The View from Heartland
of a Changing Pagan Community
by Mike Nichols
INTRODUCTIONWhile attending the 1999 Heartland Pagan Festival, I joked to my cabinmate Fritz Jung that I had discovered the true secret of becoming a “legend” in the Pagan community was to simply not do anything for ten years. He jokingly replied, “Yeah, and now you’re back to muck it all up!” Probably. :)
Still, the fact is that I had been a very public teacher until ten years before, continuously offering free Witchcraft classes for twenty years (from 1970 to 1989), doing lots of local media interviews and even one national radio show (NPR’s All Things Considered). Then, when my bookstore, The Magick Lantern, closed in 1989, as the result of being the only occult shop in a city where a series of ghastly murders was erroneously linked to “the occult” by the local media, I went underground. My only continued involvement in Witchcraft (other than my own deeply held beliefs) was that a series of articles I had written about the Witchcraft holidays slowly made their way across the Internet, first proliferating on Pagan BBSs, and then on Pagan Web sites.
I had also attended my last Pagan festival in 1989. And now here I was, a decade later, a featured speaker at Heartland 1999 (and a “legend” according to their official Web site), and hardly able to believe the changes that had taken place in the Pagan community over the last ten years! During a marathon all-night gab session with Wren Walker, she suggested that my stopmotion viewpoint might afford a unique perspective from which to comment on those changes. This essay is, of course, the result of her suggestion.
THE SIZEThe most obvious difference (although perhaps the least important) was in scale, something noticeable as soon as I drove through the Heartland main gate. The last Heartland I had attended had been at a rented Boy Scout camp, with perhaps a couple hundred participants. Now I was driving up the main road of the beautiful, Pagan-owned Camp Gaia, past the lake, trying to find my own cozy cabin amidst the other cabins, the registration building, the main hall, the huge dining hall, and the spacious open-air pavilion with a raised stage and professional sound and lighting equipment! And by the end of the Memorial Day weekend, I was to discover I was one of over 1,100 participants!
Because the festival is so much bigger than before, there’s bound to be a lot more people that you don’t know. Yet, ironically, because it is so much bigger than before, there’s bound to be more people that you do know, too. There’s no contradiction, there’s just more people! And the atmosphere can swing widely between impersonal (like sitting amidst a sea of unfamiliar faces at a Pagan rock concert) to the intimate (like sitting around the commons campfire playing guitar with a few close friends).
THE BOXImagine that modern Neo-Pagan Witchcraft is a box. Ten years ago, Witches tended to identify themselves with compartments inside the box. “I’m a Gardnerian,” or “I’m Alexandrian,” or “I’m Fam Trad,” or “I’m a Welsh Traditionalist,” they would say. At this year’s Heartland, I was more likely to run into people who identified themselves chiefly with compartments outside the box. For instance, I met goth Witches, New Age Witches, Cajun Witches, hip-hop Witches, hillbilly Witches, and even redneck Witches.
This last rather surprising category was best exemplified by the person who answered my question of whether he had attended any of the workshops with the comment, “Nah, I just come to see the tittie show and drink beer.” This allusion to the clothing-optional areas of the festival site—and the politicalcorrectness-be-damned attitude—was not an isolated anomaly, judging by the scattering of redneck bumper stickers that adorned pickups and campers in the parking area. Though far from a redneck myself, this unexpected development cheered me. Ten years ago, during the ascendancy of Starhawk, I was concerned that all Pagans were being expected to toe the same party line. That clearly has not happened. The attendees at this year’s Heartland were about as politically diverse a crew as you could wish for!
Pagan music at the festival also reflected this new diversity. Ten years ago, almost all Pagan music had an ethereal New Age sound to it. Not much of a beat, and you couldn’t dance to it. All that has changed. At Heartland 1999, I heard Pagan country music, Pagan sixties music, Pagan heavy metal, Pagan progressive rock, Pagan folk, Pagan reggae, and just about every other style you could imagine. Bravo! After all, why should Pagan music only come in one flavor? And the nonprogram music at the festival has changed focus from the traditional, acoustic, and folk music of a decade ago to the more energetic, visceral drumming circle around the main bonfire that lasts into the wee hours of every morning. In fact, it felt like something of an insurrection when a few of us abandoned the drums in favor of acoustic guitars and raised voices around the commons campfire. But hey, some of us like a little melody with our rhythm. ;)
WHAT WE SHARESo what happened to those inside-the-box compartments? Oh, they’re still there. Lady Circe, for example, upheld the Traditionalist banner in her workshop when someone asked about the validity of self-initiated Witches, and she shot them down with the old adage, “It takes a Witch to make a Witch.” Although there was some grinding of teeth, for the most part there were only understanding smiles—the understanding being that her view represents one particular approach to Witchcraft that of a deeply respected Craft elder!), obviously true for some, but only one among many. Ten years ago, this sort of controversy could have brought a festival to its knees. Now, the prevailing perception is that our differences are less important than the things we share in common.
