Burning Man Has Gone to Seed

The event in the Black Rock Desert isn’t happening this year, and the potential of it is spreading far and wide like a dandelion puffball blowing away in the desert wind.

Burning Man’s philosophy has always been to spread its DNA around the world, and in the past it’s done that like a fruit. A sweet, intriguing, brightly-colored orb that entices us to come and partake, and then return home and bring the seeds with us. There, fertilized and tended by symbiotes, they take root in new ecosystems. In time, the tree hopes, a population will become established and become indispensable to this new environment. This year, there is no fruit for us to eat, full of seeds that will ride home in our bellies. We are not going to the desert, and the energy and ideas we’ve all been saving up for another year in the dust have gone poof… but they haven’t vanished. The Man must spread his* seeds in other ways.

Enter the dandelion. There is no fruit here for us to eat, and no reliance on the sweet tooth of animals, just a fluff of seeds gifted to the wind to land and perhaps root wherever nature flings them. The whole of the dandelion flower is fluff and seeds, and when the wind blows and the puffball bursts into the sky, nothing is left behind.

The result is a deconstructed and decentralized Burning Man, as we experience parts of it in different locations, different times, and different states… intentionally and, sometimes, blindsided by it in the vegetable aisle at the grocery store when my mask and I were bowled over by a sudden sensation of being at The Last Shopping Stop in Reno. I was choosing radishes and assessing with a critical eye how long they might last. My cart was filled with esoteric and specific items from my list, both shelf-stable for the back end and fresh for the beginning. Was I going back to a week of hunkering down in the bizarre summer for 2020, or out for a week on a dry lakebed? I wasn’t sure for a moment, as another seed landed.

As I type this, there’s a heatwave gripping northern California. Today’s high is predicted to be about 90F, in Oakland. That may sound middling to my friends in Nevada, but in a city that rarely breaks 75 and doesn’t know what air conditioning is, it’s brutal. Shade, fans, hydration, and all the other things the Black Rock Desert has taught me, come into focus.

A few days ago, I awoke to an early morning thunderstorm of a sort we don’t get here often. When day broke and I stepped outside, the wet heat and reek of petrichor slammed me back into memories of desert thunderstorms, rain drops so fat I could almost dodge them, and dust turning to mud as thick as toothpaste. Even the weather is taking a page from the book of Burning Man, and presenting us with a taste of the desert.

In a year of global pandemic, I find myself wearing a mask as I wander around town. It may not be the respirator I keep in my backpack for dust storms on the playa, but I’m certainly taking notes of what’s comfortable for hours on end. You can bet your bottom dollar the visual language of dust masks will be very different on the playa next time we gather there.

But it’s not so easy. Of course it isn’t, Burning Man never is. With concerns about COVID-19 echoing everywhere, I take my cues from what Burning Man is offering me, and run with it. I deconstruct it even more. I’ve bicycled more this summer than I have in years, other than in the desert. I’ve built art, tiny enough to fit into apartments and on coffee tables, and taken time to watch the sunset over the ocean. Why not? I’m not getting my desert sunsets this year, and have no camp layout to edit tonight.

The heat and the closed venues are driving people outside, to parks, to yards, to streets. When I walk or bicycle through the evening crowds, I hear music, see lights flashing everywhere. If I didn’t worry about the pandemic, I would welcome this with open arms. Burning Man is coming home! The seeds have landed, and rooted, sprouted, blossomed here.

None of us wanted this. We wanted to run to the heat and desiccation, to build our ephemeral city, to explode our minds and gratify our hearts at the creativity and passion and guts of those around us, and our own. Nobody wanted it, but perhaps we can use it. Like children chasing dandelion seeds, we can grab onto these bits of Burning Man, and use them. We can plant them in community art, in soup kitchens, voting drives and other civic participation, we can call out to people we don’t often see and discuss castles in the air. We can put blinky lights on our bicycles and ride around the lake. Why not? It’s the year of the Multiverse. Burning Man has gone to seed. The event is deconstructed, and like it or not, it will happen like dandelion seeds springing up in a baseball diamond to confuse and distract and ask “what if…?”

*True, it’s the female flower that carries the seeds, but maybe that just proves the Man is female… or that he’s a construct and not a flower, so botanical norms don’t apply here. Take your pick.

Top photo: Mazu Goddess of the Empty Sea by The Department of Public Arts (Photo by Brian Wahlberg)

About the author: Anselm Engle

Anselm Engle

Anselm is a relative newcomer to the Burning Man scene (Burning since 2013), but a long-time citizen of liminal spaces everywhere. He thinks with his hands, believes specialization is a mistake, and occasionally assembles loose words into rambles for Burning Man and others.

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