A Self-Inflicted Wound: An Open Letter to Burners

Is Burning Man culture becoming contaminated by the default world?


This letter is an opinion piece and does not reflect the thoughts or feelings of Burn After Reading Magazine. Our magazine is a platform for all burners to express themselves and voice their experiences. We are here to create a dialogue between single participants and the Burning Man community at large. 

As we begin to settle into our normal lives, only weeks having passed since we left Black Rock City and the phenomenon that is Burning Man, we promptly post our pictures or tell the stories we’ve gathered during our time on the Playa. Some talk about the party that was while others paint a more dogmatic picture of the oasis we call ‘home’.  While I personally feel there is something rather special about our gathering in that inhospitable place, it isn’t necessarily what we’re here to discuss.  No, sadly, we’re here because this year I witnessed a moment I could have never imagined for myself, nor would I have hoped to.

I witnessed and I believe you might have too, a fundamental shift in the cultural character of the Burn.  I felt the differences early on, surrounding small matters really; handshakes and fist bumps were replaced by hugs, motorized scooters and carts roamed our streets, stories of undercover police ran rife and Dubstep became the only and official music of the Playa. These issues, while troublesome, are symptomatic only of a culture growing faster than its ability to comfortably define itself and are, with diligence, largely correctable.  The moment of which I speak, really in my mind the defining moment of the event, occurred the Friday before the Burn.  You might remember that afternoon: the clear sky being overtaken by fast moving clouds, the wind appearing and carrying with it a proper dose of loose playa and darkened skies.  That night’s blue moon seeming to usher in our feelings of dissatisfaction and possibly some form of generalized resentment.  Warm smiles and welcoming arms found cold reception in the stern looks and short responses from those along the way.  Everyone I spoke with experienced some form of difficulty that night, almost as if the Burn itself proclaimed:  ‘Fuck you, I’m cranky’.

And so it was.

Maybe it was the sheer volume of first-timers; maybe we can just blame them, that unknowing mass of people who upset our perfectly aesthetic apple cart. Maybe though, just maybe, it was something deeper, something more distinctly sinister in nature.  Is it possible that in our earnest pursuit of radical self-expression and acceptance, a certain neglect or apathy has crept in?

Whatever the cause, the effect was to me, painfully felt.  After those Friday winds brought forth the first real dust storms of the event and the daylight faded to night I found myself on the Esplanade, walking with my intrepid group, looking for those experiences only the Playa can provide.  What we encountered was a delightfully intense night whiteout.  We walked, dust masks straining to protect our faces from the winds while a blinding dust reminded us that it was our city that was in control of our destiny that night rather than any personal desires we held.  What startled me and progressively filled me with confusion was that rather than reveling in the reality of our home and dancing throughout the storm.  We, as a collective, gave up and went back home.

In that moment we renounced the Playa and the sense of immediacy that is so important to our experience.  We, as a community, abandoned the single most important virtue we possess while living in our ephemeral reality and in doing so fundamentally betrayed that which we hold most dear. One by one as my entourage gave in to the weather and faded from view I found a sense of desperation that grew to an anger brewing within myself.  I tempted the gods and led my only two remaining companions directly into Deep Playa.  I walked with increasing despair, the wind howling around me with only the diffuse glow of landmarks to guide my steps.  After a while I realized I was punishing my friends with the feelings that drove me into the darkness. After leading them back to the Esplanade, we promptly parted ways.  I couldn’t believe the Burn held nothing in store for me that night.  I didn’t need a party, I didn’t need sexual gratification; I needed that authentic connection or synchronicity we affectionately refer to as ‘Playa Magic’.  Never before had I been so aware of its absence but I knew, whether it was by intuition or self-deception, that it was out there – waiting for me.

As I walked, I cursed the gods and I felt a disappointment I could not have known existed if not for the night that surrounded me.  As the night progressed I saw fewer and fewer people; a half dozen around The Pier, a few more headed to the DMV, maybe two next to the BMIR station, but I pressed on.  My journey eventually led me toward Center Camp and the subdued experience it offers.  I became resigned, aware that if my Burn was to be found; that this place of pillow fights, poetry and lost souls would be where it was hiding.

I found my Burn that night in the first person I spoke to, a delightful creature named Daniela.  Here was a girl, a Playa virgin, whose night had also been lost to the storm, someone whose yearning brought us together, and together­­ in that moment we found our nights repose.  She had a presence that

drew me and a smile that betrayed a certain sadness.  After only thirty minutes she found her way into my arms; thanking me in that moment for not having groped her or attempting to drug her into my bed.  Beyond any of the events of that night it was her thanks that disturbed me the most.  This was Burning Man, this wasn’t supposed to be the way it works here.  We aren’t a predatory society, we’ve cast-off the rape culture for one of commonality and inclusion yet here in the eyes of this girl I saw the changing face of the Burn.

