In mid-June I joined a few friends in attending Lakes of Fire, a yearly regional Burning Man fest in Michigan. I wrote about some of the experiences in this post from June. Shamelessly stealing from my own post, here’s s background on Lakes of Fire:
Burning Man is the big yearly festival in Nevada. It draws tens of thousands of people, and – not surprisingly – has resulted in Burner communities springing up around the country. Some of those Burners then organize regional mini-burns, like Lakes of Fire, which are supposed to hold to the same ethos and general experience of Burning Man, but on a much smaller scale. I was invited to Lakes of Fire by a few friends I trust, all of whom are peripherally involved in the Chicago Burner scene. None of these identify full-on as Burners, but all enjoy the community to a greater or lesser extent, and I trusted them when they said they thought I’d enjoy Lakes of Fire.
That post, linked above, was primarily about my experience skinny dipping at LoF. I wanted to take some time to speak more broadly about my time there, and what I think of it looking back now.
Arriving at Lakes of Fire
I drove up on a Thursday with one of the friends who talked me into going. LoF took place from Thursday to Sunday, so we’d get there in the afternoon, get set up, and have time to bum around Thursday night. On the ride up, we discussed my friend’s past experience with Lakes of Fire – she’d been the previous year – and her general thoughts on Burner culture. We talked a bit about the Ten Principles, a set of ideals and a “reflection of the community’s ethos and culture.” In particular, we talked about places where she felt the community fell short of something she wanted to fully be a part of; the reasons she considered herself only involved on the periphery of the Chicago Burner scene, and didn’t self-identify as a full-on Burner. “There’s a lot of unexamined privilege going on,” my friend said. We talked about the money required to go camping, and to bring tons of food and alcohol. We talked about the relatively low level of diversity, across race and age and sexuality and economic/educational background. “Still,” she continued, “Lakes of Fire may be my favorite place in the whole world.” I wasn’t sure how someone could simultaneously be so critical of a space and still identify it as a candidate for her “favorite place in the whole world.”
Lakes of Fire is held on a camp ground in Michigan, an hour or so northwest of Grand Rapids. We pulled onto the dirt road (after getting slightly lost) and were told to (slowly!) drive forward to a check-in tent. We confirmed our tickets, showed our licenses, and signed a very scary liability waiver, before being waved on into camp. Driving through the woods, I started to see signs of the oddness that is a burn, be it a regional fest or the main Burning Man: random and silly art project, signs proclaiming we were leaving normality, and, up ahead, people. We reached the welcoming tent, and I was told to get out: as a virgin, I was required to ring a bell. We both got hugs and were told, “Welcome home,” a refrain I’d hear throughout the weekend. We were told where to go for our camp, and sent on our way.
We camped with Freakeasy, a Chicago group, and specifically with Slut Camp. There are two types of camping setups at burns: free (as in un-reserved) camping, or camping with a larger group. The larger groups may just be together for fun and to share food, or they may be themed camps focused around politics, art, sexuality, music, or anything else under the sun. A few camps I remember: Big Gay Sail, Syncytium, Coffee Camp, Costume Camp, the Secret Gentlemen’s Club, Camp Natural Wonder, and tons others. Slut Camp was kind of a sub-camp of Freakeasy, and was made (mostly) of folks I knew from Chicago. Everything was around a little lake (hence Lakes of Fire) which meant you could see across it, walk around it, and swim out to the party/drink/dance pontoon in the middle of it.
We set up our tents (I had borrowed a tent from a friend and had it all to myself) and I went to park my car. Along the way I saw domes, lots of geodesic domes, I saw trampolines, I saw people in street clothing and costumes and no clothing at all, I saw tents and camper vans and RVs and hammocks and more. I parked my car in the lot (a big patch of dirt and grass) and walked back to my tent.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t have a great time that first afternoon and evening. I went to bed kind of cranky, with earplugs to at least partially block out the endless noise coming from the Freakeasy dome – in the Freakeasy photo, you can see a dome in the foreground with hammocks, and a larger dome in the background that had a dance party going just about all hours of the day and night. I’m not sure why I didn’t get into things on Thursday, but I woke up still a little unsure whether or not I was going to have a good time.
At some point on Friday, though, things clicked. Specifically, I saw a friend engaged in a conversation with someone who – from the way they were talking and engaging in physical contact – I assumed was an old friend of hers. After that person left, I asked my friend who they were. “Oh,” said my friend, “we just met.” I was impressed at how quickly they had found a connection, and I realized that I needed to make the weekend for myself, and that no one was going to make it for me. I remember something my friend on the ride up had said, a piece of advice: Assume people will want to be your best friend, if you give them the opportunity. All of this happened in Syncytium’s dome, which was filled with pillows and blankets. About that time, a partner yoga lesson started, and I hesitantly joined.