This theme of greater tolerance and wider acceptance of differing points of view among Pagans was perhaps best exemplified by the workshop conducted by Wren Walker and Fritz Jung. Although their talk was ostensibly about Pagan networking on the Internet, a key concept in their presentation, underpinning everything else, is the idea of “Pagan political neutrality”. I don’t know if they originated it, but Fritz and Wren have plainly emerged as the leading champions of this concept, nowhere better demonstrated than on their seminally important Web site, The Witches’ Voice, where it is a part of their opening mission statement. Fritz also stressed the idea that each individual Pagan has something unique to contribute to the Pagan community as a whole, and we should each seek to discover what that thing is.
I also noticed a lot less turf-guarding going on than ten years ago. Back then, it was not uncommon for even the most progressive teachers to fortify their own ramparts, particularly as a defense against self-appointed gurus on power trips that seemed to lurk about the fringes of every Wicca 101 class. Today, with so many more Pagans in every community, and with many fine teachers and community leaders with decades of experience, it becomes increasingly difficult for the powermongers to stake their claim. I felt a true sense of pride as I spoke with so many qualified Pagan writers and organizers, and met their families—which in some cases extended to grandchildren who are third-generation Pagans. Wow, have we ever come a long way!
SHOPPING AND WORKSHOPPINGI attended many wonderful workshops throughout the weekend, but I was continually surprised at how sparsely attended they were. In previous years at Heartland, the workshops (or rather, the lectures and keynote addresses) were the main focus of the festivals, the main draw. Granted there are many more presentations at the festival these days, and they are sometimes scheduled opposite one another. Still, knowing that the total attendance was in excess of a thousand, it surprised me that many of the workshops consistently drew no more than fifteen or twenty people. When I asked random folks why this was so, I was often told, “That’s not why we come to festivals. This is my family’s vacation this year.” Or, more startling (to someone too old to have been a mall rat), “We came here to shop.” Indeed, the huge double circle of merchants’ tents presented the aspect of an open-air Pagan shopping mall—a far cry from the five or six cafeteria tables that once comprised the merchants’ area at Heartland. I can understand why so many people told me they had been saving their money all year to spend there!
Yet I couldn’t help but notice a change in the content of the workshops, as well. And I don’t know whether the content has changed because of decreased attendance, or attendance has dropped because of the shift in content. But it struck me that very few of the festival workshops were anything like the more formal presentations of ten years ago. Then, it had been more common for speakers to offer original research, to “present a paper”, or to do a scripted media presentation, like Morning Glory Zell’s wonderful illustrated lecture of Goddess figurines. But formal lectures have somehow morphed into “workshops” in which the participants do little more than sit in a circle and chitchat for an hour. With a gifted and experienced presenter this can often be rewarding, of course, so I’m not suggesting such workshops be discontinued. I’m only advocating a return to the more formal presentations, as well. Why can’t we have both
Probably the best attended workshops of this festival were Silver Ravenwolf’s. And, interestingly, she was presenting the results of her own historical research, such as early American magical traditions (pow-wow), and her presentations were obviously carefully laid out. Not that there weren’t moments of fun and spontaneity in her talks, because Silver had a wonderful rapport with her audience. But she was obviously following an agenda, and such professionalism is laudable. And in the private talks Silver and I had together, I was struck by her concern for the source material she is tracking down for her new projects. Regrettably, in the commercial world of popular book publishing, meticulous scholarship doesn’t always make it onto the printed page. But her care in the use of her sources was certainly apparent to me.
THE INFRASTRUCTUREWhile I was setting up some audio equipment for my own lecture, I happened to walk backstage at the main pavilion and noticed a huge rack of walkie-talkies all sitting neatly in a row plugged into their chargers. I realized this was symptomatic of the new kind of organization and technology that had gone into making Heartland a success. From the guards at the main gate to the special shuttle vans that were used to ferry people and equipment around the festival site, the level of support needed to host such a large festival has increased exponentially. When I was unexpectedly caught with my guitar in a torrential downpour on Sunday night, one of the Heartland Spiritual Alliance staffers appeared instantly by my side and, with her walkie-talkie, immediately summoned a shuttle to take me safe and dry back to my quarters. If there were some glitches in the way the Heartland staff carried out their duties (in a festival that large, there would have to be!), I didn’t see them.
In the end, of course, it all comes down to the people. They are the true infrastructure of any festival. And for all the multicolored diversity of such a group, for all their d iverse political views, and for all their varied experience in Craft traditions, they all understand and share in the magic and love. To leave Camp Gaia and head back to the mundane world is an exercise in culture shock. One actually experiences “withdrawal” symptoms. And you are left with a mind that is swirling with fond memories of reconnecting with old friends and the joy of making new ones. When I found myself searching for a word to describe the sensation, I remembered a lyric Paul Williams once wrote while scoring The Muppet Movie: “There’s not a word yet / For old friends who’ve just met.” Exactly.
If there were such a word, I’d have used it for the title of this essay.
Document Copyright © 1999, 2005 by Mike Nichols.