What is Burning Man?

Burning Man 2000 was my first Burn, and upon arrival to my regular life, I was bombarded with questions about how it was, and what exactly was Burning Man. After 5 or 6 times, I started to develop a bit of a feel for explaining the event. I don't think I could fully express what the event was realy like or what it means to me now. Suffice to say, my life now revolves around it, whether or not I can ever adequately explain it.

There simply is no one way to describe Burning Man.  Think of a complex gourmet dessert: it has cake, ice cream, frosting, maybe nuts or some other filling.  Any given one of these you can describe, not completely, but adequately.  Even if someone has had one or even all of the ingredients, they may not have had these ingredients, and there's no way to tell them how this specific mix combined to form your particular experience.  Each person must plunge a fork down the entire thing and taste it before they can tell what it's like.

Burning man is the same way.  There are a lot of parts to it, and to be frank, I'm not sure I got a piece of the whole thing.  I can only try to deconstruct my first experience for your benefit.  If you've never been there, you might find it enlightening.  If you've been, it might give you a different perspective on it.
 
 
 

Art
At it's base, Burning Man is an art festival.  Art comes in many forms, and so little of it is hanging in galleries.  You  may not see any traditional paintings, songs, or theatrical performances, but Burning Man does indeed have a lot of art.  My pictures page has an art section that shows the smallest fraction of it.  Art pops up there in many ways as art cars, painted bodies, weird sculptures, strange performances, and all types of creative endeavors.  It's very hard not to get involved in some sort of artistic venture while you're there.  Even if you don't come prepared for it, you might get your face or body painted, involve yourself in the opera, dance a new way, or stick your head in the rear end of a giant goat.  Ever changing, expanding and evolving art abounds.
 
 
Weather
The weather on the Playa can be abominal.  Blistering heat, freezing cold, blazing sun, whiteout sandstorms, and rain can all pop up in a single day.  It keeps life interesting.  On the second day of having it set up, our shade structure was nearly destroyed by 70 mile an hour winds.  It stayed down for pretty much the rest of the event.  Our poor, collapsed, sandy, rain-soaked shelter was eventually dubbed "Camp Miserables" by a passing friend.  After five days of dealing with some of the harshest conditions I've ever seen, I slipped into what I call 'ordeal mode,' I gave up comfort and thrived on simple survival.  It's the weather that tends to wash out the unprepared.  After a full day of sandstorms, a noticeable number of participants left.

I had the interesting opportunity to watch the rains wash the dust storm out of the sky.  It was beautiful.  As the rains first started, the droplets fell as mud.  After a few minutes of rain, the air was completely clear of dust.  The Playa was clear for the first time in two days.  Everyone loved it.  After a couple of hours of drizzle the playa turned into mud, no, clay.  Walking through it added 2 pounds to each foot as the muddy clay attached itself to whatever touched the ground.

The interesting thing about the weather is that once the burn started, it cleared right up.  This gave the participants a real sense of release.  Finally, the weather was clear, crisp and wonderful for the burning of the man, so there was a real release of environmental tension for the burn.

 

The Burn
Originally, the burning of the man was a tradition of the old religions held in midsummer where the Oak king (a god-like figure) gave way to the Holly king (another god-like figure) in a yearly cycle.  This theme echoed across many cultures as the burning of the wicker man, the binding of the Oak king, Sampson falling to Delilah, and the rebirth of the Lord of the Dance.  The Midsummer festival was a primary fire festival in Europe before the written word.  A consistent theme of these rites was the release of the the past and a preparation to reap the benefits of months of labor.

The modern tradition around the burning of The Man is to release the things that hold you back by throwing a relevant, important item into the fire.  I think this comes from the first modern burn which was done to ease a broken heart.  In my Bacchanal haze around the fire, I saw many people performing this rite as I cleansed myself with fire walking and bonfire dancing (done actually IN the flames).  Many people, especially in the innermost circle around the fire, dance counter-clockwise around it in a ritual of their own devising.  No doubt a few people do not understand the full implications of what they are doing, but as I once read: it does not take an honestly spiritual leader to introduce a spiritual event to someone who needs it,  If they need the release, they do not need to understand the ritual behind it, nor do they need a believer to show it to them.

