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Burning Man 1992-02–The Shadow Grows: Journey Into Community Soul Making Part 1

July 18, 2013

Burning Man:
A Journey in Community Soul Making to Create a New Economy
Part 1–The Shadow Grows

Part 1 in a 3 Part Series tracing one woman’s experiences from 1992-2013
from a depth psychological perspective

hair wash_2
by Gwendolyn Alley
Pacifica Graduate Institute doctoral student in Community, Liberation & Ecopsychology

“What we call civilized consciousness has steadily separated itself from the basic instincts. But these instincts have not disappeared. They have merely lost their contact with our consciousness and are thus forced to assert themselves in an indirect fashion.” C. G. Jung (1964, p. 72)

On Labor Day weekend in 1992, I left Interstate 80 about 30 miles East of Reno and headed North on the two lane highway that would take me through the Pauite Indian Reservation, then past the large turquoise expanse of salty Pyramid Lake, beside the dry lake bed of Lake Winnemucca, and deeper into the Great Basin desert, stopping only briefly to pee by the side of the road and gather an armload of sagebrush, softly gray-green and fragrant with tiny yellow flowers. Under a moonless sky, I drove into the darkness, startled out of my reverie not by other cars but by rambling cattle, dashing coyote, ghostly owls, and rushing rabbits. Ninety miles later, I arrived in Gerlach, poised at the edge of the Black Rock Desert, where only the lights of Bruno’s Casino greeted me; everything else, even the gas station, was closed on a Saturday night. 

To say the Black Rock Desert is huge is an understatement: it extends 100 miles out from Gerlach and totals 1000 square miles. Following the cryptic directions on the Xeroxed map my friends had mailed me, I headed North and East deeper into the desert, until spying a flag, I turned East on an unpaved route on a huge dry lake bed.

 Earlier in the summer of 1992, I met Gary Snyder at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference, “Art of the Wild.” When he learned I was a graduate student in English at the University of Nevada Reno, he encouraged me to visit the Black Rock Desert. At the time, I was already intending on going there to attend some sort of event my friends from my graduate school days at UC Santa Cruz had invited me to, something called “Burning Man.” Larry Harvey started the event at Baker Beach in San Francisco in 1986 with the burning of a large wooden effigy to mark the end of his marriage. When Burning Man teamed up with the San Francisco Cacophony Society in 1989, the event quickly grew too big for that jurisdiction. In 1990, a gathering was held at the beach, but the burn of the Man was moved to BLM land in the Black Rock Desert in Northern Nevada some two to three hours from Reno and at an elevation of nearly 4,000’ above sea level.  

Man Builder



            I still wasn’t quite sure what Burning Man was. But I didn’t care:

the materials my friends had sent me–full of language play and creativity, describing the art, workshops, music, and giant man that would get burned on the last night–all this excited me. Actually, I would have gone to the Black Rock Desert just to camp with my friends. I’d just ended my marriage with my husband, partly because he had no interest in going to Burning Man or other events like it. There was more to it, of course, but this, his non-interest in going to Burning Man with our friends, was the last straw.

        So there I was, independent, driving fifty miles an hour or so on the strangest dirt road I’d ever been on in my life, in a place that so lends itself to speed that records have been broken there. There was no light, no sound, just the wheels on the dry lake bed, not even a road—just a track in the dust. If I left the track, the playa underneath felt squirrelly and I would feel my way back  on the beaten path. I felt like I was traveling through time and space, with the occasional flag indicating that I was indeed still on this earth, still headed to that thing in the desert where I would find my friends, where my new life without my husband awaited.

            It was no use looking for landmarks, save for the rare flag on a pole. The only light was the stars sparkling in the clear, dry air. No one lives on the playa part of the Black Rock Desert. Very few animals or even insects are found there. For about six months or more of the year, a thin layer of water spreads, sometimes in the form of snow or ice, turning the 200 square mile expanse back into a lake, and providing a habitat for fairy shrimp which in turn feed migrating birds. At the far north end where a dark ridge hulks bubble the Black Rock Hot Springs, the first source of moisture for immigrants after many difficult miles.  In contrast to those yesteryear travelers, I was well supplied: in my pick-up truck where I had lived most of the previous two summers as a wildlife biologist working with peregrine falcons, I had food, water, beer, blankets, and some clothes that might pass for costumes. Everything was already coated in a thin layer of dust I’d kicked up from the playa.

            While I’d left Reno just a few hours before, it seemed like I’d been driving for ages when I saw in the distance a pinpoint of blue light that grew and grew as I drew closer; soon I made out the startling outline of a 40’ tall man lit in neon with his arms at his sides. At an entrance station, I wrote a check from a Reno bank for the reduced local rate of $25 instead of $40.  The man attached a flag to my antenna to identify me as a paying participant. Soon I was driving into camp, dodging fire pits, tents, and people, wondering how I would ever find my friends yet I drove right by one friend and later I found I’d parked my truck next to another friend’s vehicle.

            That year, 1992, about 600 people attended Burning Man. Most of the participants came from the Bay Area; very few lived locally, although the Reno Gazette found some of us to interview. During the event, we trekked out to the Black Rock Hot Springs where we slathered each other in mud and baked in the sun.  We listened to speakers discuss the natural and cultural history of the Black Rock Desert. We built a massive sculpture that brought water from one place to another and back again. We made clay figures to cure in the fire of the Man. Some people wore little or nothing while others completely covered themselves, Beduin style. We applied sunscreen to each other. We danced and played together. That night, we drove several miles out until we heard the siren call and saw the lights of a rave.

