Saturday, March 6, 2010

Burning Man

To try and describe in one sentence, or paragraph, or page or book exactly what Burning Man is would be a fruitless endeavor.  You can't ever sum up everything that Burning Man is about, everything that it means to someone who has never been there, who has never experienced it.  You can't explain to someone WHY you want to spend a bunch of money to camp in the middle of the desert for a week straight.  Why you WANT to go somewhere where you have to endure scorching temperatures and hurricane-force winds, where the day-long dust storms kick up sand with the consistence of baby powder, where nighttime temperatures can touch freezing and the only facilities available are porta-potties.

My best attempt as describing Burning Man is as follows:

"Burning Man is the end result of sticking 50,000 dirty, smelly, naked, drugged-up hippies into the middle of the desert for a week"

I can't hope to cover the history, evolution, rules and regulations of Burning Man in just this post, so for those who've never heard of this strange event check out either the official Burning Man Website, or the Wikipedia entry

In contrast to my usual habits of photographing everything, I too hardly any pictures the whole time I was there.  I felt it was best to try and get out and experience the place, rather then doing what I usually do and hide behind the camera.  The few pictures and videos I did get I took with my little point-and-shoot camera, which is sealed against dust and water.   The dust on the playa is super-fine, and will quickly ruin any non-sealed cameras, especially when used in the midst of one of the frequent dust storms.  Some of the storms can last all day, and well into the night.

When the wind does die down enough, or for whatever reason the air clears, you can really get a look at the general weirdness and chaos that is so central to the Burning Man experience.

And at night . . . nighttime is when Burning Man really comes alive.

I shot that video while on one of the many Mutant Vehicle party buses that roam the playa during the night, most of them blasting endless techno, dance and party music at volumes that cannot be described.  The occasional orange flashes you see illuminating the crowds are various flame-throwers mounting to vehicles that people occasionally fire off.  Because, you know.  Fire.

Speaking of fire . . .

Burning Man gets it's name for the 80-foot-tall wooden effigy of a man that is constructed at the center of the city every year.  During the week, the Man serves as a central meeting point, directional market, destination and hang-out spot for the city.  Under the man is a complex framework of wood, built by artisans and craftsman for weeks beforehand.  At night, the man is illuminated with neon.

But on Saturday night, everyone, literally everyone, all 50,000 people, they all gather around the man, waiting for the fireworks to start.

Once the fireworks are over, the real pyrotechnics go off . . .

And the man burns.

The BRC Rangers keep the crowd back until the large portions of the structure fall (which took FOREVER this year), but once they do, you can get as close as you want to the piles of still-burning embers.  Including running through them, if you so wish.

And, in my case, being a total klutz and face-planing in the middle of the run.

And yes, it was hot.  It was REALLY, REALLY hot.  I was wearing my full-length canvas trenchcoat, but in the few seconds it took me to get from one side of the fire to the other, my face was starting to single and I was in quite a lot of pain.  Tripping up and face planting in the middle of this is the last thing you want to happen, and I'm quite lucky I didn't go down into a pile of embers.

After waiting a couple of minutes for the fires to die down a bit more, I made another, slower pass. 

By this time, it was cool enough that there were a couple of spots where one could stand for short periods of time without getting too badly roasted, and as long as you didn't stay in one spot to long, it was safe enough to wander through the rest of the embers.  Some parts were still very hot, such as the last part where I had to dart quickly between two large piles.

And of course, if you're going to have a REALLY BIG fire, what are you going to need?  A REALLY BIG marshmallow!

Everyone, meet April!  About a month before the burn, she and a friend spent the better part of a week melting, and then re-forming store bought marshmallows to create a giant 10-lb marshmallow, which was mounted on the end of a ten-foot pole.

She and I and some of her friends ended up hanging out for the next few hours, alternately roasting the mallow, and offering it up for anyone who wanted to pick some off and enjoy some delicious, gooey sugary goodness.

It took us the better part of three hours to actually hand out that much marshmallow, and when we were almost done and down to a small fist worth, we let it catch on fire and drop into the embers, as small sacrifice/tribute to the Man.

To many people, the burning of the Man on Saturday night signifies the end of the event; Many camps start packing up and heading home the next day.  But for me, there's still one more thing that I have to stay around for, one more event that much more perfectly ends the week.

The burning of the Temple.

Constructed in the desert half a mile city north of the man, the Temple is an exquisitely built structure that is intended to be a monument to . . . everything, I suppose.  It's a tribute to whatever it needs to be for the people visiting it at the time.

Picture (not mine) -

At night, it is illuminated by a large tube of light in the central core, and smaller lights to accentuate the detailed scrollwork in all the panels.

(Photo hot-linked under Creative Commons license, copyright Neil Girling)

The amazing detail and effort that have obviously gone into making the temple only make it's eventual fate more poignant.  The Man is definitely an impressive exercise in structural engineering, but when you really examine the temple and see how much labor must have gone in to making it . . . it's makes it even more beautiful know that it will be gone at the end of the week.

While most of Black Rock City has an air of energy, of expectation, of a barely contained party, the atmosphere surrounding the temple is completely different.  Rarely do you hear laughter, everyone speaks in hushed voices, and sometimes all you can hear is people weeping.  The temple carries with it an air of sadness, of loss, of real pain.  Inscribed on every square inch of the temple are notes to loved ones passed, occasionally accompanies with pictures, locks of hair, hand-written notes sealed with wax, and the occasional personal possession.  The temple is where many people bring their last thoughts and feelings for those that they have lost; for them, the temple is where the mourning can come to a climax, and the healing can being.

