Finding the remedy: an exploration of Medicine Festival

Festival goers bust their moves during an earth dance on Friday. Credit: Callum Chaplin at Got Soul Films

“We’re fighting perception and reality,” proclaims Wasing Estate owner Josh Dugdale at the opening ceremony of Medicine, seemingly the largest weekend-long festival in the UK so far this summer, on Thursday evening as he implores people to distance themselves from those outside their bubbles during the event.

“You will be watched,” he warns gently, alluding to visits which would transpire from council public health officials — some less conspicuous than others — throughout the festival. As the solemnity of his speech ripples through the distanced crowd, keeper of Druidic wisdom Chris Park makes a call for peace all over the world, “as we become the medicine” and “dream the beautiful world we want to live in”.

By Saturday, following two separate rainbows amidst mixed weather, up to 1,000 people including crew are on the site in Berkshire, just a stone’s throw from the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston where nuclear warheads are manufactured, for a remarkable weekend of music, ceremony, discussions, social dis-dancing and a reimagining of the concept of medicine.

Festival goers at a performance at the main stage. Credit: Callum Chaplin at Got Soul Films

The non-alcoholic, vegetarian event, two years in the making, set out to unite ancient wisdom, spirituality and forward-thinking to help humans wearing wristbands saying “be the medicine” both explore how their ancestors lived in greater coexistence with mother nature and harness technology to create a more sustainable world. But in the midst of heightened anxiety after the introduction of local lockdowns in late June, the organisers feared they would not receive a licence and the camping festival was briefly thrown into doubt.

However, with the support of local officials and even the department of culture, it went ahead with a reduced capacity in the knowledge that the overwhelming majority of coronavirus transmissions occur indoors. Plus, with booze not allowed on site, it was thought people would be more in control of their inhibitions at the trailblazing festival.

“We wanted something that felt conscious and sacred without putting people off which is why we ended up going for the non-alcohol option because it’s a totally different vibe,” says festival co-organiser Remi Olajoyegbe, who formerly worked in private equity. “It’s totally liberating, you are suddenly not managing this constant thirst to go to the bar. When you’re drinking you’re so altered, you can’t be as present.”

So is the medicine, ahem, to be found by not drinking alcohol? “I’m not judging people who drink,” she replies, admitting to an occasional drink. “I don’t think there is any one answer. The whole purpose of this festival is to explore that question, how can we be the medicine for the people and the planet?”

Remi Olajoyegbe and Josh Dugdale pose for a photo by the author.

As the festival goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent that the answer remains both terribly complex and astonishingly simple. I guess we already know that, but here we could collectively ponder. Ask festival goers what the medicine is — what tonic does humanity and the earth need? — and you receive a panoply of responses. “Well they should decriminalise plant medicines for a start,” says one. “They want to prevent the evolution of the human spirit and keep us effectively on a war footing.” Another posits that medicine is “a way of life … just do stuff that’s good for you.”

But for others, the most important medicine is a sense of community or tribe, while a middle-aged man says: “Whatever it is, it’s here isn’t it. But it’s a tough one to integrate, what happens on Tuesday when we’re back wherever.”

One woman in her 30s supposes it is all about “reconnecting to our hearts” and drinking our own unique elixir after deciding how we can be the change we want to see in the world. In more niche territory, beekeeping is also trumpeted, by beekeeper Park, since it creates honey — known as med in Middle English — after recent research found it was better for coughs and sore throats than so-called conventional medicine. The ultimate medicine, according to another enthusiastic festival goer, is to simply eat “food which fills you with joy”, every single meal, and resist fried snacks and refined sugar.

