Five Questions You've Always Had About Burning Man (But Were Afraid to Ask)

Anna Leinberger Posted by Anna Leinberger, Editorial Manager, Acqusitions, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Anna is a writer and editor for Berrett-Koehler in Oakland, CA. More on killer book proposals and writing can be found on her BK Blog.

Five Questions You've Always Had About Burning Man (But Were Afraid to Ask)

BLM Nevada (Creative Commons 2.0)

Living in San Francisco, it is hard for me to believe that there are too many unanswered questions about Burning Man, but when I returned from my glorious week in the dessert, my boss, Jeevan, had these five questions for me. I am involved in a group that brings a large theme camp called Tangoed Up in Blues to the Playa each year, and we have recently been constructing a LED lit geodesic dome with a large dance floor inside, where we teach Tango classes and Blues Dance classes and host social events in the evenings. Burning Man is a very special experience to me, and perhaps reading this will explain why!


1. Isn’t it just an excuse for people to get naked and parade about? And what’s with the naked thing anyway?

Well…… kind of. But nudity is not mandatory, nor is it something anyone should feel pressure to participate in. I can’t speak for everyone, but I have never felt pressure to be more naked than I feel comfortable with. The real principle here is called “Radical Self Expression” which means at Burning Man, you get to express yourself however you want. For a large number of people, while in a swelteringly hot desert, this does in fact result in a lot of nudity. It also means an enormous number of men in skirts. (So many I have come to believe that the cultural norm of men having to wear pants everywhere in western culture is absurd and should be abolished. Obviously, men want to wear skirts). For me, it meant getting to wear all the flowy skirts and corsets and costume pieces I could fit into my car! What this does mean however, is that someone else’s radical self expression very well may offend you. The goal is to take the opportunity to question why something that offends you might be important to someone else.


2. Isn’t it all just an excuse to take a lot of drugs and have a lot of sex with strangers?

If you want to do drugs, and can get them there past the massive law enforcement presence on the roads out, then again- sure- if that is what you are into. The reality-bending art, the lights and music at night certainly make a good setting for indulging in (largely illegal) mind bending experiences. And the open and loving nature of the community does also lend itself to an atmosphere with more open sexual exploration. However! Like the nudity, I have encountered exactly zero pressure to do any sort of substance/engage in any behavior that I was not interested in doing. In fact, because of the extreme heat and challenge of maintaining even a baseline of hydration, I don’t even drink at burning man. It is just too hard to stay fully hydrated. Instead, the real shift in reality comes from the collective decision on the part of all participants to live according to a different set of societal norms. People are friendlier on the playa. Everyone wants to help you. Big camps build their infrastructure as a gift to bring attendees joy. You never know who you will meet, what you will learn. A rocket scientist who works with super conductors washed my hair this year, and I gave him a copy of Learning from Leonardo. I feel safer on the playa, more so than anywhere else in the world, because the societal norms are such that I know I will be taken care of. I teach partner dance classes about connection through movement and hear from students that the connection of the dance has changed their life.


3. It was a very nice thing- but now it seems incredibly commercial and only for rich people?

Largely because of the integrity of the Burning Man organization, but also because of the structure of Burning Man, it would, by definition, be impossible for rich people to ruin the event. Similarly, it can’t become commercialized because you can’t buy anything, nor can you advertise anything on the playa. How, you say? Well first of all, the organization has done a beautiful job of keeping the ticketing procedure as fair as possible. You can’t buy your way into a ticket- unless you are buying from a scalper or are doing it a backdoor way by paying 10 people to try to score you a ticket as soon as they go on sale. There are always low-income tickets, and the only people who have an opportunity to buy tickets early are those who help to build enormous camps with significant infrastructure. This is simply to ensure that those big camps get built so there is fun stuff to do on the playa! As for rich people bringing camps that they pay for and don’t build- those people can’t really take away my experience of helping to build my camp. All they are doing is losing out on one of the most integral experiences of Burning Man- that of self reliance and the community building that comes with creating something incredible to share with the city. Sure, they can ruin their own burn, but they can’t really ruin mine.


4. Why does everyone seem to wear those retro-WW II goggles in all the pictures?

Everyone is wearing goggles because the event happens on a pre-historic lake bed that consists of a very fine alkaline dust- the dust is about three times finer than talcum powder. It gets everywhere, including your eyes. It is not something you want in your eyes, and a windstorm can blow into what is called a “whiteout” at any moment. Imagine a talcum powder sandstorm. It is also why you see everyone wearing face masks and handkerchiefs. As for the steampunk? Got me there. I prefer ATV racing gear myself.


5. What is the meaning behind the burning man (and actually burning him down) anyway?

Burning "The Man" is an act that actually started burning man in the 1980s. The founder of the event decided, spontaneously, to host a Solstice bonfire on Baker Beach in San Francisco and invited about 30 friends. Burning things at the solstice is a pretty accepted human practice, as is the burning of a human effigy. Though the founder claims that his choice to burn a man was a spontaneous act of radical self expression, it cannot be denied that he was participating in a long history of shared human experience. Burning humanoid effigies is largely an act of scapegoating that avoids physical harm to humans and animals, but allows for communities to engage in an act of cleansing of fears, doubts, sins, and emotional baggage. Examples of such practices can be found throughout human history and in many and varied, largely disconnected cultures. It does seem that this is a common human instinct for radical self expression! 

These days, the burning of the man serves largely as a community event that brings the whole city together. There are only two events in the whole festival that are specifically meant for the entire community- the Man Burn and the Temple Burn the next night. Like the whole event, these ceremonies are given power by the participants themselves, and when the man slowly raises his arms to the sky, that power and excitement of shared experience is a wonder to behold.