In 2016, Burning Man Project acquired Fly Ranch, a strange and wonderful 3,800-acre oasis not far from the playa, thanks entirely to the generosity of donors who wanted to help support the next chapter of Burning Man’s history. We spent the first year and a half as stewards of this land carefully and curiously exploring every inch of it, taking stock of its natural features and resources, and getting to know its plant and animal inhabitants.
We selected Lisa Schile-Beers (a.k.a. Dr. Scirpus) as our first Land Fellow. She is exploring and documenting the flora, fauna, and everything else she comes across on the Fly Ranch property. Scirpus began volunteering in Black Rock City in 2006 and now manages the Environmental Compliance team for the Burning Man event. In the past, she’s managed the fuel department, worked on the crew building the Man, worked in the Sign Shop, and maintained BRC’s eccentric fleet of golf carts. She’s a PhD who studies wetland ecology throughout the U.S. and internationally, which made her the ideal candidate to live on our wet, weird land and document her findings.
To share her work with the Burning Man community, Scirpus created a five-part series on the Burning Man Journal called “Making Sense of Fly Ranch.” Each article dives deep on the experience of Fly through one of the five senses. Scirpus complemented her evocative writing with photos and videos she either shot by hand or captured remotely with her bevy of “critter cams.” The critter cams regularly turn out captivating photos of birds, coyotes, and that beloved Black Rock Desert mascot, the jackrabbit. We’ve been unable to resist using some of those handsome bunnies in header images for the flagship Burning Man newsletter, the Jackrabbit Speaks.
Scripus’s survey of the land and its environment laid the groundwork for us to begin expanding access to Fly Ranch in the year to come. In partnership with Friends of Black Rock/High Rock, a local conservation group, Burning Man Project is offering weekly low-impact nature walks open to the public (advance reservation required), so the community can begin to experience the power and potential of this land.
Scirpus is the third Burning Man Project fellow. The first was Misa Rygrova, Regional Contact for Czech Republic and Eastern Europe, whose fellowship in 2015 helped highlight and strengthen global Burning Man communities far from the ancestral home in Nevada. In 2016, Tony “Coyote” Perez-Banuet received a fellowship to kickstart the writing of his upcoming book, Coyote Nose: Tales of the Early Desert Carnies of Burning Man.
Sometimes projects generated by Burning Man participants grow up to become thriving, world-changing organizations in their own right, with domains stretching beyond Burning Man, though the resonance in values never goes away. Sometimes these projects end up coming back into the fold as Burning Man Project programs, as Burners Without Borders did. Other times, as with Black Rock Solar, they take on a life all their own.
After almost 10 years transforming northwest Nevada by delivering low-cost solar power solutions, Black Rock Solar decided to “declare victory” in late 2016. In that time they had installed 112 solar arrays, delivering 7,600 kilowatts of clean energy capacity and saving their clients nearly a million dollars a year for the next couple decades. When the market price of solar power dropped (because of widespread adoption of solar), our friends and collaborators decided to pivot and form a new entity: Black Rock Labs.
Black Rock Labs’ goal is, quite simply, to spur the creation of 1,000 new Black Rock Solar-esque entities. It’s an accelerator for start-up clean-tech products and services born in the Burning Man community or particularly well suited for use there. Power generation is one obvious category, but Burners are also pretty good at low-impact construction and temporary housing, water and waste stream management, and more. Looking ahead, Burning Man Project wants more committed global citizens and ambassadors as part of our network, and we’re hopeful about the incubator model Black Rock Labs is pioneering.
The first project from Black Rock Labs was helping BRC theme camp IDEATE vet and offer carbon emissions offsets to Burning Man 2017 participants. The offsets came from C-Quest Capital, who use them to install clean-burning cookstoves in rural Zambia to replace the old, carbon-intensive ones. This program saved 877 Burners’ worth of carbon emissions for the 2017 event, and the program will be back and expanded in 2018.
Burning Man Project CEO Marian Goodell was a founding board member of Black Rock Solar and, finding the new mission as compelling and vital as the old one, continues to serve on Black Rock Labs’ board of directors.
Washington, D.C.’s Burner community really turned up the heat this year. In November 2016, just days after the election, the first ever Burning Man Mid-Atlantic Leadership Conference was held in the nation’s capital, coinciding with that community’s second annual unofficial event, Catharsis on the Mall. It was a tough time to be a community organizer in the U.S., and the D.C. Burners stepped up to host a gathering of the Burning Man organizers in their region.
The momentum carried into preparations for the 2017 Catharsis, which drastically stepped up the ambition by proposing to install 2015 playa star R-Evolution by Marco Cochrane on the National Mall, a striking symbol of feminine power. They broke the news of their plans at the Global Leadership Conference in Oakland, in front of the largest group of GLC participants ever, showing a dramatic rendering of the luminous dancer looming over the Washington Monument. The room was electrified by the possibility. All systems were go until a sudden, last-minute reversal by the National Park Service forced Catharsis to go on without R-Evolution. Despite every attempt for an appeal, the reversal remained in place.
Undaunted, D.C. Burners looked ahead to the upcoming “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, which would open in March 2018. The local Burners convinced their neighbors at the Renwick and the surrounding Golden Triangle Business Improvement District to expand the concept of the exhibition beyond the walls of the museum. While their original vision was thwarted, their persistence paved the way for new art engagement. The museum exhibition would be accompanied by public art installations throughout D.C., and Burners — and non-Burners! — riding around on bikes experiencing it all with Immediacy.
The 2017 art theme, “Radical Ritual,” was a slow-burner. At first, it seemed almost obvious; yes, Black Rock City is a ritual we repeat every year; yes, we will always Burn the Man; yes, humans have been doing this kind of thing forever. What’s so radical about that? But, as we built up toward the event, and as ever-ready theme philosopher Caveat Magister unfurled more and more aspects to Radical Ritual in the Burning Man Journal, it became clear how radical an idea it was to look at Burning Man’s rituals as rituals, and not That mere Thing in the Desert (and now far beyond it).
In 2016, the Man build was ambitious and complex, which caused some problems. Radical Ritual brought us back around to the Man’s simple essence. The Man Base was dedicated to the Golden Spike, the ritual at the end of Survey that marks the center point of what will become Black Rock City. For the first time since 2000, the Man was standing on the ground and was hoisted by human power.
But the build featured some novel ideas, too. Burning Man founder and theme creator Larry Harvey, always the maverick, audaciously proposed putting the Man inside a temple, an unprecedented step met with skepticism from some purists — much to Larry’s delight. Radical Ritual invited us to celebrate the things we’ve learned how to do as a culture, and to fuse the old ways with the new; even though the Man was raised by the classic, low-tech method, the roof over its head was the heaviest crane-lifted object lifted by DPW in the event’s history.
Of course, building (and unbuilding) Black Rock City is a ritual of many rituals, from taking cereal bags out of their boxes and putting socks in zip-lock bags while you pack, all the way through the event and its art burns, to the last little tab from an aluminum can getting dropped in the last MOOP bag on the last day of Playa Restoration. It may be one of Burning Man’s greatest lessons that these activities, however quotidian, are not mundane — they are essential pieces comprising a glorious whole.
This stuff is hard to transmit. It is essential to what Burning Man is that you have to experience it to understand it. But that essence is the wisdom of Burning Man, and clearly Burning Man does transmit it through experiential learning. Burning Man Project is investing in an Education and Learning Initiative to build tools for connection, communication, and distribution, so that we can find the ways to share this wisdom, both on specific, local scales as well as in a global language.