Keen beekeeping advocate, and beekeeper, Chris Park, in photo taken by author

Nestled by a forest in the vast grounds between Newbury and Reading in west Berkshire, the centrepiece stage made partly with an arc of fallen bark sits in the shadow of dozens of towering scots pine trees. Along with the live music and ceremonies, which includes a cacao ceremony in which hundreds come together to drink a cup of the strong, bitter beverage and meditate, there is earth dancing too. A separate canopied tent hosts the talks — themed by soil, soul and society on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, respectively — with a teepee for children’s activities, a marquee for yoga and movement (the first full day begins at 7.30am with vinyasa yoga to the sounds of a live cello) and a wellness village with energy healing, self-controlled energo adaptive regulation therapy and massages which become fully booked for the weekend within 24 hours. Something for the whole family, then.

Views from the front of the cacao ceremony courtesy of the author

Several fires remain lit all weekend round, and queues for food and soft drinks, and hot beverages, were ever present too after the organisers underestimated demand. The highlight of the food vendors is almost unanimously thought to be Rainforest Creations, mostly raw Caribbean food sold under the banner of: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”.

This is a spacious land where there is little rushing, and if you do really need to be somewhere urgently, then you are never far away. But while people are mindful to not get as close to each other as they otherwise might, with many old friends refraining from embracing each other, of at least a dozen people I ask to define the medicine, nobody says physical distancing — perhaps foolishly — though plant medicines such as ayahuasca, used for thousands of years in various cultures, are a common response.

People gaze upwards to the skies holding their arms aloft. Credit: Dan Elkan

In a discussion on “tools for transformation and deepening consciousness”, Dr Leor Roseman, from Imperial College’s centre for psychedelic research, suggests that the communal healing potential of hallucinogenic plant medicines and shamanic traditions could help opposing groups in conflict zones reconcile and work towards peace. Seriously?!

Well, he says, psychedelic drugs and plant medicines “create experiences of oneness, acceptance, moments of oceanic boundlessness” and“strong connections to divine presence which is guided by a field of acceptance and compassion towards everything,” as he describes his month of research in Israel and Palestine interviewing people to study the potential for the hallucinogenic healing medicine ayahuasca in peace building.

Roseman tells of a former Israeli army conscript who, during an ayahuasca ceremony with a group of Palestinians, had a flashback from the perspective of a family whose house he had helped to raid to arrest a Palestinian man. “He felt the pain of that family,” he says. “He returned from the vision into the ritual feeling a lot of guilt and self-hatred.”

People lounge out in the pleasant weather at the main stage. Credit: Callum Chaplin at Got Soul Films

However, they bond over a song about a sacred connection to the land and become friends, the neuroscientist says: “Later on, he starts learning Arabic, he leaves the reserve army as well.” Of course, there is no evidence to suggest ceremonies with ayahuasca — which can prompt mystical life-changing experiences — have had any impact on Arab-Israeli relations but with councils of indigenous communities in Colombia reportedly bringing together some warring parties in such ceremonies, it seems there is at least a limited belief there is potential.

And as the UK grapples with growing issues around mental health, some people with depression and anxiety find that antidepressant medications may not get to the root of their problems. With research endeavours into otherwise illegal drugs increasingly being sanctioned, it is around psychedelics and MDMA where new breakthroughs could coalesce, amid growing distrust within some circles about the corporatisation of medicine by a pharmaceutical industry often thought to be geared towards profit. Stephen Reid, founder of the Psychedelic Society, says he believes periodic doses of psilocybin could be sufficient to help people get to the source of their malady and that emerging research showed it was “extraordinarily effective” as a treatment.

“The less known story is how psychedelics improve people’s connectedness to nature and enhance their feelings to the natural world. We’re in an intensifying climate and ecological crisis, which we are almost all complicit in, and this requires a societal wide shift in our attitudes towards the environment and I’ve experienced that shift in perspectives for myself and my peer group. I’m very optimistic about the possibility of psilocybin in furthering not just individual healing but a collective reevaluation of our attitudes towards the environment and time is of the essence.”

But you do not necessarily need plant medicines to further peace, it is also argued during the discussions. In Siberian shamanism, for instance, plants are not often used to reach altered states of consciousness due to the climate; with drums, chanting and music employed to do so.

