed me to their fest for years to interview people, take photos, observe and participate in rituals, and drink myself stupid without letting my grad committee know. I also cultivated some of the greatest friendships, support, and the best possible community during those difficult years. Riding with Bonnie into Achingtan Nature Center introduced me to a new sacred landscape to grow with and know; seeing Pagan after Pagan, person after person whose eyes lit up when I approached them after years of being away was a healing magic I didn’t even realize I needed. http://harmonytribe.org/content/sacred-harvest-festival-2021 http://www.atchingtan.org/
  • Pagans camp at their religious/fellowship festivals. Or glamp. But the shelter goes up, the clothes come off, and the outside-the-fest worries of the world are buried in the sacred soil for a while. (I have a suntan where the sun don’t shine.) Many phrases have been used over the decades to define our temporary Pagan sanctuary land in contrast to the “outside world” or “regular society”. This year’s? Stupid Pants World. As in, “I need to go into Stupid Pants World to pick up bottled water and batteries, anyone need anything?”
  • I actually was invited back to SHF as a guest speaker. Two years ago, Harmony Tribe asked if I would present workshops on the latest anthro know on our own Pagan community. I had them ready to go, but COVID cancelled the fest last year. The subjects I chose had some time to marinate over the year, and I think were better for the audiences that arrived as a result. My research partner Velvet Caponi and I filled folks in on the grant funded work we have been doing, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. My other discussions engaged multi-generational community. Seriously, this is a big deal. There was a time not long ago when Pagan fests were pretty much a Baby Boomer affair with a few precocious GenXers (like me) wandering around. Our fests now filled with the children and grandchildren of said Boomers, raised Pagan, and are now interwoven cultural spaces of Boomers, GenXers, Millennials and GenZers all spending time in sacred space on sacred land altogether to learn. And to my heart’s delight, to learn from each other.
  • The whole fest was a beautiful justification for all the anthropological work I’ve spent my career doing — and frankly, on the life I’ve chosen to live. Aeona, a dear friend and very wise elder in the community, put decades-old paper periodicals and ephemera in the fundraising auction — we’re talking indie and home press rags from the 70s, 80s and 90s — and watching the younger folks literally fall over each other to win them was a glorious sight. Bryan, a new Millennial Pagan friend turned to me and said: We all want to know this history. We want to read this stuff. We just don’t know how to get it… And there it was — Pagan culture. It took living through a few generations, and weathering community crises, but it’s here. And everyone wants to live it, preserve it and pass it down. And now we all know what’s really important to pass on.
  • I didn’t realize how much I missed kissing people and being kissed. Good gods. I know how much we all missed hugging — and boy, we were all hugging here — but I kissed a WHOLE lotta people. it was like I was everyone’s Italian aunt for a week. Smooches on cheeks of folks I hadn’t seen in years, the motherly pecks from Momhen Lou, a whiskey-tinged lingering kissing under a waxing moon with the fire and drums in the distance… Man!

And to really explain the Pagan Fest experience to people can be anywhere from overly analytical to an exercise in watching words fail… but I’ll try anyway. There is a magic that certainly happens in ritual, but also magic that happens in fleeting moments during the course of a week, away from Stupid Pants World…

