Burning Man is about a simple thing, really. The burning of a wooden totem in the shape of a man, his arms upraised in … what? Exultation? Supplication? Who knows? … Maybe his arms are raised because he just looks good that way. It doesn’t matter, really, and you can ascribe any meaning you like to it.
And maybe that’s how Burning Man has come to mean so many things to so many people – a rave, an art exposition, a grand human and civil experiment, one which only coincidentally happens to feature massive explosions and fire. But there’s more – the ten principles, written ex post facto to describe the values exhibited by participants: The radical self reliance, the radical self expression, the communal efforts, and the immediacy of the experience.
Still, much of Burning Man began simply, as a simple response to direct need, and yet now is layered with ritual and remembrance.
Another of those Burning Man rituals takes place tomorrow night, the early burn, where crews gather to burn their own stylized effigies, meant to symbolize their specific participation in the event. A giant radio, perhaps, or the replica of an office, or maybe even one giant stake pounder. Again, who knows? … It’s up to the people involved. But there will be something different this year. Someone will be missing. And that absence will say a lot about the nature of Burning Man, and the people who attend.
A million years ago, when Burning Man was still wild and untamed, there were no fluffers, there were no radios, there was no commissary. You took your shade by the side of a truck, and if that wasn’t enough, you climbed under it to get out of the sun.
You entered a Black Rock desert that did not have roads, and certainly did not have thousands of bright orange cones lining the way. There was only blackness and the scribbled directions that said to get off the highway at a certain spot, travel six miles east, then turn left. It was terrifying and strange, just like the people you were with.
Eventually, though, order had to be pulled out of the chaos if the event was going to survive, and so a navigable city was laid out. The center of the city was always marked with a stake where the man would eventually stand.
“But we could never find the damn cone” that marked the stake,” Coyote remembered. “We’d have to go back to the ranch in shame and defeat.” To rectify the situation, Peter Mars, who at the time worked in the wood shop, constructed a four-by-four triangular-shaped man that the survey crew could put on top of the stake that marked the center of the city. But everyone grew fond of the the early man, and when the time came, they decided to give him a proper, that is to say flaming, sendoff. And thus the early burn was born.
A fine group of musicians were playing outside of Coyote’s trailer last night. People had gathered around the burn barrel. Drinks were shared, and there was plenty of singing and dancing. It was a sendoff party, because Tony and his wife, Mel, were going to have to leave the playa today. Their twin boys are starting school this year, and it’s time for them to enter the educational system. For the first time since 1999, Coyote will not be at the early burn.
“The system can be cruel,” Coyote said later. “It teaches you about winning and competitiveness and money, and all that other crap,” he said. “But the DPW is a family,” he continued. “We have to take care of each other. … You are the best role models that I could possibly ask for.”
The DPW is a hard bunch, but there were some sniffles to be heard when Coyote finished speaking.
“Coyote is like the father I never had,” Booya was saying. He works with Coyote in the offseason, and he comes over to the house for breakfast most mornings before the workday begins. It’s that kind of relationship. “I lost my father early,” Booya said. “So I had to choose my mentors. Tony’s one of them.”
Effin’ Andy tells a similar tale. “Coyote’s my father, you know,” he says in that deadpan way of his, when his eyes go small and he turns dead serious. You almost start to believe it’s true, but of course it’s not. But what is true is that Andy counts himself lucky to be held in Coyote’s extended reach.
So you could say that in addition to the many things that Burning Man is about, it is also about family. The family that you have, and the family that you never got to have. Bonds can be strengthened, and new ones formed. Either way, values are communicated. The old show the young the way. Good and evil are defined. It sounds odd to say about an event that has such a wild reputation, but there’s an essential wholesomeness that never seems far away.
Coyote’s boys don’t know any of this yet, of course. They don’t know that the big grownup world can be harsh and indifferent. They don’t know that they’ll have to find their own way, that maybe they’ll sometimes feel like square pegs in round holes. So far, they only know that dad will dance with them when the music starts to play. They only know that he’ll keep them safe when the roman candles shoot into the sky. And they’ll know that he’ll be there with them, instead of on the playa, when it’s time to send them off to school.