Why Must This Man Burn?

arms up

Photos courtesy

 Sensory Input Overload

Scorched Pork '97

Burning Man '97
August 31, 1997
Black Rock City, Nevada


Originally, I had thought that it would be cool to watch The Man burn from Pigdog Camp Central. I thought that we were far enough away that we could see it from some perspective and see the scale of everything as it happened.

I was very wrong.

Part One: Gerlach or bust
Part Two: Naked yoga
Part Three: Piss Clear
Part Four: Ishtar
Part Five: Pizza in the desert
Part Six: The Man Burns
Part Seven: Hangover Camp

what's he doin'?

What is 'Snatcher doing?

We trekked out from Binky and MAJ’s encampment across the playa to the place where The Man stood. The only stops were to piss and to smoke illicit substances, but even these times the group never stopped. We simply allowed one of us to fall behind for a few minutes and catch up later. In the time it took for me to untie my monk pants and loose my crystal-clear piss, then retie the drawstring behind my back, The Pigdoggers hadn't gone anywhere, but had simply grown smaller by some strange trick of perspective. It was a simple trick to follow the beacon of the red-shaded flashlight Tjames stole from the Mitchell Brothers’ Theater as it shined toward the heavens from his back pocket.

 There was already a sparse crowd gathered around a loose perimeter encircling The Man. We couldn’t get a hay bale to sit upon, but found a good spot between two bales and had a front-row seat for the festivities.

whee!  lights!

Tjames & Splicer make art

While we waited for everything to start, I discovered that my camera could be set to shutter speeds over one second. I sent Tjames out with his flashlight to wave it around while I took a sixteen-second exposure. Cool. I took several more long exposures of the bicycles and people moving past wearing flashing lights and glowstrings and carrying torches. I made a few of these, and thereafter my camera batteries died.

I was able to take a few more shots, but this essentially retired me from photography for the evening.

A very appealing young woman came up and asked if she could sit in front of ’Snatcher and Ed and Tjames. I half expected them to gruffly wave her away, but instead they made a bit of room, and she came up and sat next to me.

Her name was (and I assume still is) Marga, as well as I could hear over the din. By this time a procession of torch-bearing costumed and naked people had come out prancing and dancing. I commented on how dejected I was that I had run out of batteries. Marga told me that it was probably better; that Burning Man is more fun when you participate instead of observe. This was a concept I was beginning to grok, but I was nonetheless disappointed. Just as I had discovered how to make something new out of my tools of observation, they disappeared.

This was Marga’s fifth Burning Man. I plied her for information. I wanted to know what she thought, why she was here, and what the future of Burning Man could be. I was by this time determined not to return to Burning Man, not because I wasn’t having a great time, but rather because I thought that returning after such an experience would be setting myself up to disappoint. How can one become free again and again? Marga assuaged my fears by letting me in on what comes next:

Coming back to Burning Man takes on a new dimension. The veterans are there to build a new experience for the newcomers. By doing so, they make it fresh for themselves and reinforce and build that freedom for themselves. As with any spiritual experience, after the initial enlightenment, one has to give it away to keep it.

Is Burning Man a spiritual festival? As with anything else, the answer lies within the individual. Looking back over the experience, I believe I made the festival my Higher Power for the weekend, taking The Man as a subgeniusesque Short Duration Personal Saviour. I gave myself over to the festival, and for a few brief moments, I was totally freed and enraptured by the love of the universe, and the patterns by which it moves. I became comfortable with myself and touched my fears.

But these are needs I brought to The Man and willingly shed, because it was a time and a place where it seemed appropriate. The Man is still a structure of wood and neon; the participants are mostly technopagans and artists and hippies. Nothing more, nothing less. No person or wooden god or spot in the desert can make you open your heart and relax into the arms of a loving universe, but it’s good to have the proper time and place available for such things.

Two structures on each side of The Man were burned first. Marga said that in previous years there was less pomp surrounding the lighting of the Man. Perhaps the presence of TV cameras and journalists made them decide to stretch it out. Marga shouted “Cut it out and BURN THE MAN! Fucking BURN IT!” and the folks next to us joined in.

The Burn

The Man Burns!

Marga told me what would happen next, and it didn’t prepare me. A man, totally engulfed in flames ran up the pedestal, waved his arms, and ran down the other side. The flames started at the ends of The Man’s arms, and spread out, breaking neon tubing and illuminating the playa. Soon, the whole Man was afire, and something that burned hot and red went off in the Man’s belly, burning so brightly I couldn't watch for more than a couple seconds without hurting my eyes. I turned my head to see Snatcher and ~ESP lit up bright as day.

The Man fell backwards, sort of towards us, as we were sitting behind him, and the lines of restraint disappeared. Slowly at first, the turning to a full charge the crowd ran up to the fallen Burning Man. ~ESP said to me, “Stay with her, man. You're gonna score!” but that's not where my thoughts were. I looked back to Marga, and she had found a man seemed familiar with. I was too far away to thank her for her wisdom and guidance, so instead I followed her suggestions and thanked her silently.

The fire dance was mostly a counter-clockwise march. There wasn’t much dancing at first; there simply wasn’t room. It was more of a push-and-shove shoutfest that happened to all be moving in the same direction. But after a few minutes, the crowd thinned just enough to allow trotting around and some waving of arms. There was much shouting and chanting and naked bodies jumping around. It was all too much for me, and my bladder was very full. I wandered off into the playa to piss.

