'Risk of Change': Anarchy and Growing Older with the Oregon Country Fair
Issue #23, December 1995
I hate it that I'm becoming cynical. And I refuse to call it becoming realistic or going through a natural progression into adult realism. I remember like it was only yesterday how my parents told me that with age, I would naturally grow more conservative, and would come to understand that making my way in the 'real world' would interfere with my youthful idealism. They clearly believed that it was an utterly natural progression; that compromising my values was what it was going to take to live in the adult world.
I scoffed then, and to this day refuse to believe that growing older necessarily means selling out, followed by increasingly conservative values. Contrary to popular alternative wisdom, the fact that I am now over thirty doesn't mean that I can't be trusted. And a sudden onset of conservative values is most adamantly not what I'm confronting inside myself now.
But still, I must admit that something has changed; something with which I am not particularly comfortable, but something which is here and has to be dealt with nonetheless.
I have always understood that anarchy and anarchic systems worked because those of us who participated in them took responsibility for our own actions. This meant, in essence, that no one else needed to take responsibility for us; we kept the powers that be at bay because no one ever let them know we were there. We cleaned up after ourselves, took care of our own messes, and basically left nothing but footprints wherever we went. As alternative communities went, we believed that as long as we didn't bother anyone, we would be left in peace.
One of the standard critiques levelled at the anarchist community these days is that rather than it being about us taking responsibility for our actions, it provides a space wherein people (mostly, of course, young and impressionable people) can show up and simply get away with as much as possible. While such has always been the case — and it appears that there has always been a part of society that rides on the coattails of others — the media coverage of anarchist events over the past few years has emphasized the 'get away with anything' part of the community over the rest to such an extent that even I, a long time participant in numerous anarchist communities, from the Grateful Dead caravan to the Oregon Country Fair, have found myself seeing only the irresponsible non-members, and not the responsible members of my own community.
I also understand that putting a picture of a woman who paints herself blue and silver alongside pictures of barefoot, pot-smoking teenagers will have greater sales value in the mainstream press. It may not be an adequate representation of what I believe about the Fair, and I absolutely don't like it, but I'm learning to accept it.
What's curious for me is why the aging of the Country Fair in particular, coupled with the changes in my own life in the past 10 years have caused me to feel so cynical about a community in which I have invested so much, and in which I still have such strong belief. In other words, I'm wondering what difference it makes if we're free to paint ourselves blue and silver if all we do with that freedom is paint ourselves blue and silver. Yes, an 'ohm' circle feels good — but is selling crafts all that can be done with that energy? What happened to our desire to change the world? And why can't the values of Energy Park and Community Village, my home turf at the Fair, be front page news?
I used to live at the Oregon Country Fair. I never did it regularly, but for one weekend a year, at least once every decade, I lived the life I dreamed would be available to me on a daily basis. I'd purchase a camping pass, and live and work in Energy Park or Community Village. Even in years I didn't actually attend the Fair, I looked forward to the Fair's opening every summer, and I always knew which weekend in July it was being held. (In 1996, the weekend is July 12, 13 & 14.) The Fair was, and is, to the Deadhead, alternative cultures person inside me, the ideal attempt at community living.
Additionally, I know lots of other people who do it too. The Fair has, in a sense, become a home away from home. And sometimes, long ago anyway, the Dead even showed up there as well. Ken Kesey is generally there too. I have friends who run the solar showers, and organize the only truly political centers: Energy Park and Community Village. Others work registration and security and run the sweep. I have friends who work food booths; I don't personally, however, know any crafts sellers.
This past year, for the first time ever, I attended the Fair on a day worker's pass for only one day: Friday, July 7, 1995. I did not camp out and without a camping pass, I wasn't allowed in for the famed Saturday night party. To my credit, I didn't try to hide in the trees to stay anyway. And, while I hope I'm not becoming my own worst enemy, I was struck yet again by how my perception of community is shifting. I've gone through this before...must be something about the energy of 1995 that's doing this to me. However, I find myself asking lots of questions and trying to answer them in the context of a life I used to live that I am finding is increasingly uncomfortable for me.
The fact is, I used to live in this community without any conscious sense of its political position. My current awareness of that political position puts me in a space that's new to me: that of analyzing my participation within it, and what that participation means to the world outside.
It's not that politics don't exist at the Fair. For example, I missed the performance of 'Shaving with Chainsaws' put on by The Flaming Heterosexuals. I suspect that this past year in particular, peace love and music has run up against my sudden confrontation with the reality of humanity and its limitations for me. I wouldn't have appreciated the show.
What exactly constitutes a viable alternative community? I think it's important, for example, that the Oregon Country Fair is self-policing. 150,000 or so people will cruise through every year, and almost 7,000 people will live there. There will be no police presence; and 1995, like years previous, didn't require one. All security, such as it is, is handled internally. My friend who is in charge of the security sweep that sends visitors out the gates at the end of the day — at the front of a large human broom — says it rarely takes more than a word to get people moving. No camping pass means out the door by six or seven o'clock each day; and like me, few people bother to hide in trees to stay after hours, even on Saturday night.
