Column: Spirit is Free, but Community Priceless

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DARLINGTON, Md. –Free Spirit Gathering is one of a growing number of festivals which has been held for more than 30 years, making it a touchstone for Pagans and polytheists seeking to connect with like-minded people. That kind of longevity also means that loss is part and parcel of the community. After several beloved members left this life behind in a short period of time, this year’s coordinators sought a ritual team specifically to aid in the grieving and honoring of those blessed dead. I always go to festivals with my reporter’s pad at the ready, but I attended this one of several priests from the Hellenic Temple of Apollon, Zeus and Pan who were tasked with providing an opportunity to venerate community ancestors, including those freshly minted.

We provided three rituals over five days, and the support provided once we had arrived at Ramblewood was simply incredible. Activities before and after the rituals were scheduled to flow into one another, and staff members were quick to provide furniture, gear transportation, and ritual volunteers up to and including a priestess who conducted the sacrifice.

Yes, there was a sacrifice of sorts. Animal sacrifice is part of Hellenic practice, but none of the priests in our temple are trained in that delicate art. For that and other reasons, a sheep made entirely of paper better suited our purpose. During the festival, participants wrote messages and prayers for their dead on strips of red paper, which were later placed within Baa B., the black sheep charged with delivering them. The flash of the knife poured those out into a basket, which together with the sacrifice itself were committed to the ritual fire held immediately thereafter.

For all that I was present to honor the ancestors, the joy present in this living community permeated my entire time there. While Free Spirit Alliance is, like all organizations, occasionally plagued with internal disagreements and moments of self-doubt, there is a real and abiding sense of community running throughout. From the moment we arrived, we were shown that hospitality is a value deeply rooted in FSG. Perhaps that’s related to the strong Heathen presence (blots were held twice daily for the duration), but it likely comes from other places as well, such as Southern culture and the simple fact that the people in attendance all seemed genuinely nice.

There was a time when FSG was one of the few places people interested in Pagan and polytheist religions could connect with and learn from others. The internet has made it easier to find information — albeit without discernment — which has likely contributed to the fact that attendance has dropped over time. That’s led to deep discussions about what FSG’s place is in the grand scheme of festivals. One phrase that arose frequently is that it’s both clothing-optional and family-friendly, a needle which appeared to be deftly threaded by festival and camp staff members. The most visible aspect of the systems maintaining that balance are the festival wrist bands, which unambiguously announce both the age range of the participant, and whether or not they may consent to being photographed.

The FSG camp store includes a variety of products [Terence P Ward].

Systems of organization really stand out as a testament both to the festival and Ramblewood, a camp that has been managed by both the Girl Scouts and the Civilian Conservation Corps in the past. A fleet of golf carts gets those staff members where they need to be, and are also used to assist attendees arrive to workshops on time. Ramblewood is quite accessible for a campground, but FSG staffers drove a continuous circuit to provide transportation to anyone in need; I was asked at least a dozen times if I needed a ride. Other systems include the teams overseeing fires, safety, medical care, check-in, and youth programming. It could amount to an impenetrable bureaucracy, but in practice all an attendee need do is approach someone with a walkie-talkie to get any needs addressed.

The facilities at Ramblewood are quite old, but everywhere is evidence of recent updates. Many of the buildings have new tin roofs upon them, and the floor in my cabin had been recently replaced. The mattresses were memory foam that was probably a foot thick, which wasn’t soft enough for everyone I spoke with but more than adequate for my needs. Cabins have limited privacy — the hot showers and flush toilets are available to any passerby — but there is plenty of space to set up a tent and camp, if that’s a concern.

Coordinator Travelin’ Tim broke one of the unwritten rules of festival management by offering a workshop at the festival he was running, which he could do only because those systems allowed him to do so. To be fair, he didn’t have to stop thinking about his job, because his workshop was on running festivals. By pulling back the curtain on FSG, he provided some insight into the challenges of starting a new event, seed money for venue rental first among them. FSG has a large staff, members of which are paid with discounted admission rates, which means that while they’re in one sense volunteers, they are also an expense. The gathering’s budget also covers medical supplies, golf carts, entertainment such as the fire-performance company Hvbris, as well as any marketing used to draw in new and return attendees. The FSG model, he explained, gives department heads significant leeway in managing internal affairs, while the coordinator facilitates communication and manages the big picture. From this first-timer’s perspective, that big picture was definitely in focus.

One thing that stood out for me is the concept of a camp store. At all festivals I’ve attended, there has been at the very least strong encouragement to stay on site for the duration, the thought being that the more people who leave, the more disruptive it is to the energy therein. Heck, at Rites of Spring attendee cars are packed as tightly as sardines, making it nearly impossible to duck out for an errand. The camp store is a selection of products that attendees have forgotten to bring in years past, together with festival swag. The selection is stunning, from dental and feminine care products to rain ponchos to dish soap to pens and paper. The store does not, for the most part, carry perishable goods, but one staff member makes town runs daily to pick up anything not otherwise available.

Pyro serving ice cream [Terence P Ward].

While there’s mostly no perishable goods in the camp store, but there is one categorical exception: ice cream. However, that can’t be purchased until the ice cream truck gets rolling, which it did on every hot day. One of the golf carts is equipped with a large cooler and a phone playing appropriate music, driven completely unironically by staff member Pyro. He often doesn’t get halfway around the camp before selling out, such is the Maryland weather in June.

For those not fascinated by how festivals are run, the options are many. They include walking around the wooded glades and lake, swimming in the pool, attending workshops and rituals, or simply visiting with friends old and new. My own measure of a festival or conference is how many news story ideas I can generate simply by talking to people, and by that standard FSG is above and beyond all others.

No matter the other criteria, what makes a festival truly worthwhile is the presence of a community that’s cohesive enough to have a culture, but open enough to welcome first-timers into the fold. Free Spirit Gathering felt like home to this weary traveler, which means that a return trip next year is certainly in order. If you see me at the pool or around the fire, say hello and I’ll be sure to make you feel every bit as welcome as I did.

FSG dance pavilion FSG labyrinth FSG labyrinth far FSG camping
Facing the labyrinth are two benches, memorials to longtime attendees [courtesy image].

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.