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The Enduring Appeal of Burning Man

Audio

Aired 7/20/09

Next month, the 23-rd annual Burning Man event takes place in the Nevada desert. People attend to celebrate self-expression in one of the harshest environment's imaginable. What brings them back year after year?

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

There will be a Burners Without Borders fundraising event on Saturday, July 25, 2009.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days in San Diego. It's something that we've all heard about. Each year several thousand people spend a week in the Nevada desert, express themselves in various ways, and end up burning a big wooden man. But for most of us who have not attended a Burning Man event, we don't really get it. Why is this yearly get-together in one of the harshest environments on earth spoken about as such a transformative experience? Why do people keep going back year after year? Is Burning Man just a throwback to the hippie-dippie shindigs of old? Or is something profound happening each year out in the Black Rock Desert? Joining me to discuss the enduring appeal of Burning Man are my guests. Brady Mahaney, he's here to talk about the San Diego Burning Man community. Brady, welcome to These Days.

BRADY MAHANEY (Burning Man Participant): Good morning. Welcome. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Jon Ray, who can tell us about his work with an off-shoot group called "Burners Without Borders." Jon, welcome.

JON RAY (Burners Without Borders): Thanks, Maureen. Happy to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And we were hoping to have Andie Grace on. She's Burning Man Communications Manager, and we have her on the line right now, so lucky. Andie…

ANDIE GRACE (Communications Manager, Burning Man Festival): Hi, there.

CAVANAUGH: Andie, good morning. How are you?

GRACE: Good morning. I'm just fine.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Thank you for being here.

GRACE: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: And we'd like to invite our audience to join the conversation. Have you ever been to Burning Man? What was the experience like? Do you know people who've gone? And have they told you about their experience? Call us with your questions or comments, and our number is 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. Well, Andie, we were told that if we wanted to do a show about Burning Man, July was just about the latest we could do it because you'll be going out to the desert soon to get ready for the event. Tell us a little bit about the preparation involved.

GRACE: Well, there are actually folks that are already out there in the area getting ready. They build the man over 4th of July weekend, as a matter of fact. We have a small production facility near the event site, which is a ranch that we own, and they built the man there over the 4th of July weekend and we'll start to slowly have a crew begin to get built up, especially at the beginning of August. And our permit allows us to move onto the event site just a few days before the event opens, so then we have to move very quickly to build an infrastructure, put the man up, put up the center camp café and get ourselves ready so the facility's ready to receive everybody else who really builds what it is.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us where the Burning Man event takes place.

GRACE: It's held in the Black Rock Desert, which is about two hours north of Reno, Nevada. The nearest town is called Gerlach, which is twelve miles away. And it's basically a dry, alkali lake bed so there's nothing that grows there and it's just a big, empty vast expanse surrounded by mountains.

CAVANAUGH: Now how many people are you expecting to create this city this year?

GRACE: Well, it's always anyone's guess because some folks decide to go at the last minute and some folks decide not to go at the last minute, etcetera. So we typically in a year have – for quite a while, we've grown a little bit each year but not by too, too much in the last few years. And this year, it's still pretty steady. You know, I think that the economy has some people thinking carefully about their travels this year but I'm actually amazed and then again not so amazed because this means a lot to a lot of people but it seems like a lot of us are still coming back. It's looking pretty steady so we expect it to be somewhere around the size of last year, maybe a little smaller.

CAVANAUGH: Which is somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000 people, right?

GRACE: Exactly, exactly.

CAVANAUGH: Now all of this stems from a gathering up in San Francisco back in 1986 and only about 20 people gathered together then. What – Tell us about that and how it morphed into what it is today.

GRACE: Well, it was, as you said, just a handful of people. Some friends got together and built a figure of a man out of wood. They were craftsmen and they made this beautiful figure of a man and took it down to the beach to have a little event. And what happened was, it was this humanoid figure that was just a little taller than we are and when they lit it on fire, a bunch of people came running down the beach because it's not something you see every day. And I think – I wasn't there but the lore has it that they kind of looked around and said, huh, this is interesting and they decided to do it again the next year. So it just drew people around it for whatever inexplicable reason so…

CAVANAUGH: And it moved from San Francisco in, I believe, 1970 to the desert in Nevada, and it's changed locations a little bit but now it's in Black Rock City. I wonder, Andie, if you could, before I move on to our guests in studio, what is this event supposed to create or what is it supposed to create a space for in the people who attend?

