How the Fence Began

Do yall know who invented Burning Man’s trash fence in 1995? Lawrence Breed — inventor of the world’s first computer animation language and system, and also the playa’s longest-running art piece besides the Man himself: Chaotick, the flaming tether ball.

“In 1996, the first trash fence was tested at Burning Man. Concieved by Larry Breed (playa name Ember), several hundred yards of 24" high netting was set up down-wind on the north side of the encampment to catch wind-blown trash. The Black Rock is visible to the right in the background of this photo.” - Danger Ranger (Photo by from Breed’s collection)
“In 1995-96, the first trash fence was tested at Burning Man. Concieved by Larry Breed (playa name Ember), several hundred yards of 24″ high netting was set up down-wind on the north side of the encampment to catch wind-blown trash. The Black Rock is visible to the right in the background of this photo.” – Danger Ranger (Photo by from Breed’s collection)

Danger Ranger, Vanessa Kuemmerle, Burning Man co-founder John Law, and other Cacophony organizers had been tearing their hair out over the sad reality of trash blowing from the Black Rock City site downwind and off into the desert during their Zone Trip. One of the Cacophony Society’s main uh, guidelines, is to leave everything better than you found it.

So Breed, called “Ember,” was and is a genius computer scientist who, with a friend, overheard these managerial woes and brought out and road-tested 75 feet of trash-catching orange fence to make sure it worked.

Breed presented his winning example of hard-plastic gatekeeping to the Operations team, who were understandably beside themselves with joy. The trash fence was and still is one of the greatest ideas in Burning Man leave-no-trace history.

The fence is also an iconic piece of Burning Man visual continuity. But this year … this year … there’s blue string. Not orange string to go with the orange fence, but some blue string. As in, not orange. Some of us, particularly Stinger, are freaked out about the blue string.

There was much talk about the addition of blue string to the fence this year.
There was much talk about the addition of blue string to the fence this year. (Photo by John Curley)

On Monday, while the Fence was being built, this writer sat in the Dispatch booth at the saloon, wrangling dusty radios and telling the Lawrence-Breed-invented-the-trash-fence-and-helped-invent-APL story to so many people that official DPW photographer-blogger John Curley — who missed his annual Fence Day photography spree because delays in arrival happen in the DPW — made us write it up here.

Do yall know what APL is? We didn’t either until we searched on it when John Law first told us about Breed being a part of our proto-DPW history.

At Stanford in 1961, Breed invented the world’s first computer and animation language and system, using it for Stanford football games to program a 100-foot-by-100-foot array of colored square cards.

Breed then corresponded with a Harvard professor named Kenneth Iverson who had invented proto-APL as a mathematical notation for algorithms.

Breed and his crew transformed Iverson’s mathematics into a computer-programming language source code devised to work with mathematics with an emphasis on array processing. They dubbed it APL (short for “a programming language”), turning it into a widely-used programming language like no other, and implementing it en machina starting with the IBM 7090 in 1965. You make spreadsheets because of Breed and co.’s APL implementation.

Then, if that’s not enough for you, in 1972, Breed and Francis Bates III wrote one of Earth’s first worldwide email systems, which they called “Mailbox.”

More than two decades later, in the non-default world of Black Rock City, Breed became an oldest-of-schools Burning Man attendee and Cacophony Society member who helped with the original Black Rock Gazette newspaper as well as later co-founding the Black Rock Beacon.

Lawrence Breed now. Most of us in DPW have never met him.
Lawrence Breed now. Most of us in DPW have never met him.

Danger Ranger didn’t even know any of all this about how Ember pretty much helped uh, invent the internet until last night when we told him at the Black Rock Saloon.

Danger just knew Breed/Ember as the guy who invented the trash fence, as well as the flaming tether ball and a half dozen genius Cacophonist-on-playa, possibly-world-helping inventions like the greywater-obliterating Evapotron, or “Gray-B-Gon” (complete with open-source online instructions).

