This isn’t the normal fare for WUWT, and I had some reservations initially about publishing a piece by Willis about “Burning Man”, fearing it would have tales of wicked debauchery, and irrational topics like crystal healing, bead therapy, and cannabis cures. As most pieces by Willis usually are, I found it entertaining in a “Mad Max/Road Warrior” sort of way, so I decided to post it. Read it at your own risk. After that, be sure to take the replicated Lewandowsky survey, no matter what side of the fence you exist on.
I do have one question for Willis. What sort of CO2 footprint would an event like this have? – Anthony
Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
I had said in my last post that I was going to check out the meteorological conditions on the Black Rock desert in Nevada. Having done so, I can testify that they are quite stunning, but hard on the human frame. The desert is a dry alkaline lake bed most of the year, perfectly flat, and a kind of dirty white. Here’s the Google Earth view, along with a view from the ground.
As a number of people correctly surmised, I was going to the event known as “Burning Man”. I had never gone before, and I am an incurable addict of the more outré oddities of the world. Black Rock City (called “BRC”) is a week-long carnival with 60,000 performers, artists, musicians, jugglers, aerialists, fire-dancers, madcap mechanics, acrobats, sculptors, dancers, and assorted other odd people, one of whom is yourself, going 24 hours a day for a week. There are bars, restaurants, tea houses, massage parlors, breakfast joints, an airport, emergency services … but no money changes hands. There are monumental works of art all around. Everything is scrupulously clean, not a gum wrapper on the ground. For one week, the city exists in light and glory and flame … and then it is all folded up and taken away, and the desert reclaims the landscape.
Burning Man was started in San Francisco by an artist. The legend in BRC is that he was breaking up with his wife and he went down to Baker Beach, built a statue of a man, made an altar containing the photos of his past life that he was done with, and burned both. It was so much fun, and so liberating and cathartic, that he did it the next year with some friends. Over the years the party outgrew the size of Baker Beach, and the beach authorities wouldn’t let him burn the statue of The Man, so it was moved to the desert. Which was fortunate, given the current size of the statue of The Man that gets burnt every year …
The Man. The structure holding up the Man is four stories tall, as can be seen by the people looking out from the upper floors. In the middle is a free-standing climbing maze that holds hundreds of people. It is burned on Friday night.
In addition to The Man, there is also The Temple. The story has it that it is the outgrowth of the altar that the artist burned that contained the photos and memories of his marriage. This is where people go to put up commemorations of friends and family who have died in the past year.
The Temple. This year it was constructed of intricate fretwork plywood, and it created a lovely, dappled shade. People leave all kinds of photos and written comments and remembrances of dead friends and relatives to be burned with the temple. Photo courtesy of David Raitt.
When you first come across this type of desert, it looks like a great sandy beach stretching in front of you, so the early Spanish explorers called it a “playa”, the Spanish word for beach. But in BRC, the word has other meanings. It means the actual alkaline dust that makes up the desert, as in a statement like “My food was covered in playa, but I ate it, I’ve been eating playa all week.” Then there is the “Inner Playa”, which refers to the large open area in the center of BRC where you find The Man and The Temple and a host of outrageous, mind-boggling art works of all types. Finally, it refers to the community of Burning Man, as expressed in the oft-heard statement “The Playa provides …”
The city contains a number of “camps”, which are groups of people organized around some theme, which is generally to provide something to the inhabitants of Black Rock City (called “burners” in the local parlance). For example, there’s a camp called The Grilled Cheese Incident (the title is a play on the name of a popular band). Every day at four pm they serve grilled cheese sandwiches for about an hour. There’s the Voodoo Soup camp, they serve soup in the afternoons. And the Popcorn Camp provides just what you think it would, all the time …
I had the immense good fortune to go as part of the Skinny Kitty Teahouse camp. The Teahouse serves up tea and entertainment in equal measures. There’s a piano and a stage. There are circus performers and aerialists … but I suppose I should tell this story in the order I lived it.
I was part of the crew that went in early to set up the Teahouse and get stuff ready. Here’s my pickup truck with the popup camper, towing a 10 kilowatt “Whisperwatt” generator plus a bunch of gear. The green tape on the windows is painters tape, to keep out the dust.
The wind was blowing when we got to Gerlach in the afternoon, not an uncommon occurrence as I was to find out. Here’s a shot on the way in …
Soon after I took this photo, we were engulfed in a full-on whiteout before we even got to the gates. When the wind kicks up, the dust blows up, sometimes so thick you cannot see more than a few feet in front. Dust masks and goggles are essential if you want to venture out into a whiteout … which is not recommended.
