Project Thunderstick: Burners Aid in Japan Relief Work


Rikuzentakata shortly after the tsunami

Participation is a difficult concept for some to grasp, but for many it is a way of life. If you’re anything like me you learn by doing, by interacting with the world around you. Not content to merely observe society, you and I dive in feet first and go looking for friends, work, ideas,  or parties. You get your name out there and you start making connections and you improve your situation. Participating in a culture as diverse and enriching as the one offered by Burning Man has been an ultimately rewarding experience for many, but some like myself feel called to take this a step further. Anyone can easily participate in the hedonism and revelry we’ve come to find synonymous with Burning Man and exciting regional events, our big holiday bashes, but what about those of you who feel as though their time can be put to good use?

An admirable example of the Burning Man community and its radical inclusion of strong-willed, skilled individuals committed to help and change is Burners Without Borders. Burners Without Borders is an organization based out of a strong web-community that began aiding in relief efforts in 2005, when a group of Burners coordinated efforts to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Since then Burners Without Borders has provided relief in the form of over 75 projects world-wide, including fundraising and relief work for Haiti after the country was devastated by the earthquake in 2010 and even assisting Habitat for Humanity in our own backyard of Reno, NV, where they used extra wood donated by Burner camps that in order to build houses.

Since the organization, according to their website, has no current non-profit status they function almost exclusively off of private donations and volunteers from the Burner community. Here are a group of people who were brought together by this celebration of Radical Self-Reliance, people who celebrate the gift of life with all of their hearts and cannot think of a better way to pass the time in between Burns than to help those less fortunate than themselves. They aid others through the use of an open community geared towards promoting peaceful, sustainable living.

Working with Burners without Borders is easier than you think. The simplest route to helping is obviously donating to their organization, which you can do through the Black Rock Arts Foundation. However, if you are working on your own project that aims to assist those in need, just try reaching out to them through their website and e-mailing them. That is exactly how my own Burners Without Borders experience started. Back in March of 2011, when the tsunami washed over Japan and devastated the countryside, Alfred “Thunderstick” Werner, a Burner companion of mine, rounded up a team of men from his 2010 playa camp. He reached out to a few specialists, and coordinated a relief effort for some of the inundated townships in the North Eastern prefectures of Japan, specifically Miyagi and Iwate. Named after the project’s chief coordinator, recruiter and financial contributor, Operation Thunderstick flew eight men to the disaster area and supported us while we offered cleaning, carpentry and other services to the devastated areas. When I left from Newark Int’l Airport we were a privately funded operation not associated with anything, but three days later upon reaching the work site we had made contact with Burners Without Borders and they had offered to support our project.

Team Thunderstick was one of the first outside groups to assist in many of the devastated areas.

Over the next month, my crew and I would head out into the affected zones to clean and rebuild the homes and farmland of rural Japan. One particularly amazing project was helping to sort and clean thousands of family photographs. An elementary school just outside of Kesennuma had been converted to a work site for Japanese men and women to work on restoring family shrines, grave markers and photographs that had been collected and brought in so that someday their owners would be able to find and reclaim them. While the bulk of our work was cleaning out tsunami sludge from homes and stripping rotting wood from floors and ceilings, this particular task struck a chord within me. To be sifting through thousands of people’s most intimate family histories in a seemingly hopeless effort to get them clean and help them find their homes again, to touch so many lives at once without ever meeting a soul… these are feelings that I will carry forever.

Teaching the kids how to play duck duck goose.

I never thought in a million years that my Burning Man connections would one day land me in a position as austere as this one, traveling across the globe to an utterly ruined landscape and being tasked to do literally anything I could to help. In retrospect, the fact that I was tasked with hard work worth doing and that I was asked to participate in such an endeavor, has severely impacted my worldview for the better. I wasn’t chosen for this because I possess great physical skills. I’m not good with my hands and I am not in great shape. Yet I was asked to join this group and invited to be a part of this transformative process because they knew that I would give it my all. I would give back to the less fortunate as much as I had been given and more, because that is the kind of person I feel called to be.

Team Thunderstick helped assist at rural schools.

Burning Man is a place for many to learn, grow and change. It provides thousands of people with a venue to realize and self-actualize, to become the beautiful, skilled and talented people that  we are all meant to be. By engaging in community projects like Burners Without Borders, or even any of your local Burner organizations, you are being given the chance to draw yourself closer to the person you want to be and to live, work and play with the people you want to share your life with. So the next time you are invited to step outside of your comfort zone, I urge you to give it your all, do your best, and strive to behave like the shining example each of us is called to be, because the next time we gather, the next we burn as brightly as we want, we’ll be a community of the realized and the awake. We will be together with love in our hearts and change in our hands. We will ask the world play to with us and it will.


One Response to “Project Thunderstick: Burners Aid in Japan Relief Work”
  1. Scooter "McThumbknuckle" Lutz

    This is great! I’ve been talking for years about putting together a program that takes troubled and underprivileged youths through the Appalachian Trail to teach them survival skills and to give their own natures a chance to develop away from the bombardment of influences and pressures they receive in their various “real” worlds. Or an alternative boy/girl scouts program without all the high rhetoric about God and country. But like many of my dreams and half-assed hatchlings, it falls into the “I don’t know where to begin” pile. Thanks, this is inspiring!


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