The Desert Blossoms as the Rose (at Burning Man)

Burning ManThis week, somewhere in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, 50,000 people are gathering for the Burning Man festival, where they do…well, pretty much whatever they want. They trek in their RVs, buses, cars, motorcycles, and erect Black Rock City, where they live for a week in a state of “radical inclusion” and “radical self-expression.” The name “Burning Man” comes from a huge wooden effigy (‘The Man”) they erect at the beginning of the week, and which they burn at the end of the week—the Burning Man.

At the end of the week, no trace of Black Rock City remains. The whole city is built by Burning Man attendees, inhabited for a week, and then torn down and completely erased. (This is not as easy as it might seem—imagine your total water needs for a week in the desert. You’d have to bring that with you, and then carry out any waste and trash.)

Equal parts rave culture, paganism, TED, and Mad Max, attendees talk about it like a temporary utopia, and many in the tech and art community consider it a Mecca to which they make a yearly pilgrimage. I know a few Burning Man regulars, and the stories, mythology, and culture they bring back with them from Black Rock City is fascinating. It’s a temporary city based on inclusion, generosity, and participation, but with a heavy emphasis on self-reliance as well. Bring everything you need to survive for a week. And then share it freely with your neighbors.

If that alone doesn’t grab your interest, check out the 10 Principles of Burning Man (truncated below, but the full version is worth reading):

  • Radical Inclusion
    No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
  • Gifting
    Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving.
  • Decommodification
    We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
  • Radical Self-reliance
    Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
  • Radical Self-expression
    Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual.
  • Communal Effort
    Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration.
  • Civic Responsibility
    We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare…
  • Leaving No Trace
    Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather…
  • Participation
    We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play.
  • Immediacy
    Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers…

 

Do any of those sound familiar? If they don’t, I think they should. Almost all of those 10 Burning Man principles sound downright Christian, and none of them would be out of place in a United Order setting. Even the context is similar. We too are a culture founded upon a (perhaps now-nascent) form of utopianism. Mormons moved to the desert to be left alone to govern ourselves as we see fit, and to build the kind of society we want to live in. Whether we’ve succeeded is debatable. Whether we’re even still consciously trying is also debatable, I suppose.

We picked up and evolved the “let’s go build zion” philosophy from the Old Testament. It’s kind of strange to think that it’s been further evolved by a “Burner” movement full of, among other things, drugged-up hippies.

We might think we have very little in common with the colorful Burning Man crowd, and yet these folks are actively building a kind of open-but-closed community that we mostly just fantasize about. If the time comes to dust off our utopia-building heritage and put it into action, perhaps we’ll ask the Burners for guidance. And they’ll probably give it willingly.

So here’s the real point of this post: If anyone would like to put the principle of “radical inclusion” to the test, it’d be fun to have a Mormon village at Burning Man*.

 


* – This might be a really terrible idea. Or it might be just another nail in Burning Man’s sell-out coffin.

 

Comments

  1. If someone starts a Mormon Village, I will be going next year.

  2. I know enough about Burning Man (living in Nevada and having worked at a college where it is very popular) to believe that a Mormon village at Burning Man would be . . . interesting. I know the following is not true of all attendees, but:

    The chief difference between Burning Man (can’t bring myself to abbreviate [BM], although it would be appropriate) and the United Order is the stark difference in how rules and “order” are valued – and the very open and common goal of free and open sex and available drugs for many of the participants. From the conversations I’ve had with college-age attendees, many of the women go to escape standard social constraints, while many of the men go to take advantage of the fact that many women are focused on escaping social restraints. As one young man said:

    “I usually have to work at getting sex; at Burning Man, there are so many stoned chicks I get all I want without even trying.”

  3. Last Lemming says:

    Thanks for the reality check, Ray.

  4. I hear they eat Fritos at Burning Man

  5. it's a series of tubes says:

    The OP was clearly written by someone who has never been a burner. Ray gets much closer to it.

  6. I have burner friends and I work with a lot of them. (Lots of crossover with the tech industry and the maker movement, both of which I’m involved in.)

    But yes, like I said, might be a really terrible idea!

  7. Way to go, Kyle–just the *idea* of a Mormon village at Burning Man broke the whole thing: http://www.thewire.com/business/2014/08/burning-man-canceled/379101/

  8. This is just their Zion’s Camp moment…

  9. That is priceless, Kristine.

    I was at the airport in Reno on Sunday and saw hundreds of Burning Man attendees there. It’s an interesting sight. The dude with the walking stick and the two-foot tall top hat was on the conservative side of the spectrum.

  10. Mormons aren’t so good at that whole “Leave no trace” thing. We love to go in and beat the environment into submission. From carving roads through the canyons to make it easier for the next wagon company to building temples on a 500-year architectural plan, we’re really big on making certain that future generations have no choice but to remember us.

