Burning at Burning Man: Naked Came the Astronomer

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Burning Man is an annual week-long celebration of radical self-expression, community, arts and music.  Since 1989, it has been held in the Nevada desert concluding on Labor Day, the first Monday in September.  It had never been in the cards for me to attend, but on its 2nd day I realized that this year was different.  On short notice, I got in my car and started driving.  7 hours later I arrived alone at the entrance to Black Rock City on Thursday night, not knowing what to expect, not even sure I’d get a ticket.

Burning Man Box Office, Black Rock City, NV

I did get in though, after which gate keepers decked out in full regalia of feathers, leathers and EL wire, or almost nothing at all told me I was a virgin, rolled me in the dust of the Playa, hugged me and sent me in the dark into the campgrounds of a crowd that would grow to a record 52,000 by Saturday Night.  In 2006, attendance had been 39,000.

Satellite Photo of Black Rock City, 2006 - Ikonos Satellite Imagery

That’s not enough guidance for a virgin.  Not enough!  You’re supposed to get a guide to What Where When, or so I learned later, but the crowds were bigger than anticipated.  Ergo, no guide.  Instead, I relied on the kindness of strangers.  Fortunately, that was there in abundance.

The crowd, the venue, the ideas of Burning Man, all are huge; too much for any one person to take in; far too much for a single blog post.  This is the first of several vignettes of what I saw and what I took away.

Naked Came the Astronomer

Much is made of nudity at Burning Man, if only because it photographs well.  As Bruce Sterling said in his epochal 1996 Wired piece, getting naked is the easiest, cheapest way there is to cop an attitude. Lots of folks at Burning Man are copping attitudes. But nudity is not the same as overt sexuality.  The two are confused in the media.  There’s very little overt sexuality.  As Irish photo journalist Barbara McCarthy observed, much less than in Dublin.


Competitive Nudity: She's 50% more naked than anyone else.

Much is made, too, of the Gift Economy.  You don’t buy.  You don’t barter.  You give.  Everyone is encouraged.  In fact Burners go overboard in compliance, to give something to the community.  We’re not talking here about a Costco sized bag of Snickers, although someone did hand me a much appreciated Snickers for fuel in the middle of the night.  What’s sought is something of yourself.  Art installations, cooking galleys, radical kindnesses; these are the gifts Burning Man is about.

Bliss Dancer: The Largest Nude on Campus

Having made a last minute decision to attend, I had barely enough time to get water and food in a cooler.  It was on my way out of the house that I grabbed a solar telescope, a tripod, some sign board and fat markers, planning to give people a rare view of the sun and something of myself.

A solar telescope is not just a normal telescope with a filter to prevent your eyes from getting singed.  Instead, its filter is designed to take advantage of atomic properties only explained by quantum mechanics, and built with modern processes made cheap by the semiconductor industry.  It passes only the light from hydrogen atoms that have been whacked hard by other hydrogens. This in turn allows you to see motions of hydrogen gas as it flows on the solar surface, in particular the dramatic flares and ejections of solar storms visible on the rim.  It’s rare that anyone but an astronomer would get to look through these telescopes, so I figured bringing one out to the sun drenched desert would be an unusual gift. The photo below is by Brian from Bountiful, Utah, USA [CC-BY-2.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

The Sun in Hydrogen (Balmer) Alpha

At Camp Far Hung Low, a group of 30 people or made their home next to me in tents, RVs, and far out foam igloos they’d pre-fabbed in Seattle, LA and elsewhere, and then assembled in place quickly.

Desert Home: Highly reflective foam igloos stayed cool during sleeping hours.

I used their stoves, shared food with them, and horsed around with their teenage daughters.  The tatoo on this woman in the group, V, evoked a conversation about living and dying that I would never have been able to have with her outside Black Rock City.  Armor is stripped away, and you engage with people you’re normally too busy, that is cool, or not cool enough to approach.  It changes you for back home.  V explained that the tatoo covered up scars of invasive surgery.  She had made something beautiful out of a painful memory.

Sakura, Cherry Blossoms: symbolizing renewal, transience and beauty

When I set up the telescope one afternoon, V’s mates were queuing up to see the coronal flares and other spectacular phenomena.  V had come from a shower.  It was an outdoor, no privacy shower hosted by another camp.  She was wrapped in a towel.  She couldn’t hold the towel and focus the eyepiece at the same time, so she dropped the towel and observed in full nudity while I tried not to observe her.  She was just dropping her towel to free her hands.  Her nudity meant nothing more than that.  I couldn’t objectify her.  I had already had far too serious a conversation with her, and her remarkably sweet giant of a boyfriend.

She was only the first of three people to observe naked.  The second had also come from a shower, but not carrying a towel.  Not wanting to dry off with her clothes, she had walked miles from shower to camp in nothing but bikini underwear.  She was 26, a New Yorker, staying at a camp called Whiskey and Whores.  Every camp has its own admissions and cost policies.  At W&W, the sole fee was three gallons of booze.  I happened to be camped on her route home, and she stopped to see what was there to see.  White panties and nothing else.  She must have had pangs of modesty though, because she pulled a long denim skirt from her backpack to cover her bottom.  Her naked top she left exposed while peering in to the objective. As for the third, below, the less said the better.

He only wore a towel to block the daytime glare.

All this takes some adjustment. I spoke to women who never get naked, and to women for whom it has become second nature.  I don’t think the men ever get used to it.   I overheard one man watching a completely naked and nubile young woman walk not far from my camp, nonchalant as could be.  He said, “There’s nowhere else in the world you can see something like that.”  And his friend said, “Sho cain’t Bo.”  I concur.   And for a photographer like Barbara McCarthy, the raw material is so great it’s a chance to be Edward Weston all over again.

Fine Art of Burning Man - photo by Barbara McCarthy

A Glossary of Terms:

Black Rock City, NV – The city of Burning Man that grows up out of the Black Rock Desert on a dry ancient lake bed, burns bright for a week around Labor Day, and is then dismantled.

EL wire – electroluminescent wire.  Available in a wide range of colors, easily shaped, efficient lighting that is the favorite of self-decorating light artists.  About $1 to $2/foot.

Playa – the flat open expanse of alkali desert encircled by the camping area.  It is home to the many art installations, some meant to burn to the ground, as well as dance venues, and spontaneous self-expression that make this a unique event.
To Burn, v. i., – to participate at Burning Man.  Marshall McLuhan said of his writing about LSD, I’m only an observer, not a participant in these matters.  At Burning Man, the operating rule is that you must be a participant, not an observer.

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