Sunday, May 12, 2013

Magic In The Woods

In full Renaissance regalia, I hold a rehabilitated barred owl,
one of two wildland mascots presiding over a ritual handfasting
Webster defines magic as "the use of means believed to have a supernatural power over natural forces". I’m not altogether certain what I experienced yesterday but it came closer to how I would define the term "magical" than just about anything I’ve ever seen.  It was a wedding. But it was so much more than just a recitation of nuptials.  Melody and Frank, two lovely people whom I’ve known in connection with my work as a Volunteer Ranger with the Maryland Park Service for several years now, invited 150 of their closest friends, family members and coworkers to bear witness as they engaged in the ancient pagan ritual of handfasting in the woods of a local park not far from my home in Baltimore County.

Rather than cater the affair, guests were
invited to bring their favorite dishes
to share, ensuring a diverse mix of
offerings both vegetarian and not.  Sarah,
behind me, organized all the food
The wedding invitation encouraged guests to dress in Renaissance costumes or in faerie or steampunk garb. The reception would be potluck, at a covered picnic shelter immediately following the ceremony.  A committee was formed to organize the gustatory contributions – mostly vegan and vegetarian in keeping with the couple’s dietary predilections. I signed up to make enough Greek pasta salad to feed a hundred people, along with a double batch of my baked cashew-artichoke dip and crackers. The list of potluck offerings was diverse and generous.  My excitement about the coming festivities grew with each passing week. I’d been to quite a few weddings in my day.  But I’d never been to a Wiccan wedding.  I could hardly wait to experience a celebration so extraordinary.

Melody's mom's cousins,
Shelly and Neida, donned
their faerie best for the
happy occasion
All last week I listened with trepidation as forecasters tracked a powerful cold front, eventually narrowing the potentially violent storm’s arrival to Saturday afternoon, precisely the day and time that the matrimonial union was scheduled to take place. The storm was slow-moving, one that would bring hours of soaking rain, powerful thunder, lightning strikes and perhaps even damaging winds. My heart ached for the wedding planners, wondering how the festive mood would fare if everyone was forced to seek refuge beneath a sea of umbrellas as marital vows were exchanged. A powerful spell would be needed to alter what every storm-tracking computer model was predicting.  As I popped my casseroles into the oven and ascended my steps to get dressed on the big day, I summoned a few spirits of my own to aid in delaying the rain’s arrival, though I held little hope of success.

The mother of the bride, left, was so
proud of her beautiful daughter
Dressing for this momentous occasion was an exercise in pure joy. There would be no designer dress to worry about sullying in inclement weather, no heels to muddle my gait over uneven ground. I had something far better to wear: an authentic Renaissance costume hand-made many years ago by Susan Morgan, the girlfriend of a roommate of mine in the late 1980s in the San Francisco Bay Area. Morgan, as she was known, designed and stitched the corset from a Medieval pattern using fabrics and accessories available in that era, as was required by Renaissance Faire rules in northern California at the time (see Renaissance Style).  I was stunned by the beauty of the garment when Morgan presented it to me on my birthday, and spent the ensuing twenty-some odd years adding skirts and accoutrements until I eventually accumulated a full ensemble.

Melody's hair was adorned with
colorful ribbons and flowers
Now I laced up the bodice, pulling the cords tight, and slipped on blue velvet ballet slippers. Conjuring the sun for this important day, I donned a sparkly arm band, necklace and earrings featuring the golden orb, all of which I found at various Renaissance Festivals over the years, and added a golden ear cuff for extra gleam. I removed tiny braids from my hair and fluffed my locks into a kinky, flowing mass, adding a beribboned Dea Dread hair comb to my 16th century guise (

This wedding cake was decorated
with a woodland faerie theme
Dark thunderheads loomed as I made the five-mile drive from my home to the wilderness area known as McKeldin, a part of Patapsco Valley State Park through which a scenic stretch of the Patapsco River winds its way. It wasn’t raining.  Yet.  A wood railing leading from the parking lot to the picnic shelter was bound in swaths of shimmering tulle in lavender and sage. Incense perfumed the air as the sound of drumbeats beckoned me down a wooded path. Arrangements of wildflowers adorned every post holding the picnic shelter roof aloft over tables dressed in mint and lilac cloths.  Thick log slices decorated with thistles, moss, ferns and pinecones graced the center of each table.  

