Thursday, August 26, 2010

Burning Man

The opposite of courage is not cowardice, it's conformity -- even a dead fish can go with the flow.

We live in a world of rules made by men in suits and neckties. Free-spirited weirdoes have difficulty coping with the nonsense of conformity and have an overwhelming desire for self-expression -- the weirder the better.

A thousand years ago, ancient Druids (Celtic paganism) practiced human sacrifice to please their gods. They created giant effigies out of wood, called "Wicker Man," with criminals trapped inside, and set them ablaze. Today in our world of enlightenment, certain neo-pagan festivals practice the same ritual, usually without criminals.

In 1986, a small group of free-spirited weirdoes burned an 8-foot tall wooden structure of a man on Baker Beach in San Francisco, a city famous for free-spiritedness. They considered it "a spontaneous act of radical self-expression." This soon became an annual event and, in 1990, was moved to a more suitable location.

Burning Man is now a week-long festival, leading up to Labor Day weekend, that takes place on a barren, flat basin in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, about 90 miles north of Reno. On Saturday night, the sixth night of the event, a large wooden framework of a man is set ablaze as a non-spontaneous act of prior self-expression.

Each year, radical "artistic" weirdoes descend on the area to create a temporary community of self-reliance called Black Rock City, which gets bigger every year. Tens of thousands attend the annual festivities, which will commence on August 30 of 2010.

The participants are called "burners" and must have a high regard for creativity and a willingness to partake in a "gift-based" society. In other words, they must be unemployed social misfits with a propensity to frolic.

Black Rock City is confined within a circle with a 1.5 mile diameter. The wooden man, 80 feet tall (height varies each year), stands in the center and avenues extend from the structure to the perimeter of the circle.

Any gathering of thousands of self-expressive weirdoes would not be complete without merriment, music, street performances, interpretive dancing and guerrilla theatre, which take place from dusk to dusk. It's basically a collection of exhibitionists showing off, with no one to watch because everyone else is too busy showing off too.

Even in a temporary society where freedom of expression reigns supreme, there are rules. Cash transactions are prohibited (no flea market action) and underground barter is discouraged. The only commerce allowed is the sale of coffee and ice at the center of camp, maintained by the organizers, which provides funds for the event, including the rental of portable toilets and a contract bus shuttle service to the nearby town of Gerlach, Nevada.

Nudity, sexuality, profanity and weird behavior are all permitted. Fireworks, firearms and dogs are forbidden. The only vehicles allowed on the premises must be "art" cars (decorated up to weirdo-artistic standards).

A sample of the scheduled daily activities from a previous event includes:
7:00 a.m. – Playa Tai Chi
7:30 a.m. – Neuromuscular Integrative Action
8:00 a.m. – Regenerative Yoga
8:30 a.m. – Body Painting & Body Art
9:00 a.m. – Osho Dynamic Meditation
9:30 a.m. – Heavenly Yoga
10:00 a.m. – Reiki Massage & Crystal Healing
10:30 a.m. – Alternative Energy Walking
11:00 a.m. – Traditional Thai Massage

And so forth. Obviously, there's something for everyone, unless you're a fuddy-duddy regular person.

The festival is meant to be a venue of freedom of expression and non-conformity, yet the participants must conform to the etiquette (rules) of the community and behave in a certain manner in order to fit in. Even in the land of the weirdo, the cost of freedom includes hypocrisy, just as it does in the real world.

There is a fine line between non-conformity weirdness and ding-dong wild whacko. It's okay to be different, but not okay to infringe upon the freedom of others. Burning Man is all about building something, then destroying it. It's a metaphor for the madness of the world, freely expressed with bizarre behavior, rather than a game plan for life.

But in the end, Burning Man is simply a venue where non-conformists gather to conform to other non-conformists in order to carry out ritual human sacrifices from the distant past.

As usual, I won't be attending the festivities this year. I'll be busy cleaning my oven that week. Besides, I don't have to go all the way to Nevada to mingle with weirdoes – I live in Arkansas.

Non-conformity is just fine with me, but excessive weirdness is a lot like excessive insanity.

Quote for the Day -- "A man flattened by an opponent can get up again -- a man flattened by conformity stays down for good." Thomas J. Watson

Bret Burquest is an award-winning columnist and author of four novels. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and where weirdness blends in. His blogs appear on several websites, including


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