Desert Shower


Raising the Man

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On Sunday morning, the Man was lowered to be filled with fireworks; in the late afternoon, we worked together to raise him with his arms up. Strangers became familiar, became friends. Later, the hot desert wind flared and white out conditions prevailed. Playa dust coated my skin white and my hair stiff. As the wind whistled and roared, we hid inside a canvas tent, drank beer, ate chips and salsa, waited for when The Man would be lit on fire. At sunset, we ventured out in our finest attire into the wind, and, taking hands, we circled the Man. The wind died down and the Man was lit; a few fireworks went off.  When the Man fell, a great cheer went up, and we rushed closer. I removed from my head the sagebrush wreath symbolizing my marriage and tossed it into the fire. 

Like a phoenix, the numinous experience of Burning Man—from the drive there, to the costumes, to the art, to the kinship–transformed me. I was no longer willing to try to conform to the demands of society, to shun my creativity, to ignore my soul. I decided to listen to my instincts, and to be as fully human as I could. It was easy to be this way at Burning Man, but being there reminded me of how I wanted to live, how I wanted to feel all the time. Jung (1960) wrote that we cannot “’conquer’ a numinosum, I can only open myself to it, let myself be overpowered by it” (p. 458). And indeed, I was.  

It turns out that I’m not the only one. While not everyone who attends Burning Man would describe their experience using the term “numinous,” many people do have numinous experiences there. At Burning Man, people have a “change of mind” (Szasz, 1979, p. 27) and they see “the numinous character of the reality in the background” (Jung, 1960, p. 468). People enjoy creating as well as consuming; instead of playing war games and killing, people get to Burning Man and discover how to live and give, that the world is bigger and more divine, more synchronistic than they had previously imagined. Instead of getting used to killing, they get used to living. Jung (1960) wrote that “Something must grow from inside her” (p. 466) and at Burning Man it does. Szasz (1979) wrote that “psychotherapy is a modern, scientific-sounding name for what used to be called “cure of the souls” (p. 26). So many people found that going to Burning Man was returning to themselves, to home, to soul, that in 2011, Burning Man tickets sold out when they reached the cap of over 50,000 occupants. That’s a long way from the 600 participants who attended in 1992; close to 50,000 people have attended Burning Man every year since 2007.  

             The transformation from a small community of like-minded people to a large city was not without struggle. When I returned to Burning Man in 1995 in my 1979 VW Westfalia, the population had grown to 4,000 and a café had been added with a small shade structure with an old couch and hay bales where coffee was sold and random people played music. Until then, everyone brought everything they needed, borrowed supplies from neighbors, or drove back into Gerlach or to the very small store and deli in Empire. In fact people drove all over the desert and did what ever they wanted to do including shooting guns and setting off fires and fireworks. While a popular bumper sticker about Burning Man read “Guns, Granola, Videotape,” little of that vintage tape is found on youtube. 

Storm cloud


 That year, I made a run to Gerlach so a friend could make a phone call; on the way back I gave rides to Larry Harvey, John Laws, and Danger Ranger, three of the original Burners. I asked Larry about doing spoken word in the café; he told me I could go ahead but it wouldn’t work. Fortunately for me, it was successful (even if it was on the heels of a massive rainstorm and almost everyone there was playing the the mud and dancing in the sun to the drums!). The tradition of spoken word and other performances in the café that I started in 1992 continues on today.

            The next year, 1996, Burning Man doubled its population. I hung artwork in the café, hosted an open mic, and when someone passed the hat for me, I happily took the money. Tragedy struck that year also: a vehicle drove over a tent which killed those inside, another vehicle hit and killed a pedestrian, and several fires got out of control which destroyed camps and injured participants. Guns were banned from the event entirely, not just from center camp.

As Burning Man the event grew, so did the Man himself grow by placement onto hay bales and other structures to increase his stature (as you can see from the images here and from the videos). Burning Man’s shadow also grew and the rules and the infrastructure increased to address this shadow.

C. G. Jung (1960) argues that “any deficiency in consciousness—such as exaggeration, one-sidedness, or lack of a function—is suitably supplemented by an unconscious process…if such a compensatory move of the unconscious is not integrated into consciousness…it leads to a neurosis or even a psychosis, and the same would apply to a collectivity” (p. 219) such as Burning Man. The Burning Man organization added street addresses in 1997 to assist both emergency vehicles and Burners to find their way around Black Rock City. Streets radiating from the Man were numbered like a clock while streets circling the Man have different names relating to the year’s theme, for example, the planets from Mercury radiating out to Pluto; for the theme of The Body, streets were named after body parts and that year our address was 3 and Knee.

By the Year of the Body in 2000, 25,000 participants arrived in the Black Rock Desert, many of them associated with one of 400 official theme camps, including Hushville (no generators please), Alternative Energy Zone, Kidsville (for families), Roller Disco, Barbie Death Camp, Cosmic Hair Wash, Tramp Camp (trampolines), Tranny Village, VW Camp, and many, many more. David Best constructed the first Temple, the Temple of the Mind, and art was everywhere on the playa. Along with the proliferation of participants, so came more rules and regulations: local law enforcement was on site, fire was only allowed in burn barrels, only art cars were allowed to drive on the playa, no one could drive in and out, no hot springs visits, and more. Some people chafed under the new regulations, and they bemoaned the lack of freedom. For each person who complained that Burning Man wasn’t Burning Man and quit going, someone stepped forward to buy that ticket—and that person brought a friend.

to be continued…

 Part 2: how to integrate the shadow

Part 3: using the 10 Principles to create a new economy

Photos above from the Burning Man website

except for the one of me getting my hair washed at BRC about 2000 …

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