This is the first summer since 2004 that has not, for me, been consumed with preparation for Burning Man. For the first time in 17 years, I am not staying up until 2 in the morning cutting and stacking lumber for an art project; I am not sending emails to friends to get them to pay camp dues; I am not poring over spreadsheets of food allergies to fine tune the meal plan for my 50-person camp; I am not trying to sort out the fox/grain/chicken logistics of transporting monumental art projects, hundreds of gallons of beer, dozens of bicycles, and a few paella dinners to the playa; and I am not rushing to thrift stores at lunchtime to find a perfect size 22 black cocktail dress.
I recognize that it is privileged to the point of self indulgence to talk about missing a giant party in the desert. People are losing their lives, their businesses, and their jobs. The fabric of society feels like it is fraying to a degree I have not ever witnessed. The simple courtesy of wearing a mask during a pandemic has become a battlefield of political identity. The fact that I am feeling the absence of a big party hardly seems to move the needle on the meter of things that are worth worrying about.
But the thing is, the party is not what I miss. I mean, I like the seven days of indulgence and great meals and rolling around the desert giggling and looking at mind-bogglingly beautiful art. But my heart isn’t breaking over not having that. I don’t miss going to Burning Man. I miss making Burning Man.
I miss the long summer nights in July and August building art. I miss working all day in 95 degree desert heat with a few dozen friends. I miss the kind of camaraderie that arises from doing something hard. I miss how good an Otter Pop can taste at 4:00 in the afternoon. I miss going to bed exhausted after working the night shift until the wee hours and getting up with the sun to do it again. I miss the absurd jokes that can only come from punch-drunk, dehydrated weariness. I miss watching something beautiful, something that does not exist anywhere else and never has, rise up from the desert as a result of the coordinated efforts of a handful of people. I miss seeing the glittering ephemeral brigadoon that is Black Rock City appear out of nothing, exist for a week at the center of the universe, and then vanish in a matter of days.
It occurred to me a few years ago that the art of Burning Man was not the individual projects, nor was it the planned or improvisational performances, nor was it the civic design or rave camps or the midnight open mics or naked sunrise yoga. Rather, the art of Burning Man is all of that, collectively. It is the whole thing, everything that exists and occurs in that space, from the Golden Spike ceremony that marks the first survey stake to the last piece of sawdust picked up by the playa restoration crew, the entire enterprise is the art.
Like any artwork that is worth considering, Burning Man feels saturated in meaning that resists definition. About three days into the event week, I usually find myself thinking that I am surrounded by a sense of inchoate metaphysical import. I don’t have any idea what the whole affair means, but I am overwhelmed by the feeling that it must mean something. I have heard a lot of heartfelt, thoughtful, and sincere explanations from other people of the meaning they find at the event. I usually walk away from those conversations thinking “yeah, but not quite.” Articulating the heart of Burning Man in a universal way is like nailing Jello to a wall, except that the wall and the hammer and the nail are also made of Jello. Still, I see it in every face there—a sense of inexorable, inescapable, entirely pervasive, all-caps MEANING.
In this summer without Burning Man, I am finding that I define meaning in the event by what I miss the most: the sense of community that can only be created by engaging in ridiculously difficult collective effort. We live in a world where we don’t have barn raisings. Our tribe does not get together to hunt food or thrash grain or dye wool. The millions of years of evolution that we spent learning how to survive and flourish as tribal communities does not have much opportunity for expression in a post-industrial, information driven society. But for the past several years, I have been able to spend several weeks in the company of friends building something wonderful—all the more wonderful for its extravagant lack of utility.
That community effort to make something of uncertain—but certainly profound—meaning is the closest thing to magic that I know. I miss it.