As we approach the one-year anniversary of Burning Man Founder Larry Harvey’s passing, we remember the Man in the Hat by sharing articles, audio and videos from friends, family and co-conspirators. Here, Burning Man co-founder Danger Ranger shares his memories of the early years with Larry and insights into a intellectual, collaborative friendship that spanned decades.
I met Larry Harvey in 1988 when word of an upcoming summer solstice bonfire bubbled up thru my network of friends in San Francisco. That fire sparked a collaborative friendship that continued over the next three decades.
Our relationship varied from close to combative, but it was always deeply intellectual. On Sunday mornings I used to bring donuts over to his place in the big apartment building at the top of Alamo Square. He would make a pot of strong coffee and we would sit at his kitchen table for hours discussing the meaning of all things. His place was always in disarray because he valued ideas more than things.
He shared these ideas with the passion of someone with a lonely heart. Occasionally he would pause and tug on his earlobe; it was like he was shaking loose some deeper thought that needed to get out. I came to have a deep understanding of this incredible man. It’s a story that can be told in his own words.
“I grew up on a farm in Oregon, an adopted child, with one sibling, and parents the age of all my peers’ grandparents. We lived in isolation from the people around us, and it was always a struggle to cope with as a child. The heart can really expire under those conditions.”
I learned much about his childhood and his motivations. I came to realize that Larry was doing Burning Man in 4th grade… just without the Man.
“When I was a kid in the fourth grade, I wrote plays,” Larry said. “We had this great teacher who was always talking about your creative being. He was the first adult who ever told me that I should do what I wanted to do and that I could define the terms of it out of a creative impulse. So I started writing plays. Then I’d recruit the actors. Then I’d get people to build scenery and produce these shows in our class and then we eventually took it onto the stage and did it before the other classes.”
Larry had a way of drawing you into his projects. It was like a ‘Tom Sawyer-helping-me-paint- this-fence routine. He was also always thinking big.
“I was 12 years old when I was fascinated by Mesoamerican architecture,” he said. “When other kids were dreaming about doing plane models, I was doing models of Mesoamerican pyramids. Yeah, my ideas had a somewhat grandiose aspect. They all involved out-scale kinds of things. They all involved social connection, connecting people together. ‘Cause that was a thing I wanted to do since my family was very, very isolated.”
During the early years of Burning Man, we had long conversations about esoteric and philosophical subjects, and how they might apply to the world around us today.
“We live in the most self-conscious society in the history of mankind. There are good things in that, but there are also terrible things. The worst of it is, that we find it hard to give ourselves to the cultural process. We watch projected images of others being and doing, which isolate us from our innermost needs, because we are not involved personally being, doing and becoming connected to other people around us. We substitute the attainment of material objects for the experience of being.”
As Burning Man grew, we began to realize the importance of it all.
“We have become a nation of posers, “ Larry mused. “It’s not a life that’s lived or shared, but an imitation of life, a kind of commercial for self.”
The desert was where Burning Man took root and flourished. It became a city and a community.
“Well, it seems to me, that all real communities grow out of a shared confrontation with survival,” Larry said. “Communities are not produced by sentiment or mere goodwill. They grow out of a shared struggle. Our situation in the desert is an incubator for community.”
And each year the seeds of Burning Man spread beyond the Black Rock and took root in other locations.
“I think it has potential to grow into a global movement, frankly,” my friend said. “For that to happen, we have to figure out a system of governance that basically protects the values of the movement in the same way that the city boundaries, and the Rangers, and other institutions protect the integrity of our municipality in the desert — same principle.”
Larry found himself leading a movement, along with all the responsibilities that come with it.
“Leaders don’t take things personally; you just can’t. You just have to put yourself aside. People don’t imagine that. They think, ‘Geez, I want to be famous,’ but whoever imagines the responsibility? No one ever imagines the amount of moral obligations that come with it. But what we’re doing is so socially connected that you can’t escape it. You couldn’t even lead it if you behaved that way ‘cause no one would follow you.”
He left us with an incredible legacy.
“As you get older, you begin to realize that, if your name is out there, you learn what the limits of that are, and the limits are very personal,” Larry shared. “It doesn’t change your person. You’re still the same person, which is just me. On the other hand, just the knowledge that everybody knows your name… the idea that I don’t want to die. It’s a delusion. When I die, I’ll be dead and I’m an atheist so I know that’s the end. I believe that, it’s my faith. I find that a useful faith.”
Thank you, Larry.
Top photo: Larry Harvey and Danger Ranger in 1996. (Photo by Barb Traub)