"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Let's burn!

As the Democratic National Convention gets underway in Denver, it's interesting to note another large gathering in the Great American West which, coincidentally or not, is occurring at the exact same time: once again this week, I will -- in spirit, at least -- be joining the parade of freaks, hippies, seekers, revelers, kindred spirits, and just plain ol' folks as they trek to the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada for the annual Burning Man festival. In the culmination of the event next Saturday night, "The Man" (the iconic stick figure at right, which represents ... well, anything you care to assign to it) will go up in flames in a grand pyrotechnic orgy of chanting, dancing and celebration. Although I've never been in person, I've been fascinated with this event for many years, and hope to make it some day. But the daunting logistics of doing so (not to mention the harsh desert environment of alkali dust which would play havoc with my lung condition) means I will, alas, be postponing the adventure for at least another year.

Burning Man, for anyone who might not know, is a counter-cultural celebration of freedom, art, and community. About 50,000 participants gather annually in the desert about 120 miles northeast of Reno to create Black Rock City, which for seven days becomes the third-largest city in Nevada, and is dedicated to (as their website proclaims) "radical self-expression and self-reliance". They depart leaving no trace of their presence on the playa. Unfortunately, the festival has acquired a somewhat undeserved reputation over the years of being a wild, drug-fueled debauchery of rave music, nudity, and anonymous sex. However, while some of these activities may take place (as they do in any city of this size), most participants are there for more than to just smoke dope and get laid. Indeed, many come with lofty spiritual goals; there will be a full-fledged Krishna temple and Rath Yatra from Puri, India at the site offering mantra meditation, yoga, traditional Indian devotional singing, dance and drumming, blessed food, and the sacred Narsimha Yajna fire ceremony. Assistant Director Rasikananda Das says:
Festival participants are welcome to get married in traditional Hindu style at the Camp. Temple priests will also give Sanskrit names to seekers. A marathon mantra-chanting day will be held at the Camp, which includes chanting "Hare Krishna" mahamantra (great mantra) for a continuous 24 hours. Besides no meat/fish/eggs, other restrictions at Krishna Camp are no sex, no gambling, and no liquor, although the Burning Man festival does not prohibit these.
In many ways, to me and other aging baby-boomers, Burning Man represents the ideals we held dear during our hippie-heydays of the late 60's and early 70's. As Kris Kristofferson wrote and Janis sang back then, "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose", and it has always struck me as ironic that many people flee from freedom, finding it to be empty and foreboding. But at Burning Man, freedom not only allows one to do or be virtually anything for a week as long as you "do no harm to others" (in other words, follow the Golden Rule), participants also use their freedom to create art; the art becomes especially meaningful in that it's both a self-created act of personal expression, as well as being communal at the same time. Gigantic immersive sculptures on the desert floor invite people to not just view the work, but to experience it by interacting and becoming one with it. That may sound hokey, but it's the essence of the event; that all who attend are not merely spectators, but active participants in a massive cultural experiment.

This fact leads to the other guiding principle of Burning Man, that of community. As you may know, the festival is an environment without money, which relies on what is called a "gifting" economy. You bring with you what you need to survive in the desert for a week, and barter, exchange, or give freely with others for anything else. While there's nothing wrong with money as an accepted method of obtaining the goods and services we humans require in a large and diverse day-to-day world, it is also a cold common denominator that reduces us as individuals and forces us into stereotypical roles of "consumers" and "providers". The absence of money at Burning Man strips away this impersonal shell and encourages people to be generous and tolerant: two important ingredients to creating and maintaining community.

So when you put it all together -- art, freedom, community, generosity, and tolerance -- you have the essential elements of what the hippie lifestyle was all about way back then. Forty years later, if those ideals only bring 50,000 people together in harmony for one week a year ... well, I guess that's better than nothing. Plus, where else would a vehicle like the one below be considered "normal"?

For other images from the event, click here or here.


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