Rainbow Gathering: A Semi-Anarchic Utopia

We thought we were cool, really we did

When I was 13, my best friend and I, both unpopular “nerds” at school, used to pretend we were hippies from the 60’s. We dressed up in bell-bottoms and scavenged items from our mothers’ wardrobes – not realising that the rainbow-coloured dresses were, in fact, 80’s “retro” fashion – adorning ourselves with lots of beads and medallions from my grandmother’s treasury of jewellery, and wearing our hair in long braids.

We loved the song “Aquarius/ Let the Sunshine in” by 5th Dimension and used the lyrics “Let the Sunshine in” as a password to our secret hideaway. Alienated by the rap and early techno music popular with my peers, I pored over biographies of John Lennon and the Beatles and learned the poetry of Jim Morrison off by heart. I was convinced I was born in the wrong decade and wished I could have gone to Woodstock and taken part in peace protests.

Memories of these songs and dreams came back to me when I recently got a chance to live the hippie dream by spending 11 days at a Rainbow Gathering. The “Rainbow” family grew out of a huge peace gathering in the U.S. in the 1970’s and developed into camps all over Europe and, eventually, in England too. Wikipedia describes their ideology as one of “peace, harmony, freedom, and respect.” My experience has led me to the conclusion that “freedom” is the primary value.

You can find out more about the ethos and history of Rainbow here. Because electronic devices are forbidden around communal spaces at a Rainbow Healing Gathering, this post will have fewer pictures than usual – but hopefully my words will evoke some of the spirit.

the turn off to the Rainbow site

I’d dropped in to these gatherings briefly twice before, last summer with my partner V, but never stayed the night. When I saw people lounging around on the grass or playing with hula hoops, I had the secret thought, “But what do they do all day?” In my pre-nomadic, settled, multiple-plates-spinning life as a single working mother, I was still firmly entrenched in the feeling that I needed to “do” stuff to make the most of my time – and the list of things that really DID have to be done seemed endless.

Fully exploring Rainbow with V this time, in the beauty of the Ashdown Forest on the Sussex/Kent border in May, was an eye-opener. But first, a little background. With the beginning of the festival season at the start of the month, V and I found ourselves in a new phase of our relationship. We moved from the intensity and closeness – with all its challenges and joys – of being just the two of us in the van most of the time, to being surrounded by lots of people with all their different energies. We had to find a new way to be together and with others, exploring our own individual needs more through festival workshops and through getting to know others.

I’m less extroverted than V and tend to like hanging out with just one or two people I feel very safe and close with, so I often found myself feeling vulnerable and triggered, not knowing where he was for hours at a time. I was used to him being right there, rarely more than a metre away. The freedom we allow each other is a gift, but it took a while for me to start to appreciate my end of it, and I’m still on this journey.

Then we got to experiment with being a couple as well as being individuals in a very unique setting: a Rainbow Healing Gathering. I think of Rainbow Gatherings as Utopian micro-societies which are also semi-anarchic, in the sense that there’s no “leader”, organisation or control, and the few rules are all decided by consensus. Healing Gatherings are intended to be substance and technology-free. The camps, in their European/UK form, exist for 28 days, from New Moon to New Moon, on squatted land.

In stark contrast to the pre-booked, organised, often expensive, and “closed” community camps (where you commit for the whole time period) I’ve participated in for the past 8 years, anyone who is in the “know” via word of mouth and a Facebook group can attend a Rainbow Gathering. You don’t need a penny to your name, and in fact there were a couple of homeless people (as well as us house-less vandweller folks) at the camp, yet this wasn’t at all obvious because of the lack of the usual social hierarchies and structure. Mainstream, disconnected-from-nature, commercially-driven society is referred to as “Babylon”. Funds for group needs are raised by a Magic Hat voluntary contributions system and you can camp at a Gathering for anywhere between an afternoon and a month.

On arrival, you are greeted with the words “Welcome home, brother / sister” and there is a “Welcome home fire”, a cooking fire, and a Sacred Fire. The facilities, created by the temporary community, are extremely basic, with a “shit pit” for daily toileting and, due to the lack of running water (all water is sourced, at great effort, from the nearest stream), “washing up” is done by rubbing bowls and pans with ash from the fire. One night, I cooked a meal which included creamed coconut donated by a guy who had been “trying it out as deodorant but it didn’t really work”. So, yes, hygiene is on a whole different level to the middle-class camps I’ve attended over the years.

The days have very little structure, yet they are full. Everything is very spontaneous: meal-making may not even happen, on occasion. The days flow by in a stream of nature communion, hanging out around the fire, laughter, fetching water, chopping wood and building structures, talking circles, regular cathartic shouts as people release their feelings in a way that’s impossible in urban living if you don’t want the police called, and near-constant singing and music-making (with a large repertoire of “Rainbow songs”, which are earth-based, nature-loving, “peace n love” type songs – see here for some examples).

