Harvest Gathering offers New England bounty

ORANGE, Conn. — Harvest Gathering is not the only Pagan festival to welcome participants home upon arrival, but its staff put a lot of energy into the idea. The theme came up again and again over the course of the four-day event, and it was evident in the increasing spring in the step of many an attendee. How many harvest events open the first feast to all comers, whether or not they paid for the meal plan? This one does, and it not only helped this first-timer feel welcome, it set the tone of “harvest event” from the outset.

Perhaps Harvest Gathering had exactly the right number of people in attendance, at 163, which is right around Dunbar’s number. Maybe it was the weather, which fell short of oppressively hot thanks to the trees and only smelled of rain once. Or it could have been the “astral car wash” upon entry, where bewinged organizer Gina Grasso smudged my Volkwagen Beetle, Bucephalus, and all that was within. Whatever combination of people, place, and things that contributed to it, Harvest Gathering resonated a warm, welcoming magic that made the best moments more intense, and the inconveniences nearly unnoticeable. (An event at a campground, even one with some amenities, will always require participants to face insects, weather, and walking to a greater degree than modern life generally prepares us for. Inconveniences come with the territory.)

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[Photo: T. Ward]

This is an event with a strong, unapologetic witchy feel. It permeated the rituals, the workshops, the energy of the newly-reconstructed fire circle, and the kinds of vendors who hawked their wares. The depth of that witchiness was hinted at in the workshop schedule itself. For one program slot, both Ronald Hutton and Raven Grimassi were presenting.

However, Harvest Gathering is not an exclusively Wiccan event, and there were rituals and workshops alike which came from very different traditions. The sense of welcome was in no way diminished for those who followed other paths. Those who ran the event walked the walk that matched their talk in an authentic way.

The spirit of community and authenticity could be seen in multiple ways. This was the first year that recycling was implemented for the festival, and it seemed to be a rousing success. With no existing infrastructure, event staff organized the source separation of garbage from recyclable materials, and reusable wine and mead bottles from that. Brewers were invited to collect the bottles from the latter supply, and all attendees were asked to take bags of material home. People recycled with gusto, ensuring that the experiment would continue in future years. At another point, a piece of glass caught my eye on the trail. I stooped to pick it up, and as I rose I saw two people who had been walking ahead of me each bend down to pick up a piece of trash.

One morning I found myself, not surprisingly, gathered around the coffee urn with other devotees of Caffeina. One of these early risers was expressing a longing for more advanced material than is generally found in books on Pagan religions. She found that the ADF curriculum was sufficiently challenging for her intellect, but nearly insurmountable for her pantheist worldview. It turned my own experience on its head, and reminded me that all Pagan religions still have much to learn from one another, despite differences in theology.

Such was the nature of this festival. I found myself hanging on the words of an esteemed scholar one afternoon, and a few hours later having a serious discussion with a ten-year-old boy about the types of spirits he’d encountered in his life. Anyone could, and did, strike up a conversation with anyone.

Classes with class

Faced with the impossible choice of attending a workshop with Hutton or one with Grimassi, I hedged my bets by choosing the third option, a seidh ritual by Patricia Lafayllve. References to this trance practice are scant in the historic record, and Lafayllve explained that absent a clear idea of what the Norse people actually did, she incorporates aspects of her shamanic training to fill in the gaps and perform oracular work. This session proved to be both workshop and ritual, with Lafayllve giving a history of seidh as it is known and a play-by-play of what she and her assistant would be doing during the rite before beginning.

I attended the Grimassi class called The Cord of Greenwood Magic & Working with Plant Spirits.It was a workshop in the truest sense as attendees crafted a magical tool and were instructed how to use it. Research into the consciousness of plants “is not particularly good news if you’re a vegetarian,” explained Raven Grimassi as Stephanie Taylor-Grimassi cut and handed out cords for the work. “We use ourselves for a model of reality,” including an assumption that a being must have a brain and central nervous system to feel and be aware. Studies measuring plants hooked up to lie detectors and other instruments suggest that they are aware of harm on some level, and work to counteract it. In step with that emerging science, the Grimassis helped their students knot magical intention into that cord, to tie it into the life cycle of plants, and then used those new talismans to connect with the spirit of a particular plant known for its spiritual aspects.

Hutton was the talk of the festival in his tweed jacket, but he did strip to just his waist coat in the 90-degree heat of the day. However, summer in New England was not enough to keep him from donning his tweed cap to guard against the sun. He explained that he had grown up in British-colonized India and was, as a result, quite used to the heat. The temperature dropped noticeably after sunset, so perhaps he felt more secure keeping his jacket near to hand.

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Cori Taylor and Ronald Hutton [Photo: T. Ward]

One of the professor’s lectures, The Return of the Horned God, drew heavily upon material from his book, Triumph of the Moon, which sets out the very real historic roots of Wicca. While these are not as tidy as the mythic tales of an unbroken tradition, they are nevertheless deep and genuine. Hutton traced the interest in a horned god in Europe from rumblings in the Romantic era to the resurgence of Pan as the quintessential nature god, only to have the focus shift by the 1940s to a celebration of Cernunnos. The popularity of Pan among European thinkers of the Victorian period came in part from the convenient double nature of his name, which also means “all” in Greek, making it possible for “pantheism to become Pan-theism,” in Hutton’s words. Those sorts of accidents, choosing a rustic Arcadian deity to stand in for all male divinity while at the same time forgetting the hundreds of local gods whose shrines dot the British landscape, Hutton suggestion may itself show the hands of the gods. “These are the names that destiny, or the gods themselves, decided we should have,” he said.

