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Bad Religion

The pagan Starwood festival is a haven from the disenchanted world

The highway to Wisteria Campground curves blindly in the telltale fashion of an old dirt road repurposed to suit the demanding pace of modern life. Round one such corner and a sign emerges in the tree line: democrats destroying america, it declares, god help us. Below it, Smokey the Bear politely asks for help preventing wildfires. Carl and I assume they don’t know that, at literally the next property over, a seven-foot sacred bonfire burns practically nonstop and around it hundreds of pagans dance naked each night, Crucible-style with the Devil in the forest.

This is Starwood: a sprawling, annual gathering of American witches, druids, heathens, Satanists, Wiccans, and fellow travelers (meaning, in this context, ren faire-types and Burners) just north of the Ohio-West Virginia border, where they trade barbs and blunts for six days and five nights every July. These are not, as a liberal, white, middle-aged woman’s bumper sticker might proclaim, “the daughters of the witches they couldn’t burn.” No, these are literal witches of many persuasions, from Gardnerian to Golden Dawn, Traditional to Thelemite, decked out in robes, horns, BDSM gear, fur tails, sarongs—or “skyclad,” as the many nudists in attendance describe their aesthetic—ending each night with ritual offerings to the gods and hours of djembe drumming around a symbolic blaze that continues until morning. And I am not talking about the “wee hours” of the morning. When Carl and I groggily awake at 10 a.m. each day in our tent at the far edge of camp, we can still hear the drumming and chanting echoing through the woods, the rhythm as steady and insistent as ever.

For many, the day starts on Tuesday and does not end until Sunday; how this is possible becomes clear to us when we learn that the worship of the gods can be aided by regular doses of MDMA, LSD, and magic mushrooms. In retrospect, perhaps that is the key to things like trance states, the seven levels of intuition, astral projection, and improv comedy, the latter of which is so indisputably ungodly that I was surprised it had made its way to Starwood. Carl and I had only the twenty-four-ounce nitro cold brews we drove an hour round trip to buy—at, no shit, Brooklyn prices—in Athens, Ohio, to augment our spiritual growth during what I can only describe as the polar opposite of a silent meditation retreat.

The density of spiritual activity at Starwood is so great that the deities and divine rites quickly begin to blur together. At one point, Carl and I tried to attend a past-life regression workshop but failed to realize that we had stumbled into the wrong grove and joined Intro to Shamanic Journey instead. During our twenty-five minutes in the Lower World, I tried to keep from dozing off in the dirt of the Upper World, and Carl (who has never seemed particularly in touch with the Lower World to me) met his power animal: “A trout,” he told the shaman, to an approving nod. Another attendee was claimed by a sea turtle, a macaw, and a wolf. “No fucking way,” I muttered to Carl. But I was just bitter, probably, that no animal had come to me.

A woman raving about the sacred feminine in the canteen was, it turned out, just rolling on molly.

That afternoon and every afternoon, we reported to Kid Village, where we volunteered for four hours a day in order to attend Starwood for $80 each instead of thrice that. The gods-fearing kids are, it turns out, not so different from the God-fearing; if they’re weird at all, it’s because they’re homeschooled, not because they’re heathens. “What does paganism mean to you?” I asked some of the tweens on a field trip to a makeshift Hellenic temple where we left offerings for Aphrodite and Dionysus. “I dunno,” said the shaman’s daughter. “Like, witchcraft and stuff?” A second (whose Universalist Unitarian mother tells me she is interested in religion “in the broad sense”) was too preoccupied playing with slime procured from gods-know-where to answer. A third, the most seemingly devout of the kids, chose to define it by what it is not: namely, Judeo-Christian. He left his offering for the gods at no altar in particular, lest he offend one. I had to agree with his logic: Pascal’s wager, pagan-style.

