The place most associated with Burning Man, the Black Rock Desert, is widely acknowledged in our culture to be “magical.” Whatever that means to you. Some people take that very literally, even going so far as to think playa dust has healing properties. Some people take that entirely metaphorically as a synonym for “beautiful” and “sublime” and “unusual” in a way that most environments we encounter aren’t. Some people think it’s scientifically fascinating – I mean, prehistoric dried lakebed, that’s pretty neat. But whatever the reason, it’s an environment that moves people. An unusual place that pulls us out of ourselves.
It’s easy enough to suggest that Burning Man’s arrival at the Black Rock Desert was sheer coincidence (it’s a pretty good case), and that it stayed in the desert for reasons of convenience and tradition. And so, while the Black Rock Desert’s “magical” nature has been so frequently remarked upon as to become an eye rolling cliché, the idea that it was in fact a statement of principle for Burning Man never really caught on.
But if the Black Rock Desert was a coincidence, the second major location now forever tied to Burning Man was an obsession: Fly Ranch.
Yeah, we did that
Burning Man’s almost 20 year quest to purchase Fly Ranch wasn’t part of a grand master plan, although it has some practical value (Burning Man now owns water it used to purchase in bulk from the property’s water rights; Fly may be a gateway to future land purchases). It’s an ecologically sensitive property that can’t be put to immediate use. It was purchased, in other words, with by far the largest set of donations in Burning Man’s history, not for its utility, but because it is special. Magical.
And it is. There’s no doubt about that. Have you seen the video? It’s really like that. Only more. It’s a place that has an effect on people. That brings something out. For whatever reason, literal or metaphorical, it’s magic.
Now we have two instances – the Black Rock Desert and Fly Ranch – of Burning Man going out of its way to invest itself, in time, attention, and money, in places very low in practical utility but very high in that intangible, je ne sais quoi, of “magic.”
The third and newest addition to Burning Man’s gallery of places is on probational status: it remains to be seen if Burning Man is going to make a long-term commitment of some kind to Esalen. But in 2015 Burning Man held a joint staff retreat with the organizers of Esalen, and as I write this Burning Man is preparing for its first ever Philosophical Center Symposium, to be held at Esalen.
While perhaps best known today as “that hellish hippie learning place where Don Draper went at the end of Mad Men,” Esalen also has a storied history of important conferences and major intellectual work – and it is, even at casual first glance, a magical place in its own right. The ocean off the cliffs, the hot springs, the wooded area – Big Sur at its finest. Whatever your definition of “magical,” Esalen – as a place if not a community – meets it.
The Exceptions Prove The Rule
Now to be clear, Burning Man works with plenty of different places in its year-to-year activities. The Global Leadership Conferences in San Francisco are held in whatever adequate hotel is most affordable at the time; Decompression is held on couple of closed off blocks in Dogpatch that are, at least to my eye, not particularly special. Burning Man stores some trucks and equipment on acres of land that are not especially noteworthy. And Burning Man’s own offices have tended to be wherever the hell, whatever the hell, they could get.
But in each instance (at least since I first visited on of Burning Man’s headquarters about 10 years ago), a serious attempt has been made to turn those offices into places with some kind of magic. And in those instances when Burning Man is making a major commitment to a place? It’s been “magic” every time.
Now on one level, so what? I man, who doesn’t love magical places, amIright? If you’re going to have a thing at a place, why not have it at a magical one? Except that … so much of the time … they are so damn inconvenient …
What’s at Stake?
But it matters – to our Global Network, to our Regional Events, to our culture in general – how important magical places are to the act of “burning.” There is a school of thought about Burning Man, I’m one of its proponents, that holds that however important the desert was to creating Burning Man culture, that you can “burn” anywhere.
But how compatible is that idea – that the 10 Principles and the act of “Burning” can be done in your living room or a coffee shop basement – with a culture that also values magical places? Is there a discrepancy between theory and practice here that we should take into account? Or is this simply a preference: people who try to create magical experiences will naturally love magical places?
I polled some of the Regional Contacts – people who actually are involved in creating Burning Man events that have nothing to do with the Black Rock Desert – to see what they thought about the importance of magical places to what we do, and to our culture as a whole.
It’s Not Just the Place, it’s the Struggle
They agreed that Burning Man culture tends to believe in magical places, and considers them pretty important. But they also reminded me of something vital: we didn’t just go to the desert. Once we got there, Danger Ranger dew a line in the dust and said: “on the other side of this line, everything is different.”
We didn’t just go to that magical place and relax. We went and established a relationship with it. The engagement with places is one of the key factors of what we do, especially if there’s a struggle. Especially if the environment takes us out of our comfort level, and requires us to adapt and create in conditions we’d otherwise never experiment in. It is that process, a relational process – the way we relate to places, and to each other through places – that creates the experiences we’re looking for. The more a place caters to our existing habits, the harder it is to get out of them.
Indeed, perhaps the most important characteristic about magical place is, interestingly, the same characteristic as a truly shitty place: you’re going to have to struggle with it. Adapt to it. Find workarounds that are more interesting that not having the problem at all would be. Shitty places give you relatively little reward for your effort . Magical places open up whole vistas once you really commit to them.
Is “Stewardship” the Place Equivalent of “Friendship”?
Though no one put it quite this way, it seems like we think of places as potential friends. And we can, absolutely, have amazing times with people (and places) we don’t have a strong connection to. It was pointed out to me that not only have Burning Man Regionals done this fairly often, but that the Cacophony Society made it their bread and butter. They held events in any number of shitholes, and invited anybody since, after all, “you may already be a member.” You can make the magic happen in a place you have no connection to, just as you can with people you have no connection to.
But when you find somebody special? Somebody who gets you? Somebody who might be a giant pain in the ass but always brings out the best in you? Well, then, you can have the kind of adventures and deep connections you never thought possible. And magical places are like that: we can do what we do anywhere – the first Burning Man was on Baker Beach, after all – but finding a magical place makes it so much … not easier, but more rewarding … to draw that line in the dust.
The quest for the right places may define the new era of Burning Man culture. What kind of places do we need? Where can thrive? I recently read a fascinating account of the way in which the epicenter of the punk scene has moved out of cities and into the suburbs … because the suburbs have affordable spaces that people who want to dedicate themselves to the music can turn into what they need. It’s improbable … but it works.
We can make any old neighborhood work, if we put our mind to it. But that’s not what we’re looking for: Burning Man bought Fly, and right now Regional events around the world are either looking for magical places or turning their sites into them, and Burning Man communities are often asking: where’s a meaningful place for us to put down stakes?
Knowing what we’re looking for is the first step. That will likely be different for every group, but I think it’s clear: “location, location, location” is something Burners believe it, but it means something different to us than the rest of the world.
Thanks to Natalie Clavadetscher, Shenanigans, Dusty, Kallisti Dawn, Maryam Kheradmand, Eric Griswold, and Carmen Mauk for their comments and insight on this issue.