Leave it to me to go to an arts and music festival for a week and come home with about two tons of environmental angst resting on my shoulders. I just spent six days at the Oregon Eclipse Festival at Big Summit Prairie in the Ochoco National Forest, and although I’ve been home for almost a week, I’m still choking on the dust that will forever be in my lungs.
Before I completely turn you off with my pessimistic take on what most festival-goers probably perceived as a positively transformative experience, I want to be clear that I actually loved many aspects of the festival. The artists were incredibly talented, and nearly every person I encountered was friendly and open to engaging in conversation.
In fact, it is this open, loving attitude embodied by people at the festival that makes it all the more necessary for me to draw attention to the ways in which every single one of us who attended the Oregon Eclipse Festival contributed to the displacement and destruction of lives, purely for our own enjoyment. The festival was amazing in many ways, but the emphasis on human experiences were not without consequences for the plants and animals displaced and/or killed so we could party all week.
The festival took place on private land surrounded by public National Forest land. Months before the event took place, the rancher who owns Big Summit Prairie, Craig Woodward, was quoted in an article in the Bakersfield Herald as saying that what happens on his land is nobody’s business but his. While this argument falls flat in a number of ways I will not pursue today (i.e. “his” land was stolen from Native Americans and is not really “his” at all; also, this man should not be allowed to decide the fate of every autonomous plant and animal living in the prairie) I would like to focus on the fact that he allowed more than 30,000 people to enter “his” private land, making what happens in that area suddenly the business of, well, more than 30,000 people.
So, what happened in that area? I can’t find much information on exactly how the prairie was “prepped” for the festival, but after having seen the less disturbed land surrounding the festival in comparison to the actual festival area, here are my guesses:
- Vegetation (mostly grass and sagebrush) was killed and showed no signs of growing back. Many scraggly, dead tufts of brush were scattered along the ground everywhere we went. They had not been uprooted but, rather, were dead in the ground. I’d like to know if herbicides were used and which ones.
- The soil was severely compacted, leaving the ground everywhere hard and barren. We tried to stake down tents in multiple spots and were unable to even drive the stakes through the ground, though some of this was due to rocks.
- The removal of vegetation and compaction of soil, in combination with trampling from tens of thousands of people each day, contributed to severe soil loss and erosion. A healthier soil profile consists of some layer of organic matter (i.e. leaf litter, twigs, fungi, other things that decompose), a layer of topsoil that is the partially decomposed matter, a layer for water filtration, and subsequent layers containing insects, worms, and eventually bedrock. It was clear that the first few soil layers were gone from the festival site as the dust in the air increased each day, and I began to sympathize with those who lived during the infamous Dust Bowl.
- I suspected some trees were cut down, and my suspicions were confirmed when we left the festival and saw a pile of branches and trees alongside the road.
In addition to all of that, the festival itself brought with it two other major concerns for the Big Summit Prairie ecosystem:
- Light pollution is a true disruptor for wildlife. Think of bats and other critters who hunt at night and how their sense might be affected if nighttime never seems to come. The constant flashing of colorful lights from all the stages throughout the night and into the dawn (really, they never stopped) was admittedly exciting and beautiful, but that is coming from a narrow human perspective. I urge you all to ponder how this must have disturbed the birds, deer, bats, rodents, and others likely fleeing the festival area that was once their home.
- Noise pollution rages hard at music festivals, so you can only imagine the environmental consequences of a festival that lasts all week. There were seven large stages at Oregon Eclipse, and I went to sleep every night with a bass beat vibrating in my chest – only to awake the next day to the same sensation. I heard rumors that the music did stop some nights, maybe between 4 and 6AM, but some bands on the program were scheduled to go into those early hours of the dawn. Human hearing is pretty dull in comparison to that of other animals, so if I needed earplugs to sleep, I can only imagine how far some animals had to flee before the sound was bearable.
Here are a few more observations I made throughout the week that raised some ecological red flags:
- I never saw a single chipmunk or squirrel, even though there was plenty of food to be pilfered. We spotted evidence of one scared little ground squirrel the first day we arrived, before the festival had officially started. She was kicking soil out of her hole in the ground. After that, I never saw a single furry critter. Our food, sometimes left out overnight, was eerily safe in our camp.
- The birds were not singing, making the prairie a likely setting for Rachel Carson’s “A Fable for Tomorrow.”
Now, I also can’t find any consistent information about the “restoration” efforts that are taking place in the wake of the festival. The news article I mentioned earlier said there would be a weeklong cleanup effort, but I am certain it will have to be longer. People I spoke with at the festival were saying a month. The agreement, supposedly, is to leave the prairie better than it was before the festival, though I would like to know how exactly “better” is being defined and how such a goal can account for the plants that were already lost, the animals who may have suffered trauma or even death due to hearing impairment and loss, disrupted eating and sleeping patterns due to light and noise, and habitat disruption and destruction.
Contrary to how it may seem, I didn’t write this long post to make festival-goers feel terrible for attending the event at Big Summit Prairie. I wrote it because the wonderful people I met at the festival, as well as the many thousands I did not meet, have a right to understand the consequences of their uplifting week of art and music, especially if they ventured to the festival in order to learn how to live more at peace with one another, live gently on the Earth, be more connected to themselves and the planet, and the many other reasons I heard people cite for coming to the Oregon Eclipse Festival.
I don’t have any jaw-dropping solutions here. The festival was fun and at many times encouraging. All I can say is that if that many people can come together and create a fun, freeing experience for themselves and others, all the while fostering empathy and understanding, they can be receptive to the message that the festival they enjoyed was not as harmless as they may have thought – and then they can use this revelation as a reminder to ponder the consequences their actions may have on the plants, animals, air, water, etc. that they may never actually see.
I hope to keep track of what happens to Big Summit Prairie in the wake of the festival, and I plan to keep this blog updated with (shorter) posts about what develops.