It was either the most earnest or the most ironic of the Starwoodians who attended worship at night instead of participating in the orgies that Carl and I kept hearing were happening somewhere in the sprawling campsite. We ourselves attended ritual worship on Woden’s Day and Frigg’s Day—Wednesday and Friday, for the uninitiated—in a stone circle on the far side of the campground: one midnight of the festival was dedicated to the Witch-Father, another to the Horned God. We poured wine into the Witch-Father’s sacrificial blaze, lighter-fluid into Pan’s. The latter seemed alive and well in the stone circle that Friday night as a hundred-odd pagans experienced primal gnosis at the command of a wry Thelemic Mage, who broke character midway through the rite to intone, “This is my favorite part: now you get to watch me go berserk!” But that brief interlude didn’t seem to disrupt the encounter with the divine: everyone began to orbit the bonfire in a two- or four-legged run, yelping, panting, howling at the moon—and Carl and I were swept along with them, even though Carl had had surgery recently and his doctor said not to do things like go berserk. “Was that cool or what?” the Thelemic Mage asked at the end, and everyone clapped and hooted their approval. Then those worshippers who had arrived bearing glow sticks resumed their arms and headed off to electronic night in the Pufferdome—described on its own inexplicable Facebook page as “rising from the field like Gaia’s glowing nipple . . . Starwood’s inflatable hemispherical pleasure palace!”—while Carl and I went to bed.

As the days went by, it grew more difficult to tell who believed what, if anything. A woman raving about the sacred feminine in the canteen was, it turned out, just rolling on molly; a vendor of sacred pagan goods wore a pendant displaying none other than the Virgin Mary; a costumed man at our campsite was only dressed like that for a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, not a ritual sacrifice; several people told us that the witches were warding off the rain, even after it had hailed instead, and then rained for several consecutive days; and the final ritual bonfire of the festival, which we thought was going to be accompanied by the typical all-night djembe drumming, was cut short by a trio of fire artists wielding flamethrowers, their pyrotechnics accompanied by the Star Wars theme. The display upset many of the elders in the crowd, but their disgruntlement had less to do with the faithlessness of the youth and more to do with the fact that Star Wars is a franchise. “All hail our corporate overlords!” shouted one old man at the clouds. But for every disgruntled old guy, another continued to genuflect, naked and nonplussed, before the raging fire.

A smoking pile of ash was all that remained of the final, brilliant two-story bonfire the next morning, signaling the end of the forty-third annual Starwood Festival. The first festival was held in 1981, the idea having sprung from the collective mind of the Chameleon Club at Case Western Reserve University, which self-describes, in high psychedelic style, as a “group of individuals involved in the exploration of inner frontiers, be they Magickal, Scientific, or Spiritual,” a kind of spinoff of the Merry Pranksters. They founded the Association for Consciousness Exploration in 1983, and ACE (now the Rosencomet Project) has managed Starwood for the past forty years, overseeing its migration from Pennsylvania to Ohio to upstate New York, then eventually to its present location back in Ohio, just a few miles outside the nine-hundred-resident strong village of Albany, where Baptist churches are seemingly the only “third place” in town. 

Early Starwoodians leaned fairly Celtic in their spiritual orientation—and the collegiate origins of Starwood by way of the Chameleon Club nicely parallel the origins of American Druidism, born at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, in 1963 as a humorous objection to the college’s requirement of religious observance; their religious rituals consisted mainly of drinking whiskey on a campus hilltop. They called themselves the Reformed Druids of North America: “reformed,” I am told, because they no longer practiced human sacrifice. “What begins in mirth continues in reverence,” Ian Corrigan, one founder of Starwood, told me. He could have been talking about his own experience as easily as about RDNA at large; these days, Corrigan is pretty serious as far as pagans go, an Archdruid Emeritus of Ár nDraíocht Féin—founded in 1983 by Isaac Bonewits, who was ordained by RDNA as a neo-Druid priest in 1969, but later broke with the group in search of a more doctrinaire pagan practice—and a founder of Stone Creed Grove, the ADF’s oldest active congregation, based in the Cleveland metro area. He holds court each Starwood in a tented villa at the heart of the campground, surrounded by several other old-guard Starwoodians (a Thelemite, a Gardnerian) who rib each other affectionately about religious differences in a way that puts Jews, Christians, and Muslims everywhere to shame.

During one of the several downpours that occurred despite the witches’ best efforts, Corrigan and company schooled Carl and me Bible Bowl-style in neopagan history, which is as dense with names, dates, disagreements, and schisms as any good ecclesiastical history. Modern neopaganism is generally thought to have begun with Gerald Gardner, an amateur archaeologist and anthropologist who, in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, debuted Wicca, a highly ritualistic, polytheistic religion centered around worship of the male/female duality personified in the figures of the Horned God and the Triple Goddess. In 1939, Gardner claimed to have been initiated into the New Forest coven, which he believed to have survived what modern Wiccans call “The Burning Times”—the fiery witch trials that swept through early modern Europe, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. Gardner and his acolytes subscribed to the folklorist Margaret Murray’s “witch-cult” hypothesis, which claims that the witch trials actually successfully targeted the members of a genuine pagan religion that had managed to survive the Christianization of Europe up until that point: a fertility cult centered around worship of a Mother Goddess and a male deity only nicknamed the Devil, to whom sacrifices were made throughout the year. Gardner and one of his early initiates, the High Priestess Doreen Valiente, who became a major Wiccan liturgist, situated Wicca in this pseudohistorical continuity—though later scholars would learn that the New Forest coven was probably just a few years old when Gardner joined.

