I’ll never forget my first sunset at Burning Man. The sun hit the mountains and all around me rose this eerie noise, as almost everyone in sight stopped whatever they were doing and howled, yelled and cheered the sun down. The hair on the back of my neck prickled in response to this tribe of people celebrating the end of a day.
That stopped happening in the last few years, and now the sunsets pass relatively unannounced by our communal voices. What other traditions are vanishing or lost entirely? Burning Man culture is strongly based on oral tradition, and I love a good story, so I (in one case, literally) sat at the feet of those who have been attending Burning Man longer than I, and asked them to tell me stories.
There were dozens of replies, I’ve highlighted a few below. I did not include any of the memories of epic theme camps from years gone by, (Bianca’s Smut Shack! Xara! Jiffy Lube!), as that could be an entire blog post of its own.
“We used to raise the Man, the participants did. One year it was just the kids, all lined up pulling on the rope to raise him* back to standing. Back when he had feet and stood on the ground. Back in the day. He used to lie on the ground for the day on Sunday, and you could put what you needed to onto him, tucked into his legs or wherever. Then when the Man burned, your item/tribute/memory burned along with him. ” -Molly
DaveX also remembers this: “…lowering the Man on Burn day to be stuffed with whatever fireworks were at hand. Then in the evening the community (lead by the kids) would pull the Man back up with a big rope-and-lever thing. Of course there was the jumping over the burning chest of the Man once he had fallen. I learned this from Fireman Dale as I watched him do it. He would sprinkle fireworks in the fire as he jumped…”
Crimson Rose used to climb the Man for a dance performance, pre-Burn.
THE JAVA COW
Andie Grace directed me toward the very entertaining Burning Man Glossary, which states that the Java Cow is a “Community legend which appears with hot coffee at sunrise on the morning of the Burn and asks the question: “Do you want cream or sugar with your coffee?””
I spoke with the Java Cow, and he stated that he stopped this tradition after about 1999, when the structure of the Man got so big that a one-man performance was lost in the noise surrounding it.
As well as lost traditions, there are a few that, while still ongoing, could use some extra attention as we acculturate our newer Burners.
OPENING FIRE CEREMONY: Monday afternoon of event week, Crimson Rose (a Burning Man founder and resident Fire Goddess) captures a flame from the sun and lights the Cauldron that stands in the Keyhole entrance to Center Camp. This same flame is carried in a procession on Burn Night to the Man, and the Fire Conclave utilizes this flame to dance for the Man before it is burned.
Will Roger, a Burning Man founder and Crimson Rose’s long-time partner and shiny new husband, shared that the crowds have been getting smaller and smaller each year for this ceremony.
MOOP RACES: “Any given individual running after a loose piece of paper or feather, to the cheers of onlookers saying ‘save the Playa!’” -JimmyTheKid
2 HOURS PLAYA CLEANUP: “Even as a new Burner I knew to “bring extra socks for DPW and donate 2 hours to cleanup”. A lot has changed since then, but I miss that as a cultural expectation.” -Miss Roach
Miss Roach makes an excellent point. Did you take 2 hours out of your burn this year, to clean up MOOP? It’s in the Survival Guide, and even on the back of your ticket. Our fearless friends with the Playa Restoration Team are in the desert right this moment, doing the final cleanup. Next year, perhaps we can make their job even easier by all making an effort to take 2 hours to clean up MOOP in the public areas of Black Rock City.
As we focus on spreading our culture out into the world (via the Burning Man Project, the Regional Network, and in many other ways), a strong connection to the way things used to be also provides valuable context…and some great stories.
Burning Man veterans, what are some traditions (personal, camp, Burning Man-wide) that are being forgotten? Talk story to us, in the comments section below. Virgin and more-recently-attending Burners, come gather around the fire and listen to the way things used to be.
And don’t forget, my fellow Burners. Sunset, next year: howl that sun down, for all you’re worth. Tell your friends.
* While we technically refer to the Man as a genderless “it”, common parlance tends to give him gender-specificity.
Brody works in the Art Department and has been attending the event since 2004. She likes hugs and Snacks and increasing the amount of happiness in the world.