There are 60,000 tickets sold for Burning Man, and every vehicle is carefully checked at the gates. We also had to show our Early Access passes that proved we were part of the setup crew for an organized camp. The ticket checkers were totally enveloped in the whiteout, with serious protective gear.
The whiteout let up as we got in. Here’s what the Teahouse looked like when we arrived, the tent was already up. It is a huge (80′ x 50′, or 25m x 15m) saddleback tent capable of holding great numbers of people. Note the dust in the air. The tent is huge, the man on the left is near the camera so the dimensions are deceptive.
We set up our camp, laid out the tarps, put the sunshades out, got the barbecues set up, the usual. My truck is on the right, my friend’s 5th wheel is on the left, dust is in the air.
Then we went to work on the Teahouse. Tim had pre-built, numbered, and disassembled an outrageous structure of natural tree branches, to go around the “Reliquary”, where the Skinny Kitty’s sacred relics are displayed in front of the Teahouse. We had to install it on-site. First a trench was dug, and a 7-sided foundation of 6″ x 8″ (15 x 20 cm) timbers was bolted together, dropped in, and spiked in with rebar spikes. Then all of the pieces had to be found and bolted together in the proper order. This was made more interesting because two of the pieces had been given the same number, and that took a long while to sort out … but eventually it all came together. Here it is, later in the week.
The crystal pyramid in the middle of the structure encloses the Skinny Kitty holy relics, which are the bodies of four desert-mummified cats, the eponymous Skinny Kitties. Plus a crystal skull at the upper right. Here’s a shot of them at night …
I never asked why “Skinny Kitty”, I figured the reality couldn’t match my imagination. My guess on the back-story is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.
In any case, we got Tim’s structure up around the Reliquary, and got the Teahouse ready. The Teahouse has a piano. It didn’t work at all, out of tune, keys sticking.. People told me not to worry, the piano doctor would fix it. When he got there, I was amazed. I learned to tune pianos while living in the South Pacific, because every piano there is out of tune. But this guy was the maestro, he could tune a piano at an extraordinary rate of speed while holding a conversation. I asked how he got so good. “I quit counting how many pianos I’d tuned when I hit 15,000”, he told me, and I saw absolutely no reason to disbelieve him. I watched him work his magic with the stuck keys as well, filing them a bit here and a bit there until it was all working. “It was very flat”, he said, “so I only tuned it up to where A equals 420 hertz or so. I’ll come back tomorrow and bring it up the rest of the way to 440 Hz”. And he did, and the piano stayed in tune for the rest of the week. And when a few keys started to stick, I pulled out my own wood rasp and fixed them, following in the steps of the master.
The other fun of the first few days was replacing the engine of the camp’s Art Car. What is an “Art Car”? Well, it’s anything that can drive and be art. Ours is the “Crystal Ship”, with what look like large luminous green crystals, but an art car can be anything. Here’s another camp’s art car …
This art car looks like a VW bus until you look at the scale, the wheels are almost as tall as a person.
Anyway, the motor of the Crystal Ship got frozen over the winter and the freeze plugs didn’t blow out. When they fired it up on the playa, it only ran for about 15 minutes and stopped, and the engine had to be replaced. On the Playa. Ooogh.
It was discovered that there were exactly three replacement engines available, one in Atlanta, one in Nashville, and one by a stroke of extraordinary luck in Sparks, Nevada, about a hundred miles away. Someone went out and got the engine, a “long block”, and then we had to make the switch. One of the hardest parts was removing the vibration damper from the old engine so it could be installed on the new. This task involved a cherry-picker engine hoist, a high-lift jack, about six guys, and a plethora of bad words. But we finally got the new engine installed, complete with a piece of plywood in place of a missing metal plate to seal off some unused engine vents … and it ran happily for the duration.
Meanwhile, others had been putting in the lights for the Teahouse and unloading the couches and building the tea bar and hooking up the generator, so when the gates finally opened for general entry, the Teahouse and the reliquary with its enclosing shrine and the Crystal Ship were all up and running.
Now that my initial work was done, I spent the next few days exploring the city and the inner playa. Before I left I’d given some thought to the principle of giving, which is one of the main principles underlying Burning Man. I pondered what I wanted to give away. Having lived in the desert, I realized that cold mist would likely be appreciated, so I brought a garden sprayer that sprays extremely fine mist.
