This post and the one before it were meant as run-ups to the present post, which it's taken me a lot longer to get around to writing than I'd expected. On the bus home I was full of ideas, feelings, thoughts, and couldn't wait to write a rhapsody, or more precisely a fu 赋, about it. I don't think this will be that.
The Oregon Country Fair is an annual event at which hippies from all up and down the West Coast, and maybe beyond, gather to a patch of fields and woods in Veneta and let their freak flags fly. It's not Burning Man - and since I've never been to Burning Man I can't take the contrast any furthur than that. I'll just say it's smaller, and it takes place, as I say, in the woods rather than the desert. I suspect that may make a difference.
It grew out of a RenFest first held in Eugene in 1969. This fact resonates with me: in the halcyon days of my wannabehippieism I found the Maryland RenFest, and it was like a revelation; I grew out of that, but now here I am at the OCF, and it feels like coming home.
It soon moved to nearby Veneta, and quickly seems to have evolved from something strictly SCA to something more along the lines of a gathering of the tribes: less an evocation of a lost romanticized innocent past than an attempt to create, in the here and now, a space where seekers of a variety of non-standard experiences but the same mutually congenial attitude can gather, under favorable circumstances, and, as the old slogan went, freak freely. The space itself is, if not precisely holy, at least sanctified: it hosted this show, and you can still feel the vibes (when I at last stood on that field, in front of a big multicolored silk geodesic sphere, it was a Moment, dude).
Yes, there are deep connections to the Kesey clan.
So what is it?
It's a fair: food, crafts, exhibits, stages. Exhibitors: exhibitionists. The food ranges from the most joyfully carnivorous (we had a wicked po' boy) to the most staunchly vegan (which we acknowledged in the breach), and everything was good. The crafts range from trip toys of every description to seriously nice things (we got some hand-blown wine glasses with delicately colored stems). The exhibits range from the informative (how to make a fire with the friction method - I was a Boy Scout, and I could never do that) to the downright fonky (I can't even begin to describe; fortunetelling is the acceptable edge of it). The stages have things I've already described, and much much more besides: excellent music, just awesome. The exhibitors are a breed apart: not at all the same craftsmen we run into at other local gatherings, these are people who, many of them, quite literally live for the fair. This is the secret generator of Eugene's downtown Saturday Market, and the source of the centripetal force that keeps Eugene counterculturalandIwouldn'thaveitanyotherway.
The exhibitionists: include, of course, people in various stages of nudity, since the only rule is your genitals have to be covered (and I caught an inadvertent glimpse of the side-squigglies of at least one strapping guy's partially-loinclothed package: the rule is kind of honored, like a lot of things, in the breach)(cloth). The nudity is the thing most people who freak out, rather than freak, freak out about.
Yes, you see a lot of boobies. In contemporary America, where Janet Jackson's nipple can get more people worked up than any number of genocides, I guess this might be shocking to some: but it shouldn't. And I say that not just because I'm tired of my countrymen's fake prudery, but because the nekkidness on display at the OCF is so utterly non-sexualized. It's not about provoking anything but a joy in humanity, and an honesty about what human beings are, and how nice it may feel to be mostly-altogether in the dappled shade of the Oregon woods on a Sunday afternoon in July, while you're licking a Hawaiian shave ice. It is, if anything, a very family-friendly kind of nudity.
But there was a different kind of exhibitionism there, the one manifested in the custom of costuming that many, perhaps most, of the attenders followed. (Even I, in my characteristically mild manner, dressed up: Dead t-shirt, Ray-bans, porkpie hat.) There were paid performers, people on stages, elevated from the masses, who were thus placed in the role of audients. But there were also wandering weirdos, people on stilts with improvised suits of junkyard armor or quetzalcoatlian plumage, jugglers, belly dancers, mud-covered drum-circlers, cavemen, a parade of nude people so covered with mud that they seemed to be fresh products of evolution, and there was the crowd itself, everybody with her or his own idea of how to contribute to the overall thing.
I finally got it.
This kind of exhibitionism, this ethos of everybody-is-a-performer, has deep roots in the hippie scene: it was the guiding principle of the Acid Tests, and the Furthur bus. But it's also part-and-parcel of hipsterism in a broader sense, and as such it goes back much earlier than SF, and far beyond the Dead parking-lot scene. The idea of the hip individual, the aesthetically enlightened young person, as being an artiste, putting on a performance for the hoifuckingpolloi, of always being on, look at me, react to me: it pervades any and all scenes, from Sex Pistols shows to Williamsburg to Montmartre. And as I love art but hate stabbing anything, including but not limited to the bourgeoisie, this aspect of the hippie scene always gnawed at me. Which is to say, I always figured that if I'd actually been at an Acid Test, I would have left annoyed. This has always been one of the dark spots on the x-ray of my Haight infatuation.
