Paradise in the Desert?
by Zhahai Stewart
Originally published in Loving More #25 in 2001
One definition of paradise is "a place or condition of great happiness", and the polyamorous theme camp at Burning Man 2000 probably qualified for that, at least much of the time. The physical environment didn't seem much like a paradise, though!
Burning Man is a sort of huge mutated art festival, held in the harsh and sterile yet beautiful Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada every year, during the week leading up to Labor Day. At the peak, there were 25,000 people camped in a temporary city over a mile and a half across; a month later the area is back to being an absolutely flat former lakebed of cracked mud, where the current land speed record was set. The contrast between the frenetic and colorful gathering and its austere natural surroundings is only one of the many surreal aspects of this festival. Burning Man emphasizes participation by everybody, rather than spectating - it is something we create together, rather than something we attend only to be entertained by others. In some sense, the main thing Burning Man provides is a radically open space, in which we can create art, self-expression, and temporary community beyond the norms of our "civilized" containers. As such, it attracts a very eclectic and often fascinating cast of participants.
So it seemed like a natural place for some of the polyamorous participants to band together and become one of the more than 400 "theme camps" which provide services or entertainment to the participants, as well as a smaller and more manageable local community in the midst of so many strangers - even if they are often interesting and friendly strangers. This year (our first as a theme camp), poly camp took on the title of "Poly Paradise", with a tropical or South Seas decorating theme - which also made it easy to incorporate the mandatory parrots. Our camp grew to over 30 members by the time we finalized it before leaving for the desert. Most of us had never met in person before; we came from the west, ranging from Wisconsin, Texas, and Colorado; to the whole West Coast from Seattle to San Diego. Thus our key organizing tool was an Internet email list. Only four of us had been members of a less formal poly camp (without Theme Camp status) the previous year, and the majority were in fact Burning Man virgins.
As outreach to the larger community, we had two main daily services. One was a polyamory discussion, held in a dome made from PVC pipe and a parachute, and which we called Poly High Tea. While we were the only explicitly polyamorous cluster, we were far from the only polyamorists at Burning Man, and many other polyfolk stopped by to visit; Poly High Tea provided one opportunity to get together, though they also just dropped by our camp in general. This was also very useful for a number of poly curious folks or poly newbies, a place to openly discuss the issues and rewards, with a good seeding of experienced polyfolk to give advice and sympathy. It even turned out to be a service for our good neighbors in the Temple of Love theme camp, who were having their own poly challenges during this festival.
Our other outward project was the "Human Car(cass) Wash", which wasn't really about polyamory but was great fun, truly helpful in the dusty desert, and beneath the surface an educational experience about body acceptance, overcoming homophobic residuals, and respect for boundaries. We didn't wash people, we organized them into washing each other, in some approximation of a car wash - soak, soap, scrub, rinse and dry - all using relatively little water, important in the desert (you bring ALL of your own water to Burning Man). Participants first acted as the carwash "machine", forming two lines of workers cleaning others who went through the carwash, and slowly migrating to the head of line where they could go through themselves and be (lightly) wetted down, soaped up, hand scrubbed, and rinsed off. We made a point of asking each person going through about boundaries, and then honoring those - which could be something like keeping face paints dry or not being touched in sensitive areas (or only being touched certain places by a partner who was also participating, etc). This event drew many people in off the street, people who knew nothing about our camp and had not sought us out. It was very interesting to watch people decide whether or not to participate. They had to consider issues of being nude in public (Burning Man is all clothing optional, but not everybody takes advantage of that), being touched by strangers, touching strangers, and the fact that those strangers were of mixed genders. If they watched a bit, however, they could see that we were all having fun, and it was respectful of any boundaries people needed. So for many, it was "different, but not harmful", a good way to stretch the envelope a bit. (And for others, it was their natural environment!).
