On the summer solstice, Ralph Niece, who goes by the name Rafael in his mystical life, sits in the dark of a basement bar in Parma, explaining how he became First Keeper of the Starwood Ashes.
He wears sandals, khaki shorts and an elaborately embroidered purple t-shirt. Wavy gray hair hangs out beneath his purple velvet hat, which is decorated with sequins and more embroidery. It's not like anyone offered him the ritual job, he explains. Fifteen years ago he saw a woman take ashes out of the Starwood festival's bonfire, a spiritual keepsake. He followed her lead.
This gray remnant of life is inescapably symbolic of transition. People cast it into rivers, rub it on foreheads, and scatter it on the earth. Untold quantities of ash are stored on mantles in ceramic urns. Rafael kept the Starwood ashes in a fruitcake tin.
He plays no part in organizing the summer festival, but his tin and the DIY ritual that goes with it capture something of its essence. For a quarter-century, Starwood has brought witches, druids, hippies and all manner of chronic partiers and spiritual seekers together to camp in the woods of western New York for a week. High Times magazine once called it “summer camp meets a three-ring circus on acid.” Timothy Leary described it as “the ultimate set and setting; a safe haven for the weird.”
A Cleveland Heights-based group called the Association for Consciousness Exploration (ACE) hosts the annual event at a rented campground called the Brushwood Folklore Center, which is also the site of Ivan Stang's X-Day — the End of the World drill for the cosmically sarcastic Church of the Subgenius — and an almost weekly schedule of hedonistic, pagan and generally weird gatherings. The very prim fine arts and culture festival known as Chautauqua Institute is not far away.
Burning Man and a few other festivals are much larger, but ACE founder Jeff Rosenbaum says Starwood is the biggest Magickal gathering in the United States. He's not referring to parlor tricks. Many of the pagan faiths that gather there count among their core beliefs the capacity of the human will to change the physical world. Some of the more pagan-than-thou might call Starwood commercialized, with its nightly parties and concerts. Rafael clearly doesn't think of it that way.
It's a kind of psychedelic Chautauqua, with lectures and seminars on massage, magic, dance, ethno-musicology and just about every spirituality under the moon. Last year's event included a seminar by Dagmar Celeste, the former first lady of Ohio who was ordained a Catholic priest by a rogue Argentine bishop and subsequently excommunicated. This year's 25th anniversary celebration will feature the original Starwood guest speaker, the founder of the Wiccan Circle Sanctuary, Selena Fox.
Besides their spirituality, Starwood guests bring tents, tee-pees, tarps, lighters and body paint, costumes with feathers and tails, horns and goat hooves. A significant portion of the crowd skips clothes altogether, which in festival parlance is known as going “skyclad.” There are strict rules about cameras.
Bands are chosen with an emphasis on world music, especially Celtic rock. The organizers set up a pirate radio station. They pack an inflatable building called the puffer-dome, filled with light and sound for parties and concerts. Organized volunteers operate a babysitting service, light paths with lumenaria, offer strangers water, and look after scores of menial tasks. A group called the Woodbusters builds the bonfires. And the guests beat drums and dance naked all night, every night. The bonfire grows each night until Saturday, when it's just about as big as a house. Not a small house. They build this fire out of whole trees.
So it's no great leap of mysticism when Rafael claims he saw that there was some energy in the ashes. The year after he started gathering them, he began running to the head of the bonfire lighting procession, throwing the gray powder into the pit as a symbolic connection to the past before the torchbearers set it ablaze. He'd always keep some from previous years, so the ashes mingled — a little box of continuity, the remains of ecstasy. Between festivals, he kept the tin on a shelf.
At some point, priest-like, he began marking the torchbearers' foreheads with the ash. This too became an annual ritual. But two years ago, just a few weeks before his return to Starwood, Rafael had a heart attack. He realized that his days of dancing around bonfires might be numbered. So to perpetuate the ritual, he named a successor. He gave the fruitcake tin to her. The torch was passed.
BUT THE PASSING OF TORCHES and the sharing of responsibility isn't always that graceful.
Starwood's history began with a student group on the campus of Case Western Reserve University. Jeff Rosenbaum and Joe Rothenberg were students there in the late '70s when they started the Chameleon Club. Technically, the event is presented by the Association for Consciousness Exploration, a limited liability corporation Rosenbaum and Rothenberg formed after they graduated. But Chameleon member Bruce Florist notes, “If ACE is a family business, the Chameleons are the family.”