That is not to say that modern paganism appeared from the ether. Aleister Crowley, like a Joseph Smith of neopaganism, might have claimed to have received Thelema fully developed from a non-corporeal entity named Aiwass in 1904—but in many respects, all the key ingredients for neopaganism were already there with or without Aiwass’s intervention: a heady mix of nineteenth-century Romanticism, occultism, eclecticism, sentimentalism, and spiritualism. Around the same time Elizabeth Barrett Browning was declaring the death of Pan, countless other early nineteenth-century Romantics (like Lord Byron and John Keats) were cultivating a resurgent interest in the mythology and mystery cults of yore, drawing inspiration from more than the austere marble statues of the classical world: indeed, raising a glass to the bacchanalian, embracing what the scholar Suzanne L. Barnett summarizes as the “wildness, excess, and ecstatic experiences” of ancient culture and religion. Perhaps it was inevitable that such rites would make their way from the page back into practice: when Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in 1822, his friends burned his corpse on a Hellenistic pyre, with the novelist Edward Trelawny meticulous about gathering for the funeral “such things as were said to be used by Shelley’s much loved Hellenes on their funeral pyres.”

Practically all that unites these divergent traditions anymore is their alterity.

Across Europe, both traditional and “traditional” folk material became key chips in the game of nineteenth-century nation-building: the Iliad and Odyssey took on a new valence of symbolic urgency amid the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829), while the 1830s compilation of the Finnish epic poetry collection, the Kalevala, challenged the legitimacy of Swedish colonial rule (which had ended in 1809) and defied the mounting Russification of Finnish culture—setting the stage for autonomous Finnish statehood in 1917. While the most infamous output of Romantic nationalism is, no doubt, the ideology and iconography of the Third Reich, it also led to the rejuvenation and recirculation of many texts now taken as sacred by modern pagans: for rank-and-file modern Druids, these include the Welsh epic Mabinogion and the four “cycles” of Irish mythology.

This widespread interest in the prose and poetry of the past (including in regions like Britain, where little pre-Christian material managed to survive long enough in the oral tradition to make its way into writing) created plenty of opportunities for forgers to take poetic license: the Welsh antiquarian and anti-monarchist Iolo Morganwg’s Barddas, which he claimed was a legitimate compilation of Welsh bardic and druidic tradition, proved enormously powerful in the early decades of the druidic religious revival—which, unsurprisingly, originally had a distinctly Welsh nationalist bent. Morganwg himself initiated the first Gorsedd of the Bards in a stone circle atop the highest point in London in 1792. That same summer he wrote, in a letter to his wife, “I shall curse London with my latest breath.”

In the long run, Romantic nationalism in Britain would unintentionally sire New Age religion in America. Neopaganism would not have been possible without, too, the influence of occultism—particularly two early twentieth-century occultist groups, the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn—characterized by growing Western interest in mysticism, gnosticism, and the religious and spiritual practices of the East. The Theosophical Society was an early site of widespread American engagement with the principles of Buddhist and Hindu mysticism; it played a large part in introducing the now-ubiquitous notions of karma and reincarnation to American culture in the early 1900s. Even more influential than the Theosophical Society was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which—despite its entirely fraudulent provenance and lifespan of less than a decade—virtually invented modern magical practice from a syncretic amalgam of Hermetic Qabalah, astrology, tarot, divination, geomancy, alchemy, and astral projection. Aleister Crowley, when denied entrance to the innermost ring of HOGD, attempted in 1899 a January 6-style takeover of a HOGD temple that resulted in a lengthy legal proceeding, then split off from the group; he was visited by the aforementioned Aiwass shortly thereafter.