Wedding officiant Jaqui MacMillan,
with two of her drum students,
 Heather, left, and Robin.
To one side, a maypole tied with colorful ribbons stood sentinel over the festivities, while at the edge of the woods an altar and a podium, also adorned with flowers, awaited both officiant and betrothed. I was mesmerized by the beauty of the woodland scene.

Jaqui MacMillan beckons the bridal
party to the altar
I put out my culinary offerings and mingled with guests wearing winged faerie costumes and wreaths of flowers in their hair, everyone balancing small plates of appetizers and libations and engaging in lively chatter. We talked of the threatening weather, expressing gratitude that the rain had held off so far. The drumming stopped. We were summoned to the podium to await the entrance of the wedding party. The percussion resumed, beating an intoxicating rhythm as bridesmaids in diaphanous gowns and petal-strewn hair approached from the left carrying bouquets of wildflowers. At the same time, groomsmen approached from the right, dressed in black kilts and ecru shirts. Walking together down the "aisle" between the standing onlookers, the procession parted again once reaching the altar. Behind strode the bride, resplendent in a gorgeous Renaissance gown, her bodice of brocaded satin a soft jade with a darker green skirt overladen with gossamer panels of the sheerest lavender, accompanied by her groom, who sported a kilt of sage and lilac plaid topped by a brown leather cassock.

Bridesmaids entered from the left; groomsmen from the right
and strode to the altar two-by-two
As officiating priestess Jaqui MacMillan, who presides over the Church of Universal Peace in Westminster, Maryland (Church), began the ceremony, clouds parted and the sun shown brilliantly through the trees. We all looked around at each other in amazement, a hushed murmur moving through the crowd. The minister summoned a heartbeat from the drummers and proceeded to create a sacred "circle" with mariachis and a crystal, within which the bride and groom and all of their loved ones would be enclosed for the duration of the proceedings. After the couple read to each other a charming set of handwritten vows, Ms. MacMillan gently bound their hands together in the handfasting ritual, said a blessing and then re-opened the sacred circle by expressing gratitude toward the four directions.

With their hands gently fastened together,
the betrothed pledge their eternal love
With the formalities over, the newlyweds posed for photos with two owls from the Visitor Center at Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area in nearby Owings Mills (SDNEA), and then proceeded to the river’s edge with the rest of the wedding party for photos while guests resumed their noshing.
The newlyweds turn to face an
adoring crowd of well-wishers

Andy, left, holding a barred owl,
and Katie, right, with a great
horned owl, are naturalists who
work with animals at Soldiers Delight

Eventually the maid of honor, Kathi, who has been Melody’s best friend for the past eighteen years, gave a joyous and tearful toast, and dinner was served. The rain did come and even fell quite heavily during the reception but, amazingly, felt more like a comforting blanket enveloping us in its soothing euphony than an unwelcome party-crasher. As haunting Celtic melodies drifted from the disk jockey’s turntable, thunder rumbled in the distance, adding an ethereal quality to the day.

When the rains finally came, wedding
guests danced around the maypole
to honor Mother Earth
Appetites sated, the disc jockey turned his repertoire to dance music, which brought everyone to their feet.  Frank, a software engineer when he is not volunteering as a park ranger, took the microphone to sing a song to his lovely bride.  Several members from the Church of Universal Peace ventured out from the protection of the shelter and danced in the rain, eventually gathering around the maypole to weave its ribbons in an elaborate, romantic demarche. Throughout the day rain and sun performed an intricate repartée, as if both elements wished to contribute their vitality to the occasion.

Frank and Melody cut a vegan chocolate
cake made by their friend, Laurie, a ranger
with the Maryland Park Service 
With a pair of custom-made owls pulling duty as an adorable cake topper, Melody and Frank sliced through their vegan chocolate confection and gently offered each other a bite, after which the bride tossed her bouquet to a gaggle of young maidens and the groom snapped the bride’s garter to waiting bachelors. Throughout the afternoon there was an aura of peace and harmony lingering over the festivities, a mystic quality to the celebration that defies apt description.

The happy couple toasts their
future together
There was a sense, shared by all who were present, that these two human beings are right and perfect for each other and will support and care for one another until death do them part. True love and unbridled joy floated on the breeze as Melody and Frank began their lifetime together. But there was another quality present, as well, and I was thrilled to experience its elegant power. There was magic.


  1. will you marry us in arkansas ?

    1. I was only a guest at this wedding. I cannot marry anyone. You must contact the priestess, Jacqui MacMillan, at the Church of Universal peace in Westminster, Maryland, for information about officiating at your wedding.