It's not a secret society, but it is a very closely held circle of about 30 friends. New members are added only by unanimous approval during monthly meetings.
For the Chameleons, the 25th year of Starwood represents not only a landmark psycho-spiritual blowout in the woods, but a minor miracle of volunteerism and getting along. The weeks before the festival always bring stress and questions. Can we get the flyer out a little sooner? Can we afford to pay for such speakers? What if no one comes? But the 25th year seems to have brought more than the usual measure of all that, and some coming-of-middle-age introspection to boot.
Florist says Rosenbaum and a handful of other Chameleons are too possessive about the event and should delegate responsibility to more members. “I think of it like a child,” he says. “It's time for Starwood to go out and fend for itself. If you love something, set it free.”
Attendance at Starwood swelled with the dawn of the Internet, but peaked a few years ago and has declined slightly for several years running. More organization and accountability might help reverse the trend, so some of the Chameleons have suggested forming a nonprofit, educational organization.
A Chameleon named Shawn, who would only allow his first name to be used in this article, acknowledges that the actual business of running the festival is in the hands of just “three or four” people, with others pitching in on specific projects like Web site design.
“What bothers me,” Shawn says, “is when I don't get help, and then people start complaining that they're not allowed to be part of the process. They seem to think people need to be accountable to them, when they're not really doing anything.”
He'd just like to see a more formalized plan, with more Chameleons picking up tasks, but he quotes nonprofit principles in describing it.
“I'd like a cohesive vision. You need mission, vision and values. This is an organization that would certainly fall in line with being a nonprofit. We're lucky to have enough money to do it again next year. I guess in that respect the organization is sustainable, but it always seems like we're one disaster away from disaster.”
Despite the ego boost that goes with having made the event happen, what the organizers would really like is the leisure to be guests at their own festival — to enjoy the good time everyone else has.
But Shawn observes, “The Baghavad Gita says do not desire the fruits of your labors. I wish I could be more like that.”
THE CHAMELEONS PRESENTED the first Starwood in 1981. Rosenbaum says the club formed from the melding of two groups of friends: people who hung around the campus Jewish ministries at Hillel House and were interested in psychedelic authors and stream-of-consciousness writing, and people who lived out medieval fantasies in the Society for Creative Anachronism.
Besides Starwood, the Chameleons operated a kind of mind spa during the '80s, which was listed in the phonebook under “parapsychology.” At its core was a sensory isolation tank — a saltwater bath kept just below body temperature, insulated against light and sound to create the impression of floating weightless in a void.
“Everything is explored by altering it,” Rosenbaum explains. “The way you explore temperature is by seeing how different temperatures affect something. The way you explore pressure is by changing the pressure to see how that affects different things. The way you study consciousness is by changing your consciousness.”
He had the idea for the festival after going to a pagan event in southern Ohio. With a bit of “sweep out the barn and put on a show” spirit, he, Rothenberg and the other Chameleons held the first Starwood at Cooper's Lake, a Pennsylvania campground Rosenbaum knew from the medieval battles held there by the SCA.
The Chameleons hired Selena Fox as a speaker and ritual leader. They formed their own medieval-ish folk rock band. And about 185 people paid $15 each for the long weekend. They built their first bonfire out of an old split rail fence, which they were given in exchange for the labor of knocking it down. The drumming and dancing that surrounded it is held among the Chameleons as a bedrock event — their first dance-naked-around-the-flames, all-night, howl-at-the-moon-for-real drum circle.
But not everyone was charmed. The campground management politely asked them not to return. “That probably had something to do with the fact that some of the people stripped down and danced naked around the bonfire and were howling at the moon,” Rosenbaum says. “The problem was that we only rented half the campground, and we probably scared the bejeebers out of some of the regular campers.”
During the search for a new site, Rosenbaum got a letter from Whispering Winds, a nudist camp in central Ohio, which was once a state campground called Devil's Den. They wanted the Chameleon's business, and were willing to overlook their requirement that all visitors live naked. The place served them well until one of the owners died, and the property was sold to developers.
Next came a few years at other Ohio campgrounds, each of which proved problematic. Attendance had grown steadily to about 600 guests when Frank Barney called. A self-described “on-the-road student type in the '60s,” he had been to Starwood and liked it. He had a primitive campground called Brushwood, and he told them he wouldn't kick them out.
Barney says the noise and lifestyle of the guests in quiet Chautauqua County caused a stir at first. “But then the police began to figure out that we were the peaceful folks,” and the troublemakers were a local Baptist ministers and others who called to complain, he said.