It’s made by Solo, holds a litre (about a quart) of water, and sprays an extremely fine spray. And since the finer the spray the more the evaporation and the cooler the mist, it shoots a very cool mist. There are other folks spraying water in BRC, but mostly it’s just sprayers and they just get you wet. But my mist sprayer was cold enough to give people goosebumps, cold enough to make them squeak and stand on their toes. It made me reflect on how amazing evaporative cooling is, and gave me more insight into how the winds associated with thunderstorms over the ocean cool the ocean so well. Among other ways, they blow a fine mist off of the surface of the ocean, with a huge associated cooling.
I didn’t mess around when I misted someone, I misted every exposed square inch. I cooled them off completely. And on a hot day in the middle of the dusty playa, that is a very scarce experience indeed.
I greatly enjoyed my chosen act of giving, the act of misting people to a state of coolness, for a variety of reasons. First, it gave me the opportunity to talk to a host of very interesting people from all over the world. I couldn’t begin to list the nationalities and races of the folks I talked to. People from Quito, people from Hamburg, people from New York. I misted old folks and young folks. I misted fat old guys and beautiful young women. I misted drunkards and fools, wise women, the ugly people and the beautiful people. I misted people on stilts, and the people sweating while giving away popcorn in the popcorn booth. I always asked first, no problem with refusals, everyone gets full choice. I misted people lying down, standing, walking, sitting, riding bikes, and passing by in art cars. So one great joy was, I could meet and talk to anyone.
Second, it gave me the chance to practice acting without the slightest expectation of reward. In my view of the world, this is a most important skill to learn, doing things without expecting a quid pro quo of some kind. Acting just for the value (or lack of value) inherent in the action itself. I didn’t expect anything at all in return, I just misted folks and went on my way.
Third, I misted the whole person. To do that, I had to bow down to spray peoples’ calves and lower legs. As a result, my chosen task gave me the opportunity to bow to people all day long, regardless of my opinion of them … and that is an opportunity that I rarely have in the world.
Finally, whether I’m writing for the web or building a building for a client, somebody is always unhappy about something. For example, I’m sure somebody will be unhappy with the way that I am telling this tale. But misting people in the heat of the day on the playa, I never had one complaint. Everyone thanked me profusely. I did a good, full, professional job, back of the neck, back of the knees, cover all exposed skin, some mist for the face if they wanted (after taking off their glasses or goggles), and I never had one person says anything bad about what I was doing, or question my motives, or say that I was making some mistake. A marvelous break from blogging, for example …
So I spent my days wandering the city and cooling down the overheated. I got three offers of marriage, but only if I would agree to start following them right then and there and I would mist them whenever they wanted … I allowed as how my beloved ex-fiancee might reasonably take exception to that.
I received a whole bunch of sometimes lovely but totally worthless gifts in exchange for misting people—crystals, buttons, string bracelets, jelly beans, decals.
And of course, along the way I saw a whole raft of astonishing things. Here, for example, are some of the art cars … first, to match the VW bus, there’s the VW bug … note the size of the man standing by the front tire:
Here’s a few more art cars, a tiny sample of the thousands, photos again courtesy of David Raitt …
Art cars wander around the playa and the city, and the general rule is that if there is space you can hop on board and ride as long as you want. Ask first. Mostly I just walked, I saw more art that way. I’d seen photos of how last year there was a long dock in the playa, looking like it was sitting in the ocean, that lead to nowhere. This year, the dock was back, but this time with a half-sunken ship at the end …
Of course, in best Burning Man fashion, the mast of the ship shot giant flames at night from three points, the top of the mast and the ends of the spar, casting a ghostly light over the entire scene. Then there was the insect eye …
My friend Clint said “Where’s the door?” “What door?” I asked. “It has to have a door”, he said, and he was right. One of the panels swung inwards and we went inside. The interior was cool, with a carpet on the floor. We could see and hear the people outside, but no one could see us, no one knew we were there … strange. But perhaps not as strange as the giant toilet art car …
I went by the Center Camp. It’s a huge tent, open in the middle, and constantly occupied by a shifting cast of characters. While there was the usual assortment of what in the sixties we used to call “bliss ninnies”, there were also a host of amazing folks doing an astonishing variety of things.