    Sadly, this carries over in very bad ways, like troops of LDS boy scouts destroying ancient geological formations, like arches and balanced rocks. At least they are nice enough to film themselves and put the footage on YouTube so everybody may bask in their Ozymandius glory.

  11. it's a series of tubes says:

    I have burner friends and I work with a lot of them.

    Kyle, I love the parallel in your sentence structure to a commonly-recited refrain on race :) Thanks for a very entertaining OP. That being said, some things are simply not amenable to effective description by those who have not experienced them directly. Having done so quite a while ago now (wheel of time theme), my take is that I found little of value to me personally, and nothing that I would consider utopian. Others may have a different experience.

  12. Michael,
    Why would you think that’s a Mormon trait and not a human one? Assuming you’re not really so boringly provincial, there are plenty of cultures in history that have us beat for leaving their mark architecturally. We probably rank pretty low on that totem pole. Plenty of natives around the world like to graffiti on walls, and there’s no reason to assume Mormons have a monopoly on, “he do you think I could push this over?”

    Leave No Trace is a principle taught to just about every single LDS boy in the United States as a part of Boy Scouts before they ever go on their first campout, as I assume you know, and it’s heavily focused on time and time again for years. The fact that some kids can’t resist their natural inclination to mischief isn’t a reason to condemn Mormons for one thing we actually do comparatively well.

  13. “some things are simply not amenable to effective description by those who have not experienced them directly”

    So we *should* go then!

  14. I sleep with my burner connection. This is his 13th year. Like a good dilettante (coughwifecough,) I’ve never gone myself, but I do pay attention. Just because it’s (almost) completely uncorrelated doesn’t mean that people there don’t govern themselves. All human communities have their rules. (written and unwritten) The BLM and local sheriff do maintain a law-enforcement presence, which generates a years-long waiting list among the officers and a measure of good behavior among participants. Burning Man isn’t quite the hedonistic orgy that people want to think it is. I think it vaguely resembles an out-of-control Pinterest-theme party on steroids, with camping and dust. Also, lots of bike riding. Bring your sturdiest bike and be prepared to maintain it. Party substances are available to those who want them, but they aren’t the focus. I know many burners who avoid them while at BRC. And nudity happens. Best get over it.

    I know this description will repel most LDS folks, but there actually are Mormon themed events at BRC. Heres the Black Rock City Stake event from last year:

    http://playaevents.burningman.com/2013/playa_event/10411/

    In fulfilling the mandate to be salt of the earth, we are everywhere, and I’m glad of it. Someday I may find myself in BRC, and I’ll definitely be wanting to go to that stake dance.

  15. it's a series of tubes says:

    So we *should* go then!

    Well played, sir. :)

  16. Thanks, MDearest. As I said, I know my comment is not about all of the attendees and is focused exclusively on discussions I’ve had with college students.

  17. No worries, Ray. College students tend to have a certain perspective, which is amply represented at BRC, along with many others.

    I find the Ten Principles encouraging to read. While not carrying the warrant of scripture, it makes me feel hopeful that children of men, left to their best impulses (one assumes), would come up with such a list of community-building guidelines. Now that we’ve covered hedonism, can we talk about that?

  18. I work at a large Silicon Valley company of highly paid, young-to-middle-aged tech folks. 1/8th-1/10th of my building’s floor go to burning man each year (sometimes together), and their descriptions are more like Ray’s and less like MDearest’s, but all of them talk up the “art / building / personal expression / neohippie / party drugs” part of it.

    Maybe it’s just what one makes of it.

  19. Robert Kirby says:
  20. Yeeeeeeeah…. I have a lot of family who are burners. What Ray describes is waaaaaay more accurate. The ideas in the OP are nice, but they’re not manifested in any Mormon way at BRC.

    You could set up a Mormon village- but you best staff it with the most tolerant, open-minded people who don’t take offense at nudity, body modification, open public sex, drugs, and assorted other human expressions that don’t have outlets in Mormon culture.

  21. Peter Fish is a columnist for the Western regional magazine Sunset. In the September issue he talks about becoming a burner and then trying to convert his wife to the experience. He writes:

    “One way of thinking about Burning Man is as the latest of the many utopian communities that have sprung up in the American West, each promising paradise on earth…the most triumphant, rising at the other end of the Great Basin from Burning Man, Brigham Young’s city of the saints. The two are not entirely dissimilar. Salt Lake City is steered by the Book of Mormon, Burning Man by its ten principles. Both are laid out with obsessive compulsive precision, Salt Lake on its grid of Norths and Easts and Souths, Burning Man on a giant clock face centered on the famous flammable man. ‘It’s just like the Mormons’, I tell Nancy as we peddle our playa bikes down 645 road, ‘but with alcohol and nudity and piercings.’”

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