By the end of yoga, something had shifted: I was going to seek out interesting and new experiences, and say ‘yes’ to them.
My sense of time gets a little fuzzy here. Lots happened between yoga (which I’m definitely pretty sure took place on Friday) and leaving LoF (which absolutely definitely took place on Sunday). But I can’t always place in order what I experienced, or tell you on which day something happened. I know I was only there for about 72 hours, but it seems impossible that everything I remember happened in that short time frame.
Some Highlights from my Weekend
Naked coconut oil wrestling. I kicked ass. Unless tickling is cheating, in which case I still kicked ass, but only won by being a horrible cheater.
People-watching. Costumes and clothing and nudity and more. Seeing art-cars – drivable vehicles that had been converted into some sort of ridiculous artwork – drive around the lake, and hopping on one or two or three for a ride. There was a pontoon boat converted into a car, covered in island-themed decorations and blasting music. A mini-speed boat car. Lots of decorated and flashing/blinking/honking golf carts.
The art installations. LoF provides grants for artists. One built a dart board that shot fire 5-10 feet up in the air when you hit the rings, and a sustained blast when you hit the bullseye. The night-lotus, a fabric and wire installation that lit up at night and slowly opened, like petals of a flower. A construction site, with ‘men at work’ signs and hazard tape, where ‘workers’ spent the entire weekend moving wood around, standing around talking about the project, and accomplishing nothing. (Amazing and hilarious performance art!)
I made a tiny hat at a table that had supplies for making unicorn horns, but they were out of the horns. So I improvised.
Being greeted warmly and openly at tents and makeshift bars and cookouts and elsewhere.
The Costume Camp, which had brought tons of costume items for people to take. I’ll talk about the gift economy at LoF in a bit, but I loved the way Costume Camp operated. Whenever someone would ask if they could take a costume item, a camp representative would say, “Of course! It’s yours, you just forgot it here.”
Perhaps the best example of a LoF experience was a few-hour arc I had. I was walking back from something, or perhaps to something. After my yoga realization, I had a ton of fun setting out without a plan or destination, and allowing something to catch my eye and become an experience. I saw a tent with what was clearly rope bondage happening inside, so I walked over to check it out. I asked if I could observe, and everyone said it was OK. It turned out it was a rope bondage demo/lesson! I sat down, only to be approached by a guy who was also there, and in need of a partner. I hesitated and almost said no, but decided I’d rather look back on a shitty rope bondage class than on having turned down an opportunity to participate.
The class went well, and was super fun. He tied me up, I tied him up, and we talked and laughed throughout. It turned out he was there because he knew a few of the other participants and – after the class was over – we walked back to their camp to chat. At that point, I learned one of them was a touring artist and his partner was a sex educator. We proceeded to have an amazing conversation about life as a touring artist, making a living off your work, gender and sexuality, and more. It was a perfect little beginning, middle, and end that stemmed wholly out of being in the right place at the right time, and being willing to take a risk.
I also went skinny dipping, which I already posted about. I don’t have a ton to add to the actual experience, although I had a great discussion on the LoF Facebook group about my thoughts. I was worried how the post would be received, as I was somewhat gently critical of how LoF handles consent and sexuality. But the conversation my post prompted was awesome, and actually made me feel even better about my time at LoF.
Then, of course, on Saturday night was the burn itself.
Every burn – smaller regional fests and Burning Man itself – has a burn. At Burning Man, it’s always a giant wooden man. At regional fests, it can vary. This year, at LoF, it was a giant tree. The tree was maybe 20 feet tall, and climbable. It had swings hanging off, and throughout the weekend people would write things on it or leave things they wanted to burn. I wrote a few notes, wishes I wanted to send into the ether. Then, on Saturday, it was roped off and a fire crew surrounded it all day. (This reassured me immensely – there was actually a tanker truck there, and the tree was being set up to burn by trained professionals.) As the sun set on Saturday, almost everyone at LoF – hundreds of people – trekked around the lake to view the festivities. There were fire breathers, fire spinners, fire jugglers, fire fire fire. After the biggest fire spinning/juggling/etcering display I’ve seen, the burn crew set of fireworks in and around the tree. And then, at long last, the burn.
