I can't believe how hard it is to do Burning Man justice in words, even for a wordy creature like myself. I have found I have hardly even talked about it to many of my friends because I just do not know where to begin. I wrote this article for New Life Journal and had a very specific slant in mind for it. Though I stand behind everything I say in the article, I feel I truly failed to capture the magic and the poetry of Burning Man. Burning Man is a free form poem, not a piece of prose for an alternative but slightly reserved print magazine. I imagine I'll get around to writing the poems. They'll eek their way out of my system in trickles and floods like my word children always do. My dreams only recently quit reeling wildly out of control with people soaked, mad moments on the playa. Now I can begin to distill. But trust me, no matter what you take away from what I say, know that I am changed. I have been burned and transformed, and I feel I am rising again.
Synchronicity: The Gift of the Culture of Burning Man
Deep in the dry and decorated landscape of the Black Rock Desert lives another world, an antidote to capitalism and the dreary cultural mundane of America’s homogenized homeland. Once a year Black Rock City, population 40,000, rises from the flat and empty desert plain 120 miles north of Reno, Nevada. It is the home of Burning Man, an international arts festival that has spawned not only a generation of dedicated artists, activists and followers, but a ritual based tradition that has been changing lives for twenty years.
Burning Man is nearly impossible to define. It has been written about, video documented, and photographed more extensively than an army of paparazzi could accomplish, but it is the very nature of this event that is what lends itself to the lack of definition. It is a participation-only week of pandemonium that eschews the stage and spectator arrangement more common in other arts and music arenas. Every attendee is invited to create the art, the audio, the experience they desire. The result is a non-stop city of sights and sounds where anything goes, where there is something for everyone; everyone, that is, who seeks something different from that served up by the strip mall and pop radio standard.
One of the most endearing qualities of this brave, new culture is its adherence to the tenets of a gift economy. Every performer, every artist, every kind soul who lavishly embellishes their offering to the community whether it be pulsing sets of electronic music or an impossibly large wooden sculpture on the desert terrain or freshly made French toast served from a cart on the side of the road does so for free. They each offer their art, service or craft as a gift to the community, not a commodity for which they expect to receive compensation, which flies in the face of how we as a culture understand trade. Capitalism becomes moot in Black Rock City where every member of the community comes prepared to offer gifts to one another, whether that gift is food or drink or handmade crafts or artwork or entertainment or clothes or jewelry.
As a gift to oneself and to others and as part of the no-spectators philosophy, Burning Man participants practice radical self-expression which is exhibited through dress and personal style, an endless variety of Theme Camps, decorated bicycles and elaborate art cars known as “Mutant Vehicles,” as well as through art and performance. There is an inherent freedom to express oneself against the status quo, which is exemplified in the events’ very namesake. This is a modern day gathering of the tribes that has gained momentum on the premise of “burning the Man.” Yes, every year at Burning Man a giant effigy, who has grown taller each year, is painstakingly hauled into the desert and built with great care only to be burned on the last night as a statement, as a tool and prayer for transformation, as an offering from the community to the community for their delight, their desecration and their dedication.
The use of fire as a ritual tool is as ancient as any tradition humans have. Many have grown away from fire, no longer needing to interact with it on a daily basis as we cook our food in microwaves and on electric ranges and heat our homes with forced air and radiant floors and no longer with open flames to which we must tend. We have forgotten that fire is alive; it eats, it breathes, it consumes and grows, then withers and dies just like we do. We have forgotten how beautiful fire is, how mesmerizing it can be to simply stare into the plumage of dancing flames. We have forgotten, many of us, that when we feed fire our intentions, ours hopes and fears and prayers, that the fire can transform them, give them life or render them powerless, whatever our desire may be. This ceremony is one that Burning Man returns to its people.
It is in this ceremony and this yearly ritual that an ancient type of tradition is emerging from this modern festival. The call to arrive to Burning Man every August is akin to a pilgrimage for many people; regular “burners” speak of Black Rock City as their home and greet each other upon arrival with wide arms and proclamations of “Welcome home!” Seekers who have felt alienated by their culture and unfulfilled by the options they have found for spiritual paths available to them have created this week long, round-the-clock, vision quest of extremes in which the climate, the beauty of the landscape, the events, the people, and the stamina required to participate are more dramatic than anything they can find in their cities of origin, and therefore, for many, the Burning Man experience is more satisfying, enlightening, and even ecstatic than any other path they have taken. Once they find Burning Man, many return year after year and begin to incorporate into their lives not just the one-week event, but the concepts of radical self-expression, the gifting mentality, and the fire ceremony ethic.