With a minimum of 45% of food in the UK imported from abroad, we have come far from our roots and the sense that we no longer need local ecosystems to be resilient has — along with worsening deprivation — increasingly led people to be alienated from food systems. Thus, like Mahatma Gandhi long advocated, getting back to the land (or the village) was also of paramount concern for many of the speakers, along with convincing people of the merits of sharing. For Ian Solomon-Kawall, founder of a permaculture designed community garden within a social housing association in south London, the medicine is simply nature. So let’s give the vast tracts of unproductive green space across the country something to do, he declares in a statement that one cannot help but view within the context of it being said on a humungous field owned by the descendents of nobles related to former prime minister David Cameron.

Ian Solomon-Kawall takes a moment from swimming. Credit: Dan Elkan

“We feel like we’re a species above nature,” Cabo says of homo sapiens, after participating in a discussion on food, farming and ecology, before the rain comes down.

“But nature can survive without us. We can’t survive without nature … Nature gives us an abundance of freeness, that’s what we need to get to know. That’s what I’m trying to do with my work, to try and make people appreciate that actually if you’ve got a lot of land, free it up so other people who have nothing can come and benefit as well for everyone’s mutual benefit.”

Organically produced fresh fruit and vegetables should be a birthright, he adds, along with housing, water and transportation: “These are basic principles of humanity, they shouldn’t just be for certain types of people. It’s ironic because now we talk about organic food, but actually, it was always organic. Now they’re charging a premium not to add chemicals. It doesn’t need mad interference in that way … Grow your own food!”

Accordingly, the festival is a place where refreshingly simple ideas have the floor. “If everyone did a week-long pilgrimage each year there would be about a 52nd less energy consumption,” Guy Hayward, director and co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust says, explaining the various merits of treks across your home country. Meanwhile, old friends reunite and sing old songs, and communities reformed following the months of lockdown in the UK. Before the festivities and learning commence each day, ceremonies take place on the main stage to ground events in a sense of purpose, and these carry on throughout the day in the Wisdom Keepers area, and beyond.

Charlotte Pulver stands next to her tinctures for a photo taken by the author.

“Eya, iber, yr, aiba, iva, eow, iwa, iwe, lur, lubhar, ywen, cis, if, anti uchar, ivin, tis, eu, elwhaz, jeuen, yew,” recite several dozen participants of a “Yew Healing” ceremony in 20 different European languages ahead of a pilgrimage to a 1,500-year-old yew tree a 15-minute walk away.

Ahead of the walk, the apothecarian Charlotte Pulver gives each person sat around a campfire three drops of a tincture containing yew berry fruit which she spent a week painstakingly separating from the deadly seeds before a year of brewing. “This will help you connect more deeply with the tree,” she says, adding later: “So much of the healing that needs to happen is reconnecting to our own heritage and the connection to our plants and trees. It’s all here it’s just waiting for us to connect with it.”

Yew Healing participants lie down, meditate and nestle into the ancient tree. Credit: Regina Martin

Beneath the magnificent yew, the group variously kneel, lay down and clutch the tree’s sprawling branches and sunken trunk as they meditate, pray, breathe and forest bathe. It is a profound scene, basking in oxygen and tranquility, and one which many people clearly take some time to integrate as they are invited to reopen their eyes. But the festival is not just serene tableaus, there is much frolicking, too.

On the same lane leading to the ancient yew, as the sun makes a belated appearance from outside clouds which mostly cocoon it throughout the weekend, a group of people dressed in yellow robes — along with a man with a bubble machine — lead a group of people of all ages the next day “to the lake”, like a gang of Pied Pipers, cajoling their newfound devotees as they go without revealing why they are all going to the body of water.

Light-hearted cries of “put out the sage” coalesced with requests for “the medicine” at the lake. Credit: Dan Elkan

Shock horror, it is to go swimming, mostly naked! A paramedic lurks at the back of the group, seemingly to provide assistance to anyone who needs it as dozens (including renowned folk singer Nick Mulvey, who played an iconic set the day prior) abandon their clothes and dive into the clear, cold water. “We are testament to the restorative power of this festival,” bellow several of the formerly yellow clad people.

