I did good

photo by Roger Easley

You may have noticed, in my gargantuan list of activities from yesterday, that a great many of them had to do with Alchemy, our fall regional Burning Man-style gathering.  Here’s what happened.

Last spring, we were on new property over in the Great Eastern Wastelands of Georgia and were thinking we had found a new, permanent home.  (We hadn’t.)  It was my second time helping the Placement Team lay out the burn, i.e., measuring out the campsites for the theme camps and marking them with stakes and construction tape, and even as we did it I figured that the layout was going to be problematic: it was little more than two straight streets, one each on two great legs of land in a V shape, with camps to either side.  (It didn’t help that Euphoria, the spring burn, has fewer participants and many camps set up away from the road, leaving huge tracts of land seemingly unoccupied.)

Sure enough, after the burn the complaints were consistent: it didn’t feel like a burn.  The hippies said it wasn’t explorable; it felt as if you were walking down a midway at a carnival.

Not a problem, I thought.  The Placement Lead and I had discussed the planning a couple of times, and he had readily admitted that this burn was an Abortive Attempt—just get it down and see what happens, and then we’ll make changes for the next burn.  Exactly as it should be, I thought.

And so that’s why I volunteered to be Placement Co-Lead.  I wanted to provide some insight on the “urban design” of the burn.  Toss in a few ideas, jigger with the map, and show up build weekend to drive stakes and stretch tape.  What could go wrong?

Here’s how that went wrong.

First, we moved again.  Rather than the Eastern Wasteland property, we were now on completely new territory.  Not a problem.  I mean, it’s just unfamiliar terrain, right?  (Actually, I was pleased.  I had issues with the previous property; I intended my input to ameliorate its deficiencies.)

Second, Real Life™ overtook my new Placement Lead, and so one morning in August I awoke to find an email from our superior assuring her that Dale could step up and handle it.  Oy.  Of course I could handle it, but that’s not the point, hippies.  I have made it a part of my guiding philosophy not to be in charge any more.

My virgin canvas, Little Big Jam in Bowdon, GA

But I did it.  I redesigned and streamlined the registration form.  I whipped up a FileMaker Pro database to suck up all those registrations and slice and dice the info in ways that made sense.  I drove up to the farm about eight times to tromp all over that property, taking measurements and making notes as to which areas were unsuitable for camping.

(I may or may not have also picked an absolutely perfect spot for 3 Old Men, my own theme camp.  Sue me.)

But before all that, I wrote a manifesto.  I pulled A Pattern Language 1 from my shelf, picked the patterns I felt would contribute to the overall well-being of the hippies, and wrote a 14-page treatise entitled Patterns: the language of burn layout & placement.  You should read it.  (The dry response from one of my trusted mentors in the burn community: “This is brilliant.  No one else needs to see this.”)

Thus secured against surprise, I sat down before the fire to take my gruel.  Wait, no, that’s Christmas Carol, a whole ‘nother set of blog posts.

…to be continued…


1 A Pattern Language: book, website, pdf.  This book has been influential in my life in many, many ways.  Highly recommended.

“Gestures of approach”: a personal response to a scholarly article

In the most recent edition of Caierdroia: the journal of mazes & labyrinths [v.45, 2016], I was struck by the following quote:

As Ullyatt notes in “Gestures of approach”: aspects of liminality and labyrinths, “A threshold constitutes a boundary line or marginal area… from which a movement inward or outward may be inferred, even if not necessarily pursued….”1

Given my interest in all things liminal, I tracked down Tony Ullyatt’s article, published in Literator [32(2) Aug 2011: 103-134] and gave it a read.  Here are some thoughts.

Summary: Ullyatt discusses some definitions of liminality, discriminates between two- and three-dimensional aspects of labyrinths, summarizes various descriptors of the labyrinth walking process, and finishes up with a “brief consideration of the liminal significance of the Knossos Labyrinth’s location on the isle of Crete.”

For those just joining us, a limen is a boundary; the term—as liminal and liminality—has been appropriated by ritual scholars (Turner, Van Gennep, et al.) to describe the boundaries between “real” life and the mental/social/spiritual states entered into by practitioners of various rituals: shamans, priests, labyrinth walkers, artists,etc.  I have used it in  Lichtenbergianism: procrastination as a creative strategy to link ritual, the Hero’s Journey, and the creative process.

