Archives For Eugene

The fact that it was the spring equinox did not occur to me at first. I was drawn out of my house by the rare March sun, and was immediately and utterly transfixed by a vibrant downtown which had suddenly come alive after several months’ worth of of gloomy weather. As I stood there, soaking up the sun and the atmosphere, I heard the familiar yell in the distance, and when I turned around I saw John Brewster coming around the corner on his bicycle, uttering yet another variation of his trademark line:

“I love America and I love the sunshine and I love freedom of speech, but LTD can lick my sweaty, shaven….”

Spring has arrived, I thought to myself. The locals are officially no longer in hibernation.

John Brewster (aka "LTD guy")

John Brewster (aka “LTD guy”)

In a town well known for its eccentric and colorful residents, John Brewster is one of a handful of figures who stand out even amongst Eugene’s characteristically odd landscape. Better known as the “LTD Guy”, Brewster has been riding around downtown screaming about his nether regions for well over a decade now, often while dressed in flamboyant costumes. Brewster’s tirades against the Lane Transit District have earned him a certain degree of notoriety, and he has achieved a local cult status with an accompanying fan club. Many people cheer him on as he passes by, while others roll their eyes in annoyance or ignore him outright. In the warmer months, Brewster can often be spotted on a daily basis, sometimes several times over the course of a sunny afternoon.

Brewster’s story and history has been profiled in local media and he has even been the subject of a student documentary, and yet most people in the community who see him on any given day still don’t know what he’s so angry about. They laugh, they make small conversation, they note the differences over time in his costume or his script, but the point of his rant or the history behind it is lost on them for the most part. It’s evident from the way that most people react to Brewster that the story behind his anger is not nearly as significant or meaningful to them as the spectacle that is Brewster himself.

John Brewster is one of Eugene’s (mostly) celebrated outsiders, and in the minds of many, the community’s enthusiastic embrace of such figures demonstrates our local values in action, the idea that Eugene is an inclusive community that accepts everyone despite their quirks. But while so many cheer on and support these eccentric local celebrities as a testament to the idea of radical inclusion, what so many fail to recognize is the fact that the circumstances surrounding their notoriety are a result of systematic exclusion policies, policies which seemingly stand in stark contrast to the ideas and values around inclusivity. In embracing the spectacle of the person rather than their actual story, the community can feel good about accepting people of all stripes while conveniently failing to acknowledge the widespread practices that result in such ‘outsider’ status in the first place.

In Brewster’s case, a fight with a bus driver many years ago over whether he could bring his bicycle on the bus resulted in a permanent ban from the LTD bus system, and absent any accessible method of recourse, Brewster has aired his grudges very publicly and theatrically ever since. He is one of a countless number of people who have been banned from the bus system, the vast majority of them homeless and/or mentally ill. And while his theatrics are often embraced, supported, and laughed at, the serious plight of Brewster and so many others is routinely dismissed and ignored. Brewster makes me smile as well, but behind the humor I recognize the dark truths that motivate his actions.

When I saw Brewster ride by on that unusually sunny equinox day, my thoughts immediately went to Glassbar Island, where I’ve seen Brewster sunning himself many times over the last several years. Unlike the theatrical character I often encounter downtown, out at Glassbar he’s not riding around screaming about anything at all. He’s simply one of the regulars, one of many stewards of the land who contribute to the unique character of the hidden little island at the edge of town, a place where outsiders like Brewster go to get away from it all.

Satellite image of Glassbar Island

Satellite image of Glassbar Island.

Situated on the confluence of the Coast Fork and Middle Fork of the Willamette River, Glassbar Island was originally known as “Bring Beach” due to the island’s location behind the old Bring Recycling facility, which sat on a county-owned parcel just outside the city limits. For over fifty years now, Glassbar Island has served as a hideaway of sorts for various people, groups, and activities that are not always accepted by the mainstream community. The island first gained a reputation as a nude swimming-hole in the ‘60s, later gained notoriety as a cruising spot in the ‘80s and ‘90s, has served as a sanctuary for the homeless throughout its history, and in the past decade has become recognized by scientists and botanists for its biological diversity and gained a reputation as an ideal spot for nature identification walks. Today, the island is mostly known as a spot for nude sunbathing, but folks of many different stripes not only peacefully co-exist on the island but also cooperatively maintain and care for the area.

Glassbar functions as a self-policing autonomous zone of sorts, publicly-owned yet left to its own devices. The island is open and welcoming to all, provided that one respects a code of behavior that is best described as mutual respect, cooperation, discretion, and leaving no trace. More often than not, I’ve found myself to be the only one on the island who is neither homeless nor naked, and yet I have always felt completely welcome in this community of outsiders. I fall into another category of respectful visitors: those who simply find the place enchanting and otherworldly.

Coyote tracks found at Glassbar Island

Coyote tracks found at Glassbar Island.

The otherworldly aspects of Glassbar Island are not limited to what is found on the island itself. Getting there is often an adventure plucked straight out of a fairy-tale. In the spring and summer months, the Coast Fork dips low enough that one can easily walk across an ankle-deep natural land bridge to the island. During the rainy season, however, the river has been known to crest at well over twelve feet, cutting off island access to everyone except experienced boaters. While my own local sign that spring has arrived is the spotting of John Brewster, the true sign of spring for the close-knit Glassbar community is the day the river dips low enough to safely wade over.

Even when the river is safe to cross, access is still limited to those “in the know”. For an untold number of years, most people accessed the island from a county-owned parcel that led to the low point of the river, until last year when the County shut off access, citing environmental and safety concerns. The parcel was gated and fenced to keep the Glassbar community out, and according to both the county and the state, the island is designated “river access only”, meaning it is only legally accessible by boat. This has not deterred the regulars, as there are numerous entrance points throughout the adjacent properties that all lead to the river. Those entrances are not easy to find, however, and the lack of knowledge around the current access points has only added to the island’s mystique. In its present state, it is not only an island of outsiders, but of outlaws as well: one must break the law to access it on foot. The island is still public and open to all, but every person who fords the river to the island has committed an act of criminal trespass.

There are many angles to the controversy over restricting land access to the island, but remembering John Brewster’s association with Glassbar always brings me back to the politics of inclusion and exclusion, especially in light of the County’s hyperbolic excuses for closing the parcel. County officials publicly cited problems with prostitution, drugs, and sex trafficking in justifying their actions without offering any evidence to back the allegations, and in response the media outlets and private citizens alike alluded to the presence of nude sunbathers, homeless people, and the gay community as the potential sources of those problems. And while the county’s claims were mostly refuted or disproven by the Glassbar community as well as area residents, the fences went up nonetheless and the voices of opposition were drowned out.

No trespassing gate.

No trespassing gate.

The idea that law and policy has created yet one more restriction on where the John Brewsters of the world are allowed to exist troubles me not only on an ethical level, but on a deep spiritual level as well. Scare tactics were used to defend actions that in the end only served as an attempt to further exclude the already marginalized amongst us, and the interconnectedness between the island itself and the community that interacts with and tends to it was completely disregarded in the equation. Among many other things, it was never considered that the island itself greatly benefits from the community and the stewardship that the Glassbar community provides. To say that the relationship is reciprocal would be putting it mildly.

Glassbar path

Glassbar path

As I stood downtown on that sunny equinox day, watching John Brewster ride past me as my thoughts drifted to Glassbar, I felt an immediate pull to head out to the island myself, something I’ve never attempted so early in the season. I had spent much of the winter ruminating on the ways that community, exclusion, and perception interact in and with this specific place that is Eugene, and Glassbar contains and expresses each of those elements more concretely than any other singular place I know of here. And at that moment, heading out to the island seemed more of a directive than anything else, a directive that I was determined to fulfill despite the fact that the river was reported to be nearly three feet high at the crossing.

With the sun holding out, a few days later I set out towards the island with two friends, neither who had ever experienced our destination before. And despite setting out with explorative intentions and a focus on exclusion, my initial reasons for the trip evaporated as we were immediately caught up in the area’s magic. From the moment we stepped upon the initial path beneath the trestle that leads out the abandoned haul road, which we followed for a mile to the river crossing in order to trek across the river itself, I felt myself moving in and through a world completely out of place and time, anchored only by the constant reminder that I was supposedly acting as a navigator for my companions. We took off our boots and set out to ford the river, and although I am usually nervous and wary around rivers, the numinous aspects of our surroundings and the otherworldliness of the moment completely drowned out my anxiety. As I stood in the middle of the Willamette, thigh-high in rushing water, my feet grasping for the next river stone in front of me as I tried desperately not to fall, a message came through to me loud and clear, a message that came straight from the river itself:

Do not focus on exclusion so much that you miss the enchantment.

My fellow adventurer crossing the river behind me.

My fellow adventurer crossing the river behind me.

And the enchantment swept over me, midway across the river. As soon as we made it across to the island itself, another friend of mine spotted us and immediately took on a tour guide role, taking us around the island while explaining the history and landscape to my companions. I followed closely, trying to pay attention, trying to process what was occurring in the moment, but I kept slipping away despite my best intentions. Space and boundaries blurred as I walked on, and the more I tried to revisit my original purpose, the more I slipped into the otherworld that lay before me. I always felt welcome on this island of outsiders, but I also have always felt as an outsider myself. This time, I felt a part of the island’s dance, pulled in and transfixed by its numinosity. By the time we had reached the other end of the island, several hours had gone by in what seemed like mere moments. As I stepped in the river to cross back, the feeling of inclusiveness and belonging held me up in one sense, as the physical presence of a friend held me up in the literal sense.

The following day, I walked towards downtown with the ideas of inclusion and enchantment floating around in my brain, and John Brewster came around the corner once again like clockwork. I watched as a group of college students interacted with him, and I thought back to the message I received in the river. Do not focus on exclusion so much that you miss the enchantment. The students were laughing as they spoke to him, obviously enchanted in the moment. The policies and forces that create outsiders like Brewster are often unjustified and contradictory to the stated values of this community, but that does not cancel out the power and the beauty of the community’s embrace of such characters, nor does it weaken the effect that these outsiders can have upon the people around them and the everyday nature of a given place. Despite his exclusion, John Brewster interacts within a place where he feels like he belongs, and he is a part of the dance of this community just as much as I felt a part of the dance of the island. Brewster’s presence is a tragedy of sorts, but his presence is also a gift.

