THE BODY POLITIC November 1979, No. 58. Chris Bearchell
We followed the road map carefully through a maze of state and secondary highways; when we hit the gravelled country roads, we tossed it out. The route of the thousands who had come before us was as easy to follow as genetic memory. A trail was carved into the road beds.
"This is the largest gathering of lesbians in the world," emcee Therese Edel proclaimed. We were bound together in shared euphoria. Eight thousand, or more, of us hitch-hiked, flew, bicycled, travelled in old Volkswagons, taxi cabs, and shiny rented vans for this pilgrimage the Fourth Annual Michigan's Womyn's Music Festival.
In the south-west corner of the state of Michigan is a little town called Hesperia. Every year, for the past four years, local businesses have enjoyed a remarkable boom during the last couple of weeks of August. A few miles away, on a piece of property that manages to combine sandy hollows, grassy fields, and wooded hillsides, the miracle of Michigan unfolds.
I've been involved in lesbian movement politics for years; I'd never been to Michigan (the festival, not the state) before. I'd heard about it, I'd read about it, and I knew what to expect of it. There's be a camp ground, a lot of women, exciting outdoor concerts, work to do, and everything a woman, or rather, several thousand women, would need to live on "the land" for four days. This much I knew from the brochure. It sounded simple, and beautiful, enough. Beautiful it was, simple it wasn't -- and I was not prepared for it.
Not that I'd forgotten my Girl Guide motto. Or, for that matter, anything else that that illustrious organization had taught me. My tent was waterproof, my sleeping bag adequate. I'd brought my flashlight and toilet paper. I'd remembered my long johns and sunburn remedy -- both were essential. But alas, all the camping lore in the world would not have been enough.
The moment the car started sliding around on the muddy, rutted road to festival parking we were surrounded by grinning "old hands" and giddy newcomers like ourselves -- most of them shirtless and tanned, all of them bright-eyed and beautiful. My heart started pounding and didn't settle down for a full twenty-four hours. Months later, the shock waves still haven't subsided.
Shock? I've been through the whole gamut now: coming face to face with my own lesbianism, coming face to face with another lesbian, coming face to face -- more or less -- with a whole room full, a dance full, a bar full of lesbians, and now, finally, a whole -- albeit small -- world just brim full of lesbians.
Delirium one: I didn't believe it was real. I had to suppress the urge to pinch myself.
___________________ When we first arrived, my travelling companion and I declined a lift on the "shuttle" -- a steady stream of trucks, vans, and station wagons that transported women and their gear from parking to "the land," which was off limits to vehicular traffic. We shouldered our packs and skittered through the bush, along a muddy path, and emerged into a field of multi-coloured tents.
The first sight was intoxicating, but deceptive. The tents, it turned out, were spread out over a series of fields and hillsides. And the landscapes kept changing. New tents sprang up like mushrooms. Landmarks had an uncanny habit of disappearing, transforming, or reappearing somewhere else.
"I'm in the orange pup tent just north of the big teepee on the fern-covered hill."
"I'm sorry, the one on the left."
"I think there are four of them . . ."
"Shit. An hour ago there were only two." You wouldn't believe me if I told you how many orange pup tents were just north of each of those teepees, unless you were there.
___________________ "I want to make love with you
'cause you are a woman
and I am one too
and you are my sister
my lover, my friend
I'll be there
when the day tries to end."
-- Theresa Trull
___________________ I was afraid to blink. Then, for a while, I didn't care if I knew where I was or not. And finally I was able to fall in with the rhythm of the teeming tent city. I became familiar with the erratic paths and natural boundaries that held everything together. I watched the whole place develop into a crazy quilt of interlocking neighbourhoods. Some of them were defined by the festival organizers: the campsite for disabled women, the quiet area, and chemically free camping were all clearly marked. (Trying to find a friend's tent on the first day, I was winding my way carefully through the quiet area when a woman shouted out of tent, in the direction of the chemically free campsite, "Anyone have any 222's?") Other neighbourhoods were defined by prior friendships, by common geography -- I was in an area heavily populated by "Southern Ontarians" -- and still others by natural features of "the land." Many neighbourhoods gelled around late night campfires in community fire pits.
My neighbourhood felt familiar, comfortable, without ever being confining. I didn't have to "live in" other areas to appreciate and enjoy them too. In fact, I never felt freer. I could wander anywhere -- any time of the day or night -- without the least apprehension. As a fervent believer in "better blatant than latent," I am acutely aware of hostility among my urban neighbours, and of danger on Toronto's streets. Feeling that security for five days is something I will never forget.
Delirium two: I didn't believe anything else was real. I wasn't fully aware that it would all come to an end until I was on my way home.
___________________ We were high on inexpensive American home-grown. "I am going to dine on women tonight," my friend sighed.
