Obviously one’s first reaction to hearing about the rain and mud at Burning Man this year was very similar to learning about the glitch that led to all those flights to and from British airports being cancelled last week: thank God I’m not there, that I’m here at home instead. But then that’s my feeling, increasingly, about being anywhere, namely that I’d rather be here. As you get older, any return journey from anything has an element of the retreat from Moscow about it. You get back from a concert in the evening or even an exhibition in the afternoon with a distinct feeling of relief. That’s the awful thing about Burning Man at the moment: there’s no realistic possibility of retreat from the rain and mud. All you can do is butch it out and hunker down. Returning Burners are greeted at the gates of the festival with the words, “Welcome home!” But now people are wishing they could leave this home and get… home.
Weather-wise, Burning Man is rarely a holiday. I went for the first time with my girlfriend in 1999. We’d been warned about the extreme heat in the day, had been told that it was best to take it easy in the afternoons, to relax in the shade in preparation for nocturnal adventures later. The day-time temperatures that year were lovely, in the mid-70s; the nights were freezing. After dark I wore everything I had (which didn’t include a pair of gloves, unfortunately).
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The following year it was windy and even slightly rainy. Our bikes got briefly clogged with mud. Another year there were horrendous sandstorms. These sandstorms are part of Burning Man in that they are not only to be expected but are, to an extent, caused by the event: the winds are an unalterable fact of nature but the amount of dust blowing around is increased by all the traffic and activity. One way or another the weather is rarely perfect. You have to be prepared for it being too hot, too cold and everything else. The one thing you didn’t need to worry about is drenching rain. Except now you do.
I went to Burning Man for what I thought was the last time in 2005. I’d finished that phase of my life and was, in addition, glad to be free of the multiple hardships of Black Rock City. There was always something to contend with, often a minor thing that became a major source of discomfort like painfully cracked heels from the acidic dust of the playa. Or there was the time I took a stupid gulp of what I thought was water but was actually the paraffin my friend used for her fire-spinning. Another year my wife ended up on an IV drip because of extreme dehydration.
So I was long done with it when a friend who was directing a documentary about the festival invited me to go with him in 2018. I had visions of this being a rather luxurious return. He was in talks with the organisers who were offering some logistical support. I’d heard rumours of luxury camps that went against the spirit of Burning Man and I was, of course, strongly opposed to such things. Nevertheless I said to my friend that while he should avoid using the word “resort” in any discussions, if it were possible for us to have something as close as possible to a “resort experience”, that would be ideal.
It turned out to be far from ideal. But it did get better after the first night when my friend, the snoring film director, agreed to move out so I could have the decrepit trailer to myself. And on a couple of occasions other friends allowed us to sneak into their endowed camp and take a shower. So my experience was more luxurious than it had ever been and, overall, every bit as great as I remembered. It was still what it had been when I went that first time in 1999: a high-water mark of civilisation.
The toilets are a good symbol of this. The portapotties at festivals are always a site of potential trauma. But the principle of leaving it as you find it holds good at Burning Man. In my experience, one could be 90% confident there wouldn’t be piss or shit on the seat at any time. And there was always toilet paper. This year I heard that the torrential rain meant the toilets couldn’t be serviced. That is the stuff of nightmares, on top of the quagmire of sucking mud that dries into something like concrete. Jeez, it’s sounded, at times, like Passchendaele in the desert, albeit without the violence. “I too saw God through mud,” wrote Wilfred Owen but while many people regard Burning Man as an ecstatic religious experience, this was a vision few would have wanted to share.
England is a rainy little country, so it’s no surprise Glastonbury regularly turns into a mud-fest. People are prepared for and wallow in it. More than 10 years ago my wife and I set off for Glade Festival. It had been raining heavily. Reports of mud proved accurate but we found our friends and pitched our tent. There were two schools of thought among our group and, I’m guessing, the festival at large about what should happen next. One was: take more drugs and carry on. The other was to squelch around for a bit, pack up the tent and get the next train back to London. That’s what we did and it was a mistake; we shouldn’t have pitched the tent at all, should have just arrived, taken a look and retreated. Or, even better, not gone to Paddington. Or even left the house. The first rule of military strategy is never reinforce failure so, overall, I regard that aborted trip to the Glade in the same way that Nasa rated the Apollo 13 mission: a successful failure.
If I’d seen the weather forecast before heading off to Burning Man this year, I would have cut my losses and decided against it. But I want to make it clear: there’s not even a hint of schadenfreude about my relief at not being stranded there. Over the years, the organisers have consistently made the right decisions about policy and development, have been able to correct previous mistakes, and remained faithful to the festival’s core values in the face of its massive expansion — both actual and hegemonic — into the most influential cultural event on the planet. (Its tentacles have spread so far into the mainstream that people often aren’t aware that Black Rock City is where they’ve extended from.)
And they have always stressed that it takes place in an extreme environment unsuited to human well-being, even when conditions are optimal. Burning Man is a long-running experiment not just in radical self-expression (fun!) but radical self-reliance. At the moment this means waiting. Not waiting for someone to come to the rescue but waiting to turn a passive and challenging idea of self-reliance into a similarly challenging active and mobile one.
Few words these days are more over-used than community. Raymond Williams, reflecting on its inclusions in his book Keywords, recalled that it was only when he noticed that “community” was never used in a negative way that he became suspicious of it. Had he lived, though, he might have seen fit to include these words from the late Larry Harvey, co-founder of Burning Man. “Communities are not produced by sentiment or mere good will. They grow out of a shared struggle.” Well, that is certainly being put to the test now — and I remain confident (from the comfort of my living room) that it’s a test that will be passed.
The larger question is what happens to the festival after this exceptional year of unprecedented struggle. The impact on the playa is presumably going to be extreme so the clean-up — meticulous, always, to the granular level — will be more difficult than ever. But it will happen and Burning Man will be back, hopefully with sunny skies, next year. I still believe in it, absolutely. And I hope the Man, however soggy and down in the mouth he may feel right now, does what he is there for and is burned, surrounded by whoever might still be around to see it happen. As Harvey argued with irrefutable logic: we have to burn the Man, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to burn him next year.