Essentially, the liminal state is where we are when we strike out from the normal (State A1) and find ourselves in unfamiliar territory (State B).  With any luck, we will return to State A2, changed/triumphant/renewed.  If we’re talking about labyrinths, that boils down to entering/center/leaving.  That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

What I found curious about Ullyatt’s article was that he (she?) takes the OED definition of liminality and springs from the concept of “threshold” to discuss the opening of the labyrinth as an entrance to a house, i.e., entering a labyrinth is in some way similar to returning to one’s own hearth.  It seems to me that this is missing an essential element of any labyrinth: crossing the threshold of a labyrinth is not returning in any way but rather a leaving, a striking out from State A1 to arrive at State B.

Yes, “threshold” implies a house/home, but Ullyatt has not considered that, like Bilbo Baggins, we may find ourselves over that threshold following a road that goes “ever on.”  Or that we may someday need to break through a wall and make a new door where there was not one before so that we can create new paths for ourselves.  We may go into a labyrinth, but I think it is the same as going into the woods: in no way are we seeking the familiar when we do so.

As we Lichtenbergians say, while sitting around the fire pit beside my labyrinth,

Take the pathway
to explore
Return to the fire
to confirm

Ullyatt goes on to talk about the labyrinth as sacred space, quoting Eliade:

The sacred is always dangerous to anyone who comes into contact with it unprepared, without having gone through ‘the gestures of approach’ that every religious act demands.

This concept has always interested me since I have found, both with my labyrinth and especially with the 3 Old Men labyrinth, that there is a tension between the expectation of “dangerous approach” and the reality of these two labyrinths.  Indeed, at the burns we have found that many people express trepidation in entering the labyrinth, especially when the Old Men are officiating.  (We are fairly awe inspiring.)

My take is that the burners who pull back from entering/experiencing the labyrinth are responding to the labyrinth’s powerful pull as a sacred space and to their own fear that they don’t know the “gestures of approach” that will allow them to enter it safely.  I also believe that they recognize somehow that to enter the labyrinth is to strike out to the unknown, to leave State A—and who knows what State B could even be? If you’re a hippie who’s just trekking down to see the Effigy or to boogie at Incendia, that may not be on your agenda.

As Ullyat asks in a series of pertinent questions:

Apart from the certainty of the path itself, what expectations might we have about what could happen to us, psychologically at least, on the journey to the centre? Where are we heading? And in which direction? Are we moving “inwards” and, if so, what does that mean geographically, physically, psychologically, or spiritually? When we arrive at the centre, where are we then? Have we arrived at some sort of inner sanctum, the core of our being, the central purpose of our journey, after which our lives will be changed in some manner forever? What were we expecting to find at the centre? Have those expectations been met, and, if so, in what ways and to what extent? What are we meant to discover there? […] At the centre, are we only halfway through our travels? Uncertainty seems unavoidable unless we are made ready for the experience.

… Further, we might ask: Is the obliteration of the self, even temporarily, one consequence of arriving at the centre?

I wouldn’t go in either.

Of course, the Old Men are not there to guard the space, although that may be difficult for the average hippie to discern by torchlight.  We simply hold the space for anyone to encounter on their own terms.  We knew going into our first burn that we would host drunken revelers, smart-ass kids, and idiots.  All are welcome to enter, race through, step over the walls, laugh riotously, and in general miss the point.   That’s perfectly fine.  We’re not there to enforce orthodoxy.  Or heterodoxy, for that matter.

I will note here that the labyrinth of the 3 Old Men presents an interesting variation and challenge on the usual definition of labyrinth and the process of walking one.  First of all, there’s not one path, there are four—and each of those four paths split and rejoin twice before reaching the center.  We often see burners enter the labyrinth under the assumption that they are encountering a maze—that is, they are there to solve a puzzle and must be on guard not to be tricked—only to find, if they’ve chosen the “wrong turn” that they are merely in a simple loop and cannot be tricked except by their own expectations.  However, it is undeniable that there is an element of choice present in this labyrinth that is simply not there in the traditional unicursal design, from which entrance to use through the splits in each path to which exit to take.

