The Lunar Eclipse and the arson of the Man
This Burning Man was to have several unprecedented
events take place, but the only predictable one was the Total
Lunar Eclipse of August 28, 2007, the first such event during
the annual 'Art Festival'. I managed to get a few hours of fitful
sleep before being awakened by chatter near the tent about the
'bite being taken out of the Moon'. Staggering out into the night
I lurched to my car, pulled out the telescope and mounting, and
assembled them in a few minutes. Soon I was gazing at a full Moon
magically turned into a crescent by traveling along its orbit
into the larger circular shadow of the Earth. Thinkers in ancient
Greece realized the Earth was round by noticing this shadow was
always circular, whatever part of the Earth faced the Moon at
the time, and that only a sphere casts a round shadow from all
I made a point of obtaining the type of eclipse observations I have made for the past three decades of the subtle colors seen inside the Earth shadow. If one were standing on the Moon at this time one would see the Sun gradually slip behind an unmoving dark Earth four times larger in the sky. A very thin but brilliant outline would surround the Earth, gleaming with the sum total of the colors of all the sunrises and sunsets taking place at that moment. When less than a third of the Moon remained sunlit the surrounding night sky glow began dimming noticeably, allowing the stars and the Milky Way to steadily emerge.
Thousands of people in the young Tent City cheered and howled their collective approval. Somewhere in the distance 'Dark Side Of The Moon' by Pink Floyd echoed through the night. The last remaining sliver of sunlit Moon faded, revealing within the darkness subtle color bands concentricity arranged around the center of the shadow. Within the shaded part of the Moon I have seen astonishing varieties of color, although most camera systems turn all such eclipses into garish oranges and reds. The human eye can detect subtleties in hue over a wide range of brightness better than any camera yet invented. It is this advantage I exploited in my observations, hastily drawing the boundaries of the colors I was seeing across the Moon through the telescope, labeling each color rather than trying to do actual color sketching. A quick sketch of the tonal values would then be added to supply that aspect of the visual observation. The time was noted for each drawing from a time signal on my portable short wave radio. Shortly after arriving home the sketches were used as reference for these finished digital paintings.
I stopped my telescopic observing to let others
have a look and to see the skies with a special pair of glasses
made to provide my eyes perfect focus at infinity. The naked eye
Moon during this eclipse was overall a dull orange brown with
the northern portion deepest within the shadow almost invisible.
Of the dozen or so such eclipses I have seen this one was among
the darker ones, but by no means the darkest. The surrounding
sky, now cleared of the light of the full Moon, was transfixing.
The stars crowded the heavens with dimmer companions filling the
gaps between the brighter ones until the entire sky appeared to
have a granular texture. The Milky Way gleamed overhead like a
trail of phosphorescent powder carelessly dropped in a trail upon
a black velvet carpet. There appeared briefly a substantial fire
glow far to the East, but I thought nothing of it at the time.
The moment totality begins and ends is an amazing sight, with the narrow sliver of sunlight along one edge of the Moon bordered by a usually sky blue border, contrasting vividly with the darker oranges and rusty browns spread across the rest of the disk. After totality finally ended I made a few more drawings then put away the telescope and went to sleep. All this happened in isolation and ignorance of the second unprecedented Burning Man event which I learned of the next afternoon.
Tuesday began in a sleep deprived fog in the early afternoon once the heat drove me out of the tent. The days this year were rising above 100 degrees F. early in the week, with the usual extremely low humidity. Our evaporation ponds were established Tuesday. Gordon had wisely decided to establish his own pond, and brought a little solar powered fountain which needed a small basin full of water to function, so one was shaped with available containers. My own pool was made by positioning wood scraps into a door sized partition draped by a double thick plastic painters drop cloth. Wide rocks brought from home weighed the corners against the wind. I started using dirty towels as a 'wick' to increase the evaporation rate early, based on last years experience. Towels, especially small 'bar' towels were first used for washing my body, then were 'demoted' to tent floor use, while wet, to wipe up dust. These muddy towels were finally draped across the evaporation pond so that part of them lay above the water.
As I finished setting up the pond Michael returned from a bike ride announcing there wasn't much to see at the Man anymore because it had been torched! I was among the last people to find out but soon I was asking around trying to get some sense of what had happened. Upon visiting the site the I saw the Man had been taken down. The big tent below it was intact but stained and pierced with a cluster of oval burn holes near the top.
A Ranger standing inside the new roped off perimeter replied to my questions about the previous night with 'Nobody knows what happened'! I don't know if all Rangers were initially told to keep quiet about the facts or if this was an individually self imposed practice, but similar replies to queries apparently led to a general impression of official aversion to relaying bad news, part of a perceived trend of the Burning Man Organization being less forthcoming with information in recent years. The 'Spock Science Monitor' paper carried a biting 'Nothing Happened Yesterday' lead story.
