This year’s Heartland Pagan Festival, held over Memorial Day weekend in McClouth, Kansas, faced severe weather, including extensive thunderstorms and tornado warnings. Although there were some difficulties, including damage to Gaea Retreat‘s roads, a sudden squall that threatened to damage the festival’s PA speakers and audio equipment, and the inability of several speakers to attend due to travel hazards, the incredible efforts of the festival staff allowed Heartland to continue successfully.1.
At the far end of First Field, all that is is mud. Every footfall sinks an inch or two into the muck. We vary the paths we take across the grass, as though we hope to find a secret trail from our tents across the field to the gravel road that links the field with the rest of Gaea, but no such route exists. Where human feet tread, sodden footprints follow; there is no escape from the mud.
It is Thursday afternoon, just before the Heartland Pagan Festival is set to officially begin. My wife and I have been at Gaea for a day already. We had arrived early with the intent of helping the festival get set up, but the rain has never abated for more than an hour since we set up our tent. We laid inside until late in the morning, listening to the rain, running our worried hands through the ever-deepening water trapped on the floor. By the time the rain let up enough for us to make an assessment, the only dry thing left was my wooden chest of ritual tools, a showing perhaps too obvious to be taken for providence.
Now we are sitting in our camp’s kitchen area under a shadefly; the ground beneath our chairs appears to be the place where all mud must someday return. My wife and I munch on trail mix and watch the endless rain. Mark is rummaging through his tent across the way. His girlfriend, my old friend Sarah, is on the far side of the campground, cutting tullies (we call them cattails where I come from) for use in the sweat lodge later in the weekend, meaning that she is standing waist-deep in a lake during a thunderstorm. Peals of thunder rip through the air, some close enough to set off car alarms.
A tornado siren goes off. Neither Mark nor I knew tornado sirens could be heard from Gaea, despite both of us having visited the place regularly for decades.
Should we go down to the main hall? I ask. It’s a long walk from the back of First Field, and I’m not eager to make it in bog-ridden shoes if I don’t have to.
Supposed to, says Mark.
I think about it for a minute. If our friends go down there and we don’t, they’ll be worried that we got hurt or trapped.
The sirens stop, so we decide to stay put. But then a few minutes later they start again, and all three of us decide that means it’s time to go. We trek down to the main hall. None of our friends are there; I worry that they got hurt or trapped.
We find them, eventually. Sarah tells us she didn’t see any point in rushing across the dam to the main hall, even with the tornado sirens. She ran to her brother’s truck and hunkered down there with him. If I’m going to die, she said, I might as well die here.
We sleep, or don’t sleep, in the car that night. I wake up in time to help with the Sunrise Ritual, though not entirely on purpose, but nobody else shows up besides Lorelei, the priestess; I suspect the rest of camp is also trying to recover from the long night.
I wander down to main gate and find that Gaea’s gravel road has been replaced by a whitewater rapid. The lake has spilled over the dam, and the water now rushes over the road in a torrent before falling into a ravine on the other side. I hopscotch across the bare chunks of foundation to the other side, where my friend Bill is trying to put a fuse back into his car without setting off the car alarm. (Unfortunately for all the sleepy Pagans, he does not immediately succeed.)
A long line of cars sits in the grass outside the gates; they had to pull off the road to let an ambulance in the night before, as a person had fallen and injured her knee. Nobody can bring their cars in; the road is closed by virtue of there being no road to speak of. Everyone has to drag their gear -– their tents and clothes and pans and food and bright blue plastic water jugs –- up to the campsites by way of a steep hill. None of us want to do it, but we know we have to. We procrastinate by talking about the rain.
See, the water’s already gone down a lot while we’ve been standing here, we say, pointing to water streaming over the dam. It’s true. In the past twenty minutes, it has degraded from a small river to merely a large creek. It’ll be clear in an hour or two.
And then what? The road is gone.
I guess we’ll have to get some gravel out here.
When is it supposed to rain again?
Afternoon. So if we’re lucky, they can lay down the gravel and get these cars up the hill before the rain washes the road away again.
We fall silent and watch the water recede for a little while longer, then look up again to the steel wool sky.
I steal a few minutes for myself later that morning while it’s still clear and after we have dragged our camp to higher ground. I come to Heartland as much to visit Gaea’s hidden corners as anything else, and in the past few years, I have found myself drawn more and more to one particular spot, an oak tree a local Heathen group has given the name Forn Halr, that is, “Old Man.” Forn Halr grows out of the edge of a cliff, a huge old oak whose roots appear anchored in pure stone. The Heathens draped a hammer around his trunk with a necklace made of chain-links, and erected a stone altar before him. The dirt path leading up to Forn Halr is as soaked in mud as anywhere else at Gaea this weekend, but the ground around the tree itself is remarkably dry.
I always come to Forn Halr with a slight sense of unease. I know, of course, that Gaea’s innumerable ritual grounds were all thought of and built by other people for their own purposes. But Forn Halr feels like it belongs specifically to the people who named it in a way the others don’t. I feel as though I am trespassing, that I have entered the one part of Gaea that does not belong to me. But Forn Halr is also the most beautiful spot on the land, and the tree himself the most majestic denizen of these woods. And the magick I work here quickens like it does nowhere else on earth. I don’t belong here, and yet I wholly belong here. It is someone else’s, and it is entirely mine. And in this, I have much the same relationship to this grove as I do to all things named Heathen.
I pour a bottle of apple cider into a horn and share the drink with the Old Man’s roots, and then I lift my hammer from the rock altar and make a circle around the clearing. I whisper a prayer to Thor. We’re tired and wet, I say. Let us have a rest.
Sun dapples in through the canopy and plays upon the altar. It doesn’t rain for the rest of Heartland.