More than solar at this fest: Annual SolarFest event celebrates sustainable living and more
To call SolarFest a renewable energy festival doesn’t really do justice to this unique annual event at Forget-Me-Not Farm in Tinmouth, scheduled this summer for the weekend of July 15 to 17. It is indeed a celebration, one that combines learning the skills required to cope with a changing environment in the context of a beautiful natural setting, with plenty of good food and entertainment thrown in. But it’s much more than a fun learning experience. SolarFest is a process that has brought families, communities and even countries together for almost an entire generation now.
Since its beginning 17 years ago, SolarFest has matured from a small gathering of 200 to an event that attracts thousands of attendees. Despite its growth, the festival continues to draw all its power, including power for the sound and lights on the main stage, from renewable sources. This year, in recognition of the organization’s commitment to renewable energy and sustainability, SolarFest was awarded the 2011 Governor’s Award for environmental excellence.
SolarFest will mark its seventeenth anniversary this summer by offering, as always, timely information on the latest developments in renewable energy resources, coupled with great entertainment, all kinds of food and lots of activities for children. This year’s keynote speaker is Jeffery Wolfe, CEO and Chairman of groSolar, one of the largest installers of residential solar power systems in the country. The lineup of musical acts includes Jon Cleary’s Philthy Phew, Lynn Miles, Peter Mulvey, Antje Duvekot, Bow Thayer and Perfect Trainwreck, and Roomful of Blues.
Attendees will be able to choose from more than 80 different workshops over the course of the weekend, organized thematically into five tracks. Just a few sample workshops are: Net-Metered PV Systems (renewable energy track), High Performance Natural Buildings for Cold Climates (green building track), Fossil Fuel Free Farming (sustainable agriculture track), Life After Vermont Yankee (thriving locally track), and Climate Change 101 (solar generation youth track).
Frequent tours are offered to introduce key features of the festival, such as the informational panels and the on-site renewable energy system — which even incorporates solar hot water showers. The week preceding SolarFest a photovoltaic workshop serves the dual purpose of providing a hands-on learning opportunity and getting the renewable energy system set up.
A unique and popular event is the SolarFest theater-in-the-woods production. This year’s play, written by SolarFest president Melody Squier, incorporates themes of local and sustainable living as it tells the tale of Tinmouth’s 250-year history. Directing the play is Melody’s son Wheaton Squier, who attended his first SolarFest event when he was only a child and has been helping out ever since.
Wheaton has watched the festival grow steadily over the years. In addition to relaying messages and equipment, parking cars and helping his father Marshall with event security, he has also been a previous member of the theater-in-the-woods cast. His first stint as director was at last year’s SolarFest. He says, “It was my first time directing, and I wasn’t sure what the experience would be like, but we had a great cast and lots of fun. I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to this year — we have another great group of young actors and actresses.”
Rehearsals for the theater-in-the-woods begin about a month before the event, along with all the other necessary preparations for the festival. Volunteerism is vital, with more than 300 volunteers from all over the world assisting each year. The volunteers collaborate to transform Forget-Me-Not Farm from a working 80-acre therapeutic horse farm into a festival site — work that typically involves a lot of haying, mowing and weed-whacking, as well as posting of all the signage. Beyond the initial preparations, volunteers also run the festival and break it down when it is over.
“People come back year after year,” says Wheaton. “I’ve been involved as long as I can remember, and I think that being so close to a large, community and volunteer-run organization is a really important part of my life. It’s always nice to work together with lots of people and have the reward be this amazing festival.”
The volunteers typically include about 10 members of Volunteers for Peace, an organization that promotes international volunteerism as a means of community development, intercultural education and service learning. These volunteers usually show up around the July 4 weekend, about 10 to 14 days before the festival, and help transform Forget-Me-Not Farm to SolarFest. Typical projects include picking up fencing, building the stage, damming up the nearby river by hand to create a swimming hole and cleaning the barn.
For some volunteers this is their first visit to the United States, and these visitors often comment that their experience in Tinmouth defies many of their stereotypical beliefs about life in this country. Long-lasting friendships are formed as the work progresses, and many of the Volunteers for Peace return to help out in subsequent years.
The Squier family in turn has traveled to Spain, France, Canada, England, and Italy to visit some of their SolarFest friends. “The relationships we have built with the volunteers feel very much like family and going to their homes feels that way as well. It is always wonderful to travel, but to be hosted with such love is something much more,” says Wheaton.
Anyone interested in volunteering for SolarFest can sign up at the SolarFest Web site www.solarfest.org, which also has information about the full schedule of events for the weekend.
Nathaniel Gibson is a freelance writer who lives in Pawlet. He can be contacted via www.nathanielrgibson.com.
The article originally appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Times Argus:
July 3, 2011