Hunka Hunka Burning Wood

A spark-by-spark description of this year's Burning Man

After breakfast on Saturday, we wander Black Rock, taking pictures and talking to the celebrants. In the center plaza we drink Bitches Brew, offered by a woman named Andrea. When asked what effect the spicy lemon-and-ginger concoction has, she laughs, "You better have a condom."

A woman in a short, diaphanous negligee, her body painted white so that she looks like a Greek statue come to life, moves through the crowd, graciously feeding people grapes. On top of an old ambulance, two seminude women pose gracefully for a knot of admiring photographers.

That some have come to Burning Man to watch and some to participate is evident. But the line between the two is often blurred. When a caravan of nomadic dancers clangs into the center of camp to the jangle of finger cymbals and tambourines, the milling spectators join in their ululation.

On the western edge of Black Rock, I find Reverend Al huddled beneath a tarp in the Los Angeles Cacophony Society encampment. He's organized L.A. Cacophony's offering this year: Toyland, a collection of Radio Flyers, baby dolls, and wooden duckies all painted with gunpowder-laced paint and filthy with fireworks. It will go off Saturday night in a blaze of preschool perdition.

Reverend Al's been to every Burning Man since it moved to Black Rock in '91; I ask him how this year's Man compares.

"It's bigger, badder, hotter," he laughs dryly, "and eviler in a lot of ways. The theme camps are bigger. Everyone seems to be competing with what they did last year."

The theme camp was invented a couple of years ago by S.F. Cacophonist Peter Doty, who showed up as a hard-drinking Saint Nick, host of Christmas Camp. Last year there were a handful of theme camps; this year there are 30, which illustrates the exponential growth of the Burning Man. Every year, attendance doubles. Last year, 1,500 people showed up.

"Sometimes it felt like a mob," Harvey admits.
So this year's goal is to prove that the Burning Man could remain a participatory experience for everyone.

"We consciously included a lot of circles," explains Harvey, who has leased the land for the weekend from the federal government. "The camp is laid out like a compass." Harvey sees the circle motif as both functional and symbolic. "A circle is unity."

All the symbolism doesn't stop the parade of thunderstorms that sweeps the playa on Sunday afternoon. Patrick and I don't even bother with the formality of shelter. We let the cool rain wash us, the closest we come to a shower all weekend. Lightning strikes the desert floor a couple of miles off. The temperature dips, and we find the rain hardening to hail. Love-scarred Patrick lets loose a war whoop to wake the dead, running his hands again and again through his close-cropped hair, as if he were washing away more than just desert grit.

When the clouds part, Black Rock is in a shambles. But no one cares. There's an air of victory about the camp. A cheer rises from the mud, defiant, giddy, drunk. Naked revelers crawl from tents and, yes, splash in the puddles. Clothes are wrung out and hung from tent poles. There is nothing to do but wait for it all to dry, which takes about a half-hour in the seemingly reinvigorated sun.

A double rainbow forms over the camp, and Mike dons the pope suit he has brought for just such a beatific moment. As Sunday afternoon reddens toward evening, we are visited in our camp by Don, the decrepit anarchist. Lured like a Trotskyite moth to the red pro-labor T-shirt I'm wearing, it's not long before this obese, aging, self-proclaimed radical with bad knees is lying in front of our tent, eating our food, and bragging about the motel room he's booked back in Gerlach. Mike wants to gut him, but I remind him of the moral obligations he's under as pontiff. We decide to lie instead.

Improvising a story about having to meet some actual humans, we shake Don and make for the Burning Man.

Already people are gathering in the skeletal shadow of the offering. From the center of camp, the Mermen weave their long, dreamy surf yarns that float on the still dusk air like the almost palpable anticipation.

Darkness seeps across the sky as the crowd gathers in a circle around the Man. Beneath the erect, combustible effigy, which is animated with blue and red neon nerves, nude fire dancers spit plumes of flame into the night. Fireworks splay among the stars; eerie red flares announce the approach of sacrifice.

What does this four-story wood-and-neon man mean? Is he the sacrificial lamb? The Wicker Man? The life given to ensure life's return?

While many explain the ritual of the Burning Man as "pagan," Harvey prefers the word "primal." One of his theories, and he has several, is that fire was the first social focus of human culture -- our hominid forebears huddled for safety and companionship around a flame -- and because of this, it still burns as a potent metaphor at the base of every human brain.

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