It is Monday morning, Memorial Day. Another Heartland Pagan Festival has come and gone.
At the moment I am sitting in the muddy nook I picked for a campsite, looking up at the canopy and wishing that my tent would simply put itself away, perhaps animated by a helpful djinn. My wife suggests that it’s better off that tents don’t do this; even a helpful tent-spirit might sometimes get the notion to pack itself away with us still inside.I do not hear her voice when she tells me this. I only see her words light up inside a box of glass and plastic. Right now she is standing a little under 7,000 miles away from Camp Gaea, far enough that we exist on different days of the calendar, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, looking at her own box of glass and plastic. In a few hours, she will board an airplane; tomorrow — at least as that word makes sense from my point of view — I will greet her at the airport, the first we have seen of each other in person (or better, in the flesh, a phrase that communicates that most holy of mammal delights, the touch of skin to skin) since Yuletide.
But that is tomorrow. For today, she and I remain words in glass to one another.
For me, the festival has been a lonely one. My campsite sits only a few feet from the spot where the members of my coven and our cousins have for years built a tiny neighborhood in the woods, but the village of tents did not appear in the meadow this year. Some had decided to try a pitching a tent in the merchants’ circle, some had joined the festival staff and needed to be closer to the main sites of action, and some — unfortunately, mainly our cousins, folks I only saw at Heartland — simply did not make it out to Gaea this year.
Which is not to say that the meadow lay empty, of course; other campers, looking for a fire pit and good drainage, set up camp. I made the acquaintance of many of them over the course of the weekend. Still, the melancholy rose within me as I walked through the new village. The meadow and the trees and the fire pit, all of these were the same as they have been for the 12 years I have been coming to this festival as an adult; doubtless they were much the same when I came here as a child, in the time before memory. But the spot itself and all it represents, the names we attached to it — Avalon in sobriety, the Isle of Misfit Toys in jest — these are functions of the people who gather there. At least this year, that particular gathering has moved on.
The leaves and branches sway above me. The shaking dance of green leaves and blue sky brings me to the edge of trance, but I stop short of it, thinking instead of something I heard Chas Clifton, who was one of the guests of the festival, said at his workshop on nature religion. Clifton said, in short, that we, as Pagans, could be doing much more to live up to the idea of being a “nature religion;” that we, by and large, miss out on a wide variety of knowledge about the land we live on and travel through that would deepen our experience of those places. (Of course, the notion of Paganism as de facto meaning “nature religion” has been challenged, but I think most folks who attend Heartland would consider “nature worship” to be a major part of their practice.) Many Pagans do know the lore of their locations: the knowledge of plants, soil, the water cycle, that make up the distinctive features of a given spot on the Earth.
But not me, I’m afraid. I love the trees that surround my campsite, and the rocky staircases that buttresses the trails down in Gaea’s low-lying areas, and even, sometimes, the dark mud after the inevitable Saturday morning thunderstorm. Of the soil series, the names of the leaves, even the question of where Gaea gets her water — a well, I think? — I must admit my ignorance.
I get up and, still not quite ready to take down the tent, head out of my nook and into the sunlight. I take this walk every Memorial Day. I consider it as fundamental a ritual as I have, a chance to say goodbye to this land that I have had a connection to, felt was, to some degree, mine. I walk down to the merchants’ circle, hug my friends, help take down one of the festival pavilions, sort a few piles of elbow joints and aluminum framing rods.
My final walk through Gaea does not quell the ball of alienation I have felt in the pit of me this weekend — not entirely, anyway — but at the same time, it does remind me of the reasons why I love Gaea, why she has remained my heart-land. I think back to something one of my uncles said at the fire Saturday night. We were watching the dancers, listening to the drums, feeling the cool air of midsummer at the edge of the fire. “It occurs to me,” my uncle said, “that for better or worse, these are the people I’ve devoted the better part of my life to. To this vision of America. To think that it exists at all, and in Kansas, of all places.” He smiled at me. “Any version of America where this allowed to exist has to be a pretty wonderful place.”
He’s right, about all of that. It is a wonderful place, and a wonderful, if passing, vision of a better world. Not a perfect one, of course, and populated by imperfect people including me, who despite coming here for longer than memory, still does not know the trees. It does not salve all wounds to be surrounded by other Pagans, even on Pagan land, but even when I feel alone here, I still feel at home. Perhaps that, more than simple laziness, explains my continued reluctance to take down my tent.
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