The rains came back in a few days ago, and the Coast Fork is slated to crest at ten feet in the next day or two, once again cutting off access to Glassbar Island. Our island trek the week before suddenly seems like a faraway dream, and knowing that our visit occurred in what turned out to be a small window of accessibility only adds to the mysticality of the experience. The county may not be able to successfully block off access to Glassbar Island, but the river itself can achieve that task without issue. And a community of outsiders will wait patiently until they can cross at the ford once again.

[The following is a guest post by Zay Eleanor Watersong. Zay Eleanor Watersong is a teacher in the Reclaiming Tradition of Witchcraft, community organizer, and law student.  She got her start in Reclaiming with the Ithaca Reclaiming Collective and the Pagan Cluster, sharing priestessing roles in Pagan circles internationally and Reclaiming circles nationwide since 2003.]

“Anthro-arrogance is not an option,” stated one of the law student organizers for the 2014 Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) at the University of Oregon in Eugene as they opened the conference on February 27.  “This conference, this planet, expects action.”

PIELC-Website-Banner-1024x332

University of Oregon students took this to heart and continued a long history of protest at the conference with a 100-person walkout shortly thereafter during one of the keynote addresses, protesting the speaker’s anti-transgender stance.  It was an interesting echo of the controversy at PantheaCon in 2012.  Hopefully PIELC too will learn from the experience.

photo (1)This conference, now in its 32nd year, has a long history of bringing together legal scholars, lawyers, activists and organizers to discuss the pressing issues of the day and weave synergistic relationships to address them. It brings together so many who are working at the leading edge, whether in blockades or in the courtroom, to protect the earth which we hold sacred.  There is a deep magic in being able to see the web of laws and policies that hold the current system in place, and seeing the points where if we push just a little bit, things can shift.  Practicing law and practicing spellwork are not that different.

This year’s theme was “Running In to Running Out”.  It could be easy to come away depressed by power of the oil and gas industry, which is extracting resources as fast as it can and using more and more extreme ways to do so, with absolutely no consideration for the impacts on the environment, and very little reigning in by the government.  In fact, it turns out this industry is exempt from most of our environmental laws. And as former NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen explained, if the oil and gas industry is allowed to extract and burn all that they wish to, we are looking at a 6° C increase in global temperature, blowing past the 2* C limit that scientists and governments worldwide have agreed is the absolute upper limit to prevent catastrophic climate change.  What was that we were saying about anthro-arrogance?

There is no doubt we are already feeling the impacts of climate change. Dr. Jane Lubchenco, former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, put the current situation into perspective with a baseball analogy: “A player taking steroids increases the chances of more and bigger home runs.  You can’t point to any one home run as caused by steroids but overall, you know where the credit lies.  The climate is on steroids now.”  The weather is getting more extreme, more frequently.

"Outlaw party" during PIELC.

“Outlaw party” during PIELC.

Yet, the conference was a testament to the deep hope and commitment to action of the environmental movement.  The camaraderie and energy was palpable at the “Outlaw Party” thrown on the outskirts of Eugene by the Cascadia Forest Defense, where anarchists, organizers, and lawyers alike danced our love of the earth in the mud and rain to excellent bluegrass and let our primal nature run free around a rather spectacular effigy.  As the Pagan Cluster and Free Cascadia Witchcamp know, a little bit of ritual goes a long way towards feeding the soul and avoiding activist burnout.  These direct action activists -such as the 398 arrested at the White House on Saturday protesting the Keystone XL pipeline- who put their bodies and freedom on the line to make a statement about the failure of the administrative process deserve our thanks, and our spiritual support.

Just as important are the lawyers, advocates, and citizens that watchdog the bureaucracy, read and digest long tomes of environmental impact statements, and spend their days paperwrenching with public comments and lawsuits.  Theirs is an effort of endurance, particularly when environmental laws no longer protect the environment.

Mary Christina Wood

Mary Christina Wood

“At every level, agencies have turned environmental law inside out,” explained Mary Christina Wood, professor at the University of Oregon and author of the new book Nature’s Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age.  Her keynote address Saturday evening followed Dr. Hansen’s dire predictions and painted a visionary method for the profound legal paradigm shift needs to happen.

“We’ve been running around putting out all these fires,” Wood explained, “but what if we can stop the pyromaniac?”  Wood is one of many legal scholars around the country re-invigorating an ancient judicial concept known as the Public Trust Doctrine.

It’s a basic idea: that there are certain natural resources that are so important for society as a whole that the government has a responsibility to protect those resources for everyone’s use.  The key case that brought this doctrine from ancient Roman law and English common law into U.S. Federal law is Illinois Central Railroad Co. v. Illinois (1892), where the courts determined that the shoreline of Lake Michigan was held in public trust by the states and could not be given to a private railroad corporation.

A more recent case was Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (2013) where the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that legislation removing many regulatory hurdles for the fracking industry violated the public trust doctrine, which Pennsylvania voters amended into their constitution in 1971.

Wood and others are taking the public trust doctrine one step further, with atmospheric trust litigation, arguing that the atmosphere itself is one of those resources that must be maintained for us all.   Youth are filing lawsuits in every state, to hold the states and federal government responsible under the public trust doctrine for developing carbon recovery plans to meet the 6% annual reduction in carbon emissions that scientists agree is necessary to stabilize the atmosphere.  They’ve put together a wonderful video explaining the idea.

Is it a coincidence that so many of us have heard the call of Goddess at the same time that the earth, air, and waters that we honor are so threatened?  Gaia is calling us to action.  Our descendants are calling us to action.  What has been done in your state?  Does your state constitution include the public trust doctrine?  Do you have children who want to be part of the fight for their future?  When it seems like government at every level is failing us, and failing the climate, the positive action of the people working on atmospheric trust litigation is truly a breath of fresh air.

“I’m in a lot of pain right now,” Daisy said to me quietly.

I wasn’t sure exactly what type of pain she was referring to at that moment. For as long as I have known Daisy, which is going on six years now, she has lived a life of constant pain, both physical as well as psychological. She was sober and alert at the moment, which led me to think that she was referring to her arthritis as opposed to her inner trauma and emotional turmoil.

“But I’m still a fighter,” she added with a smile.

The fact that she was a fighter was undisputed in my mind. Daisy has been on the streets of this town for an untold number of years, with a notable portion of that time spent either stumbling through various stages of intoxication or stumbling through various stages of the criminal justice system. Despite the tragedy and trauma of her everyday life, however, her spirit was anything but broken. She is one of many chronically homeless individuals in downtown Eugene who the police refer to as “frequent flyers” due to the frequent amount of times that they are arrested and released for minor offenses directly related to homelessness and/or addiction. Rarely can you find a business owner or resident in the downtown area who isn’t familiar with Daisy, and unfortunately much of that familiarity falls with the context of negative interactions that often result in police intervention. This has resulted in her being banned from entering several local businesses, which further affects her stabilization and well being. For anyone on the street, but especially for someone like Daisy, a lack of access to public establishments means lack of access to quality food and other survival necessities, which triggers stress, which then triggers behavioral issues, which results in another episode, which results in yet another exclusion and/or trip to jail, and so on and so forth. It’s a tragic cycle, one that is seemingly impossible to break under the current conditions and limitations of the system.

The alleyway behind my building, where I have often found Daisy asleep.

The alleyway behind my building, where I have often found Daisy asleep.

Much like the business owners and residents, the police hold a variety of emotions and attitudes regarding Daisy that range from compassion to frustration to contempt. In my many conversations over the past few years with allies in the police department, it has been made clear to me that they are quite aware that constantly arresting, jailing, and prosecuting Daisy and others like her for the “crime” of being a chronically homeless alcoholic is neither effective nor sensible, not to mention a huge waste of taxpayer money. And yet they stress that they have “no other tools in the toolbox” in terms of methods of dealing with people like Daisy, and I sympathize and agree with them on this point. Their training prepared them to be law enforcement officers, not social workers or crisis intervention counselors, and their duty to uphold the law often requires that they treat Daisy as a criminal in situations that they acknowledge would be much more effectively handled by trained crisis intervention workers as opposed to law enforcement.

I’ve gotten to know Daisy pretty well over the years. I’ve experienced her many moods and phases, and while I understand and sympathize with the frustration and anger that police and businesses often feel towards Daisy, I have quite the soft spot in my heart for her. I’ve gotten to know sides of Daisy that most have never experienced. I’ve interacted with sober Daisy, happy Daisy, worried Daisy. She’s told me jokes that made me laugh until I cried, and she’s told me stories about her life that have simply made me cry. I see Daisy as a person, not a “problem” or “nuisance”, and its impossible for me to every be truly angry with her despite often wanting to scream in hopeless frustration. I refuse to blame or condemn her, and I’ve been known to intervene when others feel they have the right to do so. At the end of the day, I feel nothing but sympathy and love and compassion for Daisy.

Many argue that such an approach and attitude is akin to “enabling”, but I don’t love and accept (and often defend) Daisy as she is because I approve of or condone her behavior. I love and accept and defend Daisy as she is because I recognize her beauty and worth as an individual despite her flaws and I strongly believe that she deserves a better life, even and especially when she does not always believe so herself. Daisy’s behavioral history and current condition is the result of a complex combination of medical, social, psychological, and economic factors, not a personal moral failing on her part as many would believe. It’s been said that a society is judged by how we treat our most vulnerable. In my eyes, Daisy’s situation signifies a society that has failed in this regard, and as a result of that failure so many people are systematically marginalized, condemned, alienated, and stripped of their dignity.

More than anything else, at the very, very least Daisy deserves to be treated with dignity. No matter how intoxicated, how angry, or how unmanageable she can be, she is a human being who has had a tougher life than most of us could possibly imagine, and regardless of her past or present challenges, Daisy is as worthy and sacred and divine as any and all of us are. She may not be able to “work” to earn her keep in her current state, but that does not mean she does not have value as a person and as a member of our community. She deserves respect and dignity, and she deserves a warm, safe place to sleep at night. All human beings need and deserve a place to sleep.

It has been said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over again and expecting different results. Under that definition, the city’s approach to handling Daisy over the years is completely insane. It’s recognized on both a local and national level that criminalizing addiction as well as criminalizing life-sustaining behaviors is a dead-end to nowhere in terms of effectiveness, and Daisy’s situation perfectly demonstrates the utter failure of a criminalization-based approach. Police acknowledge that more than anything else, Daisy and others like her need a place to sleep and supportive services, not endless rounds through the criminal justice system. But sadly, the only dry and legal place to sleep that Daisy regularly experiences is a bed inside a jail cell.

