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BURNING MAN JOURNAL: 2006 SUMMER NEWSLETTER

All The News That's Fit To Burn : 2006 Summer Newsletter

Why I'm Here

By Tom Price

Last year at Burning Man, immediately following news of Hurricane Katrina, our community began to spontaneously organize a response. A relief fund was collected at the event, initially totaling $35,000, but during the ensuing weeks this soon swelled into many thousands more. One of the largest and longest lasting of these efforts eventually became what is known as Burners Without Borders, providing disaster relief with a decidedly playa flair — learn about their work at www.burnerswithoutborders.org. Below is a dispatch from the field written earlier this year by Tom Price, a part-time Burning Man Project staff member.

(Late February, Pearlington, Mississippi) — My leather gloves sag with sopped up diesel, sweat, and the black water that oozes off rotting garbage. Under the cypress trees in the swamp out back, an oily sheen coats the water, smothering the snapping turtles, but having no impact on the clouds of gnats and mosquitoes. Every night, after a day of working in a morass of twisted and broken homes, there's a dull ache in my throat from breathing mold spores and the smoke boiling off the fire from across the street, where an old man burns the insulation off downed copper wires. We have no electricity or plumbing, no running water, and it's a 15-mile drive to buy anything. Someone asked me the other day why I'm here. The answer's simple: there's nowhere else on earth I'd rather be.

For the better part of the last five months, I've been living in "Camp Katrina," helping clean up after the hurricane. I'm a journalist, and I've witnessed suffering before: Pacific islanders losing their homes to climate change's rising tides; Kalahari Bushmen dragged off their homelands to rot in resettlement camps to make way for diamond mining; land mine victims hobbling on crutches through Angkor Wat.

But this is different. This is supposed to be archetypal small town America; the sort of place where on Sundays Mom wrings her hands dry on her apron after baking a pie while Dad watches NASCAR with the kids, where in the evening families sit out on their porches as the fog slips through the Spanish moss bearding the oak trees. This was that place, but not anymore. Virtually every home, business, place of worship and public facility that lies within one mile of the Gulf of Mexico between New Orleans, Louisiana and the Alabama state line is either damaged, destroyed, or simply gone. Think about that for a minute. Some stories you report, some you live — for me, this became one of the latter.

Five months on, and the residents are still sitting on their porches — if they still possess one. Only now they're waiting for help, for a shelter besides a tent or flimsy trailer, for someone with machinery to help them remove the wreckage of what was and create space for something new to take its place. And for many, the help they're getting isn't from the government they've paid and fought and bled for; it's from a bunch of Burners, artists widely derided for the self absorbed pointlessness of their behavior. The dissonance is amusing sometimes, but beside the point. Why am I here? The better question is: where else should I be?

It seemed unreal on the playa, another one of those random rumors that swirl through Black Rock City. "I'm serious," my late-arriving girlfriend insisted, "New Orleans is gone, a hurricane blew it out to sea." Conversations bloomed everywhere — what would we do if something like that happened to us? At Burning Man there is a lot of talk about intentional communities, the sort of self-made social infrastructures Ethan Watters wrote about in his book Urban Tribes as being the defining social characteristic of the future. Just in time, it seems; all around us the social structures we were raised to depend on — stable jobs, guaranteed pensions, Social Security — are collapsing. And as the winds and water of Katrina have shown, the once reliable federal government should now be counted in that unreliable number.

But real life is a hell of a lot harder than just building a theme camp. Could the people that Rolling Stone recently derided for having, as their only shared value, "a collective dedication to self indulgence" actually do something for someone else? Had we learned something in the desert that would be valuable in the real world? As the news of the hurricane seeped into Black Rock City, the natural, organic, spontaneous response was a resounding yes. In the middle of the final weekend that people had planned and worked for all year, people came by the dozens and then hundreds and thousands. They dropped what they were doing to find out how they could help. They opened their freshly drained wallets with a generosity that made me weep. And since then, many have streamed into the Gulf Coast to help out, doing so with an élan that leaves locals wondering, just who the hell are these people?

