Hunka Hunka Burning Wood

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

"At the tip of the flame," Harvey postulates, "creation and destruction are indistinguishable. Burning Man is most alive at the moment of his destruction."

After what seems an interminable wait, the Man raises his arms to the wild cheers of the assembled. Two torchbearers approach and light the fuses running down his legs. The fire climbs quickly up the leeward side, running along the wooden struts of his torso and arms. As the flames reach his hands, Roman candles sputter from his fingertips, sending rockets hissing over the crowd. Soon his shoulders are engulfed; next his wooden head, swollen with fireworks, explodes in a crackling blossom of sparks and fire.

A tug on the supporting cables and the Man splashes onto the parched earth with a resounding crack, breaking instantly into a thousand burning embers. The crowd surges forward, tightening its circle around the fire, devotees hurling wooden effigies into the flames and dancing like dervishes around the pyre.

A short distance from the burning corpse of the Man is the Fire Lingam, a 30-foot mud phallus created by sculptor Pepe Ozan. The Fire Lingam, its feminine folds and clefts giving it a plantlike, hermaphroditic appearance, has become a recurring feature at Burning Man. It is lighted next, and naked dancers circle its base. Because of its clay and mesh construction, the Lingam burns for some time, glowing like magma.

Another desert attraction awaits the crowd just 30 yards away, a bandstand from which comes the diabolical declaration: "I want to get you hard!" It's San Francisco's Sharkbait, and the band reiterates its declaration repeatedly against the pounding industrial rhythm. A nearby 10-foot-tall wood-and-canvas pyramid is ignited next. In the numinous light of the fire robed figures move, menacing the crowd with pikes from which swing garish pigs' heads. Someone tips over the burning pyramid, sending a stanchion of flame high into the black sky. The drumming lurches into a pounding frenzy, spiraling upward in tandem with the winding gyre of sparks and smoke.

Somewhere behind us, a spectator's comment hovers in the desert night: "It's considerably darker than last year."

Out of the crowd jumps a man dressed only in a short flowing robe fashioned from strips of mylar. He runs around the Lingam, his robe, reddened by the reflected fire, flagging behind him. He completes one circuit of the fiery phallus, and, at just that moment, the structure collapses on itself -- the top half of the Lingam doubling over like a flaccid penis. The flames die down, and mylar man disappears.

The fire and the revelers exhaust themselves, as does the night. Next morning, Labor Day, we pack up our camp, carefully restoring the patch of barren waste it had occupied, and join the Road Warrior exodus across the playa.

Mike switches on the radio just in time to hear Radio Free Burning Man sign off. "That's all for now. See you next year."

Was this Burning Man more evil and destructive than the last? Well, yes; and because of that, Harvey says, "it was much more connected, much warmer. If people were sitting around singing 'Kumbaya,' I'd be distrustful.

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