Police in the process of arresting a homeless individual for public consumption

Police in the process of arresting a homeless individual for public consumption.

The city’s approach regarding Daisy and the other “frequent flyers” is not only logically insane, but it’s a prime example of financial insanity as well. Estimates can vary widely, and such costs are deliberately not itemized, but its been whispered in many corners of city government and the social service sector that some of the frequent flyers cost the taxpayers upwards of $100,000 per person, per year. The majority of these costs, which usually consist of numerous trips to the police station, the jail, the emergency room, the psych ward, and the detox facility, are directly related to living on the street without shelter options, and most of these costs could be greatly reduced by adopting the “Housing First” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Housing_First) model for chronically homeless individuals like Daisy as opposed to criminalizing their existence. In states and cities that have implemented Housing First, the cost-savings has been significant, one example being a stunning 2/3 reduction in costs per-person in Colorado. And while city officials are open and eager to adopting such practices in Eugene, the funding is currently not available on either a local or state level. In the meantime, for over a decade now Daisy and so many others have had no other option than to live on the streets.

For the past few months, however, Daisy has been living at an unsanctioned tent city at the edge of the downtown district known as Whoville. The Whoville camp is a self-governed, community-funded project that has been providing sanctuary for as many as 50 people at a time on a 4,000 square foot public lot since late September. Whoville functions as a collaborative effort between those who were living on the streets and members of the community who are able and willing to provide support: activists, non-profits, church groups, and concerned citizens alike. Whoville currently provides a safe place to sleep, regular access to bathrooms and handwashing stations, access to healthy food and a place to cook it, and a strong network of community support from and for a wide range of people from all walks of life. In many ways, the Whoville population is a perfect microcosm of the homeless population as a whole. Whoville residents range from the recently unemployed to the permanently disabled, from those simply down on their luck to those who suffer from addictions or severe mental illnesses. There are people at Whoville who have only been homeless for a few months, and others who have been homeless for a significant portion of their lives.

The Whoville camp as seen from the street

The Whoville camp as seen from the street.

To be fair, the formation of Whoville in itself arguably falls under the above-referenced definition of insanity. For over thirty years, camping laws have been regularly enforced throughout the City of Eugene, with little to no tolerance of tent communities of any kind. Both history and common sense suggest that any tent community that is formed on public land in Eugene would be disbanded by police, without exception. And yet, in the midst of an immediate crisis in which some of the most vulnerable members of our community had nowhere to go, a public tent city seemed to be the only option. Desperation often leads to insane thinking, and granted we were desperate. But we also knew from past experience, street folks and activists alike, that even though camp would certainly be shut down, that it was what happens within such a camp while it exists that often holds more power than the inevitability fate of the camp itself, which provided the motivation to go forth despite what seemed to be a foregone conclusion.

And so Whoville was formed, and it grew, and it was supported. It grew some more, and it gained more support. The camp moved around from parcel to parcel for five weeks, then strategically decided to stand their ground at a vacant public lot just outside of downtown. And over the course of four months, Whoville relationship with both the police and the community at large went from adversarial to cooperative. Local opposition morphed into wary but gradual and steady public acceptance. As Whoville grew, downtown business owners noticed that less people were sleeping in doorways, in parks, in alleyways. There were fewer behavioral issues downtown, fewer incidents related to disorderly conduct, fewer calls to the police department. Some of the frequent flyers had all but vanished from downtown.

For years, activists and advocates as well as the homeless population itself has consistently approached the city with a very simple and sensible message: If you don’t want downtown full of frequent flyers and other subpopulations that are experiencing the realities and effects of homelessness, give them somewhere else to go. If you’re going to tell people where they can’t be, you need to tell them where they can be. People exist, they are made of matter, they do not have the ability to disappear or vanish at will, they have bodily needs and survival needs that cannot be ignored, and they need a place where they can legally exist.

This concept has seemingly fallen on deaf ears for years, as the city continued its policies of criminalizing their existence with the insane hope that one day the homeless will just disappear or go somewhere else. But Whoville, acting on the belief that survival and dignity are more important than ordinances and citations and therefore worth fighting for, has demonstrated and proved that having a place to be not only results in the relocation of those who formerly had nowhere to be other than downtown street corners, but it has also demonstrated to the community that by providing such a place, even the most challenging members of the street population can stabilize to an extent. Not only have behavioral issues reduced, but the corresponding costs to the public of dealing with such issues have been reduced as well. Echoing the results of the Housing First model, the “frequent flyers” at Whoville have needed far fewer law enforcement interventions or emergency services than they had while living on the streets, a fact which has been noted by both police and social service providers. It’s a testament to the fact that while sheltering individuals indoors is obviously preferable, even an outdoor space where they have a place to exist and stabilize within a community results in both instant as well as long-term benefits as opposed to leaving people on the street with nowhere to go.

Even more important than the economic benefits, however, is the transformation and healing that has occurred for many in the Whoville community through the course of its existence. In the time since she has been at Whoville, the improvements in Daisy that myself and others have witnessed has been nothing short of remarkable. The day she whispered to me about her pain, I had stopped by Whoville early in the evening, and it was obvious that she had been sober all day. She was alert, she had a healthy skin tone, and other than her pain issues, Daisy was more upbeat and even-tempered than I had ever witnessed in all the years that I’ve known her. She was functioning within a community, as part of a family, being taken care of, and trying to take care of herself as well. When she reminded me that she was a fighter, it literally brought me to tears. For so long, I had dreamed for something better, anything better for Daisy than what I had been witnessing for years. And finally, she had somewhere to be, was a part of a community, and was taking steps on the road to healing. For Daisy and many others, the community brings a sense of acceptance and belonging that is an essential component of anyone’s well being. I can point to many individual factors that have been an improvement in Daisy’s life as a result of Whoville, but the most powerful factor that I’ve witnessed in the improvement of many here is the power of community itself, both the internal community of Whoville residents and the outer community that supports them.

Formerly a favorite “frequent flyer” hangout, with much less foot traffic as of late.

Formerly a favorite “frequent flyer” hangout, with much less foot traffic as of late.

Ironically, I was walking past an area near my building a few weeks ago and had paused at a spot where I would often find Daisy in the past when I received a text message from my primary contact at the police department, requesting a meeting later in the afternoon. I knew immediately that I was about to be informed of the City’s intent to evict Whoville. Despite everything the community had provided and demonstrated over a period of four months, the City’s response would be no different: send them packing with nowhere legal for them to go and act as if they’ll just disappear. The meeting confirmed my expectations down to the smallest details. No alternate campsites would be opened. No emergency shelter of any kind would be provided. The camp would be evicted sometime in the immediate future with no alternate arrangements made and no real consideration given to the fact that some of the Whoville residents desperately needed supportive services and were not able to adequately care for themselves on their own.

I’ve often observed that the primary narrative concerning the issue of homelessness in this community is dominated by two vocal minorities: the homeless themselves and those who advocate for and support them, and those who believe that the homeless people are all “lazy bums” who are only looking for a “handout”. Often lost in this polarized atmosphere are the sentiments and feelings of the general public as a whole. Both sides of the debate will often claim “public support” for their position, but both sides are arguably equally speculative in those assertions. There is a lot of compassion in this community, but there is also a lot of ignorance.

But this time, while voices obviously rose loudly from within and around Whoville in opposition to the city’s plans, an entire separate chorus of voices also rose up against the plan – the voices of the general public. After four months, people in all corners of the community had recognized the value of Whoville, and many made their opposition to the closure known through social media, letters to the editor, as well as statements sent directly to the City Council. Other influential parties also chimed in, notably Occupy Medical and the city’s Human Rights Commission, speaking out in opposition to dispersing 40 people with nowhere safe for them to go. For the first time, public sentiment seemed to be truly understanding of the idea that if we force people to leave, we must give them somewhere else to be.

And under pressure from many directions, public officials responded, and last Wednesday the City Council granted Whoville a 30-day reprieve while viable alternatives can be explored. While the decision does not guarantee that there will be a place for Whoville to relocate a month from now, it is a decision based on the recognition that pushing people out with nowhere for them to go is neither humane nor sensible, nor does serve any legitimate purpose. Its also a recognition of the fact that Whoville is meeting a vital community need that has gone unmet due to holes in the social safety net, and that the stabilization and healing that people are experiencing at Whoville is a benefit to the community as a whole. Many are starting to recognize that the segment of the street population that the city has deemed ‘unmanageable’ can often function quite well with the right kind of community support. The decision gives the community an opportunity to face this issue for what it truly is and to come forward with actual solutions. For once, an attempt at a common-sense approach is being attempted as a resolution, as opposed to the usual bureaucratic insanity that has been the status quo for years.

It’s a simple idea, really, the idea that someone who has been systematically marginalized and abandoned will show consistent improvement if and when someone shows them a little love and kindness. For someone like Daisy, the results have been nothing short of miraculous. We speak of “community” often, but I find that the word is so often used in a hollow sense, devoid of any real substance, and the true meaning and of community has either been forgotten or has never understood by so many. Whoville is a testament to the potential power and effectiveness of solidarity and horizontal collaboration as practiced in a community setting. United in the belief that everyone should be treated with respect and dignity, Whoville offers stability and sanctuary to those who have been all but forgotten, and their ability to self-govern and support each other is an example to us all.

Each of us is sacred and worthy, and we all deserve support and safety. And while its long-term future is still up in the air, if a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable, let Whoville be a beacon of light that guides others towards the right path.

(*Author’s Note: Daisy’s name and a few minor details have been changed for privacy reasons.)

The View From Above

Alley Valkyrie —  December 28, 2013 — 11 Comments

I must have driven past the Delta Ponds dozens of times without really giving it much thought or notice. While there was a certain swampy seductiveness that called out on foggy days, it never occurred to me while whizzing by at 55 mph that there was any real story there. It wasn’t until I got lost on the bike paths last spring and ran into some Great Blue Herons on my way to lunch that I realized that this secretive oasis was not only a thriving wildlife sanctuary, but that its existence told an interesting story of the destruction and restoration of a crucial part of the local ecosystem.

The Delta Ponds on a foggy winter morning

The Delta Ponds on a foggy winter morning.

