by Paula Johanson
The only modern ritual I ever saw was a Sex Dance, Art said.
Well, it was based on a Rain Dance.
(We were talking in the community building, a group of six or seven talking about modern rituals. Our voices echoed under the high black ceiling and the smell of coffee and cigarettes filled the room.)
When I was a treeplanter, Art said, we couldn't go out into the clear cuts and plant trees when the weather was too dry. There'd be a forest fire warning, and we would have to hang around camp. After several days with no work -- earning no money -- we'd get bored and want to get back to it. So we'd hold a Rain Dance. We'd call down the rain, and it would usually rain a day or so after that, and we'd be able to get back to work.
The Rain Dances started when we had a professional drummer on our crew. All of us were really something else in real life -- I was a student -- we were earning money at a summer job. This musician didn't have all his percussion equipment with him, but he'd jury-rigged himself an entire drum set out of the odds and ends around the camp -- oil cans, gas cans, garbage can lids. He liked to make music. One day we were all bored after a couple days off for a forest fire alert, so he found some other equ ipment so people could jam with him.
We ended up calling it a Rain Dance, you know, like a take-off on rain dance rituals, but we really wanted to get back to work. The music session was a lot better than being bored. It took the pressure off, and then hey! it did rain.
So we called our music sessions Rain Dances after that. The only time we had time for them anyway was when the dry weather kept us from working.
(He stopped to drink from his coffee. Some of the others had been treeplanting too -- all of us had been out in the back woods for days at a stretch, and we knew the dry heat he was talking about, and the soaking rains that ran down into dry soil where the tree roots drank it up.)
One time we decided to have a Sex Dance. Two of the guys on the crew were going to be fathers soon, and they both hoped that their wives would have girls. Each of them already had a son, and having a daughter would be particularly nice. (He laughed. I laughed too, knowing the particular joy of having a boy and a girl when my twins were born.)
Besides, it was an excuse for one hell of a party. We got those two guys, the expectant fathers, set up in the place of honour, the centre of attention in our camp's gathering place. The professional drummer had his gear set up nearby, and the other people drumming with him had gas cans, paint cans, anything to beat on to make a sound.
The drummer led it for us -- started us off with the rhythms and tones, and he cued each of us to join in with our sounds. He was, like, our focus and centre: he kept it going, changed it, brought it on and kept us together.
When he had it going well and it was all right, it was time for the dancers. (Laughter echoed under the high ceiling, half-mocking, half-envious, full of delight. No! Really?)
Yes, dancers. They were in shorts -- it was, like, really hot, sun beating down -- and work boots. You know that fluorescent orange ribbon loggers use in the woods to blaze trails? Well, they had pieces of it tied round their arms and wrists and knees and elbows. They'd painted their faces and chests like war paint -- it was a take-off, but it worked because it was, like, us, this was the stuff we used: trailmarking ribbon and zinc oxide ointment for sunburn.
They carried treeplanter's shovels -- you know, with a long handle and narrow blade -- and when they came out, the movements of their dance were the movements of treeplanting.
Take a big step -- shovel to the ground. Turn up the earth. Take a seedling from the bag hanging at your hip -- slide it in behind the shovel blade. Pull out the shovel and step on the loose earth to tamp it firm around the little tree. Take a big step.
It was the real moves we did every day, working and it was all in fun. They danced all around the centre place were the two expectant fathers sat on rounds of wood that we usually used for seats around the campfire. We didn't have a fire going right then; it was too hot and early in the day.
The dancers worked all around the two expectant fathers and the music kept building and changing. It wasn't just dull drumming. There were lots of musical tones in the instruments and cans we'd put together, and the drummer would cue one or another of us so the tones would be changing. He'd keep the rhythm going, and change it, to make it simpler or more complex.
I don't know when it stopped being so much a take off, sort of laughing at ourselves like always and when it began cueing into something more, something that really reached into us. But by this time it was real. There was no sarcasm in it, no joking: it was honest and we were in a ritual experience.
Those who weren't playing drums were dancing. Those who weren't dancing were drumming. And in the centre the decorated dancers moved in swirls of fluorescent trailmarking ribbon, with their shovels moving, dig the air and plant the imaginary tree, turn and step all around the fathers at the centre. And the drummer where he could see everybody, calling on one or another of us, cueing us to the rhythms that were building us together.
The music grew wilder. We took a girl and tied her to a pickup truck. (He mimed how she was tied, arms spread in a crucifixion with rope under the chromed truck company name on the grill.) The tension back and forth with the dancers between her and the men was incredible -- it built and built going frantic with the energy and the beat and the dancing motions that were still the moves of treeplanting.
It got more and more wild, the sounds went louder and harder and higher and then a guy went with a torch to an oil drum set up in the gathering place where we were dancing and drumming. He lit up the oil drum, which had been filled with wood and trash and some lighter fluid and it went up with a great whoosh! of flame. And that was the climax, with a sound coming up from all of us and the dance was wilder than ever. The drummer just went wild -- then he slowed it a little, and brought us down, and slowed it some more, and brought us back little by little. The girl was untied, the dancers were moving still, slower with the sweat running down them, and the drums getting calmer and quieter. The fathers were still in the centre of it all. The fire crackled in the oil drum, burning up and burning down. Then only the drummer was playing, quieting us all down until he was silent. No one said a word.
No one said anything for ages; we just sort of wandered away to be quiet for a while. Later some of us lined up afterwards at the first aid station -- hours later we were finding that we'd beat our hands raw and bruised on the rims of gas cans and such. Hadn't felt it when it was happening, blisters rising on sore hands. Didn't feel it for hours.
It was a quiet night and it rained soon after that, so we got back to work. That was a time! That was our best Rain Dance ever, the Sex Dance, and we were the envy of all the camps of treeplanters around who didn't have our kind of music.
Art added: I heard later that at least one of the two men did have a new daughter -- anyway both the kids turned out fine.
Originally published by Under the Ozone Hole Number Eleven – June, 1995