May
09

Reflections on Burning Man

By

To start with a conclusion, for me Burning Man (BM) was a mind-blowing, positive experience.  When I first decided to go to Burning Man, a friend sent me a quote that seems to sum up the feelings of most who attend: “My first year at Burning Man it rained almost every day, dust storms went to 75 mph, I got pretty sick, I couldn’t find any of my friends.  I hardly slept the whole time—I’ve been going back ever since.”

Well, I guess I was lucky when I went—no rain and no illness.  However, I must admit that I didn’t get much sleep (but that was by choice because there’s just so very much to see and do) and there were some dust storms, the worst one by far being right as I arrived on the first night.  Dust storms are inevitable on the playa of Black Rock desert.  The “city” is constructed on an ancient lake bed (the playa) surrounded by mountains. The playa is flat as a pancake and is covered by a layer of white powdery dust.  When the wind blows, the white dust covers everything and goggles are needed to see.  The playa of Black Rock desert has the appearance of a moonscape, but the harshly remote and rugged conditions are actually perfect for BM.  Having now been there, I can’t imagine it being held anywhere else.  Since 1983, the world land speed record has been set not at the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah as was historically the case, but rather on the pancake surface of Black Rock desert.  That record is currently 763.035 mph.  That gives you some idea of the physical setting of Burning Man.

As happens to be the case, I’ve been blessed to see and visit literally hundreds of art festivals and museums around and throughout the world including the most famous (the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Del Prado in Madrid, the various museums of Vatican City, etc., etc. etc.).  Don’t get me wrong—BM certainly does not compare to those venues, but that would be like comparing apples and oranges.  BM is most basically a gathering of radical self-expression.  As the BM website states: “Trying to explain Burning Man to someone who has never been to the event is like describing colors to a blind man.” In fact, before going, I read Brian Doherty’s 300 page book “This is Burning Man.”  Having now attended BM, I realize how inadequately Doherty (the Senior Editor of Reason Magazine) described the event.  Yet, I doubt that anyone else could have done better. The problem in setting forth a description is that there isn’t anything else in the world quite like BM.  Some things simply can’t be described; they must be experienced. Nevertheless, I will try.

So what is BM?  It is “new age”, yet primitive.  It is counter-culture; yet most of the attendees are well educated—often professionals—in the hum-drum of their everyday lives (was it Thoreau who said that “most men live lives of quiet desperation”). Attended by young children with their parents to those over 80 and everywhere in between, over 50,000 people were in attendance last year making it for one week the third largest city in Nevada behind only Las Vegas and Reno.

The organizers of the BM event do an amazing job laying out a “city” (and it is a city, streets and all), some working year round to do so.  Yet, when it’s all over, not a speck of anything is left on the playa.  With no electricity or water or anything else by way of infrastructure, those who come must bring everything with them and, when they leave, they must take out everything they brought in. The heightened sense of environmental awareness is shared by one and all.

As to the event itself, first of all the artwork (especially the mutant vehicles and art carts—the only moving items allowed within the city) is the craziest, most interesting, most imaginative and creative, and in some cases the zaniest I’ve ever seen.  It is truly a delight to observe. I was particularly blessed because I ran into some wonderful friends from Tahoe, Hawaii and elsewhere whom I had just recently met at Lake Tahoe and they invited me to travel with them on the “properly registered” vehicle they had made with great skill and with the expenditure, no doubt, of a heck-of-a-lot of time and money.

As for the people, as I’ve implied, they come from all walks of life.  Is there nudity?  Of course, there is.  Perhaps 10-15% of the people go about naked day and night.  If I may be a bit sexist for a moment and, since I’m writing this, who’s to stop me, some of the women were drop-dead gorgeous.  On the other hand, some weren’t all that alluring at all, looking as though they had eaten five meals a day for years at McDonald’s.  In other words, it’s real life.  I suppose if the sight of the human body offends you, you shouldn’t come to BM, and you certainly shouldn’t come for the nudity. It’s really a non-issue. It’s just there.  In any event, the costumed revelers are generally the most interesting thing to watch insofar as people are concerned.  I witnessed some of the best pole dancing, fire dancing, juggling, etc. I have seen anywhere in the world.  And the music goes on non-stop, day and night (if you go, take ear-plugs). In fact, the other 85-90% of attendees go about in clothes, often costumes of the character whose identities they have assumed for purposes of BM (some of the time I was “Leonardo Piero”, the great genius of the Renaissance known by most people today by the small village in Tuscany from which he came, the village of Vinci—hence Leonardo da Vinci).

People have asked me about drugs and alcohol on the playa.  Alcohol is certainly consumed in large volumes, but surprisingly I didn’t personally detect any drug use.  Of course, there were daily warnings on the internet for a few weeks before I left Lake Tahoe that there would be undercover (perhaps literally I suppose) agents looking for drug use and warning people against using drugs while at BM.  Since I don’t do drugs anyway, it was no big deal to me but I was surprised that I did not observe a lot of drug use.  Perhaps there was in the early days of the event, but apparently not all that much anymore.

I started this letter by saying that some things just defy description.  BM is such an event.  Camaraderie is the coin of the realm (it had better be, because there is no use of money at BM). Starting less than 20 years ago by a few friends on a beach in northern California (where else), BM has become by far the largest event of its type in the world.  If you haven’t attended before, I would encourage you to do so.  Keep an open mind and don’t prejudge it by anything you may have read or heard in the past.  The civility and kindness of those who attend will be an unforgettable experience and, most assuredly, you will meet some of the most interesting and intelligent people you’ve ever met. By and large these are people who “walk the talk.”

“Burners”, as they call themselves, see BM as a mecca; a way of life.  It is its own culture, absent of the ready-made boxes and inhibitions that most find in their respective daily lives.  It is most basically a place for people to find something good and to hopefully take it back home with them.  I remember reading that in 2005 just as BM opened its gates, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast.  Upon hearing of the devastation, a groundswell of aid and volunteers flowed out of the “city” and headed south.  Within 48 hours, $40,000 and 7 tons of food were gathered for Katrina’s victims.  Volunteers drove to Mississippi, taking with them a crane and tractor.  “Burners without Borders” camped in Pearlington and Biloxi for more than seven months helping with relief efforts while the Federal Government twiddled its thumbs.  Approximately 200 “burners” volunteered for this effort. Is there another city in America that matched that effort (it was rumored at the time that the rather wealthy community of Incline Village at Lake Tahoe volunteered to take one Cajun chef, but then only if he came from Pete Fountain’s restaurant in the French Quarter)?

In closing, I refer the reader to some great photographs taken a few years ago that can be found at www.scottlondon.com.  For more current information, go on the Burning Man website.  Then go to Burning Man yourself and experience an unforgettable event!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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