No really, check out the Gray-B-Gon — especially if you or someone you know has a theme camp with greywater.

Burning Man setup means a constant stream of stories proving you never know who you could be talking to under that messy tutu.

The 2015 version of the trash fence is up (photo by John Curley)
The 2015 version of the trash fence is up (photo by John Curley)


Fence yesterday? Dawn Patrol was led by Just George and Cowboy Carl, as always — two proud former military men who became cowboys of sorts. They are kind and crusty-fatherly super-men who could easily be models for action figures, who represent pretty much the pinnacle of proper masculinity.

Yes we are swooning over Just George, who makes us do pushups, and over Cowboy Carl, who taught us how to scatter herds of cattle standing in the middle of the road by rolling your truck window down and banging on the door.

If a group behaves like its alphas, then these two may be a large reason why DPW is such a draw. The world has too many assholes in it, and Just George and Cowboy Carl are here to protect us from acting too much like them, and to teach us cheerfully to protect others and the earth in turn — from assholes, and from trash blowing past us to where we can’t get to it to pick it up.

Cowboy Carl and Just George (photo by John Curley, 2013)
Cowboy Carl and Just George (photo by John Curley, 2013)

The trucks had been loved up on by auto shop, loaded with fence materials, and made ready to roll the day before. Fluffers were awake by 3am; “dawn patrol” worker teams left the trailer park at 4am.

Crews ate a quick bite on the Black Rock shoreline and got to work as the sun rose pink over the fire-smoke mist. Another equally large wave of DPW crewmembers left for work at 7am.

All day long, the radios crackled with nonstop trash-fence action and beaten deadlines. Milestones were announced over the repeater over background cascades of “woo” noises. We found Bachmann Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business” stuck in our heads on repeat.

By 8:30am, the pounders had finished. That’s zero-eight-thirty, in Just George language. By 1:45 pm, fence was done.

Another record.

Of course, it’s only another record because pre-event DPW staff and volunteer count has grown by a few hundred people. A decade and a half ago, when there were only 30-40 of us in the DPW, putting up the trash fence took Cowboy Carl and his team two weeks.

Suggestion by suggestion, and learned lesson by learned lesson, this largely leaderless group of freaks learned together to build and strike a temporary city, all by ourselves, together. Not with ease so much as with collaboration and a crap-ton of meetings. Chaos with a thin layer of organization.

amen dude ... amen.
amen dude … amen.

Things get done much more quickly when there are fewer power relationships to contend with. Even hard labor seems easier in an anarchist city.

Good times are had most days by most people in the DPW — which is also different now, because we know enough not to accidentally overwork and underfeed a thin crew any more.

And we have an unassuming, DPW-orange fence — invented by a secret internet genius, helmed by cowboy servicemen, and constructed annually by a dusty cast of black-clad hundreds — to catch most of the trash.



Follow Summer Burkes and John Curley on Twitter.


About the author: Summer Burkes

Summer Burkes

Summer Burkes has been rousting about at Burning Man since 1998. She first met her dusty DPW / Cyclecide / Bike Club fam-dambly on the back of The Bucket. A Cacophony Society enthusiast, Summer loves explosions and cake.

17 Comments on “How the Fence Began

  • Will Chase says:

    Summer, you’re a treasure, thanks for this.

    To add to the legend … Larry Breed’s other claim to fame is that every year on Monday of Burning Man, he captures the heat of the sun with a concave mirror contraption thingy he designed to ignite a torch (ceremoniously held by Crimson Rose) that’s used to light the Center Camp Cauldron (aka El Diablo) — the flame from which is ultimately processed to the Great Circle, where it’s used to set the Man ablaze.

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  • Jakass says:

    Got to build fence in 2001. Closest thing I’ve had to a religious experience.

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  • Rollo says:

    A 4 foot high trash fence to protect the environment from all that blows away… I suppose it’s better than nothing, but let’s not pretend it catches more than 1% of the trash.

