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    Photo: Oregon Art Beat

Perfect And Improbable: Remembering The Oregon Eclipse Festival

"Oregon Art Beat" takes you to an epic arts festival built around the 2017 total solar eclipse.

Self-described “eclipse chaser” Bosque Hrbek experienced his first total solar eclipse in the early 2000s. He said the experience changed his life. It also inspired him to set his sights on creating a similar gathering in the U.S. when the phenomenon occurred in 2017. While anyone can dream, Hrbek had the experience, support and chutzpah to pull it off.

Hrbek is a co-founder of the California-based festival group known as “Symbiosis.” Each year, the group convenes a festival where participants revel in arts installations, performance and an evanescent community of shared experience. The result is a sort of celebratory spirit tribe of surprising diversity and in August 2017, it happened in Oregon.

In the span of a few minutes, an Oregon Eclipse Festival participant might attend a permaculture workshop, take part in a Native American cleansing ceremony, clap along to a street dance crew kicking up the ubiquitous dust during an impromptu dance performance, or dodge a playful attack by sexy space aliens.

You never know when you'll be confronted by sexy space aliens.

You never know when you’ll be confronted by sexy space aliens.

Oregon Art Beat/OPB

“In this kind of environment, people feel more comfortable and more supported to be able to bring out what’s within that they’ve kept hidden that they can’t express in their normal job or their normal life — and it’s accepted,” explained Portland-based artist Jean Margaret. “That exploration I think brings people to a new level, that they didn’t think that they could go.”

Emily Paxson and her husband drove to the festival from Portland. They’re originally from North Carolina and have attended festivals like Bonnaroo and the Burning Man regional gathering “Transformus.” They didn’t want to miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience in their own backyard.

“It’s really welcoming, people are giving hugs and saying hello,” Paxon said. “When you go to music concerts in Portland, you’re not really going to get that experience. I feel like it’s really a community.”

That would be a very large community. Organizers claim there were 30,000 attendees at the festival but ODOT puts that number at closer to 70,000. No matter the number, a quick survey of eclipse festivals across the country suggests this one was likely the biggest.

It started in earnest in 2012 when Hrbek and Symbiosis co-founder Kevin KoChen learned of a 55,000-acre ranch nestled in central Oregon’s Ochoco Mountains owned by Craig Woodward. They reached out to the rancher who was intrigued enough with the proposal to attend Symbiosis in 2016. The self-described “conservative redneck” was impressed with Symbiosis’ organization and professionalism and agreed to rent his land out for a 2017 eclipse festival.

But Woodward’s acquiescence was less a cultural conversion than a practical response to the economic realities of rural Oregon.

“You have to reinvent yourself if you’re going to stay alive,” Woodward told OPB’s “State of Wonder” last summer.

To get the party started, the new Oregon Eclipse Festival consortium invited Symbiosis-like festivals from Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, Costa Rica, Japan and many other places to participate.

“We really worked to reach out to the global community,” said festival content producer Marsi Grey. But it didn’t stop there. “It was also really important to us to pay homage and tribute to the local tribes.”

The result was an invitation to 1Nation Earth Camp, a settlement that Grey describes as “a space for tribes and indigenous culture to bring forward the programming that they thought was relevant.”

According to 1Nation spokesman Ivan Sam, the group began as a veterans’ support group brought together during protests at Standing Rock in 2016. Symbiosis approached the group about establishing a presence at the Oregon Eclipse Festival and the group agreed as long as it was on their terms.

“It’s a drug and alcohol-free environment on the camp and also we were able to collaborate with them to have space available for our sacred fire which is from Standing Rock,” said Sam, a member of the Diné people from Arizona.

“Our focus of 1Nation Earth Camp was to bring all First Nations together to collaborate with one another, to network with one another and also to bring resolution and ideas for environmental justice.”

Along with representatives from the area’s original Paiute and Wasco inhabitants were indigenous people from across North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands.

Festival organizers were gratified by 1Nation’s response. “We opened the space just a tiny little sliver and a huge flood came rushing in,” Grey said.

On eclipse day, a diverse group of Aztec dancers, Israeli tourists, Japanese hip-hop fans and local Oregonians, among many, many others, all stood in a unified state of awe.

As the horizon darkened and the moon’s shadow swept across the landscape, the crowd fell into a reverent silence. A deep yogic chant of “ohm” rose and fell. A silvery corona radiated from a dark circle and for a few moments, our home planet’s tiny moon seemed to hold the vastness of space in perfect and improbable balance.

Eclipse watchers stand in awe of a rare moment of cosmic alignment

Eclipse watchers stand in awe of a rare moment of cosmic alignment

Oregon Art Beat/OPB

As the first rays of sunlight returned, a collective sigh gave way to whoops of ecstasy. Friends and strangers beamed at each other or hugged in grateful and surprising recognition of our shared humanity.

“It’s something that connects us in a time when there’s much disconnect, there’s much hate, people coming together to unite and celebrate love and unity and protection; we’re here to protect each other and the planet,” said a woman visiting from Arcata, California. “It’s really uplifting.”

Hrbek agreed: “I definitely feel like gathering all these people together in this environment and all these kindred souls, magic is going to happen from that.”

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Most Recent Broadcast: February 15, 2018