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Inspired Madness: The Gifts of Burning Man
by Dale Pendell
Frog Ltd. / North Atlantic Books 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Jon Hanna, 8/12/2009

A gem from my favorite poet-author, Inspired Madness: The Gifts of Burning Man by Dale Pendell offers an excellent introduction for the curious virgin, while providing enough insight to stir a longing desire for pilgrimage in the most jaded, dust-encrusted veteran burner. Pendell immediately nods to the challenge associated with characterizing the event: “Oh it’s… kind of an arts festival, Mom.” But his first person account—punctuated with humor, philosophy, and assorted vignettes—does as much descriptive justice as any one man could possibly do.

As a “trip report”, Pendell’s tale starts long ago with some history of geography; when hunkered down during dust storms, it’s easy to forget that the Black Rock “desert” where the festival takes place was once the lush Lake Lahontan. But hey, that was millions of years ago, right? Fast-forward to any year in the last eighteen years, and the experience of passing through Burning Man’s gates. When handed a map of events and theme camps, one is immediately infused with the assortment of sexual flavors that charge this gathering, as well as its DIY vibe. (When Pendell rattles off a short list, one presumes that they are all real camp names from past incarnations of the event.) There’s the sense that anyone can create an almost pompous and quite official-sounding organizational title with a strong undercurrent of absurdity. But that’s the easy part—there’s still the chore of setting up camp in this inhospitable climate.

Pendell provides a general description of the event’s layout and assorted camp structure styles, the history of potlatch, Dionysian debauchery, and the gathering’s “leave no trace” motto, which bores into the consciousness of attendees (from both the event producers and through peer-pressure by fellow attendees) like an eco-transcendentist’s psychological drill tip. “[‘Leave No Trace’] is the single most radical and revolutionary ethic of Burning Man, even more far-reaching than the absence of corporate commerce. After Burning Man, slag heaps, stumped mountainsides, poisoned rivers, and polluted air are as ugly ethically as they are visually.” While this is true, and attendees generally do a great job of keeping the playa clean, the myth that there are no public garbage cans at Burning Man must needs be pointed out. Practically speaking, the city is lined with (unspoken) public garbage cans, viewable every time you need to relieve yourself. (Is this the corrupting influence of commerce on the event? Perhaps since a business is getting paid to clean up the crap, some attendees feel more comfortable with littering inside the porta-potties. And that fact of payment may also deter those attendees who diligently pick up moop from other locations to stop short of cleaning someone else’s trash from the bathrooms. Apparently “radical self-reliance” has limits.)

But what the BMorg really doesn’t want to discuss publicly is that, as Pendell says, “Trippers are still the soul of the Playa.” In “The Pharmacology of Burning Man,” Pendell explains, in a general sense, who takes what drugs and when. Detailed night-by-night (dare I call them?) recommendations are brought to life through the retelling of assorted escapades and interactions on the playa. It is a refreshingly honest portrayal of the chemical fuels responsible for firing a huge amount of the creative “radical self-expression,” as well as the hedonistic enjoyment, that are uniquely synthesized in this event. And after all, “Part of the art of partying on the Playa is choosing the right art car to jump onto. If you’re a tripper, you don’t want to end up with a bunch of drunks.” Pendell also points out the increased presence of cops and undercover sting operations in recent years, which is another area downplayed by the event’s producers.

Although there is more to Burning Man than could ever be covered in one book (or even countless books), Pendell does an admirable job in conveying the je ne sais quoi that makes the event special: fire dancers, Critical Tits bicycle rides, refrigerator trucks, white-outs, orange trash fences, spanking booths, ice vendors, and the rest. His classic tale of playa mail delivery and the nature of IDentity had me in tears of laughter (as someone who went through the same thing one year, when trying to collect a piece of mail).

Burning Man is a photographer’s wet dream, and Pendell hips his readers to some of the amazing collections of images that have been published in books and on-line. Indeed, most books about Burning Man don’t even attempt to describe the event without including photographs. Which brings up another unique and endearing quality of Inspired Madness: it contains no photographs, but is sprinkled instead with whimsically potent line drawings—art that captures the heart of the event like no other art I have seen. Visualize a fusion between the sketches of Ralph Steadman and Edward Gorey, and you’ve got the work of Just Freeman Pope, a Californian artist (with degrees in experimental psychology) who passed away in 2000. Amazingly, despite how appropriate Pope’s art seems (helped along by the occasional caption from Pendell), his biography at the end of the book relates that he never made it to Burning Man himself.

In “Coda 2006,” Pendell notes of that year that there were “more kids than ever. The thirty-ish generation are raising families and taking them to the Playa.” I brought my own eight-year-old daughter to Black Rock City for the first time in 2007, an incredible experience for both of us, which provided an insane adrenaline shot of the event’s “gift giving” ethos. (Attendees are happy to see kids; it feels natural giving them presents, and the enthusiastic pulse of pure joy released from a child receiving a gift provides a natural contact high.) Hey kids, Burning Man is better than Christmas!

Despite its warts, challenges, and flaws, Pendell primarily paints a vision of Burning Man that is idealistic and hopeful (fuckin’ hippie). By the end of the book—and this, my second reading—I found empathic tears of joy welling up again, responding to the beautiful, transcendent experience Pendell relates when describing an evening at one year’s Temple Burn. Like Pendell, I am both astonished by the miracle and inspired by the madness that is Burning Man—that it could even possibly exist at all. “Hope,” says Pendell, “It gives me hope. That tolerance and self-reliance have a chance in a world that seems headed in the opposite direction.” I couldn’t agree more.

Originally Published In : The Entheogen Review

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