Back to the garden

The Man stands tall in the heat and the dust, even as work continues around him
The Man stands tall in the heat and the dust, even as work continues around him

Maybe we have time today for a personal anecdote.

There are only a couple of days before it all changes here in Black Rock City. There’s a poignancy in the air, because one thing is just about finished, even as something much bigger is about to begin.

And so maybe people are a little thoughtful today. It’s been a long month. The work that began so amazingly on the 10th with the fence is coming to an end. It has to, because the event is about to start. The guests will arrive, whether it’s all ready or not. But it feels  ready.

And it has brought me back to a night 40 years ago, to a Friday night in August that I’ll never forget. My family used to spend time during the summer in upstate New York. We’d be up “at the lake” as we called it, a sleepy little area just outside of Brewster, New York. And on that Friday night in August, something very different was happening in the quiet little town.

There were vans and bells and hippies and tie-dye and ribbons and guitars and music, so much music. And thousands … THOUSANDS … of young people caravaning through the streets, stopping to buy ice cream and soda and other stuff. I’d never seen anything like it, and I had no idea what was happening.

What was happening was Woodstock.

A third level has been added to the Temple, where the pace was furious
A third level has been added to the Temple, where the pace was furious

Brewster was on the way to Woodstock, and the town was crawling with long-haired hippy guys and girls on their way to see Hendrix and Janis and the Doors and Joe Cocker and all the rest.  I hadn’t known about any of it, but all of a sudden it was right in front of me.

A lot of people have been thinking about the connections between Woodstock and Burning Man this week. Whatever you want to think about what is taking place here, the arc is evident. Sure, people will say Burning Man is too big now, that it’s not what it was … and that’s true. It’s not what it was. It started as a random act in 1986, when Larry Harvey and Jerry James thought it would be interesting and fun to burn a wooden man on Baker Beach in San Francisco. Harvey didn’t do it as a celebration of music and art, like Woodstock was. It was a random act, without a lot of forethought.

It was only when he saw how people reacted that day on the beach that he thought he might have stumbled onto something. Because people gathered spontaneously around the burning wooden man. They started dancing and singing. They connected with each other around the man, around their humanity.

And that same basic thing is still happening. Yes, there is structure now. Plans are drawn, rules are enforced, and you have to pay to get in. But … what happens here is under no one’s direction. It just happens. It can’t be directed. And, to these eyes, it’s still about connection. It’s about sharing what you have with others. And letting them share their stuff — physical, metaphysical, whatever — with you.

Other things happened in the year of Woodstock. Some historians will tell you that the counterculture reached its apex in the summer, at the music festival, and that the movement lost its innocence later the very same year at the Altamont Speedway in California. That was the site of the Rolling Stones concert where the Hells Angels had been hired to provide security, and that’s where, as Mick Jagger watched helplessly from the stage, a person was stabbed and killed by the Angels. That was in December. The Sixties came to a close right then and there.

Heather reported that the fire test at the Temple went very well
Heather reported that the fire test at the Temple went very well

And it makes you realize that it’s all the more remarkable that this Burning Man thing is still happening the way it’s happening. Sure, it’s gotten a lot bigger, but it HASN’T lost its innocence. And people seem to realize just how precious and rare it still is, and how fragile, too.

“They’re not going to let us keep doing this forever,” Logan was saying after the last DPW morning meeting. “It’s going to end, or we’re going to say, this is how far we’ve come, and we’re not going to go any farther. But it won’t last forever. … And I’m going to cherish it while it’s here.”

Logan  had looked out at the dusty, dirty and very tired crew a little while earlier, and he had told everyone to do the same thing — look around. “Look at who’s here, and at what you did. It’s never going to be like this again.”

And that’s the truth. Whatever primal thing that we’re tapping into here, it’s still happening. People are still gathering around a burning wooden man, gathering around their shared humanity, and it’s no more simple, and no less profound, than that. And it’s not going to happen like this forever. So make the most of it now, while you can.

In  other news …

The city gets thicker and thicker, again seemingly by the hour. The commissary is full of new faces. The roads are getting filled with theme camps. And, oddly, it seems like the more people there are, the fewer clothes are being worn. Maybe it’s like Carmen was saying at lunch: There’s a crowd mentality taking over. One person doffs the clothes, someone else sees it and thinks, oh hell yeah. That’s a good option. And so it goes on down the line.

The wind is up a bit, but the dust is up a lot. It’s something to keep in mind. It’s mostly us who makes the dust. And the more of us there are, the more dust there is.

There’s a third floor happening at the Temple now. Things are kicking out there. Extra crews were put on this morning, and they are swarming all over now. They tested the fire effects a couple of nights ago, and apparently all went well. I was told they are shooting for a Tuesday debut, but that’s unconfirmed.

The Raygun Gothic Rocket Ship is poised for launch
The Raygun Gothic Rocket Ship is poised for launch

About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

17 Comments on “Back to the garden

  • Great Scott says:

    Lovely post, John. You captured the wonderful essence of it all. Made me feel very nostalgic, but in a good way. Have fun. And, trust me, I wish I was there.
    Great Scott.

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  • Claire says:

    After 3 years at BM, I have to miss this year to move cross country. My son is DPW so I am living vicariously through your blog and it’s making me feel closer to the Playa. Thank you an see you in 2010.

