Here's an excerpt from an e-mail sent by Chief Safety Inspector Steve Hoey about a pagan gathering called Starwood.

As far as pagan gatherings...they are by far the the thing(s) that have most changed my life in the past two years. OK I've been to three, all run by the same organization (it's called ACE, the Association for Consciousness Exploration, based in Cleveland Heights, OH)...the one in the summer, the biggest pagan festival in the northeastern US (if not the entire US), is called STARWOOD. It is the third weekend of July, and has been running for 16 consecutive years (this summer will be PRIME, 'cause it's #17 ). It's hard to describe, and of course it's different for everyone, but I'll tell you why I love it.

First of all, it's held on about 150 acres of land in cow-farm country in all-the-way-west New York's about 30 miles east of Erie, PA (like I said, ALL the way west). It's a privately owned site...they have events there every weekend from May - October, things like magickal gatherings, folk music camp-out festivals, drum weekends, Church of the SubGenius gatherings, on and on. For the third week of July, about 1,500 amazing and bizarre people converge there for STARWOOD.

Imagine you arrive at the site, at the top of a hill off of County Road 15. You turn into the driveway and you see lots of glowing people wandering around and a nice wood-frame house. You go inside to register, and you're given a small plastic tag to wear AT ALL TIMES. You are now inside this Temporary Autonomous Zone.

You go behind the house and walk down a dirt road, lined with trees. You pass a sign that somebody made using Print Shop on a dot-matrix printer that says "Skyclad may start here!!!" This means, "OK, nobody can see you from the road. It's cool to take your clothes off." Lots of people do just that, and don't put them back on until the end of the festival. You've barely entered the site!

Directly in front of you is an overgrown your left, up a path, is the Druid area where they've been building their own Stonehenge for a few years now. To your right, the dirt road forks around a huge open field that goes across three rolling hills. Next to the pond is a long shed with a stage under it, where there are big talks and cool concerts and dances every night. To the right of that, a little up the hill, there's an outdoor swimming pool and a hottub with a shed roof...and a "cookhouse" where people are making breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks every day. That's basically it for buildings.

We'll walk up the main field, and we see the rows upon rows of merchants. Only handmade and one-of-a-kind goods can be sold here -- there are four of five craftsmen selling drums, flutes, other musical stuff...there's lots of neat clothing and jewelry...and of course swords and pipes and magickal gear of every description. The merchants are in rows, and they usually camp behind their sales tents. To the right of the merchant field is a woods, and a big part of it is the "faerie woods." Lots of cool bisexual and gay and lesbian and cool straight people all camp out here, and there are faerie gatherings and of course endless carryings-on :) Back in the field, past the merchant area, is a large open space atop the highest hill...this is a major ritual area. They have the opening and closing circles here, where energy is raised (opening) to protect the site and the people, to foster incredible times and provide strength and cohesion. At the end, the energy is returned to the earth, the circle is opened, and the light of this incredible week is internalized by everyone at the circle, to take with us into the world, to spread and to hold onto, to bring back again next year :) :) :)

OK keep walking past the main ritual area, and pass through a row of hedges to the first "back field"'s filled with people's tents all sorts of folks camped out, some with VW buses, some with little tents, and at the top of this hill in the back corner, a GIGANTIC teepee (literally about 25 feet tall) with smoke curling out the top. Behind this field are woods...and if you walk back the road grown in with tall grass, you'll see a couple of candles burning stuck into a you turn into the woods...maybe it's dusk see a trail of 24 candles leading you into the woods...they're twinkling like stars... as you walk back, following the trail, you can feel the muddy earth squishing up between your toes, and it feels soft and silky against your bare feet. You walk up to a flat area, surrounded by woods, and you see a campfire crackling with a couple of tents nearby, and a hammock stretched between two trees. Welcome to our campsite :)

After you sit down with us and enjoy some mead (because there's a lot of delicious homemade mead going around this festival), we'll take a walk back. This time, instead of cutting through the hedge toward the merchants and the main ritual area, we'll go down the field to the bottom, where the other fork of the dirt road comes through. As we go down this road, we're heading back towards the pond and the shed where the little stage is. We walk along the dirt road and people are camped in the woods on all sides. Everywhere, people are walking, some naked, some in ceremonial dress, some in shorts & t-shirts... a LOT of people are smiling...everyone you see makes eye contact with you, and somehow they're speaking to you although most of them aren't talking :) There are so many treasures to see along the road. Now that the sun is going down, you can see fires springing up all over the field. The stars are on the earth, or so it seems, because the hillside is dotted with twinkling firelight. About halfway down the dirt road toward the pond, there's an exit to your left back towards the merchants. You've been hearing drumming since an hour before sunset, and it's been getting louder and more organized. As you exit the dirt road, you find the source of the drumming:

Before you is a dome structure, made of saplings that have been cut and lashed together, some going vertically into a dome shape, others horizontally to give structural strength. It is like a wireframe outline of a dome, but the wires are young tree trunks, tied together. In the center of this structure, which we call the Gruple Dome, a fire is burning. This fire has been burning since the start of the festival, and will continue to burn beyond the "end" of the festival. You can't help but catch your breath the first time you duck under a sapling and enter the Dome. Fifteen or twenty people are already here around the fire, dancing a little bit to the drumming. There are about thirty or forty different kinds of drums here, some congas set up, lots of animal-skin drums, a cornucopia of rhythm instruments. As the evening wears on, the fire grows larger, tended by strong men, old and young, fed by the energy of the drummers and dancers.

By two in the morning, the drummers are raging. The rhythm entered your body hours ago, and your sense of "self" is meaningless, as you have merged with the hundred or so people crowded into the Dome, moving in time to the heartbeat of the festival. Shouting and chanting, dancing naked around the roaring fire, screaming towards the heavens, you look straight up, out the center of the dome. You see glowing embers swirling and dancing skyward, until they rise up and join the stars in the firmament above.

Somehow, it's dawn, and you haven't stopped moving all night. Dissolving is definitely the word for how you feel. The community is still together, you have raised energy and felt it move through you and others...and now is the time for rest and recovery. Without knowing you were really walking, with morning dew on your feet and mist covering the fields, you find yourself at your tent. You lie down on the soft earth, and the mist penetrates you and envelops you.

And the next thing you know, you hear drums...and you drift upward through the mist. It's late morning. The sun has warmed your tent. And the drummers are calling out to you to join them once again.

Welcome to Starwood.

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Updated 22 October 1996
Steve Hoey, Chief Safety Inspector