Kids and the Burning Man Ethos

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John Last 1On 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.

The Ten Principals of Burning ManI 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.

7 thoughts on “Kids and the Burning Man Ethos

  1. Great article! I attended Alchemy this past year (I’m with Camp SCIENCE!) and it was my 11th burn, having been to Burning Man and several different regional burns around the country. I would like to clarify, however, that children can in fact be excluded from a burn and still be a Burning Man-sanctioned event. Transformus in NC and Interfuse in MO are examples of this; they are both 18+ events.

    • @Andi, Thanks for Camp Science,we got some great coffee and pancakes there, and some bratwursrs around 2:00 in the morning! I was given to understand that Transformus was getting some kind of waiver on their adult only policy, with the understanding that they were working on inclusion. Thanks for your comment and yout volunteering. I hope to see you at another burn.

  2. I have attended burns before kids and after having kids. It is all about responsible parenting. You just have to keep an eye on your kids. And yes they are safer at a burn then at the mall. It is Burners have been a part of my kids life since they were born. My daughter went to her first one at 1 1/2 years old and loved it and she has been bugging me to do it again. It inspires them as much as it inspires us. They see these people as a part of thier world. And i think they inspire us in a way too at these events. Thier unjilted eyes and minds see things in way we don’t and we have abilities and such that inspire them and encoruage creativity. Since her going to a burn I have not had a single day go by that is not full of creativity from her. And she has rubbed off on her younger siblings. My burner family is closer to my children then some of thier blood relatives.

  3. Well written article, John! I have been to eight burns at Burning Man in Black Rock City, and our camp operates a putt putt course. We have lots of kids come, especially in the morning, to have fun. I have never once seen a lost child or a child not being properly cared for. I make a video of my experience each year, and interview many burners. Of all the kids I’ve ever interviewed, they have all been bright and well-adjusted kids…more-so than what I’d find in my own neighborhood or at my kids’ schools. It’s all about the parents being responsible and keeping them away from adult-influenced situations.
    Fire and dust,

  4. Great article!! It’s a shame that so many people just assume that they know what’s happening at these events without ever actually attending them. Alchemy this year was my first burn was well, and I was blown away by how easily 3000 people got along for so long. I think if more people would embrace the 10 principles in their daily lives the world would be a much better place.

  5. Bravo John! You have provided a well-written article that sums up how I feel about children at burns. Thank you for your service as a ranger.
    I was camped in the Pentagon, and the gentleman DJ that you speak of kept me awake that night for a while, but after about an hour, i just let the thump thump lull me to sleep. Thank you for sharing your experience with the world.
    (btw, i was the blonde working first aid that morning that you guys had to talk to that DJ. and yes, Camp Daddy is amazing! )