Once upon a moment

bone tree copy2

No matter how much time you are able to spend in Black Rock — a day, a week, a month — there always seems to be a moment or two or three if you are lucky that define the experience, ones that linger in your mind’s eye for weeks and months and years.

On Sunday, on the evening of the Temple burn, the moon rose beautifully over the playa, and it illuminated the Bone Tree that was parked near the entrance to Center Camp.

Other people were struck by the sight, too, and they came running to tell us about it.  So the moment was doubly significant — the sheer exquisite beauty of what was happening, as well as the instinct to share the experience.

(If you are unfamiliar with the Bone Tree, here’s some background from Dana Albany, the artist who created it in 1999:

“I’d been thinking about a bone sculpture for several years … Working  in the desert where cattle grazed nearby, I had access to all the bones I needed. I wanted to use an artifact of death to create a tree, as a way of paying homage to the existence of all life.

“…  I designed and constructed a mobile, interactive sculpture I named The Bone Tree, which consisted of a 27-ft steel frame tower mounted on five wheels like the base of an office chair, allowing it to be freely pushed around the Wheel of Time. The tower was completely covered with thousands of cattle bones. … It looked very eerie sitting on the playa, biding its time, knowing that sooner or later all living creatures turn to bone and that metaphorically all the bones would come to it.

“… The Bone Tree came to a very fitting end in the desert that year. After a ferocious wind storm, one of my friends walked up to me and said, “Did you hear about the Bone Tree?” She told me that the wind storm blew the Bone Tree across the playa, pushing it so far out that it was at least a mile from camp. What is especially interesting is that all of the extra bones stored under the Bone Tree’s frame had been shaken loose, leaving a trail of bones behind it the whole length of its journey.

“I thought this was amazing because I had always envisioned the Bone Tree out on the playa and felt it was meant to return to the desert, and it did.”)

So that’s the story of the Bone Tree, and one of the times that will stand out the most for me.

Tell us about one of your defining moments on the playa this year …

About the author: John Curley

John Curley has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 he spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. John is a longtime newspaper person and spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since leaving the Chronicle in 2007, he was a contributing editor on Blue Planet Run, a book about the world's water crisis, and for the past two years has been a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. He has also started an event and editorial photography business, and is also working on a book about the "Ten Dollar Doc" from Arco, Idaho, which will make a lovely film someday.

124 thoughts on “Once upon a moment

  • I remember getting to Burning Man Thursday evening. I took a couple of hours to assemble lights onto my bike and then ran off with the friends I came with to find my Jellyfish crew over by 2:30 and A. As I arrived at the camp with a sleeping bag in one hand and the pounding excitement of the night in my heart, the Jellyfish was slowly pulling out of its parked spot to officially start their awesome night journey. I immediately hopped on, surprised all of my friends and started rocking it out. I wasn’t into the slow dubstep that was playing at the time so I ran off into playa. The bright lights and craziness is exactly how I imagine how awesome Las Vegas could be and of course, I got lost (though you are never truly lost at Burning Man). As I was wandering about by Spanky’s, I met this amazing guy named Dale. His feverish excitement was rubbing onto me and we ran off together from one awesome glowing art piece to the next. I was so happy to have made such an amicable friend. We made it over to the 3D lightings and our eyes enjoyed an amazing vibrant show. The peacefulness of the night had a bit of a calming effect. We wanted to go to the slide and as we were traveling through playa, the Jellyfish came into view. We hopped on and danced some more. The bus ended up temporarily dying over by 10 and esplanade and most of us hopped off the bus and walked towards the amazing music that was blasting out of Nexus/Roots Society. A friend of mine broke off from the initial group and I ran after him. All I remember next is the following five hours of crazy dancing and laughter and having musical love course through my veins. During a dance reprieve to find the porta potties, we came across an open teepee and rested for a bit. We somehow ended back onto playa and as we were walking, we noticed the majestic Jelly floating in the near distance. As we were catching up to the gorgeous glowing blue and purple Jelly, an art car decided to stop right in front of it, making the moment even more perfect as we strolled back on.

    Skip to a later part in the evening and a friend of mine and I were trying to make it back over to our camp from 10 and esplanade. I did not realize how large playa was and over the next couple of hours, we slowly made it across the cool desert with sporadic stops to admire the beautiful art that was made for us. As we were making our way over towards the Temple of Sorrow, the warm sun started rising and pulsing its miraculous pinks and yellows in the sky. As I was sitting on playa and watching the sun rise with the purple balloons over in the distance, the Happy Birthday cake was making its way slowly over towards the Temple of Sorrows and was playing the most mellow and most perfect sunrise music possible. Life couldn’t have been more awesome and everything was beautiful. My soul was jumping for joy.

