This year’s “Man” burn was an incredible show of love and gratitude for a fallen founder of Burning Man. Sadly, Larry Harvey passed in April of this year. As expected, the playa was filled with tokens of appreciation for the guy who first burned a modest wooden effigy on a beach in San Francisco. From those humble beginnings in 1986, Burning Man has since grown into a cultural phenomenon that gleefully draws 75,000 people to one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. Your ticket guarantees you a parking spot in the dust, nothing more. It’s on you to self-assemble and survive in a temporary city that seems to magically rise up from the nothingness of a dry lake bed.
Located deep in the Nevada desert, Black Rock City is the temporary home to Burning Man. Residents are subjected to blistering hot sun, high winds and blinding dust storms, some of which can be destructive. Thankfully, the weather was great this year. It was gusty and dusty, but that’s as good as it gets in Black Rock City. From sunburn to freezer burn, many first timers are caught unprepared when/if temperatures plunge into the thirties after sunset. Thankfully we enjoyed unseasonably warm nights this year. It was almost easy to forget that a little dose of weather can have an extreme impact on your desert dwelling experience.
For example, a light rain completely changes the composition of the playa. Add a bit of moisture to the hard-packed, fractured surface and it quickly transforms into a mucky substance that behaves like pancake batter. It stops everything dead in its tracks. If you dare make a run for it, you won’t get far. Within a few steps, your boots will be caked with molten playa, your feet will be as big as tennis rackets and you’ll be stuck in shoes heavy as cement. I’ve seen people wipe-out when their bike frames get packed with playa paste. If you’ve ever been out at sea, that’s what it feels like when you’re stuck on the playa during a thunderstorm. You’re standing on a very large, flat plane, vulnerable on all sides. Which was how I was feeling in 2014, when a bolt of lightning struck just a few yards away from me and a bunch of propane tanks.
Any sensible person would be on the next plane to Cancun. So why do I keep coming back year over year? I think it’s because Burning Man is the vacation that you have to conquer. There’s no wait staff here. There’s nobody to carry your bags, park your car, check your coat, and there’s nobody to tip. If you find yourself in BRC, you’re automatically part of the energy that transforms a lifeless expanse into the thriving metropolis. All of us contribute to the fully-functioning city with all the services that you’d expect to find in any urban setting. There’s even a post office. City workers are mostly volunteers, indistinguishable from paid officials who maintain the delicate balance between freedom and governance. For a city with so few rules, Black Rock is shockingly safe and well-organized. The basic principles of Burning Man—including radical self-reliance, inclusion and leaving no trace, just to name a few—are all part of Larry Harvey’s legacy. And, for participants, it’s more than a hollow pledge. It’s the ethos we live by while out on the playa and attempt to apply in the default world.
For example, you won’t find a single trash can in Black Rock City. Yet, it’s a place where tens of thousands gather in common areas and where not even a stitch of litter is left behind. Now compare that with the aftermath of any event broadcast from a major city. A perky newscaster is happy to squawk about how successful the event was—all while standing in a field that’s peppered with empty cans, bottles and blowing papers. Meanwhile, this is happening in places where trash cans are abundant. Why is that?
After a week of carrying a MOOP bag around to pick up Matter Out Of Place, you develop a hyper-awareness of the litter that’s all around us in the default world. If we see litter on the playa, we pick it up. And if it’s blowing, we chase it down. We always assume its trash, but chances are it’s something of value that was inadvertently dropped in transit. I’ve personally found bike lights, knives, tools, canteens and cameras, all of which I returned, repurposed or gifted to someone in need. If you happen to spot a can or bottle on the playa, chances are it’s unopened and still cold. That’s because MOOP doesn’t stay put for very long.
Can you imagine a world where spotting litter is likely to yield a delightful surprise? It’s already happening in the third largest city in Nevada, but only for one week. Principally because Burning Man calls upon all of us to participate. Even its spectators are readily converted into active agents of change.
Although the event can’t be sold as environmentally friendly, we can only hope that resources consumed on the playa are offset when participants return to their default worlds. Yet, this is incredibly hard to quantify. As a conscious designer of both physical things and end-user experiences, this is the hardest thing for me to reconcile. For one, the massive burns are undeniably bad for the environment and the divided highway that leads in and out of the city is awash in foreign debris. With thousands of cars, vans, buses and RVs all packed to the gills with everything you need to survive, there’s bound to be spillage. All of which has been compounded with the event’s rapid growth.
This year was no exception. In honor of Larry’s passing, no exploding pyrotechnic expense was spared. The fireworks were bigger and more spectacular than ever before, with the abundance of a grand finale that never ended. Well-intended no doubt, but it was much too much in my opinion. Colorful explosions, showers of sparks and whizzing rockets were all going off at an altitude well above the height of the Man. Cool as it was to see what could have been the world’s largest fireworks and pyrotechnic display, I much prefer when all passive entertainment stops once the Man is ablaze. It gives some room for audience participation and personal introspection.
Still, this year ranks as one of the most memorable for me. Stayed tuned for more in my follow-up post.
Until then, thanks for letting me be Frank.