By the time I arrive at the fourth annual Spirit Weavers Gathering, the three-hour-long opening ceremony is just beginning. It's an all-female, five-day collection of ceremonies and workshops on "the feminine and ancestral ways," held at a campground in northern California's Mendocino County. The air smells like redwoods, neroli oil, and smoke. Around 500 women, all of whom have paid $700 for tickets, fill an amphitheater with wooden benches. They're mostly in their 20s and 30s and look like members of an exceptionally chic cult: white caftans, chunky turquoise rings, indigo shawls, henna tattoos, messy braids, and, considering that we're camping, an overwhelming amount of silk.
"We have created—and are creating—a community of mothers, sisters, daughters, grandmothers," Spirit Weavers' founder and trademark owner, Amy Woodruff, says into a microphone. She has long brown hair and a deep tan. In 2011, a photo of her doing a naked headstand while simultaneously breastfeeding her daughter Naia went viral. ("I was just doin' my daily flow when the little sweet pea came to sneak a suckle," Woodroff wrote at the time on her blog, Daughter of the Sun, where she also sells juice cleanses, incense, and "organic baby bootie balm.") A Kundalini yoga teacher, Woodruff used her newfound fame to pivot into a kind of nexus for the sort of women who are drawn to water births and food-fermenting workshops. Seventy-five women attended the first Gathering, held in November 2013 in Murrieta, CA. Three years later, it's grown so big that this year's was spread over two different June sessions. The tickets went on sale in January and sold out in five minutes.
We live in a time when young women are embracing the trappings of New Age: meditation, tie-dye, whole grains, juicing. (Even Kylie Jenner has a crystal garden at her Calabasas mansion. I saw it on Snapchat.) Spirit Weavers is their Burning Man, their South by Southwest, their Las Vegas bachelorette weekend. Here they can take classes with the herbalist or meditation guru or tarot reader whose life they stalk on Instagram, bond with friends over a bonfire, and swim in the creek that winds through camp. It's a break from real life and a place to let it all hang out. Crying, operatic shows of emotion, and pendulous breasts were all common sights. Because of this—their intention to create a "safe space" for women—they have never allowed in press. I was fascinated by Spirit Weavers both as a phenomenon and as a way to explore some of my own interests: I have never met an intuitive whose predictions I didn't want to hear, nor have I come across an herbal remedy I wasn't willing to try. So I'm here, for all intents and purposes, undercover.
Teachers come forward and introduce their workshops—there are close to 100—one by one, which takes well over an hour. There's one on multiple-hand ayurvedic breast massage, a braiding circle, sacred tarot, "mapping feminine wisdom," and something described as "calling the salmon home" (which sounds like a potential sex act, but is in fact about "water healing.") One instructor introduces herself as "a honeybee priestess in the British tradition."
This is the kind of place where fellow women are always referred to as your "sisters"— as in "make sure there's enough for your sisters," when you ask for another spoonful of guacamole on your vegetarian enchilada casserole. Menstruation is universally referred to as your "moon time"; there is a Moon Lodge with a "Moon Blood Earth Altar" where we are encouraged to offer our "Holy Menstrual Blood to Mother Earth" with prayers and intentions. Children run rampant, and we are told that if we're annoyed with a baby crying to "use that as a meditation."
Finally, it ends with a ceremonial fire and drums and several people chanting "hi ya" in what seems like an ersatz Native American fashion. We sing "Humbly we walk here/humbly we sing here/humbly we bless this ground." I bend one arm over my shoulders to scratch my back, and immediately feel two hands that are not my own, scratching their way up and down my spine. I turn around. If I were at home in New York, I might scream out in terror, but my overly helpful neighbor is smiling at me, and I realize I'm supposed to thank her. I smile back, nod, and wonder how long it has been since I've had any water.
This is when I realize I'm starting to have an anxiety attack. I'm thirsty and lightheaded; my heart is racing and my breath is shallow. I count down from 300 in threes to distract myself until the panic subsides.
