Summerland Spirit Festival 2011: The Initiation of a Community

The real world almost feels a bit surreal today after spending the last ten days at the inaugural year of Summerland Spirit Festival.  Throughout the Festival, we endured blistering heat, high winds, floods, and the loss of many of our shelters.  But instead of all of this tearing the fledgling community apart, it forged a depth of friendship, trust, and camaraderie that was described by many as “miraculous.” The birth of the Summerland Spirit Festival community was at times hysterically funny, inspirational, educational, peaceful, beautiful, and it even had a moment of tragedy.  It was one of those times that will be remembered for a long time to come by all who were there.


The Journey Begins

It was pointed out to me while we were sitting around the campfire that it had been almost nine months to the day from the initial conception of Summerland Spirit Festival while gathering together in my basement last October, to the gates of the Festival opening receive attendees.  In many ways this nine-month process has been like the gestation and birth of a new entity with all of the fears, hopes, dreams, pain, and joy that come with it.

Over those nine months, many people donated an immense amount of talent, time, money, and effort to create all of the Festival infrastructure, including tiki torches, workshop shelters, transportation carts (aka “frankencarts”), ritual materials, artwork, a website, signs, and the merchant area.  The degree to which so many people rallied to help manifest the vision for a new festival was nothing short of amazing.  We ended up with registrants from nine different states, and even other countries.  We even had a woman from Afghanistan register for the Festival.


Initiation by Fire

The first couple days of the Festival were hot.  Really hot. Between the heat and humidity, the heat index was over 100˚.  To keep ourselves cool, many strolled down to the stream.  One of the nice features of the stream was that there was a wide shallow ford where the water was only about a foot deep.  This made it a safe place for kids to play as well as for the adults to hang out.  The creek was full of fish… thousands of them.  And for some reason, they really seemed to like to hang out with people.  So each person had an entourage of hundreds of tiny sunfish swarming around them.  Every once in a while, you could feel their light touch as they bumped into you.  Pretty awesome.

We had the added benefit of a lodge with thick walls of stone.  The temperature was at least 10˚ cooler there.  There were large coolers of ice water, lemonade, and “Arnold Palmers” that were continuously consumed and refilled.  The bar in the lodge also sold awesome three-scoop waffle ice cream cones for $2.  After doing the math, I think I consumed about 20 of them during my time there.  Although they weren’t particularly good for my diet, they sure fed my soul.

The shower house was a popular place to cool off.  The hose outside was connected directly to a deep sandstone well, so the water came out crystal clear and ice cold.  It is amazing how quickly running cold water over your head and arms can cool you down on a hot day.


Initiation by Earth

There were many rituals at Summerland Spirit Festival, which revived the spirit of the festivants and unified everyone in attendance.  The first night, for example, immediately following a very moving ritual honoring each person, resounding drums and the coming together of the Divine Masculine and Feminine charged the entire Festival and restored energy to the Earth in recognition of the many gifts She gives us.  The power there set the stage for the rest of the Festival’s rituals.  In a mid-week ritual, each person helped craft a compostable mud and clay elemental sculpture to be buried on site, giving blessings to the Earth and the Summerland Spirit Festival site.  Other rituals honored the primordial Deities and ancestors of the land, planted seeds of gratitude for our own blessings, or recognized the male and female power of each person.  To cap the week, one of the most esteemed elders of our community was honored.  Time and again, we heard comments from festivants indicating how powerful and emotionally moving the rituals were, and how much they fed the soul of those attending.


Initiation by Wind

Late Sunday night, we began to see an intense show of lightening on the horizon, and it appeared to be moving our way.  Several of us quickly jumped on the internet to look at the weather radar.  Very high sustained winds were on their way and would hit us in about 20 minutes.  It was about midnight as several of us sat around looking at the incoming weather.  One of our festivants received a text from a friend in the Twin Cities who told her that the approaching storm was intense.  So we made the decision to go around the camp and make sure everyone got safely into the lodge.

A handful of us split up and went to every tent waking people up with a warning that severe weather would be arriving in about 15 minutes.  The winds began to really pick up just as the last few people trickled into the lodge.  Over the next three hours, the storm was fantastic.  A carport that had been cinched to the ground was lifted almost 50 feet into the air and hurled over a hundred yards.  Two of our three workshop shelters, which were made from thick steel pipe, were crushed by the wind.  Miraculously, not a single person was hurt during that storm.



Inside the lodge, the food vendors made fresh coffee and brought out muffins for everyone.  A fire was built in the massive stone fireplace to help people dry off and the four former members of the Dunn County Clerics jumped up on stage and began playing music for everyone.  I don’t think that the previous members of the Dunn County Clerics ever thought they would be kicking off a reunion tour under such unusual circumstances.  In the end, everyone was safe, warm, fed, and entertained as the storm passed through.