The herons caused me to stop. Standing there, face-to-face with the Delta Ponds, it quickly occurred to me that they weren’t natural ponds. I looked around and took in my surroundings, in the middle of an isolated and strangely preserved natural area between a river and a highway. Suddenly, several clues came together, and the combination of the geographical location and the surrounding place names provided a pretty accurate assessment of the area’s history. The Delta Ponds were right alongside the Delta Highway, which essentially acts as a driveway up to the current riverfront mining operation of Delta Sand and Gravel. I only had recently learned about the mine at the northern end of the highway, but my visits up there had provided an instant reference for the use and nature of the immediate area.

Delta, I thought to myself. These ponds must be restored gravel mines which have been reconnected to the river, which means that this spot is possibly a former channel or side-channel of the Willamette River. The name of the road which loops around the Delta Ponds, Goodpasture Island Road, suggests that this patch of land was once cut off by a waterway, and used for grazing prior to it being mined for gravel. Not only was it a gravel mine, but the highway leading up to the current mine was most likely paved with the gravel that was mined right here.

A few minutes of iPhone research confirmed the bulk of my theory as well as filled in the missing gaps. The area was indeed once a side-channel of the Willamette, which was an important component of the river ecosystem, but the side-channel dried up around the turn of the century due to man-made alterations of the land. The land was then marshy pasture that was mined for gravel in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and then sold to the City after the gravel was exhausted, where the pits sat untouched for nearly forty years as the land around them was further altered and developed.

During that time, it suffered the same fate that many old gravel pits do: the pits flooded, and while they became a natural wildlife habitat over time, the pits also became over-run by invasive species such as blackberry and Scotch broom. Finally, with help from the Army Corps of Engineers, the city embarked on a $9 million-dollar restoration project, taking the greater part of a decade to complete, which removed the invasives, altered the steep slope of the gravel pits, and eventually reconnected the ponds to the river. Today, the restored side-channel habitat is the home to nearly 150 bird species, including herons, falcons, owls, and several varieties of hawk. A beautiful, concentrated wildlife preserve birthed out of an old gravel mine, strangely nestled between a river, a highway, and scores of condominiums and housing developments. It was a wonderful and unexpected discovery; despite its urban backdrop it felt hidden and sacred. And while I immediately appreciated the areas for the rare and beautiful habitat that it was, I also realized not only did this area stand out as an exception of sorts, but that it most likely stays off people’s radar as much as the issue of gravel mining itself does.

The restored Delta Ponds with the Willamette River in the background

The restored Delta Ponds with the Willamette River in the background.

Unlike the more well-known resource extraction practices such as clear-cutting, which leaves a visual scar that’s simply impossible to ignore as one drives or walks by, gravel mining is naturally much more obscured from public view, given that it often occurs in a pit. For the most part, the impacts of gravel mining are rarely seen from ground level, and citizens are often ignorant about mining operations that are practically occurring in their neighborhoods. As a result, while clear-cutting practices are the subject of much public outcry and heated debate, few words are said of the deliberate ecological destruction and devastation of our riverbanks that has been occurring since the early 1900’s. Most people generally have no idea that the vast majority of land along the confluence of the McKenzie and Willamette rivers north of town is owned by gravel mining corporations, or that much of the land which stretches from the confluence of the Middle and Coast Forks of the Willamette eastward towards and past Mt. Pisgah had been mined continuously for the past eighty years. Pristine parks and recreation areas border former gravel mines, and those using the parks are usually completely unaware that the remnants of gravel mining are out in plain sight only yards away.

Flooded gravel pits between the Middle Fork and the Coast Fork of the Willamette River. The grassy field at the very bottom is the site of the annual Faerieworlds festival.

Flooded gravel pits between the Middle Fork and the Coast Fork of the Willamette River. The grassy field at the very bottom is the site of the annual Faerieworlds festival.

Standing out over the Delta Ponds, it occurred to me that there’s a blessing in the fact that at least certain gravel pits can be restored in a generation, as opposed to clear-cuts that easily stand out fifty years later. The Delta Ponds, however, is a rare exception in that it is restored, as flooded gravel pits dot the landscape up and down the riverbank for miles and most are either listless or overgrown with blackberries. When I first gained awareness about the amount of gravel mining in the area, I visited several sites, on foot, on bike, and driving by. But aside from the occasional large crane sticking up out of the sky, it was hard to gain a real sense of the mines themselves. It wasn’t until I started studying Google aerial satellite images that I truly started to understand the impacts, cycles, and sheer ugliness of open-pit mining. Taking in the view from above is what really drilled it home.

Pit mine on the south bank of the McKenzie River

Pit mine on the south bank of the McKenzie River

The cement drills outside my window last summer also recently drilled it home. From May through September, a good number of the roads downtown were re-paved in a massive project paid for by a voter-approved bond. The condition of the roads and the actual need for repaving was somewhat debatable in my opinion, but the repairs created much-needed jobs, and provided a significant economic boon for the local sand and gravel companies. As I learned has been the case since the 1920s, the roads were paved exclusively by local companies and mined from either the Willamette or McKenzie, a fact that was stressed by company heads as a positive aspect. And while tapping into the “keep it local” energy was a brilliant move on the part of the gravel companies, it was bothersome to noticed such a disconnect on the part of the community. Well-meaning citizens celebrate keeping it local, but they fail to understand exactly how local and how significant the impact is, and they truly fail to recognize that not all of those local impacts are positive. While the Delta Ponds stands as a testament to something sacred that can be created out of the profane, it’s a very small gain when compared to the overall amount of land that has been or is being ripped apart for gravel.

Confluence of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers. Gravel mining operations are outlined in red.

Confluence of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers. Gravel mining operations are outlined in red.

Last June, the “finite” aspect of what are recognized as “finite natural resources” became a subject that caught the public’s attention. Delta Sand and Gravel’s most recent application to expand their mining operation at the end of the highway was rejected last spring by County officials, and in the ensuing media coverage Delta representatives stated that without the expansion, the company is set to run out of gravel in less than 15 years. For nearly a century, the aggregate that makes up the entirety of roads, sidewalks, jogging paths, and driveways has been “proudly” mined in Lane County by Delta and other companies, and Delta is forecasting a potential end to that tradition, at least in terms of their operation. The County is currently (and rightly) maintaining the need to protect zoned farmland, but Delta’s statements signal a future and possibly significant showdown over land-use on the riverbank. Even if current land-use laws were ignored, the reality is that the supply of gravel is still finite. One day the mining companies will be out of land. The land-use battles of present and future will only determine how much arable farmland is still available when that does happen.

In the meantime, however, Delta Ponds exists as an example of how such destruction can be successfully restored, and I am grateful for its existence and for my stumbling upon this place and the story behind it. For me, the ponds stand as a reminder of how environmental destruction can be taking place right in our midst and yet still remain hidden from view. Sometimes it takes an adjustment, a different perspective, to be able to see a situation clearly for what it is. In this case, I found great value in the view from above.

The oldest house in town is not necessarily looking for attention. In contrast to some of the more lavish, well-known historical properties in the city, artfully restored Victorians that often function as bed-and-breakfasts or historical museums, the Daniel Christian house sits quite unassumingly on a quiet residential block just south of the downtown core, a mile or so inland from the Willamette River. The house blends in nicely amongst the curious variety of dwellings that surround it, and to the average passer-by, there is little about the house that suggests any historical or architectural significance.

I must have walked or biked past the house dozens of times without ever noticing it, until one day when a kitten stopped me in my path on the sidewalk in the middle of the block. I reached down to pet it and it ran up the porch step, daring me to follow. I stepped up onto the porch, scooped up the kitten, and found myself suddenly taking in my surroundings. This porch had a very different feel than the other houses I knew in this neighborhood. It felt… old. I glanced at the front door and noticed a sticker on the door stating that the building was on the National Register of Historic Places. There were four mailboxes next to the front door, indicating that the house was divided into residential apartments. I put down the kitten and thanked it for leading me to the front door. At that moment, one of the tenants walked up the porch steps and took out his key. I asked him if he knew the history of the building. “Its really old,” he said, obviously uninterested. “I don’t know much more than that.”

Daniel Christian House

Daniel Christian House

I snapped a photo of the house and walked a few blocks to the Lane County Historical Society, showed the photo to the woman behind the counter when I walked in, and within a few minutes I learned that not only was the Daniel Christian house the oldest remaining house in all of Eugene, but it was most likely the only frame house left standing from Oregon’s territorial era. Christian and his family arrived in Oregon in 1853 from Illinois and settled on a 209-acre donation land claim, a footprint which is now the heart of Eugene’s midtown business district. The Greek Revival-style farmhouse that bears his name was built by Christian himself in 1855, nine years after the city of Eugene was founded, and the surrounding land served as an apple orchard up until the turn of the century.

I left the Historical Society with a photocopy of a cadastral map from 1860, showing the original donation land claims that formed the City of Eugene. As I walked back to the house, I reflected on the fact that the dense urban neighborhood that I was passing through had once been an apple orchard anchored by a small, simple farmhouse. A significant portion of the land that was once Daniel Christian’s orchard is currently the site of the largest development project in the city’s history, a project that went forth despite sharp opposition from the community, and as I walked past the development I couldn’t help but to think that an apple orchard in that location would have been of much greater benefit to the neighborhood. I arrived back in front of the house, a house which I now knew had been standing for 158 years, and tried to picture in my head what it must have looked like standing alone, surrounded by farmland, with a clear view straight to the river.

Within that visualization, I immediately noted the fact that the Daniel Christian house was a good distance from the river. The yearly, variable flooding of the Willamette had been a persistent problem throughout the city’s history, especially for the early settlers. The original 1851 Eugene city plat had to be revised and moved inland after the first year due to flooding, and subsequent floods wiped out early settlement areas time and time again. As the town grew over the years in size, the property damage from each flood intensified, until the federal government began to harness the river through a series of dams starting in the early 1940s. While the river still floods occasionally, the water levels have never reached anything close to the levels of the pre-dam floods, and flood damage in the modern day has been very minimal. Most current residents have no memory of a time when the natural rhythm of the floodplain greatly affected the use and development of the riverfront areas, and very few remember back to a time when residents had to be evacuated due to flooding. This lack of memory has always concerned me, even before I was ever conscious of how specifically vulnerable this area is to a flood-related natural disaster.

