Consider Sobriety

by Julia, Dacha Project inter-at-large


One of the daily plant walks with 7song.

Utah stunned me with its dramatic landscape, the roads becoming smaller and more unkempt as we got closer to our destination. We slowed the car down to a crawl, wincing at the bounce from the potholes peppering our path. I did not mind the slow ascent,  gazing at snow capped mountains with fields of wild flowers nodding in the sun. There wasn’t a cloud in sight and the sky was consistently blue during our stay in the Rocky Mountains.  The Rainbow Gathering is always located off of back roads in the heart of national forests around the country. Everything on site is built from scratch often weeks before the masses arrive by those who enjoy truly “roughing it”. This group of brave individuals stay for several weeks after the event to clean up and break down, leaving the mountainside without a trace.  The Rainbow Gathering has been occurring for the past 25 years. They claim to be the largest non-organization creating an intentional community that has no centralized governing body. The movement was born in the early 70’s as an experiment in caring for thousands of people who want to come together in efforts to create a peaceful community dedicated to the acceptance of alternative lifestyles.

We parked in the first available location, taking the time to untangle our belongings from the tightly packed car. There were four of us prepared for nearly a month long excursion. Everyone from 7song’s Community Herbalism Intensive were required to make the trip out to the Gathering as one of three field trips. We had a week to get across the country, a week at the Rainbow Gathering and then another week following at a previously unknown location to wildcraft, and make medicine. Burdened with our backpacks, one of my car companions and I refused to wait for one of the few “shuttles” helping people to bring their belongings up the three mile hike to the main entrance. We had a desire to be capable of bringing our gear in on foot, as we had been warned to expect a hike of several miles where private vehicles could not access. Somehow the idea of being able to shoulder all our belongings added to the experience of backwoods survival.

Once inside the main entrance we started to see campsites pop up along the dirt road as people slowly started to organize themselves into little camps. The Rainbow Gathering is grounded in lore that when the world begins to crumble a new society of people from all different backgrounds (aka “a rainbow of colors”) will come together to help one another survive. This an idealistic form of socialism that created a tradition of a money-free event. The work of setting up this makeshift community is intended to be divided equally. There are groups of people who pickup trash, others dig latrines and there are many people that come together and organize their camps into “kitchens” provide food for free. Necessities like filtered watered are taken care of by these kitchens. Springs were re-routed and systems set up to provide for washing and hydration needs. Many people have to learn the hard way the difference between “live water” and “filtered water”. Working at the first aid station we experienced plenty of people who made that mistake.  

As we made our way up the path many people who noted our backpacks shouted “Welcome home!” and “Loving you!” in true Rainbow tradition. The greeting “Welcome home!” was reserved for those just arriving at the Gathering but “Loving you!” was heard so often it continues to be a running joke within our herbal medicine class. 7song, our teacher, famously enjoys chiming in the response, “Tolerating you!” to which people have mixed feelings. The concept of the Gathering is to be by default, loved and accepted as brothers and sisters. Unfortunately even at Rainbow, human nature is often contrary and I observed that “Loving you!” often degraded into a mere catch phrase without much sentiment behind it. The Rainbow Gathering is based on very idealistic principles, almost sickeningly so, but there is such a wide variety of people that it is nearly impossible to truly uphold everything that the Gathering is intended to be. There are hitchhikers, homeless people, doctors, school teachers and college students. The list goes on, and while it certainly does create quite the rainbow of people, the individuals who scream “wake up and rage” throughout the night are in stark contrast to people who are there contributing to the good of the entire community. It was frustrating to realize that even the best intentions are often met with opposition.

