“One time at Burning Man,” the story often starts, and it’s only natural that it should. Stories by their nature are rooted in a time and a place, with a “once upon a time” to go with the “there I was.” For most Burning Man stories, the when is late August and the where is the Black Rock Desert, but this is not always the case. For international Burners the story might be set in another month on another continent, perhaps in another hemisphere where the seasons run contrariwise to the north’s. And for a few of the oldest old-timey Burners among us, it might be on a beach in San Francisco on the night of the solstice in June.
While it’s pretty widely known that Burning Man started in San Francisco before moving to the desert in 1990, many people, including longtime Burners, are surprised to learn that our earliest Burns took place earlier in the year. We know that Larry Harvey and Jerry James built a figure out of scrap wood and took it down to the beach, but why that particular beach, and why that particular evening?
“When I was in my late 30s, I lit a figure on fire on Baker Beach in San Francisco. It was me, a friend, and maybe eight people, tops. It was really just a product of the San Franciscan Bohemian milieu.” —Larry Harvey
As it happens, the burning of the first Man connects to a tradition going back years on that beach, and going back immeasurably further in the human experience. In the early 1980s Larry attended several solstice art-party events on Baker Beach, loosely organized by a local sculptor and free spirit named Mary Graubarger.
In addition to being the birthplace of Burning Man, Baker Beach has a history of being clothing-optional, or as Graubarger described it, “Just a bunch of nude freaks going down to the beach to hang out.” In an interview she recalled that, “I’d get bored sitting around the studio, so I’d pick up stuff washed up on shore and build sculptures. We’d stay until the evening and cook, and then it seemed natural to torch the sculptures. It was a personal thing, for fun.” Larry, who discovered Mary’s solstice happenings through their mutual friend Jan Lohr, was inspired, and in 1986 instigated his own radically self-expressive solstice ritual with the burning of the first Man at Baker Beach.
As for the calendar date, that’s an older story. Since ancient times, humans have been coming together to observe the solstices, those two days of the year when the earth’s wobble reaches its wobbliest extremes, resulting in either the longest day of the year or the longest night, depending on where you’re standing on the globe. In either case there’s a long tradition of celebrations and bonfires, either to extend the magic of summer’s longest day or to turn back the night and hasten the coming of spring. In addition to the mythic burning of “wicker men,” spottily documented in Roman-era Britain, there are reliable accounts of Midsummer celebrations that may sound remarkably familiar to the modern Burner, involving both all-night bonfires and prodigious gifting. Back in the 1500s, an English historian wrote this account:
“The wealthier sort also before their doors, near to the said bonfires, would set out tables on the vigils furnished with sweet bread and good drink, and on the festival days with meats and drinks plentifully, whereunto they would invite their neighbours and passengers also to sit, and to be merry with them in great familiarity. On the [nights of] vigil, every man’s door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St. John’s Wort, Orpin, white lillies and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers, had also lamps of glass, with oil burnin’ in them all night, some hung branches of iron curiously wrought, containing hundreds of lamps lit at once, which made goodly show.” —John Stow
Does that sound like a goodly rocking theme camp, or what?
Today, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant ills, despite the cancellation of two years’ worth of Black Rock Cities, it’s a comfort to think that the planet keeps on turning, wobbles and all, and that the solstices keep showing up on schedule. When Larry passed away in 2018 we weren’t sure at first how or when to best remember him in our lives. Certainly not on the anniversary of his death, a day better left forgotten. And instead of his birthday, the day he came squealing into the world (wearing, as we like to imagine, a tiny white Stetson), why not instead the birthday of his brainchild, the Burning Man? These days our stories may be rooted in a thousand times and places — but there can only ever be one first anything, and one point of origin. For Burning Man that was the night of the June solstice in 1986.
“Thank you Larry Harvey for the gift. A gift that has taught us to be courageous and to not allow our fears to overtake us. We are transformed from spectator to participant and we are given permission to become active contributors to our own creative process.” —Crimson Rose
To celebrate this auspicious birthday, please don’t send flowers (though if you want to set up a table outside your door like Mr. Stow’s olde English friends and give away tasty victuals under a bower of blooms, please have at it). As Caveat likes to say, “Burning Man is a verb.” It’s not something you consume, like a cake, it’s more about the baking and the making, and the sharing. So how about we all get out there and make some Burning Man this weekend: to honor departed friends, to reconnect with campmates, or just to celebrate a Midsummer’s (or, if you’re antipodean, Midwinter’s) evening. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Gather your favorite humans and have an old-fashioned watch party of Larry: A Burning Man Story, a film by Profiles in Dust chronicling the life and influence of Burning Man’s founder. Featuring rare archival footage and interviews with Larry’s friends, family and colleagues, the film will stream on demand from Kindling starting June 20.
If you’re in the Bay Area on June 20, join the East Bay Burners’ Untrash the Planet and Dancepark to de-MOOP a stretch of greenery along the San Francisco Bay. All are welcome for a day of dancing and civic fun.
Burning Man is happening right now, wherever you happen to be reading this. Check out our new “365: A Burning Man Field Guide” — a veritable cornucopia of ideas for Burning NOW (yes, now) wherever you are.
What’s YOUR once upon a time at Burning Man? How were you inspired to bring more immediacy, creativity and wonder into the world? Share your stories with the Burnerverse. Add your Larry Harvey memories, musings, photos, or videos to our Thanks Larry page. Post your solstice celebration on social media using #thankslarry, #larryharvey, and #burningsolstice.
Cover image: Baker Beach Burn, 1989 (Photo by Stewart Harvey)