Unifier Festival, 2015
“Community celebrations are important ritual signifiers. They give us a sense of belonging, but can also serve as a site of inquiry. They can help answer significant questions about histories, communities, and self-identity. Community celebrations are an important socializing force not only for newcomers, but also for children. Through participation in community celebrations [we] learn to participate in the construction and consumption of [our] culture.”
– Deborah L Smith-Shank, Northern Illinois University
Just as a single oak, a single person can be loud, magical, and have a freedom of expression that makes people watch in certain interest. A group of people in this same state, however, carry a harmonious splendor that decorates the environment and adorns the forces of nature, their nature. That inner nature that is set free when we have no obligation but to satisfy the callings from within. And maybe the only reason we do not dance to the fullness of heart is because we are in a grass field feeling the wind alone. There is an encouragement to express self when others are around to join us. There can exist a passionate freedom to be when we are present with others. This is where I stood, a field of grass between a stage and a sound booth. Surrounded by friends, dancers, meditators, ‘theatrists’; a forest of people swaying with the wind. Only a storm hadn’t come in, we were all dancing from an inner breeze that blew to the tune of community, and we could not help but celebrate together.
I recently attended the festival, Unifier. Located in Southwestern Massachusetts, Unifier Festival fully embraced the concept of Community Celebration. The organizers encouraged self expression through creative mediums and did their best to facilitate an environment where participants felt comfortable to do so. They surely succeeded. Living in what some may refer to as “the grind of life” we sometimes struggle to find time for ceremonial socializing. But the sociological rewards of community celebrations should not be abated and extend far beyond festivals and gatherings. According to professor Smith-Shank from Northern Illinois University, “[celebrations] are the site for affirming cultural identity, for renewing acquaintance with people and customs.” In other words, without celebration to remind us that we are a community, we can quickly lose touch with our social environment. People may even become estranged with a sense of “not fitting in”.
“Celebrations are essential to a culture’s survival”
- Professor Deborah Smith-Shank
As Professor Smith-Shank affirms, “Ceremonial rituals provide a reason for cohesion and cooperation which ultimately provides the habitual structure for the community to respond in similar ways to adversity and threat, kindness and acceptance.” So let us dance collectively in celebration; be care free as we swing from Sound Healing Meditation to the Sacred Fire Circle. Let us get a cup of warm Silver Moon Cacao drink and dance the night away to music we have longed to experience. Unifier Festival supplies this necessary space for inner expression that we may see who we are, in self and community. But what is the best way to celebrate community? How do we collectively express our sociological values in a way that is enriching to ourselves and our environment?
The uniqueness of a community is expressed clearly in the ways it celebrates, and what it celebrates. Holidays mark time. We remember celebrations of the past and look forward to future celebrations. Festive accessories can be used from incense to candles, body adornment to food and drink. Whether we are singing, dancing, reciting lore, the goal always seems to be expression. Unifier supplied this environment, but not in an obligatory way. The festival feel did not put out a mandate for someone to do yoga or dance to music. Instead, as I believe was the intent, Unifier gave space and freedom so that the participant could find how they wanted to celebrate and not restrict them.
“Community is people coming together, communicating with each other, and
experiencing with each other.”
-Jason Cohen, Festival Director
I was able to experience, first hand, the vision and mission of the Unifier Festival as felt and portrayed by its organizers. This vision, as I came to collect, is to unify different communities and make sustainability accessible; to support individuals and communities by being thankful for who we are and finding that space in our selves, collectively, where we can creatively express our goals and ideals. As Jason Cohen, the Festival Director put it, “ We feel whole during our creative expression. We are born to live creatively. Many of us feel like we are just surviving and the essence of survival inhibits creativity.” Jason shared with me during the breakdown and clean up of the festival, “Opening [to creativity], we are able to give and receive freely. We are able to be expansive and walk the path of synchronicity with nature.”