Further, when the Old Men are officiating, the shape of the experience changes.  Without them, participants can walk to the center and back—the usual A/B/A journey (albeit with the above-mentioned choices to make).  When we’re standing at the entrances, though, there’s another, significant focal point.  After journeying “there and back again,” the walker is offered an additional, final opportunity to find meaning in the experience: depending on which Old Man he encounters, he will be offered a blessing, a request for a blessing, or a struggle (however he defines it).  I would be interested to know whether most participants regard that final encounter as in fact “final,” the end of their experience; or, as I see it, a second “beginning,” a hippie equivalent to Ite, missa est.3  I imagine that mileage varies.4

At any rate, in the second half of the article Ullyatt goes on to lose the thread of his topic with a meandering discussion of three-dimensionality, i.e., the space around labyrinths, and something something Minotaur.  He does note that a labyrinth is a “sheltered space,” that “the space around the labyrinth (rather than just the area the labyrinth itself occupies) may offer some sense of spiritual refuge and safety.”  I have certainly found this to be the case, both in my own back yard and with 3 Old Men.  Even with the camp next door blaring karaoke “Total Eclipse of the Heart” or Incendia’s DJ whomp-whomping away across the road, burners have told us repeatedly how calming they have found our installation—and now that we’ve been to enough burns, they look for us to provide that refuge.

Liminality.  It’s a thing.


1 Louët, A.P., & J.K.H. Geoffrion. “Labyrinth doorways: crossing the threshold.” Caierdroia, 45: 11-31.  This was a discussion of representations of literal doorways at the entrances to floor labyrinths and need not concern us here.

2 Lyles, et al. The Book of the Labyrinth. The Path.

3 Said at the end of the Catholic Mass.

4 Deserving of some thought and analysis, but not here: what choices are being made by those who leave by the “front” entrance to the labyrinth, i.e., the octagonal mat with our bowl of white kaolin body paint, and where there is no officiant?

So now…

This is one of those posts I do after I’ve been away for a while, either vacationing or Camping With The Hippies™, in which I don’t really have a lot to say because I have too much to say.

Needless to say, I am behind in nearly everything: Lichtenbergianism: procrastination as a creative strategy, blogging about Lichtenbergianism: procrastination as a creative strategy, the Carnegie summer reading Minecraft party, visualization of William Blake’s Inn, labyrinth maintenance, all musical projects, and a couple of new projects: the Artist Trading Card Gang and looking at scoring a web animation series called Medievilry.

Euphoria, which is what the spring burn is called, was everything I needed it to be.  The saying is that you get the burn you need, not the one you want, and that was particularly true this time.  I know that it’s hard to explain the atmosphere of the burn—it’s part revelry, part journeying, part art, part music—and it’s especially hard when to explain since I tend not to share details, but I spent the five days more journeying than reveling, and it was a good thing.  Burning is not for everyone—I tell people that I go and camp with people “who are not like you and me”—but I find that the experience enriches my life.

I can share a couple of images, of course.

First, the labyrinth:

3 Old Men had a primo spot.  It is so prime that other theme camps did not bother to hide their jealousy of our cool arboreal arcade entrance, our shade, and our space.  I have told everyone that if I’m found dead in an alley, then the police should start with a list of TCOs1 as prime suspects.

Me, wearing a cool t-shirt:

This t-shirt is from a young friend, Brett Felty, for a movie he made called The World is Big and Scary.  (His production company’s website doesn’t seem to exist anymore.)  I bought the t-shirt as part of his Kickstarter project; I was struck by the monster’s resemblance to the Wilder Mann creatures—he has since told me that he had never seen the book or heard of the creatures.  I knew immediately that it would be one of my burn shirts, and so I took a photo to send to Brett.

I also got some work done.  I needed to get ahead of the production curve for this new Artist Trading Card Gang, and so I cranked out a handful of ATCs in my “Indeterminate Object” series.  Here is Indeterminate Object No. 4:

I liked this one so much that I decided to place it on the altar in the center of the labyrinth, where the hippies can take and leave gifts.  When no one had taken it before the Effigy burn on Saturday, I retrieved it for myself.

And yes, the Effigy burned:

Now, back to my regularly scheduled life.


1 Theme Camp Organizers

3 Old Men: Euphoria… ready… set…

I spent today packing for the burn, which means I went to my database and printed out a five-page list of over 160 items that I have to pull from here and yon and get them ready for transport.