On the other hand, the response one got was apparently highly dependent on which Ranger one spoke to. Michael not only was given details of the incident by one later that day but was also shown the 'mug shot' of the suspect, a young man with short hair wearing red and black face paint and a 'shit eating grin'.
This is what happened, gleaned from various reports and witnesses.
During the Lunar eclipse there were relatively
few people at the big tent, but some were in the area photographing
the Man and the eclipsed Moon under the starry sky. A young man
in his mid 30s had been making ominous statements to his camp
mates last night and asking about napalm. During the eclipse he
appeared in the Pavilion tent under the Man and paced about making
an announcment to the effect that 'something was about to go down
here and that everybody had better leave'. One or two Rangers
were on duty at that moment, neither being in a position to stop
his suddenly climbing up the conical log pile with its many handholds
and using a cigarette lighter to start a fire at the bottom of
the right leg (assuming the effigy faces Center Camp). Steven
Fritz was obtaining time exposure photos of the man with the totally
eclipsed Moon, one unknowingly capturing someone crouched over
the neon giant's right foot. Fritz continued to photograph the
fire which flickered and rose up the leg, attracting widespread
attention as the flames brightened. With thanks for Steven's generous
permission I am sharing a few of his unique images.
Above: The Man with the eclipsed Moon. Below: Enlargement showing the arsonist in action
Shimmying quickly back down the log pedestal
the arsonist was caught as soon as he reached the ground by a
Black Rock City Ranger while repeatedly shouting "I did it
for John Law!" This refers to another controversy brewing
before the event which I will sketch out later. Hundreds of people
stopped watching the eclipse and ran to the Man while the suspect
was being handed over to law enforcement to be booked. As the
fire enveloped the wooden figure the neon lights blew out and
burning debris started piercing the tent below, searing oval holes
in the fabric.
The Black Rock and other fire brigades arrived after a few minutes while suddenly mobilized Rangers set up a safety perimeter. The response was rapid enough to save the tent and at least a blackened remnant of the entire Man.
Larry Harvey and the others of the 'leadership' were awakened and informed. Larry was reputedly anxious to determine that nobody had been hurt and then burst out laughing uncontrollably! Crimson Rose was said to take it hard, even furiously in something of a mirror image of Larry's reaction. Here could be seen a suggestion of the basic division of the perceptions to this event, as a prank vs. an odious act of arson. Even as the Man burned there were those who shouted 'Save the Man!' and others glad to see something unpredictable taking place at Burning man for a change. I would guess at least 60 percent were outraged. Unfortunately, the blackened and gutted remnant was not presentable and the resources of the Burning Man Organization were put to their greatest test so far.
Meetings were hastily called with the carpenters and other fabricators. The options were weighed, and a crash program to rebuild the Man was launched. The Guild of carpenters worked in determined shifts around the clock, all happening in an open display conducted within a roped off area inside the fire pierced tent.
The story of the premature burning of the Man was carried in news reports across the country and beyond, by far the most news coverage of any Burning Man. What did not make the news was the swift and resolute rebuilding effort. To those who were there this episode ended up being a heartening 'Phoenix from the ashes' story worthy of legend. In its own way this was as much a triumphant drama as the circumstances leading to the birth of the Black Rock Desert incarnation of this event.
The city matures
While exploring the event on bicycle, one had
to pay constant attention to the ground surface ahead. I soon
learned to avoid like the plague the patches of slightly darker
powdery dunes, which when even a few inches deep could cause ones
wheels to slide about and bring you down. I saw a couple bad spills
from bikes due to this. At times the dust filled a hidden depression
in which wheels sank well into the spokes, requiring dismounting
and walking past the dune field. Most such 'sand traps' were small,
many were lengthy 'Playa Serpents' looking like a crowd had passed
by carried leaking sacks of powder.
Several widely spaced giant art projects rose above the shimmering ivory flatness, with myriad's of smaller but no less impressive creations strewn about. Distance and sheer quantity of possible centers of interest make trying to describe the event as an exercise of incompleteness, but it is obvious that the collective energy that makes everything happen here was stronger than ever.
Although I somehow saw a smaller percentage of the wonders of the Playa this year than ever before, there were things wild and wonderful which persist in my memory. There was the 'Big Rig Jig', a twisted fusion of trucks that initially brought a startling impression of being a hallucination, towering above the surrounding flatness. A large metal dragonfly, pivoted along its centerline, could be ridden and spun about the vertical axis, and woe to those who fail to see the long counterbalancing tail coming! Looming above everything was the 'Crude Awakening' tower, a massive 90 foot tall wooden parody of an oil well. It seemed magnified by being seen through varying amounts of dust to the degree of sometimes appearing to stand over the mountains themselves. At 3:30 and Arctic was a huge sheltered steam engine, with pipes spreading out to surrounding camps, including a sauna! A tree house nearby contained a steam calliope, periodically being recharged by the big engine when it went wandering by.
