The last week in August 2007 CNN reported that the Burning Man in Black Rock City had been burned by an arsonist five days before his scheduled immolation.
Most people who heard the report probably wondered, “What the hell is the Burning Man and where is Black Rock City?” For a week Black Rock was the fifth largest city in Nevada, and boasted a population of 47,000 people.
But you could not find it on a map, and if you called information, there would be no listing for it. Most people there failed to hear the evening news. And cell phones don’t work in the Nevada desert. And the mode of transportation for the able bodied is mostly a bicycle or few of what is known as an art car or a mutant vehicle.
The week at Burning Man was a spectacle rivaling Cirque Du Soleil, Disneyland, and one’s first visit to the County Fair. It felt like being in the world of Star Wars created by George Lucas, or some sequence in a Fellini movie. I felt as if I were walking around in the best dream I ever had.
But this show was real and it was free. Like the Hobby Horse Dance in Padstow Cornwall on May Day, there were no t-shirts or gaudy gew gaws being hawked on street corners. Nothing was for sale except ice and coffee. You would probably be given anything you desired before you even had to articulate it. All you needed to do was get on your bicycle and find your way to a free meal, a dance, a library, or a bar of almost any description. Not far from our tent was a red bearded bartender whose fare was all home brewed, and his “bar” was a coffin with taps. And some evening places of entertainment rivaled the Prince’s palace in Arabian Nights.
It is difficult to explain to someone who is not “A burner” what goes on in Black Rock City. You could go to www.burningman.com and see visions of shows, art and costumes from other years. You might listen to stories of people who had attended before about the wonders they had experienced. However, reading through the survival guide, you might begin to wonder if it was really worth the journey.
It is definitely worth the trials and tribulations of getting there, and is almost “guaranteed to blow your mind.”
First of all, it is a “tribal” reality. There were hundreds of drummers from all over the world, yet they merged and melded into one heartbeat. It was the first thing you heard on awakening, and the last sound registered while falling asleep. There is action going on 24 hours a day. It is impossible to take it all in. Some if the younger citizens may dance round the clock for the first day or two. But perhaps the best way to experience it is to set off for some workshop, parade or party, and let the synchronicity of what you find on the way be your guide.
My reason for attending was the theme chosen for this year – The Green Man. He has been in my life for thirty years.
I first saw his image on a pub sign in England, where I was living at the time. When I spotted his leaf-clad figure holding a cane, which sprouted leaves, I stood stock still – transfixed by the image. It was one of those moments that Joseph Campbell called “being transparent to the transcendent”. I knew him at the deepest level of my being, yet I had no explanation for his presence on a pub sign in the middle of a noonday rainstorm.
I rushed in to ask the publican – busy pouring lunchtime pints for wet, thirsty people – and asked a dozen questions which came rushing out, “who is the Green Man, and why is he dressed in leaves, and why is there a may pole in the background and ….”.
He looked at me with one of those looks English people give Americans who are discovering some minutiae from 2,000 years of civilization, and said “I don’t know, lady, its just an old pub sign – been there for as long as I can remember”.
The next two times I saw pub signs with his image – The Green Man and French Horn, and The Green Man and bush, I repeated my futile questions with no better results. Then I went to the Cecil Sharpe House where aspects of popular culture and its history are preserved. There is an excellent library, but one can also hear the sounds of folk music played by penny whistle and bodhran, or the pounding footsteps of a dozen Morris dancers learning to keep old traditions alive.
The answers to the questions I had asked were found in an old (green) volume about pub signs. The Green Man, Savage Man or Woodwose was lord of the forest, keeper of the seasons, protector of animals and children. And English people had been acting out rituals including costumed and masked representations of the Green Man for centuries. I found descriptions of him going back to the time of Queen Elizabeth I, with the intimation that he was, in fact, much, much older.
There was an extended bibliography, which sent me scurrying to the Victoria and Albert archives and the catacombs of the British Museum library. I was obsessed as I traced his roots and his image back through the centuries and across boundaries of countries from Istanbul to Beirut. I found him in churches and cathedrals, carved on the facades of buildings and on furniture, dancing around the borders of illuminated manuscripts, and even carved on an old bellows for sale in a cobbler’s shop in Henley on Thames.
In 1980 I published The Green Man simultaneously in the U.S. (Charles Scribers) and the U.K. (The Bodley Head).
It is the story of a rich, arrogant young man, Claude, who does not believe the Green Man is real, and makes fun of the poor peasants who leave food out for him. But as the publican warns him – “ terrible things happen to those who make fun of old beliefs”.
Not long afterwards he finds himself stranded in the woods with no food or clothing. He is forced to survive on what he can obtain in the forest, and slowly discovers the wonders of nature, and his relationship to it. In time he realizes that he is responsible for preserving the balance of nature, and realizes that he has become the Green Man.
The Green Man was a ritual figure who was replaced each year. Perhaps long ago he was literally killed like the sacrificial figure in Dionysian rites. But I found no historical evidence of this having been the case in England.
In the ballad “John Barleycorn” he is planted, nurtured, then cut down, beaten, boiled and turned into beer. Death and rebirth are certainly part of his heritage. Some such character appears in the folklore of every country. Another song associated with him is “The Lord of the Dance”. This has become a Christian hymn, “Tis a Gift to be Simple” (Aaron Copeland borrowed part of it for his “Appalachian Spring Suite”).
Of all the pagan folkloric figures, only the Green Man has been allowed to remain in churches and cathedrals. There are many parallels between Jesus and the Green Man, and I once found a bas relief of Jesus as a Green Man with the title “I am the vine, you are the branches”.
