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  Burning Man, In Memoriam

First, read Galen's original essay, Burning Man Burning Heart from our first experience in 1999, then see Bruce's new essay Burning Man, in Memoriam from 2007...

Burning Man Burning Heart
Galen R Brandt
images by Bruce Damer


Here is what Burning Man does to your brain. The One and I leave the playa just before dawn, driving out of the desert and up into the high pine forests of the Sierras. By nine AM, I am standing in the woman's bathroom at Landowners, an eatery in South Lake Tahoe. A sign says: "Landowners Garb. T-shirts $15.00. Sweatshirts $30.00." I think: If I put on a T-shirt, they'll give me $15.00 -- right? It takes me a full minute to realize this is not what they meant. I look around: lots of blue jeans; no naked people painted blue. Already, I miss Burning Man.
Burning Man scrambles sense so that you are laughing out loud at every turn, stunned by the beauty of people being themselves, just because they can. Amidst the terror of the Black Rock Desert, the beating sun and whiteout sandstorms, searing explosions and crowd mayhem, it is the safest of places. My friend finds a child's bike. I grab it, ride it, half-naked, to the end of the playa and back, peddling madly about the encampment, smiles and waves from men in tutus, women in prom gowns, dancing trees. The One is riding beisde me, his Gizan jalaba hiked up over his knees. I have not ridden a bike in 25 years. It's not just that you never forget how; it's that you are so happy when you remember to do it.

We live at Moon Circle and 7 o'clock. Our friends live at Earth and 4. For simplicity's sake, they throw their cocktail party at 4, so they can tell you: Party at 4 at 4. You wander camp to camp, and all your friends are dropping acid and eating mushrooms. These are people who pull down $150k a year in Silicon Valley. Responsible people, shaping the future. He is naked except for a tiny leopard loincloth, fastened in front with a large gold ankh. "The family jewels," he notes, stroking them. She is doing the Ganesha elephant dance, making pancakes with coconut and walnuts and berries, a gourmet oasis in gritty Paradise.

Vadim strolls by, hands me a magic ball the size of a nickel. I look in its clear curved side and see the scene in front of me-tents, goddesses dancing on motorhomes, Jon brushing his teeth-glimmering upside down. Tesla Coil man motors past in his asbestos suit, frying Barbie Dolls ten feet in the air in a giant electric arc. The Red People parade after him, dancing and singing. Two people whiz by on a motorized couch, complete with end table and lamp. Burning Man sounds like drums and looks like the circus, smells like dust and tastes like whatever your friend is cooking you for dinner.

My new friend Joel the laser wizard hands me the magic mirror he's made. It looks like an ordinary hand mirror, but with three quarter-sized holes bored in a row. Hold it exactly right between you and your partner and you create a new face: your eyes, his mouth; his eyes, your mouth. Two made one. Two who have always been one. Someone here is hungry, thirsty; someone offers food, water. Someone needs shelter; someone offers space in a tent. Leave enough toilet paper in the port-a-potty for the next person. Pick up after yourself. Leave no trace.

I leave no trace on the playa, but Burning Man leaves its trace on all of us.Burns itself in. Eternal flame of returning to who and what we are really. I am a Venetian princess, torchbearer, ride half-naked across burning desert sands, dance all night. When the man burns and the flamethrowers erupt over my head, shooting flame 50 feet in the air and spewing unburned kerosene over my hair, my clothes, my friends, I am on my knees, screaming, a woman in the Kuwaiti desert about to die. Who are you?

Donna says she will not come to Burning Man for fear of being crushed by crowds. I am directly in front of the Man, a crowd twenty deep and twenty-five thousand strong hemming me in. Flames are shooting over my head; there is no escape from Paradise. Only the long journey here, the treacherous heat, isolation, claustrophia, wild delirious beauty of death at any moment. What does it mean to be safe? If you are clinging to the couch, are you safe? If you are clinging to the past, are you safe? Are we ever safe except when we let go of believing that we must or can be? Perhaps one cannot survive the holding on, for in the end, and in the process, all will be burned away, including our ideas about safety. Perhaps, one can only survive the letting go....

There are Rangers on the playa to keep us safe. As the Man burns, The One hands our camera to a Ranger, who snaps our photo while flames explode in my face.

When I cannot stand the flamethrowers any longer, when imminent death is too present and too possible, I grab The One's hand and yank him away. We make our way back to our tent, the man burning behind us, flamethrowers shooting into the sky. A French couple takes our picture, using a new lighting technique they invented. You will find it on our website, they tell us. You'll find your picture on ours, we tell them. The One has playa dust in his new digital camera, kerosene splatters on the lens. His pictures, when we download them two days later on our computer, are of revelers in a snowstorm.Back in our tent, we make love in a mounting frenzy, coming together in wild spasms. Afterwards we press against each other, running fingers up and down each other's spines, pressing and clasping and kissing and shuddering. We crawl into our sleeping bag shaking with cold, drift off to sleep to the sounds of throbbing rave music, fireworks exploding over the tent. Life in wartime. Nine percent of all 25,000 Burning Man attendees made love to someone they met for the first time at Burning Man, reports the Bureau of Statistics the next day. In a sense, we are among them, meeting each other for the first time in the glare and dust, terror and celebration.