Since I’m using Craig’s trailer, everything has to fit onto a 6×8 rectangle. Behold!

If you look carefully, you can see the blue rectangle I chalked down to plan ahead.  Up at the top of the driveway you’ll notice the trailer backed into the carport—a feat so impressive that I had to put out a call on Facebook to beg someone to come do it for me.  Even after practicing for 30 minutes in a large parking lot on Bullsboro, once I got to College Street I could not get the thing even to approach the driveway.  So much for Radical Self-Reliance!

Let’s look at it from the other end:

All the stuff in front is going in the car.  The tools and bamboo will go between the tubs, cushioned by multiple tarps.

Tent, kitchen, tables, canopy, fire pit, fuel, tools, labyrinth (three tubs), tiki torches, lighting, ritual items, musical instruments, food, clothing.  All there.

Turn, turn, kick, turn—yes, it will WORK!


3 Old Men: Labyrinth Phase 3

The labyrinth of the 3 Old Men ritual troupe: a multicursal labyrinth with four entrances/paths to the center.  Each path splits twice on its way to the center, where the participant finds a temple bell he can ring and a small altar where he can leave and take small gifts.

For those just joining us, the labyrinth was designed originally to be taken to Burning Man and as such had a few basic requirements: it had to be easy(ish) to set up; it had to be pretty visible so hippies didn’t trip over it in the dark; and it had to leave no trace.  The solution was 16″ plastic tent stakes and nylon rope.

Phase 1:

click for larger version

We haven’t made it to Burning Man yet, but the Georgia burns are fun enough without the hassle of driving to the middle of the Black Rock desert and having to survive there for a week.

The aesthetics of the thing always bothered me, since neon orange and yellow are not exactly conducive to a contemplative state, and so I proposed that we[1] create fabric walls that would be slipped down over the stakes, ditching the rope.[2]  We applied for funding from the hippies, got it, and I spent last summer creating that.

Phase 2:

At the burn:

As I designed the walls, I was already planning ahead for Phase 3, because we knew that life, the universe, and everything would be much improved if the labyrinth lit up, you guys! So all the walls have a 2″ channel sewn into the top for lights to be threaded through.[3]

So here we are.  A couple of the troupe are planning to take it to Apogaea, the Colorado burn in June, and so we’re looking at that for our debut of Phase 3, and if not then, then Alchemy this fall for sure.

I was sent a short strip of LED tape to test out a couple of things, one of the concerns being that if we ran the lights through the channel, it might not produce enough light to be effective.  So the question was whether we should a) run the lights through the channel; or b) place them somehow outside the fabric.

Last night I took one of the shortest walls and created a test spot out in my own labyrinth…

and behold!

Phase 3 test

Threading it will be perfectly lovely.  The plan is to run the lights through the four “long” walls.  Here’s the design:

Those long walls are the ones that start at the top and the bottom and snake their way to the center.  One of the issues with lighting the thing is that there twelve walls altogether, and how does one do that without a lot of complication?  As you can see in the test photos, lighting the long walls will illuminate the short walls on either side.  If we want to figure out the short walls later, we can.

There is probably a Phase 4, in which we program the lights to pulse gently, or even to send gentle pulses along the length to the center. WOULDN’T THAT BE AMAZING YOU GUYS?

However, we’re still in Phase 3, and one of the issues is the actual threading of 100+ feet of LED wire through the walls.  We will need a bodkin or two; for this short bit, I made a heavy cardboard prototype:

Right, it’s like a big needle, but instead of a sharp point it has a bulgy tip so that after you shirr the fabric up the shaft, you can grasp the tip to pull the fabric off the other end.[4]  I envision a completed version as wooden, about 18″ long, and round instead of flat.  I have a simple arrangement of grooves at the back end rather than an eye to hold the tape in place without bending/breaking it.  So who has a lathe and knows how to use it?



[1] And by “we” I mean “me.”

[2] If you would like to buy over 1000 feet of rope, please let me know.  Some of it’s in pieces, but most of it is still on the spools.

[3] Except, ironically, the four long walls, which is what we’re planning to light.  More sewing this week.

[4] Hush, Jobie.  And Joe, for that matter.

