The news of New Orleans came to Burning Man’s Black Rock City in phrase-long
bursts: “It’s under 30 feet of water,” said a dreadlocked man with a flute, drinking
coffee at Center Camp on Wednesday morning. “No,” countered a woman dressed to
belly-dance, “only nine.” “Eleven thousand dead,” a man camping near me announced
the next day, “and gangs are shooting down the rescue helicopters. Why would anyone
do that?”
As you walked the Esplanade at night, rumors floated through the air like intermittent signals bleeding through radio static: Everyone died in the Superdome; the French Quarter’s okay; they’re stealing televisions, raping women, killing all the dogs and cats. On a bulletin board in the middle of the temporary city, someone was posting short news items, among them a quote from President Bush about partying in the city as a young man. “Motherfucker,” I said to the man who told me about it. It was just about the only thing I knew for sure.It would have been better, I thought, to have been on a backpacking trip in the absolute media-free quiet of the wilderness than to be here, where information trickles in like water torture — just enough to darken your thoughts, not enough to engage you in the collective effort to comprehend tragedy. At intervals between the luxuries of cold-water hair washes at Goddess Wish Camp and mushroom-laced art walks on the playa to gaze at the exquisite millennium clock and a man living in a Plexiglas box, I felt desperate to be home at my computer, obsessing over first-person narratives and video clips until dawn, the way I, like everyone else I know, had after 9/11. One wind-battered night in the dark of my tent I struggled to pick up a flickering wireless signal from a nearby camp’s satellite, downloading fragments of Web sites in the hopes of piecing together enough data to join the rest of America in contemplating what we would do, how each of us would escape, whether we would put the nobility of rescuing others before the urgency of saving our own skin. But my spotty surfing turned up only this: The city had not even begun counting its dead.It was Saturday before I managed to sort inflated statistic from actual horror; Sunday before I read an e-mailed firsthand account by Charmaine Neville, Aaron’s niece, that put some of the shooting in context. “A lot of those young men lost their minds,” she wrote, “because the helicopters would fly over us and wouldn’t stop. .?.?. They weren’t trying to hit the helicopters, they figured that maybe they weren’t seeing, maybe if they hear this gunfire, they will stop then.” The next day, I told that story to everyone who would listen.There were helicopters over Black Rock City, too, black ones, even, according to a woman who lifted her middle finger as I was walking by her camp. (“Are you flipping me off?” I asked her. “No,” she said. “I was telling the helicopter pilot to fuck off. They have high-power telescopes up there, you know.”) The copter’s persistent buzz helped foster rumors that the feds were looking for terrorists on the playa, and that Burning Man would soon be raided like the Spanish Fork Canyon rave in Utah exactly a week earlier. By my own estimation, drug-sniffing dogs prowled the crowd of some 25,000 in record numbers, and officials from the Bureau of Land Management used any excuse to pull over art cars and search them. One man told me his camp had received two $525 tickets — one for “a bag of mushrooms” found under the driver’s seat. “It’s like the George Clinton lyric,” said the man who’d been busted. “They make more money pretending to stop it than they would if they made it legal and taxed it.” I thought he should be grateful he only had to part with money, and not his freedom: Last year, I’d heard that two men had been thrown in jail for the night just because they’d gotten jiggy outside their tent.There is a way of looking at Burning Man as a big party, which it certainly is, and a fine one at that; another as a place where humanity’s essential generosity emerges unencumbered by financial rewards. Witness this year’s full-service “hotel,” Ashram Galactica (I peeked in one room and saw a bottle of champagne chilling), a big-top circus complete with professional aerialists. And there was such an overabundance of massages you could conceivably get three a day without waiting (yes, people want to get laid, but fat, hairy men get the same service as perky-breasted young women).With its geodesic shelters, bottled water and citizens hyper-provisioned with propane and solar panels, Burning Man has always felt a little like waiting for the apocalypse. To set up camp at the end of summer in an alkaline desert that sucks the moisture off lips, bloodies noses and fills eyes with toxic grit; to sit masked and goggled in large groups watching things burn, seems less like a festival than a rehearsal for something — the end of the world, or at least the end of civilization as we know it. On the last night of the event, while a woman sang “Ave Maria” and the year’s temple flamed in near-perfect silence, a woman gave me a pillow for my aching back, a self-professed medical-marijuana grower passed out handmade fortune cookies, and another woman traded swigs of water for the use of my headlamp. I hoped we would remember to be so kind to each other when the world really ended. I suspected I would forget.As it happens, I brought exactly one book on my playa vacation: John McPhee’s The Control of Nature, for no reason other than to plow through McPhee’s work as fast as possible. I didn’t know what was in it until I sat down in my lawn chair under my dome and opened the first chapter, “Atchafalaya,” named for the river that has long wanted to merge with the Mississippi: The story of how the city of New Orleans was artificially engineered over two centuries to stop the advance of water from three rivers and the Gulf, a scheme doomed to fail in 20, 30 or 40 years (the book was written in 1989). I thought it was a strange coincidence. Stranger still: The last chapter is about Los Angeles.

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