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10/03/2008

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Erbo Evans

A coworker of mine was once interviewed by CNN at Burning Man, and she was asked, "Why is it important to burn a man?" Her response was, "It's NOT important, it's FUN!" Make of that what you will.

Carl Metropolitan

I read Carlos Castaneda as a teenager, too. I didn't realize until later that they weren't supposed to be considered fantasy novels...

Desmond Shang

I've never been to Burning Man in 'real life', ever. However I have spent plenty of time out in just about every desert in the southwest United States, growing up. The desert is a mythic place, in a way; it's a shame not many can experience it the way locals can.

Burning Man I have no objection to; it is, perhaps, more safe and sanitised than most of the experiences young people have out there.

Back in the day, the desert was a place to take fireworks, alcohol, goof around with your crazy buddies and their questionably dangerous firearms. Shoot at cans and stuff, smoke cigars, explore, or burn your decrepit volkswagen to the ground, just because it was worthless and you could. If you were truly crazy you brought your girlfriend. Of course, that kind of miscreant behaviour won't fly any more - certainly not in this day and age. Once upon a time, possessing huge fireworks or firearms just meant you were a crazy, typical kid. Now it means you are a terrorist.

When I think back upon adolescence, college, growing up... and the things we did out in the desert, burning man is ridiculously tame - a family event, and truly about art and goofing off more than anything else. It's an outlet, a distraction from the 70 hour a week cubicles to which its population must surely return.

We need these other places. It's a deep part of human culture. Prok, I know you see the evils of tribalism, of returning to less civilised habits. But there is value there too. We have lost so much, all sitting in our air conditioned homes. Human touch. Spirituality. A sense of meaning beyond feeding ourselves.

Every culture needs its vision quest, its pilgrimages, its hajj - it's a fundamental need of mankind. This is Silicon Valley's - and while you may not partake, see it for what it is. Essential. Just different. Just a big party? Sure, for most, probably. But doubtless there are also people there having the experience of a lifetime, just not in ways obvious.

* * * * *

There were maybe 15 or 20 of us, I can't remember - I was in graduate school but not everyone else was. We had driven out to some lava caves. I'll not state the exact location for safety purposes but it's about 1/2 way between Barstow and Needles and remarkably close to I-40.

It was the usual sort of road trip - just everybody had some kind of contraband. Well, believe it or not about half of us didn't do drugs of any kind (me included) but there were plenty of other distractions. It was the 1980's, but the '70's hadn't quite lost their hold yet.

So it went like this. Those in the know would joke about the caves we were exploring - nasty, jagged lava caves that seemed ridiculously too huge to be relatively unknown - but they are. Joke was that somewhere, the lava caves stopped being horizontal and took a dive straight down toward the core, from whence the magma came in the first place. Everyone laughs at this, especially the 'smart guys' but everyone sort of gets a sense that it is logical, too. True or false. Has to be false, but... it's one or the other. They do or they don't.

So everyone proceeds, and after a while, the tunnel gets smaller and tighter, narrow - cavernous halls separated by crawl tubes. The leaders toss pebbles into each small tunnel before proceeding to the next - it's really hard to get both the flashlight and your head through to see what's possible. People also yell into them to get an idea of the space - then everyone moves on. The talk moves on to bats, dangerous gases, what-have-you. The few bats we see are small, cute almost, sleeping high above. No mountain lion would ever be dumb enough to come down this far, everyone is sure. We shut off the flashlights and it is utterly pitch black. We'd be dead if they failed, no question.

Eventually, we get to a tight crawlspace, and the people up front say: wow, there's a ridiculously huge space ahead. And nobody can see the bottom. Pebbles are thrown - no sound. Someone hollers in there - and it echoes forever. It's tight where we are - only a few people up front can really see. "I see a ledge! It's crazy deep!" Everyone is silent. The guys up front say: "Let's go!"

There is only one way to do this: feet first, into pitch black. Climbing down, I can feel the vastness of the space - I can't see the other side, and I sure can't see the ledge of the abyss I'm aiming for. "Don't slip! You got it!"