On Tuesday, one of the attendees approached me and asked me if she could organize a fundraiser for us.  Her idea was to have the women sponsor the men to have their toenails painted and have a contest to see which man has the best painted toe nails.  I have to admit that the idea struck me as a bit odd, but I figured “What the heck?  Why not?” It seemed like it would be a pretty low-key event that would be fun and different.


Fast forward to three hours later and the contest is about to begin.  Every man on the grounds, including the owner of the property, are garbed in kilts, bras, scarves, and those jingly things that belly dancers wear around their waists.  Toenails are painted, fingernails are painted, and the men have even come up with their stage names, like “Sugar Thighs,” “Coco Bear,” and “The Python.”  One by one, the men strutted out on stage and did their best PG-13 “erotic” dance routine in front of a hundred screaming women who were rushing up to stick dollar bills into whatever clothing they could find.  By the end, the men had raised over $400, and everyone said that they could not remember the last time they laughed so hard.  One woman stated that, “It was not the men putting on the wonderful show that was beautiful, but the camaraderie that was being created among the men that was beautiful to see.” 


The next day it was the women’s turn.  Wednesday was turned into “Wenchday” where the men could sponsor a women to be their “wench.”  The job of the wench was essentially to serve and entertain the men for two hours after the evening community ritual.  So, from 9:00 until 11:00, the men were fed grapes, told witty stories, received shoulder rubs, were brought drinks, and had the polish scrubbed off their toes. One man had his wife sit and smoke a cigarette and rest as his wench because she had been working so hard at the festival and didn’t want her to wait on him. By the end of the night, the women had raised over $500 in tips.  One of the women commented that “this was a hell of a lot more fun than a silent auction!”


Initiation by Water

All I can say is that it is very different being in a flash flood than watching one on television.  About 3:30 am on Saturday morning, I was awakened by lightning and thunder.  I pulled myself out of bed and opened up the zipper on the tent to take a peek at the western sky.  “Wow!” I thought to myself as I watched another spectacular show of lightning approach.  I walked up to the lodge and jumped on the internet to check the weather.  Another front was moving in, but it didn’t look like that big of a deal.  There weren’t supposed to be any high winds, which was a relief, but I decided to stay up at the lodge until the front moved through just in case.

By 3:45 am, the rains started.  They slowly gained in intensity, and by 4:00 am the rain was falling at a rate that I had never seen before ... and it stayed that way… for almost two hours solid.

By 4:30 am, the creek was starting to rise quickly, and the call was made to get everyone out of their tents and up to the lodge.  By the time we reached the tents closest to the creek, the water had washed over the banks and the tents were about ankle deep in water.


By 5:00 am, the stream had washed away a section of the footbridge that crossed it and was rushing through a section of the Festival site like a river.  By 6:00 amwhen the rain finally stopped, the water was knee deep in some areas and the creek was an intense series of rapids.

At 6:30 am, a crew of men and women strung a rope between the remaining section of bridge and a tree on the other side.  In a feat of heroism, a couple of men entered the rushing water while holding onto the rope, in an effort to get everyone across to safety.  One by one, kids from the far side of the creek grabbed hold of the men who brought them across to safety.  Eleven people were brought across in all.

As it turns out, we received four inches of rain in two hours.  The last time that that creek had flooded like that was more than a hundred years ago.  But, as with all the other events, everyone was in good spirits and just talked about what an amazing experience the whole thing was.  The cooks put out some breakfast to feed everyone, and a fire was built to help everyone dry out a second time.


The Forging of a Community Spirit

I have to be honest.  During most of the bizarre weather we experienced, I felt bad for the people who attended the Festival.  I couldn’t help but feel like the Festival was a failure and that people didn’t have a good time.  But early in the morning during the flood, someone walked up to me and said, “Do you know how lucky we are?” I just looked at him for a moment.  “We have just been initiated by all of the elements of the land, and we have pulled together as one strong community.  The land and the Festival are now ours.”

Once Sunday rolled around and people began to pack up to leave, the one sentiment that was shared over and over again was how incredible the experience was for people.  Almost to a person, people said that not only would they be back next year, but they would bring their friends.  More than a few people even shed a tear as they left.

It is true that sometimes difficulty can lead to the forging of a community as long as everyone participates in the spirit of love.  Every year that passes hence, people will gather around the fire at Summerland Spirit Festival and talk about the feats that we accomplished this first year.  They will tell the story about how 120 people, many of whom had never met, came together in a spirit of community and forged friendships that will last for a lifetime.