The yellow people do what they do. Credit: Dan Elkan

“Give me the medicine!” another requests loudly. What is this medicine? Seemingly magic mushrooms, which help conjure a kaleidoscope of consciousness for some throughout the weekend, though neither synthetic drugs nor alcohol were spotted by the author at the festival. Mind you, someone once spoke loudly about taking ketamine, and a local man is said to have chanced upon the festival drunk and dazed from a cocktail of whiskey and pharmaceutical drugs. Why would one seek to use dissociatives in utopia, you wonder. The answer, of course, may be found in the stresses of modern life.

Nick Mulvey performs to a crowd of hundreds at the festival. Credit: Callum Chaplin at Got Soul Films

Still, the vast majority of medicines, and drugs, seem to be used in a conscious and responsible manner at the festival. However, as in the prior scene of nudity, golden robes and melodrama, the festival descends rather amusingly into something akin to farce on more than one occasion. Following Mulvey’s deeply affecting acoustic performance — which itself came after the Sam Lee Band’s phenomenal show playing rare folk and Traveller songs — the Gnawa Blues All-stars take to the stage with high-tempo traditional sacred music from Morocco.

Towards the end of their much-enjoyed set they whip the crowd into delirium as the two frontmen cast their instruments aside; dancing and plunging to the stage floor to do press ups before clambering back to their feet in time for the chorus. The stage manager gestures to the crowd of about 400 people to remain distanced (it only has to be a metre after all) and step backwards, but one of the performers appears to misunderstand and beckons them to come forward, as security clip revellers’ wings and approach people individually to tell them not to dance.

The two frontmen from Gnawa Blues All-stars. Credit: Dan Elkan

Later, at the Lake Stage’s “late night session” with DJ John Beach, revellers grooving in fancy dress using part of their outfits as face coverings are repeatedly told at close distance by exasperated security guards — who at one point outnumbered those on the dance floor — not to allow them to slide off their noses and faces. Still, better that than be faced by riot police at an illegal event such as in South Wales at the same time on Saturday night, and it is pretty astonishing to witness a legitimate party with a sound system and dozens of people jigging following the effective ban on discos.

An unknown reveller dances at the Lake Stage wearing a mask. Credit: Callum Chaplin at GotSoul Films

As concern over a possible second wave grows, it remains at the time of writing to be seen whether anyone contracted coronavirus at the mostly well distanced, spacious festival (no news is good news!). Complementary sachets of high quality lipo vitamin C — which has been given in large doses to coronavirus patients around the world but largely not in the UK — are given to festival goers upon arrival to help support their immune systems. And local officials are satisfied with the running of the event, which is attended mostly by white middle class Britons.

Free sachets of vitamin C were handed to people upon arrival with their wristbands. Credit: Charlotte Pulver

“We have worked very, very closely with the organisers, the licensing team, and environmental health and public health colleagues to build confidence in the event,” says Sean Murphy, public protection manager for West Berkshire council, of the first event within the local area since the Covid-19 pandemic, as we drink tea and coffee from the Black Sheep cafe stall as the sun shines.

His colleagues observed how the festival organisers risk assessments were implemented over the weekend, he confirms: “The feedback I’ve had so far was positive. I think it’s generally accepted that transmission is lower outdoors. Obviously the event lends itself to that in terms of the fact there is a lot of outdoor activity … I think it has been a good effort.”

Police visit the event too, on several occasions in pairs. One attendee, Al Barclay, writes on his blog that apparently as a result of the relative sobriety of the festival goers, the officers do not have much to do than make conversation since there are no drunken revellers nor anyone selling “poison drugs to desperate minors”. One officer allegedly tells him: “We’d much rather do anything other than take away somebody’s freedom … This is lovely, you know, it reminds me of a holiday I had in North Carolina.”