GRACE: Well, it's basically a temporary city that's dedicated to art and self-expression. And so that just means that we put down a framework and everyone who shows up brings whatever manifestation of that rises up for them. That can be art, that can be creativity, that can be music, that can be giving gifts, and that changes every year because different people come every year, so you never know what you're going to get but it's a blank slate.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Andie Grace. She's Burning Man Communications Manager and Regional Network Manager. I want to move on to my two guests in studio now, if, Andie, you'd stay with us, too, please. Brady Mahaney and Jon Ray…

GRACE: Brady…

CAVANAUGH: You know, you attend Burning Man just about every year. Can you tell me what you thought of the experience the first time you went to it?

MAHANEY: Sure. My first experience wasn't actually at the Black Rock Desert event. It was at a local event that was happening in Texas, in Austin, Texas. And that local event was called Flipside. And I was at a very low point in my life. I was borderline suicidal probably at that place – at that time. I was studying sup – depression and a good friend of mine saw that I was struggling and came to me and said, you know, just come camping this weekend and I think you'll feel a lot better and you'll get a new perspective on things. And I was really expecting it to be about a hundred hippies drumming around a campfire or something like that but then when I arrived it wasn't. It was the 2003 Flipside event, which is the local Burning Man event in Austin. And it was some of the most amazing, free people that I had ever seen doing whatever they wanted to do, expressing themselves and no one was giving them any judgment about it. They were all telling them, yes, that's great, do it louder, do it bigger, that's what we want to see. And so I was kind of hooked at that point from then on. It changed my life to where I was – I found new opportunities in life to pursue and it wasn't just all about the rat race anymore.

CAVANAUGH: And when you went to Burning Man in Nevada, did you find more of the same or was that experience sort of exponential?

MAHANEY: I – My first experience at Burning Man, I actually didn't have that great of a time. I was…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, really?

MAHANEY: You know, I – a little spoiled with the Texas event.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

MAHANEY: It was one-hour, outside of town in a beautiful green valley with a creek running through it that you could go swimming in. And then I drove for 14 hours to get to the Black Rock Desert and found this huge expanse of alkali salt flats with no water anywhere near that you didn't bring yourself and a huge crowd that I wasn't – I was expecting that but after settling in a little bit, I realized, though, it was the same crowd, it was the same people, it was the same kind of general vibe, and that they had done a great job of recreating that in Austin. And once I got past my own preconceived notions of, you know, it was better in Texas, then I really began to settle into it and enjoy it and appreciate it for what it is.

CAVANAUGH: And, Jon, I think maybe that's one thing that people either don't know about or is in awe of the harsh environment that the Burning Man in – at Black Rock is – Tell us – Explain for us a little bit exactly how harsh those conditions are.

RAY: Well, we've probably all seen those TV commercials with the car driving across that cracked lake bed and dust coming up. That's it. That's where we – that's where we go out and camp and do everything. So, yeah, it's very dry, very hot, very dusty. It'll be 115 degrees during the day and then during the night it'll be down to like, you know, forty or fifty degrees. So…

CAVANAUGH: And so you have to come prepared.

RAY: Oh, yeah. Yeah, you have to bring all of your water, have to bring all of your food. Everything that you bring in, you have to take out with you so that means there's no garbage that's left behind or anything like that.

CAVANAUGH: And, Brady, you coordinate the San Diego Burning Man community. Tell us, who is part of that community? Are most of the people artists?

MAHANEY: We have all kinds of people in our community. That's one of the things I'm really proud about the San Diego community, is we have surgeons, we have lawyers, we have baristas, we have production managers, we have all kinds of people. The Burning Man community is open to anyone and everyone and we are very accepting of everyone. And I think that's one of the unique things about it is that anyone who approaches it is probably going to find some way that they'll be accepted into the community. And the best way to do that is to just express yourself and do what it is that you're interested in doing.

CAVANAUGH: I'm – We are talking about the Burning Man event. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And right now Karina in Encinitas is on the line. Good morning, Karina. Welcome to These Days.

KARINA (Caller, Encinitas): Hello.

CAVANAUGH: Hi.

