How Do I Explain This?
by: Jennifer Warren / Independent Scholar
I met a man at Burning Man late one evening, alone and wandering. We struck up a conversation, and he told me it was his first year at Burning Man. “How do I explain this to people back home?” he asked me, his eyes blazing with awe and frustration. I shook my head helplessly and shrugged my shoulders, sweeping my arm across the horizon. We both stood silently for a long moment, taking in the pulsing cascade of light and sound and people. “You don’t,” I finally said. “You can try, but it’s not like anything else.”
But even so, I will try. Imagine that as far as your eye can see there is nothing green. No plants, no trees, no grass. No bugs, birds, dogs, or cats. There is only a dry alkaline dust rising off a deeply cracked earth. Mountains ring the perimeter, burnt brown and majestic. Winds rise out of nowhere, dust whiting out your vision in all directions for whimsical lengths of time. The sun beats down hot, searing you or warming you depending on it’s mood. Goggles protect your eyes from the dust, a dust mask your lungs. At all times, you keep water with you. And everywhere you look, there are art installations and art cars and art bikes and art camps and artful people. By day, many people hibernate, choosing to sleep through the heat of the afternoon. But by night, the city comes alive, its citizens swathed from head to toe in every conceivable costume, on bike and foot. Colors gleam, lights glow, and sound systems crack open the desert’s silence.
With something as inexplicable and all-encompassing as the Burning Man experience, it would be foolish to think I could sum it up, that I could tell you What It All Means. There are a myriad of meanings out there under the desert sun, each as unique as the individual creating them. What I can do is tell you what Burning Man means to me.
First and foremost, to me Burning Man is a testament to the human spirit of creativity freed from the constraint of commerce. Groups of people create theme camps, providing food, fun, and entertainment to the inhabitants of the city for free. One of my all time favorite Burning Man camp creations was my local neighborhood bar in 2005. A brilliantly colored green and red Moroccan tent rose invitingly from the desert floor. Inside, I found a turn-of-the-century hotel lobby, complete with a antique wooden desk, bookshelves, polished lamps, elegant velvet couches, and vividly colored oriental rugs. A bar ran along the back with a long polished wooden countertop and racks of liquor rose up behind. A DJ off to the left spun dance music and candles glowed along the small tables set up through out the edges of the room.
I had a great time there, dancing and enjoying the sheer improbability of it all. The best part was when I went to leave. A woman looking very official with a clipboard stood at the entrance, blocking me from leaving and telling me that I would have to put my name on the waiting list to leave. She took out a small brush and brushed off the dust from my goggles and smiled at my confusion, repeating her instructions in a polite customer service voice. She laughed with me as I gradually understood the sheer playful absurdity of her request. Of course you would have to put your name on a list to get out of a Moroccan tent in the middle of nowhere with one of the best DJ’s I’d ever heard where the liquor was free and the people were dressed like ghetto fabulous desert mad max survivors. It could only mean one thing: Black Rock City had risen again.
The scale of people creating together is nearly incomprehensible. This year, Burning Man was scheduled to reach 40,000+ residents by Saturday evening, the climax of the event. Just think about that for a second — 40,000 people living in the desert together, creating a city just because they can. There are no advertisers, no sponsors, and no trash collection services. The only thing provided are Portapotties, a gathering place called Center Camp and the surveyed layout of the city itself, with the streets gradually curving in a semi circle around the Playa with the Man in the center. The rest the participants fill in themselves, often at great personal expense and time and effort.
To me, Burning Man beautifully represents the eternal cycle of life and death, creation and destruction. Every year, at the end of the event the city is dismantled and much of the art will be burned. Black Rock City will be built again, but not this Black Rock City. It will come into being only once, and go out in a blaze of glory.
I found myself dancing at 4 a.m. my last evening inside a structure that had been affectionately nicknamed the Waffle, although it’s Belgian creators formally called it Uchronia. Made of thousands of wooden 2x3x30’s, it felt like a desert underwater reef softly lit by green lights disappearing into the black sky. Two European DJ’s were spinning and dancers filled the club. Knowing that this club was going to burn the next day, that this moment would truly never come again had a profound effect on me. It was creation and destruction, inextricably bound as always. But this time, the illusion of permanence was not allowed to take root. We all know that what is born will die. It is the nature of things. But to know when that death will come, by what means, and by whose hand is a rare luxury.
Dancing my last evening away inside a living embodiment of that cycle left me with a sense of peace. I would not be able to go back again. There was only this night and this dance. That was all, no more and no less. By the time I left, tired and dusty and glad to be alive, I knew Burning Man had worked its magic on me once again. And I knew I’d be back next year to help raise the city from the ashes.
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