The first aid station is named “CALM”, which is both ironic and appropriate at the same time. 7song hung up a sign after the first few days that read “Consider sobriety…even if just for an hour. Please take one drug at a time.” Whoever paid heed to this sign was certainly making our job a lot easier. Working at CALM brought me into direct contact with the variety of people who attend this event. There was reportedly about 7,000 to 10,000 people at the Gathering this year. CALM treated roughly 100 people a day, the number breaking 200 people on July 4th. Some of the common problems that we treated were; vomiting, diarrhea, foot problems, cuts, sprains and sore throats. If the problem was more than what we could handle or if the patient was in critical condition, we would find a way to get them to the nearest hospital. There were many options for treatment. We had a self-help station where there were general supplies like bandages, toothbrushes, and other sanitation items. If they needed more specific care there were about twenty of us running around offering our consultation. This was a very good year in particular because of the variety of people with knowledge about many kinds of healthcare. It was particularly interesting for us herbal students to experience a diversity of expertise as well as enlightening for many people to realize how many approaches can be taken when considering their health. There were people with knowledge from working in emergency rooms, medics who worked in ambulances: massage therapy, acupuncture, herbalism, and energetic healing. It was fortunate to have these options because each individual has different needs regardless if they have similar symptoms.

Yarrow (achillea millefolium) makes a great disinfectant/anti-inflammatory soak for cuts on hands and feet.

At one point a girl came in complaining of an upset stomach. She was close to tears. I sat her down and asked her a few questions, “What have you eaten recently?”,“How long has this been going on?”. The usual rundown of deductive reasoning helps in the effort to get to the root of her problem. I gave her some relaxing herbs for stress and some activated charcoal just in case there was something in her gut that needed to be absorbed. The situation resolved itself when I offered counseling as an option. She just needed to talk to someone about some emotional trauma in her life and to take a solid nap in the back of our campsite. After that she was fine and walked away smiling. I had the assumption it was something worse because many people with the same sorts of symptoms needed stronger herbs for killing an infection. It is important to never assume or project on a patient. Each person is an individual with a complex history.

The challenges of working with a diverse population meant I constantly had to adjust to meet the needs of each person that came in for help. Some people were very easy to work with, but others needed a higher level attention to get to the bottom of the problem. The difficulty was knowing how to educate people about their situation. A common problem that arose were staph infections. Staph is highly contagious virus that can set up shop in open cuts anywhere on the body. It is a similar strain to strep throat except it can only exist on the skin. People tend to ignore small cuts as not being a big issue. Cuts aren’t that big of a problem when we are separated in our own homes. In an environment like the Gathering there are people and animals condensed into a couple mile radius and the virus can spread from both direct and secondary contact with something that has been touched by an infected person. If left untreated staff can spread all over the body. It was difficult to make people understand that their infected cut could be hazardous to other people. If the infection gets too out of hand we had to pressure people to get antibiotics at a hospital. Staph can be treated with herbs, but it meant multiple visits to change bandages and give internal medications. This required a high level of patient responsibility. Communicating this need can be sensitive as to avoid offending someone in a way that would make them not want to co-operate.

The days flew by. We jokingly called it “Rainbow time”, but it is true that without an actual schedule breaking up the day the hours all sort of melt together. I was pleasantly surprised to be recognized as my fellow classmates and I just walked around as people constantly shouted their appreciation for our services. I have attended the Gathering once before and I didn’t plug into anything directly contributing to the community. There is something special about knowing I was helping others for a short time, or perhaps longer if they take the advice they received to heart. An observation that one of my classmates made really struck me. She was talking about the homeless “gutter punks”, “Here are these kids who don’t belong anywhere and aren’t cared for by anyone. They decide on a whim to go to the Gathering because it’s something that’s happening. Then they stumbled on us and they actually do get to be loved.” Providing free health care services to people that are uninsured or just don’t have access to any sort of care opens up questions that have been plaguing our society. Who deserves health care and should it be a right?

My experience at the Rainbow Gathering left me with many questions. I wonder what it means to be a functioning “community”. The ideals of the Rainbow Gathering about peace and love seem too vague to me. How can a community have a real effect on anything without any meaningful direction besides “accept everyone”. I fear that over the years the true intention to the Gathering will fade as more people just looking for free drugs overtake those who understand the intention behind the movement. We live in a society where money is increasingly valued over the needs of individuals. The Rainbow Gathering is attempting to represent a counter culture. I value the idea of being a refuge for the outcasts of society, but I wonder if there is more that can be done to educate people. I suppose that working at CALM was the best opportunity for real learning to take place. I hope I get to go back in years to come.