Harvest Gathering is more than a music festival

Earthwork Harvest Gathering has been bringing musicians, music fans, local farmers, and community members together in northern Michigan each fall for 14 years. 
Echoing from beyond the barns and farm equipment of the Bernard family farm in Lake City, friends and I are welcomed to the Earthwork Harvest Gathering by festival creator Seth Bernard and his wife May Erlewine Bernard singing what might be called their "theme" song, "My Family."

I say theme because, if Earthwork Harvest Gathering, held Sept. 19-21 this year, were defined by a song, it would be "My Family." Almost everyone there—from first year attendees to those who have gone every year since it began 14 years ago—concurred Harvest still feels like an annual family reunion.

The lyrics, sung playfully over Seth's guitar and May's violin, rang out over the changing leaves of fall, reverberating through the tents, trees and structures of the farm. If there were ever a perfect introduction to what Harvest Gathering is all about, this had to be it.

The Family
In his living room on Sunday morning, Seth's father Bob and I discuss the traditions and history of Earthwork, but also make time to speak on the significance of music in the Bernard family. A light rain fell outside and a large group had gathered beyond the Bernard home to watch a three-on-three basketball tournament on an old dirt court.

"It all really began with having a legacy of music in the family," Bob says. "The desire to make time for the expression of music and appreciation for music is important. The expression of art or music is a cultural tradition that is really worth preserving."

According to Bob—who grew up in the Upper Peninsula, about 15 miles from Marquette ("I grew up on the edge of some really wild territory. That really built in me an appreciation of nature that I didn't have to learn by intellectual means. It built personal ethic.")—the festival began when Seth and his friends began honing their talents as musicians, about 14 years ago. The subsequent annual gathering came to be called Earthwork Harvest Gathering, and now draws over 100 bands annually in addition to food vendors, artists and many more attendees than when it was first conceived.

"The impetus for this was that Seth and several of his friends were at the age that they wanted to express that music and they were at the age where maybe music could be self-supporting for them," Bob says. "He was hanging around with some of the most creative players—so they invited all of their friends and we had some old family friends that came out (that first year)."

And so began the Harvest Gathering, a manifestation of the old-country values that are both waning in greater popular culture and yet thriving in small communities such as this. Its creators truly embody the cultures they aim to demonstrate and promote to others during both the three-day folk festival and throughout the year while on tour. Shasta Breitkopf—a family friend of the Bernards who has been to every Harvest Gathering since its inception—said it best: "Seth Bernard and his family really live their talk."

The Homecoming
Harvest Gathering is as much a homecoming as it is a gig for most of the bands in attendance, particularly those who spend so much of the year traveling and touring.

"This festival is very special to me," says Brandon Smith, who plays violin for Ann Arbor's Americana-gypsy-folk group Appleseed Collective. "Seth is really nurturing this place of peace, this gathering that is really just a love fest. It seems like I've gotten more hugs in the last 48 hours than I have all year."

Smith, who has come to Harvest for five years now, feels the festival serves as a gathering place for touring bands who haven't had a chance to see each other in the chaos of traveling and playing all over the country. So, for one long weekend every September, when the leaves are just starting to transition and the fall harvest is in full swing, they all come back to their home away from home—the Bernard farm.

"This is our favorite festival—we play all over the country, and this always feels like home," he says. "The community is incredibly tight—and when we're all running around all over the place, there are only special times when we get to see each other."

Harvest Gathering, of course, being one of those places. The sweeping diversity of the 100-plus artist lineup may be partially responsible for the deep sense of community amongst attending bands, though the receptiveness of attendees may also contribute to the significance of this festival above other stops during festival season.

"The creative expression finds a receptivity that's really personal here and I think a lot of musicians feel that way," Bob, a violin player himself, says. "There's a real uniting force that happens when people are really paying attention to just one thing. And for musicians, they feel like this is one of the most receptive places for them to come."

The Community
On the Saturday morning of the festival, little kids with bed head and bare feet walk around the camping grounds hand in hand with their parents, eyes hazy with sleep. The men camping next to us have taken to inviting every passing person to sit down and pick an instrument out of a big tupperware full of noisemakers—spoons, bongos and tambourines among the options—while they strum along to familiar bluegrass tunes on their banjos. Most passersby accept the offer, sitting down for one or two songs or returning with a guitar, banjo, mandolin or violin some time later. Some stay for hours, exchanging advice and suggestions with our banjo-playing neighbors.

At one point, a 10- or 11-year-old girl plays a few songs on her violin, drawing a crowd because of her undeniable talent. When it's time to return to her site, she stands humbly while thanking everyone for the opportunity.

The energy of Harvest was a large scale manifestation of what was seen in the campsite next to us: musicians helping musicians, people helping people. And not just that, but people sharing with others—sharing their talents, be it music, ceramic mugs, homemade burgers and burritos or handcrafted clothing. Though perhaps the most profound highlight of Harvest Gathering is the genuine—for lack of a better word—openness of those in attendance.

"When there are so many people with open minds in one place, it's energizing," Bob says. "People's boundaries can fall away a little bit, and they can then really experience what's going on. Openness can nourish a person an awful lot—it makes them smile-y and gives them a lack of suspicion so they can take their boundaries down."

Perhaps contributing to that open-mindedness, on this weekend particularly, was the intermittent rain that muddied trails and soaked campers, but which was only a slight hindrance for a weekend dedicated to tradition, family, fun and a subsequent commitment to the "it is what it is" philosophy.

"There's a hardiness in the people here—it's raining this weekend and people are still out in the rain listening," Bob says as drizzle fell outside the living room window, the basketball crowd gathering numbers and noise regardless of the elements. "The weather doesn't have to destroy everything—you're there working with it, you have to work with it."

Returning to that first night of running through the parking area to catch at least a few songs of Seth and May's, the unmistakable playfulness of Seth's voice echoing from the main stage, one line really stuck out to me during 'My Family.'

"That's right, we humans are—inter-connected!"

May joins Seth in harmonizing over the word 'inter-connected.' The emphasis speaks to why Harvest Gathering has been and will continue to be a significant avenue for sharing, loving, laughing and promoting the importance of tradition and family. For example, the tradition of the waltz in the Bernard family is an important one because, Bob says, it "insists on something sometimes, it invites dancing together, and it invites a transition, like we're going somewhere from here."

Which, in essence, is much like the Earthwork Harvest Gathering. It invites inter-connectedness. It invites transition. And sometimes, it invites us to slow things down and dance together.
Amanda Monthei is a freelance writer, a Northern Michigan University graduate and a native of Northwest Michigan. She dreams of the West, but her favorite cardinal direction will always be north. You can find her on Twitter here: @amonthei
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