3 Old Men: Labyrinth repair

In yet another post on How I Did It, a tutorial on how I added the inserts to the fabric walls of the 3 Old Men labyrinth.

You will recall that I laid out the labyrinth recently and made the executive decision simply to whack two of the long walls so that I could adjust them to match the measurements of the long walls that seemed to be accurate.[1]

Yesterday, I finally set up my sewing station in the basement and got to work.  I was dreading it for several reasons, not the least of which was that I have been prone to poor conceptualization of these issues and thus mismeasurement.  But as far as I can tell, this was an easy task.

First I gathered all the necessary items: extra fabric from the original project (already hemmed, etc); equipment; Assistive Feline®.

I had the forethought onsite to write down the length of the gap that needed to be filled and to pin the two edges together along with the measurement:

Since I hacked through the walls with a pair of shears, the cuts were neither straight nor even, and so my first task was to straighten the edges of the cut.  This means another loss of fabric which has to be taken into account in the measurements.  Fortunately, so far, I can standardize that cut as 1″.

I’m using 1/2″ seams to make all the math easy.  After lots of laying out and fretting and measuring, I developed a formula to calculate the length of fabric for each insert: excision + seam allowance + extension = insert.[2]

From here it was astonishingly easy.  Seam, then overcast the edges:

Iron flat, then topstitch:

(No, those bottom edges don’t match.  You might be astonished at how much this cannot be seen and does not matter when you are Camping With the Hippies™.)

And finally, the insert is finished:

Pro tip: don’t make your cut so close to the pocket for the stake.  You can’t actually lay out that edge flat.

The good news is that I knocked out the three inserts in the northeast wall in short order.  I should be able to knock out the four in the southwest wall today.

The bad news is that I won’t know if it actually worked until we set it up at Euphoria.  No, I don’t care that I don’t know if it will work.

The serendipitous news that that the leftover scrap of wall fabric that I started with had exactly enough fabric to do the three inserts.  EXACTLY ENOUGH FABRIC, KENNETH!


[1] Yes, well, we’ll see how that assumption works out, won’t we?

[2] Crap.  You are correct.  I did not account for the seam allowance on the original wall pieces.  My measurements are off by 1″.  Oh well, that’s not a horrible mistake and won’t be noticeable. However, I’ll correct that today. (In Lichtenbergianism, this is called SUCCESSIVE APPROXIMATION.)[3]

[3] update: I was wrong about being wrong, I think.  At any rate, I went back to my old calculations.

3 Old Men: labyrinth update

You may dimly recall that the labyrinth walls I made last summer/fall for the 3 Old Men ritual troupe at Alchemy was a stunning success…

… but it did have issues:

Despite my obsessive calculations and measurements, the walls still drooped and dragged in places.  For Alchemy, we just muddled through.[1]

So yesterday I hauled the tent stakes and the walls and the layout ropes out to Craig’s place to set the whole thing up and make the necessary adjustments for Euphoria.

First up was the northeast wall—and it was horrific.  The first long segment was too short, and then the first short segment, which I knew was supposed to be 4′ long, was only 2’9″ long.  Had the whole thing shrunk in the wash??

You don’t know the feeling of soul-screeching panic until you’re faced with the possibility that you will have to completely rebuild a project of this size—without funding and without time.

I abandoned the northeast wall and put up the northwest wall—and it was perfect.  Ish.  Enough.

As you can barely see in the photograph above, the northwest and southeast walls never had an issue.  It was the other two that drooped and dragged (although how the 4′ section got to be 2’9″ I will never know).  I began to formulate the hypothesis that the layout ropes (which I remeasured and corrected earlier this week) were the problem—but the idea that all of this would have resolved itself to start with if I had been more accurate with the layout ropes? That way madness lies.

So: northwest wall?  Perfect.  Southeast wall?  Perfect.  Other two long walls?  A mess.

I made the decision to measure the northwest wall segments and then revamp the two messy walls to match that.  Procrustes for the win!


The good news is that it’s only the outer segments that needed adjustment.  Out of 134 wall segments only seven needed to be cut .

The bad news is that now I have to be extremely perfectionist in adding new muslin pieces to these walls.  I think I have a foolproof plan, but believe me when I say you’re going to be reading more than one obsessive blogpost about this project.

