Starhawk at Burning Man
August 17 and 24, 2007
I didn’t really intend to get this involved in Burning Man. I’ve never been—although of course for years now I’ve heard friends who go regularly rave about it. I’ve been curious—as someone who has spent my life creating ritual and advocating that Western culture needs satunalias and carnivals and moments of public ecstasy and pageantry, I of course want to see this phenomenon which began as a group of friends burning a small effigy on the beach, and has now grown into a weeklong encampment of forty thousand or more artists and their posses out in the blazing, empty Nevada desert. Hey, our Reclaiming community of Pagans has been burning an effigy on the beach for decades on the Summer Solstice, and it remains a joyful but comparatively sedate religious ceremony for a couple of hundred people. What are they doing that we’re not? (Well, there’s drugs, for one…)
The scale, the madness, the accounts of incredible ecstatic moments and intense life transformation have intrigued me for years. But I don’t do desert. That is—I can be persuaded to go to some blazing hot climate for some overwhelming world-saving cause—protesting nukes at the Nevada Test Site for example, or chasing tanks in Jenin. But for a good time, give me an ocean, or a cool trail in the mountains, or a pleasant, green, intermittently rainy day in Ireland. Camping out in overwhelming heat, punishing cold, with blowing alkaline dust and the occasional eighty mile an hour windstorm is not the terrain I’d choose for either fun or spiritual transformation. Yeah, prophets have always gone to the desert for visions—but look at what they came up with: angry gods, punishing deities, the concept of hell. Case in point.
This year, however, the theme the Burning Man organizers put out was sustainability, and The Green Man. The Green Man is an ancient Pagan figure—a face surrounded by leafy branches and vegetation mostly now found in old churches, remnants inserted by subversive stonecutters of an earlier, nature-based faith. So a number of my Pagan and permaculture friends started murmuring that maybe this year we should go.
Since we were thinking of going, and since I spend a good portion of my life now teaching techniques of sustainability and ecological design, I though I should do…something. Maybe this was the moment to build the portable solar composting toilet trailer of my dreams?
Friends of friends put me in touch with the team that is organizing the Sustainability Pavilion, and I decided we should submit a proposal from Earth Activist Training, our organization which offers permaculture design courses with a grounding in earth-based spirituality and a focus on activism and organizing.
I seduced myself into the project with those dangerous phrases that have gotten me into so much trouble throughout my life: “It won’t take long,” and “It’ll be easy.” After all, you can always do a great-looking permaculture installation with a truckload of straw bales, a bunch of live plants, and some mulch. No problem. Then I talked to my housemates, the veteran Burners. No live plants—they won’t stand up to searing, eighty mile an hour winds. No straw bales—they shed and the Burning Man folks have become fanatics about picking up every stray bit of MOOP—Matter Out of Place—that might possibly contaminate the baking, lifeless old lake bed where the burn takes place.
How do you demonstrate sustainability in an inherently unsustainable environment?
Over the years, I’ve created a lot of graphics about permaculture, beginning with our project in Cancun in 2003, when we built a handwashing station and graywater system for the campesino encampment to protest the meeting of the WTO. We needed something to identify and explain the thing—and my friend Delight and I printed up, cut, pasted and labeled a whole lot of pictures, which speak louder than words, especially when people speak different languages and when many of them don’t read. I did something similar for the G8 encampment in Scotland in 2005. They all looked a bit like someone’s 7th grade science project, but they did the trick.
Later that summer, I redid the collages on Photoshop and printed them up with graphics that brought them up into the 21st century. We took them down to New Orleans after Katrina and used them to introduce concepts of permaculture and sustainability into the relief work we were doing there.
So, my second thought was just to set up the graphics on a nice piece of board.
My veteran Burner housemates were not encouraging.
“People don’t want to learn about permaculture at Burning Man,” they said. “They want to see art. They want to take drugs and have sex.” And, forebodingly, “Whatever you do, don’t be lame!”
