The Power of Community
or What I Did On My Summer Holiday
When it was announced that this summer’s Avalon Witchcamp had to be cancelled due to an unprecedented combination of a lack of on-site Organisers, a shortfall in bookings and difficulties within the Teaching team, I was very upset. A self-confessed Witchcamp addict, this would have been my tenth year at Avalon as either a camper, organiser or student teacher.
Whilst I tried to console myself that I now had the luxury of a free week to do as I pleased, truth be told the prospect of a summer without Witchcamp looked pretty drab.
During this time, a few Witchcampers upset at the prospect of losing the deposits they had paid for their places at camp began a rather heated discussion on BRDL [British Reclaiming Yahoo Discussion List]. Whilst I understood that no one likes to lose money and get nothing in return, I also knew from my time as a Camp Organiser that putting on Witchcamp requires a lot of advance expenditure – and I knew that the Organisers weren’t in a position to refund deposits. As the protests about lost deposits got louder I began to try to think about ways to help out, but all my fundraising ideas were either financially risky (involving more expenditure initially), or would only have generated small amounts of cash.
And then as part of the ongoing discussions on BRDL, someone made a suggestion that, as the venue (Earthspirit) had already been paid for, perhaps an alternative event could be held there instead. I thought this was a good idea and waited eagerly to see if anyone would pick up on it and volunteer to organise something. After a few days no one had said anything more, so I decided to contact Earthspirit myself and see whether they would be amenable to British Reclaiming putting on an event to replace Witchcamp.
Looking back, I think that was the point at which my ‘free week to do as I pleased’ evaporated along with most of the rest of my summer! Earthspirit had been unable to fill the slot with another booking and were therefore only too delighted to agree to host an alternative British Reclaiming event that week. I knew it was absolutely impossible to put on a Reclaiming Witchcamp at such short notice, but having organised a couple of weekend-long British Reclaiming Gatherings, it seemed quite feasible to me that we could stretch that format into a seven day event.
At this point I should probably explain the differences between a Reclaiming Witchcamp and a Gathering for those who may not have attended either.
A Reclaiming Witchcamp is a weeklong residential Intensive. A myth or story forms the structure for the week, and the teaching and arc of evening rituals is planned around this. Witchcamp teachers have also undergone several years of training and work experience before they can call themselves Witchcamp teachers. The planning process takes a year, starting almost immediately after the end of the previous camp.
In contrast, the British Reclaiming Gatherings that we have held over the last few years are a much looser style of event, which encourage participants to teach and priestess the event themselves by offering talks and workshops, and co-creating the rituals. The atmosphere is more casual, and people drop in and out of the event as they prefer. Until this summer, the longest Gathering we had held had been over a weekend.
So my plan was to use the basic ‘Gathering’ model for a week-long event that community members would co-operatively create. I flagged up the suggestion on BRDL where it was greeted with enthusiasm. Several people (Anna, David, Diego, Flame, Halo, Peter, Raven, Richard and Sylvia) volunteered to help with the organisation so we created a separate Yahoo group and started planning. From then on things moved at a rapid - and sometimes terrifying! - pace.
We had to get a list of people willing to offer activities, then organise a draft timetable of those workshops, rituals and other activities; work out how to charge affordable prices whilst covering our costs; look into the whys and wherefores of public transport to get people there; produce fliers and advertise, advertise, advertise; liaise with Earthspirit about special dietary requirements, dorm room:camper ratios, minimum/maximum numbers of guests and dozens of other issues; and field enquiries from people interested in attending. Every day brought a flurry of new queries, problems and solutions and at times I dreaded opening my email inbox because I knew how many messages would be piled up waiting for me.
But the response from everyone was so overwhelmingly positive that somehow, in about six weeks we managed to pull everything together. Anxiety that we may not get enough attendees to be viable was put to rest by a flurry of last-minute bookings - I even took a telephone booking for two people 5 minutes before I was due to leave the house to drive down to Earthspirit!
The rather experimental format sometimes threw up unexpected plus points as well as challenges. For example, unlike Witchcamp where people are together for the whole week, the format of the Gathering allowed people to come for as short a period as a day, or as long as a week. The advantage of this was that many people who are unable to come to a week-long event due to finances, work or family commitments were able to attend. On the downside of this, the Gathering seemed to lack the degree of intimacy that Witchcamps usually enjoy; people also had a tendency to congregate in already established social groups, rather than mix freely. It made me realise just how much mutual trust and understanding is fostered by the Witchcamp ‘intensive’ model, and also how useful Affinity Groups are in contributing to mixing people up and making them feel at ease with each other. Perhaps future Gatherings could bear these points in mind and work on strategies to overcome them. Or perhaps it’s OK for people at Gatherings to connect on a more casual level. Although we didn’t do so this year, at future Gatherings it might be helpful to give people feedback forms when they leave to see what their verdict is.
Earthspirit were unbelievably helpful and cheerful no matter what our weird requests were ("We forgot to tell you, but we need a bonfire in 20 minutes!" "Can we borrow a wooden spoon and a ladle?" "Do you have lots of old newspapers and a big roll of sellotape?").
And of course the members of the British Reclaiming Community were amazing: those from near and far who helped assemble all the ingredients, and those who came along and stirred and seasoned and baked the amazing concoction that the Gathering turned out to be.
Admittedly some things were a bit rough around the edges, and there are some things I would do differently if I was to organise another – although at this stage I’m more than happy to hand the reins over to someone else!
In the end the Gathering was a success. For me, it was a rollercoaster week of anxiety, exhilaration, joy, stress, hope, and a thousand other emotions. I shed tears of both exhaustion and joy, laughed until my face hurt, danced until I was breathless, and had my faith in the strength and power of community restored. I reconnected with loved ones, deepened existing friendships, gained new ones, and - I hope - made progress in repairing damaged relationships.
More importantly, we managed to cover our costs, making enough to repay Avalon Witchcamp the deposit they had paid on the venue - meaning all Witchcampers had their full deposits returned. When all the fundraising (raffle etc) was added in, we actually had a little left over, so there is seed-money for a similar event next summer.
And most important of all, I think this was a great piece of magic, which helped to strengthen and repair our community. There has often been discussion about whether we are a community or merely a network, given that we are so geographically scattered and can only meet up infrequently. I think the way everyone rallied round to support this event and so generously gave of their time, money and energy proves that we are, after all, a community.