Campus Life out of this world

Burning Man

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Christopher Varenhorst ‘09 sits by the embers of the Circle of Regional Effigies (CORE). The Man is surrounded by a ring of 34 wooden effigies, each built by a different regional Burning Man group and burned simultaneously on Thursday.
Contributed Photo
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Jason Scott ‘10 and Beth Turner ‘10 enjoy their time on the playa.
Elizabeth Turner
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A view out onto the desert from the inside of the Pier.
6Jane Park
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Whiteouts, caused by whirling dust in high winds, were common this year due to the lack of precipitation last winter.
Derek Ouyang
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Burning Man participants walk and bike to and fro as the sun sets over the playa.
Jane Park
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Burners relax under the waning sun.
Jane Park
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The road from the Man to the temple on the horizon.
Jane Park
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Inside the wooden structure of the Man.
Jane Park

What is Burning Man?

Burning Man is a weeklong art festival of sorts, held annually in the middle of nowhere: Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. This year the event ran from Aug. 27 to Sept. 3 and was attended by more than 50,000 people. The festival revolved around the art theme “Fertility 2.0.”

Burning Man differs substantially from typical festivals in that all of the art and entertainment — everything that makes up the experience — are built and brought by the attendees. The only canvas laid out by the Burning Man organization is basic infrastructure for the temporary Black Rock City, created and torn down every year for the event.

There is no currency in Black Rock, so all exchanges between people occur through gifts. People live in various states of organization, from personal tents to theme camps to villages of camps. A camp can be centered around any structure, ranging from a bar to a maze, lounge, hammock fort, playground, gallery, spa, or huge sound stage where DJs play. Camps host events throughout the week encompassing a mind-boggling array of activities and interests.

Touring the desert are also mutant vehicles, which are masterfully transformed creations on wheels that emulate anything from a massive pirate ship to an anglerfish to a pumpkin carriage.

The playa, the dusty desert where Black Rock City stands, can be a harsh environment. Part of the Burning Man experience is working, alone or together, to survive the elements: the heat, the cold, the dust.

Everything in Black Rock is temporary. Burners must make sure to take away with them everything they brought, including all waste that they generate. Black Rock City is torn down every year, leaving behind no trace of the tens of thousands of people who lived in its inimitable culture of freedom and beauty for one week. The desert is empty until the same time next year, when life sprouts again.

In the meantime, the principles of Burning Man continue to be pursued year-round in the work done by its organization and its regional branch-off events. Burning Man can only exist because of the spirit and actions of all the people around the world who make this extraordinary event what it is.

Learn more about this unique event at

Readjusting to the Default World

Black Rock City’s motto is “welcome home.” No matter where you come from, what you believe — you are safe there. You are free to be the you you’ve always been. No one will judge you for anything. It is a magical place. A place of freedom, of acceptance. Of embracing all the vast differences that make up our motley humanity.

You jump in head first, and maybe it’s a little shocking in the beginning. You want to clean your body of the playa dust that clings to you like glitter, but that means getting naked with a hundred other people in broad daylight. You are approached by bespectacled strangers wanting to listen to your heart beat. You climb blindly on contraptions built by people you don’t know to gaze over the screwball horizon. You peek your head into random domes, say hi and exchange life stories with young kids and veterans three times your age.

There are naked and topless bicycle marathons. There is a day when everyone, whether they are a ballerina or not, dons a tutu. There are glitzy impromptu bands who play every type of music imaginable from the roofs of art cars. There are localized pockets of people from all places – South Africa, Boston, the French Quarter.

There are trampolines, swings, hammocks, playgrounds. There is music, live or DJed, playing at all times of day and night. There are workshops on art, yoga, macroeconomics, contact improv, unicycling, orgasms, and mathematics. There are people of every gender and every sexuality. Girls kiss girls who kiss boys who kiss boys. Nobody gives a damn. This is a place to explore yourself to the very core. To learn from others. To experiment. To figure out who you are, what you love, what you believe in.

And the only reason you can do all these things is because you are surrounded by 50,000 people who are all doing the same thing. People who embrace you with open arms, who catch you when you fall, who listen to your story eagerly and dish out advice that you can choose to take or not to take. These are the most open, honest, kindest people you’ll ever meet. And, mirroring their inner splendor, they are dressed in the most imaginative ways possible. Decked out in their own unique creations, minimalist by day and glowing at night, everyone is a beauty to behold. I can’t tell you how many times I cried just realizing all of the beauty that existed in Black Rock City. Swathes and swathes of inner and outer beauty that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else.

Coming back to the real or, as Burners say, default world, took more willpower than I could have imagined. I don’t want to be here, where everything is so clean, where there is no playa dust to cake my hair, irritate my eyes and nose, slowly burn down my hands and feet. Where water is readily accessible from any sink. Where toilets flush. Where everyone is clothed and drab. Where I can breathe without using a dust mask. Where I have to wear shoes. Where I can’t just approach any stranger and immediately immerse myself in meaningful conversation. Where the horizon is not flat, glowing with a million rainbow LEDs, covered in creations that are built simply for their beauty and are wonderful to behold. Where cars are bare and naked, not crazy creatures who slither across the desert, breathe fire, and blast dubstep.

Why is it not possible to have Black Rock City year round? Why must we revert back to this dreary, everyday black-and-white default world?

Maybe we don’t have to, not completely. Sure, we live here, but that doesn’t mean we have to forget all of the principles that keep Burning Man alive and Black Rock City running. Radical self reliance: take care of yourself, never count on someone else to fix your own problems for you. Leave no trace: clean up after yourself. Stop treating the earth like your own personal landfill.

Participation, inclusion, communal effort, civic responsibility: contribute to your community. Do things that are worthwhile and positive and increase the happiness around you. Talk to and learn from complete strangers. Everyone knows something. Everyone has some pearl of wisdom buried underneath their chitchat and gelled hair, just waiting to be discovered.

Gifting and decommodification: be kind to your fellow man. Try it for a bit, going off the grid, being unplugged, removing yourself from the brands and corporations and institutions that clog up our news streams, our billboards, our TVs and radios and computers. Lead conversations with ideas, not names. Recall the beautiful simplicity in human contact, in the face to face.

Self expression and immediacy: live in the present. Be active. Express yourself to your heart’s desire, without harming others. Don’t be afraid to challenge what you don’t believe in.

If we remember even a fraction of these things, we can do it. We can keep Burning Man alive year round, not on the playa, but in our hearts. Until next year, then.