Though Burning Man draws people together from many distant locations its community has begun to have an unexpected cohesion exemplified by a profound synchronicity that weaves the experience together and is carried back into the “default world,” which is how life as most know it is described in Black Rock City. Burners who have never met and who live on opposite sides of the country may find that they share numerous common acquaintances or are connected through business, through an art project, through their musical affiliations, or other random circumstance. Participants may find that throughout the week they are again and again confronted with mind bending realizations that one story from their life has echoed repeatedly off the lives of others whom they previously did not know, but who are now coincidentally their closest neighbors in a temporary city of tens of thousands. Connections abound and new connections continue to be forged as this gathering and its practices develop as an authentic, modern day tradition.
The Burning Man community has long recognized that its connection to the earth is no less important than its connections amongst its participants, and members hold an innate respect for the desert ecosystem that is home to Black Rock City. The land itself is lovingly referred to as “the playa” due to the uncanny resemblance that the wide, flat, desert expanse and far reaching horizon holds to a beachfront coastline, and it is with great affection for the land that burners use that term. From its outset Burning Man participants have held this consciousness regarding their surroundings, coining the term “leave no trace” as a policy attendees follow that seeks to preserve the integrity and the purity of the land which hosts the event. “Leave No Trace” requires participants to remove from the site all of their waste, not limited to garbage but including grey water, ash and burned materials and remains of any sort produced by their camps. Though community members are far from perfect, it is unique to see an event of Burning Man’s size leave so little trash and debris in its wake, and debris that is left behind is scrupulously removed by staff and teams of volunteers.
Now that the gathering has grown to such an impressive size, many citizens of Black Rock City are also focusing more upon issues of sustainability within their infrastructure and continue to raise the level of consciousness about how larger components of Black Rock City and individuals themselves can seek lower impact choices for life on the playa. Increasingly Theme Camps such as the Alternative Energy Zone Village, the Evolutionary Center and the Earth Guardians are focusing not only upon leaving the land clean behind them, but what powers the city in the first place and are leaders in what is now known as the Greening the Burn Movement. Having been dependent on gasoline generators for its first years, these Burning Man participants are now working toward increasing the use of solar and wind power and bio-diesel generators, decreasing the use of disposable goods in camps, and encouraging collectives which can utilize bulk purchasing and transportation to bring organic foods and clean, potable water to the playa for members use with the least long term environmental impact.
It is in accord with this movement that the theme for next year’s Burning Man is the Green Man, and event organizers are taking even greater steps to incorporate recycled materials into the art projects on the playa, and are now calculating the “carbon footprint” of burning the Man and other art installations, which is an estimation of the amount of climate changing gases that are released into the air by their construction and subsequent burning. To minimize negative environmental impact, they will sponsor projects that will efface this imprint and are encouraging all participants to involve themselves likewise.
Amidst the all night dancing and ongoing parties and what may seem like unbridled hedonism in the streets of Black Rock City there is a distinct underlying cohesiveness and consciousness to Burning Man’s community, and its power lies in the paradox of so much careful planning and well-laid intention snuggled warmly in the cold desert night amongst impulsive inspiration, unexpected events, and a zen-like attention to the now. Synchronistic meetings occur and profound connections are made which will be carried off the playa and into the default world. Networking for future art projects and Theme Camps build momentum so that each subsequent year builds on itself and the intensity and power of the event continue to heighten.
It is not uncommon for the very direction of a participant’s life to be changed by attending Burning Man, propelling many to seek a more artistic or ritualistic focus in their lives and many more to return to the playa in subsequent years to foster and create more enchanting artwork, more daring participation, more magic and more synchronicity. The gathering of this ever-growing, experience focused, fire-worshipping tribe is tantamount to a revolution in the consciousness of popular culture to utilize modern technology to achieve the glory of an ancient shamanic state working towards harmony with the whole. The art is impressive, the setting is gorgeous, the people are amazing, and the experience is otherworldly, but it is in the rebirth of fire ritual that burners may truly activate a lasting shift in their consciousness and send its effects out like so many wisps of smoke to waft into the consciousness of the rest of humankind.