KARINA: Hi. I've been to the Burning Man in, I think, 2001. And it was a great experience but, you know, I was very surprised that mostly everybody was on hard drugs. It's like to get out of the body and have this beautiful experience, you must be on acid or mushrooms, and that's why I never came back. I just thought, oh, this is too much for me. I don't need that to get out of the body. It's a shame.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you…

KARINA: That's the only thing.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that. Thank you for calling in, Karina. I'm wondering, Andie, people try to – there's Karina's comment about drug use and then there are stereotypes with Burning Man with – they always talk about nude people, topless women dancing around. I'm wondering what do you think when you hear someone describe Burning Man that way?

GRACE: Well, I think that like anywhere, you're going to go somewhere, you're going to find what you're looking for there. And in an ele – in a place where people are celebrating, certainly, there are people who are drinking and there are people who are partying and having a good time. But I think there are also plenty of people who are not out there for that experience and, certainly, I think as Brady said, to drive out into the middle of this godforsaken desert and suffer through the dust, I think you could do those things at home if that was all you were after. And the fact is, is that's not what it's about and that's certainly not why we throw the event, and it might not be the smartest thing to throw yourself into an unfamiliar place where the environment is trying to kill you at every second and get out of your head.

CAVANAUGH: How do people spend their days at Burning Man? It's a week long event, right?

GRACE: It's eight days long. The greatest majority of people who are there are involved in bringing something to the table for the experience, so you're either building an art piece or you're volunteering at the camp that sells ice. Two of the only things that you can buy in the city are coffee and ice. Or you're building what's called a theme camp. Many people build these camps that are set up as sort of a welcoming experience for the stranger to come and visit and enjoy whatever it is that your camp has put up. That could be art, that could be dancing, that can be some people do, I don't know, manicures, pedicures, hairwashing, that kind of thing. And you can walk around and look at amazing art. There are people who do yoga and workshops and different classes. You can just sit around and people watch in the center camp. There's all kinds of stuff to do. And that's just when the sun's up.

CAVANAUGH: And there's an exhibit of mutant cars. People create these cars and drive them around the camp. Tell us a little bit about that.

GRACE: Yeah, mutant vehicles are actually the only cars and motorized vehicles that are allowed to move around during the event. It's basically a pedestrian city but the one exception is mutant vehicles which are basically mobile pieces of art. They're drastically modified from whatever vehicle is underneath and, gosh, I've seen so many things over the years, giant lobsters, a giant Spanish galleon, there's somebody who builds five sets – a set of five little tiny cupcakes and each one holds a person and you run around in them. They're like a little motor scooter underneath so that's…

CAVANAUGH: I saw a video of that. I thought that was very good.

GRACE: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And what's – You know, this is a real non-Burning Man question but what's the point? What's the point of that?

GRACE: Well, I wouldn't deign to tell you what the point is. I mean, I – The self-expression is basically the reason that we continue to go but like the burning of the man, we don't have a dogma or a symbol that it stands for, that it's supposed to mean anything. It doesn't have to mean anything to you if you want. But we burn it and then we build it again and you can choose to impose whatever you want onto it. The purpose of it is just the doing of it.

CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with Andie Grace and Brady Mahaney and Jon Ray. We are talking about the Burning Man event that happens each year in the Nevada desert. We're going to move on and talk about the Burning Man community here in San Diego and also about an offshoot community called Burners Without Borders and how that developed. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Right now, we have to take a short break, and we will return on These Days.

[break]

CAVANAUGH: We're back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days in San Diego. We're talking about Burning Man, the event each year in the Black Rock Desert that draws about 45,000 to 50,000 people out in some of the harshest conditions on earth to celebrate an experience and we are asking to experience what, to celebrate what, with my guests Andie Grace. She's Burning Man Communications Manager. Brady Mahaney, he's talking about the San Diego Burning community – Burning Man community. And Jon Ray, who can tell us about Burners Without Borders. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And let's start out with a phone call. Alan is calling us from North Park. Good morning, Alan. Welcome to These Days.

ALAN (Caller, North Park): Good morning. Hey, this is a great program and I highly recommend that everybody goes to Burning Man at least once in their lifetime. It's a place of rampant creativity where there's all kinds of colossal works of art that could never fit in any museum but you can see that kind of thing and one of those works of art, in addition to burning a man on Saturday night, the following evening, on Sunday night, is the burning of a temple. The temple is, in general, an ornate building that gets constructed during the week and people leave memorabilia of loved ones who have passed away and they leave little notes, they write all over the temple itself, and on Sunday evening it's a rather solemn and sacred ceremony. The whole camp of 40,000 people is practically in silence as they reminisce about people who have passed away.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much for calling in and telling us about that. Thank you, Alan. And Nikita is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Nikita. Welcome to These Days.