When I first started observing and taking in the layout and architecture within specific neighborhoods in this town, I had noticed early on that most of the houses and buildings anywhere near the riverfront were of more recent construction than most of the surrounding areas, with older houses farther back surrounding the newer developments. There are very few structures near the riverfront that pre-date WWII, despite the fact that some of these neighborhoods were originally platted years before that, in contrast to other neighborhoods in the city where a significant majority of the houses standing were built the same year the subdivision was originally platted. I had learned from an old realtor that many of the pre-war houses had been either built on beams to withstand the flooding or built without any sort of foundations whatsoever, and most of the houses that survived all the old floods have been since demolished. A bank won’t finance a home without a foundation, which made many of the old homes impossible to sell in the modern day. A few of these homes still survive, standing reminders of a time when the neighborhood was often underwater, but even these few survivors are disappearing one by one. And yet, I thought to myself, if a dam failure triggered even a temporary return to the river’s natural floodplain, those few old houses would probably fare much better overall than anything built in the last seventy years. I doubted that most of the inhabitants of those newer houses knew the history of the land that their house was built on, despite the subtle clues in the surrounding architecture.

This bungalow (left), built in 1930 at the edge of the natural floodplain and lacking a foundation, was put up for sale last spring and then demolished last month (right) when a cash buyer could not be found.

This bungalow (left), built in 1930 at the edge of the natural floodplain and lacking a foundation, was put up for sale last spring and then demolished last month (right) when a cash buyer could not be found.

Standing in front of the Daniel Christian house, I reflected on the fact that this house had survived every flood from the time it was built up to the time the river was dammed. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed or washed away by floods over that hundred-year period, but this simple, inconspicuous house withstood them all. With flooding on my mind, I took out the donation land claim map from 1860, and as I found the location of the Christian land claim on the map I noticed something striking. The bend in the Willamette as drawn on the map did not match the current course of the river. While the current path of the river bends slightly north as it approaches the downtown area, the 1860 map illustrates the river sharply meandering north well past its current boundaries, channeling through a patch of land just above and over the present-day location of Autzen Stadium. I had heard it mentioned once that the flood of 1890 had altered the course of the Willamette, but I hadn’t a clue as to the location or severity of that alteration, and I had never given it much thought until that moment.

1860 Donation Land Claim map, illustrating a sharp river meander. The Daniel Christian land claim is outlined in red.

1860 Donation Land Claim map, illustrating a sharp river meander. The Daniel Christian land claim is outlined in red.

I took out my phone and pulled up a satellite map of the area, and compared the path of the river to the illustration of the 1860 map. In quickly tracing past and present shape of the river, suddenly the history and composition of the land in between the two paths made perfect sense. The 1890 flood had altered the channel at the point of the meander, cutting off the meander and forming a shallow oxbow lake around the river’s old path. Evidence of this former river channel could be seen on the current satellite map, in the form of ponds and sloughs still in its old path. I had already known that the land under and around Autzen Stadium had been undeveloped swampland that was previously used as a dumpsite, but why that swampiness existed in the first place was now clear. The swamp was created by the oxbow lake after the river changed its course.

Current map of downtown Eugene and the Willamette River. The red line indicates the location of the river channel prior to 1890.

Current map of downtown Eugene and the Willamette River. The red line indicates the location of the river channel prior to 1890.

I left the house that survived a hundred years’ worth of floods and proceeded towards the river in order to trace the river’s old path. I had walked and biked through the exact area countless times before, but my knowledge of the river’s past spurned a new sense of curiosity about the ponds and sloughs that once cradled the Willamette itself. Following the waterway, I tried to ignore the presence of the looming stadium as I followed the water, envisioning the river, the flood, and the swamp. I suppose it’s fitting, I thought to myself, that a team called the Ducks play in a stadium built on a swamp.

Although I’ve thought for years about the Willamette floodplane and the harnessing of the river, only recently have I really thought about the potential devastation to this area in the wake of a natural disaster, and tracing the pre-1890 path of the Willamette brought that reality home for me. Hurricane Katrina was a tragic modern lesson on the vulnerability of dams and levees in the face of a storm, a lesson which greatly raised my own awareness of development and disasters in relation to floodplains. During Katrina, the greatest amount of devastation occurred in the low-lying areas which were not fit for widespread development prior to modern engineering, engineering which in the end could not stand up to the power of nature. If dam failures allowed the Willamette to rise to its natural level, the greatest potential for devastation would also occur in the low-lying areas that were developed after the river was dammed. During Katrina, evacuees took refuge in the Superdome, which had been built upon higher ground. But in the event of a flood-related disaster in Eugene, Autzen Stadium may very well be underwater.

In 1890, the river changed its course on its own and significantly altered the natural landscape without any help from a natural disaster, and scientists have warned for years now that a natural disaster in this area is only a matter of time. The Willamette Valley sits atop the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which experts say is over a hundred years overdue for a major earthquake. In the past few years, concerns have been raised by scientists, journalists, and politicians about the potential of catastrophic dam failures on the Willamette and/or widespread devastation in the event of an earthquake or a tsunami. Although the Japanese tsunami of 2011 sparked a certain degree of awareness as to the vulnerability inherent in our location and infrastructure, little has been done overall to prepare for such a disaster on a local level. Public meetings are held to discuss the economic viability of long-term riverfront development projects as though our dams are impervious to the ways of nature, while no real time or effort is ever spent discussing the overall viability of the city itself in the event that even one of those dams were to fail. While information and education about the level of risk is occasionally available to those who deliberately seek it out, many members of this community are completely unaware of the likelihood of such a disaster occurring here as well as the severity of the impact that such an event will have.

I thought of the tenant I met outside the Daniel Christian house, who was completely uninterested as to the history of his own building. In the case of a low-level to moderate flood, he is most likely protected in his ignorance, as he just happens to live in a house that has withstood every flood in the city’s history. But if a major earthquake hits, triggering the 40-foot wall of water that experts fear it will, he will literally be in the same boat as the rest of us, no pun intended.

Many of us look to the land to teach us various internal and external lessons. And most of us look to what has been built before us in order to better understand who we were and are. But we sometimes overlook the idea that the objects and structures that we have built can also serve as powerful lessons about the land itself. Lessons that our ancestors knew but in the present-day we have forgotten, lessons that the land may not be able to tell us quite so clearly, especially when man-made alterations have transformed the historic layout of a landscape. The Willamette River, currently held back by over twenty dams, has been muzzled and cannot presently hint at the potential reaches of her natural floodplain. And yet the historic age of the buildings and their relative distance from the riverfront illustrate that reach in a way that the river cannot. Perhaps more significantly, the Daniel Christian house serves as an important physical marker, speaking to the boundaries of how far the water has risen in the floods of the past. And yet, while I am slightly comforted in my knowledge and understanding of the reaches of the natural floodplain and the history of the land, I also know that an earthquake-triggered flood may very well result in a flooding situation that will render these observations and lessons irrelevant. But at least I am aware of this inevitability, and I deeply understand that such a disaster is not a matter of if, but when. In the meantime, however, I am simply grateful for my constantly evolving relationship with the river.

Between Two Worlds

Alley Valkyrie —  September 27, 2013 — 24 Comments

Throughout the 1930’s, Hoovervilles dotted the landscape of the Willamette Valley, just as they did throughout most of this country. The Great Depression sparked a wave of homelessness throughout the United States, a wave that triggered mass migrations and the proliferation of shantytowns that popped up everywhere from Central Park in New York City to a nine-acre settlement in Seattle on the mudflats of Puget Sound. Hoovervilles were generally tolerated throughout the Depression until the advent of WWII, when an economic resurgence triggered the eradication of the shantytowns. With the demise of the Hoovervilles, homelessness left the public spotlight but it never truly went away, hovering out of sight until the recession of the 1980’s fueled a resurgence of the visibly homeless across America.

Depression-era Hooverville just outside of Portland, Oregon

Depression-era Hooverville just outside of Portland, Oregon

The historic parallels between the Great Depression and the Great Recession are rather illuminating in terms of understanding the patterns, attitudes, and social tendencies that are at the foundation of modern homelessness. In viewing and analyzing present-day homelessness through the lens of the Depression, notable patterns emerge as do notable differences. The stereotypes and xenophobic attitudes aimed towards poor “migrants” in the 1930’s remains mostly unchanged to this day, especially in the current attitudes of many in urban areas who are irrationally concerned about homeless migration to their towns and cities. But while the New Deal and WWII lifted many of the Depression-era poor out of their current situation, current economic and policy trends almost guarantee that poverty and homelessness in America will continue to grow. And while the Hooverville phenomenon was accepted during the Depression years out of necessity, modern-day homeless camping is not met with anywhere near the kind of understanding and tolerance that was demonstrated by municipalities in the 1930’s. Nowadays, homeless camps are seldom tolerated by either citizens or government, and often meet a cruel fate via a bulldozer and/or police vehicles. Those who were dubbed “migrants” eighty years ago are more accurately described as “refugees” in the present. They are not allowed to have their Hoovervilles. They are a people with no place to call their own.

I have spent a lot of time between these two worlds of past and present, gathering information from one in order to better understand, define, and explain the other. These connections are crucial as a basis for functioning within my primary role, one that is defined by most as “activist” but in practice is more akin to a cross between a historian, a cultural translator, and a public advocate. This role places me in the space between two other worlds, the world of the housed and the world of the unhoused. Two worlds that live beside one another, and yet consist of two starkly distinctly cultures that seldom communicate or cross-pollinate with each other. In this role, I often feel like an ambassador or diplomat between two hostile nations, translating each side to the other, working between two cultures, brokering truces and fostering relationships, trying to stress their similarities and explain their differences to each other.

In navigating back and forth between the terrains of these two cultures, I inevitably end up in a wide variety of situations. Often, I find myself in settings around public policy, where I become an important voice for those who often end up on the wrong side of “quality-of-life” and “livability” measures. Other times my role is on the streets, acting as an on-call liaison between the police and the homeless, with the aim of diffusing tense situations and improving communication between the two groups. And sometimes the work requires an appeal to the public, with a need to raise awareness that often takes the form of direct action and civil disobedience. In such circumstances, I have sometimes found myself at the center of controversy, and as the public face with one foot in each world, I am often confronted with harsh questions, demands and expectations from both sides. It requires a constant maneuvering through minefields of both praise and condemnation while never forgetting to keep a clear focus on the truth.

Over the past two months, a spontaneous series of protests initiated by Eugene’s homeless community have become a focal point of controversy, further polarizing a community that has been split on the issue of homelessness for over thirty years. The protests, which have taken the form of tent communities on public land that are directly and deliberately in violation of Eugene’s camping laws, were started by homeless members of the SLEEPS (Safe, Legally Entitled Emergency Places to Sleep) community. Activists associated with SLEEPS, including myself, have been fighting for the right to sleep for nearly two years now, with an extensive campaign consisting of public protest and civil disobedience as well as actively lobbying and pressuring city government to change its laws and policies that negatively impact the civil rights of homeless people.

