The Great American Eclipse performed at least one miracle: It stopped the psytrance. Until almost the moment of totality, psychedelic trance, a genre of electronic music that should have died in the 2000s, blasted for 22 hours a day at the Oregon Eclipse Festival in the Ochoco National Forest. Happily, the psytrance took a break from 7-9 pm each night because even dreadlocked poi spinners need to eat dinner. Otherwise, the synth arpeggios were a full-on assault.
Such was life at the Oregon Eclipse Festival, this year’s gathering of Symbiosis, the West Coast’s leading “transformational festival.” As self-professed international master yoga teacher Cristi Christensen said during “Deep Exhale,” a 500-person yoga class turned ecstatic dance session: “This is more than just a party." More indeed. It was one of the few coherent moments of a speech that sounded culled from a New Age word generator.
During a normal year, bringing together enough celebrity yoga teachers, raw food chefs, inspirational gurus, cult mycologists—and, yes, dance music and drugs—for a week of camping is apparently sufficient to transform the average Joe into a better human. But add the freak alignment of the moon and the sun? That was too much for organizers/Chief Festival Bros Bosque Hrbek and Kevin KoChen.
In a press conference atop the Solar Temple, a wooden structure crowning the eclipse-viewing field, they called the astronomical phenomenon “such a cosmic moment in the flow.” Their small contribution—70,000* people partying and permaculturing their way across the Big Summit Prairie—was an attempt to “promote oneness." But, they quickly added, “not communist—everyone can be themselves.” [*The Oregon Department of Transportation estimates that 70,000 people attended the Eclipse Festival. Organizers claim there were only 30,000 attendees.]
All of the contradictions of the modern-day neo-hippie festival were on display as we simultaneously proclaimed world peace, universal love, and Gaia’s glory while consuming vast quantities of resources and trashing some poor guy’s ranch, although I’m sure he was handsomely compensated for the trouble. The festival was somewhat like Burning Man—the famously commercial-free temporary city in Nevada’s Black RockDesert—but with lots of money being exchanged, from $16 durian smoothies to $55 private soaking tubs to $200 IV vitamin infusions.
In 2012, Symbiosis’ Pyramid Eclipse festival on Paiute tribal land ruffled some feathers as the festival crowd, which freely borrows Native signifiers, came face to face with actual Native people. The organizers tried to make amends this year by sponsoring indigenous leaders from around the world to form the 1Nation Earth encampment, an alcohol- and drug-free area of the festival with prime lakefront real estate, a collection of teepees, a sacred fire ring, and an outdoor amphitheater.
At the amphitheater, facilitators began taking ideas down for the 1Nation Earth Proclamation: Environmental Justice and Cultural Preservation Action Plan. I had flashbacks to Rio +20, the U.N. summit on sustainable development that I covered five years ago. Then I saw a woman walk by in booty shorts that read “FUCK PANTS.”
Carmen Vicente, who hails from the Ecuadorian Amazon, sang an ayahuasca ceremonial song and later told me that in her tradition, the eclipse “signifies that everything moves.” While some see an eclipse as an ominous portent, she demurred. “I don’t take anything in nature as a negative."
Later that night, a group huddled around another sacred fire (there appeared to be no other kind out here) while a white woman with dreadlocks sang a paean to Mother Earth. Someone passed around dried sage, which we somberly tossed into the pit. One man said a silent prayer before making his offering. Meanwhile, 300 feet behind us, a giant spider-like candelabra sculpture spat fire into the air with abandon.
The long trek from campsite to festival grounds—not to mention an array of distractions—meant missing the handful of top-flight musical acts (like New York’s 2Melo, Ecuador’s Nicola Cruz, Berlin’s &me, London’s Damian Lazarus, Vancouver’s the Librarian, and Seattle’s own Pezzner) buried in a sea of mediocre beatsmiths.
Alas. But what we all came for was the eclipse, which delivered as promised under a clear high desert sky. There were hoots and hollers, whoops of joy, and at least one hug and an “I love you” from a total stranger, followed by the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” blasting from a sound system large enough to blanket all of Capitol Hill. Then I overheard some kids say, “I can’t wait for Shpongle,” a psychedelic electronica act from the UK that has somehow survived 20-plus years. It was time to hit the road. See you in Patagonia in 2020?