Burn it like an Eisteddfod Fire: My First OBOD East Coast Gathering

This essay appeared in the Winter/Spring 2017 issue of Druid Magazine.

by Loam Ananda

The day before I left for the 2016 (7th Annual) OBOD East Coast Gathering (ECG), I was working on a writing project. And I was stuck. Like, super stuck. Like I’m going to build a bonfire when I get back and burn everything I have ever attempted to write stuck. I was nearly 20 hours and two beta readers into a 1,500-word creative nonfiction essay, and I was ready to throw in the towel. My goal had been to finish the blasted thing before leaving for ECG and make the final tweaks after I returned. I wrote until the last minute, giving myself a short half-hour to pack for the ECG. I was totally unprepared, both mentally and logistically, for the gathering. Luckily, I had enough sense to realize it was probably colder in the Pocono Mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania than it was in Southwestern Ohio.

With the help of my husband (I am NOT a morning person), I was on the road by 5:45 the next morning. The drive to Camp Netimus from Cincinnati was a solid 10 hours, and I wanted to be there in time for the opening ritual. The long drive gave me time to mentally prepare. I thought about creativity. I thought about community. I thought about music. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” I thought, “if I could find someone to make music with?” That drive became its own kind of ritual, my thoughts and desires spinning a spell around the weekend.

A couple pit stops and wrong turns made me miss the opening ritual, but I arrived early enough to spend some time getting to know my cabin mates. There were four of us, one a second year “veteran” and the other three attending our first ECG. I had been intentionally grouped with others who were attending on their own and were also relatively new to the gathering. In that first hour, fresh from the road, as I bonded with my cabin mates, I felt the care and attention that camp director Lorraine Soria, the Louisiana Contingent, and all the ECG minions put into this gathering.

After setting up our bunks, my cabin mates and I made our way to the Pavilion to attend the first workshop of the gathering—“The Faeries of Earth, Air, Fire and Water.” Gale Park guided us through the large and diverse realm of faerie with the elements as our map and traditional Celtic faerie lore as the medium. We learned about the Gnomes (Earth), the Sylphs (Air), the Salamanders (Fire), and the Undines (Water). Gale’s workshop reminded me that we walk the land with the faeries beside us and that elemental faeries can aid us in our mundane and magical work if only we approach them properly. Maybe, I thought, they can help me with my writing.

That night at dinner—a meal (like all ECG meals) that offered delicious options for omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans alike, something this dairy-intolerant writer is extremely grateful for—I connected even more deeply with my cabin mates. The things I had been thinking about on my drive became topics for conversation. Turns out, I had some soul mates on this OBOD journey.

Then came the announcement: “Don’t forget to sign up for tonight’s Eisteddfod Competition!” I knew from the ECG web site that this year’s formal Eisteddfod would be a friendly competition, that 10 performance slots would be available each night Thursday through Saturday, and that three winners from each round would advance to the final round on Saturday evening. I had thrown my guitar in the car, thinking I might enter, and enter I did.

We gathered at the Friendship Fire Circle just before dusk. If you have never seen a fire built by Derek Batz and Brom Hanks, you are missing works of art—art in the stacking, art in the burning. The Eisteddfod Competition started shortly after the bonfire was lit.

Sitting on the benches, listening to the offerings of my Bardic companions—singing, harp, poetry, storytelling, comedy routines—I felt connected, deeply connected, to this tribe that celebrates the bardic arts. It was cold that night, so cold that my guitar wouldn’t tune. But I didn’t care. I had already been welcomed by the community with such care and compassion that I was determined to offer my song as a gift, no matter how off-tune it might be.

Remember my drive-time wish that I meet someone to make music with? Well. Be careful what you ask for—the gods are listening! On that very first night, I met Evangeline, another Eisteddfod competitor. She and I both advanced to the final round, and we pledged to sing harmony for each other’s final entries.

Merriment and more Bardic “stuff” around the fire commenced following the Eisteddfod as scheduled. We enjoyed mead from Dragonfire Meadery. We sang. We danced. We cavorted.

That night, as I layered myself in shirts, sweaters, and coat, hat and mittens under my three-season, goose-down mummy sleeping bag and wool blanket, I could see the nearly-full moon climbing the sky from my cabin window. I was ridiculously cold, yes, but I was content—two adjectives that rarely sit next to each other in my life!

Friday morning, I snatched a quick breakfast before my Bardic Initiation, a special experience that left me feeling, in many ways, reborn and even more deeply connected to the other bardic initiates. Following the initiations, Cindy Bertsch led an elemental ritual for peace.

After lunch, I basked in the sun with my cabin mates, feeling warm for the first time since arriving at camp. We took turns drawing cards from the Druid Plant Oracle. When Selene drew the Nettle card, I told the story of how, years ago, a friend of mine had swatted me with nettles in the woods during a medicinal plant walk, and the phrase meet me with some nettles in the woods birthed a silly ditty that I would hone and craft for the final Eisteddfod competition. In the days to follow, all these beautiful bards came out of the woodwork and fed me creative fodder for the Nettles Song.

While we basked in the sun and laughed about nettles, Lorraine gathered children and parents together for an Animal Journey, introducing our younger members to the art of creating a grove and “imagining” an animal companion—an important first step for visualization. Even though my own daughter is grown, I remember how important family and youth workshops were to me when I first began walking a pagan path nearly 20 years ago with a toddler, and I was pleased that ECG welcomed families.

