I've been home for a week now, and wrapped in my family and the small town we call home, our time has been a different sort of wonder, filled with walks to the pharmacy for ice cream cones, the crawdad hole for snow cones, the park for night time tennis and bike rides around the running track, evening walks, lazy breakfasts at the BTC with friends, and the basics of maintaining rental properties and a home that has been neglected for most of the past 4 months.
Which is all to say, the fall is a lovely horizon, with pending projects and wallowing in my family, and I need to wrap up Burning Man in my head and here.
I would estimate 40% of the participants of BM expose more of themselves in the desert than they would on a typical US beach. Maybe 10% or less of the gathering went out for complete nudity. A good section of the remaining folks were in very light clothing, shirtless men and bikini clad women.
With the filtering mechanisms that entry to BM gently reinforce, (affluent, high level of body confidence, outdoorsy,) this made for a gathering of athletic, attractive bodies romping around the desert.
With the exception of a few unpleasant and aggressive old men, the nudity made no difference on social interactions. I had a very pleasant chat with a young lady sitting at a picnic table, and only halfway through the conversation about living in parts of the US with very concentrated beliefs and forming close knit groups of friends in an expat-like community, (her in Utah, us in the deep South,) did I notice that what at first glance looked like a shirt was actually a coat of paint.
In all the dust and flesh, the most lingering image I have is of a mid-fifties woman, short, thick, long hair down her back in many small braids, a large, low, and bare chest, covered in dust, dancing on the top of the pier next to the sunken ship, with the most radient, joyful smile on her face.
They were everywhere.
(An aside on me and drugs: I will admit to being more than naive when it comes to drugs. For personal reasons I have kept myself restricted to alcohol and a few teenage cigarettes. While I live an unquestionably blessed life that has nothing to do with my input, I also believe that I am responsible for those things I can control; i.e. what I choose and actively work towards, with long term goals that require doing things now that don't *^*&% up what I would like to do later. Removing inhibitions, or altering my personality with any sort of substance, is taking a greater risk with my hopes and dreams for the future than I am willing to. I'm aware that the foundation for these feelings don't necessarily apply to anyone but me.)
The Federal Bureau of Land Management recently changed the law to increase the citation amount for drug possession from $175 to $525. With the three departments of law enforcement and their drug sniffing dogs working both the front gate and throughout the city during the week, the government made a killing. From all the stories I heard, the officers were everywhere, and pleasant when they confiscated whatever drugs they found and wrote the ticket.
They didn't make a dent. The smell of marijuana was in the air on almost every city street, and I saw a decent amount of cocaine, mushrooms, ecstasy, and on one weird occasion adderall, from which I hope the really great guy who made a mistake and took some has recovered, along with his wrist.
Who knows what else was floating around. I really don't have any thoughts on it, as I feel these substances are each person's choice to consume. It was a safe environment, (in a community sense, the natural environment was terrible from a health and forgiveness perspective,) and nobody was driving or operating dangerous machinery. Just an observation, there were lots of drugs.
BM: Partying and Music
The entire city, form the moment we arrived until we left, with maybe a 30 minute break around 10 am each day, was thumping with the same deafening dub-step beat. All of the dance clubs, (there were many, huge tents, domes, stages with djs, light shows, and massive sound systems,) played the same music. All of the art cars with sound systems and deck parties played the same music. Even though the clubs all had famous dj lineups, posted them, made a big deal about one dj finishing their set and the next one coming on, the music was the same. Pounding beat, the same beat, and every now and again a looped piece of vocal.
I had flashbacks to traveling through India, where all the music seemed to share the same beat as well. There's a good chance, in both cases, it is my untrained ear that can't pick up the nuances, but whatever the reason, I would have killed for some Music. Nicholas, my musical friend who at one time was speaking french with an older lady in a bar and playing her piccolo, another time while we waited in line for another delicious meal in little New Orleans was singing in harmony with a barber shop quartet, and enjoyed the random chanting circle we formed with the boys back at camp, was losing his mind by the end of the week.
That being said, the beat made for some fun, if very repetitive, dancing.
I had heard BM was a money free, and even barter free, community. I understood it in terms of having nowhere to buy supplies, and being unable to sell merchandise or hand out swag.
What I was not prepared for was the bars that were open all week, serving hundreds of people at any given time, for free. The clubs, that brought in tents and stages and sound systems and generators and light shows and hosted a week long dance party, for free. The street from New Orleans that had a bakery, bar, restaurant, and coffee shop where you could go get a freshly baked cookie, a shot of whiskey, and cup of cafe au lait, and a big bowl of rice and jambalaya, for free.
These groups came prepared to serve or care for hundreds of people a day, thousands of people throughout the week, in ways that all represented a large financial gift. And that's what it was, because there was no opportunity for financial reward. None. From cases upon cases of liquor, to pallets of food, to all the volunteer time spent serving and cooking and enthusiastically drumming up interest in their respective offerings, these people were giving to the community.
It was beautiful, and even now I don't fully understand it.
This was one of my top reasons for attending BM, to see the amazing engineering feats with such short life spans, to meet the amazing people who create and appreciate them, and to see what these people were thinking.
This was a little harder to get at. The harsh environment, nudity, partying, and drugs did a decent job of distracting from the ideas that drive the whole gathering and the minds that attend. However, they were there, in spades, if you took the time to look.
Most of my best conversations were with my camp mates in our group chats whenever we all found ourselves resting under the shade structures, wandering the city together, or with Nicholas on our drives from and back to Vegas.
There was a Ted talk mid-week with a few interesting participants covering the US health care situation, mystic science vs cutting edge science from a research professor focusing on psychic energy and group energy and its impact on the physical world, and future energy distribution.