Are we a people who, in the name of acceptance allow all forms of expression to find root in our culture?  Does our embrace of the radical have to come at the cost of a first time Burner’s heart?  Is the only expression of sound to be the monotonous drone of commercialized Electronica that comes from every direction?  Where are the geodesic domes where one can find rest and companionship?  Where are the fires by which we warm our bodies along the way?

I understand the controversies that surrounded this Burn, the lottery, the chaos in the camps, the influx of new Burners but how many excuses can we hide behind before we admit that we have let ourselves down in a very fundamental way? I propose that this Burn, this experience of 2012, will be a defining moment in the evolution of our people; that the prescient nature of the theme betrays the reality we face.  This festival of fertility version 2.0 seems in many ways our moment of literal redefinition.

This Burn will have consequences, don’t take my word for it, just watch and see.  From the 15 year old girl lost to the Playa for days, to the rumored deaths due to overdose or suicide and the overbearing presence of all manner of law enforcement this Burn can and should be taken as a sign of things to come.  We as a people must learn to support ourselves.  To ask more of ourselves, regardless of circumstance and to ensure we as a community take responsibility for our future development.  How can that happen you ask?  Well friends, unfortunately that is an answer that can only come from within and it is the reason I’m writing to you now.

This year, as a response to what I saw and quite unintentionally, my own form of radical expression, I cast off all pretense, barriers and walls that divide us and gave myself, fully, to whoever had need.  Every night I went off by myself and found those who needed love, companionship or just someone to listen.  I offered sincere intimacy that only the moment can allow and shared to the best of my ability, the man I wish I was.  Claire from 9:15 needed someone to be with her after an unfortunate encounter with an ex.  Shamal from 2:45 needed someone to help him through the isolation and fear of a bad LSD trip.  Daniela needed to be heard and appreciated for something other than her beauty and Elaina just needed a moments respite from the upheaval of her recent divorce.  Each experience was unique and very special to me, and each gave me the gift of time with some truly beautiful and sometimes vulnerable people.

This year I simply made friends, and those friendships are what have come to define my Burn experience. This year I brought no sound, no lights and no art. No. This year all I brought was my heart and faith and I tried with every ounce of my ability to share these with everyone I met.  While I fully understand that my contributions were minor, I like to think that because of me someone had a better, more emotionally fulfilling experience.

You see, I truly do believe BRC to be a place of metaphysical permeability: where intention and receptivity merge to form experience: where the profundity of the moment, of the now, can be realized in the most positive of ways. One of the companions I mentioned, Elaina, believes the Burn to be nothing more than a playground for adults, a Mardi Gras without bathrooms or air conditioning but I have come to know it differently.  Due to some unfortunate vehicular circumstances, my very first Burn found me on Playa without food, water, shelter, or clothing beyond what I wore on the flight to Reno.  I was forced, in a way, to rely on the people and principles of our event.  I was humbled beyond words to be homeless in a place so foreign to me: where every bite of food or drink of water was a gift from a stranger who didn’t have that much for themselves, let alone to provide another.  In the end I was homeless for roughly five days that year and not once did I go hungry, not once was I left without water or shelter and when I was cold, clothing was


It was an enlightening experience.

This brings me to the point of our exploration.  I’m sure there will be those reading that take exception to my words, those who proclaim this year’s Burn to be the best ever.  That the heartbeat of the Playa is born of the chaos of creation and that this year is no different than any other.  Respectfully I must disagree, but I do so with cause.  We, as a people, must make more of an effort to claim responsibility for ourselves.  We must learn to cooperate to ensure our culture’s continuance.  We must ask more of each other in order to preserve the raw, experimental, and yes, sometimes dangerous nature of our event.

We must embrace the chaos, to be sure, but we must also hold tightly to our principles.  How inclusive can we be if our female citizens feel increasingly threatened by our males?  How radical is our expression if all of our sound camps play the exact same subgenre of music?  How can we experience the potentials of our creativity if we fall into the trap of social apathy?  Now more than ever our beloved city is under siege by those who would seek its ruin.  Pershing County is actively seeking to control our event.  They claim our lifestyle to be obscene, our freedom lascivious; they want more regulation and more enforcement.  More undercover operations and control over who may attend. They say our city is a threat to our children, that our nudity is offensive, so if we do not act, if we will not demand more, then they will surely permit us less.

