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All The News That's Fit To Burn : 2005 Summer Newsletter

Dirty Dishes...
The Coyote Knows

By Tony Perez aka Coyote

Dirty dishes: That's one of those things there will always be find more of, like laundry. One of those things that will always be the cause of fussing among our closest relations. I wonder how many divorces have been caused by that perpetual cereal bowl left in the sink, its contents encrusted and hardened, or by a stack of food-caked plates that no one even bothers to rinse off. With all this talk of dirty dishes you might guess that I'm a bachelor just now, but I am also the City Superintendent of Black Rock City. I am in my tenth year as a citizen of Black Rock City, and I've spent 10 years as a member of its Department of Public Works set-up crew. For the last 4 years I've managed our annual cleanup operation, and what I see in the communal kitchen of our city is a rising stack of dishes.

Just like washing after-dinner plates, it's sometimes hard to motivate our citizens to clean things up when the event is done. Especially after consuming the seven-course dinner that is Burning Man. But this time is when the work is needed the most. The willingness to make this effort is what separates the men and women from the boys and girls, and the legends from the wisps of gossip. This effort is what distinguishes our city from the rest of the world. Where else can people boast that every citizen disposes of their own trash? Where else can it be said that folks will take responsibility for other people's trash? In fact, the very existence of our city and everything we've struggled to create depends on our community's continued willingness to rise from the table and roll up its sleeves. The permit we operate under is contingent on this effort.

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We are allowed to use the playa, because we continue to respect it and return it to its natural state. But lately, as our city has grown, the general mass of litter left behind is starting to increase. We're passing our inspections, but stuff is piling up, and no one seems to notice all the dishes. Bureau of Land Management agent Rodger Farshon has been presiding over our cleanup inspection for several years now. He's an environmental scientist. As I scientist, he's logged and charted the condition of the playa in the fall just after the event and in the spring following the drastic influences of winter. His findings are convincing. If we continue on our present course, the mass of litter that we leave behind will soon outstrip our cleanup crew's resources. Like a patient with a rising sugar count, we may not be a diabetic yet, but we are certainly headed in that direction.

So, again, we must turn to the most powerful resource that our city possesses — its citizens. Fortunately, they are the most progressive and most motivated bunch of people I've ever met! Let's start with those familiar slogans everyone should know by now. The first two are proactive: Never Let It Hit The Ground and Clean As You Go. Keeping some things from hitting the ground is pretty obvious. Stomping out a cigarette butt on the playa is like stomping out a cigarette butt in your home! But this principle applies to many other things, such as screws and bottle caps and cable ties: minutia, micro-litter that we normally don't think about.

My advice is to work smart and stay aware; live mindfully. People will inevitably drop things, of course, and it would sure be nice if someone would invent a playa vacuum cleaner, but they haven't yet. Each time something hits the ground someone has to stoop and pick it up; that someone should be you. This reflex is a part of living in the moment while at Burning Man. Really; it's a form of contemplation. I don't claim to be a Buddhist, and I know I'm not a saint, but you can think of this as good consumer karma. Take that moment. Pick things up. I guarantee it will affect not only how you live, but also how you feel about yourself. Coyote knows.

And yet, those dirty dishes surely pile up. It's pretty easy to postpone camp cleanup till the end the event. You're tired and you're dusty. Everyone is ready to go home. You stand there looking at what used to be your camp. You think it's looking blank, but now's the time to concentrate. Get downright metaphysical. It's like they used to say in the old Black Rock Gazette: Welcome to Nowhere equals Welcome to Now Here. Forget about the far horizon and that place you want to go. Look down. Get closer to the ground. Use a little system and patrol your space. Gather up your friends and walk it inch by inch. That's exactly what our cleanup crew must do. Now that we're in danger of losing our battle, we're depending on you.

Everything I've said so far is common sense. It's all about radical self-reliance. Trouble is, all of this attention addresses only a part of the problem, since most of the debris that we retrieve each year is found in public spaces, such as Center Camp, the precincts of the Man and other popular artworks, the Esplanade and Plazas, as well as all those theme camps that receive a lot of traffic. This isn't even your home turf, you well might think. This is not my Center Camp. This is not my Esplanade. But isn't that like saying this is not my Burning Man? Communal effort is the foundation of Burning Man. Our entire city's a communal kitchen, if you take my point of view.

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So imagine that every one of our 35,000-plus participants committed just 1 hour to picking up litter in these areas after the burn. Imagine that you undertake to give 1 hour of your week at anytime to cleaning up these places in our city. Those folks that you see on golf carts work at our event, and, although they're not officially a part of general cleanup, I have often seen them stop to pick up moop (Matter Out Of Place). It gets to be a habit, if you care. I've seen Larry Harvey stop, then turn around and grab a bottle or a tinsel streamer off the ground, and he ends up with quite a nice collection! If he pursues this little hobby, so can you! And 35,000 work-hours might be just about enough to solve our growing problem.

A part of my job as superintendent is to conduct the initial survey of our city. I'm out there in the Black Rock Desert when it's still pristine, and I'm out there at the end, long after nearly everyone is gone. I've learned to value emptiness, the quality of silence. It makes you see and hear a lot of subtle things. I have heard coyotes howling in the night. I've traced their tracks. They seldom walk in file, but cross the land spread out in an extended line, exactly like our cleanup crew. They're scavengers, and their survival all depends on what they find or fail to find. The same applies to us. Our margin of survival's getting thinner year-by-year. It's often said that Burning Man is what you bring to it, and this is true. I watch it happen every year. I love to see the city we have drawn upon the ground rise up and claim its life. But I appreciate a corollary truth that fewer seem to understand: Burning Man, for good or ill, is also what we leave behind. Unless we act together, like our wily desert friends, Burning Man could more than disappear without a trace. It might one day become extinct. Coyote knows.

If you would like to learn more about what Burning Man does to protect the environment and what you can do to help, please visit the environmental section of our website or search the site under Environment.