The best news is that now whenever we set up the labyrinth, we will have to make only minor adjustments to the tent stakes.  Excelsior![2]


[1] “Muddled”—get it?  Get it?  “Muddled”/”Muddied”?  Alchemuddy?  ::sigh:: I guess you had to be there.

[2] N.B.: I didn’t bother fiddling with the eight short walls—they just float in the middle of the curves of the long walls and it doesn’t really matter if they’re completely accurate.  Which they weren’t.  Maybe for Alchemy.

3 Old Men: Shame and dirt

In Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: mischief, myth, and art, he has a chapter called “Speechless Shame and Shameless Speech” in which he posits that shame is linked to societal rules about speech and silence, and that those rules have an “ordering function,” not just of society but of the body and the psyche as well.

He quotes from Hunger of Memory, the memoir of one Richard Rodriguez:

The normal, extraordinary, animal excitement of feeling my [teenaged] body alive—riding shirtless on a bicycle in the warm wind created by furious self-propelled motion—the sensations that first had excited in me a sense of my maleness, I denied. I was too ashamed of my body. I wanted to forget that I had a body because I had a brown body.

Hyde goes on to note that “…an unalterable fact about the body…”—in this case, Rodriguez’s brown skin— “… is linked to a place in the social order,…”—i.e., less than white skin— “… and in both cases, to accept the link is to be caught in a kind of trap.” [1]

The Trickster, however, subverts that trap. Remember that Trickster = Raven, Coyote, Br’er Rabbit, Shiva, Dionysus, Jesus.

Or Old Men.

If you take Rodriguez’s passage and substitute old for brown, you can see another source of the power of 3 Old Men’s ritual at burns:

Wise to the tricks of language, the [Trickster] refuses the whole setup—refuses the metonymic shift, the enchantment of [societal] story, and the rules of silence—and by these refusals [he] detaches the supposedly overlapping levels of inscription from one another so that the body, especially, need no longer stand as the mute, incarnate seal of social and psychological order. All this, but especially the speaking out where shame demands silence, depends largely on a consciousness that doesn’t feel much inhibition, and knows how traps are made, and knows how to subvert them.[2]

That’s long and complicated. But what it means for us is that rather than be complicit in the role that society has constructed for the words an old man, the 3 Old Men troupe rejects that metonymy— “a kind of bait and switch,” Hyde says, “in which one’s changeable social place is figured in terms of an unchangeable part of the body”[3]—in this case, our aging male bodies—and instead substitutes a different reading.

This reading (about which you can read my original thoughts here) also links into Hyde’s contention that any social structure of meaning undergoes “purification” as it continues to create order, discarding undesirable or repellent bits, i.e., “dirt.” He contends that in an eternal dialectic, the Trickster takes the dirt, the waste, the excluded detritus of the system and revivifies the system by breaking it open and throwing the dirt back in.[4]

Thus, our society’s ideals of beauty and power have over the centuries focused more on the youthful male body—sleek, virile, strong—and rejected the aching joints, sagging breasts, and protruding bellies of the old. 3 Old Men uses its ritual to call attention to those attributes of “oldness” and to overturn and recreate that societal order in the labyrinth, and then to include that society which excluded the former “dirt,” by opening the labyrinth to the journey of others, ending with our agon encounters at the boundaries.

Ritual: Order. Community. Transformation.


[1] Hyde, p. 169

[2] ibid., p. 171

[3] ibid. p. 170

[4] In a stunning bit of synchronicity, the chapter after “Speechless Shame” is “Matter Out of Place”: dirt is that which is out of place when we create our order. Matter out of place, or MOOP, is of course a key concept in Leave No Trace, one of the 10 Principles of Burning Man. (I do not know whether there is a connection between Hyde’s work and the growth of Burning Man—it would be interesting to find out.) UPDATE: Indeed, Larry Harvey, founder of Burning Man, got the term from Hyde.

3 Old Men: The 1000 Commands

One of my 2016 Lichtenbergian Proposed Efforts is to continue my work with 3 Old Men, my Burner theme camp.

For over a year now we have joked about expanding the camp to include a 50-foot square, roped off, with a deer stand at one end where one of us would sit with a megaphone and yell commands at any hippies who stepped into the square.  Well, deer stands are a) expensive; and b) heavy, so we’ve never gotten around to doing it.  (Needless to say, we already have the rope from the old version of the labyrinth.)

