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Reply To: Rocking New Year’s Eve,” with Professor Mark C.E. Peterson”


Hey There, Sunbug,

Considering Mark’s reply to your comment, seems he doesn’t have a problem with your “stony” response. Indeed, our playfulness does highlight an essential point about engaging symbols; while there is no objective, undeniable, standard meaning to any given symbol, aural and visual associations to the imagery offers a multilayered approach. That’s why symbol and dream dictionaries can be a hindrance if we assume an entry is the one exact meaning of a symbolic image, and a useful tool if we take that entry as a starting point – a tool, if you will, to jog one’s own imagination.

As for my mention of Rainbow Gatherings, the Rainbow Family of Living Light is a counterculture gathering, precursor to Burning Man, that has appeared in a different national forest every summer  for half a century now (I think of it as sort of an acoustic Burning Man, with more of a low tech hippie vibe), where money does not work and everything is “in all ways free.” It’s not easy to get to – definitely off the beaten track, with hard core camping skills a plus. Several national gatherings I’ve attended have drawn between 10,000 to 20,000 people (some nationals have occasionally occasionally reached as high as 30,000) to remote alpine settings, where dozens of volunteer kitchens, cafes, and tea houses feed everyone relatively sumptuous meals. Alcohol is discouraged, though psychedelics (cannabis and various “teacher plants,” from shrooms to peyote and such, along with LSD), are welcome.

The gathering is a mansion of myth and ritual, with a yoga meadow, sweat lodges, Hindu fire ceremonies, storytelling circles, vision quests, drum and dance circles, massage centers, multiple elaborate structures and stages built from fallen logs, elaborate bath and shower set-ups, and such. There is a central meadow where everyone gathers on the Fourth of July, but the entire encampment is spread out over several square miles, resembling a cross between the Shire and Rivendell (from Tolkien), a “mountain man” rendezvous, and a Native American jamboree.

The food is surprisingly incredible. Everyone brings their own cup, plate or bowl, and utensils. It’s not unusual to wake in the morning, wander around the trail’s bend, and find a camp serving gourmet coffee – then continue down the trail and enjoy mango pancakes at another kitchen, refresh oneself during the day and evening wanderings with herbal tea and/or snacks at all sorts of venues, maybe eat a multi-course dinner at Main Meadow late in the day, and visit Loving Ovens around midnight to enjoy exotic pizzas cooked in huge dome ovens built from mud.

The focus of the gathering is on healing – for oneself, for all peoples (whether two or four footed, winged, warm-blooded, cold blooded, lung breathing or gill breathing, etc.) and for the planet. I have met aboriginal Australians, Hindu gurus, Christian missionaries, Goddess acolytes, and a slew of environmental activists at various gatherings.

Anyone can speak at council in the main Meadow, which is less cumbersome in the beginning, when there are only a few hundred individuals on site, most focused on building the encampment, but a touch more awkward once thousands have gathered – especially since Rainbow is governed by a consensus of those “on the Land.” If 4,999 people in council agree we need to create a fire road along a ridge to allow emergency access, but I am concerned the proposed route will damage a stand of endangered wildflowers, I can withhold consensus – and we then either continue to talk for hours until I am convinced, or we come up with some alternative. (Sounds cumbersome, and it is – but actually, it’s not that difficult for a group mind to coalesce in such a setting, as there is no power to fight over, no “president” of Rainbow, no treasury – every individual is considered sovereign, and feeding and caring for children, nursing mothers, and those who are or might become sick are primary concerns.)

Though there are people on site between six weeks to two months, the highlight of the gathering (and maximum population) occurs on July 4th. Silence is maintained in all camps until high noon on July 4th; in the half hour or so before noon most of the encampment, thousands and thousands of colorfully clad counterculture types, gather to pray for peace and healing, holding hands in a circle that rings Main Meadow (it can take one half-an-hour or more just to walk around that circle of people if so inclined).

Just before noon everyone starts chanting “Om” (aka “Aum”); being out in nature on a mountaintop holding hands and feeling the vibration of the swell of the chant from 20,000 voices is almost indescribable. At noon, the children whose families have camped in Kiddie Village (which has playground equipment and swing sets constructed from fallen logs) parade in elaborate costumes from their camp (which is usually one of the closest to Main Meadow) on through the outer  circle to the Peace Pole at the center of the meadow, usually while singing.

That marks the end of the silence and the central ceremony; everyone then moves closer to the Peace Pole and the party begins, with multiple elaborate drum circles (often with flutes, horns, didgeridoos, washboards, melodicas, and such), beautiful colorful yet scantily clad individuals of all genders swirling and dancing to the rhythms, and thousands seated in circles with friends on the grassy meadow feasting on watermelon and other treats while passing bowls, bongs, and blunts around (not to mention a fair share peaking on psychedelics). The celebration continues into the wee hours of the morning, visiting multiple outlying villages with different specialities (from baking gourmet cookies, to acoustic performances, improv theater, storytelling around campfires, etc.). Rainbow is both mysterious and surprisingly beautiful at night.

Of course, that many people do have an impact on the land, and Rainbow is an illegal gathering where no one signs a permit. There is a permanent National Incident Command Team operated by the Interior Department that monitors the national gathering, though courts have so far supported the right to peaceably assemble; the government team is composed of Law Enforcement Officers (LEOs) with the Forest Service and BLM, along with natural resource specialists more focused on care of the forest; how much the gathering is harassed in any given year seems a function of the ever shifting balance of power between the LEOs and the resource management side (many of the resource specialists are much more in tune with the principles guiding Rainbow, whereas many on the law enforcement side think of any unpermitted event as a criminal enterprise – but even in the absence of a permit, there is an operating agreement all parties accept regarding resource management).

So hundreds of Rainbows stay on site after the bulk of the participants have left, visiting every campsite and fire pit (only community fires are allowed, no individual campfires) to make sure all structures have been removed, every stone returned to roughly where it came, all shitters completely filled in, and every sign of human habitation disappeared. Trails and other areas where the ground has been compacted and pounded by foot traffic are broken up and re-seeded (initially with Kentucky bluegrass, which prevents erosion but is short-lived – then the following spring volunteers return to seed the area with native grasses and vegetation). Usually – as long as the feds allow the Rainbow restoration teams to do their work (in the early days those doing the clean-up have been harassed, arrested and driven off) – the site is fully restored to within a year to 18 months, with no evidence tens of thousands had been in residence for an extended period.

Locals in the nearest towns are concerned when they hear the Gathering is in their area – the assumption seems the Hell’s Angels are arriving en masse – but locals are invited to attend, and those who do return to their communities with positive impressions that tend to mellow the initial resistance (the huge financial boon to surrounding communities, where individual food and camping supplies are purchased by many on their way into the event, certainly helps change minds as well).

There is of course a lot more to it – but the seasonal rhythm (along with the emphasis on ritual and storytelling) is what prompted my passing mention in this thread.