As a scientist, I just loved the Ask-A-Physicist lady, who was giving away her knowledge:
On Wednesday, I came across a most strange art car. I was walking along a street and came across a full-rigged sailing ship. I’m a blue-water sailor, I looked at the rig, and it looked ready to sail. I asked them about it. Turns out it is a half-scale replica of a ninety foot (27 metre) 1790’s US navy square rigged frigate. It is fully detailed, and fully functional.
They said that when there was wind, they sailed it on the inner playa along with another ship that they described as the “covered wagon ship” that was parked on the playa. So I set off to find that other ship so I’d know where to find them when they sailed. I tracked it down. It turned out what is claimed to be a full scale replica of the wagon of Windwagon Thomas from 1853.
After the whiteout on the day I arrived, the weather had been mild … mild for the playa, at least, hot, but not too much wind. So nobody was sailing either ship, but now I knew where the sailing happened, and would follow up later. Meanwhile, it was Wednesday, circus night at the Teahouse. Skinny Kitty is associated with Bones and the CircusMeCCA, a non-profit circus arts education group. So the Wednesday night circus at the Teahouse is an amazing event … here’s the Teahouse and the moon …
And here is a photo of one of the performers, but none of this can capture the joy and the humor and the agility and skill of Bones and his son Kai and the circus people involved:
On Thursday I continued my daily walking and misting, with every few minutes delivering new amazements … for example, the bowling alley …
And of course, more art cars:
In the afternoon, the wind was kicking up, so I went out and found the square-rigger setting sail for a voyage.
So I said “Permission to come aboard, Cap’n?”, and climbed on board. We set the mainsails and the spanker and the topsails, but it wasn’t enough to move the ship. So we set the topgallant sails, and slowly at first, she started sailing. We cruised in a lovely fashion for a bit, all silent, only the wind. But as we sailed, the wind kept strengthening, and soon we were enveloped in a total whiteout. The Captain stopped the ship, because visibility was down to a couple of feet … it was exactly like any number of times that I’ve been stopped in a boat in a thick fog for fear of hitting something …
But I realized that, for the first time, I could just hop off a boat stopped in the fog and walk to shore … if I could find the shore, of course. But I’m a sailor, so I thanked the Captain and jumped overboard. I’d been watching before the whiteout, and I knew exactly which way the wind was blowing. So I set the wind to a certain angle on my right cheek and headed for what I thought was the direction of the Teahouse. It was very eerie to be walking in the whiteout. Visibility was about 5-10 feet (3 metres). I walked what seemed like forever, and I finally came ashore on the Esplanade, the inmost street of the city that surrounds the inner playa. I missed the street I was aiming for by one block … but I greatly enjoyed abandoning ship and walking to shore.
When I got up the next day, people said the Teahouse was out of water. I looked at the 5,000 gallon plastic tank, it was down to the level of the spigot. So I got a long board and some blocks, and I levered up one side of the tank and jammed in the blocks so the spigot would be below the water level. I filled up some pots and put them on to boil. I ended up spending the whole day making and serving gallons of tea to the folks who came by, and shooting up the hot dusty folks with cooling mist, and playing piano in between times. It was a great pleasure. Then in the evening I went to see them burn The Man. The fire-dancers from Skinny Kitty were part of the procession …
The burning of The Man on Friday night was a rowdy affair, people yelling and screaming, art cars playing loud music. The most amazing part to me was a strange meteorological phenomenon. As The Man was burning, the heat downwind was so intense that it set up dust devils. I was forcefully reminded of why the current climate models can’t model the climate. The dust devils were just one of the many ways that the surface cools itself when it gets too hot. They arise spontaneously as needed, for example when the surface is heated by a fire, and they move huge amounts of energy from the surface aloft.
You can see a few of the dust devils on the right. They arose just to the right of the fire, one after another, and they spun downwind until they dissipated. Clearly, once they were created they could continue to exist despite moving into cooler areas, and thus they were able to cool the surface down to below the temperature needed to initiate their creation. This “overshoot” is nowhere represented in the climate models.
Saturday, like Friday, was a lovely day with a warm night. The Teahouse ran out of tea, water, and ice. Someone put up a sign asking for donations, and soon we had plenty of tea, water and ice to serve the masses. The Playa provides …
On Saturday night they burned The Temple, along with the thousands of photos and writings and memories it contained. In contrast to the burning of The Man, this was a very solemn and moving affair, with people sitting down and everyone quiet. There were small dust devils, nothing like at the burning of The Man. The Temple burned down to the skeleton of its timbers fairly quickly, but they held up much, much longer than I had expected. I was reminded of a person struggling to stay alive, fighting the fight that all of us wage against our eventual deaths. And when The Temple finally fell, in place of the hooting and screaming when The Man fell, there was just a collective in-drawing of breath. People thought about their dead friends, their losses. Other pieces of art were burning, all over the inner playa. The moon silently watched everything.