And I'm sure that's a perception that does apply in certain situations and to certain scenesters. But somehow, at the OCF, it all made sense. All the happeners didn't strike me as attention-seekers demanding a reaction like the guy ringing the bell in the Monty Python sketch, then judging you on it, but as people simply trying to do their part to help keep the plates spinning, the circus tent inflated, the jam going. It all felt generous. I was having such fun that I began to feel guilty for not having dressed up more - for having nothing to contribute.
A couple other things struck me, and they both have to do with the idea of security.
One is that security was invisible. I'm sure there was security in place. There are rules (no alcohol, for one: I'm sure most people arrive whacked out on something, but while you're within the gates, it's a dry festival), and that means that there has to be somebody to enforce them. And there are weirdos, and that means there has to be somebody to take charge if their weirdness takes a weird turn. In fact I know there was security in place, because I know someone who knows someone who works security there. But the thing is, the security is invisible. In America in 2010, the pervading security philosophy is intimidation: uniformed cops in helmets and jackboots carrying big-ass guns. We're all about fear these days, but the OCF isn't like that. They keep the peace without a big show of authority; their idea seems to be that utopia is going to be a place where you don't need to crack heads to keep order, and indeed that "keeping order" isn't a worthy end in and of itself. The result was that everywhere you looked you saw people at peace, having a good time, being free, with no fear. It was beautiful.
The other thing is that of course this is only possible because the OCF is an attendance-limited event. You have to pay to get in, and the tickets are fairly expensive (more than the county fair, at least), and you can't buy them on-site. You have to buy them ahead of time at a ticket outlet - you have to plan ahead, in other words, and make a non-trivial financial investment if you want to go. What this means is that the only people there are people who want to be there. No frat boys to yell, "Hey, dipshit, the '60s are over!" No right-wing tweakers to call you a Dirty Fucking Hippie. Nobody, in essence, who seriously disagrees with this particular vision of paradise.
That's important. I don't think complete ideological segregation is appropriate for all walks of life in a democratic polity, but it helps when you're trying to hold a celebration. And it does suggest that if you're trying to create a utopia, it helps if you can do it out of sight, or out of reach, of those who'd rather you not create a utopia because it bugs them.
I'm also intrigued by Cascadian independence.
I'm not a hippie. I was born about twenty years too late; and that fact is probably all that allows me to be as close to hippiedom as I am. My stupid contrarian streak probably means that if I had been of that generation, I would have looked down on the hippies. That's how I've mostly missed out on any movement in my own generation worth getting involved in. Whatever: that's who I am.
I'm not a hippie. But I had an intense five years or so, in my late teens, when I wanted to be a hippie (see stupid contrarian streak), and was a hippie as far as my suburban timidity would allow. I never dropped out and followed the Dead (still an option in the late '80s), but I hung around with people who did, sometimes. For a while.
I grew out of it. But not completely. It's fairer to say that my career interests led me into academics, which is a species of bohemianism, and thus congenial to cultural rebels while at the same time being one of the more careerist forms of bohemianism, with all that implies in terms of internalizing the mechanisms of capitalist competition - in short, I moved into a line of life that allowed me to keep some of my old ideals, but only just. And at the same time I went through a long period in which my spiritual yearnings were re-directed into a more conventional channel, one drawn from my own family heritage, and one that is exactly 180 degrees removed from the ideals of the OCF. A particularly straight-edge version of Christianity, one that believes that short hair and long hems are next to godliness. And yet, even at my most orthodox LDS, I never stopped liking the Grateful Dead (insert acid pun here - I never dropped acid, by the way), and I never lost the sneaking suspicion that if Jesus were among us today, he'd feel a lot more at home at the OCF than at a Tea Party. Read yer Bible.
This isn't the place to explore the topography of where I'm at spiritually right now. Suffice it to say that going to the OCF for the first time was like coming home: it was filled with a spirit, a beauty and a freedom and an easy, friendly bonhomie, a funkiness, a wise-ass wisdom, a plain love of rivers and woods, a joy in all wholesome things and, okay, some not so wholesome, that I strive for in my own life, and always have. I can't believe a place like this exists in America in 2010.