It is impossible to really explain with words what Burning Man is, partly because it is something different for everybody. It is an adventure, community, experience, concert, and much, much more. I will do what I can to explain what it is to me and talk about a few of the important events but I know my words won’t do it justice. The simplest thing to say for me is that it was a life-changing experience. I should note that “Rites of Passage” was something that really stuck with me but I will elaborate on that in a blog post.
The first thing that really struck me about Burning Man was the community that is involved, and by “involved” I mean truly involved. There are not many people who just float through and enjoy the work of others, these tourists do exist but they are a minority and it was easy to ignore them.
The community was one made up of love, friendship, and acceptance. There are all kinds of phrases and motto’s that burners use but a couple really stuck with me. Two of these are “a hug replaces a handshake” and “I may not want to do what you’re doing but I’ll hold your coat while you do it”. Basically, spread love and do what you want as long as you don’t harm others.
I really got my taste for this my first night when I went for a late night stroll by myself. It was probably 3am when I was wandering down the nearly pitch black streets of BRC. The city is a simple to navigate grid so I was kinda wandering without a goal and without worry of finding my way home. As I walked I heard some laughing voices and saw a light near a coffee bar down the road. I walked closer when a girl sitting by the coffee bar waved and came running up to me.
She smiled and simply said “Do you trust me?”. When I said “yes” she told me to close my eyes. This may seem like a simple request but when I look back I realize how tough that task was for me, I just had to close my eyes and trust a stranger but I was still new to Burning Man and skeptical of becoming vulnerable to a stranger. Well, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes despite my reservations. Moments later I felt small vibrations all over my head. She was wearing gloves with vibrating fingers and was giving me a head massage. After a few moments she stopped and I opened my eyes and smiled. She gave me a big hug, a kiss on the cheek, and said “Welcome home”.
The theme camp I was with for my virgin burn was called “Noonaantea” which is a smashing together of the words noon, naan, and tea. We were conveniently located on the corner of 9:00 and Hajj, a great place with wonderful neighbors (including a coffee bar across the street, an anarchy bar around the corner, an oxygen bar down the block, and a music venue about half a block away). As a gift to the burn we had a large air conditioned dome filled with soft objects like mattresses, pillows, and stuffed animals. From noon until around 2pm we served naan bread and a variety of teas, we even had belly dancers for a bit. To be honest, it didn’t really feel like service or gifting at all, I feel like I am the one that received a gift by participating in this way.
I ended up working three shifts, one inside the tent serving and prepping tea, one outside the tent trying to inform the public of our gift, and one day doing a little of both. I got to meet some crazy awesome people including an awesome man and women who were dating and showed up every day with cookies and brownies for us.They were covered in tattoos, piercings, and were completely nude… and they were two of the most down-to-earth kind and awesome people I ever encountered. I hope to run into them next year on the playa.
Being part of a theme camp was a very unique experience and very much like a family. We had good times and bad, stressful times and carefree, moments when we wanted to be in a huge group and times when we just wanted to be alone. It was definitely a lesson in teamwork as well as individuality. I am actually really glad I was able to be part of a hugely diverse family like this my first time out. It provided me with a foundation for my first burn and alleviated any concern I might have had being a nuisance or burden due to my lack of experience.
One of the things most prominent on the Playa is the amazing artwork that has been gifted to the community. All across the desert are beautiful pieces of art work that are sometimes interactive but always impressive and often times inspiration. That is something that really surprised me, how inspired I became to grow the artistic side of myself and contribute in the future to the art of Burning Man. I have included a few pictures below of some of the artwork but if you google “Burning Man Art” under Images you will find many, many more.
There are two artistic mediums that I would like to use in future trips to the Playa. The first is an art car. Art cars are exactly what they sound like, they are mobile artistic pieces that are interactive. Some people turn their art into a huge stage for people to dance on and some art cars are more laid back and smaller. I brainstormed the idea for an art car with one of my Noonaantea brothers and our collaboration gave birth to the idea of Bird of Pray.
Bird of Pray is an art car whose primary purpose will be to meet up at the Temple every morning before sunup and drive people out to deep playa so that they can meditate, do yoga, play music, or whatever they wish out away from camps as the sun comes up. An hour or so after the sun comes up Bird of Pray will return to the Temple or drive people back to their camps. It will look like a giant owl and have furniture in it to provide a soft a peaceful place for people to travel. Ideally the furniture would be in a circle to foster communication during the drives out to deep Playa. I would actually like the art car to serve many purposes, including interchangeable heads, feathers, and designs to turn it into a different bird for nighttime travel and partying.
In addition to the art car I would also like to get more involved with music. There were several places to just plug in and jam with people and I would like to be confident enough in an instrument to join in and bring joy to those listening. I would also like to just hang out alone and play music myself and maybe encourage other people to join me. Right now the instrument I am leaning towards is the violin but I have no experience with any instrument so that may change after I try it out. Really, I just can’t wait to get back and contribute more to the artistic side of Burning Man.
The music at Burning Man is simply phenomenal. Every night multiple music camps have live djs, bands, producers, and other performers to provide musical joy for the burners. There is an endless supply of dancing until the sun comes up. I am not huge into dancing at shows anymore but I had a great time hanging out, dancing, and watching the amazing light shows people give with gloves, staffs, poi, and fire. This was another area of inspiration for me. I would like to get confident enough with rave gloves to give people light shows during the night.
The Man Burns
The Man. The namesake of the experience. The history of the man can be found on wikipedia so there is no need to go into that. Instead, I am going to talk about what it meant to me. I am sure everyone has a different view of what The Man is, like everything else at Burning Man there is a unique tension between individual and community (something one of my next tattoos will represent), the man burning is a community experience but the interpretation is up to the individual.
For me the Man represented all the outside forces that sought to control me, harm me, hold me down. or otherwise mold me into their image. When the man burnt it was a big FUCK YOU to all those who think they know how to live my life better than I do and would use force to make me conform. The man burning was a reassertion of of my self-ownership and a commitment to both individual liberty and personal responsibility. When the man burnt on the final Saturday it was the biggest party I have ever experienced. 50,000 people cheering, dancing, hugging, and partying as the man turned to ash.
The Temple Burn
The Temple Burn on the final night is very different from the Man Burn. It is an emotional, personal, and internal experience. I have heard the Temple is the largest temporary structure on earth during it’s one week of existence, I don’t know it this is true but it wouldn’t surprise me. One of the traditions of the Temple is to go to it during the week and post pictures, letters, poems, or whatever you wish on the walls. In many ways it is a way to seek emotional and spiritual closure for people, many of whom do not subscribe to traditional religious institutions.
On the first night I went up to the Temple with two of my best friends. I had prepared a letter that explained some past pain and regrets that I wished to be rid of. I placed the letter on the wall after reading it to my friends and from that point on I did not think of those experiences again. When the temple burnt to the ground it was a serious release for me. If my body had not been completely exhausted due to a week of amazing adventures I would have wept. Instead of cheering (like during the man burn) the temple burn was completely silent. 50,000 people sitting in a circle around the Temple in complete silence, holding hands, cuddling with strangers, or silently crying, but nobody spoke, cheered or disrupted. You could hear the fire crackling and wood collapsing across the crowd, despite the relatively large distance away many people were.
The night of Temple Burn cannot really be explained in words. I did my best here to talk about what Burning Man meant to me and explain why I (and many others) call it home. It was a difficult week with physical discomfort, emotional stress, and general confusion but it was a place of love, acceptance, and hope. The real “culture shock” was returning from Burning Man, because the “real world” feels much less natural than the world of Burning Man where humans look out for each other and seek only to live in peace.