But I think getting this idea off the ground is going to be my major 3 Old Men focus for a while.  First of all, we can give up the deer stand idea—just a tall bar chair would do, especially if we put it on a small platform.  So that’s a major hurdle we don’t have to clear.

The second major item on the agenda is what exactly would happen if hippies wandered into the enclosure?  I have a vague idea of contact improv/InterPlay/Twyla Tharp movements, but once I’m sitting in that chair,  what happens?

To that end, here’s my newest Waste Book:

When I’m trying to avoid other projects, I can pick this up and start imagining what would be interesting, amusing, or beautiful in the arena.  I also intend to engage the rest of the troupe in the project, probably through a Google Doc.

Also too, I have to come up with a name for it.

Camping with the Hippies™: Alchemy 2015

I have not reported on my experience at Alchemy 2015: Amalgamation because I’ve been busy getting A Christmas Carol on its feet.  Not only that, but as you will guess, it took me two weeks after the burn to get the 3 Old Men’s stuff all cleaned, dried, and packed away.

Disclaimer: Many of these photos were taken by other people, and to my shame I did not make any notes for crediting them in this post.  If I can go back and find them, I’ll correct that.  If you’re reading this and recognize one of yours, let me know and I’ll credit you.

Also disclaimer: You will notice a great lack of people in these photos.  The burn community is very protective of its privacy, and I feel a little strange even posting about the weekend, but I think it’s worth sharing.  For the same reasons, I will not be giving an overly detailed account of the burn.  Sometimes you have to experience the mystery for yourself.

Alchemy was nearly a month ago, the first weekend in October. I arrived at the burn on Wednesday on “early entry,” to set up the labyrinth along with another of the 3 Old Men troupe, who was bringing fire art to our camp for the first time.  Here’s our theme camp area:

I had gone up the weekend before to help the Placement Team lay out the theme camp areas, so I knew what to expect (which was an area smaller than I had requested and which barely had room for all of us).  First we set our tents up, and then we got to work on the labyrinth.  You will recall that I spent many weeks sewing hundreds of yards of muslin to create the new walls for the labyrinth, and on the whole it looked good.

There were still some saggy spots due to some inexplicable errors in my measuring.  Safety pins worked; I’ll pull it all out and fix it next April before we hit the road again.  You will also notice in the photo above the octagonal mat at the north entrance, with the tripod holding the bowl of kaolin.

Here’s our first test of the new fire thingies—actually called “poofers” by those whose craft this is.  It was very cool:

However, the weather was not in our favor.  It was supposed to be pretty all weekend, with a high pressure area keeping a rain front at bay until we were done, but Hurricane Joaquin ruined all that.  It began raining Wednesday night and did not stop until Sunday.  The 3 Old Men generally do four of our labyrinth rituals a day, but at this burn we were barely able to do four altogether.

But boy, we looked great when we did:

It looks like we’re holding the flame, but we’re not.  We’re holding our 8-foot staffs; the poofers were right behind us.  Quite impressive.

For some reason, I own more tarps than necessary, but thank goodness for that.  We were able to fashion a reasonably comfortable shelter from two of our canopies and the tarps.  Here’s our kitchen/living room area.  I bought a propane fire pit after last year’s experience of freezing half the time—you can see it back with the chairs.  Everyone rejoiced that I had made the purchase:

I joked that the number of new structures in our camp was deplorable.  Passersby would have seen multiple Old Men poring over instructions while others helped assemble their tents and canopies.  But we were not alone in that regard, I discovered as I walked about.

It rained.  After so much planning and execution, it was very disappointing that everything you owned was wet and muddy.  Dry socks became a commodity.  The camps became mudpits; the parking lot and roads became impassable:

The leadership of the event prevented what could have been a catastrophe with speed and decisiveness.  They closed the gates to keep the parking lot from trapping thousands of vehicles in the mud; had gravel brought in for the roads inside the burn itself; reopened the gates; provided shuttles to get people/stuff into (and out of) the burn; and in general leadership neither played nor slept for the four days of the burn.

