Ramble On: The Starwood Festival and other thoughts

(I’m still on the road and typing without a net, or with only an Ipad and a limited ability to spellcheck. I apologize in advance for the mistakes, misspelled words, and typos. I do love you all so much that I just coughed up ten bucks for decent internet access, so remember that when you notice the inevitable problems that will probably plague this entry.)

With thirty-two festivals under its kilt, Starwood is one of the longest running Pagan/Magickal Festivals in the United States. I have to throw the word “magickal” in there because it’s unfair to simply call Starwood a “Pagan” Festival. One of its strengths has always been an extremely diverse amount of programming (political stuff, probably too much stuff about legalizing pot, I even remember a workshop or two about aliens), so when you visit Starwood it’s easy to bump into a non-Pagan. Not that you can usually tell that they aren’t Pagans, Starwood has the hippy vibe that permeates most outdoor festivals, perhaps even more so than most.

For years Starwood was the biggest festival in the Eastern Time Zone. I remember Starwood’s with over 1600 people as recently as five or six years ago. Those weeks were exhausting and some of the best days of my life. In addition to the workshops there were nightly concerts, rituals, random wanderings, drum circles, three story bonfires (literally), and way too much mead. The first five or six summers I spent at Starwood were truly transformative.

I’m happy to report that the magick of Starwood is not something that exists just in the past, it’s alive and well, but different. Four years ago the Starwood Festival had a falling out with the campground Brushwood, and the festival was forced to move from Western (western) New York to Southeastern Ohio at Wisteria. Years later I think there’s probably still some bad blood between Starwood and Brushwood, which is extremely unfortunate and difficult on people like me. When my favorite outdoor festival left my favorite campsite I felt like a child caught up in the middle of a divorce. I still love both (and as I write about Starwood I find myself sitting at Brushwood), and I’m not sure I could ever “choose” between the two.

For some people the divorce led to intense feelings one way or the other towards either Starwood or Brushwood. To me, the seperation of the festival from the campsite that hosted it was always inevitable. It’s difficult to rent your house out to someone for a week while you are still living in it. In such situations there are always going to be conflicts. The festival has a vision, and the campground has a vision; those visions may not entirely align.

I feel silly bringing the “divorce” up but it’s still something that seems to haunt both Starwood and Brushwood three years later. As soon as I arrived at Brushwood (for the Sirius Rising Festival) I had people asking me how Starwood was. My wife and I caravaned with another couple up here to Brushwood from Starwood. In some ways the two “‘woods” are like that couple that was together forever that’s always hard to envision broken up. When I was going over what to write in this review I couldn’t find a way to write around the break-up. In someways the two entities moving on has had a positive effect on both places. The tension betweeen the two was beginning to trickle down into the festival its self, and when I went to the first Starwood at Wisteria it felt like a weight had been lifted from everyone’s shoulders. (And the same could be said about Brushwood when I visited it two weeks later.)

Even before the move from Brushwood to Wisteria, Starwood was begninning to see a decline in numbers. Starwood was not alone there either, a lot of outdoor Pagan Festivals have seen declining numbers over the past few years. Much of that can certainly be attributed to the horrible economy, higher fuel costs, and other similar factors beyond the control of the most magickal festival organizer.

Perhaps some of that can also be attributed to the evolution of Pagan Festivals as a whole. As Jason wrote last week on the Wild Hunt (and usually I’d link to stuff but that’s not possible with my rather limited travel setup) festivals are probably destined to end up smaller and more regional. Starwood was always designed to be more than just a regional festival, with Brushwood and Wisteria both being outside of major population areas (eight hours by car from New York City to Brushwood, nine to Wisteria if the traffic cooperates) that vision might be hard to maintain. Pagan Spirit Gathering saw a rise in attendance this year probably because it was so close to Chicago. Put your festival in the right spot and you’ll get more folks, put it in a less accessible spot and it will be well, less accessible.

This year’s Starwood topped out somewhere between six and seven hundred people, with the six hundred number being far more probable. In some ways the smaller number was advantageous. Six hundred is a nice, managable number, and it made me feel as if I knew everyone at the festival. Just like my first half dozen Starwoods there was plenty of stuff to do both day and night. One of the best things about Starwood is that programming lasts until about four in the morning, with midnight rituals and late late night movies throughout the festival. ACE (the organizers of Starwood) throw the best party in all of Pagandom, and as someone who has been to most of the bigger parties in Pagandom I don’t make that statement lightly.

The party aspect of Starwood might be so good that everything else sits in its rock and roll shadow. Many festival goers skip all the workshops and place their focus squarely on drum circles and other late night activities. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that (and the drumming at Starwood was generally exceptional this year, with the exception of the person who decided that using a chainsaw as a percussion instrument was something the rest of us wanted to hear, and I’m not making that up) though I do find it difficult to meet people in the dark. I will say that Starwood makes a genuine effort to provide quality workshops (even if attendance can be sparse) bringing in both Oberon Zell and Harvey Wasserman this year.