These events took perhaps half our energies, and a majority of our camp was involved in them at various times. Poly Paradise also focussed on our own community, on our internal dynamics and connections - and this was what drew some of our members more than the outward projects. First off was just setting up our physical camp, in the face of sun, violent winds and duststorms, and even some real rain this year. Together we built a nice little shared enclave where some forces of nature were at least moderated a good deal. There was shade and rain protection, and some break from the wind - which means that while an empty pop can would have gone flying, at least a full one didn't, nor did the table you set it on. There was still dust everywhere, and truly sticky mud surrounding us after the rains. The Black Rock Desert really is a harsh environment, and this is a mixed curse and blessing. On one hand, it provided us with what some might call a "first chakra bonding" experience, working on basic survival together. It also helps keep the festival from becoming a simple spectator event - you have to be willing to put out some effort to "do" Burning Man. But it does also keep away some good folks, who understandably cannot deal with the demands of the desert.
Sharing a meal together each day for a week was another good experience for our little community (at least with good food, as we had). Likewise, working on the outreach projects described above. And we connected some more just by hanging around our common area together, talking, reading, soaking our desert damaged feet together. Or making an informal expedition with new friends, into the bizarre but fascinating Black Rock City around us.
For somewhat more sensual connections, we had a 10'x20' closed in space which we called the "poly womb" or "puppy pile space". It was reasonably well sealed from the weather, lit by lanterns, decorated with colorful cloth, and floored with a tarp, futons, and pillows. This was a more intimate community space, only for those in the community or invited by same. Our agreement was that this space could be used by members for intimate, sensual, even sexual, experiences - with the understanding that other people could also be present doing their own thing, space permitting. In this space there were puppy piles (some of which became erotic), a sacred puja ceremony, a very touchy-feely meeting and bonding with our neighbors in the Temple of Love, and many individual experiences of connection and pleasure. It was for massage, for love making, for eye gazing, for a photo shoot, for snuggling. It may have been the inner heart (or some other chakra of your choice) of our community.
We had something like four kinds of space in this temporary community. Public space is where we held our outreach events, actively inviting miscellaneous passersby to join us. Our general community space was set back a bit from the road, and this was where we ate and spent relaxing time together, along with friends from other camps and people who heard about poly camp and specifically came to visit us. Then there was the more intimate community space of the poly womb, where we didn't want visitors wandering in. And of course, people had their own personal spaces in their tents and vehicles, and sometimes a personal shade tarp - where they invited in only those they wished. I think having a balance among these conceptual and physical spaces helped nurture our community, with a mixture of different boundaries for different purposes, and more or less open "containers" for group and individual energies.
This year we were deliberately next door to another theme camp previously mentioned, the Temple of Love. The informal poly camp of 1999 was also near that year's version of the same camp, then called the Temple of Ishtar, and some warm connections were made then and developed this year. The Temple of Love consists of sacred sexuality folks mainly from northern California, and their "theme" was to present sacred sexuality to those with an interest, within the broader Burning Man community. Many of us attended at least one of their ceremonies or talks, and many of them attended our Human Car(cass) Wash or Poly High Tea. The Temple of Love folks were mostly polyamorous too, though that wasn't the theme bringing them together. (Internally, they were probably having more poly issues and "growth experiences" than we were, this year). On a practical level, the two camps shared some tools, some electricity, and physical help in wind emergencies. Not everybody in poly camp related to sacred sexuality as presented by Temple of Love, but overall we were very good neighbors. We might try to form some sort of small village with them next year.
I left Poly Paradise with many fond memories, new friendships, deeper understanding of existing friends, a sense of satisfaction with our collective efforts, and excitement for the next time we come together. Our largest challenge in the next year or two may be growth; we will have to decide whether we can foster the same community feeling with significantly more people, or whether we should hive into related groups each of a size which can each bond more intensely internally. Whatever happens, it's going to be exciting, rewarding, and hopefully heartful and fun!
© 2001 by Zhahai Stewart
Zhahai is a bi, poly pagan living in Boulder, Colorado with his long-term partner Cascade; they both write articles for this magazine under the "Spring Family Notebooks" byline. You can contact him at zhahai(at)hisys.com. For more info on Burning Man festival, see www.burningman.com; for info on the Temple of Love, see www.ishtartemple.org; for info on joining the poly camp email list for next year, contact the author.
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