It’s just after noon, and I am sitting under the canopy of my friend Sarah’s booth in the merchant circle of the Heartland Pagan Festival. The heat is punishing this year, with temperatures in the 90s and humidity is pushing the heat index up into hundreds, and most of our fellow pilgrims are hiding, languid, in whatever cool spot they can find. If I weren’t scheduled to lead a workshop in an hour, I would have sequestered myself in my cabin, spread out under the inexcusable luxury of a ceiling fan, but alas. Instead I am here, plucking out the chords on a dulcimer in my lap and whispering the lyrics to “Wild Mountain Thyme” under my breath: Well the summer time is comin’, and the fields are sweetly bloomin’…
“That’s a very soothing sound,” says Sarah, being generous. I’m not much good on the dulcimer.
I find the Pagan nature sanctuary to be an odd entity, when I stop to think about it. In the past few months I have considered how these physical places that we have given names like Gaea Retreat and Oak Spirit Sanctuary interact with the metaphysical and political beliefs in which we clothe them. We have shaped these places, built structures atop them, sculpted their landscapes — to what end? What draws us to the idea of having “Pagan land” in the first place? Margot Adler wrote of the early days of these Pagan nature sanctuaries in Drawing Down the Moon.
It’s the last night of Heartland, and the gods are dancing around the fire. Drums pound out a rhythm for their revel. Masks hide their eyes in wells of shadow as they ambulate, a counter-widdershins curve of bodies spinning, twirling, cycling in and out from the red glow of the flame and the blue dark of the field. Some of their bodies I recognize: friends caught up in the trance. They have answered the high priest’s challenge, donned masks inscribed with sigils that contain the breath of gods, and surrendered themselves to the whims of the powers beyond.
The shovel’s blade cuts into the rich wet earth. As soon as it lifts its burden of dirt from the ground, brown water slips into the hole. The dirt falls to the ground and then the shovel bites into the firmament again. Do this again and again, bringing along six other shovels with six other sets of hands, and bore a channel into the muck, an empty line that stretches between the lake and the muddy trail at the edge of the woods. The work is hard, especially for hands and backs not used to shoveling, but we reward ourselves with camaraderie and club sandwiches during our breaks.
It is Monday morning, Memorial Day. Another Heartland Pagan Festival has come and gone. At the moment I am sitting in the muddy nook I picked for a campsite, looking up at the canopy and wishing that my tent would simply put itself away, perhaps animated by a helpful djinn. My wife suggests that it’s better off that tents don’t do this; even a helpful tent-spirit might sometimes get the notion to pack itself away with us still inside. I do not hear her voice when she tells me this.