Last April, SLEEPS won an initial victory when the Eugene City Council agreed to modify the camping ordinance in order to provide some sort of legal places to sleep. However, in the months following that initial agreement, conditions for the homeless took a turn for the worst. The Federal Bureau of Land Management’s decision to rehabilitate the West Eugene Wetlands resulted in the eviction of nearly 200 people from a parcel of swampland west of town, where many have been living for several years. Meanwhile, the Eugene Mission, the only walk-in shelter in the entire county, significantly reduced the number of available beds per night due to staffing issues and an inability to handle large numbers. And while these events took their toll on the local population, resulting in a noticeable and significant influx of displaced homeless people into the downtown area, the City Council dragged their feet on the camping ordinance, suddenly hesitant and cautious after an extensive amount of community opposition.

The combination of recent displacements, broken promises, and renewed police sweeps came to a head in early August, when a homeless camper who was evicted from the wetlands pitched a tent on public land in downtown Eugene underneath the Ferry Street Bridge. He publicly announced that he was there in protest, and that his intention was to camp in the public eye until the homeless were given the right to sleep. Others soon joined him, and by the time police cleared the camp a week later, over twenty campers had pitched tents at the site. The protest immediately moved to the Free Speech Plaza in downtown Eugene, and within a day, the population had doubled. The Plaza could not hold such a crowd. We needed a plan.

whovillesignAlongside taking in the history of Hoovervilles and the Great Depression, I had spent the months leading up to this point researching public property in the city limits, envisioning the various possibilities around modern-day Hoovervilles on public land. Numerous trips to the county surveyor’s office and the deeds and records department had eventually resulted in a thorough list of every publicly owned parcel within reasonable walking distance of the downtown core. Satellite images, property visits, and tax maps provided a base of information which up to that point had only held value for visionary purposes. Suddenly, standing in the center of a large group of people determined to camp on public land in an act of civil disobedience, my pile of notes from the surveyor’s office became invaluable and an idea was sprouted. A few hours later, I came back with maps and notes, and a few people immediately stepped up, interested in seeding camps of their own. And from the idea of Hoovervilles, the “Whovilles” were born.

The first Whoville split off from the main SLEEPS protest within a few days, with a group of ten people who sought out a quieter area with the intention of shifting their focus from protest to forming a community. Their message was simple and clear: we are just like you, and homelessness can happen to anyone. They set up camp on a publicly-owned strip in front of the county fairgrounds, across the street from a row of houses. Within a few days, a second Whoville split off from the first, setting up camp a few miles away on a piece of county-owned property. After the first Whoville was evicted by police, they joined up with the second again, and when the combined encampment of 50+ people was forced to leave the county lot, they once again split in two and occupied two more public parcels. And thus began a game of cat-and-mouse between a determined tent community and the local police department, a game that continues as to the time of this writing, with a Whoville setting down on another parcel every time they are evicted from the last one. Every time they are forced to move, the Whoville community tightens, and their constant visibility and orderly habits have won them a significant amount of public support. And through it all, my time has been split between the world of the camps and the world of police and city officials, a never-ending back and forth, keeping both sides constantly apprised as to the next steps of the other.

The police understand their role in the cat-and-mouse game all too well, and are just as reluctant to move the campers as the campers are to move. The futility of this dance is equally evident to both parties, and the police have hit their own peak of frustration in a similar manner as the homeless. Their job requires that they enforce laws that many do not feel are fundamentally fair and just, and they enforce the camping law under orders while knowing full well that the people they cite have nowhere to go and no other option. The police are under significant pressure from upper management and the business community to step up enforcement, while at the same time community activists and civil rights lawyers constantly pressure them to relax their enforcement. They are caught between two worlds themselves, and the constant convergence of oppositional influences leaves many on the force with a muddied view of what it means “to protect and serve”. Overall, the police aren’t nearly as concerned with homeless people camping on public property as they are about the potential for violence against people in the camps.

The second incarnation of Whoville on River Road in Eugene

The second incarnation of Whoville on River Road in Eugene.

As was to be expected, the spontaneous tent camps popping up throughout the community sparked outrage from the NIMBY (“not in my  back yard”) crowd and from those who harbor prejudice against the homeless. Local media outlets, most of which are conservative in nature, effectively fanned the flames of anger and hate by focusing their coverage of the camps and protests on the fear and negative reactions, as opposed to the actual message and its effects. Social media sites lit up with hate-filled insults directed at the protesters, anonymous threats, and rhetoric that encouraged violence against the camps. At the height of my distress, I remembered a quote from Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” As disturbing as the display of hatred was to us, especially in a “liberal” community that prides itself as a “Human Rights City”, the hateful energy directed at us was a powerful reminder that we were gaining traction, successfully pushing the issue, pulling people out of their comfort zones. On one level, rather than be intimidated, I took to viewing such threats as an indicator of our progress. At the same time, the threat of violence and property damage had become a reality. Bottlerockets were thrown into a Whoville camp from a passing car. A porta-potty has been stolen, another was tipped over. But rather than acting as a deterrent, such incidents only strengthened the will of those in the camps and their supporters. Their determination to remain in the public eye has increased and deepened.

And so the roving camps continue, with the Whovilles and the local police seemingly caught in a neverending cycle of relocation and eviction with no true resolution in sight. Meanwhile, after five months of stalling and deliberation, last Monday the City Council finally passed an ordinance creating a pilot program for small homeless camps. While this is a positive step in the right direction, it will only serve a small percentage of the community, and the reality remains that there are a few thousand people in this town who will not have the legal right to sleep this coming winter. While the public outcry has died down somewhat since the Council’s vote, the protests and camps will likely continue into the foreseeable future, as they are literally colonies of refugees with no legal place to stop and rest. And for as long as they remain in the public eye I will remain there with them, trying to express to the housed community how the other half lives, trying to reason with the powers that be as to the needs and rights of the disenfranchised, and trying my best to provide support and encouragement to an overlooked underclass that has shown remarkable courage by deliberately placing themselves in the public spotlight.

I often sense that the invisible yet often-impenetrable borders between the two worlds are fading ever so slightly, and my long-term hope is not only that the homeless community will be granted the right to sleep, but that eventually the cultural differences between the housed and unhoused will no longer serve as a basis for building up walls. I hope that one day, walking between these worlds with diplomatic intentions in mind will simply no longer be necessary.

“The Parks Department may not want me here, but this land tells me otherwise.”

We were standing on the north bank of the Willamette River, where I had come down to check up on a friend who had lived on the river next to the boat landing for as long as I had known her. I had come to the riverbank bearing root beer, but Mary Ann met me at her entryway bearing bad news and a yellow piece of paper. Maintenance workers had just come through the area earlier in the afternoon, and the yellow paper had been left taped to her door. She was being evicted from her home.

North bank of the Willamette river.

North bank of the Willamette river.

I looked around, forgetting for a moment as I always did that her “home” was not a house in the traditional sense, but a primitive hut built from waddling and covered with a canvas tarp that was tucked away within the confines of a city-owned park. My experiences camping at various pagan festivals over the years had instilled in me a great appreciation for makeshift dwellings, especially for ones that were cleverly built and aesthetically pleasing, and hers was second to none in that regard. It was an extraordinary spot, and it was indeed her home in the strongest sense of the word. Literally built from scratch with her own two hands, her riverfront hobbit-hut was truly otherworldly, quietly hidden and secluded with the river as her only neighbor.

So secluded, in fact, that it had taken the parks department over a year to find her within the tangled overgrowth of the riverbank. But find her they finally did. And unlike a legal eviction from a “legitimate” residential dwelling, which allows for seven days and a judicial hearing, a legal eviction of a “homeless camp” from a city park grants neither adequate time to vacate nor any form of due process. Her hut was literally set to be bulldozed the next day, and she had no recourse. She also had nowhere else she felt she could go.

“This place is a sanctuary, and this land wants to protect me,” she said to me, tearfully. “This ground beneath my feet, it welcomes me here. We have a relationship, an understanding. I don’t care if they need to trim the blackberries. I am of the Earth and this is my home. I have a connection with this space. Myself, the trees, the bushes, the river. We get along, we are friends. Nobody bothers me here. This place wants me here. This is the only place I’ve ever felt such safety.”

I looked at her and realized at that moment that not only was she losing her home, she was also being severed from a deep and powerful spiritual connection that she had forged with this odd little patch of sand and brush. In the eyes of the parks department, she was simply another illegal camper who was squatting on public land and interfering with their futile attempts at controlling the blackberries. As I saw it, however, the home she had crafted and her connection to this place was nothing less than sacred. I looked at her again and realized I was gazing into the eyes of a fellow priestess who was facing the loss and destruction of her hand-built, self-defined sanctuary.

Sanctuary. I muttered the word under my breath. She was far from the first person to tell me that this specific strip of riverbank felt like an energetic sanctuary for the disenfranchised, but never before had I considered the issue while literally standing in the place in question. Sanctuary. I closed my eyes for a moment, cleared my mind, and allowed my inner awareness to tune into my surroundings. It felt calm, deep, rooted, potent.

I looked into the eyes of my friend once more, trying to comprehend in the moment what it could possibly be like to live in a blackberry thicket that swirled with such a force, and what it meant to develop such a deep relationship with one’s surroundings in a place such as this. I knew there was nothing more I could offer her at that moment other than understanding and sympathy, and the only thing I knew to do in the moment was to hug her as hard as I could. We said our goodbyes, and I climbed back up the ridge of the riverbank to the path above. Halfway up, I glanced back and over at her beautiful dwelling, soon to be demolished, and I felt a lump form in the back of my throat. That wasn’t just a homeless camp. I truly felt that her little spot was sacred ground.

As I walked home, my rage and sadness quickly transformed into an unshakable curiosity regarding the energetic resonance of that chunk of the riverbank and Mary Ann’s strong belief that the land specifically wanted to provide her sanctuary. I was reminded again that I had heard similar claims before, from people that weren’t nearly as spiritually attuned as my friend was. There were dozens of parks scattered throughout this city, countless hidden spots scattered up and down the riverbanks where one could make a temporary home. Why did people gravitate to this specific place? What is it about this place that feels welcoming and safe to those who are otherwise living in exile, despite the fact that people are rousted from here just as much as anywhere else? I tried my best not to dwell on it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there might be something more to it.

