The Starwood Festival 29

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The best festival I’ve ever participated in, I heard about through word of mouth fifteen years ago. Festival has many different meanings depending on the person. The Hippie might be thinking about Rothbury this year, with it’s heavy Deadhead lineup. The Artist might think of Burning Man where contributory art is everywhere and fires abound. Somewhere in that intersection is Starwood.  Billed as the largest Pagan festival in North America, it is that and so much more.

This year marks the 29th Starwood, many of which have been held at the Brushwood Folklore Center in Sherman, NY, 180 acres of privately owned woodsy, green campground. Sherman is also the home of the Great Blue Heron music festival. Not bad for a very small town. Upon arriving at Brushwood, you are often greeted by a genuine “Welcome home,” the nearly non-stop sound of drumming echoing in the air.

The actual festival runs from Tuesday, July 21st to Sunday the 26th  this year (but it is almost always during the third week in July).  Many people set up camp long before that and I always try to arrive a few days early to relax into the environment. Camps can become quite elaborate and many have evolved over the years. There is something about happening upon a pool table in the woods or a stripper’s pole in a field that adds to the “anything can happen” magic that is Starwood. Upon experiencing their first Starwood, many people vow to return every year, and many do. This contributes to the feeling of family and home as you see the same faces year after year blended with many new ones. Everyone is kind and helpful and you can strike up a deep and conscious conversation with anyone you meet. In addition to feeling like a family, it is a family friendly event as well. There is a teen program and numerous activities for the kids, including a kid’s parade and a playground. At about 2000 people, it is the quirky small town to Burning Man’s bustling big city and is far more accessible.

Trying to describe Starwood is like taking a picture of the Grand Canyon, you can only do it in small pieces and it really must be experienced to be understood. It is a top-notch music festival, though it has only one main stage. This year, The Rainforest Band (sadly without Merle Saunders) is the headliner. Another Deadhead musician, Sikiru Adepoju, a drummer that has played with Mickey Hart since 1990, also graces the stage. Incredibly talented Middle Eastern drummers, Raquy and the Cavemen, will be playing as well. Past musical guests have included Gaelic Storm, Baka Beyond, and Babatundi Olatunji himself (who also taught a few workshops.) Genres range from African and Celtic to Bluegrass, Psychedelic, and Folk. It’s not uncommon for impromptu jam sessions to randomly serenade you while you eat your lunch.

If shopping is your zen, there are vendors selling everything from clothing, books, and crystals to swords, mead, and drums (and many things in between). There are also massage therapists and healers if you want to pamper yourself. There are two main food vendors and, for the past few years, a guy that sells homemade maple sugar cotton candy. If the day is too hot, cool off in the swimming pool. Too cold? Warm up in the hot tub. Every where there is performance art initiated by the campers for the sheer sake of entertaining each other. In need? Ask. Alone? Not for long. One camper brings pots of soup to feed people setting up camp, others contribute in their own way. Sit by the pond and watch the island fire show or walk the lovely labyrinth. There’s always something to do at any time of the day or night. There is even a radio station that broadcasts music and announcements throughout the festival.

All day throughout the week there are workshops, often five deep (forcing you to choose). Ranging from crafts to consciousness and magick to music, there is a choice for every interest and level. The organizers of the festival never cease to amaze me with the caliber of lecturers they draw. This year I am looking forward to sitting and talking with Harvey Pekar (yes, the American Splendor Pekar.) Past guests have included Paul Krassner, Terrence Mckenna, Timothy Leary, and Stephen Gaskin. That’s not even mentioning the many forebears of the Neo-Pagan community and published Pagan authors that are annual fixtures. The open, laid back nature of the festival allows for visiting with these luminaries on a personal level as many presenters remain at the festival all week and are almost always very accessible.

For many, the backbone of the festival is the nightly drumming and dancing around a sacred fire. The drumming is a near constant. It’s the heartbeat that lulls you to sleep and the call to awaken. The drumming literally lasts past dawn and those that stay up are often rewarded in randomness. Though the Roundhouse drumming is an anchor, it’s Saturday night’s fire that brings it all together. Containing more wood than a two-story house, it’s a fire so large that one cannot hear the drums from the other side, and it most certainly can be seen from space.

Starwood is a festival unlike any other. It is quite literally what you make it. Some people live for the drumming, while others are intent on attending as many workshops as they can. For some it is a hedonistic party while for others it is a deeply spiritual and transformative experience (and in fact is often both at the same time.) Though not exclusively a music festival, between the concerts, the radio station, and the night’s drumming, the music never stops. Whatever your interests, attend a few workshops and I guarantee that you will learn something new. But again, even the best descriptions don’t do it justice. Come experience it for yourself and join the family, there is always room for one more.

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