I've just gotten here, and I have already hit my hippie threshold.
We all have our hippie limits. I've always considered mine to be unusually high: I grew up in Santa Cruz, with a pagan mother who took me to documentaries called "The Goddess Remembered" and bought me veggie burgers at a fast food restaurant called Dharma's. I haven't exactly rebelled from my upbringing. In the past couple of months I've gotten acupuncture, gone to multiple yoga classes, willingly eaten raw vegan food, treated a cold with a neti pot, added powdered mushrooms to my green smoothies, and used garlic to combat a yeast infection. I have friends who attend matcha tea ceremonies, hire doulas, and go to shaman-led sweat lodges in Tulum. I looked at Spirit Weavers as going to camp as an adult, but with the added bonus of gluten-free food and the option to do some basket-weaving or purify my spirit at the same time.
But I realize during the opening ceremony of Spirit Weavers just how deeply bourgeois I am. The moment I most feel like myself is around 9:00 at night, back at my tent, eating popcorn I bought earlier at a gas station, wearing an SK-II face mask, while watching Lifetime's Unreal on my laptop.
The rest of the time I felt trapped.
I wake up at 5:30 A.M. to attend a tea ceremony: an hour of making, serving, and drinking a brick of black tea with a great deal of piety and intention. It's supposed to be a kind of mindfulness practice, but like most ceremonies I attend at Spirit Weavers, it's a hodgepodge of cultures and spirituality: Indian music, Japanese incense, Moroccan rugs, all inside a Mongolian yurt. I want to snicker at it, but the teahouse is soothing and pretty and clean, and really, what's the difference between me and the women leading the ritual, or the ones surrounding me who look like they've found religious ecstasy sipping tea? I have rugs I bought in Marrakesh in my apartment and a tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe on my arm. I'm curious enough to attend the tea ceremony—and Spirit Weavers in general—but I'm cynical enough to feel unmoved by it. I want to enjoy myself, but I feel like to do so, I'd have to ignore my intellect. I wind up simply frustrated.
Spirit Weavers has a casual and enthusiastic relationship to cultural appropriation that often feels like poor judgment. During the morning announcements after breakfast (congee with greens and gomaiso, bone broth, eggs, and fruit—the haute vegetarian food is by far my favorite part of Spirit Weavers), Amy says, "A lot of us have lost our roots. We don't know where we come from. Call in your mountains, your water. I call out the Sueño Indians. I grew up in Norco with horses and water from the well and was raised by the Santa Ana winds." The rhetoric of Spirit Weavers is a nebulous combination of religions, spirituality, eco-activism, and groupthink; most of what is said ends up sounding like lost Buffy Sainte-Marie lyrics.
This kind of searching for authenticity and ancestry quickly becomes a running theme. Later that morning, I attend a Cacao Ceremony, in which we are each given 21 grams of an unsweetened hot drink made with Guatemalan cacao grown by Mayan elders and sprinkled with cayenne. It's supposed to open your heart. We sing songs and meditate. Toward the end of the three-hour ceremony, we're asked to share our experiences. "Being here, I feel my ancestors around me," says a girl who says her grandparents are from Mexico but was raised "blandly American." "I feel called to visit." (Saying you feel "called" to something is a common refrain at Spirit Weavers; I heard it applied to subjects ranging from music to polyamory.) Later on during the weekend, at a ritual bathing ceremony, the teachers say that "it's not cultural appropriation to give reverence and incorporate your own lineage."
I don't know anyone's ancestry or ethnicity here, or how long they've practiced a certain spirituality. But it seems like the vast majority—85 percent or 90 percent—of women here are white. The employees of the camp, the women who clean the toilets, are Hispanic. At some point during the weekend there's a talking circle for Spirit Weavers of color—which seems like a lost opportunity for a larger discussion about race, class, access, carelessness, privilege and probably a lot of other things I'm failing to mention. I know that people get up in arms when white girls wear feather headdresses to Coachella. At Spirit Weavers there were many white kids running around dressed like Tiger Lily in Peter Pan, with a single feather attached to a headband and moccasins on their feet. I can't tell if all the good intentions at Spirit Weavers make it any better.