All in all I really enjoyed the hell out of this year’s Starwood. All of the things the festival had control over were well run. The program booklet was outstanding, and the folks at ACE are geuninely good people that I like spending time with. After ten years I call many of them friends. Getting to see the Rev. Ivan Stang (and his fabulous wife the lovely Princess Wei) from the Church of the SubGenius almost single handedly makes the festival for me (Praise Bob!). After the personal processing phase ends for me in another month I will probably find even more nice things to say about this year’s Starwood.

Unlike other festivals I generally feel “at home” the moment I arrive at Starwood. A lot of that is probably due to my “Morrison Ritual” a Dionysian ritual in honor of Jim Morrison (and set to the music of The Doors) as the 20th Century incarnation of Dionysus. After missing Starwood last year it was great to get back on the path of excess and honnor Jim, Aphrodite, Eris, and Aphrodite once again. I also had sixty people at my ritual (at least ten percent of the festival) which was extremely gratifying. I also did a fabulous sitdown interview with Oberon Zell which I should have up here in a couple of weeks once I get back behind my desk and on my desktop.

I feel rather self-serving talking about my own rituals and stuff, so I think it’s time to play a little Bad Pagan/Good Pagan in regards to the festival.

Good Pagan: With the exeception of the chainsaw, the drumming at this year’s Starwood was outstanding. There were nights it didn’t let up until ten in the morning. I’m not sure who all the drummers were, but they kicked some major-ass last week.

Bad Pagan: Yelling at the crack of dawn. There are a lot of folks at Starwood who stay up until the sun rises on a daily basis. There are a lot of us who also go to bed by 4:00 am. The daily screaming of “GOOD MORNING!” at 7:00 am was most unwelcome and downright rude. Doing something that you know is going to wake up a lot of other people just isn’t cool in my book. I had a nice young lady try to explain to me that the yelling of “GOOD MORNING!” was simply a way to honor the rising sun. I’m not buying it, there are lots of ways to honor the sun without disturbing other folks.

Bad Pagan: Infrastructure problems at Wisteria. I like Wisteria, as a campground it has a great deal of potential. The site is lovely and I’ve had good interactions with a lot of the people who live and work there, but I would be writing a dishonest blog if I didn’t bring some of these things up. Without flushing toilets Wisteria is reliant on portajohns, and the portajohns just weren’t cleaned out enough this year. People were leaving the festival and driving twenty minutes into town just to use the bathroom. That’s not acceptable. After a lot of complaints, the problem was corrected later in the week (though they remained smelly) but by then it had already become a running joke and a major source of dissatisfaction.

In addition to the portajohn problem the shower facilities were often dirty. By Sunday morning I was scared to take a shower barefoot. This is an easily correctable problem too. Requiring people to hose off their feet before heading into the shower would probably solve most of the problems. The floors of the showerhouse are also made out of concrete, a quick spray down with said hose every few hours would probably do wonders.

(In a recent interview with Kenny Klein on this blog we talked about why people don’t go to Pagan Festivals in greater numbers. Problems like the yelling and lack of clean facilities are certainly a contributing factor. A lot of people just don’t want to deal with that kind of stuff, no matter what the rewards might be. There are a lot of people OK with that sort of thing, but perhaps even more people who aren’t.)

Good Pagan: Starwood has a reputation as being a music heavy festival, and the music this year was generally really good. Perhaps a little too trancy in spots, but that’s personal preference. The main stage at Starwood featured musicians, and I can always appreciate that.

Good Pagan: Vending. I have a feeling that the future of Pagan vending at festivals is not extremely positive, but there were a lot of quality vendors at this year’s Starwood. There were less vendors there than in year’s past, but the quality and diversity were noteworthy.

Good Pagan: That feeling of being back with my old tribe after a year and a half on the West Coast. I can’t tell you how gratifying it was to hear Princess Wei say “it’s Starwood now because Mankey is here.” ACE asked me to be a part of this year’s Starwood back in September of 2011; feeling loved and wanted as a presenter is sometimes worth more than the free admission or whatever I make from selling books. While I was disapointed with the things Starwood couldn’t control, I was extremely happy with what they were in charge of. Creating an environment where people feel wanted is no small accomplishment.

Despite my issues with infrastructure, I loved this year’s Starwood. Thanks to everyone who visited my workshops, smiled and nodded, or praised Jim with me at the Morrison Ritual. While Starwood might not ever reach 1500 people again, I think the future of the festival is bright and I look forward to my next adventure there.

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