By Wednesday the
blocks were filling up quickly, but it began to look like there
would not be enough density of population built up around us to
prevent anyone from leaving. A neighbor ran his loud generator
all day long until Karen asked them to show consideration for
neighbors. Afterwards it ran only most of the day. The perceptions
of and reactions to being here were taking interesting turns among
us. Gordon was loving it as I guessed he would, fascinated and
exploring most of the time. He found the overall population he
encountered warm, inviting, very unlike city people. Leah was
taking to the experience well, unselfconsciously going topless
and finding other people she knew, soon checking in to camp only
rarely. Emily was finding fault with sociological trends she perceived,
and shared the discomfort factor with her mother. The daughters
both noticed an unfortunate trend of young men having predictable
but disappointing ulterior motives for any extended encounter,
including men well above their age group. Naturally they were
repeatedly warned about not accepting food and especially drink
For me things went well, especially after the only personal problem involving others that developed for me was taken care of, that of people going into the drivers door of the old creaky truck which was less than 3 yards from my head. After being awakened early by such a slam I diplomatically asked everyone to please at least use the far side door in the mornings, and the problem disappeared. The water hose was unfortunately on my side of the nearby truck, resulting in a widening mud puddle at that part of the base of my tent. I mentioned safety as a factor, not wanting to risk someone slipping and falling there, and a wide container was placed there which caught the spilled water. The mud puddle grew a new set of cracks and steadily turned into a dry pristine version of the well trampled surroundings. In all the event was experienced in separate groups and individually, the group never leaving camp together. I loved camping with everyone when they were around, and aside from a few odds and ends I was happy to supply they were adequately prepared with one unfortunate exception, good silicone ear plugs rather than the drum shaped foam type.
The heat eased slightly as the week went on, by Wednesday the daytime highs stayed below 100 degrees. I would generally miss the mornings altogether, often not managing to leave my tent until early afternoon. Sometimes it looked so bright and hot outside I wound wince at the door, then gather my resolve. I would begin the process of rubbing on my sun block and decide what I wanted to carry such as goggles, mask, and camera. All of these had to be donned in the right order to avoid tangling the sets of straps when something had to be used. The outer white sheeting cut to make something similar to an Arab style head dress came next, secured below the chin with a ribbon clamp. Finally my light imitation 'pith helmet' would complete the outdoor wear, standing before my silver covered tent looking like somebody from 'Dune'. It seems like a tedious bother but this year such effort paid off as never before.
There was bad luck here and there, often prompted by an instant of carelessness. Gordon was cooking and bragging to us about how sharp his knife was, and one of his gestures brought a finger into a slight overlap with the blade! The cut was not quite deep enough to bleed, just enough for a terse lesson.
Later I heard he had been rolling past an intersection on his bike alone, briefly blinded by some auto headlights and hit a lamp post base, rolling him over the handlebars as he came to rest on his back. It initially looked bad, and people gathered to ask him if he was all right. Fortunately he simply got up, dusted himself off and cheerfully completed his journey. We are starting to be at the age when one cannot count on shrugging off such accidents!
I had bad luck in a couple of ways. I searched again for 'Tethered Aviation' and 'Wishing Star' camps which had people expecting to see me, viewing many wonders but frustrated in my goal. The sheer size of the event worked against finding anything that wasn't clearly marked on the maps, with locations being altered at the last minute for both my destinations as luck would have it. I was thus cut off from some of the experiences with friends I had hoped for, although in fairness it certainly wasn't a lonely week.
The evenings were beautiful, with nearly an
hour of darkness added each night before moon rise. There were
many people at night who rode bikes and walked about without lights,
and who clearly didn't care. Between them and the hard to see
'Playa serpents' of dust one had to be quite careful and on a
well lit bike for safety. The night time spectacle of Black Rock
City is a mesmerizing and wondrous thing to behold. A sprawling
necklace of jeweled radiance surrounds you, highlighted by yellow
flaring eruptions. Multiple sources of pulsing music reverberate
among each other into complex distorting echoes rippling from
the mountains far into the night.
At about 7:30 and Esplanade was a grisly night time landmark, a large video screen playing a long loop of hideous footage of cattle being killed, dragged with hooks across pools of their own blood and being graphically sliced apart. In psychedelically altered states this was especially traumatic to behold, as was widely reported. Fittingly, the PETA people are responsible for this sensory assault called 'Meet Your Meat'. Those who think of Burning Man as a kind of 'escape' can rest assured there are people who want to thrust the bloody wads of horror of their causes into your face.