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Creek Running North

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September 15, 2004

Burning Man

I didn't go to Burning Man this year.

This wasn't a reaction to what some call the increasing commercialization of the annual event out on the Black Rock playa. I didn't go last year, or the year before that either. You might say I was not going to the thing before it was hip.

The Burning Man, to tell the truth, has always left me a bit cold. For one thing, I don't seem to need what it provides all the people who go every year. I do understand the appeal of traveling out to the barren desert to walk among hastily built ramshackle structures, talking with sun-addled eccentrics. It's just that I spend enough time in Barstow already.

I know. That's not fair. Barstow is a stultifying town where the residents must contend with a plague of methamphetamine and unemployment, federal budget cuts turning disabled veterans out onto the littered streets, and outsiders pause only long enough to gas up and speed off toward Vegas, while the Burning Man is a deliberate expression of the most creative elements of the modern artistic and performance communities.

OK, so maybe Barstow still sounds better.

I don't have anything against the intent of the event. I know a few people who go every year, and they're perfectly nice. But here's the thing.

There is a spectacular mountain range directly above the site of the event. It's called the Granite Range, an outlier of the Sierra Nevada batholith out in the middle of the desert. It's a steep range with dramatic relief, one of the most beautiful small mountain ranges I've ever seen. And every year, thousand of people gather directly under the Granites. I read probably twenty thousand words of celebratory prose each year describing Burning Man, and I have seen the Granite Range mentioned exactly once, in William Fox's Playa Works - a wonderful book on playas and salinas and art which is only incidentally about Burning Man.

How self-absorbed do you need to be not to notice a mountain range? I understand that having all those folks walking around wearing only paint and strips of tinfoil can be a little distracting. But not noticing a mountain range for a whole week? Or even worse: noticing it, but finding it unremarkable?

There's a section of the San Francisco Bay shore called the Emeryville mudflats. Decades ago, local artists wandered out to the mudflats, gathered driftwood and other detritus, and built odd sculptures. The works, which were featured in the movie Harold and Maude, were charming and popular. The only problem was, the mudflats were a fragile environment ill-suited to repeated trampling. Eventually, environmentalists persuaded the arts community that the sculptures weren't worth the damage to migratory birds, but it took some time, and there was loud whining from aggrieved artists. They looked out over the rich pickleweed flats, the mud with its millions of microorganisms at the mouth of Temescal Creek, the sanderlings and clapper rails and egrets, and said "but there's nothing out there!"

But there's nothing out there! The complaint of the shopping mall developer, of the landfill operator. Behold the majestic playa, utterly flat tan soil stretching away to the vanishing point, distances paradoxically both magnified and obscured by the Perfect Euclidean Geometry of it all. Do you wander out alone, mesmerized by the shimmering horizon, the immensity and the dust devils kicking up shades of old Winnemucca's people? Do you seek solace in the wind, the sun, the solitude? Or do you, bored, find the scene lacking? Do you long for blue glowsticks and a hundred boom boxes blaring inane techno and a thousand pretentious performance artists bleating about their alienation?

The organizers do a yeoman job of cleaning up after the revelers, of training them not to set fires directly on the playa floor. They strain after each stray pistachio shell. They remonstrate over cigarette wrappers. This is as it should be. But they bring thousands of cars out onto the playa, there to kick up tons of dust to coat the Granite Range junipers. They compress and crush the playa soils, delicate layers of pollen-laden biological historical record, unknown microorganisms in unknown quantities. I have turned over slabs of playa and found thin green life two inches beneath the surface. As far as Burning Man is concerned, this stratified mystery is but a parking lot.

Faced with one of the last truly wild landscapes left in the US, their response is to build a city. This is not creativity: it is dreadful, dull conformity. Finding one of the last sublime remnants of the unpopulated West, they want nothing more than to pack it with tender urbanites in a glorified tailgate party. This is not an alternative way of life: it is standard American operating procedure.

Posted by Chris Clarke at September 15, 2004 11:04 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Yes. I absolutely abhor the "desert as tabula rasa" mindset. Just because one isn't patient and observant enough to appreciate it doesn't mean it isn't a living, fascinating place. Don't get me started on the idiots down here who think that the best use of a sand dune is to drive loud, gas-hogging, fume-belching ATVs on it. Faugh! (Hell, that attitude, widened and attenuated, accounts for an appalling amount of development in the Southwest. It's a desert, damnit! Love it and accept it as it is, or leave it alone!) Rant, rant, rant...

This, however, made me laugh:

I do understand the appeal of traveling out to the barren desert to walk among hastily built ramshackle structures, talking with sun-addled eccentrics. It's just that I spend enough time in Barstow already.

Posted by: Rana at September 16, 2004 10:23 AM
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Yeah. Sigh. Does anybody else get this? Do they care?

I was downhill skiing once with J. and a friend at one of Vermont's last remaining old-fashioned areas, in the far north of the state. We had gone into our favorite place, the "bowl", an ungroomed, natural snow trail, far from the lifts, that curved around the back of the wild mountain. It wasn't hard skiing, especially, in fact it kind of made you go slow and feel the mountain - its rock-given bone structure, its element-modified flesh - its mood and volatility. you couldn't ski that trail well without knowing something about the place, and your place in it - although of course you could ski it, you could get down, even go fast if you really wanted to. The other thing about that trail was that after the first long leg, you got a view - an incredible view - of the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, miles and miles away, rising like clouds. I always stopped there, in the white pines, and looked at them for a long time, usually all alone with the trees and the chickadees and my thoughts. It felt like an amazing prvilege. On that day, however, we were skiing along, and we came to that spot, and I stopped and my friend started talking - bravado ski talk about his new boards or something, or how great his thighs felt - and I said, quietly, after many minutes, "Isn't this an aamzing view?" He had been looking directly at it, and yet he said, confused, "What view?" It's a tragedy, Chris, that we've lost the ability to see and feel who we are except by what we DO to it, and by continually referencing ourselves.

Posted by: beth at September 16, 2004 10:37 AM
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"What view?"???!!!!


Posted by: Jill Smith at September 16, 2004 03:36 PM
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There was a big meadow -- maybe a half-mile square -- just south of my office building. It was cleared for dot.coms that never arrived, I assume: anyway it had been let run wild for three or four years, and in that short time it had become surprisingly beautiful. All the usual opportunists, of course, blackberry and tansy and firewort, and so forth, but also all kinds of other plants, and it flowered beautifully this Spring. Lots of different kinds of grasses, and they were drooping their swollen heads, heavy with seed, when I left.

I came back from vacation to find it had been mowed. Maybe someone actually had a reason to mow it, but I keep picturing someone listening to my complaints incredulously.

"But," they explain carefully, "it's a vacant lot!"

Where it doesn't have shrubs, you mow it, of course. You can't just leave it there. I wonder how many nests of birds and snakes and other creatures got demolished to satisfy someone's vague itch for neatness. What really distresses me is that the person who decided it should be mowed is almost certainly not the person who mowed it. So he'll never have any idea of what that space was becoming. Likely enough, he wouldn't care in any case, but I'd feel better if I thought he'd at least once set eyes on it.

Posted by: dale at September 16, 2004 03:52 PM
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