I didn't know what direction I was going, but there were so many people around that I never felt I’d be lost. Besides, the Burning Man and its accompanying fires were a beacon that could be seen for God only knows how many miles. As I untied the monk pants once again, I thought of how many social barriers I was breaking simply by urinating in front of a zillion other people. When I had emptied, I turned around and walked back to the fire dance, strangely calm. I looked up at the stars through the smoke and the clouds that were quickly escaping from the mayhem. The stars seemed really really far away. In reality, the stars were even farther than I could possibly imagine them being, but for a moment my mind saw great eternity. As I saw the fire coming closer, I took my robe off and stuffed it into my fannypack. I was then only naked from the waist up, and even then I had Zach’s tie around my neck. It was better to bare my chest and my gut. I have shame aver my gut, so I don't feel the same liberation showing legs.

Walking back into the firedance, I saw that the crowd had thinned a bit more, but even so it was an enormous mass of people. When I say thinned, I mean only that the onlookers had mostly left or stepped back, and that everyone left was dancing or running or chanting or freaking out. Or taking pictures. There were people yelling at the cameramen: “People with cameras should burn their cameras and start to participate!” I was a little glad I had put my camera away.

Several folks were chanting, “Burn the media! Burn the government! Burn the church! Burn your TV!” I thought this was silly and began to shout, over and over, “Burn you fear! Burn your fear! Burn your fear!”

I thought this was silly too. I knew I wanted my fear to burn, but telling other people what to do is the same as being government or being media. Furthermore, my fear manifesting itself as my control over others could never do anything but strengthen my fear. Rather than continue empowering my own fear, I changed my chant and asked for help. “Burn MY fear!” I pleaded. “I need you to BURN MY FEAR!”

A man stopped me and said, “Your tie is the symbol of the control of the establishment. Your tie is MY FEAR.” Now, I don't share the man’s specific fear of the establishment per se, but I decided right away that if the red plaid tie was this man’s fear, that we should burn it. I took the tie off from around my neck. “Take this tie and burn it,” I said. “It’s your fear, and now it's my fear. We must BURN OUR FEAR!”

We walked to the fire; damn, was it hot. I could feel the sweat on my body as we chanted, “BURN OUR FEAR!” again and again. The tie was tossed into the flames, and we cheered mightily. The fear was burned and I staggered away, covered in sweat The drums swelled in my brain and my ears and I began to sway. I looked out into the crowd, the flaming wreckage behind me. My heart pounded and a sudden calm came over me. In the crowd I saw faces looking back, the faces of long lost friends and of dead relatives. When I would turn to greet them and tell them that I loved them, they disappeared. I began to dance.

Beautiful women smiled at me and danced with me, I moved my huge, clumsy feet along with the drumbeats and swayed my gelatinous belly to and fro. I am a terrible dancer, especially when I am wearing heavy boots. Normally, I am very inhibited about dancing, and it would require several drinks to get me to jump around on the dance floor. This was no normal place and time, and my fear had been wadded up in a little ball and thrown into the ceremonial flames. I bounced around the fire for a while longer; I'm not certain how long. I started to see why the men's lib groups form drum circles. There's a very positive masculine energy in a drumbeat; not destructive yang, but creative, wholesome, virility. Men make circular patterns out of individual spikes. Women make individual spikes out of circular flow. We're all dancing to the same beat, but some of us are the feet and some of us are the hips. Or whatever.

Finally, I found myself moving out of the circle, looking up again at the stars. As I walked across the playa, I realized that I could see myself very clearly. The other people out here in the desert were dim and difficult to see, but my skin was glowing and I could see my own body as if it were day. A feeling of elation washed over me, and I recognized it as the fast calm I feel when I am comfortable with who I am. I have these rushes sometimes in my office or on a bus, and I have to be content with laughing to myself or smiling at the beauty of the world, lest a coworker or even a complete stranger might think I am eccentric. Those bounds no longer existed for me, and so I threw my head back and I screamed at the moonless sky. I screamed and I shouted, and when my lungs were empty I fell to my knees. I was overwhelmed once again by the vastness of creation and I surrendered to the void.

fires on the playa

When I began walking back to the camp, I came across a young couple walking in the opposite direction. When they came close enough I said to them, “I burned my fear. I wadded my fear up in a little ball, and I burned it.”

The woman stopped and looked at me. “I did too,” she said.

“It's wonderful.”

“Yes,” she agreed. She came up to me and hugged me tightly. Then after brief pleasantries, we went our separate ways.

I continued on and left my belongings at the camp, but took a bottle of water back out onto the playa. I danced more around the various bonfires and shared my water with a few folks who were on mescaline. At one fire, I came across the man who had burned his fear along with me. He introduced me to his fellows and talked about the oppression of the establishment some more. I found it a little bit amusing, as he didn't really have an alternate plan, but still hung on to the idea that there could be an alternate plan. When he got up to leave the bonfire he said, “I gotta go get laid,” and I realized what had been haunting me. I had freed myself of fear, but not desire.

Ever desireless, one can see the mystery
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations
Tao Te Ching, Chapter One

As I walked about, I noticed that my back was straight. I felt tall. I smiled as people passed me, and when I closed my eyes I could still see the road.

The Compulsive Splicer