Raising the Man

When you think about Burning Man, you think about a lot of things – the desert, the dust, the art, the people, the party –  the whole conglomeration of things that make up this extraordinary experience in the middle of nowhere. But at the heart of it all is the Man himself, the big wooden thing that gets burned on the Saturday night of the event.

The Man’s origins are a mystery wrapped in an enigma. We know that in 1986, Larry Harvey and Jerry James and a small group of pals built an eight-foot wooden man and thought it would be a kick to drag it out to Baker Beach and set it on fire. Stories have been told and legends have been propagated as to exactly WHY this happened. Most often, you hear that Larry had had a bad breakup, an this was his attempt at catharsis. But as is so often the case, the simplest explanation seems best: Burning a wooden man just sounded like a fun thing to do.

It was the reaction of the people on the beach that made the event noteworthy. A crowd gathered, there was singing and reveling, and Larry and the others suspected that they might have touched a collective nerve. So they decided to do it again. And then again. And eventually here we are in Black Rock Desert expecting 60,000 to watch the Man burn this year.

(And forgive the capitalization issues in this post: It seems like a deification to refer to the effigy as “the Man” instead of simply “the man,” and we don’t want to layer any errant spirituality on the proceedings. But we’ll give the big guy his due and go with the capital letters.)

Wednesday morning was the culmination of months and months of work for this year’s Man crew. On a beautifully still and calm desert morning, the Man was placed ever so gently atop the base.  There was a relatively small number of people on hand to witness the lift and place. The other night, there might have been a couple hundred people around to wax the Man to make sure he burns brightly and quickly. But on this morning the Man base felt like a work site, which in fact it was.

Joe the Builder and Chaos were around, of course, making sure that all was going according to plan. Bruiser was operating the crane, Gary was on the radio making the calls, and in general Devo and the others on the heavy equipment crew made it look easy. Commander Bob and Steel Toe and Nifer and SF Slim and all the others who helped build the guy were there watching. Betty June, Crimson Rose, Smoke Daddy – the list of major players is fairly lengthy, and we apologize for not naming all the names.

But the point of the matter is that everything was smooth as silk.  “Do I get my raise now,” Bruiser said when the lift was done and Heather and the welding team ascended the base to secure everything into place. It was awesome to watch, but drama-free, which was just fine. “The first few times (we did this), I was like ‘Oh my God be careful!'” Crimson Rose was saying. “But now I’m more worried that he’ll stay up.” A 2,000-pound wooden effigy on a 50-foot base that has to stand up to the howling desert winds? What could possibly go wrong? … Yeah, it’s a scary thought, but this isn’t the crew’s first rodeo.

Smoke Daddy is in charge of the neon tubes that light up the Man at night. Every year the color scheme is different. Smoke Daddy  presents his choices to the Burning Man team in January, and they mull over all the options and reach a decision on what direction to take. Last year the Man was multicolored and vivacious. But this year the Man is more subdued, even somber. The gas in the tubes and the material used to line them determine what colors are produced, and this year there will be two shades of white – one a relatively cool 8300 degrees Kelvin, and the other a warmish-pink 4300 K.

Smoke Daddy handles the neon for the Man.

Why is the color scheme so subdued? To honor the memory of Rod Garrett, the architect of the city and the man who played such a pivotal role in defining the aesthetics of Burning Man. Rod succumbed to a long illness during the time of last year’s Burn, and this is the year to pay respects in a simple and elegant way.  “We made a nice Man,” Smoke Daddy said, and that seemed incredibly fitting, because Rod was a very nice man.

There are other adornments to this year’s Man that didn’t just happen by accident. If you look closely at his midsection,  you’ll see an alpha symbol on one side, and an omega on the other. The beginning and the end, and the Man in the middle.

Everything was finished before breakfast. The wind stayed calm, and scrapbook pictures were taken, and there were lots of smiles on people’s faces. Then workers began putting the finishing touches on the Man’s head, which will be dropped into place later in the day. One more big step had been taken in getting the city ready for you.

Joe the Builder, on the scene.
Nifer put decorative touches on the corners of the Man’s head.
The Man won’t be headless for long.
It was a calm morning, and the lift went off very smoothly.
The Man team, with their handiwork in the background.

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.

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