I wake at dawn, dress silently in as many crumpled colorful layers as I can pull from underneath us, stroll out across the playa to greet the sun. I meet the Ganesha Woman and Carla, last seen riding a spitting camel. We drink tea in the Kissbah Tent, lolling on pillows lolled on in these last few days by thousands. Yesterday afternoon, The One took pictures of a young baby as it crawled on the kilm rugs that floor the tent. Last night, the baby's mother, bursting with undrunk breast milk, entreated two male friends to suck the milk from her breasts on the desert floor, under the moon.

The car is packed and we are leaving, driving away from Burning Man, when a sandstorm whips up. In seconds, everything is blanketed in a a ghostly white blowing fog. Fires glimmer weirdly in the distance. We cannot see five feet in front of us. Cars have been in line, we are told, for four hours. We head back to our campsite. Our friends offer food, water, shelter. The night turns calm and balmy. We wander the playa, first to a Goddess temple wedding where tantric lovers entwine naked at our feet, then across the sands, threading between little burnings and explosions, to the main tent for chai, then down the esplanade lined with huge structures pumping out flavors of rave music. We choose our friend's trance rave, weave our way into his twenty foot high pyramid, lashed together with blowing strips of white fabric, dance for hours. We move onto the desert floor, under the blazing stars, and Joel the laser man sprinkles us with glowing dust so that we shine.

We decide to try leaving again, and drift across the sands to our car. Frolic! instructs the leader of the Glitter Camp to his campmates, who have spent the week dousing all comers in bodypaint and glitter. Frolic! and twenty painted glittering bodies leap and twirl around us. The flameshooters are spitting fire fifty feet in the air again-it is the last image I see as I twist around to look behind me.

What burns away is fear. What burns inside is hope, desire, memory of desire, memory of hope. Bobby burns his drum, then burns the need for such sacrifice. I burn my lips, scoffing at sunscreen warnings. The first night, wandering in search of port-a-potties, we find a paper lantern, blowing across the playa. We take it home, hang it over our sleeping bag. It rips fatally as I place in the car. Not meant to last. People build a two-story wooden Phoenix, resplendent and gilded, burn it while the man burns. They don't make money; they make art. Make plans here on the playa, and the sun will scorch them, dust will bury them, fire will burn them, wind will blow them away. You buy a ticket to Burning Man. BY ATTENDING, screams the not-so-fine print, YOU VOLUNTARILY ASSUME THE RISK OF SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH. I am glad I have just now looked at my ticket, here in the cheerful sunlit morning of a Lake Tahoe summer day.

This morning, in the Landowner, they are playing reggae music. The One, who never dances, is leaning back in his chair, moving his body in time to the beat, smiling a little. I look past him to the deep cold blue water of Lake Tahoe. Let's rent a boat and go kayaking, I say suddenly. I've never been kayaking before, and the water is only deep and cold enough to kill you. I am writing a new song in my head, and I like the sound of it. Two nights ago, I rode in Patrick's go-cart to the Temple of Ishtar, while Patrick sprayed bright green laser images out its front and into the desert night. Like riding into the future, says The One; like living in a science fiction movie. Like opening your eyes, I think, and seeing everything you'd ever hoped to see. When you lose home, you spend the rest of your life searching for it. Not the next lover, but the next home walks toward you, its arms outstretched. You are on vacation, and as your train rolls through the French countryside, you gaze out the window at the green fields and spot the farmhouse with the white walls and the red roof and say to yourself: there, there it is-home. Just as I'd pictured it. And where is home? Be it ever so humble, where charity begins, no place like which, of the brave, old Kentucky, our eternal, til the cow comes, where the buffalo roam, home again and home again, home sweet home? Home is inside you, say the children's books and the wisest friends, and you know they are right. Go to the opera every night in your tutu and angel's wings. Drop some acid, or don't. Drink lots of water. Lie naked in the bean bath, while its creator sprinkles you with cold, clattering pinto beans. It's a nipple thing, he tells you, and he's right. Push through the glittering tinsel streamers, glinting and winking in the noon sun, so that your whole world is color.

Ride your bike naked on the playa, because tonight is the last night of your life.
Or maybe, oh burning heart, it is the first.

Galen Brandt
Boulder Creek California, 9/9/99.

