Of those who come to Black Rock City each year, who doesn’t make an annual pilgrimage north to the otherworldly deep playa to touch the trash fence? Or at least stand in the city and look north toward the great immensity of Black Rock Desert as it stretches a thousand square miles away, and see the tiny ribbon of orange like a mirage?
The prevailing winds blow across the playa toward the north as well, plucking debris from even the most well-intentioned Burners, instantly creating matter-out-of-place that skitters along the playa surface. The MOOP would be carried across many long miles of deep desert if it weren’t for 20-year veteran Larry Breed’s early ingenuity and initiative.
From his first Burn in 1995, Larry (a.k.a. Ember) was impressed by Burning Man’s leave-no-trace ethic. But he noticed a procession of lightweight trash escaping downwind throughout the event.
Early Burners camped every autumn along the northern edge of the playa for days each year, picking up windblown trash from the festival. Larry thought it would be easier to capture the trash before it blew into the chaparral on the far playa shores.
Larry proposed a trash fence downwind of Black Rock City, and Burning Man organizers pitched in to buy the materials. In 1996, he built a mile-long fence of bamboo poles and black plastic netting, only 24 inches tall. The fence did the trick, plucking everything from confetti to beach balls back out of the wind’s relentless hands.
Larry’s favorite captures were two one-dollar bills, a counterfeit dollar bill (photocopied, one side only), and the dustcover from a hardbound Gray’s Anatomy. He visited the fence daily to empty out the trash and light evening lanterns. Often, he found stretches of fence already cleared by appreciative participants.
Larry’s early effort is one of a million that Burners have brought to the event to promote environmental stewardship and sustainability. Larry’s happens to be one of the most visible and effective. Others will be highlighted in Journal posts to come.
Today, the trash fence is taller — and construction-grade orange. It still collects trash. And it still beckons. With this winter’s El Nino rains flooding the playa and summer heat drying it out again, the playa surface will be covered with desiccated alligator cracking that crumbles deliciously under a bicycle tire. Go forth, go north, and touch the fence.
Lead photo by Dan Adams, other photos courtesy of Larry Breed
Longtime Burning Man chronicler Summer Burkes has also written an extensive history of the trash fence, and you should totally read it.