The Temple was burning.
The intricate wooden structure’s central column was a pillar of flame rising into the air, sparks and blazing debris erupting to hover directly above us like a galaxy of shooting stars.
Munney and I stood in the bed of a golf cart and looked up into that shimmering ash cloud as it flew … never the same from second to second … and then began its descent towards the ground, towards us. We wondered how much trouble we were in.
I’ve been close enough to burns to get the falling ash on my clothes, on my face. But that’s nothing: yesterday, watching the Man burn from a distant rooftop, everyone around me winced as one heat tornado after another threw itself into the wind and through the nearby crowd that scattered and ran before it. A magnificent, terrifying, spectacle.
We had been safely distant then, but not now … not now, as we looked into the air and saw hot ash descending like an army of distant angels.
The beautiful temple was burning: four nights ago I’d visited and left the final draft of a poem an ill friend had asked me to write for her; two days ago I’d come here to officiate the wedding of two dear friends in the middle of a white out dust storm.
Now it was a single blazing column of fire and a swarm of debris that was flying directly above our heads.
But we were blessed: when the fiery cloud flew up over us the wind pushed it to the left, so that though we were right under the burning storm it did not touch us us. We saw everything, we could not turn our eyes away, and yet were unharmed.
Burning Man 2012 was kind of like that.
Perhaps it’s inevitable for a temporary city to be constantly seen as in its last hurrah. I’ve never heard of anyone deciding not to go to New York this year because it won’t be cool anymore, or refusing to visit Chicago ever again because it has too much infrastructure, or giving up on L.A. because 50,000 more people like movies now.
But Burning Man? Every year the world holds its breath to see if we can do it again – or if this is the time it all goes wrong.
Twenty-five years of this was improbable enough: now, with Ticket-apocalypse having shredded our social fabric (at least on Facebook) surely something was going to be dropped. Or hit the fan. Other than The Flaming Lotus Girl’s 2004 art piece “Hit the Fan,” which is still enormously popular but doesn’t count.
The world and its critics may be right one of these years. But not this one.
There’s still plenty to talk about, if you’re interested in the minutia: Burning Man sold more tickets than ever in its history, yet its daily population peak was essentially stable with last year’s.
Instead of attracting “weekend warriors,” so many burners left early that the population count actually dropped by about 5,000 people between Friday and Saturday.
A number of people commented that however exciting and fun this burn was, it felt oddly spacious. There was always plenty of room – it was almost possible to get away from it all, a sensation I’ve never had at Burning Man before. Bad? No – just different. It wasn’t the only difference.
According to Black Rock City Census data, somewhere between nearly a third (30%) to nearly half (45%) of attendees this year were virgin burners – an astonishing number of new people. Yet you never would have known without asking: aside from a tendency to be slightly less nude, they fit right in. They volunteered, they gifted, they mooped: if one of Burning Man’s goals is to expose new people to its culture and values, this was a banner year.
Organizationally, Burning Man was a tightly run ship. People kept commenting about how quickly and smoothly the city was built up, and the “official” structures (like Center Camp Café, Media Mecca, and BMIR) looked better than ever. From my own, relatively limited, perch looking into Burning Man operations, it was the most coordinated year I’ve yet seen. The whole volunteer infrastructure seemed to click like a finely tuned engine. Even when I was being jumped by three members of the census team who knocked me to the ground and stole my radio, it was clear they had a plan, were sticking to it, and had their act together.
The fearsome “dustapocalypse” was a dust bunny. There were two massive storms – one Tuesday and one Friday – that lasted for much of their afternoons. But the weather was otherwise gentle. There were no other spontaneous dust storms of note, and no weather related delays of any burns that weren’t scheduled for Friday night. Not bad.
Did all this make Burning Man different from all the other burns that have come before? Sure – but no more different than any other burn. Every Burning Man is distinct from the rest: they don’t strive to emulate each other. The goal is never to do what we did last year, only with a new theme and different art: it is to create a whole new universe out of the same dust.
Every year we do it, and every year the cynics and the press ask “is next year the year Burning Man changes?” never understanding that that is exactly the wrong question. We burn the Man to the ground, and when we build him up again it will be in the image of who we are now – not who we were last year, not who we were in 1996, not who they were 26 years ago on Baker Beach.
When we burn the Temple, we are free of it. We do not carry it forward with us, like a relic that must be copied. Each year we come to the dust expecting to have almost no idea of what’s going to happen next. Every year, we are surprised by what we have unleashed.
I did not go to Burning Man thinking that I would officiate a wedding. It never occurred to me that I might seek out the Temple during a white out to chase weather refugees off the steps and hold a ceremony for two dear friends. If you had asked me about it in advance, I likely would have said it wasn’t a good idea – I probably would have said “don’t do it.”
But there I was, opening my mouth to call over the wind and say that the most important part of Dan and Carla’s love is that they constantly see each other with fresh eyes. And I regret nothing.
I’d do it again in a heartbeat if I could, but I’ll never get the chance: the whole city is gone, and when it returns nothing will be the same. Only the dust remains, waiting to be seen with fresh eyes.
Burning Man 2012 was like that.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com