On October 1st, at 8:30 in the morning, I was walking across a field in north Georgia, surrounded by colorful tents, flags and decorations of all sorts. In front of me was a DJ, surrounded by a professional-looking sound system and several massive speakers. The bass in particular was very loud, and I imagine music could be heard a few miles away. Along the way I had spoken with several short-tempered and tired people. Apparently this DJ had set up his camp after midnight and begun to play his electronic music shortly after. The people we met had been unable to sleep. It looked like trouble was brewing.
This was a “burn,” my first, and I was doing a shift as a “ranger.” It was my job to help keep the event safe and mediate conflicts if necessary. I was accompanied by a man from Ohio who had been attending burns for several years. As he began to speak to the DJ another man ran up and began angrily demanding that the sound system be shut down. I was beginning to get a little worried, but my comrade remained cool, letting both men speak and paying equal attention to their concerns. He seemed to effortlessly absorb the conflict, never getting flustered. Eventually the DJ apologized and explained that he had been hired to have his system ready by a certain time. He agreed to turn the system off for awhile, and his neighbors seemed content.
As we walked away we encountered a family coming back from the showers. The two small kids seemed to be happy and having fun and the parents seemed relaxed. It was an interesting counterpoint to the confrontation we were leaving. Just a few weeks before I had talked with someone who had attended a similar festival out West, and one of the things we had discussed was how appropriate these environments were for kids. Even though it might not seem like it to an outsider, it seems to me that burns have a lot to offer everyone, including kids.
This festival, which has taken place each fall since 2007, is called Alchemy. It is billed as “The Georgia Burn,” a reference to the fact that it is endorsed by Burning Man as an official regional event. Burning Man is a gathering that has been taking place in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada for more than 20 years. This year it had more than 50,000 participants, who came together for a week to conduct an experiment in creating community. Alchemy seeks to bring the Burning Man ethos to Georgia. This year it had somewhere around 2,700 attendees. I do not know how many of those where kids, but I saw them all around the site every day I was there.
I was drawn to Alchemy after talking with some friends and reading about the ideas that underlie the movement. Burning Man is guided by 10 principles, and all of these are adhered to by regional burns. The principles seem to me to be an attempt to create an intentional community, a community that balances mutual responsibility with self expression.
Alchemy is more than a music and dance festival. It is also an art and educational event. Many participants formed camps focused on specific themes. A lot of these were for entertainment, and a few provided food and drink. There were also many types of art installations, a small circus that provided lessons on the trapeze, a catapult, workshops on crafts, classes and discussion of human sexuality, groups focused on protecting the environment, and spaces set aside for fun, with things like trampolines and ball pits. All the kids I saw seemed to be engaged and having fun, and the ones I spoke to were articulate and curious about the world. It seemed that a community, albeit a temporary one, set up on the 10 principles was a fun and lively place to grow and learn.
Following these principles would seem to lead to people who are self reliant, generous, able to express themselves, and stewards of their community and environment. I saw all of these principles in effect during my time at Alchemy. Of course it was not perfect, but it seemed like a safe and fun place. It had aspects that included adult themes, but by most accounts parents were responsible for their kids and steered clear of things that seemed inappropriate.
One of the things that most impressed me was a lecture from the lead ranger during our orientation. She said that if a child was reported missing, then the whole operation halted and everyone began to look for the kid. The party would stop, the gates would close, and the community would spring into action. For me this was a taste of what the burner ethos at its best represents; the involvement of everyone in taking care of the community. As one mother commented during an online discussion about kids at burns, her child was safer at Alchemy than at the local mall. In fact, to qualify as an official regional burn, children cannot be excluded, since this would violate the principle of radical inclusion.
Criticism has been leveled at Burning Man and related events, usually based on allegations of illegal drug use and children being exposed to inappropriate themes. I saw no drug use at Alchemy, and I am not aware that local law enforcement was involved in anything except noise complaints. The kids I saw seemed to be attended by responsible adults. I do not claim that these things never happen at burns, but it also seems apparent that drugs and sexual themes pervade our culture, including in schools and in popular media.
After the burn I posted a discussion topic on Facebook about kids at Alchemy. The majority of commenters seemed to favor kids being present, often citing the first principle. These are people interested in community. Of the nearly 400 comments I received one stands out. A parent told the story of their 12-year-old daughter. After returning home the girl had smiled at the neighbors, only to be met with a scowl. She turned to her mom and said, “I want to go back to the land of hugs.”
On balance, I think Alchemy and similar events are great environments for everyone, including kids. Maybe some of the principles will rub off on these kids and find their way into “default world,” as burners sometimes call mundane life.
We sure could use them.