To Make a Heaven out of Desolation

A week has already passed. Our time is almost up. The horned moon hangs high over the most magnificent playground ever built. The electric landscape is fit for a scene in one of Dali’s dreams, with fantasy figures rising out of the futuristic desolation­ many destined to be burnt or torn down, to dissipate back to dust after one week of use.

Ordinarily, a week in the desert does strange things to a man. Here, at high elevation, the air is thin, the sun is drunk, and the wind punches with dusty fists. By the time night rolls around and the stars are frigid points in the sky, you’re as good as a walking corpse–or you would be, if you weren’t inside this exotic carnival heaven. This is no ordinary occasion, and you’re filled with energy you’ve never had before. We are in Black Rock City, the site of the notorious Burning Man, waiting for the temple to burn.

At any other time, intoxication would be the most appropriate answer to conditions so austere–but the surroundings have made vice an enjoyable luxury and not a necessity. The power of imagination overrides all else. Fifty thousand celebrants have revelled with the bare elements, and now as we stagger around propped up by our very last nerves, what have we come away with? We came here from all over the country–indeed, from all over the world…so much has transpired in such a short amount of time, that it’s hard to grasp, but perhaps that’s the point: unconditional presence. You’ve got to let it go if you want it all to hang out.

In the distance, the space-age music stages thunder hypnotic rhythms, while mandalas and video clips are projected onto veil-like screens. Whole crowds are put into trance as the mathematics of electronic sounds tap a core, primal root. A sixty-foot tall monument to tetris gently glows over the sand. So-called mutant vehicles, painstakingly engineered and decorated, blast flame-throwers like apocalyptic trumpets, or creep like angler fish thru the pearly-white dust. Jungle domes, scattered liberally, stand like decapitated beehives.

This is the unreal element of reality, the truthful absurdity that carnival embodies. The carnival is an illuminated theatre. If you ask around, almost anybody will tell you that they’ve never felt anything so real–that they’ve never felt so alive. At this juncture, with convention pushed past its breaking point, nature meets imaginative power. Strange and beautiful metallic sculptures sporadically rise into the air. They are somewhere between plants from a savage garden and the dream of the goddess who is forty feet tall, strapped with steel and iron sinew, nude, and frozen in the middle of a legendary dance. You can barely make out the silhouette of thousands of camps radiating out into the darkness.

In this rare moment, most of the Burners who have stayed the extra day, after the Man fell in a show of flames and fireworks, are gathered here outside the temple. They’re dressed in wild costumes, if they’re dressed at all. There’s much fur splashed with bright colors, silver bikinis, wizards, monks, aviator goggles, cowboys, and men wearing dresses. It’s funny how people in costumes find it easier to be honest with each other. Here, everyone is encouraged to express themselves fully and utterly, and their costumes speak volumes. People are free to live out their deepest fantasies, free to wear their most secret hearts on their sleeves. Their unexpressed desires are out in the open air, along with the fringes of their personality. They are free to become their dreams, a spectacle, anything. You’d think that social anarchy would lead to disaster. On the contrary, this extreme individualism gives way to an extreme sense of community. If Burning Man is about anything, it’s about connection–which means knocking down every barrier. There is no money here–only gifts and trades, and you can find anything you need. Perhaps the unconditional respect for an individual breeds in him respect for others. It’s only logical that if anything goes, anything can come as well.

But despite these wonders and luxuries, the week has been filled with trials. This is no place for the feeble-hearted. Every moment of joy is earned. It’s easy to corrupt a paradise as most vacationers do, but it’s a feat to erect a heaven out of several miles of desolation­and this is not to mention the thin air at 4,000 feet, the searing heat, the frigid nights, and the wind that blows dust into your over-crowded tent and into your eyes, or the port-o-johns. Now don’t get me wrong–the people who run Burning Man are extremely well-organized. They’ve got an efficient medical unit, a loyal and helpful troop of rangers, and frequently drain the goop from the toilets. Still, these conditions are an undeniable shock to one’s system. But it is the challenge of not only surviving but thriving in full-color inside a desert that is always trying to kill you that lends so much force to the experience of Burning Man. Anything worth having is going to bring about sorrow somehow. The trick is dancing with it all.

Amongst other things, the place is a nexus of mental activity. Most people who have never attended Burning Man seem to think that it is some type of lawless chemical nightmare, a week-long warfare of the senses, crawling with nudity, leprosy, and other degenerate horrors of the blind and futile hope that only a hippie can fathom. It goes without saying that Burning Man is one hell of a party­but keep in mind that different people have fun in different ways. Here, you can find some of anything–from deviant sex to clean energy politics, from new age healing to basketball to whisky bars. There are people here from every walk of life who are more than willing to have a conversation about anything that comes to mind. There are camps holding educational workshops, as well as 24-hour music and any form of entertainment for you to rage and rave deep into the night.

People have travelled from all over the world to get here. Today, I met someone from far away Siberia, who came to play for the week. There are few things so hopeful as the sight of adults playing like children, and there is no accurate stereotype for the typical Burner. Your next door neighbor’s mother died again? I don’t think so. Check his clothes for dust when he gets back. I met many professionals, a political consultant, a few doctors, several entrepreneurs, and a pharmaceutical salesperson­as well as students and vagabonds. Of course there are some who come just to party and load up on drugs, but they are not the majority. The most common drug on the scene was alcohol, and that’s an American pastime.

Some people say that Burning Man is a living philosophy, an organic composition where the lines between spectator and spectacle are blurred unto oblivion. Here, art is not limited to a specific place or form­the very air is a willful theatre. Many of the die-hard Burners dedicate tens to hundreds to thousands of hours into producing art they can share­be it costumes, sculptures, paintings or gifts­all for no rewards, at least in the conventional sense. There is, however, a very distinct joy in giving.

Burning Man is a haven for the discontent, or at least those who are striving for more­those who feel incomplete, who feel cheated in some way by the ordinary day-to-day. It is a home for the spiritually malnourished, a breeding grounds for knowledge, flexibility, endurance and expansion. It is a place where people can do what is natural and connect without the erected barriers and fictions of conventional roles and status. The currency here is imaginative power. Money is a dream of the past. It isn’t perfect. It isn’t sustainable. It is an experience, an exploration–whatever you make it. As they say, the burden of freedom is recognition.

But enough of that–this is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The crowd around the temple is silent as it slowly goes up in flames, along with the prayers and pains of the weeks and the year. It was built, this year, to mimic a sand dune, with planks of wood flowing a rounded form. For the past week, people have been coming here to meditate, to pray, reflect, and make peace with those lost or leaving. This, more than the Man, illustrates the work that is being done here, as well as the meaning of the event–the addressing and overcoming of the past and its limits in a myriad of ways, so that there is room for an illimitable future in presence, where one can be living fully by giving life one’s best, and having a good time at it.

Whatever has happened here, whatever has passed can never be properly conveyed, except by the silent eye of the hurricane. Many people will leave here with a boundless sense that will be battered back down by everyday life. Others will return to their routine, and take away a thousand tickling memories. Some will be inspired by the creativity they witnessed, and carry it with them in their everyday life. Some will already be planning for the next Burn.

Fire is a transformative agent as well as an image of balance, a primal hearkening that gives life as it takes. The land we live on is, in a sense, the ghost of fire. Fire is a symbol of life itself. For one week, we have lived on fire, seizing life as joyously as possible–and now, we let it go in peace.

The temple falls, but next year, it will rise again. For a moment longer, everyone is silent, and then people are cheering on the flames. And like everything else, the night rolls on. There’s only question left, an eternal heckler: why not?


by Brian

About the author: Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by participants. Submit your story here.