And the next day, suddenly it was all over. The art cars were put away …
The aerialist ladies brought down the light and wires from the Teahouse …
We took the bar apart, tore down the shrine and stacked the pieces on a trailer, and brought down the Teahouse tent …
I walked out to the outskirts of the city, I could walk diagonally through the city blocks now, clean empty spaces where people had been camping and living. I came across a place with a sign that said “The Last Bar Standing”. I had a gin and tonic, and misted those customers who requested it. Walking back an hour later, there was not a single trace of the Last Bar at all, it had vanished like the rest of the city.
In the evening, I finished loading up my camper, gave a last scan for moop where I’d been parked, hooked up the Whisperwatt generator loaded with stuff, and drove to Reno. I shared a room at the Peppermill Casino with a friend. It had a bathroom the size of my living room, with polished marble floors, a wide-screen TV, a phone by the toilet, and two heads on the shower … my mind reeled.
At the end of the day, what did I take away from Burning Man? If I had to encapsulate it in one word, it would be …
(Photo courtesy of Stacia Knight-Graham, taken on San Pedrito Beach, Baja.)
In closing, my profound thanks to the men and women of the Skinny Kitty Teahouse. It was my great pleasure and good fortune to have the opportunity to work and laugh with all of them, they made this newcomer feel most welcome, and they have my gratitude.
My best regards to everyone,
APPENDIX—Frequently Asked Questions Upon My Return
1. Is there lots of nudity? Well, everyone dresses the way that they want to. On the way out, as people were breaking down the city, there was what was obviously a family camp being taken apart. Grandma and grandpa held one end of the tent, their adult children were disassembling the other, the grandkids were watching the fun, and not one of them had a stitch of clothing on. Me, I wore clothes. People wear what they want in BRC, and nobody pays much attention.
2. Is there lots of sex? It sure seemed like it from the outside, but me, I’ve been with my ex-fiancee for thirty-three years now, so it wasn’t an issue. I laughed at the titles of some camps, like the play on Saks Fifth Avenue which was called the “Sex Filth Avenue Boutique” … but I didn’t bother going in.
3. Are there lots of gay people? Seems like, although it’s hard to tell, my gaydar is the old 1960’s model … on the Black Rock City Census form, the question regarding sexual orientation is as follows:
I think that pretty much covers it, except for those folks who are attracted to inanimate objects, barnyard animals, or aliens from UFOs …
4. Are the weather conditions intolerable? Part of the time, pretty much yes, you just have to live with them. The dust is alkaline, and irritates mucous membranes, and dries the skin. I was reminded that excess alkalinity is much harder on life than excess acidity. People routinely drink lemon juice, which is quite acid, but even mild alkalinity is quite damaging. This is relevant regarding the changing alkalinity of the ocean, what people mistakenly refer to as “acidification” but which is really “neutralization”.
I used my magic mist sprayer with a mix of water and lemon juice every night to wash my feet, face, and hands. Then I put on “Bag Balm”, which is a sort of lotion used by farmers and fishermen for cracked, dry hands … it’s called Bag Balm because it is used on the bags and teats of dairy cattle, works great on humans too. You need good goggles and some form of dust mask to go outside if the wind is up. The wind can kick up at any time, day or night.
5. How about toilets? Black Rock City has rows of portapotties all over the place, and as long as you can master the “hover” technique to keep from touching anything, it’s not an issue.
6. Is the City really that clean? Absolutely. To start with, nobody throws things on the ground. And many people pick up stuff as they travel and stow it for disposal. I picked up and put trash in my back left pocket. People even pick up what is called “moop”. Moop is the collective name for the corner torn off of the candy bar, or the cigarette butt, or the small shard of unrecognizable plastic, tiny bits of junk. Many folk attend to this throughout the week, so it is the cleanest city of 60,000 people on the face of the planet. Refreshing. Sites of established camps like Skinny Kitty are inspected after everyone has left. The Kitty has always scored well.
… from Willis’s upcoming autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … and Often” …