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  • CHIEF says:

    I am so very grateful for the burning diary you share. It will come to an end, we will come to an end… I look forward all year to this event.. and in a time where I see so many examples of leadership ignoring our shared humanity that the side that celebrates it and the elders who show us through example, through art that is sooo very much more than our eyes see and our electronic programming boxes lead us to believe.

    The refilling I get at burning man and the hope of the next one are the lifeline I can always look to now matter how bad and how awful things seem.

    My dad who has recently lost sight in one eye, is an burner by heart and the first time I came in 2007 I made a wish he might come and he is.. For him to experience this with me and my new family (we r bringing 3 mos old Noah) is a dream come true.

    I was thinking about the playa today and I swear I could smell it..

    I toast all of you “To the MOST of it..


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  • Tina Chang says:

    John, beautiful observations; thank you for sharing them. Tina

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  • Mike Hedge says:

    seriously epic shots! so beautiful!

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  • Dr. Zayaz says:

    I would not trade one of my Burningman experiences to be at the original Woodstock. Whatever else is was, it was a commercial concert venue where most of the time spent was watching performers on a stage. It’s significance was built over time and not at the moment. Plus I’m sure the porta potties were way, way worse.

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  • Kelley says:

    Thanks John
    I have never been to BM, but have been researching and reading your blogs and everyone elses. Im reading the newsletters so I am filled in on all the things i need to do to get me there and be well equipped for next year 2010. A group of us are coming from Sydney Australia and its beeen such a wonderful sense of being there, whilst i read all these posts and constantly checkout all the pics.
    I am with you all in spirit and will see you next year
    Love and passion

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  • Gingi Medina says:

    I am from the Pink Posse Pussy Tribe. Unfortunately over the years I have not been able to make it to all of them but I have in fact made it to four beautiful burns over the passed years and the desert is my home…I send you all my light and love now from London and to all of my furry little felines…I await you in the midst of the dust.
    Burn burn on lovely souls..This blog was AMAZING by the way. I love the passion one speaks with when they explain what goes on in our community out there:)
    I’ll most certainly be home again soon.


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  • diagonal says:

    Very well written, John. Your thinking and distillation of thoughts certainly repeats my own. Yours of course, elegant and beautifully arranged. Mine, kind of like little bottle rockets of insight going off now and again.

    I am not at BM this year, but for those who have not been there, for those thinking of going….be certain you go. It will profoundly affect your thinking about people, and people on this planet. What most people cannot anticipate, yet is so wonderful, is the non-uniformity of the participants and their dwelling arrangements. I met an elderly couple in folding chairs outside their modest trailer, lounging underneath a simple awning. They had been coming for years. No tattoos, no strange clothes, nothing artistic about them. As if dropped from a campsite in the Midwest. They would have been waaaay out of place at Woodstock, but not BM. Everything about BM is about humanity, and speaking, conversing with these folk was so genuine, so truly unfettered by our personal history, our personal position among society. This elderly couple was there to simply sit and observe, and it was all good!

    If you’ve never been to BM, you simply cannot conjure up the context needed to see why the presence, the tidy “two-person camp” was just as participatory, just as needed and welcome, as all the wild, wonderful artistry of the major players who spend self and pelf creating the jaw-dropping works that feed one’s mind.

    Perhaps the “outside world” fetters you in so many ways…. but if only once…GO ONCE!!

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  • LaVeRnOiNfErNo says:

    Man, after reading this, I wish I was HOME!!

    I, too, had to for go the Burn this year. Two years in a row to the Burn, and it was HARD to choose. It was between that or roadtripping Europe and the UK in a old London ambulance renovated into an RV. I chose the trip across the pond to go camp in Holland, Belgium, and go to the Glade Elecrtonic Festival in the UK. Funny enough, the 4 day camping fest in the rolling pastures of the English country side greatly resembled the Burn in the States. Replace the playa dust with muddy fields, the dust storms with rain storms, and the necessary goggles, with Wellingtons and you have yourself a proper English Burn.
    But after reading this blog, I realized there was something missing; that VIBE, that LOVE, that camraderie that the BuRn produces is like nowhere on EARTH. Only in the BRC. And another thing I’ve learned; NOTHING THIS GOOD LASTS FOREVER.

    Relish it people! I’ll see you at home in 2010.

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  • megan dana wallace says:

    John, thank you for the article. I was at BM eight times, from 1994 to 2001 –the “old” days? My late husband Bob Wallace was a great supporter and I think about him now — he died a few weeks after Burning Man in 2002. It’s wonderful that BM goes on.

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  • Ocotpus says:

    Lovely, thanks. And, yes, it will not go on forever but humans have been creating ritual since we dropped from the trees. We will always create ritual and art and be free, always.

    There in spirit, here resisting the NWO in spirit.
    In solidarity and great affinity,

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  • aimee says:

    thank you for that beautiful post. i’m missing yet another year and glad i can read about it through you. here’s to 2010!


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  • Kozmo says:

    wow, really making me nostalgic over here. I’ve been 3 of the last 4 years and will be taking my special lady friend in 2010. The only problem i’m having is with trying not to tell her too much, cuz i want her to have no idea what to expect. I would like for to have the proverbial crap your pants moment that i did when realizing the sheer magnitude of it all and to be bowled over by what materializes when like minded people (people like us) focus our creative energy in one place. Truley awe inspiring…

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  • denshi says:

    Regarding the caption on the third image, that’s Sarah, not Heather.

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  • Sandman says:

    Thank you so much, John. Your story really hit home. Would love to reach you regarding that photo at the base. Keep digging it…

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