A footnote to this.  In a more modern context, the burning of The Man has a more colloquial symbolism for some people.  "The Man" represents those entities in our society  that oppress us and prevent every city from being like Black Rock.  Many seemed to revel in the idea that we were striking a blow against "The Man" by joining this anarchic society for even a little while, and the burn represented their rage at the mindless machine that has forged our country into one of the most oppressive in the world.
 
 

Black Rock City
It's hard to describe the community of Black Rock City.  There's only a few places to spend money: the central camp volunteer espresso bar, the ice shack, and your local chemist.  Even bartering is discouraged.  People have to endure a number of hardships just to get there: the entrance fees, speed traps, and long drives.  The weather, lack of preparation and absence of outside communication  prey hard on many inhabitants.  The result?  A gathering of people more dedicated to being there, and lasting the duration, than any other party event. 

Dedication to the event is not the only thing that binds Black Rock residents.  Acceptance of ideas and actions are rampant in the community.  Only littering seems to be frowned upon.  The state of Nevada offers a sordid list of legal actions that cannot be found in most states.  Beyond this, the social mores against things like public nudity, interaction with strangers, or self expression do not exist in Black Rock City.  This gives people the freedom to be or become whatever they desire.

Since most camps are open, and many even provide interactive art or public services, a real sense of open sharing begins to infest even the most closed person.  Water, gifts, art, services and just about everything are regularly and often openly shared at nearly any camp.  Certain needs, like water, can be received from friends or strangers at every point of the playa.

Plus, the people that show up tend to have similar tastes.  Desert ravers have ample opportunity to gather at one of the many party tents playing whatever type of music they prefer; rock fiends, punks, disco heads, and even country boys can also find a place to party.  In these areas, the sense of community is strongest. The open spirit and dedication add to the usual closeness found at these events.  Then, of course, there are special mixer places like center camp, and certain theme camps where people from any preference can combine under a number of common premises: cleanliness, sexuality, competition, spirituality or consumption.

 

Drugs
Lets get this out of the way.  Yes, there are a copious number of intoxicants to be found in Black Rock: booze, pot and any number of illicit substances are there for the finding.  For some people, this is the reason to go, but for most, it's only dessert after a good meal.  For me, all of the truly important and spiritual events occurred while I was sober.  Most of the people I talked to about their brightest moments had them while sober too. The event offers so many mind bending scenes and events that there seems little need to risk injury at the hands of the weather in the pursuit of additional stimulation.

The police this year made a particular point of insuring that illicit substances were kept in the shadows by making a few key busts of people enjoying freedoms not allowed by the DEA.  But, that aside, the community seems to accept people doing whatever chemical changes to themselves that they desire.  Black Rock even has a group of Rangers trained in handling people a bit too enthusiastic about their substances; in a manner that did not usually involve the local constabularies.

Basically, the feeling seemed to be: "keep it to yourself."

 

Nudity
Here's another one that needs to be addressed.  Yes, many people tend to go nude.  Myself, I was wearing nothing but a sarong for the entire first day.  Why?  Because there are no social mores against nudity.  Given that 65% of BRC inhabitants are male, I'd wager that the many pictures of nude women on the various web pages drew them for that reason alone.  But such action is counter-productive.  I underwent what I call 'breast inundation therapy.'  I saw so many naked people that nudity lost it's special meaning.  By the end of the event I was thirsting for clothed bodies simply for the allure of it.

Don't go to see naked people.

On the up side of this, there were remarkably few events of people forcing themselves on each other, at least within my observation.  Free love may be prevalent there, but the sexual energy caused by it and visions of nudity did not seem to adversely affect the population.  If you feel the need to be skyclad, or just like the idea of being able to go out with fewer clothes, I think Black Rock is the safest place to do it.  On the other hand, no one with look down you for not doing so.   Acceptance.

 

Spirituality
For some, getting naked and being with nature is spirituality enough, others seek it in chemicals.  Other people find some spirituality in the sun or the sand or in the Elvis yoga temple.  Many find it at the Burn, when they release their bindings in a way the L. Ron Hubbard never dreamed.  Some find spirituality in music as they dance and some find it in the hearts and minds of others.  The open acceptance of Black Rock allows for nearly any pursuit  of spiritual interest.  And enough people show up that it's not too hard to find people of similar spirituality.  Who knows?  You might find a new path to travel in your life.