  • We stood, clad in white and red, eighteen of us, and called the fifty names of Marduk under the widening night sky. The firelight on everyone’s white dresses and bare skin turned us all into angels for a time. The papier-mache head of the dragon of destruction was laid on the fire, and a column of flame cleaned us of all our pain and darkness. And no one moved. We could. We could leave. There wasn’t a need to stay. But we all stood in beautiful silence, Nels even said, the rite has ended… We knew. We still didn’t want to leave. The moment of pure holy light was too beautiful to wander from…
  • We all sat transfixed in the dark, illuminated only with a buglight chandelier, during Bardic Circle as Irish Mike told us a story of how his Civil War reenactment group worked with the Make a Wish Foundation to help send a Civil War-loving child back in time to help Santa Claus deliver a gift to a Union army drummer boy he’d forgotten (his phrase: I make it 1862 every month, sir. Can you make a time machine?)… His regaling of how this group walked and rode through winter fog on Christmas Eve, bringing this child to a fully outfitted, historically accurate Union encampment, maintaining a magical illusion to make this young boy’s dream a reality, was a magic in and of itself… punctuated not only by Irish Mike’s remarkable voice, but by the smoke and sizzle of moths flying into the buglight chandelier…
  • I sang at the talent show. People liked it. I remembered who I was.
  • A circle of us Witches from Minnesota, Illinois, North Dakota, sat under a cloudy sky with a nearly full amber moon rolling in and out of view, cackling about the ins and outs of doing the work of community, of life changes, of how the work of Witchcraft keeps you young… and that sometimes it’s enough to just be beautiful and subversive…
  • The rangoli — a circle of spice and pigment and prayers meant to be danced into the earth and air — was full of light and people and spirits. We sang for love and rain and blessings and for the Phoenix to rise; we clamored for 2020 to burn away. (And you can always spot the Fire Circlers in a rangoli — we’re the ones walking the other way, holding space, banging on tent poles for percussion, and singing Peter Gabriel and Robbie Robertson songs rather than Pagan chants.) And as I pulled away to sip a shot of spirit and make magic of another kind, a downpour of merciful rain hit the thirsty fields of Achingtan. Surely, this would dampen the ritual… Nope. We are Pagans, People of the Earth. And the rangoli goes to sunup. The drummers stayed under the tent and pounded, and there were beautiful naked, rain soaked, mud caked holy people still working the rangoli all night… and in the later morning, not a single puddle. The land finally drank…
  • My first foray into Paganism came after running from toxic family and finding community with the first grownup Witches I knew at Back at the Source Coffee Shop in Rockford, Illinois, back when I was in undergrad in the early 90s. It was a place to shop for witchy stuff, get readings, attend AA meetings, hang with your Rainbow community and Pagan hippie friends; a place where all the Stateline area wingnuts hung out. On my second or third trip to the Source, there was a red-haired massage therapist named Gina who had her chair outside, and who was giving massage sessions for free will donations. I freely donated and got a massage then… so now I’m at SHF 2021, and who do I see setting up a vendor booth but Gina. Now a master’s candidate in Ed, and with hair still as red as ever, and I tumbled back in time when I saw her. It helped that Gina hasn’t aged a day… and we hugged, knowing that Pagan community bonds may not always be tight, but they sure can be long-lived…
  • Little four-year-old Aurora doing downward dog pose in the middle of the Harmony Tribe kitchen, then crawling up to you pretending to be a wolf. Alex becoming a man of the community staff in hand, in the embrace of other men, and taking the new name, Owl, as his mother tearfully looked on. David and Lewis schlepping water and running errands for campers needing help without being asked. Jaz and Jada helping me corral three four-year-old girls that I never should have been in charge of to keep them from running off (act like it’s a game, Jaz said, that usually works. Clearly, I didn’t get it.) Pagan kids play. You know, not video game play – play! And the raised-as-Pagan kids are holding their traditions lightly, unlike their convert forebears. They aren’t afraid of losing who they have always been. And they were an inspiration to watch.
  • Aurora also called the wind gods when the temperature got so hot outside — and they came, blowing down the shelters of Harmony Tribe’s kitchen…
  • Whiskey and tantra: If that’s not a thing, it should be.
  • Bryan Beast and I will have a Pagan podcast within the year. Generational conversation. I’ll be looking for a Baby Boomer Pagan who likes to talk on air and to young folks. We’ll be looking for a GenZer eventually, too. He’ll do production. I will do guest rustling. Stay tuned.
  • Pagans camp in tents (though many got blown around this year in the winds of Achingtan); Pagans are camping more and more in trailers (so many glommed together this year that it was called Pagan Trailer Trash Park in one corner)… But the builder of these things showed up in his… and of course we are all dreaming of a village of these now… (not one for me yet, alas– I am carless, starless and bible black) … http://oakhengevardo.com/
  • This year’s theme was Surviving and Thriving: The Year of the Phoenix. The clay beads we wore, a gift for attending the festival, were eggs carved with the image of a baby phoenix cracking out of it, and they were fired in the community sacred fire. The phoenix from the ashes was a theme showing up at a lot of Pagan events this year… The risen Osiris, the return of Persephone, the grain god, the reborn king, the alchemical gold, the rose in the retort… there was certainly a celebration of being reborn, but also here, an acknowledgement of how much we burned last year, broke down, emptied out. We raised a glass to those we lost last year, as well as to our own survival. And all the kind of petty-ass bullshit that tended to plague Pagan community in the past just was not there at all this year. It simply got burned out of us. We have no time for that shit anymore.

And unless you were there you will never understand…

  • Long necked monkeys!
  • Put some butter on it.
  • Birds are assholes.
  • Kevin. Calvin. Kendall. Kelvin. Carl… His name is Kelden, already!

And leave it to magic to inspire Brian Henke to write a song at the fest, not just about the buglight chandelier, but the newly named Buglight Ballroom — and watching silhouettes of people dancing and swaying to it during an encore at his concert, under the full moon, his voice and guitar echoing across the field…

I’m not gonna stay away anymore, no matter how broke I am. My heart healed. My body celebrated. My life and path were honored. I love my people. I came home.

Next year’s theme is the Waters of Life… http://harmonytribe.org/content/sacred-harvest-festival-2022-new-dates

(Great! More whiskey…)

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