NIKITA (Caller, San Diego): Thanks so much for having me on the show.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, do you have a comment?

NIKITA: I do. I really wanted to talk about the community that gets formed in that one week of Burning Man. I've been going for this will be my 8th year and the really astonishing part is to get 40,000 people to participate in a co-creative experience of community that's a gift economy and that's also deeply sensitive to art-making in every capacity from the huge, colossal sculpture as the last caller just talked about to I've even seen the tinest chess board…

CAVANAUGH: Hmm.

NIKITA: …with just a little dial that shows which player's turn it is out in the middle of the playa that somehow continues to be participated in so it's a chess game where you make a move and then you leave and then the next person comes and makes a move and turns the dial. So there's exquisite sensitivity to not only the macro but also the micro and also the interactivity.

CAVANAUGH: Nikita, thank you for those comments. We really appreciate it. I wonder, Jon, when – can you tell us an experience at Burning Man when you really got what this was about and what it meant to you?

RAY: I would say I actually really got that experience off of the playa, off of – away from Burning Man when I was volunteering with Burners Without Borders down in Biloxi, Mississippi. I saw the amount of community come – of – that everybody had there and the way that everybody worked together and just gave all of their time and energy to be able to help out what – you know, to help those people that couldn't help themselves.

CAVANAUGH: Let me give just a little encapsulated version of what I understand happened back in 2005. The Burners Without Borders developed from a group of people who left Burning Man in 2005, headed down to the Gulf Coast to help in Hurricane Katrina relief. And then what kinds of things did you do when you got down there?

RAY: Well, we just looked for ways that we could plug in and help with the local agencies and just find areas that nobody was taking care of. So we did things like we set up a distribution center. We would flag down big pickup trucks and eighteen wheelers that were driving by with all sorts of supplies and everything. We'd take their supplies and then put them in our center and then all of the people in the neighborhood could come and get, you know, the basic necessities like toothbrushes and pillows and sleeping bags and stuff like that.

CAVANAUGH: And we just heard that each year a temple is burned down at the Burning Man event. But actually Burners Without Borders down in the Gulf actually built a temple.

RAY: Yeah, they had a couple of art shows that they – was similar to the Man where they created different types of art and then burnt all of that. But also part of it was burning – building a temple that had to have been destroyed by a large wave that went over the town of Biloxi there.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly, rebuilding it for the Buddhist community there.

RAY: That's right.

CAVANAUGH: It's amazing. I wonder, when, Brady, when you keep in touch with all the people who are trying to, you know, in the San Diego community, do people stay in touch? The Burner community stay in touch all year long here in San Diego?

MAHANEY: Those who choose to do. It's a very – You know, it's such a diverse crowd that you really can't pigeonhole any particular group's interest or that kind of thing so a lot of the people who are very active about building gigantic sculptures at Burning Man, they're not spending a lot of time on the e-mail discussion list talking to their friends. Now some of the people who do things like sewing and things like that and it's something they're trying to get a larger crowd involved with, they may spend more time on a discussion list. But, yes, we do have multiple ways online that you can communicate to our community on a daily basis and we may share little laughy quips back and forth about the last presidential statement or our big plans for our next camp for Burning Man or – It's a community. We talk constantly. I have meetings that we're – I have people come over to my house all the time and talk for planning out the next event or the next thing. And then our daily discussion list is very active.

CAVANAUGH: And there are actually smaller Burning Man events here in the San Diego area, Fuego de los Muertos?

MAHANEY: Fuego de los Muertos was the name of our decompression event and decompression is basically another word for after-party, I guess. After we get back from Burning Man, we would – about 30 days later, we get together to go camping out for the weekend with just our San Diego crowd. And you might meet somebody at Burning Man and say, hey, I'm from San Diego. Oh, so am I. Hey, we get together in October. And…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

MAHANEY: …we have our own little campout. So Fuego de los Muertos was the name of the event that we were throwing there and we recently changed that to open it up more to artistic expression and now we call it just San Diego Decomp, or decompression. And this year's art theme for that is going to be Dreamland Station. So it's a port of embarkation for your dreams.

CAVANAUGH: That’s very interesting because there is a theme each year, Andie, isn't there? This year it's Evolution?

GRACE: This year's theme is Evolution, yes.

CAVANAUGH: And how does that influence what actually goes on during the event?

