The Rites of Spring weaves its web

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BERKSHIRE MOUNTAINS, Massachusetts –For the 37th year, members and friends of the EarthSpirit Community gathered this past week for the Rites of Spring. Like many Pagan festivals, this is a private affair for which advance registration is required. Participants are expected to aid in building a temporary community in the woods, wherein the focal point is the very maypole that represents the season in this, and many other, Pagan traditions. Radiating outward from that beribboned symbol of fertility Pagans and friends circled, danced, learned, laughed, drank in the gifts of the Earth and returned a fair portion to the mountain which plays host year in an year out.

Long before that stout log was hoisted towards the sky, tireless volunteers began weaving an invisible web which would define and support the weeklong festival. The strands are unseen because they have been spun and woven again and again over the years, but the web created is a strong one. Upon arriving at my first Rites of Spring, that web surrounded and supported me every step of the way. Clear signage guided my faithful car, Bucephalus, and I to the registration area, and if I got turned around, there was always someone to set me back on the path towards the gate.

After my ritual entry, I was smoothly led through a registration process that practically didn’t need my participation. The registrars confirmed my arrival, attached a wrist band to identify my meal plan, verified that I was planning on using a tent rather than staying in a cabin, and directed me to my selected tent site, as well as to the permanent parking area for when I was done unloading. An unbreakable, invisible infrastructure kept me on task and oriented, ensuring that I would have housing and food taken care of no matter how gobsmacked I became.

Andras Corban Arthen (courtesy Megan Walker, Afon Art)

Andras Corban Arthen (courtesy Megan Walker, Afon Art)

The entire site had been transformed by a core group of village builders, who arrive some days ahead of the main body of attendees, and who numbered about 400 this year. Andras Corban Arthen, who coordinates the annual gathering with his wife, Deirdre Pulgram Arthen, recalled that in the first year, Rites of Spring was a learning experience. He said, “It quickly became apparent that rituals designed for a living room don’t work for a hundred people,” which is how many attended that first festival.

While as many as 700 have attended some years, the traditions of the EarthSpirit Community — and even the modern Pagan community — were just being formed at that time. “I had the only drum there, and no one was interested in having a fire,” Corban Arthen admits as part of recounting the history of the organization. When a fire was finally lit and some started to dance, “others were almost repulsed,” he said, because “that’s not in the book of shadows.”

Fire plays a core part in Rites of Spring each year, being kindled as part of the first ritual and providing space for personal and group sacred work throughout the week. The web of support is particularly vibrant in the fire shrine: food donations are actively sought for the drummers and dancers, water is copious, and safety protocols are always in place, but never noticeable unless needed. Want to dance into trance from sunset until sunrise? Rest assured trance spotters will be aware of you, even if you’re not aware of your own surroundings. Providing someone the space to walk their own path, but ensuring they remain hydrated and safe, is one of the many gifts found on this community’s web.

Dancing the maypole (courtesy EarthSpirit Community)

Dancing the maypole [Courtesy EarthSpirit Community]

The central ritual field is where the massive maypole is erected. It quickly becomes a focal point of community. One group seeks out the hefty pole (which is used annually as long as it can be) and brings it to the field, where the hole has been made ready by others in the ritual. Like everything the EarthSpirit Community does together, dancing the maypole is performed to the tune of original chants, to which everyone seems to know the words and tunes.

That’s partly because the words and tunes are easy to learn, and partly because so many people attend again and again. About 20% of the attendees this year were newcomers, which Pulgram Arthen said is similar to past years. However, it was not difficult to find oneself in conversation with someone who had attended 20 or 30 prior Rites of Spring, and even a nine-year-old who had technically been to ten of them.

The age range this year ran from three babies still in bellies up to 73 years of age, and there were spaces and places for all. Once the ribbons adored the maypole, the depth of this community was given face as people approached it and announced milestones from the prior year: births and deaths, graduations and jobs, joys and sorrows. Like so many traditions at this festival, the process of sharing allowed people space for their news, but was efficient enough that the energy did not lag.

Keeping hundreds of Pagans occupied from Wednesday until Monday, particularly when they are so diverse in their ages and interests, was another opportunity to deepen the web of community. This multi-day event is a time when affinity groups, fostered by EarthSpirit, are able to meet and explore common interests. The daily schedule reserved a slot for these groups alone. For example, this year’s scheduled included a slot for participants 50 and over; one for those who have studied Faery Seership; and another for those exploring the role of queer energy in Paganism. For others, this time was an opportunity to explore nature or spend time connecting with old friends. Overall, the daily schedule was designed to provide space for magical moments that make a festival come alive in one’s memories, be it over a game of cards or a quiet conversation shared under the stars.