I’ve never been that close to a fire that big, and it was a powerful experience. I’m not entirely sure why, but it was primal and raw and communal. Here was a structure that had been part of the camp, part of the landscape, part of the visual makeup of LoF, and now it was being burnt to the ground. We were perhaps one hundred feet away, behind rope, but the heat was almost overwhelming.
As the fire burned down, the fire marshals removed the ropes and – in what I’m told is a tradition – everyone began to run around the embers, yelling and hollering. We partied into the night -I went to sleep after the sun was up, at perhaps 7AM. And then we packed up and left.
I’m still – almost two months later – doing a lot of processing. But here are a few things I want to take away from Lakes of Fire, even if I never attend another burn. First, I’m going to talk about the positive, and then I’ll circle back to some critiques or concerns I have.
The Beauty of Temporality. Burns are temporary events. They spring up, happen, and disappear. “Leave No Trace” is a big part of the burner ethos, especially when it comes to MOOP, or Matter Out Of Place. I saw people on MOOP patrols, trying to help clean up. Of course, not everyone was great about this, but the mindset was positive. But the temporal nature of the weekend was kind of lovely, in that everything – the camps, the art installations, and (of course) the to-be-burned tree – were all going away in a few short days. And that wasn’t sad, or a problem, or an obstacle, but part of the experience itself. I appreciated the mindset of ‘this is a temporary thing, and is the more beautiful and wonderful because of it.’
I want to open myself up to allowing experiences to come and go as they will, without always focusing on the when part.
The Gift Economy. Burns are supposed to be cash-free, but that still leaves room for barter or trade. In theory, burns are supposed to go even further, into a fully gift-based economy. That is, give things without the expectation of receiving anything in return, and receive things without the obligation of giving. When it worked, this was beautiful. In some ways, it made the entire weekend feel like attending the world’s best house party: free food, free booze, free crafts and art and costumes and experiences and more. Many camps had their own bars set up, with varying levels of organization. Some were just folks pouring drinks at a table, and some were full bars with mixed drinks, beer, snacks, a dance floor, darts or bar games, and more. All were free.
At one point, I overheard someone – clearly also new to the burner scene – ask how much a drink cost. The bartender laughed kindly and said it was free. The person was shocked, “Wait, is everything free?”
I had been told by my friends to bring small things to give away, as part of this gift economy. I brought little bottles of bubbles, which were always a big hit. Who doesn’t want bubbles?
I want to open myself up to giving without the expectation of a return, and receiving without feelings of guilt or obligation.
Spontaneity. I’m a planner. But one of the lovely things about LoF was feeling an utter lack of obligation to plan ahead. With the exception of a musician I met and wanted to see perform, I gave little thought to time. This was one of the few points in my life were I set out without a watch, without my phone, without a wallet; I left my tent with a fanny pack full of bubbles and a water bottle, and nothing else. As I mentioned above, that ability to see what would come my way was incredibly positive, particularly coming a week after the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, which was almost entirely scheduled and pre-planned.
I want to open myself up to saying ‘yes,’ even when I’m not sure where it will lead.
Radical Expression. One of the Ten Principles is radical expression:
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
There were certainly moments when I hung back, or didn’t speak up, but many more moments were I dove into an experience or a moment or an adventure, simply because I could and it seemed like fun. Skinny dipping was definitely the height of my feeling of radical self-expression, but I would also count climbing domes just for the hell of it, building my tiny hat, hopping on art cars just to see where they were going, dancing like crazy at four in the morning, handing out bubbles (and starting a bubble party at one of the camps), and on and on.
I want to open myself up to sharing myself, even when it’s scary or I’m uncertain.
Radical Inclusion. Another one of the Ten Principles:
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
I came out of Philly Trans Health wondering if I could ever feel truly at home in a non-queer space. PTHC felt so right, and I felt so surrounded by awesome queer love and energy, that I wasn’t sure how a non-queer space could ever be that inclusive. While LoF wasn’t perfect (I talked about this in the skinny dipping post, and will talk about it more in a second) I felt included tons more than I felt othered, and that balance was – on the whole – better than in Defaultia. (An awesome term I heard for describing normality.) At the same time, there were moments when I was able to open myself up and include others, even those I had just met.
I want to open myself up to receiving others, even when it’s scary or I’m uncertain.
Critiques and Concerns
Rereading this post thus far, I come off as almost universally positive about LoF. And it’s true: I had a great time, and hope and expect to return next year. I’m holding off on committing, because a year is a long time! But I definitely want to return. As my friend noted on the ride up, however, not everything was perfect.
