Rising Appalachia performing in the “Carnival” tent at the Symbiosis festival. (Donald Kaufman)

I left Los Angeles at 8 a.m. on a Thursday and started my drive to the Woodward Reservoir in Oakdale, Calif. Sixteen hours later, I arrived at the tent my friend had set up for me the night before. For the next four days, I slept in this oasis and attended a festival called Symbiosis. Joining me were 20,000 other campers.

Symbiosis was my fourth transformation festival. To understand the purpose and ethos of the gathering, I had to think outside mainstream judgments and YouTube spoofs.

Transformational festivals including Symbiosis are different than music festivals such as Coachella or the Electric Daisy Carnival. In fact, music stages are about the only things Symbiosis has in common with those events. Regular music festivals have very few art structures and center around concerts and beer lines. Sponsors are everywhere, trash covers the floor, strangers don’t tend to interact—and there’s no focus on connecting with the natural world.

All the stages at Symbiosis were near the Woodward Reservoir, where people went to swim throughout the day. (Donald Kaufman)

Symbiosis, like other transformational festivals, is based on living in nature. I got to know most of my neighbors, and some of them will be friends in the future. There was no sale of alcohol. There were no sponsors. Attendees brought their own food and living essentials and were expected to remove their own trash.

The artwork at the festival was so vast that even after four days of walking around, I found new art pieces and structures I had not seen before. Every day, classes were offered, including yoga, meditation, activism and community building.

A fire dancer performing in the “Carnival” tent. (Donald Kaufman)

One of the hopes is to bring awareness to living a more conscious lifestyle, and if that’s what you’re interested in, “you get exactly what you come for,” said Kae Vogal, a veteran of transformational festivals. This is what makes Symbiosis so special—and so threatening to the status quo.

One of the tents—Hacktivist Village—had leading political hacktivists from around the world. The list of speakers included Paolo Cirio, a cultural critic who espouses values such as open access and has uncovered more than 200,000 offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands. Other speakers included Noah Swartz and Yan Zhu. Swartz, brother of the late internet pioneer and political activist Aaron Swartz, works on software such as Privacy Badger, which blocks spying ads and invisible online tracking. Zhu works on security tools such as Tor, SecureDrop, Let’s Encrypt and HTTPS Everywhere. The events at Hacktivist Village one day were in honor of Chelsea Manning.

Presenters at the festival also included Vandana Shiva and Brian Wallace, who exposed the world of corrupt farming and outlined how to live without relying on the food industry. They explained how they work and fight for fair-trade farm deals, and they described their experiences battling corporate powers such as Monsanto. Shiva ended her talk by saying, “They feel they can bury us underground and that we will go away. What they forget is that we are seeds.” Other topics ranged from solutions for climate change to the economic policies that created the 2008 economic collapse.

Attendees at Symbiosis supported a variety of activist initiatives, including the Dakota Access pipeline protests. (Donald Kaufman)

A fire circle featured people sitting next to a huge sign that called for solidarity with the Native Americans at Standing Rock. Only one flyer was distributed during the festival, as people were leaving. It solicited donations for the Standing Rock protesters.

I felt at home. As a millennial who feels alienated from the political landscape, I saw Symbiosis as a ray of hope. Sure, some people came just to party, take drugs and act foolish in a beautiful natural setting. But that’s no reason to deny the potential of a growing movement.

I don’t know whether an anti-corporate movement as powerful as Occupy or the Vietnam protests will develop. However, if one does, some of the seeds will have been planted at transformation festivals.

Not everyone is a fan of these events. Some pundits on the right and left ridicule them. “I don’t want to go to Burning Man ’cause I like to shower,” said Ana Kasparian of The Young Turks website. Kasparian claimed that if Burning Man (which espouses many of the same views and philosophies as Symbiosis) believes in radical inclusion, it should include corporations such as Quiznos.

A resting place in the “Temple of Love” area at Symbiosis. All the structures in this section of the festival were built primarily with recycled cans. (Donald Kaufman)

Another critique of transformational festivals is that the rich and the bourgeois have hijacked them. Because of this, detractors say, there is no real value to these events. Many of the same attacks were used against privileged whites during the hippie movement of the 1960s.

At Symbiosis, there was virtually no separation between rich and poor. Some people paid money for tents to be set up beforehand or came in RVs, but except for having nicer living quarters, those festival-goers shared the same experience as everyone else. There was no VIP access or special area for them.

A stage area where people could watch performances or listen to speakers. (Kalindi Garcia)

Anyone searching for activist initiatives, a feeling of community and information about how to live outside corporate mainstream culture can find all this—plus more—at transformational festivals. For others, who want to party, listen to music, dress in costumes and see art, they too will find what they seek. By the end of my four days, I found that both have validity.

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