Such is the historical continuum to which Wicca actually belongs. The practice subsequently split into a number of distinct traditions: the original Gardnerian Wicca remains, but one of Gardner’s initiates, Robert Cochrane, left Wicca to found the less hierarchical Cochrane’s Craft; another, Alex Sanders, founded the tradition of Alexandrian Wicca, known for its eclecticism and emphasis on magick; an American named George Patterson, despite having no proven ties (though many assuredly false ones) to British Wicca, pioneered the American offshoot of Wicca now known as the Georgian tradition; the lesbian separatist Zsuzsanna Budapest established the women-only Dianic Wicca, a monotheistic tradition that venerates a Great Goddess; and Gavin and Yvonne Frost founded another monotheistic sect, the Church and School of Wicca, out of St. Louis, Missouri, that venerates a genderless higher power. Practically all that unites these divergent traditions anymore is their alterity.

Recent decades have consisted of a long fight for recognition and legitimacy not waged against the state (or even that old bogeyman and scourge of witches everywhere, the Catholic Church) so much as against contemporary scholarship. Celtic reconstructionists like Corrigan are generally ignored or summarily dismissed by academic Celticists, who are hesitant to make too many guesses about what druidry in its pure, pre-Christian, pre-Roman form might have been: after all, they had no written language, and so nothing remains in their own words. What little contemporaneous material we do have is apt to be propagandic in nature, since much of it was composed by Romans in the midst of the Gallic Wars and their subsequent suppression of indigenous Celtic tradition: the most famous of these propagandists is, no doubt, Julius Caesar, whose account of druidic sacrifice in the Bellum Gallicum—in a wicker man “of vast size, the limbs . . . formed of osiers [the druids] fill with living men,” burned as an offering to the gods—remains the first thing to come to most people’s minds when one says “druid.”

But maybe it does not matter what academics have to say about the legitimacy of religious readings of the Mabinogion or the accuracy of insular accounts of pre-Roman druidic culture: after all, more Americans identify as pagans with each passing year—and for many, busy casting spells on TikTok and throwing curses at Donald Trump, the distant past could not be further from their minds.

The number of Americans who identify as pagans rises fairly reliably each year, up from less than ten thousand in 1990, to more than three hundred thousand in 2008, to as many as 1.5 million in 2014. These days, American pagans vastly outnumber the cumulative ranks of the quintessentially American peace churches (which includes the Amish and the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, and the Quakers) and rival in numbers the Greek and Russian Orthodox, Anglican, and Congregationalist churches. And young people, it seems, are paganism’s fastest-growing demographic: at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, one particularly vibrant niche of social media was the self-proclaimed #WitchTok, where young influencers educated their followers in everything from spells to the intricacies of appealing to patron gods and goddesses. If 2019 was—as reported by Lauren Oyler—a year of irony-laden astrological enthusiasm, with the zodiac emerging as a “collective not-joke,” then 2020 was the year the gloves came off: no more Co–Star and crystals for the young people now directly appealing to the long-dormant Irish goddess the Mórrígan for divine intervention.

It would be impossible to capture the full scope of sorcery to be found on TikTok—where top creators identify with everything from hoodoo to Italian folk magic—but much of their language befits the triple whammy of the pandemic, recession, and attempted coup that characterized 2020 and 2021, when #WitchTok first took off: words like power, control, trauma, protection, stability, and healing make frequent appearances in these videos. A subgenre of videos offer tips for wielding magick against material deprivation: a pinned video on one page advertises a magical brew for households in financial trouble; another page suggests making a money jar and doing a prosperity boil to encourage financial stability; a third describes the “quickest witch tip to make money,” which involves writing the desired amount of money on a bay leaf and then burning it in a ritual candle. “Witchcraft, paganism, it all gives you a bit of control back,” said one popular practitioner in a 2022 interview with the BBC. “It gives people a real sense of individuality and the power to do things themselves.”

Back in Ian Corrigan’s tent at Starwood, Jason Mankey, a Wiccan priest and author, emphasized to us the difference between “serious” witches and “influencer” witches. For the latter group, he said, paganism is about empowerment, spells, and exerting control over the vicissitudes of life—not the worship of deities as it takes place at Starwood, where many organizers identify closely with the principles of polytheistic reconstructionism: for them, pagan worship requires far larger fires and a lot more lighter fluid than the cutesy tea lights of TikTok rituals. But he understands the appeal for new practitioners: witchcraft as a way of “striking back” at everything from Covid-19 to the obliteration of Roe v. Wade. Another Starwood attendee—a third-generation pagan and festivalgoer, whose young daughter, there with her, marks the start of the fourth—echoes Mankey’s sentiment. “It has to do with dissatisfaction with the status quo,” she told me. “People want to retreat and do stuff in a different way.”