Besides the lack of established police presence, the life available on site is one I wholeheartedly support: there is no electric power source; the only generators on site are there to power the music. There are solar heated showers, organic food, recycling and composting (no indoor plumbing, but you can't have everything), alternative energy of both the practical and spiritual variety, and abundant music and dance. Ever dance in a drumming circle at three in the morning by candle and torchlight? Powerful experience, that.
My questions this year were: Why did I just feel dirty and like a tourist? Why is it that what I noticed were the drugs and the alcohol and that the first aid tent was larger this year than three years earlier; that kids were stoned younger and consciousness was at a premium; that babies were unattended and that no one asked permission before hosing me off with a water sprayer, heat or no heat?
When I returned to Eugene on Friday night to visit with friends who were taking a leave of absence from the Fair for the year, I related the following: I have no trouble with women nursing babies in public; and I have no trouble with people smoking pot. I do, however, have a problem with watching a person do both at the same time. I have no answers for this dilemma. Undoubtedly, had I mentioned to the young woman in question that I thought it unwise for her to get stoned and pass the drug on to her infant, she would have told me to get lost (in much more poetic terms, unquestionably). I said nothing, and felt bad anyway.
Additionally, as the Fair ages, it runs up against its limitations and its apparent basis in drug culture. While my own indifference to drug usage by people old enough to make informed choices may not be the norm in mainstream society, and my discomfort with watching a nursing mother smoke a joint may be my own problem in the context of the Country Fair, questions like whether to allow beer sales on site (the Fair has no liquor license), how much alcohol is okay to bring in for personal use (but only if you have a camping pass; day pass people are not allowed to bring in alcohol), what to do about marijuana smoking and hallucinogens on the fairgrounds, tend to run up against the numerous Narcotics Anonymous meetings and spiritual practices based in 'clean' living.
All of which begs the question: is drug culture really an alternative culture? Or is it just something to pass through on the way to the next phase? Is the Oregon Country Fair stuck in drug culture? At least in the popular perception? And is the fact that I no longer participate in drug culture a factor in my discomfort?
And then there are the stupidly petty politics: we couldn't have an electric car in Energy Park this year because they didn't want anything that wasn't human or sun powered in there. No one could say why, really. And when no one is visibly in charge, who gets the busses running in the morning? I arrived on a Lane County Transit bus, rented by the Oregon Country Fair specifically for the transport of day workers, at 7:30 a.m. There was no one who had a key to the gate available to let us onto the property. Hippies don't wake up early in the morning, and apparently the price we now pay for anarchy, and a world where no one is in charge, is that we watched from the bus while someone attempted to break open the gate, until we were finally admitted by someone who had miraculously discovered the keeper of the gate key.
I want the child juggler who's making money for juggling school back east to be on the front page of the paper. This kid was great; he juggled fire and had a rap and everything. I want the world to see the hippies and the goths meeting together for the weekend in a search for alternative and theatrical lifestyles.
I want to know that the alternative vision that I've been working for can be brought to the 'real world' because if it can't be, I'm beginning to question what's it worth.
I keep remembering a scene in the movie Running on Empty in which Judd Hirsch takes his kids outside to see the guns in the trunk of his former comrade's car and tells them 'this is not what we're about.' I want to shake the shoulders of the writer of the Eugene Register Guard piece in Saturday's paper for choosing to photograph and then interview a woman whose claim to fame and reason for being at the Fair is to paint herself blue and silver. I grant that she's much more objectively and thoughtlessly interesting than the troubles with the new water lines and tanks for the solar heated showers. But the fact remains that having her be on the cover of the paper gives fuel to those who are working to convince the powers that be in Lane County to shut the Fair down. And they're not exactly helping me feel better about a community that I used to consider my home away from home.
The Oregon Country Fair has joined the information age and now has a web page: http://www.efn.org/~ocf. In the tradition of the Fair, it is colorful, and states much more concisely than I can the agenda of its founders. The page includes the Fair's Code of Conduct, which states first and foremost that 'Everyone is equal. The Guidelines apply to all members, whether you are a Board member, a paying Fair-goer, or have any other involvement; we are all responsible to the same code,' and ends by stating: 'If, during the process of the Oregon Country Fair, we can all remember to respect each other and work positively toward a balance with nature in our own environment, we can create: a community dedicated to the idea that self-reliant people create their own future, the value of innovative ideals, and the integrity of the work of the hand and the heart.'
I hope they're right.
See y'all there next summer.
Cynthia Hoffman masquerades as a Graduate Student in English at UC-Berkeley. In real life she's a writer of stuff that occasionally even gets published. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.