Weaving the web (courtesy EarthSpirit Community)

Weaving the web [Courtesy EarthSpirit Community]

While affinity groups use Rites of Spring to strengthen bonds, this festival also has space for intensives: classes which take place each day to allow for some mastery of the subject. With most of these sessions taking place during the same morning slot, participants were less likely to face the age-old problem of missing out on several other workshops to join in. Options included spending the morning drumming, walking the labyrinth, learning the ways of northern or Indian traditions, or mastering the art of spinning poi. Most of these intensives were structured to allow those who arrive later in the festival to drop in and learn.

Other classes targeted specific demographics, such as the Vulva Dialogues and several aimed at the younger generation of festival-goers. The Wilderness Survival intensive, for 9-15-year-olds, may have generated the most adult envy; youngsters learned about tracking, fire-building, camouflage, and spent the night in shelters they built themselves.

Deirdre Pulgram Arthen (courtesy Megan Walker, Afon Art)

Deirdre Pulgram Arthen [Courtesy Megan Walker, Afon Art]

The web holding together the Rites of Spring is not just a metaphor: EarthSpirit Community comes together each year to weave one around the maypole, transforming the ritual field into an even more magical space. The anchoring strands, which all stand for such varied spirits as the wisdom of the elders, insights of the seeker, animals, plants, and elements, are held by adults, while young and old alike weave colorful strands throughout to create a web made of chaotic joy. Each person is given a chance to weave their piece into this web, creating a magic which lasts long after the last tent stake is pulled up.

Part of the tradition is for pieces to go home as talismans, or materials for creating something new. Two such items appeared in this year’s auction, and fetched handsome prices. The auction is another annual piece of the festival, with proceeds this year going towards sending a delegation to A Parliament of World’s Religions, and to helping to upgrade EarthSpirit’s web presence.

In addition to an amazing assortment of hand-crafted items, a number of community members put themselves on the block to be “serving wenches” of any gender for the sumptuous feast. This celebratory spread, open to all participants whether they paid for a meal plan or not, is served buffet style. Winning a server at auction means more time to spend building community, and less time on line filling one’s plate.

As was the case frequently during the week, the atmosphere of the feast was livened by Brizeus, the pipe-and-drum band which is contracted to make everything more awesome. At any time, one could be surprised by bagpipes rolling across the site’s lake, or find oneself joining in a sing-along of Beatles and Floyd played on guitar.

Within this web of music, ritual, workshop, and quiet space, there was somehow room more. Late nights at Rites featured a number of musicians, as well as DJ dance parties and karaoke blow-outs. Professional-class storytelling and fire spinning rounded out the entertainment options. Lovers of ritual could choose a Heathen blot, ancestor devotionals, Quaker silent worship, labyrinth walking, and several others focusing on various magical and religious paths. Workshops numbered in the dozens, not including the intensives already noted. There was even an opportunity for Pagans in recovery to join in 12-step meetings. The web was strong enough to allow everyone to be as busy as a bee, as quiet as a mouse, or to change gears at a moment’s notice.

Rooting out invasive plants.

Rooting out invasive plants. [Courtesy EarthSpirit Community]

Perhaps one of the most heartfelt parts of the festival is when Pagans are asked to act in accordance with their beliefs, and give back to the mountain. Groups of all ages gathered with tools and gloves to seek out and remove invasive species and litter. One Japanese barberry, in particular, showed how intractable a plant out of its place can be, breaking several tools over the course of an hour or more. But it did not break the spirt of the people intent to removing it; the massive root ball was later displayed as would any great kill would be by its hunters. This heaviest work went to those in prime physical condition, but there was also plenty of garlic mustard and litter to collect along the roadsides. Most invasives at the site come in on trucks, according to Isobel Arthen, but this annual practice has measurably reduced their impact on the land.

The transition back to everyday life can be a hard one, which is probably why it can take so long to say good-bye and hit the road. EarthSpirit has rituals to support this work, as well. Monday morning, a group of visitors sang a-maying songs throughout the camp, announcing the it was time to take down and pack up. When the community gathered one last time around the bewebbed maypole, the many people who helped to make the festival happen came forth to be acknowledged: not just the teachers and village builders and kitchen crew, but the newcomers and children and others who rounded out this temporary community were cheered.

Taking down the web was, of course, accompanied by the song “Carry it Home,” a perfect choice to help keep the magic of this time and place in one’s heart. And while most attendees sang their tearful partings as they processed back through the gate, their cars were being quietly moved around so that vehicles which had been packed like sardines were now all accessible for a quick load and leave. Even after the physical web had been taken down, the strands of support just made even those final mundane tasks a whole lot easier.