    There was another night, where I was hanging out with a friend in a tent and on the side entrance, a guy in a banana suit with an orange beanie hat comes in. He decides to hang out by the entranceway for a couple of minutes when all of a sudden, a guy in a monkey suit enters from the other entrance and runs over to hump the banana. That made my night. :)

    I love all my burners and all the art pieces that they pour their souls into. I love you Burning Man for making me more complete and I hope everyone had as awesome an experience as I did.

    And Dale, if you’re reading this, please contact me! I loved hanging out with you and would like to again.


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    There, with an EXTREMELY close friend and realizing I am in the middle of something amazing!!!
    I walk onto the playa my first evening ,wednesday) and realize I am transformed…………………
    then I see our NEIGHBOR……………
    making beautiful poses that reach to my heart………………….
    He is gay……
    he is afro-american………….
    he is my friend…………..
    he exudes everything good……
    I so love this place where I feel we are ALL equal and loved…………..
    I DON”T want to leave……….

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  • I began to leave camp and my neighbor tells me to hitch a ride with him, they’re heading in to see the rocket ship do it’s magic. I hop on this fantastic art car boat, with fur and lights and start heading to the playa. I feel like I’m on the boat from Gilligan’s Island lol. The driver was hilarious, mono tone voice mocking innocent bystanders on our way. sweet man. :~) I have to say, I was interested in the rocket ship but what I was really after was music .. Beats Antique. I knew they were playing at the Hookah Dome and I kept missing them all week. The boat finally parked and there were a ton of people surrounding the rocket ship. My thinking; I’ve still got a long way to walk so I’m going to head out now and I’ll see the rocket ship do whatever it’s going to do on the way. Destination Hookah Dome reached, no rocket ship action or the dust was too much to see. Beats Antique! OMG. Moved as if I’ve never moved before. I am an aspiring belly dancer and felt connections with music and connection with body and sound that I’ve never known. New plateaus of understanding. The music ends and I’m saddened. I hear they will be playing at El Circo an hour from now. I begin again to find them. Traveling inner playa, meeting beautiful and gracious beings on the way. Encountered a metal sculpture of a woman, her heart a blazing propane inferno. The creator hands me the controls and I control her heart beat .. fast, slow .. like mine, we are one. I venture forward again towards El Circo only to stumble upon the Memor Trees installation. Inside I encountered friends that I felt I had known forever. We shared laughs, a smoke, and then I left leaving hugs behind. When I reached El Circo finally the energy was incredible. An intense passionate, vaudevilleish dramatic flair, that is only how I can describe it. I was close to the stage dancing and was having the most blissful moment when I overheard these two girls making fun of another girl; she was not dressed up extravagantly, she was obviously high on somerthing, but she was having a blast. This upset me greatly because arent we all there to have a good time and exress ourselves how we choose? Cattiness is so ugly, it didn’t belong there. I continued to dance and met a few folk involved with the show that was about to begin. They had no lighter and it may have been so simple, but little did I know gifting my only source of flame to them led to one of the most important and impactful displays of art, dance and drama I’ve ever encountered in my life time: Cirque Berzerk. I cried. I sobbed at the beauty. I wondered if everyone around me even had a clue at the beauty before them. I was humbled truly at life and freedom of self expression and the real beauty we have to gift others as performers and artists. I was angered by ego and I felt renewed as an artist. After the show had ended I went outside to even more incredible music and ambience. I put down my bag, took off my coat and danced with a new energy inside me. I danced while watching fire performers gracefully move through the shadows, the dust surrounded us all, I knew there was no place in the world I’d rather be, right there, right then .. together, united energeticaly, spiritually, as one.

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  • Coming back sort of late (maybe midnight??) from a trip out to the Temple (still under construction but already awesome!) my partner and I were just coming into the 9:00 plaze when a really good looking guy rushed up to us. He thrust a plate in our direction and said “Please help me. I have 22 of these I must get rid of. I made way too many.” On the plate were two, big, hot double cheeseburgers! We each grabbed one and thanked him PROFUSELY (at least I hope we did – I was so focused on the cheeseburgers I am afraid everything else got a bit blurry).

    We ate them immediately surrounded by a swirl of bicycles, dust, people and light and that cacaphony of drum beats, people talking and laughing, and amplified music from at least two competing theme camp sound systems and a very large art car that is the essential sound of the playa.