I'm in the camp that thinks the psychic energy etc. field is cutting edge science rather than mysticism. I won't get into it here, but think back over every scientific field, and if you go back far enough, each one started out in the unholy/mystic/magical realm.
The energy distribution discussion fell into the gap that often aggravates me about Ted speakers: Let me say over and over again the problem we are solving, that we are going to solve it, and that it needs to be solved. All too often the talks feel like reading a marketing brochure, where there is no worthwhile content.
The problem this speaker outlined was around energy distribution, the inefficiencies of the current grid, and the complete lack of storage capabilities within the grid. It's the problem of all power used now is created now, making for a logistical nightmare when it comes to peak and low demand periods, and the unpredictable nature of the consumer. He said his company, or research team, was working on software and hardware to fix it... full stop.
Batteries? Massive flywheels? Weight and gravity systems? And on the distribution side, there was zero discussion on the waste in conducting inefficiency, alternative metals or wave/particle delivery, simply a statement of the problem, and his people were going to fix it... full stop.
Grrr. Incidentally, a Ted talk in the past couple months by a gentleman from MIT I believe, was fascinating, and addressed a component of the same problem head on, with massive liquid metal batteries that operate at extremely high temperatures, and are the size of storage containers. While displaying a different challenge of the average Ted speaker, i.e. very intelligent and gifted folks with poor public speaking skills, this gentleman came off a conceited and condescending, but got right into the details of how the research of the giant batteries had progressed, what metals were found to interact in the desired fashion, and what sort of energy storage capacity, lifetime wear, etc. the current prototypes were experiencing.
The talk on the US health care system was witty, fun to listen to, and had zero take-aways.
While I did not walk away from BM with the seed of a new company, though that may be a premature conclusion, I did meet people I think will have a role in that in the future, had some great bullshit-cutting sessions with my best friend, and filled my phone with voice memos that only occur to you when you've been driving through the dessert for 15 hours.
Depending on what was being burned, the cleansing, or cathartic, or wasteful sense of the act was all over the place.
In some cases fire was an accentuation to a fixed, and fireproof, piece of art. Case in point the phoenix below, or the many art cars that blew huge balls of fire out of their articulating appendages as they cruised through the dark desert.
I didn't see these burn-barrels at night, but from the heat flowing off them during the day, I imagine they looked amazing at night.
The burning of artwork was interesting, and my feelings were different depending on the piece. Imagine having wandered a field of amazing constructs all day, and then looking up at night to a sea of fire, and not knowing which pieces are gone.
And yet, it obviously speaks to some very fundamental part of us as animals and emotional beings. The lights are fun to watch, the anticipation of the various structural components collapsing gets the same reactions as fireworks or movies with thrilling plot lines, and the communal wind down, after the structure is mostly a pile of coals and the crowd is allowed to approach, is palpable in the quiet drawing in to the heat and the piles of glowing coals.
On some nights the fires were coordinated between many different installations, on others it was one large piece going up.
There were also smaller pieces of art that were burned by the artists, (only the artist, on any piece, has the right to light the fire,) in designated areas. For some reason these felt more personal, and more voyeuristic of the artist's emotional journey, than watching the larger pieces burn. On some level I think I watched the big pieces reduce to ashes and thought, well that's easier to clean up than having to take it all apart and truck it away.
We left before the really large fires, of the two story structure with the man on top, of Wall Street, and of the Temple. I think each of those fires represent a very different feeling, from the last big blow out of a week long party, to a commentary on the economic and social barriers in our country, to the cleansing of a painful emotional burden that is being sacrificed on an altar.
Joy and enthusiasm, likely anger and revenge, and cathartic cleansing.
All from the same basic event.
Borrowing a thought from NM here, it's interesting that in America, to express the kind of emotions that BM allows people to express, you must leave every major city, burn a ton of fossil fuel, spend a lot of money, and hide from the population at large in the middle of the desert. That says something about the current rules, social pressures, conservative mores, of America that I am saddened by. The war on drugs, nudity being inseparable from sex, neighborhood or condo associations enforcing conformity...
At the same time, I'm a fan of monogamy, for me and Alexe, (though I was flattered to be asked how I felt about it while at BM,) and I'm ok with zoning that restricts mobile homes in a historic downtown area...
After a week of letting the senses slowly settle down, the dust settle so to speak, what is resonating with me is a sense of human capacity. Yes the gathering was wasteful, harmful to the environment, exclusive, and unnecessary. Yes it was creative, inclusive, caring, fun, and impressive. But what 50,000+ human beings are able to accomplish, in a week, (with lots of planning and preparation, sure,) is astounding. I have no doubt these people could build the pyramids, the great wall, dig the Panama canal, make it to the moon, or fix all the ills that we face in our current society.
The challenge is: these amazing people are inspired to pour their abilities into this party in the desert. How do we become equally inspired and enthusiastic about feeding, educating, clothing, sheltering, and welcoming everyone else to the party? There's no reason this has to happen in the desert, we've got a whole planet, and there's no logistical reason why every last person on it can't participate in a species-wide state of being that is happy and exciting.
The planet has no resource constraints for our current population. The only resource we're lacking is will.
I'm not sure if that's the core meaning of BM, or if I could simply turn any experience into a reinforcement of my own beliefs.
I don't feel the need to return to BM, but I would encourage anyone to go. The only advise I would offer: if you are in a monogamous relationship, I would highly advise bringing your partner. There are times when the entire city seems to be swimming in pheromones, and having your special someone around to help you clear your head and sleep soundly would be nice. (And walk around with, and talk to, and you know, other things, as Alexe so un-aggressively mentioned a moment ago...)