There are places of natural beauty and power in cities and suburbs, but truly wild places are hard to come by. I prefer the mountains and forests, but the swamps of South Louisiana where the OBOD Gulf Coast Gathering is held are beautiful and powerful… and restorative.
Last weekend was the second annual OBOD Gulf Coast Gathering, and I was glad to be there and participate. The woods have always been my safe space.
The more OBOD camps I attend (this was my ninth) the harder it is for me to recap them. How many times can you write about workshops, rituals, and initiations? They’re good and helpful and meaningful, but what can I say about them that I haven’t already said – and that you haven’t already read the previous eight times?
So instead of trying to recap the 2016 OBOD Gulf Coast Gathering, I’d rather just tell you some of my random thoughts and impressions from four days at Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville, Louisiana.
I needed this retreat. The Gods are first in my practice. I never tire of telling Their stories and hearing others tell them. I never tire of prayer and meditation. I never tire of discussing theology, philosophy, ethics, and community with my fellow polytheists.
I do, however, frequently tire of debates turning into arguments, of arguments getting personal, and of personalities who seem more interested in advancing themselves and tearing down others than in serving the Gods. And over the last few weeks, I’ve gotten really tired.
The Gulf Coast Gathering was on my schedule six months ago, but it couldn’t have come at a better time. OBOD’s primary focus is on Nature spirituality and our legacy of the ancient Druids. Four days spent immersed in Druidry is a wonderful restorative tonic for the pain of theological discord.
The Gods are never far away. The presence of a certain Forest God was unmistakable. I usually wear my Awen pendant at OBOD events, but I hadn’t been on-site for more than two hours when a combination of animal sightings and more direct communication made it clear I needed this one instead.
Now, animals are sovereign beings with their own agency – they do what they do for their own reasons. To assume they are messengers for humans is species-centric and displays a lack of familiarity with ordinary animal behavior. But sometimes it’s not what they have to tell us, it’s what their presence reminds us to focus on. Many of the Old Gods are Gods of natural forces and phenomena – it is no surprise we can experience Them more clearly in a more natural setting.
The conversations were the best part. There were great conversations with Cynthia on the long drive (and that’s another good thing about the GCG – it’s drivable from North Texas) – some historical speculation, some cultural observations, and some planning for the future. At the camp, there were conversations on the many aspects of Druidry, our relationships with the land, and our hopes and fears around the on-going election campaign. There was a long discussion on the challenges of introducing potentially scary spiritual depth to a religiously diverse group that includes beginners.One of the programs was a panel discussion on creativity in ritual. The panelists discussed goals, limits, and some of the ways to introduce creative elements into your rituals. There was a good amount of participation from the audience, with questions and with comments of “this is what worked for me.” When some of the questions started getting off topic, we came back to our primary conversation by saying “that’s a good question – let’s talk about it after the panel.” And we did.
Sometimes the message is delivered in spite of the messenger. The theme of this year’s camp was “Celebrating the Bardic Arts.” I led a workshop on Bardic Magic, which was pretty much the same presentation I gave in the ADF suite at Pantheacon. I was happy with the material but not with my presentation – it was too disjointed and too much of a lecture (I think I need to restructure it to have more stories and less exposition).
But over the rest of the camp, several people pointed out things I had brought up that they found helpful. That’s no excuse to not make it flow more smoothly, but it was nice to hear.
Mighty beings take many forms. Below is the Seven Sisters Oak, located at a private residence about six miles from Fontainebleau. It’s about 1500 years old. Think about that for a minute: when Justinian closed the last philosophy schools, this tree was here. When the Normans conquered England, this tree was already 500 years old. When Shakespeare was writing his plays, this tree was over 1000 years old.
Trees like this are one of the reasons I’m an animist, among my other religious and spiritual identities. It is clearly not human – our last common ancestor was a single-celled organism that lived 1.6 billion years ago. But just being in its presence screams that whatever energy or force or spirit animates us also animates the trees and every other living thing on Earth.
This is an ancient and mighty being that deserves our respect, admiration, and care.
After the retreat, chop wood and carry water. It would be great to live at Druid camp, communing with Nature, honoring the Gods and spirits, and engaging in deep conversations every night. But when the retreat is over it’s time to go back to work.
When Henry David Thoreau ended his two year two month and two day experiment in simplicity (which wasn’t as remote as many assume, but that’s not relevant to this post) he said:
I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.
Yes, I had to be back at my paying job at 7:30 AM on Monday morning. I have food to buy, house payments to make, and while the Gulf Coast Gathering is a fairly inexpensive trip for me, it’s not free.
I have no desire to get back into the less pleasant conversations in our Pagan and polytheist communities, but there is work that must be done and some of it is my responsibility to do. Building community is hard, contentious work. That’s no excuse for not doing it.
Thanks to the OBOD Gulf Coast Gathering, I’m refreshed, restored, and in a much better frame of mind to do the work that’s been set before me.