As Burners began arriving in Mississippi, any debate over whether Burning Man is more than just a big party in the desert ended — for good. This is about as real as life gets, and in places like this, people like us are exactly what's needed. Down the road from me there's a 65ish toothless man named Morgan Collins who's had to stare at the rotting morass of what used to be his mobile home for five months, because no one from the government or anyone else would help him get rid of it. And today in about five hours a friend and I broke it up and bulldozed it out of the way. Meanwhile, at the other end of town, a half dozen other "Burners Without Borders" humped salvageable wood out of broken homes, so they could rebuild a new one a few doors down for a 71-year-old retiree who was left with only the Harley on which he'd outrun the storm.

It turns out that what we'd learned in the desert has very practical implications. Sure, there're the topical things — Burners tend to be, in general, pretty creative, self-reliant types, who can handle being in a chaotic, unstable environment. So when they started hitting the Gulf Coast they were pre-wired to know what to do: Build Shelter. Make Food. Keep Cold Things Cold and Dry Things Dry. They also understood the bedrock value of water, diesel and serviceable tools. But more than that, all the talk about radical self-reliance, cooperative effort, practicing a gift economy, thinking and acting from a place of civic responsibility — all that hot air crap turns out to be exactly what's needed when things fall apart. Partying in the desert, it seems, was in some weird way like boot camp for a disaster.

More than just surviving in this harsh environment, we're thriving, first making order, then creating art out of all the chaos and debris surrounding us. This morning I found that a campmate of mine, faced with looking out at oil-drenched swamp littered with debris, took a photo and created a laminated interpretative guide, pointing out the sites of the "Post Katrina Pearlington Nature Preserve," pointing out things like the Red Breasted Rubber Dingy, perched in a tree. Every Saturday, we take bits of debris, then nail, staple, and screw them together into artworks. In the evenings, we invite the locals over for drinks to watch us burn them. "I've never seen anything like this," a woman named Debbie told me last weekend, gesturing around at our comfortable camp while watching an elaborate sculpture of broken chairs, table legs, and twigs go up in flames, a glowing metaphor of the environment all around us, "but I love it."

Why am I here? Because this is one of those rare, pure moments when what you do immediately matters. There's no space here for the cynical ennui that often takes the place of intellectual discourse, no room for sitting on your hands because it might not be cool to show the naiveté of thinking you might actually make a difference. It turns out that under all the art and glitter and spangles in the desert, under that frivolous veneer of indulgence and self expression and that idealistic belief that there just might be another, better way our society could operate, there beats a thumping heart of practical expertise in creating community and culture. To bring it closer to home, when the next earthquake comes I'll bet your double Vente frappucino that all over the Bay, Burners will be among the first busting out mini-generators and camp stoves, whipping up fruit pancakes to give away before the dust has even settled.

What's the connection between the desert and here? Why are so many people exchanging one harsh environment for another? Because the hurricane zone turns out is like the Black Rock Desert — vast, unsettled, frightening, but filled with an awesome beauty and a sense of infinite possibility — a place in which you can discover what you're made of. In the desert we start with nothing, and build a beautiful city. Back in the default world, the people and institutions that we used to rely on can't be counted on anymore. Maybe, it's time to decide what we're going to replace them with.

So, why am I here? I guess it's because this is a place where the values I have and share can actually be put to work. Remember that cheesy old story, about the young guy criticizing an old man for flinging back starfish that had been washed up by a storm? "It won't make any difference," he said. "There are too many of them." To which the old man replied, "It matters to this one," tossing another back, for a second chance at a life disrupted. That's what living in the Katrina Zone is like — starfish as far as the eye can see, some right at your feet. Do what you want with yours — I'm flinging mine.

--Tom Price is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Mother Jones, and National Geographic Adventure, among others. Before the storm he lived in Salt Lake City and San Francisco. His current home, a 1978 Fleetwood Pace Arrow motor home, will appear in the August issue of "RV Living" magazine. He is currently exploring other parking options.