I am happy to admit that Unifier does not just talk a good talk, they walk the path paved by their ambitions. Katherine Berglund, the Village Operations Manager told me that their food vendors and festival suppliers are all carefully chosen. 80% of the food served by the festival Chef, Caelum Massicotte, is local to the Berkshires and Pioneer Valley. Outside vendors are minimal, and a careful intent is taken to decide whether the non-local suppliers meet the needs and expectations of the festival. Chocolate was brought in from a coop in Asheville and they gathered a lot of support from local food supply markets in The Berkshires, Leverett, MA, Brattleboro, VT, and Holyoke, MA (to name a few). As Katherine described it, “There is so much going on at the festival that we can forget to nourish our physical bodies. So we try to advocate a ‘natural nourishment role’ cultivating wholesome nutrition to make sure our staff is fed.”
Food sustainability is just the beginning Katherine says, “Our goal is to move into an All Reusables Policy. We are working toward eliminating disposables to further commit to our vision.” One of the policies Unifier held that expresses this transition is what Katherine called “Karma Cup”. How it works is if you bring your own cup to refill coffee or tea then the staff will make a tally by your name and the 15th cup you get free. Someone like me who can barely speak clearly without coffee, I might get a free cup every 2 days. This is a start. I even overheard a staff member on the phone organizing the pick up of compost. Upon my inquiry I found out that a permaculture garden is being put into the grounds to “support the growth of the land”. As their website clearly puts it: “It is our aim to leave the Land more beautiful than how we find it.”
“The more we can create community then the more we can work towards sustainability; making the least effort for the most impact.”
-Katherine Berglund, Village Operations Manager
When I arrived at the Sound Sanctuary, I came across a of slice tranquility as the group Binaural Beat Brothers, Chris Sturk & Casey Ray, laid down some melodic tracks including a didgeridoo and an assembly of Gongs. I felt as if I had a vibration that was changing course depending on the beats and tones of the music. In fact, I think I fell asleep. I came to that “in between” state that separates sleep and awake. I couldn’t remember a part of the demonstration, but when I came back to I felt great! Kelli will also be organizing a sound healing space at other festivals this year including Liberation Fest 2015 in White Haven, PA. I recommend to go and reconnect with your bodies inner frequency as it is stimulated by the music introduced by these unique artists.
“We are born to live creatively. Opening [to creativity], we are able to give and receive freely. We are able to be expansive and walk the path of synchronicity with nature.”
My last day with at the gathering I awoke early and joined in some yoga just off of the lake shore. Experiences of this last weekend released from the hold my muscle tissue had on them. A slight tightness in my lower back from sleeping on the ground in a single person tent. The stretching of my tight legs that have been worked out from walking and dancing along the 500acre forest property. My shoulders reminiscing the many hugs given and received this past weekend. I realize now that festivals are a way of pausing this systemic, economic life and allowing us to reconnect ourselves to the underlying principles that make life fun.
Moving forward, Unifier Festival has a 10 year plan (more or less) to generate income for a land trust. This land trust will be used to give permanent space for this and other gatherings. Jason shared with me that the intention is also to establish a community of free expression which can be built upon for generations to come. “Power comes from Unifying.” Jason shares as our interview winds down, “We identify with old stories, and it is good for us to respect those stories. Though we shouldn’t let those stories keep us from coming together. We should use those stories with respect so that we can move past them and be ok with who we are.”
After this experience I can see the importance of celebration. And now with this incredibly powerful example (which I hope to have portrayed well), I suggest to anyone struggling to find a strong sense of community, even folks who have a strong community, we can take a few great pointers from our friends with Unifier. As Professor Smith-Shank points out, “Celebrations are essential to a culture’s survival”. I must add this to my definition of sustainable community. Don’t forget to celebrate!
Written by: Daniel Bushman (for more articles on sustainable community, visit http://www.charitywarrior.org/blog.html)
Photographs courtesy of Paul Luminari, The Shift Collective
Sponsored by: Charity Warrior “Community in Focus”