Bagpipes will skirl for the 35th time to let the high desert and the world know that the autumnal equinox is near and the Valyermo Fall Festival has opened its gates.
The event, set for Sept. 28-29, is a marvelous mixture of county fair, art exhibit, crafts, good foods and a children's world. The Benedictine monks who live at St. Andrew's Priory in the high desert work all year to get ready for this annual celebration when they welcome the public to their 650-acre ranch retreat. They also give credit to the more than 250 volunteers who work for weeks preparing the exhibits and polishing the grounds to perfection. My valued friend, Father Werner de Morchoven, is festival producer for the 35th time. As always, there is no admission charge, just a $3 fee for parking in the large fields near the apple orchards. The Priory at Valyermo is a small community of monks who were sent from Belgium to China, where they founded schools. They were thrown out by the Communists in 1952 and forced to make a thousand-mile walk under guard to a harbor and a ship to take them to the United States. They were given the 160 acres in the high desert, and through the years they have turned it into a green, luxuriant oasis.
The festival is their annual fund-raiser. It started as a small gathering of ranchers and has become an event of pure delight for hundreds of Southern Californians who mark it the end of summer and the coming of autumn's bounty. There will be a farmer's market filled with just-picked produce and food ranging from fine continental dining to hot dogs and hamburgers.
Lana the Llama is a popular attraction at the children's petting zoo. There are pigs and goats and silky white chickens and turkeys that strut around with their tail feathers spread like mainsails. Pony rides are no-fail hits, as are the clowns who practice a comic art almost as ancient as the Benedictine order. The Society of Creative Anachronism Inc. will present its medieval jousts and contests of arms with split bamboo swords.
Prestigious this year will be the display of more than 40 works of the Belgian engraver Jules De Bruycker, who lived from 1870 to 1945. Father Werner met the engraver as a young student at the mother house of the Benedictines in Belgium. He is especially pleased that the Belgian government allowed the display of the engravings of an artist who has been compared with Rembrandt.
It's a safe bet that the most popular booth at the festival--even more than the bingo game, the boutiques and the flea market and the art show--will be that of Father Maur van Doosslaer, who lives in Bruges, Belgium, and who designs ceramic plaques picturing angels and saints with wit, humor and enchantment. The angels have eyes as round as sand dollars, and I treasure several crayon sketches he has sent me. One last year is of an angel watering a row of tiny plants. Father Maur wrote: "To Zan. After the storm, the spring will come." It's nice to have a man as wise as Father Maur remind me of that.
The John West Valyermo dancers will perform their vespers dance at 3:30 p.m. in the courtyard on both days. It is a prayer in dance.
The Benedictine order is the oldest example of communal living in the world, beginning 15 centuries ago. The rule by which the monks live is founded on work, hospitality and prayer. But St. Benedict made allowances for the occasional problem: " . . . If the guest have been found gossipy and contumacious, it shall be said to him honestly that he must depart. If he does not go, let two stout monks, in the name of God, explain the matter to him." Have a happy day at the priory where one sign, "Please do not walk on the water" stands at the edge of a duck pond. And to work, prayer and hospitality add fun, music and laughter and you have the festival at St. Andrew's Priory.