The first night there, I watched the Opening Ceremonies, which included a cool performative dance around The Man involving a long, red silk banner. Like, a couple yards across and at least thirty yards long. The dancers swirled and swished it through the air. As the dance wound down, the lead dancer performed a solo piece at each of the four entrances to The Man’s pagoda (this year there was a structure built around Him). The entrance I was watching from (viewing space was VERY limited, I was outside the pagoda with a number of others, peering in through this entrance) was the last of the four, and the dancer slowly sashayed out into the watch crowd. We made way for her and once she broke free of us she yelled “Follow me!” and kept going, holding one end of the silk banner overhead.
I decided I wanted in on this, and this sound like an invitation, and dammit, the end of the banner was dragging on the ground, and that is not appropriate for a ceremonial artifact! So I grabbed one corner and followed. About 8-10 other people followed suit, and soon we were marching out into the Playa, banner stretched out to it’s full length and lifted overhead. None of us knew were we were going, but it was a ways. I began talking to one of my neighbors after a while, and made an exploration-friend for the night. Eventually we reached The Temple, were we concluded the Opening Ceremony by delivering the banner to it’s entrance (only the dancer and two helpers were allowed in the perimeter, it was still under construction).
And that’s how I became one of a handful of people that was a part of the Opening Ceremonies. All it took was luck, and openness to jumping into something new. It set the tone for my week, and it’s a great encapsulation of the ethos that makes Burning Man what it is.
When anyone asks me what’s the most powerful thing at Burning Man, I always answer “The Temple.” I went to visit it on my third day. I did not know what it was. I thought it was just another art installation (albeit a gigantic one). I did not except to find what I did, right in the middle of this gigantic celebration of art and joy and partying. The fact that I didn’t know what I was walking into amplified the impact of the place, so I won’t say much about it, or post pictures. It was intense. I had to eventually just walk away, because I realized I would not come to grips with anything for as long as I stayed there. I will go back every year, but I will only go once per year. I encourage everyone to visit it at least once if/when they attend, preferably after it’s been open for a couple days.
Our camp gathered to watch the climactic burning of The Man as a group. Afterwards, we trekked to just outside The Temple for a camp tradition, which I guess one could call a mini-ritual. Basically it consisted of gathering around a campfire and briefly speaking about what we’re grateful for. It was joyous and felt very intimate, and was the second-best event of the week for me (behind my initial visit to The Temple detailed above).
cw: this next part addresses a death at Burning Man
This isn’t a highlight, but I guess it has to be addressed somewhere. I did see the guy who ran into the fire. At first I thought he was just a streaker that broke through the perimeter. But he ran almost directly toward the flames, ducking and weaving past the emergency personnel that attempted to stop him. I think I realized when he was a few paces away what was going to happen, and I saw him flop right into the fire. They say he “dived in”, and I guess that’s true, but it was really more of an arms-outstretched full-frontal flop. As soon as he went down I figured he was gone. The fire is INSANELY hot. It was (mildly) painful even from the perimeter a hundred yards away. I can’t imagine anyone surviving for even a few seconds in that blaze.
I guess a lot of people took this hard, but I dunno. It was at a distance of a hundred yards, and it was all in silhouette. And to run into that hot of a fire takes serious determination. I want everyone to live as long as they’d like, even if that’s infinitely long (I hope to be around for thousands of years, at least). And with that comes the acceptance that some people will want to stop going on at some point, and they have the right to end their lives when they want. It’s a basic human right. I can understand wanting to go out in such a glorious way. So I didn’t have any negative emotional repercussions from this myself.
I’m close to someone who’s served in a warzone, and has seen friends involuntarily blown into multiple pieces. I’ve watched bloody depictions of death in Hollywood full-color close-ups. This just didn’t compare. I fervently hope that that man actually made an informed, rational decision, rather than losing control of his emotions while under the influence of too many unfamiliar drugs. But in terms of emotional hurt, this didn’t remotely compare to the ocean of grief that drowned me when I visited The Temple.
I feel sorry for that man’s family, especially if he didn’t warn them what he planned. And I’m upset that emergency personnel were injured pulling him from the fire. But I think only extraordinarily delicate people would have been traumatized by witnessing this. Or I dunno, maybe I’m just callous.
It was interesting watching how humans act in an environment where there is almost nothing to fear, no resources to fight over, and no material wants. I realize this is just one small aspect of how people will choose to act once free of fear and want. But it gives me a lot of hope for how well we’ll handle a post-scarcity future. I no longer fear that we’ll degenerate into ennui and nihilism. As Cory Doctorow said, Burning Man is a trial-run for a post-scarcity society. And it is glorious, and fun, and I think humanity will love it. I am, for the first time, earnestly looking forward to it. :)