Police officers speak to festival goers stood around the embers of a fire. Credit: Al Barclay

And the festival even receives tacit support from the government prior to the event, thanks in part to estate owner Dugdale’s contacts. The site had previously played host of weddings, gatherings and festivals, including Glade, prior to the coronavirus outbreak — as well as hosting indigenous elders from all over the world to learn from their traditions. “The best festivals embody change,” Dugdale tells me as we sip green tea, adding that all profits would go to help indigenous communities preserve and protect their land and wisdom. Apparently reassured by Dugdale and the organisers’, culture and creative industries minister Caroline Dinenage releases a statement ahead of Medicine and other small scale planned festivals.

“Festivals and events are an important part of our vibrant and globally successful music industry. While many have been postponed this summer, it is great to see some smaller festivals begin to take place with covid safety measures in place. We’re here for culture — whether that’s with our unprecedented £1.57bn rescue fund, or by providing guidance and support to help get events and festivals back up and running.”

Children attempt to catch bubbles. Credit: Dan Elkan

Ultimately, the story of Medicine proves one can, against the odds, use land for good and create your own elixir (mine is simply learning, and remembering, to breathe better, and I made greater strides last weekend — it’s so much easier outside with no smoke in the air and few unhealthy temptations!). However, despite the apparent success of the event and the joy shared among many of the attendees who leave feeling uplifted, fresher and galvanised, there are concerns among some that discussions took place in a culturally insular and mostly privileged echo chamber. Similar criticisms are levelled against many environmental and progressive movements, but one festival goer posits the idea that a more effective use of the weekend could have been to help more diverse communities spend time in nature.

“Is Medicine Festival sufficiently radical to be the end point?” they ask rhetorically, suggesting parts of the landed estate should be donated to landless inner city children from black, Asian and ethnic minority communities. There are apparent contradictions, too; and while the event stressed the importance of for local food, the main eatery serves a platter of exotic fruit for £10 throughout the day.

It was more difficult to get close to people than to socially distance at times, due to the expanse of land at everyone’s disposal; photo by author

Looming over all of the debates and concerns, though, is the impending ecological disaster and a deep frustration over the UK government’s inaction despite declaring a climate emergency.

“There seems to be a scientific consensus emerging that we’re headed for potentially four degrees of global heating this century,” says barrister Paul Powlesland, who helped draft Lawyers for XR’s declaration of rebellion. “Unless we radically change course we’re heading towards civilisational collapse and mass deaths of possibly billions of people, so there seems to me nothing more important in my life than trying to stop that, what else is there?”

Just like we hear of Solomon-Kawall transforming his back garden into a farm for all, during a talk on “shifting the power over paradigm” Powlesland tells of how he founded a community of narrow boat dwellers who have stationed themselves in part of the east London river Roding which they are now cleaning.

No-one was looking after it, it was completely polluted, covered in rubbish, no-one was there. I moved there by myself and set up a community of people to look after it. There is now seven boats there and we all put time and money into restoring the river. It’s been a really powerful experience … We love this river and we will do what we can to protect her regardless of the law, almost.

In a calling to arms ahead of Extinction Rebellion’s next round of rebellion this week, he adds: “I would say, for all the nature you put your hands up to say that you love, you need to start expressing that love in a practical protection.”

A man with a tattoo saying ‘Freedom’ holds his arms out and faces the sun. Credit: Dan Elkan

Sure, government’s, banks, and corporations need to radically change how they go about their business and cease allowing the environment to be exploited with such reckless abandon, but individual choices matter too and if people en masse adopt more sustainable practices and are more conscious with their spending and habits then this could doubtless have an irresistible domino effect.

And thus, the prevailing message of the festival, which seeks to provide a template of how to gather consciously and had its closing ceremony and integration presentation on Monday afternoon, is summed up in this quote by Howard Thurman, mentor of Martin Luther King: “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive, and go do it … Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.”

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Freelance journalist and human passionate about health, human rights and animal welfare

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Mattha Busby

Mattha Busby

Freelance journalist and human passionate about health, human rights and animal welfare

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