Her words remind me of the unspoken ideology of the hippie movement—the belief that simply choosing to live an alternative lifestyle oneself might be as damaging to the status quo as sustained, long-term political activism: “Turn on, tune in, drop out” as praxis. Just as organic foods, free love, and BO have made their way into the mainstream, so, too, have things like the Mórrigan, magick with a “k,” and a rehabilitated image of the traditional witch—even some elements of polytheism. “People talk about the coffee gods, not god,” someone in Corrigan’s tent points out. And just as Al Gore invented the internet, the pagan elder Oberon Zell-Ravenheart maintains that his wife Morning Glory invented the term polyamory. But little else, it seems, has seeped from the self-containment of Starwood into American culture; and for many of my interlocutors, a clear delineation exists between the pagan world and the secular one. “This is my real life,” one witch said of Starwood. “The rest of the year is my fake life.” Perhaps that is the reason for the frenetic expulsion of energy that characterizes the festival: you can’t bring it with you when you’re gone.

Most carnivals (from the Roman Saturnalia to medieval masquerades to Burning Man) by no means imply a shift in the power structures that organize society; rather, they provide the very catharsis that allows those structures to survive. On the other side of the celebration, you are left exhausted, strung out, broke—maybe even disgusted by the feeling of overindulgence; in short, you might be ready, perhaps even eager, for things to go back to normal—even if that means heading back to your nine-to-five and the scourge of no-shirt-no-shoes-no-service signs. Just as the vast majority of hippies reassimilated (and back-to-the-land became back-to-the-bank) plenty of Starwoodians are no doubt a little relieved, each year, to return to the routine of the status quo. For them, the annual taste of communality, of harmony with nature, of sexual liberation, might just be enough.

The truth is that, for all their countercultural aesthetics, the political demographics of the pagan community pretty much map one-to-one onto mainstream society, says Heather Kyle, an anthropologist of modern paganism and a practicing pagan herself, summarizing the key findings of her decade interviewing attendees of pagan festivals across the country. For every pagan staffing the Communist Kitchen at Starwood, for every attendee returning home from the festival to The Farm, there is an equal-and-opposite QAnoner or white nationalist. Many of them can be found in the ranks of Ásatrú, which venerates Norse culture: Kyle described attending a Viking moot in Virginia that started out welcoming with an open bar and ended with an outpouring of white supremacist rhetoric and play-fighting that seemed a little too real. “I was frightened,” she said. “I was like, How did I get here? And how can I never come back?” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the neopagan community is also as riven over trans rights as any church—except in their case, disagreement has to do with the god/goddess binary and the long shadow of the Divine Feminine, not the divine will of God.

“But by and large, pagans are tolerant of different worldviews because they’re used to not being tolerated,” the Starwoodian staffing the Communist Kitchen assured me. Despite their attunement to the violent history of pagan persecution and present-day marginalization, many of the pagans I spoke to and heard speak at Starwood seemed content to let nature, human and otherwise, take its course. Among those who feel called to pagan practice by a sense of personal magical ability—as opposed to those who are, in Ian Corrigan’s words, drawn to it for “nerdier” reasons—there is a sense that non-Christonormative existence alone is political enough. Even in Washington, D.C., the palpitating heart of American politics, pagans maintain a studied spirituality: they drum at the Jefferson Memorial when the moon is full; they ritually sweep out the old and usher in the new whenever a new president takes office. Anger past a certain degree is constrained by the Wiccan belief in the law of threefold return. The TikTokers are waiting for the Mórrígan and other battle goddesses to sabotage the Supreme Court; but the more traditional pagans—whom I hoped to find up in arms about any number of things, foremost being the destruction of the natural world they supposedly venerate—are simply waiting for the cycle of politics to begin anew.

No doubt it has to do with the moment in which that Old Guard—the founders of Starwood, whom I found shooting the shit in Ian Corrigan’s tent—came of age. One obviously counterculture-inflected 1978 guidebook for pagan practitioners, Herman Slater’s A Book of Pagan Rituals, roundly dismisses overinvestment in the affairs of the modern world:

Political pressures fashion the wonders of science into weapons which are both cruel and fearsome. Commercialism, in its mindless striving for money, has managed to prostitute the finest technical developments and with their wastes to pollute much of what still remains of the natural world.