Rich in Ritual

Friday and Saturday nights each featured rituals, which were quite different but not entirely so. The Novices of the Old Ways led the Well, the Forge, the Song, which explored three aspects of Brigid as healer, empowerment, and inspiration. The following night was Awaken the Warrior, organized by Stephanie Woodfield and a group of Celtic practitioners. How these groups set sacred space, invited in the presence of deity, and confronted participants with lessons was very different, as different as Brigid is from Macha and the Morrigan, whom the latter ritual was focused upon. As they both drew upon Celtic tradition and lore, the underlying power felt in some ways the same: many people were bowled over by the force of emotion during each ritual.

The fire circle which was focus of much of the ritual work, as well as bardic and drum circles, was entirely rebuilt this year through the efforts of the community. Some $1,700 was collected to obtain and place stout sitting logs, dancing-grade sand, and rocks to form a clear barrier between embers and bare feet. Fire tenders were vigilant in putting out stray sparks in the path of dancers, but their role was more than safety alone. The flames blazed purple, blue, and green under the ministrations as shining bodies danced to the beat of tireless drummers.

Space for Self

Many festivals and conferences are moving toward larger periods of time between class sessions, and Harvest Gathering is no exception. Not every morning was an early one, and there was sufficient time to walk from building to building, even with a pause to visit the flushing toilets. Plenty of people chose to forgo a session or two to make or reforge connections, so meal times were not the only opportunity to catch up with old friends. The roads looping around the camp property provided plenty of space for quiet walks in the woods, when that was what the spirit asked for.

Harvest Gathering is neither the largest nor smallest outdoor Pagan gathering I have attended. Likewise, I’ve been to events that are both newer and older. For me, it stands out by being one of the most sincerely magical events I’ve been to in 2015. The feeling I was left with was not dissimilar to how I feel after I pick up my weekly farm share: weighed down with bounty, and wondering how I can possibly consume it all.

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8 thoughts on “Harvest Gathering offers New England bounty

  1. i joined the cwpn several years ago, and they are the most welcoming group of pagans i’ve ever met. they have a genuine ability to make everyone feel at home whether it’s your first event or you’ve been going for years. everyone is generous and thoughtful and there’s a real sense of family and community.

    • At last PCon, I ended up speaking with, for over an hour, a bearded gentlebeing with 12 names (none of which e could choose as e’s “real name”), who was working the conference rooms end of the hotel. We started talking about Erishkigal–e did, I mostly listened in awe at finding someone who honored her more than i did (I’m in a troupe called House of *Inanna*). We veered on to other subjects, some related, some not, but while at the table, e would welcome people who came up to the table, ask them if this was their first PCon, greet them with Welcome Home! sometimes followed by What took you so long? I started doing the same.

      I think the act of welcoming is a great expression of hospitality offered, and community shared. Nice custom–needs to spread.

  2. What a fantastic write up. I truly feel you captured the spirit of Harvest Gathering, my favorite festival on the summer circuit.

  3. She found that the ADF curriculum was sufficiently challenging for her intellect, but nearly insurmountable for her pantheist worldview.

    I’m perplexed by the idea that ADF is incompatible with pantheism.

  4. Wish I’d been there.
    Thanks for the pointer to Dunbar’s Number. Interesting idea that I must ponder, but it feels right.

    I adore the recycling they chose to include. I always suspect that food service establishments and stores without separate recycling containers don’t recycle, but claim they do after the receptacle by them has been taken out. We take our aluminum cans to a local metals recycling center who also accept electronics waste, including dead batteries. You don’t have to pay me to get their toxicity out of the trash stream–I’m pathetically grateful that I can do this without making a trek to the local landfill’s “Hazardous Household Waste” section.

    I started recycled aluminium in the late 70’s, selling to metal dealers. When I moved up to Santa Cruz county in 1989, it increased to anything recyclers/buyers were talking, and sending other items off for reuse. What started this diversion from the trash stream was the long poorly-laid & canted driveway (about two storeys worth) down to the narrow and blind-curvey shoulderless road. So dragging trash bins down to that was something to be avoided. I separated out some things, and put all the rest that the *current contract with the county or municipality* would accept into the provided recycling containers. I started small, and by increments, I only needed to take a trash bin down that blasted driveway once a month, and not entirely filled.

    I volunteered with Ecology Action of Santa Cruz County, mostly handling mail and calls about recycling, reuse, and reducing disposable container use. I’d get told that I had more ideas for the 3 Rs than even they had. I guess it’s the imagination.

    I learned a whole lot about contracts between waste removal companies and the communities they covered. A lot of it might be outdated, 25+ years later.

    The best commercial example of recycling/reuse for patrons was at V. Sattui Winery in Napa. In the early 1990’s, there were old-style metal trash bins for aluminum, other metal, glass (brown, green, clear), wine bottles (you put your empties in cardboard boxes with dividers), corks, plastics (by number, if I recall), wood/paper–and I have no idea if they had a compost bin.

    While I don’t drink wine at home often, I have a bag filling with corks in a nook of a ladderlike rack. There have been times, that even with the largest bin provided, we could fill two, or at least greatly exceed one.

    The three R’s can be accomplished easily, with enough imagination, *provided* there is a decent recycling contract near you, and you have the ability to physically manage it. Not all of us do.

  5. This was the first year I was able to attend and am glad I did. A friend and I both live nearby so we drove up for the day on Friday and Saturday. Attended workshops we liked in each session, met people, watched a Tarot deck scandalize Hutton, made connections, enjoyed being outside, and we’re both hoping it will be a good lineup next year.