GRACE: Well, as an art theme, it's – the greatest majority of the space on the open playa where the art is displayed is devoted to art that doesn't necessarily reflect the theme but some artists choose to use it for inspiration and some of the art that we actually fund, the honorarium art, will be related to that theme. If you look at the website right now under the art of Burning Man and on the front page there's a link to it. An explanation of what the inspiration was for the theme and then some of the pieces that people have already got planned that – that will reflect that, and people will also theme their vehicles or their costumes or their theme camps or performances or what have you around the theme as well.

CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Right now Karen is on the line from Encinitas. Good morning, Karen. Welcome to These Days.

KAREN (Caller, Encinitas): Thank you. Good morning. I was at Burning Man in the early 1990s for a wedding confirmation ceremony. There was just, I don't know, under 3,000 people there, I think, at that time. And two things are – two things stand out for me from that. The first one was somebody said so where do you live? And the answer was, right now I live here.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

KAREN: And then the other thing was there were some showers around so a friend of mine decided he wanted to take a shower and no need to dry off, he just walked around until he was dry. And I have this great photo with, you know, there's everybody and there's my friend just standing there naked and we were just standing talking and that's what you did.

CAVANAUGH: And have you, besides those two memories, was it a good experience for you?

KAREN: For me, it was. My husband didn't like it at all. I tend to be more of the artist in the family and he tends to be a little bit more withdrawn. There are a couple of other – There were some interesting things but everybody – it was small enough that everybody who was there interacted with everybody who was there almost individually.

CAVANAUGH: And what would you think of a Burning Man with 40,000 people?

KAREN: I think it would feel like I'd get lost there. It's too big. It's like I felt familiar in the smaller group and I haven't been inclined to go back because of the size. It's like it's gotten too big. It's grown up too much.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that, Karen. Thank you for calling in. Andie, do you hear criticisms like that a lot?

GRACE: Well, I think there are – mostly the people that I hear it from are people who haven't been and people who haven't attended at the size that it is now. What I find is that small neighborhoods tend to erupt and villages and you tend to only see sort of the group of people that's around you so until you go into a plane and see it from the air, it's kind of hard to tell that there are that many people there except for there are that many more projects and that many more crazy costumes and things like that. So, I mean, it's one of those places that the expanse of the desert is so vast that if I want to get away from the crowd, I can go for a walk out onto the open playa and not have anyone around me for hundreds of yards. So it's interesting because you can be in a crowd or totally by yourself there.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering what kind of problems Burning Man has encountered through the years. I read last year you had some really terrible windy weather. Any real problems develop?

GRACE: Well, windy weather out there's par for the course. It's actually in our survival guide that the winds can gust up to 70 and 80 miles an hour or more and knock over everything that you've worked so hard to build. So facing the elements is really part of the experience. As a matter of fact, radical self-reliance is one of our sort of ten principles that we espouse and the weather really puts that right up front and center. You know, in organizing a group of any people that size, you're going to have to evolve as you go and as you grow and start to make some rules, as it were, that govern people being together in a space like that. For example, the banning of just driving freely through camp when we started to organize. And you learn those things from hitting the bumps in the road and adjusting and figuring out how to maneuver but after this long, we've pretty much figured out how to navigate that part.

CAVANAUGH: And is security an issue at Burning Man?

GRACE: It's a gathering of many people and you certainly are always going to want to keep your wits about you in that regard. But I've certainly felt safer there than I feel in most American cities. I think that it's impossible to go anywhere without being subject to the ministrations of people who don't have your best interest in mind but ultimately people are in a very giving state of mind and, you know, it's just – it's not the sort of place where you see a lot of people getting into fist fights or what have you.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Sara is calling from La Jolla. Good morning, Sara. Welcome to These Days.

SARA (Caller, La Jolla): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Hi. How can we help you?

SARA: Oh, well, I was just calling. I've been to Burning Man four times and, hi, Brady. He knows me as Simply Sara.

MAHANEY: Hi, Sara.

SARA: Hey. So I just wanted to call and stress that Burning Man is really whatever you want it to be. I know somebody had called and said that they were kind of dismayed by all the drug use but I've gone all four times and been sober 99.9% of the time that I've been there. And so I think that anything that you're looking for, you can find it there. There's, you know, church groups that come, there's AA groups, there's always something there if you're looking for it. And so I think that it's not just a bunch of crazy people. I mean, my family calls it 'that weirdo thing in the desert' that I go to but it's not just that. It's anything you want it to be.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Sara. Thank you for calling in. I want to ask both Brady and Jon, I'll start with you, Brady, when friends ask you what you get out of Burning Man, what do you tell them?