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    • Pack of wild corndogs says:

      It’s interesting to note that, if any remaining traces of pre-orange fence Burning Man can be found 30 years from now, they will be classified as artifacts protected by federal law.

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  • Dana Harrison says:

    (1) Welcome back, Summer! Always love your perspective! (2) On the topic of “you never know who your playa contacts are”: There’s a guy named John who I know as the person who first set up wifi on the playa (for First Camp) a zillion years ago. I ran into him at a big event somewhat recently and was chatting with him from that perspective, and noticed that there was a steady stream of folks coming up and basically bowing obeisance. I feel like a complete idiot, but I now know that “John” is John Gilmore: “John Gilmore was the 5th employee of Sun Microsystems, the co-founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) and Cygnus Solutions, and he serves as a member of the board of directors for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and the Marijuana Policy Project.” Duh. I guess he’s done a bit more in his life than give First Camp wifi.

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    • larry breed says:

      More connections– I met John Gilmore when he was 14 years old and fascinated by APL. He and his Oregon Country Fair friends brought Web connectivity to the playa; the first beneficiary was the Black Rock Gazette. If I recall correctly he lost a Supreme Court suit contending that airlines had no right to make identity checks.

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  • Nancy Abodeely says:

    Great story and tribute to Ember’s artistry and humility. Another story he recounts is about Moop. In 1997 he singlehandedly demooped the far side of Hualapai playa, where winds had concentrated Moop in a few rich spots. He couldn’t haul it all out on his bike, but eventually, 2 years later, he and Metric completed the job. He was an original Earth Guardian.

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    • You might wonder how a moop pile could be left for two years and remain intact. An extraordinary truth: the moop you pick up always includes enough empty bags to hold the smaller stuff. At Hualapai, the big bags held the small bags, and holding the big bags was a dome tent that had rolled all the way across. So all Metric and I had to pull out was one heavy tent.

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  • Davor says:

    Ember is awesome! Thanks for the backstory, this is rich in history and one the best blog posts I’ve read in a while!

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  • PurpleKoosh says:

    I remember meeting Ember back at the monthly Beach Burns in ’00 when those were still A Thing, long before the official firepits were added to Ocean Beach. I knew he was a genius, but this is the first time I truly understood the breadth and depth of his contribution to both the event and the world entire. Amazing post, Summer – thanks.

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    • Beach Burns! For one I hauled in a pile of redwood panels and stacked them log-cabin style (panels standing on edge.) It made a beautiful geometric fire. Later it served as a starting point for Wizzard’s and my Pagoda of Infinite Reflection in 2004.

      Fast forward to 2015 — Wizzard’s Sun Tower is nearly 40ft tall, AND climbable, AND will burn around 1PM Friday using Archimedes’ thousand-mirrors technique for igniting the Persian navy.

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  • jeffz says:

    Not sure what the deal with freaking out about blue string, blue goes with orange!

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  • Mark M.L. says:

    I saw the flaming tetherball on my first visit to the playa (floating world) and loved it. So simple, yet so effective – a true joy to watch it do its thing. I saw a couple of times since then, but have not seen it in many years.

    It should be permanent fixture. Please being it back!


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  • Stegasaurous Rex says:

    This story is not even true… Everyone knows that the trash fence began the night of the very first burn at Black Rock city as Daft Punk was performing away from the event and needed a fence to keep unruly burners off the stage. Thus the trash fence was born.

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  • Mike Bilbo says:

    Larry is also one of the first Burning Man Earth Guardians, when in 1998 we held our first Leave No Trace Trainers Course out on a memorable circumnavigation of Black Rock, the High Dry playas, almost running out of water (LNT Principle 1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare – well, I forgot where I had cached water the previous week) and encountering immense areas of cryptobiotic crust. On that training, Tipi Dan coined for us the name “Earth Guardians.”

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  • HoneyBee says:

    Wonderful story about the connectedness and protective nature that are so much a part of the Burning Man event.

    My fetish for logistics needs to know: How long was the 2015 trash fence?

    Thanks to the crew!

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