Let me tell you about the playa, endless canvas of dust, upon which all art is ephemeral and all people but dreams of themselves. It is the human soul writ large on welcoming pale expanse, as brutal and as glorious.
We arrived Sunday afternoon. We impressed ourselves by setting up the shelter, dome, and tower smoothly and quickly. We rested, we made tea, we sweated in the 100 degree heat and were thankful for calm skies. Most of all, we were home. Welcoming dust, fine dust, playa dust in every crease and crevice, every orifice and patch of skin, it is something you become one with when you go home, it becomes a part of you and everything you eat, drink, breath, kiss. One with the dust, the throb of music omnipresent but distant, we felt the soul of the city seep into us.
It is a gift economy, out there on the playa. No buying, no selling. Only giving. We gave tea, and cool and restful space, we gave ourselves, most of all. This isn’t quite the story of us, though, or of the teahouse. I want to tell you of the soul of humanity spread thick and sweet over an ancient dried lakebed – but you can’t tell that, really. I can only tell what we saw, and illuminate that place to you with those second-hand visions. You see, the whole place becomes part of you, like the dust, and the urge to give and reveal and create just becomes part of everyday life – and so I find myself here, writing out a fever dream of beauty and ugliness entwined, a gift to you. My art, my self.
The teahouse settled and secure, we each took our exploration to hand. I followed the wind to the far reaches of the playa, out past the big visible icons, the Man, the Temple, a great chandelier torn from a ceiling, its bulbs broken and its arms arching overhead. Past all that. To a bed, fully made, inviting sleepers under the stars. To a water fountain, standing alone, cold water sweet and not unexpected, not here. To a temple in the making, artist and helpers laboring to assemble 4 walls and an altar of mirrors showing viewers themselves in context. I helped bolt on the cross-pieces, then worked my way around the structure pounding heavy steel stakes into the giving playa, securing their vision against wind. Exhausting, hot work, but this meant somethign to them, and thus to me, a wandering blacksmith who came at their time of need.
The wind rose, and dust with it, so we all pushed back toward the city in our own separate directions. I pedaled hard against the wind, more exhausting work, slow and painful progress with the city invisible ahead of me, hidden by clouds of dust. I though to myself, this is not the real dust, this is only a breeze, soon a real storm will come and I can lose myself out here in the blinding dust. Not yet, but soon.
Another day, and they all do blur together, I rode, tired and feeling lonely. Sat in a little seat in the shade, surrounded by windsocks the shape of fish, a windchime behind me keeping gentle belltone rythm with the writhing fish. Someone walked toward me, wobbling under the weight of a heavy box. He put it down and walked to me. Things come to you out there, you find what you need, not what you look for – so I wondered what was to come, company I had been seeking, or some deeper thing I didn’t know I sought? He asked for help carrying his load back to his camp, and I agreed. We talked a little, he told me his name and I told him mine. “Kennric?” he asked, “Meagan will be glad to hear you are here, you are bringing her a bike, right?”
There are thirty thousand or so people on the playa, I know about 12 of them. Is it any wonder people begin to believe in magic out there? I had indeed promised Meagan a bike.
A man walks steady across the open playa, leaf-blower pushing the top layer off an infinite supply of dust. Bellydancers go by. A woman arranges 30 wobbly-headed dogs into a chapel, her altar and memorial to dog kind. Stark wooden crosses stand by the promenade, pegs driven in so you can climb up and hang crucified for a while, when you feel the need. A dragon, a whale, a sailing ship, all ply the open playa. Music thumps everywhere, and many believe that it has soaked into the playa over the years, and no one actually plays techno anymore – it just seeps out in the blacklight, saturating everything. A club has grass inside, carpeting a complex jungle of blacklit flora and fauna. An irish pub stands nearby. All this will be gone in a week, burned or torn down and hauled away. All this, all gifts, all temporary.
People. Everything else is base matter, it is the people who drive the tide of art and emotion and community. At the burn, I watched people, flashing from face to face, feeling like I was examining only the individual skin cells of a creature so large I could not take it all in. What happens when you gather people together, and take away the barriers? What mind is emergent from all our collective minds, does it think, or simply react? The hive is the organism when it comes to bees, but what greater organism do these thousands of open minds create? I felt as if I could see the very edges of it, but no more.
The Man burned brilliant and fast, the press of hot sweaty churning bodies wrapped around the pyre, circulating counterclockwise. I pulled Jill behind me, she pulled Carol. To the front lines, where the incredible heat singed hair and pierced thought. Carol, lagging behind, grabbed people when she could, and shouted “Are you warm enough? Cause I have been worried about you all evening!”. We pulled her on before anyone could do more than break a smile at her.
I cannot tell you what I burned on that fire, what dark shapes withered within me and were blown to ashes by the simple act of believing they would be and by feeling the searing pain of the fire. It works if you believe it works, and in this place, belief grows on trees.
I could not lose that image of the greater mind. I sought faces in the milling crowd after we withdrew from the flames. Joyous, drugged and intoxicated, vibrant, dead, solemn and sweet faces, like frames in a filmstrip, click click click click, fast enough and the motion would become clear. Deep ugliness side by side with deep beauty, where was the transition, where are the in-between frames?
It is a place where rules are relaxed, and people are opened up like tin cans. Few are unaffected by an environment where the line between thinking and doing is so thin. The air is full of creation and sex and dust. Anything can happen. No one is looking out for your safety – yes, those are real, large fireworks going off a few feet away. Yes, you can climb that. The ticket says: “You accept the risk of serious injury or death by attending”, you read the ticket, didn’t you? This is Freedom at its best, and look what that creates! A city where everyone’s crazy idea becomes a solid object, and every exploration is possible if you accept the risk.
There is ugliness, too. Generators blare away, and it is hard to let slip the reality that this money-less economy, this gift city, comes at the cost of real world money for those who give. Hard to let go the reality of gross consumption, extravagant conspicuous orgasmic excess. Ugly and beautiful, this is what the human soul does, this is what we are.
The dust did blow again. I fought across the playa against stiff wind, visbility almost zero. People would appear from the white mist, and dissapear again as quickly when pockets of clear air swept by. Bells, footsteps, voices came and went, hidden people struggling to breath and find their way. A sugar-coating of dust whitened my skin and hair, clouded my sunglasses. It was like being in love, buffeted and caressed, in danger and rapture, wandering blind into a void sprinkled with hope and promise. The air was clear by the time I got back to the teahouse, and we all watched the sunset paint the clouds in gold and orange and purple.
A flaming fountain is the centerpiece to the plaza our teahouse graced. Around it Dan threw the Naked Brunch (free food for the nude). At dusk, they lit the floating fluid that carries flame across the surface of the water – you can splash in the fountain and cup little pools of flame in your hands. Hyrdocarbons, water, a simple system of pumps and propane and spillways. Hundreds of human faces, gathered round, playing with the fire, smiling – thats where the art is, in those smiles.
So there is your glimpse. Just a glimpse, and if you go, even that will be just a glimpse. 7 days is not enough. As for me, the dust is permanent now, I feel the art in every face I see. There is no longer a ‘real world’ and ‘Burnign Man’, there is only the real world, and burning man a piece of it. All the same people, the same great over-arching organism, it is all of a piece. I give away all that I can, and someday, everyone will see what I see.