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Burning Man: More Than a Festival

By Amanda Ferron

The time has come again for free-spirits, artists, and the like to pack up their RV’s and head to the Desert for what can only be described as one of the most epic gatherings in the world… The event known as: Burning Man.

What started as basically a bonfire on a small beach in the bay area, has morphed into a yearly pilgrimage for an eclectic group of people that focus on self-reliance, art, music, community, and self-expression. And also, if we are all being honest, psychedelics. Things like Cannabis, Magic Mushrooms, and other psychedelics are prevalent at Burning Man. Many believing substances like these aid in the artistic process, and the over-all loving, welcoming feel of the event-goers. 

There are many aspects of this “festival” that make it so incredible. From the moving art machines and giant sculptures, to the fantastic outfits worn by attendees. And of course, the giant Man effigy that burns at the events culmination. It is truly a one-of-a-kind congregation that has been etched into bohemian history over the past 30 years. 

A Burning on Baker Beach

For several years pre-1986 in San Francisco, a Sculptor named Mary Grauberger had been having small gatherings on Baker Beach. She and a group of friends would annualy burn a bonfire on the beach in celebration of the Summer Solstice. A man named Larry Harvey had attended a few of these gatherings. When Grauberger stopped planning them, Larry carried on the tradition with her blessing.

On June 22nd 1986, Larry and his friend Jerry James burned the first “Man” effigy on Baker Beach. This first statue was made of scrap wood, and was only 8ft tall. They continued to burn these “Man” effigies annually. The now infamous wooden sculpture grew bigger every year, and the event was officially dubbed “Burning Man” in 1988. (The year I was born! Just saying…)

A couple of years later in 1990, two different men were planning their own, unrelated event in Black Rock Desert. Kevin Evans wanted the event to be a “temporary autonomous zone”, where people could gather to burn sculptures and perform situationist performance art. He consulted with his friend John Law, who was a founder of the Cacophony Society and had a lot of first-hand experience in Black Rock Desert, to help him organize what would come to be known as Zone Trip No. 4.

Back on Baker Beach, Park Police were hassling Harvey and James about not having a permit for their annual “Burning Man” gathering. They eventually came to an agreement with the city of San Francisco to have the event, but NOT burn their signature symbol. The group of friends deconstructed the then 40ft effigy, in time for Harveys housemate to bring it with him to Zone Trip No. 4. Within the next 5 years, these two events would merge to become one. And with that coupling, the official “Burning Man” we all know today was born. 

The 10 Principles

Burning Man has grown at an incredible rate since its first burning on Baker Beach. This growth, while amazing and welcome, I’m sure gave the original organizers a bit of pause… Worrying that the newcomers may not have the same ideals that align with why this gathering was conceived in the first place. In 2004, Larry Harvey wrote The 10 Principles

“They were crafted not as a dictate of how people should be and act, but as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture as it had organically developed since the event’s inception.” Those principles were written as follows:

  • Radical Inclusion: Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
  • Gifting: Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
  • Decommodification: In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
  • Radical Self-Reliance: Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on their inner resources.
  • Radical Self-Expression: Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
  • Communal Effort: Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
  • Civic Responsibility: We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
  • Leaving No Trace: Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
  • Participation: Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
  • Immediacy: Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.


“There’s something ineffably romantic about the notion that they haven’t been caught because they don’t want to be caught, and that at least some corners of the animal world may still hold secrets beyond our knowing.” Animalia description, Burning Man Website

This year, the event boasts an attendance of around 87,000 people, all creating art centered around an “Animalia” theme. Specifically calling out the fact that we humans are in fact animals ourselves, they are encouraging the art to be focused on everything that is animal. Animals mythical and familiar, both mysterious and unmistakable, all celebrated through art and personal expression. 

PayRio Founder Aubrey Amatelli will be attending for her first time this year, accompanied by Burning Man OG, Elise McRoberts a.k.a. The Hashinista. I personally cannot WAIT to see all the pictures of the amazing art. (…and the fantastic outfits Aubrey and Elise are about to rock!) But beyond that, I am excited for my dear friend Aubrey to experience something that is truly “once in a lifetime”… Her first time at Burning Man.

I think the Burning Man Projects website said it best:

“Burning Man is not a festival. It is a community and a global cultural movement, with local communities and events flourishing all over the world… The touchstone of value in our culture will always be immediacy: experience before theory, moral relationships before politics, survival before services, roles before jobs, embodied support before sponsorship.”