No matter the weather or the location, the Headwaters Gathering consistently brings people “out of the woodworks” and into the woods (and fields!), year after year. People of all ages and backgrounds come together from across vast distances, for two or three days of sharing and practicing wilderness living skills, telling stories and participating in a diverse range of nature-immersion and connection experiences.

Registration always fills quickly, in anticipation of the long-awaited weekend, and there has never been a face without a smile at the welcome and check-in table. Kids tumble out of cars and dash off into the forest to re-unite with other half-feral allies.  Hugs are freely exchanged between old friends, and newcomers are welcomed with open hearts. Smiles only grow bigger over the weekend, until every pair of eyes is shining with the light and love bursting from within.

What it is about the gathering that creates this feeling of joy? What is the medicine, and what is the deep need being met? Is it the satisfaction that comes from acquiring new skills? Is it the sharing of good company? Is it the fresh air, being busy outside day after day? The central fires that bring us together for cooking and sharing, singing, laughing, building connection? The quiet forest that offers the opportunity for solitary reflection? Or is there some other magic at work?

The reasons are countless, I’m sure. But let’s take a look at one or two, shall we?

A Sense of Belonging

We often hear people speak about “finding their tribe” in the context of the Headwaters Gathering:

“I thought I was the only one who woke up at 5 am to listen to the song birds!”

“I never would have thought there were so many people in this part of the world who can make fire out of sticks!”

“Sometimes I think I must be crazy, because among my friends at home I’m the only one who likes walking barefoot on the grass.”

“This is the only place I don’t get weird looks for harvesting young green leaves to make salad.”

There is such a great sense of empowerment and inspiration when we come together from across a rich diversity of individual experience and feel like we are part of something bigger. The drive to feel this sense of belonging is very strong, simple and profound– and based on a common call.  Considering we all come from ancestors who lived in real connection with nature as a matter of survival, it’s not surprising that in a deep-rooted and even unconscious way, it feels like a homecoming when we dig our hands and feet back into the earth (both literally and figuratively!). There is an innate satisfaction in working towards a common goal, being stewards of the land, and seeing new creations coming to life. We belong here, in the present moment, experiencing life in its simplest and fullest. When we find other people who are awake in these same feelings, we feel alive!

A Shift in How We Perceive and Experience Happiness

Part of why it’s so hard to leave Headwaters at the end of the weekend is because we’ve all been given a magical glimpse of another way life. We get a taste of what it’s like to live in a village that celebrates every individual, and also creates resilience as a community.  There’s the subtle offer of a shift in our worldview as to what the road to happiness is.

At Headwaters, there is a natural embracing of the intrinsic value of the gifts people bring, and the goods that are exchanged. For instance, at the Trading Blanket event, I’ve seen expensive outdoor gear traded for small jars of maple syrup, beautiful hand-knit sweaters for a few ounces of beeswax, a high-quality knife for a child’s first carved spoon. This is a different mentality than the one we often arrive with. Because we spend so much time in the dominant western-mentality culture of consumerism and individualism, it’s easy to forget about the true meaning and value of things. Many of us have been raised with ideals that personal happiness comes from purchasing and acquiring goods. The weekend provides a wonderful chance to re-open our eyes to the time and energy it takes to create beauty, and to recognize the gifts each of us bring to the circle. Magically, this perspective arrives to Headwaters without “planning.”

Celebrating the diversity of the gifts and passion that we all carry as individuals is also counter-culture.  We often receive the message that we should be working towards complete self-sufficiency and independence, that when we rely only on ourselves, we protect ourselves from pain. You’ve heard it before:

“If you want something done, you have to do it yourself.”

“The only person you can really count on is yourself.”

An extension of this story is that when we ask another person for their perspective, we are admitting a shortcoming in our own self-sufficiency and expertise. The ego worries that an acknowledgment or invitation of another person’s experience, wisdom or expertise indicates to others our own comparatively lower intelligence. There’s humour here,  because this implies that there’s only so much knowledge to go around, and we have to hoard our knowledge to ourselves as something finite, or someone else might become better than us. We keep our cards close to our chest the same way we cache away money or material goods — out of fear it will be taken, or out of the misguided belief that we will be happier this way.

While I do believe in the old assertion that happiness comes from within, I also acknowledge that we are social creatures who are meant to inspire each other, and help each other to grow and thrive.  We are each responsible for our own happiness based on choices in thought patterning and the realities we create, yet our personal happiness should be in alignment with contributing to others’ wellbeing and happiness too. To be able to express and embody my own gifts in acts of good service to others in right relation is kinda my life’s purpose… and is what brings me true happiness.

Imagine living (even if just for a weekend) in an environment where celebrating each others’ gifts is encouraged and practiced with authenticity. How incredible it is to witness the emerging talent of a child learning to carve being affirmed with the trade of a beautiful knife from a loving auntie or uncle.

Everybody gains. There is happiness and fulfilment in sharing, in giving, in gratitude, and in generosity. So much more is available, life and opportunity for growth is so much richer.

This flips the western idea of cultivating happiness on its head. It’s an alternative path that tends towards love-based, rather than fear-based action.  And bottom line: it just feels soooo good to be a part of it.

Departure from the Headwaters Gathering on Sunday is always bittersweet- the balance of being contentedly tired, knowing it’s time to bring home a “full cup” that can’t hold any more, while at the same time never wanting to leave, because the experience will never be duplicated. But, there is promise in that the journey continues to deepen as the seasons pass by… and there’s always the unique experience of next year!