A few days later, I was having coffee with another friend when I mentioned my experience in the park and the unanswered questions that were still lingering.

“What is it about that place?” I asked her, not necessarily expecting an answer. “I can’t help but feel that there’s something specific about that spot that’s creating or contributing to a widely-sensed feeling of safety. Mary Ann’s been getting the message from the land directly since she was first drawn to that spot, and I sense that there’s a true authenticity to her connections and experiences. But then other folks, many who don’t subscribe to spiritual thinking and would scoff at the idea of talking to the trees, will still tell you that that there’s a “welcoming vibe” down on that part of the riverfront.”

She looked up. “Well, you know that’s where the old black settlement used to be, right?”

My friend had lived here for many years, and was an indispensable and often spontaneous source of local history. She immediately realized by the look on my face that I had no idea what she was talking about.

“There was a tent city on the riverbank sometime around World War II that existed as the only black community for several years. The neighborhood was eventually bulldozed in order to make way for the Ferry Street Bridge, and those who lived in the settlement were mostly forced out into the wetlands at the other end of town Some weren’t even given time to claim their possessions before their homes were destroyed. But for years before the bridge was built, the north bank was the only place that black folks were allowed to live, the only place where they were safe from harassment and left alone.”

“The only place they were allowed to live?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“Well, yes,” she continued. “Back then, city limits ended at the river. The north bank was county land.” She paused. I stared at her, processing what I had just been told. We both started to speak at the same time. I let her go first.

“You do know that this used to be a sundown town, right?”

She had just answered the question I was about to ask, and I was suddenly hit with a burst of clarity. As a recent transplant that was still in the wee learning stages of understanding the history, politics and dynamics of this area, that one powerful piece of factual information immediately started to trickle its way into the various questions and thoughts about this area that I had been filing away in my head all this time.

I looked up at my friend and smiled. “You just gave me a real important piece,” I said to her. “Thank you.”

I had been aware of the overall history of sundown towns and their effects, but until that moment I hadn’t a clue that this liberal, Pacific Northwest college town, with its reputation as a hippie mecca and its emphasis on human rights and diversity, also had a notable history of racial discrimination. As a former New Yorker, one of the first things I noticed about Eugene was how overwhelmingly white the population was, but I had assumed it was mainly the result of the same discriminatory housing practices that were once widely practiced throughout the nation. But the newly-acquired knowledge that this town had a history of systematically excluding the entire black population from the city limits after sunset affected me almost instantly in my understandings and perceptions of this place. Not only was it simply important on its face in terms of my desire to understand the basic history of where I lived, but it provided a powerful and important historical context that was quite relevant in relation to the current patterns of exclusion and oppression that I had been observing and noting, and the ideas and questions that I had been tossing around and pondering in response to those observations.

I immediately thought back to Mary Ann and her sanctuary. The reason that Mary Ann and countless others hide out on the north bank of the river is because they are constantly subject to local laws and policies that have resulted in the systematic harassment, persecution, and exclusion of the homeless population from the city center. These exclusion policies and practices are numerous: ordinances that criminalize sleeping anywhere on public property, strictly enforced park curfews that prohibit people from gathering at night, a deliberate and complete lack of public benches combined with an ordinance that prohibits sitting on the sidewalk, a constitutionally-suspect judicial remedy known as the “exclusion zone,” and an infamous team of private security guards who are specifically tasked with forcing homeless people to move along.

dpsz

Especially at night, it is essentially illegal to exist in the downtown area if you have nowhere else to go at night, and choosing to willfully remain in the downtown area is to risk arrest, assault, or worse. These various laws and strategies create the effect of a sundown town for anyone who lacks a home. The similarity had never been lost on me, but it took on a much stronger significance for me now that I knew that this place actually had been a sundown town. I had been criticizing and speaking out against these policies without ever knowing or understanding the degree to which this city had a history of discrimination and exclusion, a history that not only is unknown to most, but has arguably been effectively and deliberately erased by forty years’ worth of liberal rhetoric that has consistently projected the image that Eugene has always been a haven for diversity and tolerance.

I then thought about the history of that stretch of the riverbank, and the similarities in the two narratives, historic and present, as they related to that specific area. There have been countless tent communities and temporary homesteads erected along that stretch over the years, inhabited by folks who had been driven out from the city center, and eventually they were generally all subject to the same fate in the form of a bulldozer, often without any notice or warning. The same exact fate, I now knew, that another community of makeshift homesteads had succumbed to over a half-century ago in nearly the exact spot. Another community that was forced to retreat to this area and build their own huts and shanties after being systematically denied the right to live within the city limits.

I recognized that the knowledge and recognition of these historic connections and patterns was an essential part of my ongoing process of forging a deeper relationship with the land, and in developing a more solid understanding of the habits and tendencies of both people and place. I couldn’t define exactly what these connections meant in the large sense of that process, but I understood exactly why I was led to discover them as I did. As someone who has long been committed to fighting for justice, stumbling upon such ugly yet important truths about this town’s discriminatory past only strengthened my commitment to recognizing and standing up to oppression in all its insidious forms.

A few months later, I finally found Mary Ann on the riverbank again, a few hundred yards upstream from the spot where her hut had been demolished. Her new place was further hidden away and nowhere near as enchanting as her previous spot. A simple tent had replaced her former hut of sticks. “I don’t see the point right now,” she told me. “I’m still too angry. I don’t want to start over. For all I know I’ll be evicted from here in a week. They don’t understand that I’m supposed to be here. I don’t know how to make them understand that the land wants me here.”

I told her what I had learned about the history of this area. “I kept thinking about your feeling of sanctuary,” I said. “And I can’t help but to keep going back to the historical parallels as a reference point, and then bounce right back to thinking about your sense of this place.”

I may have been fascinated by it all, but she didn’t look the slightest bit surprised. “What have I said again and again? This piece of land doesn’t believe in exclusion,” she told me. “This place protects the oppressed. I know that, I told you that. I don’t need to dwell on why it is. It just is.”

I smiled and nodded. I wasn’t about to argue.

Perhaps that stretch of the riverbank is exactly as Mary Ann says it is, and the spirits of that land truly and simply wish to protect those who are oppressed and excluded. Perhaps they’ve always done that, and it was my job to pick up on a small piece of that pattern. Perhaps the history of that spot as a sanctuary for those who have been excluded has left a subtle psychic echo that many happen to pick up on, in a wide variety of strengths that range from “feeling safe vibes” to the absolute steadfast religious belief that the river and the trees want to shelter and protect the oppressed. And perhaps there are no true connections at all, and the entirety of my observations amount to nothing more than pure coincidence. Perhaps the belief among many that the area offers them safety is purely in their heads. It could be that its nothing more than a matter of simple location that accounts for the similarity between the history of that spot and the current usage as it relates to those who have sadly experienced exclusion and oppression throughout the years.

What I do know is that the true value of the lesson has very little to do with any one definitive answer, and much more to do with illuminating and reinforcing the importance and power of knowing the various histories of the places in which we inhabit and interact. I find that often, hints from the land itself will point me straight to the answers, the history that you need. Other times, these hints serve as a caution and reminder as to the dangers of forgetting that history, and in the importance of seeking out and researching patterns and connections.

I consider the stories that make up our history to be sacred, and to learn about, research, remember, and retell such stories not only serves to honor those who actually lived those histories, but it also ensures that if and when we ever find ourselves in patterns of repetition, we carry within us important pieces of our collective memory and experience that can serve as a point of reference and reflection.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Angel Silva. Photo by Dave Sanders for The New York Times.

Angel Silva. Photo by Dave Sanders for The New York Times.

  • The New York Times profiles Angel Silva, a practitioner of Palo Mayombe, who’s in a legal showdown over whether the healing crystals he sells on the street in Union Square are works of art, or if he’s simply vending without a license (as local police believe). Quote: “Mr. Silva insists he needs no city permit because his stones are artistic sculptures covered under the First Amendment, and he hopes to convince a judge of this in Manhattan Criminal Court at a trial next month. Lines of customers form on Mondays, when Mr. Silva offers free spiritual healing. He delivers his psychic readings of their life issues, from cheating spouses to chakra imbalances, and he treats some people at the nearby sidewalk tree, to better connect to the gods of the forest.” What’s refreshing about the story is that it steers clear of some of the sensationalism usually accompanied with reporting on Palo. For a perspective of a Pagan who moved into the practice and religion of Palo, check out the columns Stacey Lawless contributed to The Wild Hunt.
  • Back in June I spotlighted “America Bewitched: Witchcraft After Salem” by Owen Davies, which debunks the popular notion that we stopped killing and persecuting “witches” after 1692, and shows that belief in witchcraft persisted throughout this country into the 20th century (and beyond). Now, appropriately enough, The Salem News interviews Davies about the book. Quote: “Witchcraft beliefs and the persecution of supposed witches during the Salem trials era and beyond seem like another world, aspects of another time unconnected with ours, but they are not. At the heart of witchcraft accusations are fundamental fears, misfortunes, insecurities, uncertainties and personal experiences that people in America experience today.”
  • The Sault Star profiles the Wild Ginger WitchCamp in Ontario, and finds that people from “all walks of life” are in attendance. Quote: “Forget your Halloween and fairy-tale images of witches. The people gathered at Unicamp for the weekend are therapists, teachers, artists and students, nurses and midwives, computer programmers, parents and grandparents. Here there are no voodoo dolls, black magic spells, curses or consorting with the devil. The only bubbling cauldrons are in the kitchen, where Alta, who has cooked for Wild Ginger for years, works her own kind of sorcery, producing delicious meals for the seventy campers.” I think it is interesting that the mainstream press is finally starting to notice the international network of Witch Camps, a phenomenon that has quietly existed under the radar for some time, even within many corners of the Pagan community. 
  • At The Washington Post’s On Faith section, scholar Charles C. Haynes debunks the notion that the United States is a Christian nation. Quote: “Religious diversity at America’s founding made a necessity of religious freedom because no one group had the power or the numbers to impose its version of true faith – Christian or otherwise – on all others [...] Any attempt to establish a Christian nation, therefore, always has been and always will be unjust, dangerous and profoundly un-Christian.”
  • Poet Annie Finch writes about her mother, the Witch. Quote: “My mother Maggie, as she likes to be called, has referred to herself as a witch for a couple of decades now — at least since she was in her early 70s. That was around the time she started adding 8,000 years to the date: She would date her letters to me 9989 instead of 1989 and 9992 instead of 1992, to signal that she was reckoning time from the estimated beginning of Goddess worship. Nowadays, at 92 years young, she talks about the Goddess often, keeps an altar with a Goddess statue from Malta, and regularly wears a large pentacle around her neck.”
Alley Valkyrie being arrested last December. Photo: Kevin Clark/The Register-Guard

