An Experiment in Temporary Community

"GeoEye" view of BRC 2012

Last August fell host to 2012’s Burning Man. As it has been for years, it was held in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. As stated on the official Burning Man website (www.burningman.com) it is “an experiment in temporary community”.

To create a broad idea of what we’re talking about here, this year saw almost 70,000 ticket-holding participants of all ages, religions, shapes and sizes. The event is so vast, that a detailed map entailing a sophisticated level of planning and civil engineering is needed just to find the address of your camp. The event has a radio station, an emergency services department including an ambulance fully staffed by professional EMTs, over 1,000 “porto-potties”, an airport, a DMV on steroids, a post office, and a local intranet with a full Black Rock City directory of places, people, events, etc. open to the public at stations across the map.

The entire event is held under several important constraints. The main constraint being that it is a “pack-it-in, pack-it-out” event which means that literally nothing is there in the middle of the dessert just a few weeks before the event and nothing is left just a few weeks afterwards and we’re talking about an area of land that is several kilometers in diameter and housing some 70,000 campers. What this means is that everyone (well, almost everyone) is constantly conscious of the garbage that they are producing and what they do with it as well as how they separate the different forms of refuse. For example, smokers carry around small, portable and closable ash tray tins. Community kitchens separate dirty “grey” water, biodegradables, plastics, etc. It’s amazing how everyone suddenly cares about these things and takes the time to recycle correctly.

Another major constraint is the weather and (arguably) harsh climate. Being in the high dessert of Nevada it is hot and dry during the day and very cold at night so that everyone must take care of themselves. People are aware of how much water they drink and carry reusable water bottles and they wear warm clothes at night (mostly). There are thick dust storms and it can even surprisingly rain in the middle of a  very hot afternoon. To battle the dust, ‘burners’ wear masks and bandanas to breath through and goggles of different kinds to see through the clouds of alkaline powder. The often times harsh weather forces all ‘burners’ to be responsible for themselves far beyond the usual need back in the ‘real world’. In the midst of such a grand party, people are being more self-reliant than some of them perhaps have ever been before.

Amidst these constraints and a long list of others, people come together as a community and create the comfort of home for each other. Hungry people will always find food, thirsty people will always find water. But even more than that, lonely people will find companionship and bored people will find engagement.

Burning Man plays host to a grand plethora of stages, parties, music genres, bars, domes, tents, workshops and meeting places of all kinds. My favorite way to discover what Burning Man had in store for me was to go off in a random direction and simply to follow whatever caught my eye (or my ear). There is so much human creativity and ingenuity to explore that every turn in the street actually became an adventure. Every new place I would come upon was a setting for a scene and every person I met became a colorful character in the story, every chapter’s ending leaving me with a new lesson to think about.

When you ask a ‘burner’, “so, how was Burning Man?” they will always be hard pressed to answer anything more cohesive than, “it was awesome!” The stories that stay with us after the ‘burn’ lack a frame of reference because everything about the background, or the setting, in Black Rock City can be very different from the ‘normal’ of the ‘real world’. Let me give you an example; At Burning Man many people choose a ‘playa’ name. Mine, surprisingly, was Journeyman. At some point, near the entrance to one of the larger camps two guys walked past me wearing mismatched costume pieces that somehow made me think of a cyberpunk peter pan. One called after the other, “hey Merlin, let’s go find Robot Horde!” In the ‘real world’ that would sound like a very strange thing to say, but at BRC all it meant was, ‘hey friend, lets go find our other friend’. Now imagine an interaction with a fellow  ‘burner’ that spanned over half an hour. How could I even begin to tell you such a story without you going cross-eyed? What this means is that ‘burners’ inevitable find a certain comfort with each other that non-‘burners’ would be hard-pressed just to understand, let alone to emulate. They understand each others’ frame of reference (or, arguably, lack there of). Within this paradigm lies a lesson (or two).

Within Black Rock City there are a great many lessons to be learned and I have indeed learned a great many lessons from my experience at Burning Man.

I learned to be honest. Truly and fully honest with myself and then others. It was as if the entire week was a series of lessons in honesty designed specifically for me. I’m still not the best at it, but I’ve decided to work on that. Practice makes perfect.

I learned that you can see the beauty in people when they allow themselves to be open and to shine. When someone feels that they are accepted by all those around them, that is when they are most beautiful.

I learned some amazing tricks with a contact staff.

I learned that nobody knows more about what you know than you do.

I learned that the heart can’t be sectioned off. Just as you divide your love between your children or your siblings you can (and perhaps should) divide your love between others, in open honesty. We’re supposed to love only one person just because we take them to bed? How can we not love others as well? In a world without enough love in it, who am I , who are we to deny love?

I learned that you have to tell the story enough times that you learn how to construct the book.

I learned that everyone feels negative feelings about many cultural norms and rules in the “real world” and yet almost nobody ever questions their validity. I hereby question.

I learned that if it weren’t for the last minute we’d never get anything done.

I learned that if you want to stay “Mr. Wizard” you have to stay passionate about it.

I learned that people understand me a lot more than I often give them credit for.

I learned that when you have no electricity a typewriter works just fine. Especially in the middle of the desert at night beside a camp fire.

I learned that if you love the world as you would a lover, it will love you back.

I learned a thousand more things that will only occur to me at some point in the future.

Most importantly, I learned that this is how humans really are, when allowed to be themselves, unconstrained by cultural red tape. They are open and accepting, curious and contemplative, innocent and compassionate. It’s amazing how beautiful people can be when they are just themselves.

To end, I should say that I believe that as long as you come with an open mind, Burning Man is for everyone. Therein lies the beauty of it.

Till next time, back home, in Black Rock City.

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