There is no phone service within miles of Camp Navarro, and it is refreshing to see so many young women without their phones. If they were looking for a break from (or the antithesis of) the tech world, they found it. But there is WiFi. We're not supposed to use it, but I lie and say I need to contact my dog's vet; after that I sneak into bathroom stalls periodically to check my email. I feel like I'm being bad at getting back to the land, but worse, I feel a constant, low-level paranoia that I'll be found out. There's one woman at camp I've met before; she knows I'm a writer, so I keep hiding behind trees to avoid her, like I'm in a Looney Tunes cartoon.
In general, there's a fine thread of passive-aggression running through Spirit Weavers. There are many vaguely Marxist exhortations about fairness (no cutting in lines; instructors need to eat first) and rules (no throwing rocks in the river; no eating before someone offers a blessing before each meal). The rules sound like things one would have to remind kindergartners to be mindful of. I email my mother complaining about how much I resent them, and make jokes about wanting to be picked up early. "I fear this week is going to turn me into a Libertarian," I tell her. "It sounds so much like the '60s!" she replies. "There are probably some campers who enjoy being the enforcers."
All meals were served cafeteria-style in a few separate lines, with volunteers signing up to help out. At dinner Friday night, Amy served me roast potatoes topped drizzled with nettle pesto. It was as delicious as the portions were tiny, so I got up to get seconds. She spotted me in line and loudly asked if they had called for seconds yet. I blushed and looked down, convinced there would be an announcement about how much food we're allowed to eat at the next morning's meeting. There wasn't, but I still felt scolded.
"We met with the tree last night, and it was really incredible," says Liv, a shamanic healer who trained with medicine people in Burkina Faso. The plan for this morning workshop is for us to commune with one of the redwoods. "I think she's ready." Two-dozen of us gather to sit around the redwood. Liv asks us if "any of you connect to the little people." A girl in overalls says she saw one riding a bird once, and I realize they're talking about fairies. A woman around 60, with curly grey-blond hair, is sitting to my right on a sheepskin. "They like to hide in the dark places," she says. Liv moves to sit behind a purple tapestry that blocks off part of the trunk, as if she's about to put on a puppet show. Behind the tapestry, there are the sounds of rattles and bells, guttural noises, squeals, grunts, mumbles. It is not unlike the sound of someone speaking in tongues.
"There's a really strong female serpent here, and she's really enjoying what we're up to here," Liv says. I try to work up the nerve to ask if the serpent is in the tree, or at camp in general, or if it's more of a spirit animal, like in the ether. Liv starts to translate what the little people are telling her, channeling their voices like a medium. "Can they hear us?" the "little people" ask. "Can they see us?" Someone near me calls out yes. I look up from the tapestry expecting to see Tinkerbell, and realize that several people in the workshop are sobbing. Now Liv is talking about oil spills, trash, nets. "Humans want to eradicate us," the tree spirits are saying. Words are coming out fast, and it's hard to say if Liv is channeling the fairies or the redwood. I think we've moved on to the redwood when she channels a voice saying "How does it feel to be mined incessantly? Wake up, women! What is happening to all my brothers and sisters? Where are they all going?"
Someone asks Liv, "What can we do to help the little people?" More chipmunks-style noises from Liv as she asks them. "Long ago a split happened between the little people and the tribes," she translates. "Reparations need to happen." At the end we aren't allowed to leave for lunch until we have a proper group hug. We all pick and choose what we believe, but what I thought about with my dry eyes as women cried over tree reparations was that the oppression of fairy folk is pretty far down my personal list of priorities for getting the world in order.
