Fed up with what she terms "the default world", Sarah Wu left America nearly a decade ago for the jungles of Costa Rica. Living off-grid with her husband, Stephen Brooks, she began to practise different forms of herbalism and magic – important elements in the life of what she calls a "contemporary witch".
Since 2012, Sarah has been heavily involved with Envision Festival, a four-day event founded by her husband, which bills itself as a "celebration dedicated to awakening [your] human potential", involving "art, spirituality, yoga, music" and, importantly, "The Village Witches".
I caught up with Sarah through her solar WiFi connection to find out more about those witches, the festival, "candle magic" and what it means to "come out of the broom closet".
This article has been edited for length.
VICE: What made you want to go to Costa Rica to become a witch?
Sarah Wu: I'm originally from upstate New York, and I came to Costa Rica in 2001 as a sophomore in college to study Tropical Ecology. When I started studying herbal medicine, suddenly so many different channels opened at once. Then [I went] back into life in the so-called "default world" and came back to Costa Rica in 2009, for the love of my husband as well as the love of life and really wanting to follow my truth and my path. I started living off-grid at our farm, Punta Mona, which is on the southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. It was a time of really just tapping deeply into the powers of Mother Nature… it brings you into this place of resilience, but also this place of great humility in realising that we don’t live in an anthropocentric world.
Associating with the word "witch" was something that had originally come really young. I was around 19, and it was an awakening in my spirituality to what the feminine principle is, although the unity of the feminine and the masculine is the true heart of witchcraft. I was originally a little scared, thinking, 'How do I come out of the broom closet?' It was finally living very close to nature that solidified and really laid a strong foundation for me to have the confidence to talk about it.
Wait, there are a few terms you just used that I need to unpick. Firstly, what is the "default world"?
It’s essentially the "muggle world", [where we tell ourselves] stories of separation; that humans are above everything. The "default world" is putting human beings through this single kind of education system, the whole George Bush "no child left behind" thing, which is really harmful to human beings.
What does it mean to "come out the broom closet"?
There's been such a history of oppression of women that goes back way before the burning of witches. So, pretty much any person of European ancestry, not that many generations ago, a mother, a daughter, a sister, an auntie, a best friend, a lover, a neighbour was probably tortured, tried and hanged as a witch. I’ve always felt that history of oppression quite deeply. This was solidified with my awakening to the pre-patriarchy goddess religions and religions of the Earth. And then, in 2012, when I did my first and only ayahuasca ceremony, I relived two past lives in which I was tried and tortured as a witch.
My blood ancestry is from Alsace-Lorraine, where there was a concentration of witch burnings and trials, so I believe that it runs through my blood. That ayahuasca journey took me into this place of feeling the deeper pains of the world through the feminine experience. I realised I have to be a voice, a leader and someone who, I guess – I feel funny saying this – but that other women look up to. I need to be a voice for what happened to us, because that's the only way we can heal.
In a nutshell, coming out of the broom closet is really being a voice to what has happened to men and women throughout the millennia, while helping women and men to see that there are other paths through your truths, through your spirituality and through your connection with the world.
Why is it important for a witch to live off-grid?
Well, I don’t think it's for everybody, but it’s been important for me, [as] it's brought me into this place of real resilience and finding what my inherent skills are. If you’re in a community off-grid, we can develop what we call our guild of all these different people, or our tribe. An important question for me is how much are we giving back to the system? Whether it's the soil, the hydrological cycle or the energy grid. Living off-grid humbles you and puts you in this place of, "What are my skills and what do I offer to the whole that’s going to make the whole better?" It's not just, "What can I take and what’s mine?” You’re participating for the collective to thrive, because when the collective thrives then you thrive.
To you, is being a witch merely a philosophical outlook, or do you actually practise witchcraft?
No, it’s practical as well. I’m a herbalist, and herbalism for me is a science… I love geeking out on biology, botany and plant chemistry, and then zooming out into the philosophical and the spiritual side, because they really support each other so beautifully. So, as a herbalist, I’m working with plants, which are living sentient beings with personalities that also have food and medicinal applications. I do a lot of first aid, but if it’s chronic long-term stuff I link together psycho-spiritual dream-time into the physical space and into diet and lifestyle. So I’m really like a web weaver as a herbalist, and that’s a part of my physical manifestation of the craft in that I understand the plants more than just their botanical names and their plant chemistry. As part of my magical practice I do candle magic and focusing prayer, alongside holding women's and men's circles, and co-ed circles.
What's candle magic?
Candle magic is where you’re using the elements of fire to transform your prayer into a reality, burning them with different colours and different intentions. As the candle burns down it’s taking the intention, transforming it and sending it out into the heavens.
Why did you set up Envision Festival on a beach in Costa Rica?
Envision Festival is our music and cultural festival. Somehow we’ve gotten plugged under the genre of "transformational" event, which I think is full of hubris. What I hear so much from Envision participants is, "How do we take festival culture and festival life out of the festival?" Just like you hear people say "lets do yoga off the mat", people go from default world to festival world, back to default world, and wonder, 'How do we blur those lines and start to make default world more like festival life?' So, Envision is an opportunity to experience community in a way that we don’t get in default world – people are able to shine how they want to be. They’re able to be their freaky selves, which we all want to be, without being judged.
And you set up "The Village Witches" inside the festival – is this like a coven?
Well, the festival has always had this village, where there's food, a kid zone and a marketplace. But what it was lacking was sacred spaces; we didn’t have the conscious consumption around substances that happens at festivals. The "Village Witch", for me, is the person that helps to bring balance and healing to the village… and they empower people to learn how to take care of themselves as well. It’s all about empowerment and showing people that they have this within themselves and that they, ultimately, don’t need to be dependent on the Village Witch.
So, we have our Earth temple, and there’s The Red Tent Movement, which is the female sacred space… also The Sacred Fire. We also have the Herbal Clinic, bringing in this integrated health model with a conventional medic. We do herbal first aid, herbal acute care, and then there’s also Zendo, which is like psychedelic harm reduction. In addition, there’s The Healing Sanctuary, which has body work, energy work, tarot and silent healing. Finally, there’s a herbal elixir bar where we make herbal cocktails which benefit you in different ways. For example, we have a cacao cocktail, which is heart-opening and stimulating, so you’re having connection but you’re also able to stay up and dance.
Festival scenes are high energy; it’s loud and there are personalities that really push the nervous system and the adrenal glands, like a state of fight or flight a little bit. So if you want to calm down or nourish and vitalise yourself, we can do those through conscious consumption and still enjoy the party. I’m not anti-drugs in any way, shape or form – they have their space and their time when they’re pretty amazing, and they can do wonderful things for people. But people get out of balance. You see some folks tweaking out in the morning when they’ve taken too much, they’re not sleeping and they’re dehydrated and it’s just like, 'What are you doing to yourself?' This is supposed to be this transformational mindful, ascended, enlightened [place], and this is what you’re doing to your temple?
Thanks, Sarah, best of luck with the festival this year.
Find out more at envisionfestival.com