Although at times en route through the trees I was as stumblingly lost as I’ve ever been in the Tajikistans and Burmas of the world, I made it to the stage for my first of two speaking gigs at what was by a large margin the hugest live venue of my career thus far with a solid ten minutes to spare.
Forty-five thousand very happy people pass the gates of the Oregon Country Fair over three days every July, and for reasons more spiritual than numerical it was beyond an honor to speak at the 40th incarnation of the event last week. It’s hard to encapsulate what something as sprawling and varied as the Oregon Country Fair at core is. To me, in addition to its being the best arts, music and sustainability festival in the world all rolled into one, held in a 500-acre forest twelve miles outside of Eugene, it’s notable that it’s organized by gentle, beautiful-hearted people. In energy exuded, it bears as much resemblance to your hometown suburban fair as Woodstock bore to your high school art show and band concert. I’d attended Fair twice on the other side of the stage before being invited to perform this year.
Still, how many of those 45,000 would turn out to the (Ken) Kesey stage (one of eighteen at the colossus, largely solar-powered event) at 11:30 a.m. on opening day was, for me at least, a matter of question.
Plus, I was nervous because I found out a few days before the event that I’d have to unleash my hour-long Green Comedy shpiel, based on the carbon-neutral misadventures in Farewell, My Subaru and these very Dispatches, without the usual aid of my side show. Evidently Powerpoint doesn’t show up too well under blinding summer sunlight behind a festive, outdoor stage in a forest meadow. As I made notes in my tent the night before, I thought about the extra 1,000 words I’d have to use to replace each picture. The comedy inherent in the devastation of Walt the Billy Goat, for example, is greatly aided by his mug shot.
Yet my fears were, like most fears, unfounded. And the event, like most Oregon Country Fair experiences, was superlatively wonderful, even ecstatic. And delightfully well-attended. Even with enough organic food, psychedelic music and hopefully-well-insured acrobats to distract an Iranian street riot in other areas of the Fair, turnout for my tales of…difficulties in the Green life was overflowing. Maybe they had nowhere else to go (all 500 acres can get pretty crowded when the weather smiles), but folks came and stayed. And laughed. And asked questions afterward. And all in all made me feel like a bonafide performer, and not “just” an author and journalist. Emails are still coming in, largely with inquiries about where I get my headgear.
Needless to say, I’m grateful for the reception, which is confidence-building for the performance end of my career, which I’m building upon even as I mull which of many books I want to write next. For whatever reason, describing getting a goat named for Natalie Merchant’s voice off Craigslist, fighting off a local chicken-eating coyote named Dick Cheney, and conducting business with a Rush Limbaugh-listening vegetable oil mechanic never seems to fail to slay audiences. I think it has to do with the “If This Guy Can Try To Live Sustainably And Live to Tell the Tale, So Can I” factor.
But Oregon Country Fair, even for those “working,” is not just about the gig, not by a long shot. To assert that would be like saying a Grateful Dead concert was about Jerry Garcia’s high notes. It’s about learning new solar shower technology (while waiting in line for the spontaneously set-up solar shower). It’s about stumbling upon an outlying stage and dancing unintentionally for an hour to a new band complete with two didgeridoo players that you’d never otherwise have heard of. (I first saw String Cheese Incident accidentally at my first Oregon Country Fair in 1997.) It’s about skipping out of the way just in time as a parade of stilted, green, 14-foot-tall ents stomp by, nearly causing you to drop your organic Baigun Bhaja.
And it’s about becoming a member for a week (or three, for staff) of a self-sustaining city-sized test society (including health care, child care, food, water, power, security, communication and education), whose organization does not preclude kindness or individuality.
“Be Fair,” is how folks bid farewell to one another at the end of what is always such an epic experience that Before Fair seems a different lifetime. I come out of Oregon Country Fair better for it every time, and the lessons stay with me. Of course, modern festival attending of any kind is all about mitigating the unexpected and continuing to have a good time. The narrative you create from that chance meeting, fender bender, or technical glitch is all that matters. Not getting to the exact stage at the exact time with the exact flavor of ice cream dripping on the person in front of you that you intended. Operating under this philosophy, you can see how glad and slightly surprised I was that I even made it to my own gigs on time.
Bassist Phil Lesh perhaps said it best in between songs during the Grateful Dead’s 1972 performance at Oregon Country Fair (then called the Renaissance Fair). “Thanks for having us,” he told the overheating crowd. “This is the kind of scene where we get off best.”
Any institution, let alone a live experimental event, that can keep it together for forty consecutive years is worth studying, I think. And when it’s an explicitly, unapologetically Functional Rural Hippie Society? Well, I’ve seen worse. That is to say, if they’ll have me, I’ll be back.
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