I don’t need you to agree with everything I’ve written, I claim no dominion over truth but I do hope it will be discussed.  I’m asking you, sincerely, to share your concerns with each other, not to seek blame or to find false cause. We are the cause, apathy is the cause, and disunity is the cause. In the end the cause is unimportant, what matters is that we, as a community, find ways to move forward and shape our future together.  If we are to hold ourselves in exaltation, to celebrate both what we are and what we could become then we must ensure that what we become is better, more deserving, and more hopeful than that which our experiment stands against.   As our community grows and our culture develops I say that it is our responsibility, our duty, to ensure that every time our city rises; it does so upon the very best foundations we can possibly provide for it.

Ultimately I believe this is something we can accomplish.  I have witnessed the capability and spirit that we Burners possess. Moreover I have faith in us, in you, and although I do not know you, I can say without reservation that I love you and count you as my friend.  It is for you and in defense of your creative nature that these words have been written.  You have filled my world with a hope and beauty I could not have imagined and for this you have my sincerest gratitude.




6 Responses to “A Self-Inflicted Wound: An Open Letter to Burners”
  1. Jericho – I’m an old school burner – 15 years now. Increasingly, I’m realizing it’s up to us elders to continue to create and maintain the tone that we want to see in our community. It’s our town, and we need to take ownership of it.

    This year, as we were packing our truck, a very lost, very intoxicated young man staggered through our camp. He looked more than lost. He looked endangered. I stopped him, asked him how he was, and my concerns were confirmed. He was lost, drunk, and there alone. He hadn’t slept all night and hadn’t drank water in hours. As I began to walk him the 7 blocks back to his camp, he confessed to me he wanted to kill himself by walking into the burning temple that night. Fortunantly, he agreed to walk with me to sanctuary, where a lovely ranger set him up on a cot and let him sleep it off in a safe, cool place.

    This kind of “I am my brother/sister’s keeper” is exactly what we need to be doing out there. That’s exactly what you did for that woman in the cafe. You showed what burningman is about at its core. It’s about radical self reliance as much as it is about radically looking after each other. We do that by taking care of each other when someone needs it, keeping our eyes and ears open, and intervening when needed.

    As long as those of us who know this ethic continue to show it in our daily actions, we will inspire the newbies, and they will pass it forward. I’m confident of this.

    thanks for writing this and getting me thinking… – placebo

    • Cap'n Struggle

      Thanks to you as well, Placebo. If you read my reply to Jericho, know that I put you in the same group of people trying to make things awesome! I only hope that I can continue to choose to do the same.
      –Capt. Struggle

  2. As a first time burner, Thank You Jericho. While I, and my experience, might have been a bit “mainstream” for you, I have to say it was a learning experience that continues to impact my life. And impact it in a direction that carries me towards respect and responsibility. It is chaos and confusion and conundrum out there. It’s easy to get “lost”, but that is part of the growth. As long as it is accompanied with reflection, as mine has been. I can’t believe that this year was “worse” or that it will continue to regress or falter. I think there will always be people that will take it too far, that are selfish, and that don’t, as least as I understand it, understand the point of BM. To grow, explore, challenge, accept, bend, and expand. It is awful that women feel threatened. It is wonderful there are people like you. The Burn, I imagine, has always been, and will always be a mix of these kinds of people. Just as life is a mix of these kinds of people. If we look for the negatives, we will find them, and in abundance. However, I also think that if we choose to look on the positive, and promote this, that it will help establish the positive as the root of Burning Man. The more people that hold a view, the more pervasive this view becomes. I think it is our responsibility to act as we want to see the spirit upheld, and to inspire that in others. What you did, and are doing, is magic. That is part of what drew me into Burning Man, and what I can now never let go of. It is what I find myself reminded of when i start to feel depressed, or small, or angry, or judgmental. These positive forces, they are influential, they are contagious, and they will overcome. I think it is good that you saw these things at the burn, I think it is indicative of a larger change in our society. Burning man, as good as it is, will attract evil. And it is the job of the citizens of BRC to be the good. To do better than to make that evil feel unwelcome, but to show that evil that there is a better way. I learned about love at Burning Man. I think you know what I mean. Have heart, it has not been lost.

  3. Cap'n Struggle

    can i link this to Reddit, Jericho? Or you should… Might get some good responses and inspire some more burners that way…

  4. Cap’n, my apologies for the delay; if you would like to link the article, please feel free.


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