In the time before the Man burned, there was laughter, music, it was a party.  All of the theme camps turned out, music was played, there were fireworks.  When the Temple burns, there is none of this.  All of the theme camps and dance clubs int he city shut down for an hour.

the temple is burning - burning man 2009
Photo © Tristan Savatier - - Used by Permission

When the Temple burned, 20,000 people watched on in dead silence.  Occasionally a massive scream would spontaneously rise from everyone at the same time, quieted just as quickly as it was raised, and the playa was returned to silence again.  While most people stood to watch the Man burn, most sat for the temple.  The roar of the fire drowned out most minor noises, but through the crackleing you could occasionally hear someone praying, or chanting.

As I sat watching the flames consume the structure, a girl, roughly my age or a couple years younger, came and sat by my side.  I don't know if it was intentional or not; the crowd was tightly packed up front, but there was plenty of open space around me.  She never acknowlaged my preseance, never said anything, never as much as stole a sideways glance at me.  She simply sat down and watched with me, the flames reflecting off her tear-filled eyes.  I desperatly wanted to say something to her as she knelt there and wept.  I wanted to hold her, to tell her that it was going to be okay.  To tell her that while it was probably never going to stop hurting, it would eventually hurt less often.  I wanted to take her hand and just let her know that I was there, and even if I couldn't know or understand what she was going through, I could at least understand her pain;  That we would never stop loving in secret those that we had once loved out loud.

But I didn't.  I wish I had, I so wish I had.  But I just sat there, staring ahead into the flames as she sobbed at my side.

Eventually she got up and left, and I never saw her again.  Maybe that was all she needed, someone else to just be there and not acknowladge her.  I hope so.  I hope she got the catharsis she needed, and that she's doing okay, wherever she is in the world.

When the structure of the temple collapsed, the heat was of the fire was intensified as it was collected into a smaller space.  The massive updrafts caused hundred-foot-tall tornadoes to be birthed in the fire, torn out by the wind to dissipate in the crowds.

Once most of the structure had fallen in on itself, the temple guardians released the crowd to get as close to the fire as we wanted.  Someone in a silvery fire-suit took a brazen stroll through the still very active flames, but the heat was too intense for any of the fire runs that followed the Man's collapse.

Many people had brought other things that had to be burned in the Temple's fire.  Keepsakes, mementos of people and places, some smaller bits of art.  I saw lockets tossed in; someone threw a box of what looked to be letters and photographs.  Some had paintings, or articles of clothing.  Smaller, weightier things could be tossed the distance required to get them into the flames.  But the fire was still intense, too intense for people close enough to throw many of the larger, bulkier items into the flames.  Which was where the firefighters came in. 

I don't know who they were, or where they were from.  But standing watch around the perimeter of the embers were a squad of firefighters in full gear; hats, masks, jackets, oxygen tanks, everything.  They weren't there to keep people out of the fire; they were there to lead people in.

One at a time, someone would step out of the crowd, often bearing unmistakable signs of real, intense loss.  Clutching something that may have been the most treasured thing in the world to them at one point, but now needed to be burned.  Three or four firefighters would stand in a semi-circle in front of this person, arms linked, and slowly back into the flames, escorting the person into the fire.  They were using themselves as shields, using their bodies to protect the griever from the heat.  

I still remember the exact shape of these firefighters, their forms silhouetted by the still-raging inferno behind them, bringing people who were obviously in tremendous amounts of pain into the fire.   People who's faces were etched with agony, often streaked with tears, being protected by these hulking creatures that were so impervious to the flames.  They did this over and over, mourner after mourner stepping out of the crowd, into a protective enclave of firefighters to make the trip into the burning ruins.

I don't know who they were, or where they were from.  But what those firefighters gave to those people was one of the most moving things I have ever seen.

A couple of hours later, well after the remaining structure had imploded in on itself, when the large crowd had dispersed and all that was left were a maybe a thousand people gathered around the still smoldering embers, I had a chance encounter with someone I'd seen a couple times earlier in the week. We'd first run into each other, I think, at the Black Rock Diner, which serves grilled cheese sandwiches from 1am-3am every day.  And then again at the Man burn, when April and I were wandering around handing out bits off her giant marshmallow. Previously, she'd always been with her boyfriend, but tonight she was alone.

We stood with each other in silence for a short while, before finally settling in together. We talked for a long time, sitting close, occasionally turning so that we'd bake evenly in the heat from the embers. A conversation that took every possible turn that it could have taken, about life, hopes, dreams, where we were going. As the night began to cool off, we moved closer to each other, partly for the warmth, but partly because we had to. It came to a head late in the night, when we were already so close to each other that it was comical, our faces maybe six inches apart when I finally kissed her.

Soon after, I discovered that she wasn't wearing anything under her trenchcoat.

When it was time to leave, we collected our things, and I walked her back to her camp (And, uh, her boyfriend. Shit, I'm "That guy"). Standing there in the silent street, well away from the noise of the Esplanade, we kissed one last time . . . and that was that.

I didn't go back to my tent that night. I walked back to the temple, the embers cool enough to walk on by now, and stood there alone until the sky started to lighten, lost in my own thoughts, trying to put the last week into the context of the world.  I don't know if I'll ever be able to.

1 comment:

  1. this is chaz. and there are reasons fire has been the element of passion in every meaning of the word since time out of mind, i'm glad you where touched by fire, it is something to change to soul