    The burgers were teriffic – perfectly done with a charcoaled crust and the cheese just melting. Eating them was orgasmic – especially after several days of eating out of cans and bags. All in all, it was sensory saturation – completely satisfying and leaving us both in an advanced state of mellow.

    Thank you mysterious burger bearer, whoever you are!

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  • Funny…. of course on the playa the magical moments are many and hard to bring to focus sitting in front of a computer but…. truly I think my favorite part of Burning Man every year are the playa-centric dreams that dominate my dream landscape for weeks afterwards. Fabulous and otherworldly as dreams so often are but, all of them with a playa foundation of place or activity… Just love it and love the world we all create out there. Thank you and hugs to all!

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  • This years burn really hit home for me. I cannot even EXPRESS how pivitol it was for me to go this year. Last year was my first year and you can bet that I was prancing along the playa like a prisoner finally escaping and seeing the sky for the first time in years.

    This year was a bit more spiritually deep for me.

    I explored the art, went out on my own, met some great people who helped make this whole experience possible and I found myself. It was a raw and awakening experience this year than it was my first.

    There were a lot of things I wanted to let go of this year at the temple. One was the emotional baggage of losing my mom, my best friend, 5 years ago. It still feels like yesterday and yes I blamed myself for losing her but not after the burn. I let it go. I told her that I loved her at the temple and not to worry and then I walked away. I watched it burn. It was so invigorating.

    For about six months, my brother had been taking care of my grandmother, who had raised him growing up. She was deathly ill and a month before BM she finally passed by his side. He didn’t think he would be able to make BM this year because he wanted to take care of her. He was alittle bit in a funk the first couple days but finally spread his wings when he decided to mentally let her go.

    The biggest part that Burning Man played was when I got back. The very next day, I wake up for the first time in my own bed and hear that my grandfather shot himself. My mom was my grandfathers shining light, my grandmother was always his rock, and they had both passed. I was shocked, in tears, at first. We arranged the funeral at the oregon coast, where we used to play as kids. It felt good. We were all laughing and jumping in the water. The spirit I gathered from Burning Man made me stronger to bear all these hard times. Since the experience was so fresh in my memory I was able to see the brighter side of things.

    I feel like if all these events had taken place without BM I wouldn’t have been so strong. I wouldn’t have any fond memories to cloud the bad ones. I would still have baggage.

    The spirit lives through you, I say. You see the light in things you never thought you would before. Burning Man was my savior.

    Thanks for reading

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  • Hands down, my favorite moment was when participating in the Billion Bunny March, I looked up at the man while on the 6’oclock arm to see two giant bunny ears proudly protruding from the head of the man. I thought it both clever and brilliant that they were able to create this illusion without actually affixing anything to Larry’s oh so sacred sculpture. To me, this act, joke, happening or whatever you wish to call it, embodies the true spirit of what Burning Man means to me, namely the kind of artful shenanigans one might expect from the the Cacophony Society to whom arguably are the true founders of Burning Man.


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  • After an all day trek from Orange County, we arrived 2AM on Sunday to set up, and just sacked out on the playa. (No problem, I thought; I’m a 5th year burner.) I awoke to the early sun and the strange sound of flame jets coming from somewhere. I rolled over in my sleeping bag and looked up. Directly overhead, a hot air balloon was lazily moving up 7:30 with a cargo of early risers! After marveling at the sight, I jumped out of my bag, grabbed my camera, and caught some shots of the balloon. My nudity was irrelevant, as was the cool morning air.

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  • Early early Tuesday morning, Center Cafe, listening to a Brit duet sing acoustic, “The where, the when, the why” — and realizing through my tears how little and insignificant our non-playa dramas are in the bigger more important scheme of things. Your HD 31″ plasma TV or high falutin’ mortgage can’t hold a candle to the connection of community, humanity.

    Say hi and truly smile at others. Mean it.
    Less TV and more people time.
    Move your body more, without inhibition. Dance.
    Give freely. Accept freely.
    Laugh and cry more openly.
    Be honest.
    Love your body. Decorate it. Play with it.
    Share without condition.

    See you on the playa…

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  • Sunday night/Monday morning there were shooting stars out. On the way up the state hwy there’d been an accident that stopped traffic for about 40 minutes. This was about 12:30am. Turned off the car and stepped outside and chatted with others, pointing out the constellations each of us knew. Must have seen about 20 shooting stars in that time. These were fairly faint.

