Culture of Community: Takeaways from Burning Man September 16, 2014

Written by: Lindsey Todd
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playaI returned from the Nevada desert a week ago, fresh from my second year of attending the annual Burning Man festival, dust still covering my boots and camping equipment.  Burning Man’s community spirit and the natural beauty of the Black Rock desert, also known as the Playa, never cease to amaze me on what is infinitely possible. As one participant noted, “Burning Man is a reminder of what we are capable of doing when we aren’t so busy with our day-to-day lives, careers, and responsibilities.” It’s a week of community participation, exploration, communication and celebration, with 60,000 of your closest friends.

Here are some of the lessons that will stay with me (hopefully) longer than the playa dust on my tent:

burning-man-2014.petalsCommunity: At Burning Man’s core is the sense of creating community – something from nothing, for one week a year. It’s nearly impossible for one person to bring everything they will need to survive the harsh desert climate – the dust is alkaline, the temperature can range from 40 to 100 degrees. On our first morning, we experienced the temperamental nature of the environment firsthand: a hailstorm.

Commerce is almost entirely non-existent, and participants, or “burners” rely on each other to fill the holes when they need supplies. Standard automobiles are not allowed, instead, participants create “mutant vehicles,” otherwise known as art cars, that act as destinations rather than transportation. One day, an art car broke down in front of our camp. A nearby camp dubbed, “Black Rock Hardware,” had a part they needed, and repaired the car as a gift. Helping those around you and civic responsibility are tenets of this temporary community. Without it, this event could not work.

Get to know the people around you – in the office, in your neighborhood. Don’t be afraid to share resources. Know that when in need, you can ask for help, and in turn you are more than willing to lend goods, knowledge, skill, or just plain encouragement. In the process, you’ll likely find out things about people that can help in unexpected ways.

charliecarAwe/Infinite Possibility: The amount of hours, commitment and work that goes into everything created here is impossible to quantify. The awe at seeing it is beyond words. My first night, I hopped on my bike and explored the various art installations – some permanent, some to be burned later in the week, and many several stories high. When I took my first panoramic look at The Playa at night, I was overwhelmed with a sense of amazement and respect at what is possible with dedication, patience and tenacity. From “The Man” himself (the wood sculpture that would culminate in fire days later), to the meticulously crafted Temple, to the Observatory at the far end of the Playa, none of it would be there without dedicated volunteers and participants.

If it is really worth doing, it is worth the effort. With the right minds, hands and hearts, anything is possible. At the same time, it is all temporary. Don’t get too caught up in the end result – continue improving, make it better – every year!

Freedom and Responsibility/Leave no Trace: In the remote desert, many social norms are modified, if not at times disregarded. This can create the perception that Burning Man is a “free for all” – but with freedom comes with responsibility.  The community operates on a principle of “radical self-reliance.” You are ultimately responsible for yourself: your food, water, shelter, and all of your necessities; use what you need, gift what you don’t, and take what’s left back with you. What comes in must ultimately leave, even the greywater you use to wash dishes. You put careful thought into the words “disposable” and “waste” and learn words like “MOOP” (Matter out of place). What is truly remarkable is that everyone participates, it is part of being a socially responsible citizen. It works. No trash and no trash cans. Just pristine desert that is left as it was found.

Take inventory of the items you use and throw away. Reuse what you can. If you see it on the ground, pick it up. Set an example and model a better community.

Gifting: Our camp, the Bubble Lounge, was (blessedly!) very close to the ice statiobubble loungen. Early in the week, in the heat of the day, there were often hundreds of people lined up for something we all normally take for granted.  Helping our fellow burners was always a first thought. We served ice-cold lemonade during the day and “bubbly” at happy hour. Add our bubble machine to the mix and we reveled in turning countless grown up professionals into  children!

I remember feeling disoriented the year before on “Burn night,” the Saturday night of the festival, when they burn the Man. This is when the city is at its peak in terms of population and energy. The rapid change in temperature from the fire, and influx of people, generally triggers a dust storm, which can dramatically reduce visibility. I purchased small compasses on carabiners (made for scouts) and decorated them to give to my camp-mates. They were delighted, and it felt great to give something so meaningful and practical!

This year, the night the Man burned, my boyfriend and I watched from atop the “E” in the LOVE sculpture. It was a challenge to get up there, and there was no getting down without a team effort. We wlove-playaere a mile from our camp. From in front of us, I heard, “People on the E!” I looked up – it was the couple on the “V” – “Would you like a breath mint?” We took two, and thanked them. They let us know to thank the people on the “O,” so we did.  Simple gestures, but welcome and appreciated!

Don’t underestimate how a small token or gift can help in unexpected ways. Embrace the motto, “surprise and delight.”

Immediacy/Participation: As crafters of digital communities, we know that the rate of engagement increases with investment in community. The same holds true in the desert. I found my experience improve greatly the more I participated. I appreciated each gift that helped me survive the often harsh client. And for a week, I abandoned my digital BFF, my trusty smartphone.  I was in my element, with no digital distractions. If I needed something, I had to walk around and ask people for it. All of my connections were face-to-face. It made me realize how much I rely on email and text when face-to-face, or even a phone call, would build a better connection.

Create situations that invite and reward your communities for participation. Invest in human communication. Pick up the phone, or even better, find a time to meet face to face. Spend time connecting, and build more satisfying relationships.

EmbraceI saw friends, new and old, celebrate their love in front of the three story high “Embrace” sculpture. I pondered the universe from Black Rock Observatory and felt my tiny place in it. I enjoyed pancakes and mimosas at “Barbie Death Camp”, danced to mind-blowing performances by artists and toured the Playa with my camp-mates on the “Crisco Disco” art car. I memorialized the year with a photo in “Black Rock Yearbook” and ran into a high school friend, last seen 1500 miles away, giving rides on a modified bike called the “Classy Taxi.”

I returned from my second Burn exhausted and revived at the same time, inspired, and already planning on how I can do “it” better next year, if I’m lucky enough to go again.  In the meantime, I’m maintaining friendship with camp-mates, reliving memories, and focusing on how I can make my own “default world” better with the lessons I’ve learned.


One thought on “Culture of Community: Takeaways from Burning Man

  1. Lindsey:

    What a great story you’ve brought back from the playa. Thank you for sharing the lessons on community and self-reliance. Too many times I’m met with funny looks when I tell my Burning Man tales. Everyone assumes it is just a drugfest but it is so not that. It is truly an over-whelming experience of art and music and kindness. That is not easily described to those who don’t venture out to BRC at least once in their life. It will truly change your life if you choose to participate.

    I wasn’t lucky enough to go this year but I will go back again. Who knows, maybe we will meet in the dessert one day!

    Marolyn )*(

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