Tag Archives: Burning Man

My Burning (Man) Thoughts and Reflections

The original Burning Man arts and music festival is held at the end of August in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. What makes this particular festival unique is that there are no paid performers. The art and entertainment of many kinds is brought into the desert by the participants themselves for the benefit of other participants.

When I started attending in 2003, the paradigm worked well. There were few “just spectators”. In a city of 25,000, there was art, warmth, sharing and cooperation wherever you went. The week was pure fun and life-affirming.

The attendance is now on the scale of 70,000 people, and attitudes are different. I won’t go so far as to say that the original culture is completely lost, but it’s being kept alive by an ever shrinking percentage of “experienced” participants, “Burners” if you will.

Crowded art car 11 years ago.

By way of example, art cars typify this culture loss in a nutshell. In earlier years, art cars would stop for random attendees and take them to where ever they happened to be going. That was the whole point of Burning Man – art cars were created to share with other participants. Now, one can ask an art car for a ride and the response will typically be “it’s only for our camp,” even though it’s nearly empty. The idea that sharing includes the community as a whole has been diminished into exclusive cliques that bring bars and art only for their own campmates. The culture of collective cooperation is evaporating like moisture in a hot desert.

Burning Man is still an experience to be garnered. The scale of the event alone is a sight to behold. It is now the size of my childhood town. The fact that out of empty desert, a small city comes alive,  and then evaporates in a matter of days, is in itself a wonder and an affirmation of human industry. The fact that Burning Man is the largest Leave No Trace event in the world is another unmatched achievement. The variety of art, sharing and gifting is expansive. All these things are worth experiencing.

Burning Man has spawned an entire world of much smaller, much more intimate, participant-created festivals based on the original culture. These are called “regional” Burning Man events. Some are sanctioned and official;  others are not.

For us, these regional events are where the heart lies. They have the culture and the personal interactions that were the very core of the original festival. We’re thrilled to attend these Burner events we find everywhere in the world.

Burning Man and the World

DSC02315The Burning Man Festival is, at its core, an arts and music festival, but with a twist. The price of admission only supports the infrastructure. No one is paid to entertain, and there is nothing to buy or sell. The twist is that the festival must be created by the attendees.

Normally, one goes to a music festival to enjoy the paid talent. At Burning Man, artists and musicians do not get paid. Everyone who goes is expected to be a participant, not a spectator. The audience and the performers are one and the same. Everyone is encouraged to bring “something” to the festival, and it can be almost anything. In a temporary city of 60,000 inhabitants, it really is almost anything.

DSC02353We have seen art of all kinds, great musical performances, circus acts to rival the Cirque du Soleil, magicians, poetry slams, interactive kinetic sculptures and “art cars” (vehicles that have been mutated into art). Groups of people come together to create bars and food stalls, some of them pop-up. Imagine someone giving you a freshly made Smore in the middle of the night in the open desert. We’ve had homemade mead and pizza fired in a mobile wood oven, all of which was brought on site and gifted.

Anyone who attends must take an active role in the festival, or the festival just doesn’t exist. From personal experience, the act of creating for others’ enjoyment and entertainment is supremely rewarding. It’s a stage with immediate response and appreciation. Even volunteering for the infrastructure is both necessary, appreciated and personally enjoyed.

DSC02331One incredible aspect of Burning Man is that it has spawned “regional” events all over the world. A regional event is a smaller, local festival based on the same principals as the original. This tends to create a “community” without national boundaries. On our travels, we have found “Burners” (people who have attended a Burning Man style festival) everywhere. It’s a common ground that makes for instant friendship.

Sometimes, our random travel brings us near a regional event. We intentionally veered south after Bali, not just for the warm weather, but also to attend New Zealand’s regional event – KiwiBurn.

The twelfth annual KiwiBurn, held on the North Island, burned a pretty amazing  woven bamboo effigy. We  enjoyed the proximity to the Rangitiki River for swimming, skinny dipping and mud baths, and forest camping with the occasional sheep passing right through our campsite. Best of all though, are the Burners themselves. We were among other international visitors and friends. We volunteered (participated) for greeter shifts, where we welcomed people “home” and explained the principles of the event to those who hadn’t been to a Burn-style event.

(click on picture for larger image)

Wabi-Sabi Butoh Dance for Two

Related to my last post about Wabi-Sabi, I present two poems for your reading pleasure. The first is by Susan Deer Cloud, who with John Gunther, hosted us in Livingston Manor. The second is by myself. Both poems touch the meaning of wabi-sabi.

Susan Deer Cloud is a mixed lineage mountain Indian from the Catskills. An alumna of Binghamton University (B.A. & M.A.) and Goddard College (MFA), she is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, two New York State Foundation for the Arts Poetry Fellowships, an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant and a Chenango County Council for the Arts Individual Artist Grant. The following poem, Spring Snow, is from her book FOX MOUNTAIN.

Spring Snow

Descending slowly
from Wheeler Hill
north of Kanona …
sometimes braking to gaze
at a couple of horses or at wild
cherry trees a white gouache
in woods edging Amish farm fields …
driving as in a dream, remembering
first time you read Kawabata’s
Spring Snow, the sadness
of its story still drifting down
in your heart, the night tears
of geishas in mountains …
stopping to take a few pictures
of snow like miniature flowers
mirroring the cherry blossoms,
transient beauty
Japanese call Wabi Sabi,
no beauty like it,
soon to melt and float
and fall away …
snow … blossoms …
your white hair.


photo by John Gunther
photo by John Gunther
I Was Missing You Today

Did we ever really have an “us”?
Or was it just an illusion,
A slight-of-hand trick of the heart?
A yank of the table cloth
And I bend over, gather shattered memories,
glue them together like a favorite vase
That appears whole from distance only?
Or vahz, you would say vahz.
My bending becomes falling.
My falling becomes fallen,
My cheek pressed to the cold tile,
Your spike heels tracing their path
Across my back to the exit.
That pain is not erotic for me.
I weep not for having loved you so
But for having learned far too late
That all my tears would not help you grow
Away from the soil of your past.
And all your tears in a flash flood
Of anger and hate carry me
Toward the ocean of no forgiveness.
The rushing current is a throat-song
Echoing in my hollow head.
It's another frequency in my ear
That grows louder every year until
The tinnitus drives me mad.
I consciously slip away from the
Deception that created “us”.
And from the deception that killed “us”.
Our wedding costumes burn
In the Temple of Trash,
And into the desert, a dervish whirling
Fire devil of love, hate, passion and angst
Turns the gathered memories tighter and tighter.
Cooling, I will comb the ashes to find that
Spiritual longing I once held
In my raku-fired heart.
I'll struggle to find the wabi-sabi of “us”.
My tears will muddle the sacred ashes
Which I'll then smear over my blind third eye
To mark the beginning of lent,
The beginning of abstinence,
The beginning of ending.
The beginning.

Burning Man 2011