Politics has reached a similar impasse. Both Marxism and Capitalism were created using the precepts of Christianity, and thus both suffer from the same weaknesses as their parent: inflexibility, dogma, intolerance and hypocrisy. Those who have lived under both systems say that Marxism is considerably more drab and mechanistic than its rival. Thus we can expect that the current intellectual fashions tending toward Marx will ultimately be halted by the dull, hard wall of reality.

Laid out here are those false gods of the twentieth century: modern science, mass production, Marx. Where else to turn but backward? “The answer lies deep within ourselves—where it has always been—and out in the world of nature, where it has long waited,” answers Slater. “The Pagan Way . . . sees man as he is, and the world as it is, and seeks to push neither into a preconceived mold.” What Slater prescribes is a kind of acceptance of the immovability of politics, of the “inevitable” evildoing of once-progressive technologies, and of the apparently equal pitfalls of economic systems. He calls us to renounce our failed attempts to steward the world and instead let it steward us; to accept “man as he is, and the world as it is,” without forcing either to change; and to emulate the practices of those who lived before Christianity first led man astray, leaving commercialism, capitalism, and communism in its wake.

In exchange for the political compromises that pagan ideology seemingly demands, you get to live in an enchanted world.

Perhaps the latest surge of interest in paganism online has to do with the fact that—in a globalized political landscape, characterized by global catastrophes of every sort—record-high levels of feelings of political inefficacy have made it such that magick feels as likely as anything else (and probably more likely than voting) to make a difference. In that respect, the top few interests of Starwoodians are not so different from those of the TikTok sorcerers: trauma, healing, and empowerment are major areas of focus at the festival, too, with workshops like Shamanic Tech for Trauma, Ancestral Trauma, Emerging from Chaos, and Manifestation Magic and Power Sigils. These preoccupations arguably speak to any number of material concerns—from the failures of for-profit medical care to the risk of violent gun death in America—but there is no doubt another appeal too: in exchange for the political compromises that pagan ideology seemingly demands, you get to live in an enchanted world—a world characterized by the thrill of the unknown, as desirable as it is dangerous, and most importantly, distracting.

The sociologist Max Weber’s notion that modernity is the product of the “progressive disenchantment of the world” is so widely accepted as to feel more like truism than truth. But maybe secular re-enchantment is no longer enough: with the great hopes of the twentieth-century (at least, according to Herman Slater) dashed and debunked, and the world practically bereft of the mysteries that have powered human progress since the early days of the species, maybe what the pagans have actually done is book a one-way ticket back to Weber’s “great enchanted garden.” There, the Mórrígan and the Mother Goddess and Poseidon and Pan pull the strings: there, human responsibility subsequently dissipates under the auspices of the divine, and magic returns to Earth in what is functionally a pagan version of the Second Coming of Christ. And despite my frustration with this abnegation of political responsibility, I am not immune to the feelings of inefficacy, powerlessness, and despair that characterize life amid climate change and capitalism. In truth, I find it hard to blame the many, mostly working-class, people I met at Starwood for preferring a more whimsical and wonderful version of the world. After all, it is not the Starwood bonfire that has set it all alight.

On the last morning of the festival, I took a final walk through the campground: past the Pufferdome and Kid Village, past the vendor booths now being dismantled, past all the same people Carl and I had been seeing progressively more of (quite literally) all week. Carl’s phone had gone missing at the beginning of the festival, and I decided to stop by the lost and found one last time to see if it was there, but had no luck; the same was true at the second office I checked; but just by chance, it turned out, sitting tucked away on a shelf in the medical tent of all places, was the long-lost iPhone 8 we had spent so much time not looking for that week, brought back to us (per the advice of one pagan elder) by intention alone.

I did not believe in magic before Starwood and I still do not—if it were real, surely the thousands of four-leaf clovers I have found over the course of my life would have made me a billionaire or beauty queen by now—but for a brief moment I allowed myself to indulge, at least in the relative magick that is some eight hundred strangers looking out for one another for six straight days, quite possibly a world record. And on the drive from Starwood back toward civilization, Carl and I sang along to a bastard rendition of the traditional Christian hymn “Old Time Religion,” whose “filk” verses were popularized in the 1980s by Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. “We will pray with those old druids,” the fourth verse proclaims. “They drink fermented fluids / Waltzing naked though the woods / And it’s good enough for me.”