Culture And Community: Losing Harbin to the Valley Fire

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MIDDLETOWN, Calif —  Lake County, California has been on fire since September 12, 2015. This fast moving and powerful fire has swept the county at remarkable and horrifying speed, burning over 67,000 acres in the first three days. According to the Cal Fire website, in those first three days, there were 585 houses lost, 9,000 structures threatened, and only 30% of the fire was contained. As of September 17, 2015, three deaths have been confirmed and the fire is only at 35% containment.

Courtesy of Michael Hardy of Posterity Productions

Courtesy of Michael Hardy of Posterity Productions

The devastation has become insurmountable. Many people are now struggling to come to terms with the loss of a whole community, and the new context of survival under these circumstances.

One particular location, nestled in Lake County, has a long history with the Pagan and alternative spirituality communities in the Bay Area. It is known as Harbin Hot Springs.Tragically, Harbin Hot Springs is one of the many places that have succumbed to the horrible fate of ashes and ruin. It began to circle around social media sites Sunday that Harbin was now gone, burned to an almost unrecognizable state. Almost.

Harbin Hot Springs was a retreat center nestled on 5,000 acres of land and surrounded by the beauty of California. The website states that it was, “One of the oldest and most beautiful hot springs in California, Harbin is hidden in the hills above the wine country north of the San Francisco Bay area.” Harbin offered a host of services, hot and cold spring water pools, and a clothing optional space that offered a chance to be in the natural setting of the Bay Area.

Photo courtesy of Michael Hardy of Posterity Productions

Photo courtesy of Michael Hardy of Posterity Productions

The operation of Harbin was large and the loss immediately impacted those employed or living on the grounds. Its website has a series of updates on the front page, one of which says “285 residents, practitioners and local staff worked at Harbin – from phone operators and yoga instructors, to cooks, carpenters, housekeepers, gardeners and water system operators.” It is unclear at this point what is to happen now.

By the end of the weekend there were numerous social media threads, posted by individuals within Pagan and alternative spiritual communities, that expressed feelings of loss and grief for this space. From personal stories of living on the grounds to memories of the long running Ancient Ways Festival, many Pagans are sharing feelings of sadness and cherished memories about Harbin Hot Springs.

In honor of the many memories that this center has manifested over the years, I asked several people to share their thoughts, stories and feelings about Harbin Hot Springs in light of this tragedy.

Harbin was home to many people in the pagan community, be they current residents, former residents, or folks who felt more at home there than any other four walls they’ve surrounded themselves with. Many lifelong friendships were forged at the Ancient Ways festival. For many, it was a place of life-defining experiences. It was a place that lived inside of us, part of the inner landscape of who we are. So we feel its desolation as a desolation of the heart.

Obviously those who were currently living on Harbin property, as well as the surrounding areas, have lost far more than those of us not. However, the grief that touches us most personally is the grief that is ours to bear. Grieving, from whatever angle it hits us, always opens the heart to greater compassion. I’d like to see us as a community make space for folks to grieve whatever feels like loss to them, and allow them to open to the wider grief in their own time Sharon Knight

My wife, Sarah, and I have gone to Harbin many many times, including our honeymoon in 2010. But the most important part Harbin played in our lives was a time just after we had decided to really give the coven thing a go. It was about mid-day, and we were laying out on the lawn in front of the Walnut/Azalea buildings reading and writing after a full morning of soaking and meditating in the warm pool. One of the things that we were trying to figure out was how to explain polarity in a way other than in terms of “masculine and feminine.” After a while, Sarah, who had been getting poked by spirits all morning (specifically Kali who is particularly present at Harbin), asked me for a pen and paper. I gave her my notebook and she started writing furiously. I continued to read my book while she was writing and when she was finished she handed me the notebook. What was written on it was a poem called “The Sword,”, which became the cornerstone of our coven’s teachings and the basis for our 3rd Degree ritual. What we are now was born there on that lawn. It is sad to see the pictures of Harbin right now, but I know that Harbin will come back to help more people birth big ideas. – Rev. Gina Pond


