The first time I journeyed to Seale, Alabama I passed the driveway I was aiming for. The next time I went there, I did the same thing. The third trip and every trip since, I’ve not made that mistake again. I have an inner homing device that sets off an alarm as I approach; it gets louder and more excited with every mile of road my tires clock, until I’m turning down that drive.
Seale is home to folk artist Butch Anthony, who is cherished by many for his affable demeanor and his nimble creativity. Every year at the end of March, he hosts an elaborate but down-to-Earth fete known as the Doo-Nanny. Every year for the past several years, I’ve been there.
In short, the Doo-Nanny is a place where exuberance and mellow collide. It’s a visual jabberwocky staged by enthusiastic folk and folk artists down on Butch’s eighty-acre Poorhouse Road farm, which is also home to the Museum of Wonder. To some, Doo-Nanny might look like a celebration of the South, and it’s true that it does have the spirit of good ol’ southern twang. However, it’s really a celebration of the rustic and of the imaginative mind.
“The Doo,” as regulars call it, defies explanation, really. “You have to come and experience it to really get it,” we say. One of my favorite aspects of this annual celebration — nicknamed The South’s Premier Lo-Fi Festival — is watching new folks wander through. You can always pick them out of the crowd pretty quickly by their gape-jawed expressions and eyes filled with amazement at the creativity they’re experiencing.
Every year in the last week in March (although sometimes a bit sooner than that) all manner of people converge in “the Woods of Wunder” to create a community. Makers of all sorts show up, and most every art discipline is represented. There are painters, sculptors, musicians, chefs, dancers, writers, people whose nimble fingers work magic with textiles, architects and filmmakers. There is a familial feel as a village is put together and the grounds are readied for the influx of visitors and campers on the weekend of the Doo. The atmosphere of this village is unique, electric, and transformative, setting the stage for the vibe that people pick up on when they start to arrive for Doo-Nanny itself.
The yearly residents of the Woods of Wunder are specialists in the absurd, the creative, the delightful, and the heartfelt. When you put a passel of gifted folks together in the middle of near-nowhere, inspiration bubbles up from everywhere. Each year brings new developments, ceremonies and structures. The first year we met out on Poorhouse Road, we had a small stage, an outhouse (proudly advertised as worm-powered), a communal kitchen, a solar shower, and movies were projected on the back of a tomato truck.
This year the much-expanded kitchen now houses a coffee bar, a brick oven, and a chefs-only section. It’s been dubbed ‘The Doo-Nanny Peculinary Arts Center’ by all-around creative marvel Robert Seven. The stage is now a double-decker and covered with an artfully-curved roof. We have our own movie house and a bike shed where you can borrow a bike for a leisurely ride around the farm. There’s also a ‘hillbilly spa’ complete with outdoor tubs and showers whose warm water is pumped in from a large trough seated over an open fire.
Doo-Nanny officially kicks off on the last Friday in March, when Butch’s family leads a colorful, costumed procession to the Possum Trot. Once a barbecue and juke joint owned by Butch’s daddy, the Possum Trot is now home to some of Butch’s artwork and prolific collections; it also has an auction house attached. Friday night at the Possum Trot consists of eating some good ole low country boil (prepared by Butch’s brother Tommy and then served by various members of the Anthony clan), having a hoedown out front (the music is always amazing), and bidding on art by some of the country’s most-loved folk artists. Occasionally someone climbs up on a table and does some hula-hooping. The rest of us are, of course, cheering said hula hoopers on.
The festival proper starts Saturday with music on the big stage kicking off around noon. The music isn’t contained there, however. Up and down the vendor lane and in the encampments, music is always busting out. One person sits down with an instrument and before you know it, they’re surrounded by others, their own instruments along for the ride, and a pickin’ party is born.
That’s the way of it in the Woods of Wunder. The same thing happens with art, with architecture, with food. Collaboration and serving others is at the heart of everything Doo-Nanny.
Late into the evening, when Mad Tea is playing their annual set, Ami Worthen announces that it’s time, a moment some people have been waiting for all year. There is a structure erected in the water, a sculpture made of wood and brush and limbs that was conceived months earlier and built over the preceding weeks. Each year Butch sets it on fire in a creative way — last year he rode a zipline through the air across the field and shot a flaming arrow at it — the crowd always erupts into whoops and hollers and mirth as the blaze gathers intensity and size.
As all the faces looking on shine orange from the glowing flames; revelers clap each other on the back and declare that this is the best Doo-Nanny yet. Every year, each and every year, we all pronounce it so and every year it surely is.
Where to go
Information for the 2014 Doo-Nanny event will be released in late 2013.