'It's just freedom': Homegrown Sherwood Park festival stokes female empowerment
'We then become the inspirations that make space for other women to walk with courage'
More than 100 women, some nude, circle a bonfire in Sherwood Park, Alta. A full moon breaks through the clouds as they raise their hands toward the night sky and dance.
The pictures taken during last year's Alchemy of Womyn Festival invoke ancient pagan scenes, come to life less than 20 kilometres from the southeastern edge of Edmonton's suburban sprawl.
Nathalie Jackson says she knows some people frown upon the annual festival for women she launched in 2017 on her family's private acreage.
But she doesn't care — and that's the point.
"Oftentimes we don't even recognize the boxes we're in," Jackson said. "Until we get into an experience that's completely free, we don't know what freedom is.
"In our society, that's often judged, that's often misconstrued ... when in reality it's just freedom."
Last summer, the festival was so popular, Jackson said she decided to host it again this year from July 27 to 29. Roughly 200 people are expected to attend.
Unlike similar events for women's empowerment in the United States and elsewhere, the Alchemy of Womyn Festival is open to anyone who identifies as a woman or girl.
What we're trying to create here is a space where anyone who calls themselves a woman is welcomed.- Nathalie Jackson, festival founder- Nathalie Jackson, festival founder
Guests spend three days living off the grid on Jackson's acreage, without electricity or running water. In small groups, they participate in healing workshops based on various cultural practices, led by spiritual leaders including priestesses and Indigenous elders.
"What we're trying to create here is a space where anyone who calls themselves a woman is welcomed," Jackson said.
"There's just a different level of healing that takes place when women can honour one another no matter what body you're walking around in."
She started the festival as an extension of the work she already does on her acreage, offering healing and empowerment workshops for both women and men.
The lot, known as Stonehedge Community, is dotted with small structures used by Jackson and her clients for healing rituals, such as Indigenous sweat lodges and a goddess temple.
Jackson, an electrical engineer by trade, bought the property nine years ago to pursue a full-time career offering retreats and workshops.
"My life's work was to walk fully in my power, not be afraid to use my own voice even if it means publicly outing myself for the strange things I do," Jackson said.
"There's more to it than that because if I'm willing to do it and be seen as that, then in some ways it makes it OK for other women to go against the status quo."
The Alchemy of Womyn Festival is the only event of its kind for Edmonton and the surrounding area, Jackson said. She hopes the weekend-long retreat acts a catalyst for women and girls, introducing them to a community of healing, support and empowerment.
"My biggest hope right now is that women everywhere find the courage to listen to what their heart is saying and then to be able to express it," Jackson said.
"That we then become the inspirations that make space for other women to walk with courage."