This didn’t solve all the problems, of course.  More than a few theme camps never made it, and several funded art projects were never installed. Those that did were severely hampered by the weather—a cuddle pit of stuffed animals, for example, becomes problematic when they’re all soaked.  It was uncomfortable to travel, so many people didn’t get out and about as much as they normally would have.  (My personal goal this burn was to get out and experience more of the burn.  Because I’m a great wimp, I partially failed at that, although I did see more this year than last year.)

In our own camp, three members never made it, and three went  home on Saturday afternoon during a break in the rain.  Because the labyrinth was now a sopping wet, heavy mess, I asked my campmates to help me take it down while they were still there, which they kindly did.

After we got it all down, we found that despite the weather we had had enough visitors to trample the grass into the very recognizable outline of our labyrinth:

At that point we were grateful that the owner of the property had not mown our area again before we got there.  The trampled grass prevented our camp from being a complete mud hole.

However, everything was still soaked to the core.  I had put my tent where a depression ran through the campsite, and it became a river.  One corner of my tent ended up below the water level, pulling a Titanic and letting water in over the rubberized flooring.  Even after I shored up the corner and then mopped/bailed out the inside, it felt and sounded as if I were walking on a water bed, and after I took my tent down on Monday I discovered why:

By Sunday afternoon when the rain finally stopped, the three of us remaining had all decided to stay until Monday to let the mud settle a bit and to see if there was less competition to get out of the parking lot.  This proved to be the right decision, and without too much trouble I was able to load the trailer and cross the flooded “dry creek” to get back on the road to Newnan.

Here’s the thing: even though my mantra for the entire burn was “I can be cold, or I can be wet, but I cannot be cold and wet,” and nothing I owned would dry out, and half my camp either left early or didn’t arrive at all, and everything was just wet, wet, and gross, it was still a burn.  It was still full of wonderful people doing amazing things.  Art still went up, food and drink were still served, whomp-whomp music still played all night [I’m looking at you, Discordia…], and stuff was still burned.

For example, here’s the Minotaur, a 30-foot tall sculpture by Vermont artists Kim and Chris Cleary:

Here’s the Effigy itself, atop the hill:

That thing was actually climbable.  Hippies younger than I did that.

Here’s the Temple at night, lit from within:

So much more, none of which I have photos of, and which I would be hard pressed to list or describe.  There was a butterfly dome with scores of Monarch butterflies, all released the last day of the burn to find their way south.  There were amazing sculptures of light, programmed to react to the presence and movement of the itinerant hippies.  There were camps to dance in, to sing in, to eat and drink in, to take shelter in.  There were thousands of muddy hippies, ruefully making the best of a terrible situation with good humor and sass; the burn was soon rechristened as “Alchemuddy: Almudgamation.”

Because of the Principle of Radical Self-Reliance, Alchemy never threatened to turn into a disaster like TomorrowWorld, which had stranded thousands of unprepared party-goers in similar muddy woods just the weekend before.  (Someone who camped at Tomorrow World told me that for those who were burners, TomorrowWorld was fine.  It was just the “sparkle ponies” who descended into chaos.)

Above all, there was that sense of community which sustains those of us who burn and which lures us back again and again:

That’s a shot of Center Camp—information stations, performance space, and art projects—from Effigy Hill.  Does that look like a terrible place to be?  It was not, rain or no.

Here’s another shot of the main camping area, taken from Silent Hill:

Behind this view is a hilltop covered with more camps, and out of sight to the right and to the far right are three more camping areas.  You never run out of places to go and hippies to meet.

And did the rain stop the hippies from burning All The Things?  It did not:

The Minotaur burned—the Effigy burned—the Temple burned.  We cheered, we danced, we sat in silence.  On Sunday, it was very strange to walk around the burn and be aware that the hill was empty: no Effigy, no Temple, all consumed, gone.

And Sunday was just fun.  The burn officially goes through Monday morning, but many people leave on Sunday since they have to work on Monday.  I of course do not have that problem, and now I plan to stay through Sunday night anyway.  The rain had stopped and it was warmer.  My fellow Old Men and I tromped all around the burn—all the large camps were in full swing, and we ended up at a sound camp deep in the woods, watching brilliant fire spinners do their thing and dancing to the DJs set.

So was it miserable?  Absolutely.  Would I do it again?  Without any hesitation.

So here are two photos of Alchemy 2015:


Both are true.