Ancient Ways at Harbor was the first place Joi Wolfwoman, Amelia Hogan and I sang the infamous “hot lesbian sex” song. I had made up the first couple verses of the song, filled to the tune of Food Glorious Food. Then outside the Meadow Bldg while passing a bottle of rum Joi helped finish the final verse and we then performed it publicly in the Meadow Bldg. It became an annual tradition. But the fun part is how that song was used in the final blessing ritual in the warm pool at 2 am on the last day of the last ancient ways at Harbin– Gwen Templeton

Harbin Hot Springs wasn’t much to look when I first stepped out of the car. I hate to camp and the piles of scrub grass didn’t much call to me. Personally, I’m more of a spa weekend kind of girl. Still… I had signed on for a weekend of serenity with a friend and my wife and was determined to get naked, get sun, do some yoga and find some peace- even if it killed me.

More than anything what I found at Harbin turned out to be community. In two days I met people from all over the world that were friendly, spiritual, wanted to discuss their own paths and didn’t much mind the ways mine differed. As a person with an imperfect shape my nudity never made me self-conscious. As a woman surrounded by men I never felt ogled. As a meat eater in a sea of vegan lunches no one judged me. The pools were warm and delicious but the people were what actually brought me the peace I craved. For two solid days I was somewhere that I could just…Be.

My heart goes out to the community and all that has been lost, but I, and others who have benefited from our time there will be there when it is safe to help rebuild. – Darcy Totten

The last time I was at Harbin Hot Springs, CAYA Coven’s group stayed in the ranch house that is on a separate piece of land from the main resort. The administrator at the desk was telling me how the previous guests of the ranch house were a group of Tibetan monks, and that while they were there, snow fell over the ranch house…in July. The monks worked a miracle together with their brilliant practice to cause that to happen. Miracles are possible when we all pull together with heart. May there be the most wonderful rebuilding parties that show the truly magical nature of humanity. – Yeshe Mathews


Photo courtesy of Michael Hardy of Posterity Productions

I had the pleasure of speaking with a longtime Pagan practitioner who relayed a magnificent story of a spiritual experience that she had at Harbin during one of the Ancient Ways Festivals about 25 years ago. She spoke of rituals inside of the hot tub and an intense moment she shared with Brigit, during which she was given the message that she was pregnant. She described this ritual as very “Harbin like” and explored the moment Brigit touch her stomach to claim the forthcoming birth of a child. And indeed she was pregnant.

I wanted to include this story because it was one of the many examples of the deeply spiritual memories and experiences that so many people are sharing about their time there. The longevity and use of Harbin Hot Springs by festivals, groups and individuals in the Pagan community hold a lot of significance for the Bay Area scene.

In addition, there have been responses referring to the natives who once inhabited the land. These comments stress that the land should be returned. And, there have been other comments about the lack of focus on the people who have lost their homes. Such comments argue that the media and our community continue to grieve the loss of Harbin, thereby focusing the damage of the Valley Fire on one place when many people are in pain. While all of these comments may hold merit, there is also a clear understanding that the loss of Harbin has greatly impacted the local Bay Area Pagans, New Age spiritual communities, and those within the surrounding areas.


Photo courtesy of Michael Hardy of Posterity Productions

In the recent blog post, titled Ode to Harbin, there is a quote that I feel is a fitting close to this piece. The author wrote, “The sacred site was used for centuries by native peoples then became a resort in 1870. The resort’s hotel burned to the ground. That hotel was replaced, and its replacement later burned down as well. Renewal is in its blood; fitting, as the one quintessential Harbin experience was to go back and forth from the scalding hot pool to the ice cold pool, sending your body into a very heightened kinesthetic state.” We do not know what the future of Harbin Hot Springs will hold as its recovery unfolds, but rebuilding might be the outcome. 

Concepts of renewal are the very things we can hope for in the process of recovery after the fire is done, and to give support to those who have been harmed so that they may have the opportunity for renewal and rebuilding. May those in Middletown and the surrounding areas of Lake County find peace in these horribly trying times.

All photos were used with permission courtesy of Posterity Productions and under strict copyright. You can see more incredible photos and video on their facebook page.