My gaze swung languidly across the barren ground like a sauntering elephant’s trunk. I was scanning the playa surface for the umpteen-thousandth time, when my Zen reverie was disrupted by a pattern change. [It’s all about pattern changes, you see. You’re not really looking for Matter Out of Place (MOOP) per se, you’re actually just searching for other than beige, or not the shape of a playa crack].
When that metallic glint caught my eye, my heart ratcheted up for a quick beat. I dug down into the dark crevice with my chafed fingers and plucked out a single tiny eyeglass screw. I held it in front of my face and beamed at it, before reverently dropping it in my sawed-off plastic milk jug. I was ecstatic. Then I looked up.
You could say I came to … my brain made an almost audible click. It suddenly dawned on me that I was standing in the vast expanse of the Black Rock Desert, with no more than a few dozen or so people around me, and nothing else. For a good 20 miles in any direction, there was literally nothing except a vast expanse of nothing. And I was completely psyched having just collected a ridiculously small eyeglass screw.
How did I possibly end up in this situation?
Short answer: Burning Man.
It was the Fall of 2003, and I’d been to Burning Man twice by then. I’d gotten bit by the bug (as happens), and when I found myself with some time to spare, I aimed myself at an intriguingly adventurous project to blow it on: playa restoration following that year’s Burning Man event.
And so there I was, together with a small crew of misfits, in this barren, forbidding and vast expanse, picking up ridiculously small pieces of detritus left behind by tens of thousands (30,586 to be specific) of fully activated Burning Man participants. As it had been for years, our goal was to reduce the amount of trash in what had been Black Rock City to no more than one square foot of debris per acre – that’s the equivalent of a record album cover paper shredded and scattered across land the size of a football field. Which is to say, ridiculously clean.
In 2006, the BLM would formalize that measurement, locking it at a requirement of 99.998% cleanliness, and sometimes they’d do this inspection not just once but twice a year, once in the Fall and once in the Spring, to see what popped up over the winter freeze. This was no joke. The barren playa needed to stay barren.
Now’s probably a good time to drive the point home that we’ve successfully passed every BLM post-event inspection since its inception in 1999. You know this already though, since the stick backing up that insane requirement is that if we fail, no more Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert.
If you take nothing else away from this story, let it be this: there’s no way in hell this could be accomplished without every last person on playa doing their part to get everything down to what a small restoration crew can handle before the fall rains set in. Pack it in, pack it out. Line sweeps around your camping areas and art installations. Nabbing the tiny metal bits with magnet rakes. Picking up as you go. Picking up not only your shit, but any shit you find. All of the things.
Peep this amazing video about Playa Resto by Shalaco Sching. Srsly.
We each play our individual part, together with our neighbors, for the benefit of the whole community. Or to translate into 10 Principles-speak: Radical Self-reliance and Communal Effort, meet Civic Responsibility. Hang out for a while, maybe make out. Because that’s how we get it done.
So I’m standing there on the empty playa, feeling kinda like an idiot with an eyeglass screw in my hand and a loopy grin on my face, wondering where things went wrong in my life, when it clicks in my head that while this seems incredibly stupid, this is incredibly important because the role I play and the ripples of my actions affect everybody else. We’re all interconnected, one way or another. We’re talking about Black Rock City here, but the same goes for the larger world — the sooner we realize that, the better off we’ll all be, right? Right.
Every action you take — reducing your packaging before you hit the road, picking stuff up, battening down your camp before a windstorm, talking to others about LNT, sharing your tips, or really (really) securing your load atop your vehicle before you head out — has an impact. So when you’re standing there holding whatever your version of an eyeglass screw is, wondering if it matters, know that it 100% does f*cking matter. And it’s worth it.
Top photo: “Insanity” by Jessica Panuccio (Photo by Anders Overgaar)