Festivals, Retreats and Immersion

Today’s edition of The Wild Hunt is a speculative piece on the future of Pagan festivals. Jason Pitzl-Waters, inspired by this blog entry by ritual magician Frater Barrabbas, wonders if despite record attendance at large festivals like Pagan Spirit Gathering and Pantheacon, perhaps the days of the Pagan festival are numbered.

The argument is basically that large Pagan festivals are, well, large. They draw people from long distances who have to burn fossil fuels to get there. As people who love the Earth, we should minimize our impact on the environment. And as the impact of peak oil and climate change grows, energy prices will continue to rise making travel more and more expensive and thus making festivals less and less affordable for all of us.

Therefore, Jason suggests, internet-based distance learning programs should, over time, replace large festivals as ways of holding workshops, concerts and the like.

For education, I can’t argue with him. If what you’re looking for is knowledge, it’s hard to justify travel expenses when you can get the same information sitting at your kitchen table. It won’t work in all cases: I attended a workshop by Thorn Coyle on Ecstatic Ritual that would have been impossible (or at least, significantly less meaningful) if it had been done remotely. On the other hand, the workshop I occasionally lead on Daily Spiritual Practice follows a traditional classroom lecture and discussion format – it would probably work just fine.

But I don’t go to festivals for education. If I want to learn I read books, look up stuff on the internet, discuss it with friends, send e-mails and make calls to recognized experts, and then write about it here so you can critique it and I can refine it.

I go to festivals and retreats for the experience. I go to leave the ordinary world behind for a few days. I go to immerse myself in the Wild and to immerse myself in Pagan culture. These experiences are refreshing, inspiring, and aside from my daily practice, probably the most important spiritual activities I do.

Immersing yourself in the Wild (I took some flak for calling it “Nature”, which implies that urban areas aren’t part of Nature) lets you unplug, reminds you of how little you really need, removes distractions and lets you repair and rebuild your connections to the Earth.

For all our efforts at living our Pagan values every day, we still live in a culture whose beliefs, values and customs are very different than our own. That’s why we like The Wicker Man, despite its glaringly bad PR for Paganism. We’re fascinated with the idea of living in a place where everyone is Pagan, where our rituals and celebrations are part of the common life, and where our beliefs and morals are seen as normal. The only place that happens is at Pagan festivals, which are as our rituals proclaim: “between the worlds, beyond the bounds of time.”

Spending a few days immersed in the Wild and immersed in Pagan culture reminds me of what things can be, if we order our lives to make them possible.

I’ve been to CMA Beltane here in Texas, where attendance runs from 400 to 1000. I went to smaller OBOD gatherings in California in 2009 and 2010. Last year I went to the OBOD East Coast Gathering in Pennsylvania and I’m going back in September. Yes, they’re educational and yes, they’re social, but mainly they’re restorative and inspirational.

My travel budget may be larger than the average Pagan’s but it’s not unlimited. I’ve yet to go to PSG or Pantheacon. If fuel prices continue to rise (and I see no reason to think they won’t) travel will become more expensive. But even if I have to make cuts elsewhere, I intend to continue to travel – general travel and especially travel to festivals and retreats.

There’s no other way to get the experience of immersion.

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