Burning Man is all about ritual. It’s an event rich with symbolism, although the meanings attached to those symbols vary widely. You can get as many theories about what prompted Larry Harvey and his pals to burn that first Man on Baker Beach as the number of people you ask. The answers will vary with circumstance, even from Larry himself, but it wasn’t because of a breakup with his girlfriend. It started as a romp, a thing to do because it sounded fun to do.
So it is with the Early Burn. Two Saturdays before the start of the big event, the people who are here building the city get together to burn a bunch of stuff. It’s really no more complicated than that, but the interpretations again vary widely.
The big crews build effigies that either mean or do not mean anything. Last night, the Heavy Equipment camp burned the effigy of a radio — the thing that drives us crazy and nevertheless is a big help in making all this happen. The Oculus crew, which builds the Center Cafe, built a “Tim Burton tree,” as described by Goatt. Did it have anything to do with this year’s burn, or any year’s burn? Maybe, maybe not. But you get the sense they did it because they could. Much like Larry and his pals in 1986.
Anyway, the Early Burn has become a custom and a ritual. Effigies are burned, and many of the people come dressed up as someone else in Black Rock City right now. Some of the similarities are chilling, they are so good, such as the Weld Boy alter ego, but I’m guessing you wouldn’t get much out of a description. It’s almost like your Aunt Sara imitating your mom; it’s hilarious for your family, but for outsiders it’s … eh.
Anyway, Micheal Michael, one of the founders of Burning Man and the man responsible for setting up the Black Rock Rangers, was talking last night about how the Early Burn is reminiscent of Burning Man in its infancy.
In 1990, the first year in the desert, after the celebration had become to large to stage at Baker Beach in San Francisco, there were only about 80 people around to see it. No roads, no Porta Potties, no shade.
“We were so hot we climbed under our cars in the heat of the day just to get out of the sun,” he said.
(Newbie note: It’s hard to realize just how hot you can feel out here. This desert is at about 4,000 feet, too, so you have to acclimatize yourself to both the heat and the altitude. It’s really not a bad idea if you can delay the heavy activities for a day when you get here. Give your body a chance to adjust.)
Last night, there was a small-town feel to the festivities. In contrast to the hugeness of the Burning Man event itself, this little gathering let you run into the people you know, or talk to the people that you’ve seen before and would like to get to know.
There were fireworks from Dave X to get everything going, and then the effigies went up pretty much at the same time. There wasn’t any need for a perimeter ring; when the fires got going, you had to move back to get out of the heat.
The Power Camp’s burn was the flashiest and the noisiest. It shot fireball after fireball into the night, all while screaming whistling sounds split your ears. Fun!
There were bugs around the light towers, and lots of them. We don’t know if it’s all the rain this year, but there seem to be more living things in the desert than ever before — plants, bugs, birds … lots of things you just don’t expect to see.
There was plenty of PBR, of course, the beer that waters the playa, and after the Early Burn many of us climbed onto the viewing platform of the Man base. It’s a funky climb up, with alternating stairs that make you clamber up the structure like a Neanderthal (which, we were told, was Ludi’s idea.) The view from up high was great, and everything felt all safe and secure, even as the wind was coming up. It’s a great space.
As the night wore on, the wind grew fiercer and fiercer, and by the midnight hour, there was a pretty good dust storm blowing that made you put on your goggles. The blowing sand made us think of the fog in San Francisco, but instead of being cold and damp, it was warm and dry. It wasn’t unpleasant.
The wind stayed strong all night, and Sunday came in the same way. People roused themselves to crawl out to the playa and clean up the mess from the previous night’s burn. By 10 am Sunday morning, the Playa restoration from the Early Burn was complete.
Bring on the big show.