The thought of subjecting myself to the punishing desert winds only to achieve lameness was quite an awful one. Over the next few weeks, I discussed the problem, we had a group in one of our courses do a design for Burning Man, and I thought long and hard about the problem. Permaculture is not just about plants and straw—it’s about designing systems that can meet human needs while regenerating and healing the natural environment. It works with a set of ethics and principles that can be applied to any situation—from designing a forest garden to planning a political campaign. So—what could we create that would embody the principles without live plants or beds of attractive wood chip mulch?
One of the principles is “Use onsite resources.” Scratch that—there aren’t any, not even sand or clay, just alkaline dust. Another is, “Use biological resources.” Apart from people, and their various excretions, there aren’t any of those.
“Waste is a resource”, however, seemed to be a useful idea. What waste did I have available that we might use? I thought about the old PVC water line lying out in the hills on our land in western Sonoma County. There was lots of that—and even more if I could cull the scrap of my neighbors. Perhaps we could build something out of that, which would embody some of nature’s patterns—another core aspect of permaculture. The meander pattern is a pattern of digestion and aborption, so if we wanted people to digest information, we could create a labyrinthine structure they could wander through. It would have lots of edge—another principle. The edge where two systems meet creates a third system, often more diverse and creative than either of the others.
So, I started drawing lines on paper, and putting words on paper, two things that are easy for me to do. If the structure was going to be a labyrinth, it would have a sacred aspect, and could be a journey, perhaps from the fear and grief and despair we feel about the state of the earth, through connection with the elements, the primal patterns of nature, and into a gallery of visions and solutions.
I submitted the proposal, and much to my surprise, it was accepted. At first I felt elated. I felt like I’d passed some Ultimate Coolness Test, which was a relief because, while I was certainly cool back in the sixties, it had been a while. Then I felt that terrible, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, realizing that now I actually had to do the thing.
So, I’ve been doing it—working on the graphics and the pictures, organizing our setup crew, and trying a mockup of the structure. I’ve been sucked deep into the trancelike underworld of computer graphics, where hours, days, a lifetime can go by while you tranfer images or parts of images back and forth in Photoshop with the magic wand. I could sit and play with that for a long time—those little dancing electrons stimulating my brain into a zenlike state of calm.
It’s long been my experience with creative projects of all kinds that they mostly feel disastrous and out of control while you are immersed in them. If you’re lucky, somewhere on the third or fifth or twentieth draft or the fourth day of fitting parts together, something settles into place and it all works. If you’re not lucky, it just stays a disaster.
That’s just what happened with the structure. I had in mind something modest, like the Hagia Sophia in sunburned PVC, a series of escalating domes. Problem is—pvc doesn’t bend well, especially when its old and brittle. Jamie and I spent a morning lashing together half-domes of branches, which were flimsy and looked pretty silly. Given an extra month or two, I could probably have woven them into baskets. But luckily, during our lunch break we discovered a stash of old black irrigation pipe, which bends beautifully. Suddenly we had all the domes and rings we needed—and it looks about as good as something made of old pipe can look.
The pictures, if I say so myself, look great. Now I’ getting really excited to see what it looks like when it all comes together.
More later…now I’ve got a plane to catch to go teach in the woods for a week.
It’s after midnight. This is about the fifth or sixth night in a row I’ll be getting to bed around 1 or 2AM and getting up early. We meant to leave for the playa this evening—decided instead to go early in the morning. I’d thought I’d have a more relaxed evening at home to finish packing and write more of a blog—instead I spent it in a nightmare of frustration trying to get the last little bits printed up. In the end, after closing down two copy shops, I still have to stop at a Kinkos in Reno tomorrow.
But all the rest is done. All the big graphics are printed. All the signs are made. The whole structure has been labeled, bundled, and packed up in the truck and the bus. Now, if we only all get there and can figure out how to put it all back up, we’ll have an installation.
I’ve instructed all my friends that the next time I get an idea, they are all to say in a firm tone of voice, “Down, Starhawk! Remember Burning Man!”
Copyright (c) 2007 by Starhawk. All rights reserved. This copyright protects Starhawk’s right to future publication of her work. Nonprofit, activist, and educational groups may circulate this essay (forward it, reprint it, translate it, post it, or reproduce it) for nonprofit uses. Please do not change any part of it without permission.