When people ask, How was Burning Man? I usually just say Hot and dusty, unless I think they want more.
On the way in, people who wanted to put me in my place would ask Isn’t this your first burn? (Burners can be very one-uppy about Number of Times.) I’d say Nope. Though I’ve been to a number of regional burns, this was in fact my first encounter with the Nevadan playa; and now that I’ve experienced it, it’s clear that THAT was what was being questioned.
The Big Burn is an experience of dust. Not just an incarnation of the 10 principles, not just the immersion in colossal art, not just the celebration of Consent,* (which, as you know, means Enthusiastic Consent, not just an Uh-huh, an OK, or even a quiet Yeah; we're talking about a clamorous Fuck, yes!) but all this in the incredible heat and dust…and now that I’ve been there, I get it.
The indigenous people who used to live in the place where Burners burn their temple believe that power resides in all natural objects and phenomena. The dust-laden wind, for example. The naked sun. The dunes and hummocks. Root vegetables. Ants. Viruses. As far as I can tell, they do not anthropomorphize this power or segregate it into a separate divinity with a telling name that can budge lines and get special privileges. And so it was that the place itself spoke to me in a dream about midway through my burn. It said to me, very clearly and in tones I can still hear, “Get the fuck offa me.”
We are not welcome there. I’m sure all Burners dream this dream at some point, but many of them take pride in their deafness to it. In fact, at least 20% of Burners are completely disconnected from reality and actually say that the environment of Black Rock City has no effect on their experience of the Burn.**
Those most attached to the place where the Paiute lived before the United States pushed them onto reservations (the Paiute still live nearby and get a small set of free tickets to this event held on the land of their ancestors) euphemize their love for this place in phrases that salute its “harsh” or “hostile” environment without copping to the rejection they are actually being tendered, like the Hollywood beaux of the 1950s who can’t take No for an answer, even when No is what the women were saying. Shouldn't Radical Listening become a principle? At least no one has tried to reroute the Colorado River here. Or maybe we should allow Personhood for topographical features like Lakes and former Lakes. If we did that, we could evoke Consent.
Given the natural hostility of the Great Basin to outsiders and the well-documented damage caused by modern combustion-engine-based travel, why don’t we get every local community to burn in their own vicinity, to bring the 10 principles to all places? Why confine this starry-eyed exercise in community building, wild living, limit questioning, and transformation to a remote land that people of European inheritance stole from its indigenous inhabitants? (As if there were any unstolen land in this country that we might gather on..) To spew so much carbon into the environment insisting on a single event in a remote place? Hmmm. They say 90% of the emissions traceable to Burning Man come from the transportation to get there.
For the dust, I get it.
Still, might we not rather create an act of pilgrimage, humility, and submission by coming there only by bike or on foot, not bringing all the comforts of home, not desecrating either the space itself or the roads leading into and out of it with our piles of filthy baby-wipes, empty food containers, destroyed footwear, feces, urine, and ash? How many nano plastics and how much carbon exhaust does it take before we can see what it is we leave? How many ruts and potholes and buried mounds of saliva-ridden toothpaste?
Are there other solutions? Maybe. Maybe every single Burner — the ones who come in their RVs from California, those who fly in from South Africa, and the ones who (like me) rented some kind of wreck in Reno and drove out with all their MallWart purchases — should read Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Harmless People about the Gikwe Bushmen of the Kalahari desert, how they lived in that harsh and hostile place, and then decide how we gonna represent. Maybe we need to have fewer Big Burns, but still have them on that dry lakebed in Nevada; but maybe those burns should be the work of our flesh, not our heavy, stinking, gas-powered, machines. Let's make all the Burning Man camps Alternative Energy Zone camps!
Wendell Berry has as deep an understanding of creation, work, pleasure and patience as anybody who has ever written anything valuable or that has fed their family with the work of their own hands in this, the era of Nonlocal Food and Fractured Communities. In a discussion of old stonework walls he discovered walking the land in Kentucky where he lives and farms. He says:
The walls were built by people working long days for little wages, or slaves. It was work that could not be hurried at, a meticulous finding and fitting together, as though reconstructing a previous wall that had been broken up and scattered like puzzle pieces. The wall would advance only a few yards a day. The pace of it could not be borne by most modern people, even if wages could be afforded. Those people had to move in closer accord with their own rhythms and nature’s than we do.They had no machines. Their capacities were only those of flesh and blood. They talked as they worked. They joked and laughed. They sang. The work was exacting and heavy and hard and slow. No opportunity for pleasure was missed or slighted. The days and years were long. The work was long. At the end of this job the next would begin. Therefore, be patient. Such pleasure as there is, is here, now. Take pleasure as it comes. Take work as it comes. ***
I’d like to be impressed with the patience that a piece of playa artwork entailed instead of wondering how big an art grant it got or what a pain it was to transport. I’d like to transform the meaning of an ephemeral city from one whose parts are stored between terms in shipping containers and trucked out over soil that is supposed to be left in its natural state, to one that hasn't absorbed 400,000 liters of sweat now buried underground and compressed by truck tires.
My dream is an event that happens after a long conversation with the remaining Paiutes of Pyramid Lake.
Maybe -- unless they disagree -- every five years, with all structures built by hand, with all participants coming in either on foot or by bike. Build and strike at greater leisure, say four or five months, so as to be able to forgo the big trucks and truck-borne supplies. Create a national sabbatical fund that allows people who are employed to take a year off their default-world jobs, give the Burn the time it needs, and still have default-world jobs to come back to after strike. Not all Burners are retired like me.
I’d like to contribute to a Burn like that.
Can I get a “Fuck, yes”?
* Shouldn’t Consent be the 11th Principle?
*** Berry, Wendell. The art of the commonplace, 2002, p. 17.