It’s the summer of no summer.
Or maybe the Endless Summer. Hard to tell. Either or both.
This issue of the magazine addresses the topic of “staycations.” Question: Are there any other kinds of “cations” these days?
Me, I’m staycationing in Lacombe, in the woodsy North Shore retreat where my partner lives. I’ve abandoned my Mid City digs to live in fresh, non-droplet air. I’ve been here for months. It’s beginning to feel like I’ll only leave when they carry me out in a pine box.
But it’s very peaceful here. Relaxing. For city folk like me, it’s sort of like…a vacation!
So I decided to contribute to my adopted community while also filling the void for what we usually do in the summer, and where we usually go. And that would be to west central Michigan, to a music and arts festival called Electric Forest.
It’s a gathering of 80,000 young folks – in a forest, obviously – dancing, tripping and doing what young folks generally do these days at music festivals – which is dancing and tripping.
My partner and I, we’re about 30 years older than anyone else there. We go as vendors, to sell art and jewelry and just feel young and wild and free for a couple weeks. It really is quite an experience. Picture Woodstock with glow sticks and the String Cheese Incident instead of bonfires and the Grateful Dead.
There’s a thing there – a place, a tradition, a ritual – called the Giving Tree. And no, it’s not the super depressing tree in the book by Shel Silverstein of the same name, that which has traumatized generations of children over the decades.
The Giving Tree at Electric Forest is just that. A tree, obviously. Where people bring gifts. Flowers, trinkets, tokens, totems, jewelry, drawings, coins, contraband, notes and wishes and prayers. Sort of like the rum and cigars and coins you used to see at Marie Laveau’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery # 1 before it got closed to the public.
The Giving Tree is a central meeting point in the forest, where campers gather for shade and fellowship. And people bring stuff, leave stuff, take stuff. There’s even a Reddit thread about it – people talking about their emotional experiences there, the personal items they left behind, the people they met, the souvenirs they took, giving them some small new meaning, wish or memory.
Electric Forest is canceled this year, natch. So, in a search to recreate what is one of the most vital and energizing parts of my year – and with nothing but time on my hands – I made a Giving Tree here in Lacombe, where my partner’s property backs up to the Tammany Trace, the 31 mile biking/walking trail from Covington to Slidell.
It’s not quite the same without four huge stages, 80 bands and 80,000 campers but – hey, we’re all improvising these days, right? So I nailed a shelf into a tree and installed a bench and put up a sign inviting people to rest, ponder, reflect – to leave something or take something. And it has been a wonderfully uplifting experience, a bright place in a generally dark summer, a small place to be reminded that people are – generally speaking – good-hearted.
Every morning I walk back there to see what new surprises await passersby. Flowers, coins, Mardi Gras beads, wrist bands, toys, tokens, energy bars – in their original packaging, of course; we need to keep it clean, folks! (It was with corona in mind that I also put a bottle of hand sanitizer out there.)
And the notes and wishes that people have left are both heart-rending and joyous. “Love yourself.” “Please make this virus go away.” “I love you Dave.” “Beat cancer.” “Stay positive.” “Together we can beat this.” And so on. Dozens and dozens of notes tacked to the tree, a chronicle of our times in abbreviated haiku.
It really has turned into a wonderful experiment with strangers, visitors we never see. So if you should find yourself on the Trace some time this summer – and I recommend you do – keep an eye out for an odd assembly of colors and general small and weird stuff and a little homemade bench under a tree where you can take a load off, rest and dispossess, leave a memory or a small story behind for the next person who comes along wishing that they, too, were somewhere else.
But that this place where we are, for now, is good enough.