So as each person comes down, convinced their white knuckle grip is the only thing between life and death - the people down below give them a shove. It's a ridiculously short fall - a foot or two maybe, after being shoved - but in that instant, you *know* you are going to die. Most people scream or yell (I sure did). Then you land on your arse, a light flicks on, a hand is put over your mouth and a finger is held up: "Shhhhhh!" You are handed a beer, surprisingly still cold.

You've been initiated. And as you recover from the stun of it - you watch your friends as in turn, they face death. It's deeply, deeply revealing. Amazingly, nobody gets it from the cut-short screams and following silence. Confusion mixed with fear is an incredible thing.

Many are quite predictable, but some surprisingly meek girlfriends turn out to be tougher than nails; the 'tough guys' are often not.

As it turns out, the abyss wasn't an abyss - a vast space, yes - but horizontal. There's much to talk about, as the beer and the junk food comes out - just a single flashlight illuminating faces. Someone checks a watch and realises that it's now dark, topside. No matter - there is no sense of change in the underworld.

Talk rambles from juvenile joking, to accusatory, to spiritual... then grows more serious. Everyone realises they will face death again - for real, someday. Someone remembers a loved one who faced illness and died... then another... then the stories start to flow. The sweaty dusty faces seem so alive, so fleeting, compared to the ancient cave rock and the incredible forces that shaped it.

You can't come away from either experience - the memory of facing death, or the common bond of humanity that is realised thereafter - unchanged. Nobody leaves that cave without learning something, no matter how they try to dismiss it.

Probably you could get arrested for scaring someone unnecessarily like that, these days. However, it was a valuable moment that I'm personally glad I went through. Done wrong, it could be horrific and scarring - I can see why the ancients left such things to the experienced. But these sorts of experiences - these rites of passage are pretty much gone from western culture today, and with it, the tempering knowledge it brings.

* * * * *

Compared to that, Burning Man doesn't go nearly far enough.

Kryss Wanweird

"Why do I find it repugnant, when I am a free thinker, at least appreciative of hippies and alternative movements, and like camping outdoors and art?"

Hi Prokofy,

Does your statement mean you abandoned myths altogether or, do you have your very own definition of the term "free thinker" as some sort of hippie related stuff?

Prokofy Neva

Free thinkers are not necessarily hippies; in a world dominated by hippies, they aren't hippies. What's funny about the myths that geeks adapt, as I explain in my essay "The Geek Religion," is that they imagine that their more pagan, or derivative, or tribalist myths are "better" (Extropianism, The Singularity, various mish-mashes of pagan and wiccan, Buddhism lite, karma, etc.) than traditional "religions of the book". Yet the replicate some of the very things they said we had to flee "religions of the book" for -- oppression, male dominance, cruelty, etc.

One of the greatest tekkie myths is "Darwinism" taken to extremes not only in science, but in every field of human affairs, so it is "Darwinism" or "Nature's Way" for people to lose their homes, they are weak, there is something wrong with them.

Prokofy Neva

I've learned some more stuff:

1) These folks depicted here are called Lamplighters, and represent a RL Burning Man tradition.

2) Poid instructs me that in fact the build is not all PG, but has M, so that's how they could have the BDSM crap. Here's the thread from Dusty Linden:
http://forums.secondlife.com/showthread.php?t=277884

Here's what he says:

"Many of planet Earth's cultures find nudity and public references to sexuality to be highly offensive and downright irritating"

Isn't that so very SL and so very LL?

Let me reword that for you, Dusty:

"A tiny minority of the planet's cultures that range from either very primitive in poor countries to very extremist in rich countries find nudity acceptable, and because we're sectarians, we will encourage this."

You know, I wonder if we need to go in there tonight with a fire brigade, water buckets, and t-shirts that say 'STOP THE SLAUGHTER. STOP THE MADNESS. PUT OUT THE FIRE. DON'T BURN THE MAN!"

It's interesting how the Burning Man thing isn't really so "Green" at the end of the day, because true Greens wouldn't burn stuff needlessly and heedlessly like that.

Gareth Nelson

"It's interesting how the Burning Man thing isn't really so "Green" at the end of the day, because true Greens wouldn't burn stuff needlessly and heedlessly like that."

Another rare comment that we agree on.

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