At first, I couldn’t quite take in that it’s really OK to be however you are at Rainbow. Even the aspects of people’s personalities that could be a challenge are part of the liberating atmosphere. When I interacted with a woman in the group who never seemed to smile and barely said two words to me – and when she did speak, it was abrupt – it was easy to imagine that she disliked me. But I realised that the very permission she had to be unapologetically herself without being “nice” or “polite” was the same permission I had to be clumsy, sometimes babbly, and hairy-legged, and to sing my heart out in whatever way I wanted, without being judged.

The usual social conventions and niceties were starkly absent. For the first few days, this made me feel lonely and un-integrated, because usually I get to know people by asking them questions about themselves and being asked these in turn. But chit-chat didn’t seem to exist: no-one asked what you did and who you were. There was often silence as we peeled vegetables together or made the fire, or else there’d be talk about social issues and protests.

Perhaps the usual polite yet insincere “essential behaviour” is yet another mask for reality, and for what really connects us. After a while, I no longer wanted conversations that required me to define who I was; when these did emerge, I found it distracting from simply being in the moment.

Although at times I felt left out by V’s endless jamming with his male guitarist counterparts (a technical musician I’ll probably never be), we also “gelled” as a musical couple to a level I hadn’t imagined in our times playing and singing together in the depths of winter in the van. People joining in with our songs and entering into spaces of inspiration, even ecstasy, felt like a dream come true, yet it seemed to be happening so naturally. You can hear a sample of our improvised music/spoken word in this rough recording (from Colourfest).

We were even invited to sing kirtan at two festivals, although we’d only just begun to step into leading this form of devotional chanting. As we jammed together with the other musicians, I went very deeply with my singing, and on one occasion it felt like I was channelling, like it was just happening: the first time I’d experienced this through the voice, though it has happened through dance a few times.

the view from our tent each morning

The closeness to nature went beyond the level of living in the van and of any of the other community camps I’ve been to. I loved waking up to direct birdsong outside the tent, feeling no gap between my body and the earth as I lay there, camped in a circle of beech trees who showered us with their little catkins. V and I had a freezing cold but refreshing dip in the nearby stream, and when I was walking alone one day, I saw 6 deer ahead of me on the path leading out of the camp. One of them immediately ran off but the others stayed and shared a moment with me, locking eyes, until the other deer, probably the leader, came to fetch them. Later, when we moved sites, I spotted the glowing eye of a frog in the hollow of a beech tree in the healing area. I called others over to watch in wonder as it breathed, its throat moving rhythmically.

Like any group, the dynamics at Rainbow could be a total mind-fuck. While mostly everyone was incredibly chilled, there was an ongoing conflict between two group members around a perceived lack of contribution to the camp wellbeing (aka smoking a spliff and just lying around all day) which a talking circle on group unity had been unable to resolve. When this tension was at its height, we were all affected by the negative atmosphere. The frequent lack of adherence to one of the very few rules for Rainbow Healing Gatherings – no weed smoking – as agreed by the European Rainbow Family, was also getting to us, particularly V.

All decisions are made using the Native American custom of the talking stick, in a talking circle, and using the consensus method. Apparently, consensus is difficult to reach in Rainbow Gatherings, and this time, we did reach one – about not sharing recordings someone had made of the music being played around the fire, and not making such recordings any longer, since the use of electronic devices is forbidden in the efforts to “get back to nature”. However, shortly after that consensus, members of the group were being rather loose about it.

This was a relatively minor issue (though very emotive to some), but what if something really harmful or dangerous was going on? A few of those who’d stayed at previous gatherings told me about aggressive and sexually harassing individuals whose behaviour the group had not been able to resolve, resulting in others feeling unsafe. I was troubled by the implications, particularly for women and vulnerable people. I imagine that in a gathering that draws those who are very much into their own path, their independence, and, often, their individualistic self-expression, it could be a challenge for the group to step up as a whole and put the greater good above personal liberty.

V and I took 24 hours out at the point where the camp, having been discovered by a hostile person threatening to call the police if we didn’t move, relocated from public to private land nearby, where it would take 28 days for an eviction to be enforceable – and by then the camp would be over. We didn’t know if we’d come back. But then we remembered that Richard, who was to be the didgeridoo player in our upcoming woodland shamanic improvised music space at Colourfest, was going to be turning up, and we needed to practice playing music with him.

We returned with fresh energy to the new space and became more proactive in creating the offerings we wanted to see happen: V started an official Healing Area under a beech tree, I offered a women’s circle (the gender balance had been severely out, with only a handful of women) and co-facilitated a cacao ceremony with my good friend Judith, and we played some powerful music together with Richard which felt like a sound healing session. I noticed that when I stepped up and gave to the group in an active way, I felt a much greater sense of belonging and satisfaction.

wild camping

A less desirable fresh element of the new camp took the form of daily visits from the land agents who wanted, of course, to get rid of us, but knowing they couldn’t yet, legally speaking, they still wanted to make their presence known on an ongoing basis. At times, these meetings were tense, and I avoided getting involved.