Money is not listed as an "essential" item to pack for Spirit Weavers. It's in an "if you wish" column, along with "beautiful yarn for the Earth loom." And I suppose you could go the whole five days without spending more than the ticket fee, but it would be difficult. Lunch isn't served, but if you don't want to pack your own, a very cute mom and daughter team serve vegan lunches for $12. Once I get my hair braided into a crown, I feel convinced people are friendlier to me, plus it's less obvious how dirty it feels, but there was a $20-$40 sliding scale fee to do it. Some classes have a materials fee. And there's a marketplace where you can buy jewelry from LA-based designer Elena Stonaker, $400 vintage Indian dresses, and handmade lingerie.
My favorite vendor is Builders of the New Dawn, which sells vintage sex, self-help, and feminist books. I buy one on group massage called Body Music: A Group Experience for the Seventies. On the last full day, attendees can trade their wares or sell them on a massive trade blanket. Someone is selling a necklace that reads "boss witch" and another that reads "chubby pussy." There are tampon earrings hanging by their strings with red glitter blood on the ends, herbal blends for vaginal steaming, Guatemalan huipl tunics. The aesthetic is gap year abroad meets Etsy meets Women Who Run with the Wolves.
Here at Spirit Weavers, the vagina is revered. There are workshops on yoni herbal care, yoni hydrotherapy, and yoni eggs, which are used to strengthen pelvic muscles. I pick up a flyer about IUDs that asks "Are they really safe?" and offers early warning signs that they aren't, including "life feeling hard" and "serendipity not visiting anymore." By this afternoon, I overhear that 15 women have removed their IUDs together in a yurt.
At an Herbal Self-Care for Radical Babes workshop, we discuss yoni steaming—offered at Korean spas and written about on Goop, in which one sits over a bowl of boiling water mixed with herbs, and is said by adherents to relieve various ailments, from PMS to infertility—and learn how to make body oil. But really it functions more like a consciousness-raising group, with women chatting about their personal relationship with vaginal health as they trim herbs for redwood-mugwort oil. A girl in a yellow caftan, here with her suburban-looking mom from Ohio, says that recycled toilet paper is bad for you, so she uses a bidet at home.
Our discussion turns to our periods. "My whole life changed when I stopped using mass-produced man-pons," one woman with a shaved head says. "The moon time is your time to drop in on yourself," Amber, the workshop leader, tells us. "I literally haven't had a job in 11 years because I can't work on my moon. I had to find an alternative." She now sells herbal oil blends she makes at home. She says her 10-year-old daughter asks to rinse out her pads, which is, I suppose, a show of how normal periods are at her house, and how much her family respects them. The girl with the shaved head says we can feed our blood to plants: "You give life to them, and they give life to you." She says there's a marijuana farm not far that has fertilized cannabis with menstrual blood for two generations.
But perhaps the greatest reverence is reserved for motherhood and children, those fruits of the womb. Not a single workshop or meal would pass when there weren't at least a few women breastfeeding in my line of vision. But as much as I respected the open arms with which Spirit Weavers greeted its moms, the emphasis on motherhood felt too focused. There were nearly a dozen workshops around the theme, including ones on fertility and ovulation, doulas, conscious contraception, abortion healing, and circles to share birth stories. There was not a single workshop to attend on, say, the Ecstatic Bachelorette. Devotion to motherhood loomed over everything—Mother Earth, Mother Goddess, exposed baby bumps—and began to feel like the only acceptable path to realizing your womanhood.
Every night, as I am about to sleep, someone is "called" to start drumming. One night I rose from my tent to go see what the racket was about, and saw women drumming, naked and primal and dancing around the fire, like a Goya painting come to life.
I was annoyed because I wanted to sleep, but also because the aesthetic of the wild woman reconnecting with the Earth hadn't changed since the goddess festivals I attended in the early '90s with my mother. Nor was it any more inclusive in race, class, gender, or sexuality. It's a rigid view of womankind—different from, say, the Victoria's Secret Angel, but stultifying in its own way. There's the regulation long hair and caftans and shawls and Diva Cups, and the rejection of fast foods, Maybelline Great Lash, and tabloid magazines. It betrays a larger problem within feminism—which is not a word I heard used more than once or twice at the festival—that, for how inclusive it sells itself, it's hard to feel embraced if you deviate from any kind of norm.