Alley Valkyrie being arrested last December. Photo: Kevin Clark/The Register-Guard

  • Last year I interviewed Feri initiate, activist, and Wild Hunt columnist, Alley Valkyrie after she was arrested protesting for the rights of the homeless in Eugene, Oregon. Now, the verdict is in, and Alley Valkyrie has been vindicated. Quote: “Lane County violated the constitutional rights of a local activist last year when it had her cited for trespassing following her refusal to leave a public plaza after officials closed it, a Eugene Municipal Court judge has ruled. In her decision, Judge Karen Stenard said the county’s reason for ejecting protesters and shutting the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza — that the area had to be cleaned because human feces were smelled in the area — was too broad and did not pass the rigorous test required for government actions that restrict constitutional freedoms. As a result, Stenard dismissed the charge of second-degree trespassing filed against protester Alley Valkyrie.” You’ll no doubt be hearing more about this from Alley personally, but for now you can read a recent column she wrote about her activism on behalf of the homeless in Eugene. Congratulations to Alley Valkyrie! 
  • American Horror Story’s new season, subtitled “Coven,” will deal with Salem Witches escaping to New Orleans, Vodou practitioners, a serial killer, and how oppressed minority groups will sometimes attack one another instead of their true enemy. Quote: “This season, Minear said, will focus on themes of oppression of minorities of all kinds. ‘Within that idea, the idea of minority groups going after each other and doing the work of the larger culture for the larger culture [will be explored],’ Minear said. ‘While there is a strong feminist theme that runs throughout Coven this year, there are also themes of race, oppression and there is a very strong theme of family, specifically mothers and daughters.’” I would like to ask the television gods for this to not suck, because it actually sounds kinda interesting. 
  • There are so many problematic elements to these teenage exorcists under the leadership of Satanic Panic bottom-feeder Bob Larson, and Slate.com ventures into just some of them. Quote: “What Duboc captures is troubling: Large groups of people come to these exorcism events, often because they are struggling with drug addiction or because they have long-term mental health problems, sometimes because they’ve been sexually abused. Larson and the girls blame all of these people’s problems on demonic possession, and proceed to play-act exorcisms on members of the audience.”More on this from Jezebel.
  • Famous paranormal radio host Art Bell is coming out of retirement to host a new show for Satellite radio company Sirius. Quote: “A Sirius representative contacted Bell through social media a few months ago, leading to the formation of his show, ‘Art Bell’s Dark Matter.’ He’ll talk about things like UFOs, ghosts, near-death experiences and weird aspects of science. He’ll do interviews and take calls from viewers. Scott Greenstein, Sirius XM president and chief content officer, said the show will be ‘uncensored, unrestricted, uncluttered and utterly unique.’” As someone who once worked a graveyard shift job, and heard Mr. Bell on the radio “back in the day,” expect lots of conspiracy theory, weird science, yeti calls, alien abduction stories, and Freemasonry allusions.  Oh, and he would bring Pagans on the show from time to time. 
  • The Huffington Post UK Student’s section features a story on Oberon Zell-Ravenheart’s Grey School of Wizardry. Quote: “As Headmaster, I cannot help but identify strongly with Albus in Harry Potter. He is so much like me that I have often been referred to as ‘the real-life Dumbledore’ and I was personally distraught upon reading the account of his death.”
  • Religion Dispatches asks: Why is the State Department opening an Office of “Religious Engagement”? Quote: “Constitutional or not, official interfacing with “faith-based organizations” will constitute a troubling form of government endorsement: the defining of some communities, among various porous-bordered normative and discursive communities, as “religions” and the anointing of some individuals as recognized spokespersons for those communities.”

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Today is the start of the Faerieworlds Festival in Eugene, Oregon. Faerieworlds is a weekend-long event that mixes fantasy, art, music, mythic themes, and wild creativity to create something that is truly unique within the world of festival culture. Existing in a liminal space between the “transformational” West Coast festivals, Renaissance (and re-enactment) fairs, and traditional multi-stage music events, Faerieworlds is something that is hard to describe until you experience it for youself. As co-founder Kelly Miller-Lopez said in 2009, Faerieworlds opens “doorways to help people connect with beauty and magic.”

“For the first time ever…OMNIA will be bringing the one and only, pure and uncut PaganFolk to the US! Old world Paganism meets the New world tribes! The Clans that were sundered by time, politics and emigration will be re-united for this one amazing, fantastical, artistic and magical Festival in Oregon! I get all goosebumpy thinking about it!  Finally we get to play to an audience that speaks our language!  FaerieWorlds here we come! Nature has provided us with a lot of energy, and we long to share it with you! See ya there!”SteveSic Evans-van der Harten of the band Omnia

I would argue, as someone who has experienced Faerieworlds as both an attendee and an employee, that an integral element that makes Faerieworlds so special is that, in many ways, Faerieworlds is very Pagan. While the festival has no religious or theological mandate, and is welcoming to everyone, there is, and always has been, a strong Pagan thread running through the event. For those who simply want to frolic with Wotan the Faerie-Smasher, dress up in glitter and wings, sample from an array of artists, or simply dance to a diverse lineup of bands, the festival provides all that, and more. However, if you go in looking for it, you’ll notice the ritual and Spiral Dance during opening festivities, that headliners like Omnia, S.J. Tucker, Sharon Knight, and Woodland sing songs from within a Pagan frame of reference, and that Pagan luminaries like T. Thorn Coyle are there conducting workshops. These Pagan elements do not dominate, but merely inform the festival, creating a creative ambiguity that resonates far beyond modern Paganism’s borders. As Faerieworlds co-founder Robert Gould put it in 2012, when talking about why Faerieworlds booked singer-songwriter Donovan, all great art inhabits this ambiguous, liminal, space.

2013 Faerieworlds Map

2013 Faerieworlds Map

“The most common and unifying quality of great art is ambiguity: it’s ability to be experienced and interpreted by people of any gender, age, culture or time.”

This melding of elements, this willingness to stand in a liminal space, has allowed Faerieworlds to strike chord far wider than any explicitly Pagan event, drawing an estimated 6-8000 people per day last year, and with an even bigger year planned for 2013. As I said in 2011, Faerieworlds taps into our primal communal need for festival, for gathering, to honor nature and the numinous

“Events like Faerieworlds tap into a deep cultural hunger for romanticism, for a re-enchantment of the world that has long been denied by both secular and religious institutions in the West. I don’t think the recent fantasy boom is happening in a vacuum, nor do I think it is any coincidence that a growing number of people are opting out of traditional forms of religion altogether while still holding onto religious beliefs. While Faerieworlds, or Burning Man for that matter, aren’t explicitly “Pagan” they tap into a primal need for festival, for gathering to honor the numinous, the changing seasons, each other, and our own creativity. I think that these events, especially as we weather hard times, will continue to grow in importance. There is a vital roots-up form of small-p “paganism” emerging here that is very compatible with our more formal adoption of Pagan religion.”

Faerieworlds is something magical and unique, something that I think many Pagans need to see, and perhaps emulate. Grown from a small local gathering of friends and family, Faerieworlds has become, in its 12th year, something of an institution in Oregon, rivaling the venerable (and popular) Oregon Country Fair. They did it by realizing that the need to tap into myth, into story, into festival, resonates far beyond the borders of our personal communities, whatever they may be.

I hope to see you at Faerieworlds, and let’s all live our legends!

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Vic Toews

Vic Toews

After the katsina handover, Hopi and the delegation exchanged gifts.

After the katsina handover, Hopi and the delegation exchanged gifts.

  • Back in April, the sale of sacred Hopi objects in France went ahead despite protests from the Hopi tribe of northeastern Arizona, Survival International, and the actor Robert Redford, who called the sale “a sacrilege, a criminal gesture that contains grave moral repercussions.”  Now, Survival International reports that at least one sacred katsina was returned by a buyer who participated in the auction to retrieve it for the Hopi. Quote: “M. Servan-Schreiber then bought one katsina at the auction to return it to the Hopi. He said, ‘It is my way of telling the Hopi that we only lost a battle and not the war. I am convinced that in the future, those who believe that not everything should be up for sale will prevail. In the meantime, the Hopi will not have lost everything since two of these sacred objects have been saved from being sold.’” A second katsina acquired at the auction by another buyer will be returned to the Hopi later this year.
  • Are prisoners in the UK claiming to be Pagan to get extra benefits? Possibly! Though, this is a tabloid so no real data is given other than that self-described Pagans behind bars has nearly doubled to 602 since 2009. Quote: “The surge in paganism behind bars has sparked fears some may be converting for an easier life.” A Prison Service spokesperson noted that Pagan prisoners receive 4 days off per year, and no more.
  • The New York Times profiles the Living Interfaith Church in Washington, a religion that embraces all religions, even Pagans. Quote: “Some of the congregants began arriving to help. There was Steve Crawford, who had spent his youth in Campus Crusade for Christ, and Gloria Parker, raised Lutheran and married to a Catholic, and Patrick McKenna, who had been brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness and now called himself a pagan.” One wonders if the local Unitarian-Universalist congregation wasn’t theologically inclusive enough? Religion scholar Stephen Prothero notes that “one reason we have different religions is that we have different rituals and different beliefs. Those are not insignificant.”
  • Is 2013 the year of the Witch? Pam Grossman at the Huffington Post seems to think so. Quote: “As the year progresses I predict we will all more fully channel the spirit of the witch. Honoring the earth and our bodies; shifting away from mass-market medicines and agri-business toward natural healing and whole foods; sharing our resources rather than focusing on mere accumulation of goods; collaborating and communicating more openly; helping to elevate women and girls to equality all over the world: these are all grand workings of feminine magic that we are manifesting together.” Pardon me while I pick up every stitch.
  • Lisa Derrick at La Figa isn’t fond of Rick Perry voodoo dolls, saying “they perpetuate dangerous, off-base stereotypes and do nothing to help either pro-choice factions or non-Christians.”

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.