The officials’ first approach was to walk straight up to our Healing Area opening circle under the beech tree, which I found very disturbing, but the group just carried right on afterwards. The police turned up one day and were very pleasant, happily being given a guided tour by one of the group members.

While I felt compassion for the land owners who might feel threatened and afraid of unknowns camping on their land, I was also moved by the ancestral stirrings of grief and rage that the land of the people, once free for all to use, has gradually become the property of the very wealthy and privileged few.

A situation where those who genuinely respect and love the land and take good care of it – for example, the Rainbow family minimise their impact on the site and never use the same site again for 7 years, allowing the earth time to restore itself – are unable to live in the way that is natural to us as beings of this planet. I was encouraged to hear that after we left to go on to our next travel point, Colourfest in Dorset, the owner of the land himself (a Lord) eventually visited and was completely approachable and understanding.

In the background, all the time, was a sadness in me at the awareness of moving further and further away from my son, J. There had been a drop in contact since he stopped using his tablet, which I used to message and call him on, and, frustratingly, prompts to his father to facilitate contact were not always effective. The happiness of having my friend Judith’s 6-year-old son around was touched with poignancy at seeing their connection in this environment, which I’m not able to share with J. I’d asked him if he wanted to come to Rainbow with us for a weekend and he’d said no. In fact, he no longer wants to come to any festivals, and I accept that we have very different interests in life now. He is, however, still keen to go to the far less hippie Dance Camp East with me in late July, which we’ve attended since he was 4.

My description cannot possibly capture the essence of the experience that is Rainbow. My time there, being given complete freedom to express and be how I am, along with everyone else, has taken me deeper into a surrender to my path and to who I am, what I’m meant to do here, and what’s unfolding through me.

The struggle between the “civilised self” and the “wild primal human” was intense until I reached some level of surrender: there were times when I was horribly uncomfortable, physically, itching all over from the midge and mosquito bites, tired, hungry, and grubby, but I also felt an immense connection with the earth and with the ecstasy of being alive, of somehow reaching the essence of it all through literally getting down into the dirt, letting go of the rules, and seeing what came through.

The contrast of being in the van after our time with the Rainbow tribe was strong: I was suddenly paranoid about being hassled and moved on by authorities, convinced that the woman who frowned at us from her car as we parked up was disapproving, when in reality she was probably only annoyed because we’d blocked her view. There was something about the solidarity and support of the community that was reassuring, even though what we were doing with the Gathering was even more obviously illegal than sleeping in our vehicle.

After the whole experience was over, I cried in the van listening to Xavier Rudd’s “Spirit Bird” song, feeling the deep poignancy of knowing that with all our best intentions, we can only ever approximate the dream, here on earth, on the material plane.

Our community journey continues … My next blog post will be about a very different, much more structured and “held” community experience – one which I am still having – at Osho Leela Personal Development Centre in Dorset.

Spirit Bird
Xavier Rudd

Give it time and wonder why
Do what we can laugh and we cry
And we sleep in your dust because we’ve seen this all before

Culture fades with tears and grace
Leaving us stunned hollow with shame
We have seen this all, seen this all before

Many tribes of a modern kind,
Doing brand new work, same spirit by side,
Joining hearts and hand and ancestral twine, ancestral twine
Many tribes of a modern kind,
Doing brand new work, same spirit by side,
Joining hearts and hand and ancestral twine, ancestral twine

Slowly it fades
Slowly we fade
Slowly you fades
Slowly you fade

Spirit bird she creaks and groans
She knows she has, seen this all before she has, seen this all before
Spirit bird she creaks and groans she knows she has,
Seen this all before she has, seen this all before she has

Slowly you fade
Slowly it fades
Slowly you fade
Slowly you fade
Slowly you fade

Soldier on soldier on my good country man
Keep fighting for your culture,
Now keep fighting for your land
I know its been thousands of years
And I feel your hurt and I know its wrong
And you feel you’ve been chained and broken and burned
And those beautiful old people
Those wise old souls have been ground down for far too long
By that spineless that greedy man that hearless man deceiving man
That government hand taking blood and land taking blood and land and still they can
But your dreaming and your warrior spirit lives on and it is so so so strong
In the earth in the trees in the rocks in the water
In your blood and in the air we breath
Soldier on soldier on my good country man,
Keep fighting for your children now keep fighting for your land

Slowly it fades
Slowly you fade
Slowly it fades
Slowly it fadess

Give it time and we wonder why
Do what we can laugh and we

2 thoughts on “Rainbow Gathering: A Semi-Anarchic Utopia

  • Hi Morgan. A lovely post. Keep them coming. See you at Dance camp no doubt. Say hello to Mel if you see him at Osho Leela. Wish him well from me. Dx

    • Hi Dave. Thank you for commenting! It was lovely to see you at Dance Camp. And lovely to see Mel at Leela. x

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