How do I begin to describe Burning Man? It’s really what you choose to make of it. It could be a music festival, a living art installation, a nightclub, a week-long barbecue party, a chance to hang out with friends, a spiritual experience, a temporary nudist colony, or all of the above, or none of the above. It could be a life-changing experience or a life-affirming experience, but I doubt that anyone goes home completely untouched by the phenomenon that is Burning Man.
When I think back over my few days there (arrived 3.30am Tuesday night, left around noon on Saturday – yes, BEFORE The Burn – duty called) my mental video camera comes up with a montage of contrasting images:
– a warm welcome at the gate, with oddly dressed figures inviting us out of the car for a big hug and the words “Welcome home” – followed by the traditional deflowering ritual for a Burning Man virgin by taking a dust bath
– finding new friends as people invited me into their camps as I pedalled past on my borrowed bicycle, followed by long meandering conversations, food and wine
– the kindness and generosity of my new Russian friends at “home” in Camp Surrealiti (photos to come later)
– mellow days hanging out on huge cushions in the pagoda-shaped library, reading books on low-impact homes built from natural materials (such as The Natural House)
– a workshop in Camp Nomadia expounding on the art of being a “technomad” – a teleworker enabled by the power of the internet to work out of an RV, roaming the country at will (see the Technomadia website for more. Other cool websites they recommended include OneBag.com, Vagablogging, the No Baggage Challenge, and )
– clear blue skies and huge views across the flat playa to the brown mountains encircling the horizon, replaced on the last day by billowing sunlit clouds of desert dust that occasionally reduced visibility to 20 yards and introduced a dreamlike, post-apocalyptic aura to the encampment as bizarre figures and vehicles loomed out of the haze
– an intensely emotional experience in the Temple, a temporary structure where people leave signs, trinkets, photographs, symbols, or just write words on the wooden structure itself – all to be burned on the final Sunday in a cathartic exorcism of demons, ghosts, grievances and grudges
– spectacularly surreal nights of bright lights, art cars (mobile works of art cruising slowly across the playa), flamethrowers, illuminated sculptures, pulsing dancefloors, and human beings clad in outfits that ranged from the exotic to the ordinary to the stark naked.
People had suggested that Burning Man might change my life. I rather hoped not, as I really enjoy my life as it is, thank you very much, but I did hope that it would offer some insights into how this temporary, self-regulating, money-free society functions, and whether there are any concepts that could be applied to the “real” world outside.
The jury is still out on that one. Burning Man appears to work well for a week, but could it be sustained year-round? No, or at least not in this location. All food and water has to be brought in (and taken out*). The experience is so intense that many people allow themselves a few days of post-Burn “decompression” to allow body, mind and liver to recover from the over-indulgence and sleep deprivation. Weeks and months are spent preparing costumes, exhibits, installations, shows and even basic logistical details.
So no, on that level Burning Man could not be sustained for 52 weeks of the year.
But on another level, the spirit of giving rather than taking, the focus on creativity and connection – many of us could do with more of these things in our everyday lives, rather than saving it for a one-week, once-a-year splurge. I will certainly try to incorporate a little of the spirit of Burning Man into my daily routine.
* Burning Man is the world’s largest LNT (Leave No Trace) event. See the Earth Guardians website for more details.
There are many more photos of Burning Man available online. See for example this Google search result.