MAHANEY: They don't ask. They seem to get it, I guess. I mean, I have very few friends who don't understand what it is about it. And I don't know, at least they don't bother me about not understanding it. You were mentioning while ago, though, what kind of problems does Burning Man have.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

MAHANEY: You know, if Burning Man didn't have – if there were no problems to go address, I don't think it'd be as interesting to me. I don't think I'd want to go. It's kind of like project-based learning for adults. You know, okay, we've got this obstacle that we have to get past. How are we going to do this? Where are the creative solutions? Let's apply some to this and see what happens. And, you know, companies spend a lot of money to send their sales teams out to go build a rope bridge over a canyon or something like that…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

MAHANEY: …to try to increase their teamwork and that's what we do for fun. We go out and we try to accomplish these ridiculous things like building these gigantic pieces of art or surviving in the desert with 50,000 people for a week. And it's all part of that project-based learning and it teaches you that, yes, you can do it. And, you know, I love Obama's 'yes, I can,' thing. Yes, we can because it's pretty much the Burner ethos. It's like, well, it's not going to stop us, let's go do it.

CAVANAUGH: And, Jon, what do you tell friends who ask you what you get out of Burning Man?

RAY: What I get out of Burning Man is – really revolves around the sense of community that's there and being able to see everybody coming together and just the lack – I mean, yeah, there are problems but the lack of problems is really what impresses me. To have, you know, 40 or 50,000 people together and not have all the problems that you would normally have in that kind of a group is amazing to me. And it speaks a lot for the Burner ethos and the way that we all treat each other. And then also, you know, it's really evolved a lot for me by doing the fundraisers that I do now for Burners Without Borders and seeing the amount of volunteers, the amount of outpour from the community that comes together to make these events successful has really just – I mean, it's – I would say it's changed my life.

CAVANAUGH: And what other projects does Burners Without Borders have besides helping with the Katrina reconstruction?

RAY: Yeah, well, Burners Without Borders kind of started out helping with Katrina and that's where the idea came about and everything. But since then it's evolved into a sort of an international disaster relief agency in a way. And, also, they're getting more involved in doing more local community projects. So one example is last year they had over 400 volunteers who all paid their own way to fly down to Peru and help rebuild a lot of the infrastructure that was destroyed by a large earthquake there. So Burners Without Borders provided all of the materials and, you know, necessary things that those volunteers would need to be able to do their work. And beyond that, you know, on the local side of things, they take anybody who has an idea and has the skill and the energy to do something and will fund it and give them the materials that they need to make that community service project happen.

CAVANAUGH: Andie, I wonder, you know, because you're on the committee, you have to see what it looks like when everybody leaves. Do people who participate in Burning Man actually leave no trace behind?

GRACE: They really do. I'm not the only Burner who has gone home and found that I have a really hard time watching anyone throw trash on the ground in the rest of the world because the ethos there of leave no trace equates to don't ever let anything hit the ground. And we can't even leave a sequin behind when we leave. And in addition to cleaning up their own camps, we ask participants to dedicate at least two hours of their week to picking up in the public and general areas of the event. And when folks leave, our job is basically tearing down the infrastructure and getting the rest of the hot spots cleaned up and then we're done. People take it home with them. And they take that ethos home with them, too.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I'm running out of time, Andie, but I can't leave it without asking you, we've heard people say, you know, Burning Man has developed – it's so big now. How do you see Burning Man developing in the future? Should it be on the internet? I mean, do you see any major changes developing as Burning Man goes on year after year?

GRACE: Well, I think you're hearing some really good examples of it when you talk about the local communities that Brady mentioned getting together and doing things year round. And Burners Without Borders and ideas like that where people are taking the so-called social capital that they find when they go to that place and that connection to their fellow man and, indeed, the freedom to express themselves and be who they are and give of themselves, they're taking that into the outside world. They're doing more and more and I think that they're the Burning Man experience that does not require you to go out to the middle of the desert and be in the dust but is about how you happen to life and the world around you.

CAVANAUGH: I have to wrap it up right there. I want to thank Andie Grace, Brady Mahaney and Jon Ray. And thank you so much for all the callers who participated. You've been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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