Band on the Run: Soaking in Solarfest in Vermont

There’s not a lot of places more chilled out and easygoing than a festival in Vermont on a beautiful July weekend that runs on solar power and promotes alternative energy and environmental solutions. It’s called Solarfest: The New England Renewable Energy Festival. Going there makes me want to just sprawl on the grass and watch the clouds overhead while simultaneously saving the world.

It can be done! Resting fuels the fight, I feel. And celebrating further fans the flames. Clouds keep us just as informed as anything… and watching clouds clears my head — funny how cloudiness offer clarity — which is just the state of mind needed to tackle the next step in any process. But maybe it’s the sunshine around the clouds that really soaks in and helps us lighten up for a while? (Okay, I’ll stop this metaphoric meandering now and just tell you about the festival!)

Besides the chance to consider our part in the movement for change that is upon us, the music at this festival is always a bonus. This is our third time performing here over the years and it’s always inspiring to take in the rest of the acts. Whoever chooses them has some eclectic and interesting musical taste, for sure, (Break of Reality were amazing!) and I’m thrilled that we’ve been among the artists to provide the score for this event – an occasion I support, wholeheartedly.

Solarfest takes place on a farm in a small town called Tinmouth, Vermont, just a couple hours south of Burlington. It’s in its thirteenth year, I was told, and it’s still very casual, very alive, very non-corporate and staying that way. Someone commented to me later that they were shocked that it was still so (relatively) small after thirteen years — I think there are a just a few thousand attendees over the weekend, if that — and I responded that I thought it was perfect this way.

And I do.

Why should festivals aspire to exponential growth? Yes, it’s good to grow in terms of widespread knowledge; we want people to know about solar energy, alternative fuels, how to make soap by hand without the nasty chemicals, etc. But, this notion that growing in a linear fashion until you’re so big that you need to move locations, hire outside security companies, solicit corporate sponsors and hang plastic banners all over the stage is just, well, counter-intuitive. It’s good to know that people want to come to events like this one, but so too is the natural turnover of people so that new faces replace old ones and that the festival is fresh but still manageable in terms of size.

Sustainable. That’s the ultimate goal. Success. Locally.

Musicians aspire to this kind of linear growth too, imaging that if they sell five hundred copies of their CD one year that the following year they ought to sell at least five hundred and one copies. There is a lot of cultural support for the notion of “more” growth as if it equals “better” when we all know that these two ideas are not often linked – at least, not anymore.

Festivals like this one promotes the notion of a natural cycle of things: the ebbs and flows, mountains and valleys, moments of prosperity followed by wondering where the next dollar will come from. Ultimately, this creates a balance which brings us sustainability. Something living and breathing. Organic and alive. Not just a bar graph rising towards the sky and never looking down on the grounded state from which is began.

For my garden at my house, I never ask it to grow bigger and bigger with every year. In fact, I want it to reach a sustainable and healthy growth level and then remain. I will tend it and it will yield. The next year, I will do the same. All told, the house will be fed by this garden and the garden will never take over the house.

That’s sustainability.

In this same way, Solarfest is a sustainable festival that is not being taken over by its own growth. It has been at its current location for the past few years and it’s nestled sweetly on a farm with hills that roll upwards on the perfect angle from the barn, half of which is transformed into a stage and backstage area. This hill creates a natural amphitheatre and holds the colourful blankets and chairs of hundreds of chilled out people angling smiles towards the lights.

Backstage, the barn swallows swoop overhead and come in and out through the open upper windows of the barn. As the evening rolls in, the stage lights cast an eerie glow on the interior of the barn and the jerky movement of those swallow wings create a natural strobe effect, flickering the lights and casting trippy shadows. You can see the hay stacked high on the far side where performer’s gear is piled; amps upon amps separated by similarly shaped and sized squares of hay just beyond the tarp.

I love it. I smiled at it all and took it all in.

Just before our performance on the Saturday early evening, I took a walk around the grounds. As in previous years, I was moved by the displays and vendors. There were innovative greenhouse designers, book vendors for little known or hard-to-find publications, vegan and non-GMO food suppliers, hemp clothing vendors, kid’s craft areas, etc.

Everyone was smiling. Kids were running around freely and safely. Sunhats were bobbing on the heads of older women walking gently through the grass holding their skirts above their ankles. Men with babies strapped to their chests. Lots of bare feet and beads.

I stopped for awhile and listened to Bill McKibben speak. He was on stage just before us with just himself and a microphone. He is a published author (many times over) and his most recent book is called Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. He spoke about the economy of things like support, kindness, belief. He was natural and articulate and he made the audience both laugh and think without sounding pedantic or heavy.

Before the end of his talk, I went backstage again to make sure my equipment was all ready and that we were together as a band. I was cradling my guitar and warming up when the audience cheered for his words and the MC took back the microphone to signal a break between sets.

When Bill walked off the stage and through the backstage area, he smiled down at his feet and just sauntered off. It was self-effacing without being under confident. Is that possible? Perhaps I just saw raw humility. It made me stop for a moment and just stare off and wonder. It made me want to read his books.

I didn’t see him again for the rest of the festival, but I imagine he was there somewhere. At least, his words were.

They have staying power.

As does this festival.