I had some intensely spiritual (not religious, mind you) events happen to me.  Placing my hand on the heart of my brightest star and sharing energy with her was more powerful to me than any event I could have imagined with another human.  When I found myself within two feat of the fire at the burn and began releasing my ties to the past that have held me down for so long, my heart and mind were freed.  I am absolutely bursting with energy from within, and I have more peace in my soul than I ever knew I could have.  My self confidence is at an all-time high and I feel as unstoppable as I did as a teenager.

I have reforged my deep connection to fire and consider myself a performance artist specializing in fire.  Long has this muddled in my heart, but California did not seem the best place to express it.  The cleansing of a good bonfire or two did me more good than I may ever know.  And my fire performances were a serious hit, when I had the audience to enjoy them.  Call me a Leo, but I do love fire so, and the attention that performance brings me.

 

Sexuality
Nudity, spirituality and drugs tend to lend to a charged sexual atmosphere.  Add to this open showers, sexual games shows, theme camps based on all sorts of sexual games, even a human bathing area fashioned after a car wash..  It's enough to drive a frustrated guy insane.  But, like the nudity, it simply becomes part of the buzz of the event.  If you are searching for sex, it's there to find.   But because it's everywhere, there's no particular need to rush it.  Many people express their sexuality as part of their art, costumes or camp, others keep it in their tent or leave it at home. 

I think that for some people, open nudity may be the expression of their comfort with their sexuality.  Others use costumes to enhance it.  Some people choose to use the event to explore their innermost sexual secrets in an atmosphere where if they change their minds, there's plenty of other distractions for their would-be partners to find satisfaction.  Also, there seems to be a very temporary feeling in the relationships forged in Black Rock.  This allows people to set aside the opinions of those they must see for the rest of the year and wander through a hedonistic wonderland that offers them the chance to find out what THEY really prefer.

 

Music
As a hard-core raver, I was in absolute heaven at the fact that there were dozens of places to party at any time of the day or night.  Even during the worst of the dust storms there were people blasting Techno music in complete defiance of the potential peril they were in.  My booty was exceptionally well shaken after this event.  My only regret here was that I did not get to enjoy the musical efforts of my friends.  There were so many things to do that I got lost in the din of the event and did not connect with them as they spun.

Supposedly, only the ends of the semi-circle were supposed to be "noise zones," but I found some type of amplified sound no matter where I wandered on the playa.  The immense variety of music was almost unsettling, too.  One disco tent played the best of the Jackson 5 three times in a row on the first night and settled into a routine of classic dance tunes for the rest of the event.  Another tent, sponsoring a space born photo of the playa had psy-trance playing every time I went by.  It felt like every sound system west of the Mississippi was there playing something a little different.
 
 

Scenery
You might think that the second largest elevated flat plain (or whatever) would be a little dull.  But the Black Rock Mountains provide an interesting break-up of the flat expanse.  My scenery page shows some of the spectacular views to which we were treated.  Often times, I'd find myself just staring at the sky (usually as a naked person strolled by).         ;)
 
 
Vibe
The most intangible asset to any event, and usually the most important.  A good vibe will carry a party through bad music, disorganized promoters, even a complete lack of drugs.  The vibe of Burning Man started out pretty relaxed.  The mania of getting your groove on before the party ends simply does not exist.  The party just keeps going.  So the first couple of days were really mellow.  I got the impression that there was all the time in the world to do whatever I wished.  That's why most of my pictures were taken on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

On Thursday, the sandstorms came in force and the day was spent huddle in protective areas.  But because there was all the time in the world, there didn't seem to be any rush to have it over with.  Naturally, it was uncomfortable, but it didn't seem to be ruining the event.  Friday came with more arrivals and the place started filling out nicely.  The addition of more people charged up the vibe of the place despite the mud from the previous night's rain.  By Friday afternoon, all the art works were up and running in the body of The Man, and all the theme camps that survived, were up.

Late Friday through Saturday night showed a steady incline in the excitement of the community.  This was, in part, due to the improving weather, but mostly due to the increasing crowds and the impending burn.  Saturday night was charged with electricity.  I doubt the Marines could have squelched the crowd's mood.  Sunday seemed to be more of a day of recovery than the mass exodus I'd heard it would be.  I think that Labor day allowed most people to decompress a bit after the burn.
 


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Last updated on 21-Jun-01