Find the original of this piece on our 1999 Burning Man pages

And Now, jump forward to 2007 -- Burning Man, In Memoriam

Well, folks, its time, 2007 is our last Burning Man. This year we camped with Webcam-master John Grahm in First Camp, which is the camp where the Burning Man executive is located (including Larry Harvey). We had for several years been part of John's Media Mecca presence and this year he was bumped up to First Camp. I jumped at the chance to be able to camp there, in some sense reaching the "top". First Camp is pretty basic (nothing in the way of decoration as everyone pretty much has to work all the time) but it is very central (see our view from the Tiger motorhome over to the Center Camp Cafe. See life in First Camp with John here.

Burning Man has entered middle age and has "a pot belly and a mortgage to pay"

If you look around, the event has become a routine. Many people work for the organization and who have lives, families and mortgages. There is little of the excitement and novelty of the early years. Its "just another festival".

Burning Man as a festival has grown so large and diffuse that its original spirit has largely "evaporated"

At close to 50,000 inhabitants, Black Rock City is now so large that in fact there is this sense of isolation. It takes so long to walk that there is no way to feel the whole place. Art and Art theme camps are now so separated that the environment feels "sparse". In reality, the event feels like it is evaporating.

Take a look at Brad Templeton's panoramas over the years (98-99 and 2005 for comparison). Once the playa was so small and compact you could actually make out what was at either end. And key here is that it was mostly tent camping, now it is mostly motorhomes (us included). This also contributes to the sense that you are in an urban environment disconnected from the place.

Burning Man has grown separate from its landscape

This year I was walking the playa and suddenly it came to me: "Hey, I don't notice the mountains anymore"! Truly, the city has grown so wide that nowhere can you stand where the open playa is visible. There is always something in your way, never the glorious desolation of the Black Rock desert. Burning Man has become an "urban environment".

A chat with Larry Harvey on...
The attendees of Burning Man have become disconnected with the symbol of the festival, the Man himself

First Camp Conversation
with Larry Harvey

The Man and He Burns-Twice!

According to our good friend John Graham, in the beginning there was the man, about 9 feet tall, raised up on the beach and later the Playa by two strong guys, and then set alight while everyone stood around and watched. Then there was the "hay bale" era with the man stood up on bales of hay stacked in a pyramid. Then came the "climbable structures" period with cool ziggurats, lighthouses and other structures that invited people onto them. Now comes the "inaccessible structures" period where the man is well out of reach of anyone. After this year's "arson" event where the man was burned early, I wanted to ask Larry Harvey what he thought about it. As we were camped in First Camp (Larry's camp) I went with our friend Christine Finn to look for him. We had an interesting few minutes with Larry where he said something profound:

You know, people have become distanced from the symbol of Burning Man, the Man himself. The arson event taught me that, that people didn't know that the Man was built in a backyard by people just like them and brought out here. Well, after the first burn, we had to build a whole new man, right out there on the Playa and everyone could watch. It brought the man down to the human level again. I think that this was the big lesson for me.

- Larry Harvey, Sept 2007, First Camp, Black Rock City

Old timers attend Burning Man to "connect with their friends" and often "avoid the burns"

Friends met on the Playa

Many "old timers" now use BM to spend a week locating and spending time with their friends, who they may not see all year. So it is a social gathering. Some of these folks are active, many are no longer that active in creating things. Many of them skip the burns altogether, not wanting the hullabaloo of the party seekers. And the quiet sacredness of the Temple burn has also long since passed. And year after year, there are fewer people they can find and more "strangers" from their perspective. So the event is also evaporating for many veterans. After this year's burn, we went to stay with a long time burner who has simply stopped coming to the event for many of these reasons.

Burning Man attendees are now 2/3rds "show me a good time" and 1/3rd "participate

Sacred Space

A growing trend is the well documented "party goer", or "frat boy/girl" effect, but now it is truly the case that at least 2/3rds of "burners" are people who want to be shown a good time, and no more than 1/3rd of attendees who are actually contributing in some way. So Burning Man has become largely a "spectator's spectacle".
Just to find what we think of as spiritual solitude, Galen and I journeyed with our friend JM in his art car out to the farthest reaches, well out at the farthest point of the blow fence, only to find the same thing way out there, people being disrespectful and jumping over the blow fence boundary. These people seem to feel the event in a way very different than I do and they don't seem to see the power of the desert beyond.

Exodus... goodbye!

So, for all the reasons above, this probably is... goodbye to the Playa, Bon Voyage Black Rock and Nice to Know Ya Man (we love you)!

Please good folk, no disrespect meant for all those good people who organize and contribute to the experience at Black Rock City, this is just some observations from me, Bruce Damer, a caring burner!

Bruce Damer

Back to Bruce & Galen's Burning Man 2007 Pages

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