Gabby Roberts led us on a journey through the world of crystals, their properties and uses in her workshop, “The Art of Crystal Jewelry.” We learned about the energies of the stones and crystals, and to trust our instincts in choosing stones. Instinct involves an element of playfulness, I thought. My ECG experience was presenting me many opportunities for playfulness, and in that playfulness, intuition and creation.

Wrapping up Friday’s workshops, and rekindling any energy lost through the day, Hex Nottingham presented his workshop, “Spiritual Drumming.” From drum circle etiquette to deep listening, and from dynamics and volume to sending and sensing energies, Hex engaged us with his passionate and inclusive approach to ritual drumming. I had not brought my drums, but I slapped out my rhythm on the Pavilion picnic table. Some people used their chests and legs as drums. Others stomped their feet. Each of us discovered our individual beat and wove it into a polyrhythmic tapestry in an impromptu, ecstatic, drum circle.

After dinner, we gathered around the bonfire—not yet lit—to gaze at the moon and stars and learn the lunatic wisdom of Sarah Fuhro’s workshop, “Moon Wisdom.” We stood under our Harvest Moon teacher, opening to change, the ebb and flow of tides mirroring that of our emotions. We traced our relationship to the Moon, gathering in groups according to the astrological sign she occupied at our birth, seeking to learn how our moon sign sets the rhythm of our life.

On that second night of Eisteddfod and bonfire, the Mari Lwyd made an appearance. The Mari Lwyd is a Welsh wassailing folk custom, involving a horse’s skull mounted on a pole. Our Mari Lwyd, created and presented by Nicole Sussuro, had bright glowing eyes and dancing ribbons for a mane. Nicole told us that the Mari Lwyd would be carried from house to house, requesting entry through a song. The householders were expected to initially deny it entry, again in song, until eventually relenting and inviting the Mari Lwyd inside for food and drink. I imagined creativity, the Awen, was the Mari Lwyd herself, knocking on my door, singing to me. How many times had I turned her away without food or drink? As we attempted to sing the Welsh call and response verses that Nicole taught us, I imagined opening my door wide for the Awen, inviting it to sit down for tea and cake. Maybe a little mead.

That night I felt warmer and slept without my hat and mittens.

Saturday morning, we prepared for the Alban Elfed ritual. After lunch, Cathryn Bauer and Kris Foster armed us with a roll of white butcher paper and two boxes of marking pens. We created a banner expressing solidarity and support for the Standing Rock protesters, posing for a photograph with the banner to be posted on the Facebook page dedicated to the protest. Some of us attended a “Beekeeping Basics” workshop, led by Todd Bertsch and Jim Hutchings. This covered the beginning steps for becoming a beekeeper, hive types, the colony and its organization, and beekeeping equipment. Todd and Jim shared how to get started keeping bees as well as how to manage the colony.

Evangeline and I met in the woods to practice our “set” for the final Eisteddfod competition. I expressed concern that my nettle song was unfinished, and she encouraged me to share it as it was. Everywhere I turned, I was reminded that things don’t have to be perfect or finished to be shared. I was reminded to play—and enjoy the playing. I was reminded that community is an important catalyst for my creative process. The gods said, “Are you getting this, Loam? Are you taking this down? This is your lesson. Will you remember?”

By the time we gathered for Alban Elfed, the main ritual of the weekend, I was totally enamored with this community. The gifts we prepared in the morning were presented in ritual by the guests, families, children, Bards, Ovates, and Druids, each one beautifully rendered. I was touched by the sacred esteem with which we held our guests. Here, in this space, they were not merely spectators; they were vital threads woven into the fabric of our weekend tapestry. Again, I thought of the Mari Lwyd, the Awen, the sacred guest. Would I make creativity my Sacred Guest when I returned home?

That night, as I approached the fire, I heard someone say, “Loam is here,” and then, right there before my very ears, 100 or so Druids burst into a chorus of Happy Birthday—Druids from Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana. Druids from New Hampshire, New York, and New Jersey. Druids from Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. From North Carolina, Virginia, and California. From Vermont, from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Canada and Greece. As an adopted person, my birthday is usually a tough time of year for me. Now I have another “birth” day—my Bardic Initiation—and the deep connection I felt with my Druid family. “Soooo…we’re going to do this every year on my birthday, right?” I joked.

The fire burned hot that last night. Evangeline and I presented the Nettle Song to a generous audience, and it felt to me like both a gift from and to the gods. The Nettle Song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJYypPFLR_4&feature=youtu.be) won the Eisteddfod competition, and in winning, a great gauntlet had been laid down. Would I accept the challenge to keep writing? To keep creating? Would I get out of my own head and engage my community?

On the long drive home, I mentally picked up that gauntlet. The Eisteddfod bonfires offered an alternative to my pre-ECG pledge to burn everything I had ever attempted to write. I realized that I needed to burn away not my writing, but the resistance within me, the obsession with perfection and completion, the assumption that the creative process was a lonely one. Every day, I must artfully stack the wood in my creative heart. Every day I must seek out the spark of community to light the fire. I must let it burn, and enjoy the burning. I must build it all again the next day, and the next. I must remember that the excuses I make to the Mari Lwyd, barring her entry, are meant to be nothing more than playful banter – that what Creativity and I both really want is to sit together around a fire, sharing food and ale.