Unexamined Economic Privilege. So the gift economy was awesome, but only worked because most people had more than they needed. Camps could only afford to give away hundreds or thousands of dollars of food and alcohol because – back in Defaultia – they had the resources to buy it. If more people had come to LoF with the expectation of receiving, rather than of giving (or giving and receiving) the whole thing would fall apart.
This isn’t a bad thing – it’s great that people brought enough to give away – but it was unacknowledged. I’m curious how or if the burner community reaches out to include people who might not be able to afford to make it to Michigan, or bring a tent, or bring enough food. I don’t think someone who showed up with just a ticket – no tent, no food – would starve, but I also don’t know how the community would react. I’d love to see more explicit discussion and acknowledgement of the privilege that is necessary to conduct a burn.
There’s a Gift Economy, Except When There Isn’t. So the gift economy. Everything was freely given, and openly received. Except ice, firewood, and pop, all of which could be bought from the campsite office. I have no problem with the campsite selling these things, but it was somewhat jarring to walk around this wonderful place, with no thought of money, and then see a cash exchange happening. I’m curious how or if this is perceived by the larger community, and what can be done about it.
Likewise, I saw a number of cash drug exchanged. I haven’t really mentioned the drug scene at LoF, because I don’t have a ton to say: There were drugs. No one pushed their use, but they were definitely available. I have zero problems with this drug use. At the same time, it was jarring to be hanging out at a bar, receiving free drinks and free food, and see a baggie of powder exchanged for money. It sort of felt like, “Gift economy! Money is meaningless! Except for the important things. Like ice. And firewood. And drugs.”
Lack of Diversity. LoF was overwhelmingly white, primarily late teens through early 40s, college educated, cis, straight, able-bodied. There were exceptions to all of these, but there’s a difference between saying “we’re inclusive” and explicitly finding ways to reach out to people who aren’t ‘like you’ and encourage diversity.
Safety and Consent. As I said in my skinny dipping post, I never felt physically unsafe. Even during the few times when I felt emotionally unsafe, I was able to remove myself from the situation with no problem. But there’s a side effect to the totally awesome and wonderful expression of sexuality and nudity that happened at LoF, which was unwanted attention and interactions. During the Facebook discussion about my experiences at LoF, I posted this:
A big part of what I’m getting [from the Facebook discussion], which is an important and kind of badass lesson, is this:
In default culture (love that expression, btw) there’s an expectation that men are aggressors and women are the objects of pursuit. If a woman doesn’t _want_ to be pursued by a man, she’s supposed to brush it off, or deflect, or find some polite and ‘non-offensive’ way to defuse the situation. If she doesn’t, she’s risking being labeled as a bitch, prude, frigid, etc. There are very real cultural/societal/safety reasons this script exists, even though it’s kind of shitty.
At an event like this, though, that script can (hopefully) be thrown out the window. I felt surrounded by enough safety that I think it would have been appropriate and perhaps even respected for me to respond to some of these advances with a simple “Thanks, but I’m not interested. I also don’t want to continue this conversation.” If they try to keep it going, it’s then entirely on them to not be a douche.
I’d love to see additional discussion around that idea. I talked to a number of (cis) women about their experiences with consent and unwanted advances at LoF and almost all agreed that it could be better. I’ve also heard of a small-but-growing problem of rape and sexual assault at Burning Man. I didn’t hear of anything like that at LoF, but it’s possible they did or do happen and just weren’t on my radar. It seems like there are people (mostly but not exclusively men) who take the idea of radical expression to mean “I can do whatever the hell I want.” That’s a problem in and of itself, but especially when their targets (mostly but not exclusively women) aren’t comfortable explicitly and directly telling them to fuck off.
I realize this places the onus on the one being targeted by unwanted sexual advances, which is hugely problematic. It also relies on the aggressor being willing to back off, and/or a willingness by the community to step in and help. I think the latter is realistic, while the former may or may not be. Ideally, there should be parallel conversations happening, perhaps along these lines:
These burns are supposed to be special places, where you can communicate and interact in ways that aren’t practical or safe in Defaultia. You are explicitly allowed and encouraged to tell someone to go away, even if that would be considered rude or unwarranted outside of the burner scene.
At the same time, these burns are supposed to be special places, where everyone can feel safe from sexual assault and violence. Consent means ‘ask first, and don’t continue without an explicit yes!’
I’m not done processing my time at LoF, but writing things out helps. (As it always does for me.) I definitely want to explore the Chicago and national burner scenes more, and hope to return to LoF next year. In the meantime, I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on what I wrote, particularly when it comes to sexual assault and consent. Likewise, please share any wonderful/awful/hilarious/gross/noteworthy stories of their time at LoF, or in the larger burner scene.