By the time the book was finished, I had so much material about the Green Man and his origins that I turned it into a sound filmstrip for Weston Woods (now owned by Scholastics) entitled “Tracing a Legend” in which I chronicled my year of research, during which I discovered that he was related to Gawain and the Green Knight, Saint George, Merlin, and was precursor of Hamlet. As an archetype he has persisted in most countries, even turning up as the Green Giant in grocery stores, and The Hulk of comic book and movie fame.
During the decades since I wrote the book and produced the filmstrip, I have continued to find aspects of him, which keep him recurring at significant periods in my life. He reminds me that we should always remain “Green” and young at heart. We must be aware of our relationship to nature, and our responsibility to the planet and our children who will inherit the fruits that we have sown – for good or ill.
The week before I went to Nevada, I spent a week in Boulder Colorado with my son and his family. My grandchildren aged 6 and 9 made masks of the Green Man, and we talked about what it means to be Green – our responsibility to the earth and to each other, and how we can learn to be Green consumers.
This year the green Burning Man figure was burned ahead of time by a deranged arsonist, but by the week’s end the Man had been reconstructed – now with a phoenix pictured on his face. But for what was also a Green Man figure, this was a wake-up call to all attending the festival. Unless we are willing to make changes in our habits personally, and as a society, nature may not be able to continue to renew herself. (Gala, the name given the personification of Earth is the feminine equivalent of the Green Man).
For me the trip was a sacred journey to celebrate with thousands of others the burning of the man, with the solemn belief and knowledge that he will rise again next year – same time, same place in Black Rock City. But like others, I answered some visceral imperative that called us there. Perhaps we were not building a pyramid of mashed potatoes like the protagonist of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, but we were drawn there nonetheless.
We live in a material world that values the power that money gives people. Our society places little value on the integrity of the individual, or his spiritual needs. Children are led to enter a field in which they will make a great deal of money. And the ideal Joseph Campbell encouraged – “Follow Your Bliss” is trampled underfoot for decades. Some people at retirement try to find that ideal, but many cannot, because they have forgotten how to play.
To play is to do something for its own sake – not for material rewards, but for the joy it gives us. Einstein said that he was “playing” with ideas when he discovered his theory of relativity. Carl Jung played with rock and mud cities when he was distressed. Picasso said that if he could learn again to draw as a child does (in playing), he would really be a good artist. H.G. Wells and a small group of famous friends played with toy soldiers. He wrote a book about their strategies called Little Wars. Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, “We don’t stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing”.
Every young creature plays. Konrad Lorenz in King Solomon’s Ring talked at great length about play, and how it teaches the young to act out the skills which will sustain them as adults. But perhaps the most significant work on the subject is Homo Ludens – (Man the Player) by Johann Huizinga. In it he traces the development of most essential human endeavors from play. These include: religious or yearly festivals, sports of all kinds, theater, military strategy and law. Yet, though play is still evident in all these institutions, he rates the need for play as one of the most important activities in which we engage.
The yearly festival of The Burning Man is all about play. It is play for grownups, and people return each year because in this city, they can do whatever they like without fear of reprisal or community disapproval. There is a sense of exuberance in the air, which picks your spirits up and whirls you around like the wind blows the ever-present playa dust.
So people dress up or dress down (it is clothing optional). They parade, they dance and sing. They give away their talents to inform, enlighten or titillate the spirits of others around them – They walk on stilts, dance with fire, and give lessons in whatever they excel at – from belly dancing and juggling to riding a penny farthing. There are workshops every day for decorating your bicycle or your body.
And they fill this extraordinary “city” with floats rivaling those at Mardi Gras. You can walk or ride across the Playa at any hour of the day or night, and expect to see a fire breathing dragon, a fantasy riverboat, a carousel, or Sheharazade on a magic carpet with room for anyone who wants to ride. You may see a traveling Victorian house, or encounter the “Bipolar Express”. These are art cars – dreamed up by “camps” of people. But there are also “mutant vehicles” – pedal driven, or constructed on the base of a golf cart. There are hundreds of these driving up and down the streets playing music (from classical to rap) and sometimes throwing gifts. There were a few versions of rickshaws with pedal pushing drivers. And there was one man in oriental garb pulling a beautiful macramé cart – giving rides to anyone who asked.
My significant other (Mehl Renner) and I turned our tent into the Green Man’s head. Dozens of people came to chat with us in our matching tie-died long johns (it does get cold at night) as we had our morning coffee by the Green Man’s head. We constructed this effigy in Mehl’s back yard in Charlotte, and shipped the pieces across the country. I made a twenty-foot Balinese flag to help us find our way back to our tent home.
By now, most of Black Rock City has been dismantled; nothing remains except a squad of volunteers picking up whatever “moop” (matter out of place) the revelers left behind. One of the few commands of this society is to leave the desert as pristine as it was before the festival.
Re-entry into straight life is hard. Now it is this life that seems surreal after the freedom of expression we enjoyed for seven days. However, we know that Black Rock City will live again.
If we lived in California, there would be “burner” parties going on throughout the year. I do not believe we will find any such party in Charlotte. However, as far as the Green Man goes, there is a movement or “brotherhood” afoot in some parts of the country where groups of costumed Green People turn up in masse at renaissance Fairs across the country. This is certainly appropriate, since Renaissance Charivaris, and other festivals usually featured Green Men or Wild Men. Albert Durer drew dozens of them, Leonardo included them in his art, and Michrlangelo even sculpted some.
And who knows, perhaps next year there will be a Charlotte “camp” at the Burning Man festival.
It was a very significant, magical, green experience that has created an everlasting yearn to burn!
(Editor’s Note: Thanks to Gail E. Haley for this beautiful piece of writing. Contributions to this site are welcomed — Alan Markow, editor and Burner)