Woodland Dreaming: Missing Ancient Ways

I’m back from Pantheacon, and had a wonderful festival again. I was involved in three conference offerings—a ritual for activists (“Arming the Earth Warriors”), a mixer for non-theists, and the annual ritual by the Spark Collective, of which I sit on the Core group—and all were well-attended and received. Our non-theist ritual had nearly twice as many attendees as did last year, so things are growing.

As for the conference itself, it was a flurry of reconnecting with friends I rarely get to see, late-night parties (followed by early-morning work shifts), resultant sleep deprivation and diligent efforts to make sure I remained fed, hydrated and grounded. It’s an otherworldly environment where there is always a lot going on, and there is no possible way to be everywhere you would like to be at any given time.

I’m glad to be on staff at Pantheacon, which allows me to attend and have a room for free in exchange for hours of labor, and to be a part of producing it for the greater community. People come from all over the world to attend.

There used to be another gathering produced by the same people who put on Pantheacon. It was an outdoor festival that took place in the summer, and it was called Ancient Ways. I found myself thinking about it this weekend.

Ancient Ways had, in many ways, a similar format to Pantheacon: there were a schedule of workshops held in various gathering places, some large scheduled rituals, and an area where vendors set up pavilions to sell their wares.

That said, the atmosphere was completely different. Attendees camped in tents,  throughout a broad meadow or in the mixed oak/bay laurel/madrone woods surrounding it. A central building housed a space for workshops, a commercial kitchen and space where those who needed indoor accommodations could stay. And there were hot and warm pools for swimming and lounging, trails with magnificent vistas of the California coastal mountains, showers and bathrooms with flush toilets. It was a beautiful place, and it was clothing optional, so if you wished you could truly be out under the sun as Nature produced you.

All these places are gone or radically changed. Harbin Hot Springs, the venue, burned in the Valley fire that ravaged Lake County in 2016. It is rebuilding, but it will not be the same.

But that’s not why Ancient Ways is no longer held. It shut down long before that, with declining attendance even as Pantheacon, at an urban convention hotel, continued to grow. Ancient Ways ran from 1983 to 2008, and then, it was over.

What this says about the Pagan community is…complex. I believe that a part of what killed Ancient Ways was simply that many habitual attendees were aging. They were no longer comfortable camping on the ground, or they needed a place to plug in C-PAP machines, or the long windy drive to Harbin became too much for them. And what I have observed is that overall, Pagans—to their credit—have fewer children than non-Pagans, so a “replacement population” wasn’t really coming up.

The organizers, too, were getting older. They might not have wanted to camp, either. Or maybe it just didn’t make enough money to seem worth it.

But oh, to walk naked under a full moon, with the shadows of the trees dappling the ground! To loll in the warm water with friends, murmuring and laughing. To dance around a ritual fire in the wild, and not around electric candles in a hotel ballroom.

To my knowledge, there is no longer a Pagan festival on the West Coast in a natural setting which accommodates 300-500 people, as did Ancient Ways. We are in fire country, and it is exceedingly difficult to find a place where you can safely have a bonfire in California summer. The closest thing I have found is Ignite, a delightful Fire Circle community event, in July in the Santa Cruz mountains. Its capacity is about 75 attendees. (If you have a chance, I strongly urge you to join us for this joyous, meaningful, beautiful gathering.)

But Ancient Ways rituals were awe-inspiring. The sheer number of people involved in the rituals made for a primordial power, lit by the dancing flames, our feet in the good Earth’s dirt, tree branches arching into the light at the periphery. Together in our diversity, in our tribal sameness, under the winking stars.

It felt like what Paganism is supposed to be.

I miss it.

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3 thoughts on “Woodland Dreaming: Missing Ancient Ways

  1. Based in the UK here, so never been to either, but the idea of an indoor Pagan festival in a hotel seems odd to me, like a business conference. There’s a couple of outdoor festivals I go along to, and being outside in nature really makes it feel Pagan. I understand that there are people who cannot do camping, and obviousy festivals need to be accessible, but having an outdoor element seems pretty essential in my book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I miss it, too; so much. Thank you for sharing these memories. I went to the very first AW Fest. It was 1983, I’m fairly certain; I was twelve. Over all those years I missed only two AW Festivals. It was formative for me. All through my teen and young adult years, there was this wonderful, magical retreat, where all of those things you described took place. And I yearn for it, still. The memories are sweet.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I miss it too. I came to my first Ancient Ways festival in ’91, not quite 20 years old, knowing not a single person there. I came to discover what this “pagan” thing was all about. Really, I’ve never ever left. I’m so glad I got a chance to fulfil my decades-long dream of hanging out in community in the Meadow Building with my children. Before it burned to the ground.

    Liked by 1 person

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