Even amid the hordes of supremely-talented creative unicorns we get to work with on the reg (#blessed) Seth Bernard stands out.** We met him last spring in Austin when he both performed and sat on a panel at Michigan House 2017, and the dude's magic ways were apparent to us relatively quickly. Laughs were had, conversations got lofty and inspiring, more than a few nights turned into mornings (our couch is your couch, Seth), and somewhere inbetwixst it all, he told us that we needed to come to Harvest Gathering on his family farm back in Michigan.
Fast forward six months and those seeds planted in Austin…I’m sorry I can’t follow through with that metaphor. Fast forward six months...and we went to Harvest Gathering.
**So normally the standard list of job descriptors (musician, teacher, activist, etc) would go here in an attempt to sum up Seth by naming his many (many!) parts. That just won’t do the trick for Seth Bernard, though, both because none of us have the time to compile that kind of a list and because Seth’s sum is so much greater than any many comma’d list of parts could hope to add up to.
So what is Earthwork Harvest Gathering?
It's 15 year old celebration of music, food, and community that takes place on the Bernard family farm in Lake City, MI. It takes place over 3 days and attracts nearly 2500 people annually. There are 120(!) bands on the festival's four stages. There’s camping. There’s fresh food from over 40 local farms. There’s local artisans. There’s camp fires. There’s even a waltz hour.
We knew most of this going in.
We knew nothing.
One of the first things you notice upon arrival at Harvest Gathering - once you get over the size and scope of the whole thing (all those RVs, all those tents)- are the smiles. You see older couples with lawn chairs on their backs and hand-carved walking sticks - they’re smiling. You see packs of kiddos running back, forth, and around large-scale instrument sculptures (that you can play!) - they’re smiling. You see musicians running into each other for the first time since last year - yep, smiling. You see volunteers answering questions, directing traffic, and wishing everyone a "Happy Harvest" - smiling too. We arrived on Saturday. A day into the festival. It was hot, dusty, and most everyone else was more than 24 hours into their Harvest weekend. Still the smiles couldn't be contained.
As we explored the farm further, all those smiles started to gain a context. There was incredible food everywhere you looked. There were tents filled with handmade goods and farm fresh products for sale. There were workshops being held on topics ranging from songwriting to death (still smiles). There was a yoga tent, an arts and crafts area for the many kids that had made the trip, and a dunk tank. Just an abundance of things going on all of them designed to make people feel welcomed and part of something larger. And we hadn't even gotten to the music yet.
After exploring a bit, we went back to the woods to set up our own meagre camp (I can't even describe how much it paled in comparison to some of the set-ups we saw around us) and then set out to see some music. As mentioned, there were four full stages to choose from and each was programmed for much of the day and night for three straight days. Now that's just a ton of music, most of which we weren't familiar with, but as we wandered from stage to stage it became clear that this was something special. Somehow everywhere we went there was something new and different and completely it's own thing to be discovered. We saw bluegrass. We saw blues. We saw country. We saw R&B. We saw rock. We saw hip-hop. We saw late night house music. We saw klezmer. We discovered klezmer.
It was a dizzying amount of music but it was consistent in it's earnest regard for everything going on around it. Artist after artist no matter the genre kept talking about gratitude and how genuinely happy they were to be there. And that gratitude flowed right back from the audiences. They were willing to try something new or hear something they'd never heard before. An atmosphere of community was created that was beyond anything we'd ever experienced at a festival before. The line between the performers and audience was almost nonexistent. We were all in it together. (This might also have been helped by the fact that half the folks there had brought their own instruments - ever ready to jump in on the next campfire sing-a-long.)
Even just writing a line like that last one gets some of my inner cynicism roiling. Tie-dyed lovefests have existed for a long time, and aren't particularly my cup of mushroom tea. But having been there. Having heard the tunes, eaten the (so fresh) food, and slept in our tent in the forest. It's becomes easy to see that the cynicism completely misses the point.
You see if you bring it back to our buddy and host for the weekend Seth Bernard, it's really quite clear. He was everywhere at the festival. Meeting and greeting the thousands of guests. Jumping in on sets to play a tune or two with act after act. Giving shout outs to the Earthworks team and the volunteers that made the whole thing go off so smoothly. That magic we glimpsed in Austin was on full display back home on the family farm. And if you watched the absolute joy he put into every guitar lick and every bear hug he gave a friend, your "peace/love" cynicism would fade into nothing. Because for Seth (and so many others) Harvest Gathering is simply an opportunity to get all your friends together, to make them feel at home, and then to do what you love to do. It just so happens that Seth has a lot of friends.
So Happy Harvest, everybody. We'll be chasing those feelings of community and hospitality for a long time to come.