    Then, coming down onto the playa about 2:30am, there was a huge shooting star that seemingly was coming straight down onto the playa before me. It burned out well before landing, but I took it as a sign that this would be a special time. It was.

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  • There were so many interesting, wired, mind-blowing and hillarious moments I had as a first-timer at BM 2009 that it’s hard to say what was the most smashing.
    One of the greatest moments was surely the 1000s of Burners gathering around the temple on Sunday. evening. Suddenly somebody screamed “Look at the sky” – and step by step the sky was moving more and more, many stars turned colorful and moved around like UFOs. Then the comets with their sparkling tails and the blue “migratory birds in V-formation were such a wonderful choreography that people around me started to cry. So many people who danced their soul out for a week were completely quiet and hardly anybody spoke a word when the temple started to burn – earlier than everybody expected – what a holy moment I will never forget. The bizarr tuba and the BM band playing after half an hour was such a surrealistic scenery like in a Tarkowskij movie….

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  • ,,,,WAOO !!!!!!!!!! ,,,my virgin year ,and,,,not in my wildest fantasy could I have dreamt of anything like it !!!!!!!!!! Squeezing every moment of this so pure,,sincere
    ,,,and the aliveness this event was carrying .
    ,,,The howling ,,,,full moon was smiling down at US,when I heard far from the other side of the playa how the howl travelled ,,,,with closed eyes ,tears running down my
    dusty face while smiling, I turned towards the sky ,,and from the bottom of the earth
    all the way through my body ,,from every cell ,,,I HOWLED,,,AAAAAAAAAOOOOWWW
    OOOAAWWWOOOOO !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! …I AM HOME !!!!!!!!!!!!

    ,,,Planning ,OF COURSE !!!,already what to bring as gifts for next years burn !!!!
    Thank You Ever so Much for everything !!!


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  • Standing there in the middle of a propane powered explosion symphony, feeling the concussions in my chest singing to a raging rythym. Heat on my face rising and falling in the crescendoes of fire. Feeling like I was truly a burning man. How from hell can I possibly go back to the world?

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  • As always, it is the synergy that occurs when people of vision meet people of ability and, between them, create more than they could have alone.

    I have three defining moments. The first two were at the Temple, where I first realized that I have the ability to help people through difficult times, to see their own potential and live more joyfully. The second was realizing that I have become the woman I always wanted to be.

    My most defining moment this year was when the finest, most intelligent, playful, conscientious, loving and passionate man I have ever met asked me to spend the rest of my life with him as his wife. I accepted and we will wed at the BRC Post Office in 2010. Everyone’s invited!

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  • I worked feverishly to prepare for my Burn this year and ended up arriving late wednesday night. I spent the night sharing wonderful music and comraderie with fellow Burners in and around center camp. I slept in my truck for a while and awoke around 9ish. After being gifted a breakfast of delicious blueberry pancakes I went to the porta johns around 4:00 and Genome. When I’d finished my business I was standing around enjoying the vibe of my neighbors. I met a young woman and we chatted a bit. I expressed to her how good it felt to be back and how much I loved BRC and all of you. She leaped into my arms and we gave each other a firm and heartfelt hug, and then she just scampered off joyously back into the neighborhood. I felt so happy and good to be home.

    My second most special time was participating with my Djembe in an AWESOME drum circle at center camp at about 3-4 pm. on thursday, maybe friday. We had one hell of a groove going and with people of both genders and all ages just dancing in pure joyous celebration in the middle of all that powerful music. It was absolute exstacy! Thank you all so much for being there and being you. I love you all. See you next year!

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  • many to mention, yet what stand out in my mind are :

    Enveloped in the poetry of Rumi–literally feeling the texture of the language and soulfulness of the message–“I am you and you are me…n”–which I repeated endlessly, truly illuminated by the words, while riding Mother Nature’s goodies–enlightening to say the least.

    Looking into the eyes of someone for a solid minute–being in the moment–I happen to meet when I lost someone else while riding our bikes at night–I know, no such thang as a coincidence.

    Riding my bike out towards the distant art installations and borders of BRC, and embracing the quiet mood of the oncoming night and full moon, while looking out at the wildly colorful and tirelessly energetic civilization–the magical tapestry of BM.
    No matter where you are you are here and there’s a time for being in your dynamism–dancing and socializing and a time for being in your solitude–breathing, walking, and balancing both states of consciousness, and somehow creatively weaving all within and throughout the authentic YOU.

    Like I said, many, many moments, so it’s crucial to give ourselves the gift of wholeheartedly embracing our innate humanity.

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