Burning Man 2003


Burning Man is a big drug-addled pagan baccanal with art, fire and naked people. That's what people who haven't been there think of it. That's because there is some truth to that assessment. It's also bluegrass and polka and ballet and martinis. It's yoga and zen and Christian-style footbathing with oils. It's battling it out in the Thunderdome or taking a quiet walk in the empty darkness of a moonless night. It's biking slowly across a vast expanse, or zipping across it on a scooter. It's riding an art car decked out like a pirate ship, or dropping in by parachute.

Burning Man is so many things that each person's description of the event is going to be based on the streets they walked down, the art they interacted with, the people they met and where they chose to spend their time. It's 30,000 people and 30,000 different experiences.

But there are some things all "Burners" have in common. We have to survive the desert. We bring shade structures or campers, tents, beds, generators, coolers, hundreds of pounds of water, food and snacks, chairs and tarps. Some of us build elaborate camps with huge structures. Others are more modest with just a tent and minimal shade. Some camps are exercises in creativity and others are marvelous feats of engineering. For most of us, rebar, rope, pvc pipe, zip-ties, tarps and duct tape are what protect us from one of the harshest environments on the planet. Temperature can reach 110 or more degrees during the day and winds up to 70mph cause whiteout duststorms. Structures have to be built that can withstand the heat, the wind and occassional rain.

Once we have basic survival handled we obey a few common cultural edicts. The most important of these is, "Leave No Trace." Everything we bring has to be removed. We clean our camps daily, picking up stray bits of wood, pieces of zip-ties, cigarette butts, bottle caps and beer can tabs. While out around the city we pick up "MOOP" (Matter Out Of Place) that others have left and so we collect feathers, plastic flowers, and expired glow-sticks to keep the desert pristine. We do it in part because it makes cleanup easier for the post-event crews who have to restore the desert to it's pre-event state in order to meet our obligations to our landlord -- the Bureau of Land Management. Mainly we do it because it's part of our culture to keep our environment clean.

We ride our bikes or drive art cars watchful of pedestrians and avoiding raising dust that could blow into our neighbor's camps. But we learn to love the dust. It gets into our hair, covers our skin and becomes a condiment at every meal. We walk on it, breath it, sleep on it. It infuriates us, frustrates us, and ultimately it becomes part of us. When we return to our mundane lives, we sometimes find ourselves searching for traces of the beloved dust in our gear. We sniff it or powder some on ourselves and the smell and feel of the dust takes us back to a magical time and place.

We want the maximum expression of freedom for ourselves and so we embrace and are entertained by the expressions of others. We are each performers in a great circus and also its audience. The more varied our expressions, the more there is for each of us to experience. Those of us with the resources build incredible works of interactive art including freestanding works, or mobile art built on cars, trucks or even busses. Others create beautiful or outlandish costumes or simply decorate their bodies with paints or nothing at all.

Some of us perform with fire, spin dance music, tend bar, teach yoga, lead meditations, give massages, wash people's hair or feet, march in parades. Others of us contribute by working within the Burning Man organization with the DPW, Earth Guardians, Lamp Lighters, Emergency Services, or, Rangers. Rangering is my art. We find creative solutions to the inevitable conflicts that arise in a population of thousands.

There's no buying or selling. What we create, we give freely. Being self-sufficient, we have enough to share. We're a community of strangers, and yet we're more like family than some families. "Welcome home," we say to each other, and mean it.

On the Saturday night before labor day, we burn The Man. Why do we burn The Man? He burns for the college graduate who finally rented his first apartment. He burns for the teary-eyed young woman, dressed in her wedding gown, who's fiance didn't show up for their wedding. He burns for our joys, our sorrows, our hopes and our losses. The Man burns because people like to see stuff burn.

Into the flames we throw trinkets from our lives: A faded love letter, a piece of furniture from a dorm room, a photo of a lost loved one, a useless dusty wedding gown. Then we dance around the flames to mourn an ending, celebrate a beginning or just for the joy of it.

On Sunday, we burn the Temple. It's a more solumn burn. The Temple of Honor is a place to say goodbye and mourn those we've lost. This year we had good reason for mourning. Burning Man had its first death at the event in our 17-year history. Twenty-one year old San Mateo resident Katherine Lampman died after falling from a moving art car. She twisted her ankle during the fall and toppled under the trailer the vehicle was towing. We also had two plane crashes at the event -- the first on Friday resulted in three serious injuries. The second crash on Saturday morning resulted in three critical injuries and the death of the pilot the following Tuesday.

Attending Burning Man is risky. It says so on the back of the ticket, "You Voluntarily Assume The Risk Of Serious Injury Or Death By Attending." Nothing lives on the surface of that barren alkali flat we call, "the playa". There is no vegetation or animal life -- just miles and miles of cracked, dry lake bed, searing heat and blowing dust. We cheat death daily just by being there. We build a city out in that hostile, empty place and we push our limits. With a few tools, a lot of creativity and our humanity stripped of societal pretenses, we create a rough, rugged, hand-hewn heaven for ourselves. I overheard one participant relate to another, "People come out here to this awful place that's very hard on the body just to have a bit of freedom because there's no place else you can go to do it."

Two Hundred years ago, pioneers crossed that same desert in covered wagons looking to create new lives for themselves in the promised land. We have built the promised land and it's one hell of a party.

(All photos by Bill Clearlake except my portrait by John Brennan)