As the countdown to Burning Man proceeds apace, I am struck once again by the (perhaps false, I’m really not sure) dichotomy between getting shit done in the world and heading out to the desert for two weeks of I-don’t-know-what. I’m a cynic. I’m not sold on the everlasting rhetoric of a desert festival being the most profound and life-altering experience imaginable. I would reserve that honour for what seem to me to be more meaningful events like meeting my newborn nephews, hunting with indigenous islanders, experiencing myself as the universe in meditation, a couple of near death experiences. touching my grandfather’s feet when he passed.
I’m also suspicious of the environmental impact of trucking tens of thousands of people and all of their stuff out to the desert, building some gargantuan structures and then burning them down. Add to that the very real change I know could be wrought if the time effort and money that went into Burning Man (that I’m going to conservatively estimate at close to $150 million in aggregate by the time you add up the cost of the event itself – $25 million in 2014, and the average spend of $2000 by 65,000 people) was deployed elsewhere. Like a $150 million endowment to a startup fund, for instance. If you know me at all, you will understand my reservations.
And while this is my first Burn, making me a ‘virgin’ – you know, just like somebody eating their first burger, or owning their first cell phone, or falling down their first set of stairs, is also, technically a virgin – I’m definitely not a burner. I’m just Cameron, headed out to the desert to see what I will see. I reject all specious notions of identification associated with one’s attendance at an event or subscription to a set of values that are universal and timeless – not bounded and temporal.
Yet there can also be no denying that Burning Man is more than just a festival, It’s a cultural phenomenon that has had far reaching impacts for decades within the communities I move. I’ve spent a not inconsiderable amount of time in the desert and it’s a great leveler, regardless of how large your RV, or how expensive your art car, or how spangly or short your shorts. When a large group of people come together in an environment whose singular purpose is to knock you down, dry you out and whisk up your withered corpse in a biblical storm of dust and annihilation, it’s inevitable that they will join together in ways that seem unlikely under normal circumstances. When some of the sharpest minds and creative hands and compassionate hearts of our time extol the virtues of Burning Man, it’s impossible to ignore its significance, no matter what stories my brain might tell me, or blog posts circulate about how Burning Man has lost its way (an opinion that defies the very principles you are tacitly agreeing to in attending the event, so, whatever).
The artistic endeavours are works of genius. Search Google Images for Burning Man and you’ll discover millions of photos that will drive home the idea that this might be the greatest creative event in history, and it happens year-after-year and shows no sign of slowing http://www.rsvlts.com/…/these-30-photos-might-change-your-…/ . I can’t wait to see that, to be immersed in it, to meet the artists and engineers who can not only conceptualise these phenomenal, experiential artworks at scale, but can also construct them, ship them and reconstruct them in the middle of the desert.
Not to mention the logistics of creating a city in the desert and then disappearing it again with absolutely no trace that it was ever there. That’s some sort of jedi-level magic right there, worthy of the deepest of bows, especially to those who remain behind for months and pick over every square inch of desert to ensure that ‘leave no trace’ means exactly that.
And there’s more, so much more I’m certain, that I have no way of articulating until I’ve gone in and through the experience and taken a little time to reflect.
I’m heading out a week early to help build my camp – something I’m definitely looking forward to. I’d rather get to know some folks in getting-shit-done mode (my preferred mode) than let’s-get-high-as-fuck-and-party-like-it’s-1999 mode. I’m more interested in action than proselytization, yet I’m also looking forward to getting my mind bent by an experience many tell me is impossible to put into words.
It will be amazing, eye-opening, mind-blowing, of that I have no doubt. It’s on the bucket list, I guess, not that I really have one, but it’s definitely something I’m looking forward to experiencing, and I’m going into it as open-minded and as open-hearted as I can, which is all I can really ask of myself. I have some practical, values-aligned and deeply connected friends who’ve been to and from Burning Man for a number of years, all of whom swear by it’s significance. Some of them aren’t going this year because they’re busy getting shit done in the world, and I find myself wondering if I’m wasting my time and money and energy when I should/could be focused on taking care of business, and using my gifts to catalyse meaningful change in the world.
But that’s what I do. I create an artificial distinction between work and fun, between pragmatism and hedonism. And if I truly believe that there is no separation between ‘work’ and ‘life’ when you are doing and being what you love, then this preparation for Burning Man is not in vain.
It’s reminding me that wherever I go, there I am, and that this is just another place, another time, where I get to show up and be myself. And set myself on fire. Again.