Almost 10 years ago I went to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, recently parodied in the last season of Transparent. It had a vast lesbian presence—Spirit Weavers, on the other hand, had no organized LGBTQ presence—and allowed women to create bonds that could fuel them for the rest of the year. And it was safe, which can't be discounted. Normally a group of women alone in the middle of the woods sounds like the plot of a horror movie. But it was also the vision of what a few women had decided "embodying feminist" means. The camp's founder had a "womyn-born-womyn" policy that didn't allow for transpeople of any kind. By the time the camp finally closed, it felt like a political and cultural relic.
I fear the same for Spirit Weavers, which, at its best, goes beyond the careful curation of social media and allows women to meet and create communities. It's safe, too: you can walk naked all over camp and your biggest threat would be a mountain lion. You can leave your wallet, laptop, and iPhone and not feel a remote bit of concern that anyone will take it. (Someone lost an envelope with $800 in cash and it was found right where she left it.)
But as Spirit Weavers grows into more of a cultural juggernaut, it needs to acknowledge its weaknesses and open itself up to change. A back-to-the-land weekend is perfect for resting and socializing. Do we really have to pretend we're changing the world at the same time?
I pack up my tent and arrive at the pick-up for the shuttle back to the airport. I'm half an hour early because I'm afraid they'll somehow pull away without me and I'll be stuck at camp forever. The other eight women on the shuttle talk and laugh and trade stories; I sit in the passenger seat next to the driver listening to a podcast about politics.
At a stop for gas, we all go inside to use the bathroom. I buy a bag of Doritos and eat them quietly in the front seat as we head back onto the highway. The girls sing a song we all learned Sunday night, eager to make Spirit Weavers last a few hours longer:
After I return to the city, the song is stuck in my head for days.
Follow Marie Claire on Facebook for the latest celeb news, beauty tips, fascinating reads, livestream video, and more.
The 'Bling Empire' Season 2 Cast: Your Guide
Kevin, Kane, Anna, and the rest of the gang are back.
By Quinci LeGardye
Meghan Markle Shared a Poignant Message About Working Moms as She Calls for More Childcare Support
Archewell is supporting the "National Business Coalition for Child Care."
By Iris Goldsztajn
Kanye West Told Kim Kardashian She Was Dressed Like Marge Simpson and Her Career Was Over After the WSJ Innovator Awards
This is awful.
By Iris Goldsztajn
Blog Crush: The Bloggess
Jenny Lawson is hilarious, snarky, witty, totally inappropriate, and "Like Mother Teresa, Only Better"...and she's our Blog Crush of the Week, this week and every week. We first stumbled upon her on Twitter and plotted ways to make her our best fr...
By Diana Vilibert
I Ate Two Pounds of Red Lobster and the Video Will Satisfy All Your ASMR Dreams
You’re welcome, internet.
By Mia Lardiere
Don't Call Them Instagram Poets
How the social media outlet is providing a platform for a new generation of authors—and what they want you to know.
By Rachel Epstein
Inside the Internet's Obsession with "Slime"
Strange, soothing—whatever you call it, millions of young women all over the world have been watching it, making it, and raking in money from it this year.
By Charlotte Lieberman
The Real, Scary, and Potentially Amazing Future in Which You Design Your Own Offspring
By Isobel Yeung
What We're Reading: The Magician King
Lev Grossman's leading lady in his follow up to The Magicians steals the show.
By Rebecca Santiago
What We're Reading: A "What If" Royal Fantasy Thriller
What if Princess Diana never died? This novel raises the question.
By Alexandra Sifferlin
5 Things You Didn't Know about the Royal Wedding
From the couture lace to the bike-riding photogs, learn the last-remaining secrets of the big day.
By Lauren N. Williams