Burning Man 2013, Black Rock Desert, Nevada
The morning desert air is fresh and clear. The Black Rock Mountains stretch out darkly along the side of the playa, and a feeling of peace and anticipation pervades this vast art park. It was through here that fifty percent of the wagon trains headed for the 1849 California gold rush passed, with many poignant tales of premature death and suffering in this empty wilderness where not even an insect or blade of grass can live, and where water is the most precious commodity.
But I am here for a celebration of life and creativity, of freedom and self-reliance, of liberation from the dulling effects of our commodified, consumer culture. Here at the annual Burning Man Festival there is no monetary exchange, no barter, no corporate sponsorships or T-shirts. The only things available for purchase are ice and coffee, and the feeling is that some kind of new culture, freed from the psychological and social patterns of materialism, can come into being, even if only for a week once a year.
The only mode of transport is the bike or simple walking. Scattered through the desert are wildly inventive art projects – a revolving circle of apes each hanging by an arm, powered by solar panels; an exquisite rendering of a mosque-like sacred structure painted in lilacs and golds; a tranquil, meditative space where participants can lie on the ground and listen to soothing music as strands of fabric drift over them; a small wooden church lifted at an angle and complete with rusty organ. And in the distance, the Man himself, and beyond the Temple, a wooden series of pyramids where messages of appreciation have been left for the loved and departed.
The desert is not yet scorching, the air is fresh and cool, the playa (or ancient lake bed) is mostly empty. It’s my favorite time at Burning Man before the frenetic pumping of electronic music throbs through the overheated air. The silence and majesty of the natural environment in which this wild, bacchanalian festival occurs pervades the desert.
Soon the city will awaken from the night’s revels, the mutant motor vehicles will begin to slowly roam the geometric streets with their outrageous recreations of three masted schooners, giant sharks, stage coaches and horses, or – one of my favorites – a simple motorized couch that conveys its twin occupants around the four square mile city beneath the shade of a parasol, as they sip martinis and appear to marvel at the unending weirdness and creativity of this unique, liberated, city where virtually any form of human self-expression can be found around each corner.
Burning Man is both spiritually awakened, and highly eroticized. Each morning there are numerous classes for yoga and meditation and a holistic perspective permeates most of the afternoon educational offering where wise Burners often shelter beneath shade structures from the unrelenting heat of the mid-day sun. But these are no ordinary classes in emotional freedom or shamanism or chi kung. Some of the women are topless, a totally naked man strolls by, and brilliant skimpy costumes adorn many attractive people. Native Americans feathered headdresses, ancient Egyptian neck ornaments, exotic objects from no known culture born straight from the expanded imaginations of artists in altered states of consciousness – all of these and more appear in an endless round of unprecedented sights, pulsing sound, the unique feel of scores of thousands of people meeting in an open-hearted spirit of freedom where radical inclusivity is a core principle and everyone – regardless of ethnicity, age, sexual preference, or love of cross dressing –is welcome whether spiritual seeker, erotic adventurer or both.
Down on the Esplanade, the main dust road that runs along the inner center of the horse shoe shaped city, Sacred Spaces Village sits comfortably virtually side by side with Slut Garden. A quiet but detectable influence of entheogens, or psychedelic substances, permeates a significant part of the city. Old concepts of the sacred and the profane fall away. Here in this 21st Century landscape there is no contradiction between every form of sexual exploration and multiple paths to spiritual and mystical development. Intense self-reliance in this extreme, unforgiving environment sits comfortably with extreme self-expression. Nothing, it seems, is barred except the overt smoking of marijuana, something closely monitored by the authorities of the Bureau of Land Management
But little of that old attitude of animosity between police and festival goers is still apparent. In fact, one of the most moving moments of my time at Burning Man was the police procession to the Temple of Whollyness to honor one of their fallen comrades. The blue and red flashing lights of the convoy of police cars emerging through the dust storm, the silent dignity of the thousands of Burners who awaited them at the pyramid, beaming support, the simple decision of the established authorities to use the Burning Man temple as a legitimate and moving way to honor a comrade, was touching and soulful. The magic of this brilliant communal creation was at work again.
As I return to the default world of New York City, about as far as you can get from the counter culture extravaganza that is Burning Man, my psyche is filled with the constant rhy
thm of pulsing music, the spontaneous warmth and open-heartedness of Black Rock City dwellers where everyone is a possible new friend and connection, the overwhelming beauty of
so many of the participants, and the exquisite results of the liberation of female sexualityto new levels. Perhaps most of all I am heartened by the holistic consciousness that seems everywhere – even among the countless bars , lounges and chill spaces. People today in their Twenties and Thirties, the majority of Burners, are clearly deeply engaged with questions of meaning, with the depths of the soul, with ancient spiritual practices. And in Burning Man they are creating an outline of a new world without money, commodification, passivity or exclusivity. The liberated human spirit, given the freedom to express itself artistically, socially, and communally, is creating the outline of a totally compelling new culture. The ten guiding principles of Burning Man, from gifting, radical self-reliance, and immediacy to leaving no trace, all create a context in which huge creativity, ecology and open spirituality can flourish. The rest of the world gazes on from a distance in awe and wonder, mixed perhaps with a little envy. Burning Man is currently possessed of tremendous charisma and fascination for millions, and with good reason. It’s not just the nudity, the art, the non-stop partying. This event may be the greatest show on earth, but it’s also the world’s greatest week-long experiment in being human in a new way – a way that points toward a brilliant potential future. And for that I, and the other 68,000 attendees, can only be grateful.