He recalls taking a local banker and a hardware store owner to speak with the sheriff about the event. Nobody has done an economic impact study, but the money the campers bring to the tiny town of Sherman, New York gives the local economy a boost that several of the merchants have noticed.
“The sheriff said, ‘I don't know why a bunch of intellectuals want to go to the woods and beat drums, but I guess it's not hurting anyone.'”
The Chameleon Club's list of guest speakers reads like who's who of the hippie and pagan counterculture. As an official campus group, they had use of CWRU's facilities to bring speakers that would deepen their understanding of whatever interested them.
“Why read about it in a book when you can meet the author and hear what he or she has to say,” Rosenbaum says.
The Chameleons brought Timothy Leary to Amasa Stone Chapel in 1979, and to Starwood on later occasions. They brought Merry Prankster Paul Krassner, who later wrote in High Times magazine about having spoken two very un-PC words to a largely naked Starwood crowd: “Nice tits.” They brought percussion master Babatunde Olatunji to lead workshops and play around the fire. They brought Church of All Worlds founder Oberon Zell-Ravenheart. They brought Harvey Wasserman.
Hippie icon and founder of The Farm commune Steve Gaskin has been a Starwood speaker several times and describes having prepped his children to see the pagans.
“This thing Jeff said to me in the beginning — you guys on the West Coast, when you got stoned, you thought about Indian stuff. Here on the East Coast we're closer to Europe so we've got European magic. So I tell my kids, wait 'til you see guys walking around with swords and black capes. But you'll see their religion is an earth religion, and there's no crap laying around the ground.”
Ivan Stang, Subgenius preacher and debunker of the corny seekers, has been going to Starwood since 1990 and calls himself “the Jane Goodall” of the neo-pagans.
“They've gotten used to me,” he says. “That first year I went with some trepidation because I had just published a book that bashed everyone from pagans to the Subgenius. I got there and went, ‘Wow, this dancing around the giant bonfire while people bang on drums strikes a chord that I think is a bit more ancient than any of the idealized ancient scenarios. Wasn't that what they did before TV for about a million years?'”
Stang will be there this year, as will Krassner, Saybrook Institute Psychology professor Stanley Krippner, Selena Fox, African musicologist Halim El-Dabh, and scores of others speakers. There's a plan to assault the Guinness Book of World Records for the most naked people covered with body paint. Musical headliners Airto Moreira and the Prodigals will be joined by the pagan group Incus, the bluegrass act One Hat Band, didgeridoo master Stephen Kent, and more.
As the event draws near , Rosenbaum acknowledges the Chameleons' discussion of who controls it and how it is organized, but to him it sounds like a lot of idle musing.
“A lot of people come and say Starwood should be all year. It should be a settlement or a commune or something so we can live like this forever. Other people say there should be franchises — Starwood festivals all across the country, like Disneyland.” He says a non-profit designation might be helpful for some of their educational activities, but as far as the festival goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Shawn, who has taken on increasing responsibility in the nearly 20 years since he joined the Chameleons, thinks the organization at least needs some attention. He says they need to go through a “painful growing process — not necessarily growing in numbers, but growing in the maturity of the group, which may involve excising some people.” He's talking about complainers who don't contribute, but he's not naming names.
“I guess the big question is, if a bunch of people stepped forward and were willing to do the various things I do, would I step back and let them do it? And I'm not 100 percent sure.”
The new Keeper of the Ashes is a Chameleon going by the name Meredith because her job situation prevents her from being publicly associated with naked pagans in the woods. She's heard her colleagues talk about the future, but she has faith in Rosenbaum and the improvised volunteerism that got the festival this far.
This will be her second year of consecrating the bonfire. She'll walk ahead of the torchbearers with the tin of ashes. She'll cast some into the pit from each of the cardinal directions, seeding the fire with the ashes of Starwoods past.
At the appropriate time she'll say a prayer and smudge the torchbearers' foreheads with ash. Rafael used to trace crosses, but Meredith is fond of circles.
“It is so much more powerful a symbol of how we are all connected,” she says. “A circle of people together — that's god to me.”
And after the big night of bacchanalia, she'll collect a cup of ashes, add them to the tin, and keep them for another year.
Starwood takes place July 19 to 24 at the Brushwood Folklore Center in Sherman, New York. Admission costs $210. For information, go to www.rosencomet.com or call 216-932-5421.