Fire in the Heart of Black Rock City

[MachineGun Lily (aka Lily Rasel) works on Burning Man’s Government Relations, Legal Affairs and External Relations Teams, and (because Burners are nothing if not versatile) lays out the Black Rock City plan in CAD. An accomplished fire performer, she publishes Kindle Magazine, and will attend UC Berkeley’s Boalt Law School in the Fall of 2010. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

With the ability to control and harness its energy, both physical and spiritual, humans see fire differently than the rest of the animal kingdom.  We do not run away from it, but often gravitate towards and congregate around it.  We use it as a tool, and some of us like to use it as a toy.  We see it as both dangerous and comforting, painful and powerful.  But what is it that draws us to flames like moths to a lantern?  What is it that makes us, as Burners, surround ourselves with it, play with it, and revere it as we do in Black Rock City?

The truth is, humans have had a close relationship with fire for many hundreds of thousands of years, over a million years by the count of some scientists.  Some even speculate that harnessing fire and using it to cook food may have been key to our evolution.  Not only were we able to eat a wider variety of foods made softer and safer after cooking and potentially gain more rich protein from cooked meat, we had more time to spend together as people, preparing meals and eating them around the warm fire.

As our earlier selves sat around the protective flames in the dark night, we began to share ideas, stories, and art.  We drew on caves and invented language to communicate the burning complex ideas trapped in our brains, all while enjoying the warmth of what we once feared and fled from like the rest of the animal kingdom.  We began to ritualize the use of fire, like the forests around us, in cycles of life, death, and rebirth.  Fire is a primal element of our nature as humans, and perhaps that is one of the reasons it is so celebrated in Black Rock City.


Wandering around our fair city, the smell of propane, singed arm hair and dreams fill the air.  Like the first humans to wield it, we both revel in our command of fire, and respect its destructive nature.  We swing it around us on chains, shoot it off the roofs of our art cars and send it through the spikes and jaws giant metal serpents.  Others sit around burn barrels through late nights and early mornings, staring into the dancing flames and bearing their souls.  We gather en masse to rejoice in the burning of the Man, the heart of our city, and celebrate the coming of a new year, then sit the next night in silent remembrance around the Temple as we watch our past and future swirl away from the healing fire in giant whirlwinds.

Black Rock City presents a unique opportunity to make the fire arts an integral part of a civic community, and the result is a culture that coalesces around the warmth of the flames, as our ancient ancestors did around the campfire.  We use it to express ourselves, connect with each other, fill us up and set us free.  We use it in our rituals of creating, burning, and starting again, as well as to share burning ideas and remember our past.  In such a place where we are able to reach down to our cores and share our dreams, we cannot help but be a people with fire in our hearts.

About the author: MachineGun Lily

MachineGun Lily (aka Lily Rasel) works on Burning Man's Government Relations, Legal Affairs and External Relations Teams, and (because Burners are nothing if not versatile) lays out the Black Rock City plan in CAD. An accomplished fire performer, she publishes Kindle Magazine, and is currently attending UC Berkeley's Boalt Law School.

2 thoughts on “Fire in the Heart of Black Rock City

  • Burners.

    Before traveling to Burning Man, I had heard the term, but never truly understood what it meant. And as truth is told, one never could until you are the heart of Black Rock City, flames surrounding you, art cars moving past, groups of people gliding past each other, talking with excitement of watching an artist light their piece on fire, then being passed by bikes with riders lit with glow sticks, and one Darkwad.

    Burners I believe share a close association with fire. I know that for me, a camp fire will never be same. Not after attending the burning of the Man on Saturday, and most definitely not after the burning of the Temple. For me, no fire will ever be the same again. Ever.

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  • I agree with you John – the playa changed how I see fire – not even the regional could do that, only Burning Man. I can’t pass even the smallest fire without being drawn into it anymore – a few days ago I took a walk, and as I passed a house, I noticed a man sitting outside next to a tiny fire in a tiny fire pit – but it was fire! I suddenly realized that I’d stopped walking and had been staring at the fire for a few minutes :P Fire used to be just a simple way of generating heat/disposing of things, but now it is my creative spark and gathering place.

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