Bundled up in a down-filled vest, jeans, and a good pair of boots, she huddled under a rain poncho by night. A bag over her shoulder, a silver labyris on a chain around her neck, and a good pair of sandals were all she needed by day. It was never so clear to me how purely functional clothing could be.
The rain wreaked havoc with the sound system. There were delays. There always are at these things. No one seemed to mind -- most of us were quite content to sit back and take it all in, to dance, to make new friends or visit old ones. I will never forget the night we put the aurora borealis to shame. It started with two or three waving flashlights. In a minute it was hundreds, if not thousands. The sky glowed with an eerie light and we gasped in collective awe of ourselves.
have I got news for you . . ."
-- Alix Dobkin
___________________ I don't know what it is about music, more than any other expression of our culture, that brings lesbians together. Much as I might wish it was something else -- or other things too -- music is the source of much of the magic that keeps us going. Although many women have told me that the whole experience is more important to them than the concerts, I don't think Michigan could happen if it wasn't a music festival.
Canned music between evening concerts. Women danced under the stars to the strains of a popular commerical song. We Are Family. And we were. And we were exhilarated. There were only six thousand of us at that point. It was still early.
But the evening concerts were the focus of each day for a more important reason than the presence of fine lesbian music. The concerts were the place where the largest number of us came together at one time. Where our high spirits fed on each others presence. Where our favourite Amazon fantasies came true. Together -- thousands of us -- the night was ours.
The last concert of the festival created some of the most intense moments I've ever experienced. The act, Alive, put on an incredible performance, and that was surely part of it. But the swaying, swooning snake dance, to the beat of congas and the glow of flashlights, that finally overtook the hillsides of the concert bowl was simply a moment that few of us could let go of.
It wasn't exactly Utopia come to life. There were problems. It rained. I argued about politics. There were things I didn't like, things others didn't like, and were, and are, working to change. But, by and large, everyone's basic needs were met. The real miracle of Michigan is that the dedication and commitment of the We Want The Music Collective can coalesce with the energy and co-operation of several thousand volunteers to provide: food, health care, transportation on and off the site, drinking water and (icy) outdoor showers, child care, portable toilets, security, places for messages, merchants and meetings women in workshops -- and all that music.
One corner of the site was cordoned off. The signs read: Co-ordinators Area. Hidden in a thicket of trees was another face of the festival. Here was where the worrying, organizing, juggling, and crisis managing went on. A small public address system buzzed constantly. Women were summouned, jobs delegated, information disseminated. Many of these women had been here for weeks. The tent of one Toronto woman who had been helping out was equipped with a cot and an armchair. Their workload was tremendous, and yet, the only satisfaction the organizers seemed to get out of it was the knowledge that their efforts made the festival experience accessible to and memorable for all the women who had participated.
Each of us who did our volunteer workshifts caught a little glimpse of what went on behind the scenes of this marvellous circus. My mind reeled at the thought of carrying out all of those tasks put together -- at the collective process, at the nerve, and guts, and faith of the women who worked year-round to make the festival happen, so that several thousand visionaries could have the opportunity of a lifetime -- the chance to live out their visions.
"Oh my darling companion
how you can satisfy.
Oh can't you hear me cry
when I think of how they lied.
I can feel the fire raging
and there's no disguise.
Oh my darling companion
how many girls have died
without a woman's tender heart
and love along beside?"
-- Berkeley Women's Music Collective
___________________ I don't know whether or not there will be a Fifth Annual Michigan Womyn's Festival. This year, rumour had it, was to be the last. One factor that might force that decision is the attention of the outside world. This mass pilgrimage has not gone unnoticed. Local hooligans are annoying, but their effect on eight thousand dykes is ultimately negligible. The real danger lies elsewhere. The border guards who harassed Canadian lesbians on their way to the festival were not the only arm of US officialdom to take an interest in the event. Planes circled overhead from time to time. And periodically, announcements would be made from the stage that we were to remain fully clothed during visits from "health inspectors."
"Sisters tell your brothers
we have to fight together
to be free . . ."
-- Gwen Avery
___________________ I don't think a woman-identified woman could experience Michigan without feeling that it embodied some of the most natural and comfortable of all possible states for her, without feeling a basic "rightness" about it. And it is tempting to wonder about recreating it permanently in some form. Official scrutiny of the festival served as an ominous reminder of the world we had to go back to. Too many would have to stay behind in that world for the rest of us to ever seriously consider abandoning them. But that only makes Michigan all the more precious. It lets us sample one of the alternatives that might flourish in a better world than this one. And so it soothes and strengthens us and sends us back refueled and fighting.
Once a lifetime, once a year with luck, every lesbian should have the chance to take the world she inhabits in her heart and mind and step into it as a living, breathing reality, if only for a few days.