Sandbox Koan

The Man watches over the inner Playa.


As a person who has attended Regional Burns, and years of NYC Burning Man fundraisers, I had an idea of what to expect when attending my first actual Burning Man this year. Or so I thought, because the magnitude, quality, and quantity of what I witnessed and participated in was SO far beyond even my wildest imagination: A veritable paradise for curious & creative types!

Bezel and Crescent at their virgin burn, Burning Man 2012.

After setting up and settling in, my girlfriend, Crescent, and I set out onto the playa to take a look around. As soon as we hit Esplanade, a well-timed dust storm settled in, but being duly prepared, resilient and curious, we continued with our exploration. Quickly a set of large, pointy, 3-D asterisks emerged from the dust cloud enveloping us, like the opposite of a mirage.  Continuing on, we ran into an interactive installation featuring wind-vanes, mirrors

and a set of large, intricately cut puzzle pieces. Inundated and baptized by dust, we discovered several CORE effigies: a winding staircase that spewed fire at night; a bull emerging from the Playa; a twenty foot tall tree; many abstract structures and other wonderful works offered up by regions that have taken up the mantle and core values of Burning Man.

And then the dust storm settled… revealing that the incredible things we had just seen were just drops in the ocean! Arrayed around the Man one could see just how many CORE effigies there were, and surrounding them were a huge number of art installations. We were awestruck by how this movement has spread across this country and the globe – even South Africa had a CORE project.

The art installations were especially captivating: A thirty-foot tall human hamster wheel! An elevated, transparent torus running complicated patterns of lights across its surface! A pirate galleon erupting from the desert and colliding with a pier! A huge mechanical, quasi-insectoid walking machine! And a whole host of curiosities I could only describe with “WHAT-the-WHAT??” (Which is high praise denoting true originality).

We explored The Temple of Juno’s awe-inspiring form and were immediately struck by the energy: a heady mix of contemplation, mourning, forgiveness, letting go, promises for the future, and universal love. What a structure! Built out of hundreds, if not thousands, of CNC-cut wooden panels creating a kind of geometric pagoda, each viewing angle affording a different complex pattern. We sat there in silence for a while, reading what people had written and pondering what the Temple meant to us. We felt that this was an important gift, for all Burners to be able to process and let go of the past, embrace the present moment, and generate intent for the future.

Giant metal rocking horses playfully entice burners to hop on for a ride.

The Playa has two distinct personas – daytime and nighttime, each with its own unique experience for the participants. The art installations had one visage in the daylight and a totally different appearance when shrouded in darkness. During the day, we were able to see the intricate details of the construction and craftsmanship that went into each piece – we could walk up and interact with them, discovering all the parts that made up the whole. Then at night, the installations, and the art cars (essentially mobile installations complemented by sound and the capacity to carry along a whole group of people for a glorious ride) took on another glowing, pulsating life through the use of intricate LEDs, fancy lighting techniques, and flames (case in point: El Pulpo Mechanico, a huge octopus which spat fire out of each gyrating tentacle). These two personas – light and dark – complemented one another, like a perfect yin & yang. After experiencing one aspect, we were excited for the experience of the other, to see what else there was in this crazy complex cornucopia to explore, view and immerse ourselves in.

What an endless array of fascinating workshops and performances! Who would’ve thunk you could get educated at the World’s Most Epic Party? Meditation domes, crafting classes, and an invaluable contact juggling workshop, which helped me up my skill level by pinpointing some bad habits and learning some refining exercises. Who would’ve thunk you could travel the world just by coming HOME? But we conversed with fabulous people of all nationalities & backgrounds (Dutch! Japanese! Russians! Israelis!).

And then, of course, there were the nighttime ragers! Hundreds of different parties, from charming dive bars set into the less-trafficked territories of the higher letters, to a little slice of Bourbon Street (complete with crawfish boil and live jazz bands), to the most epic of club environments shooting multicolored lasers into the surrounding mountains. A multitude of brightly LED-lit creatures, ships, submersibles, and anything else that could be dreamed up, emitting fire and wandering the nighttime playa!

El Pulpo Mechanico rocks the Burn yet again!

But our personal nocturnal favorite was following the Robot Heart art car (one of the best sound systems on the playa, and mobile) with a cavalcade of other bicyclists, flanked by an honor guard of other art cars, deep into the far reaches of that dry lakebed. It struck us how that was the kind of thing that really makes Burning Man a singular kind of experience: the ability to wander deep out into the desert and have a fête anywhere one pleased. We even sojourned a bit further on our own, that giant, blinking LED heart becoming the size of a conversation heart. With the light sprinkling of rain, a few blasts of lightning, and the blessing of insulating cloud cover, one couldn’t have hoped for more peculiar and glorious weather. Oh yeah, and it was a blue moon, which illuminated the playa like an ethereal lunar landscape. We took a seat on the soft crust of dust, and a cacophonous wash echoed towards us, telegraphing the sheer multitude of parties raging all at once. From that distance, we could survey the entirety of Black Rock City, and truly be awestruck by what we create in that temporary wonderland we call HOME.

After our reverie, we returned to revel with our fellow Burners, and before long the sun began to rise. With the cloud cover, it wasn’t possible to determine the point whence the sun would break through, and many of us spread out on the deep playa in anticipation. When the first rays penetrated, our entire company broke out in cheers, followed momentarily by the echoing cheers of the entire city. In that moment, both Crescent and I were seized by the most profound and wondrous of sentiments – a true validation of this manifestation of life, and deep gratitude for what we get to experience – and I have to say some tears of joy were shed. We do this all for each other, with no thought of the future, and then the desert is returned to its natural state – truly an existential Zen koan, a massive sand painting in the biggest sandbox of all.

The sun rises over the open Playa.

What do we virgins take away from the whole experience of Burning Man? In a word: Inspiration. It is difficult enough to weather the environment and take care of oneself; hence it is deeply invigorating to see what level of production had been realized in that challenging milieu. The totality of what we saw, experienced, and participated in was inspiring, verily a creative call-to-arms, a demonstration of what passionate people are capable of. We are unable to stop thinking about what we could bring to the playa next year, and you veterans should feel very proud, for the cycle continues. What will we bring to the playa next year? You’ll just have to wait and see!


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