The Tribes of Burning Man is a new book by Steven T. Jones, better known to some by his playa name, Scribe. Published in 2011, it joins a growing number of books, documentaries, and other media relating to this huge annual arts festival and the global culture which has sprung up around it; this blog’s regular series, A Burner Lexicon, is another such entry into this field.
For close to a decade, Scribe has been one of the preeminent journalists at the event, covering it for San Francisco’s Guardian. He’s had the ear of everyone from the Flaming Lotus Girls to the Hat himself and shares his experiences with remarkable openness. Like any good Burner, he’s not just an outsider viewing the event but an active participant, gonzo-style, in everything he reports about. He builds, dances, explores, parties, and interacts with the community while simultaneously working to document it.
Likewise, Tribes tries (and overall succeeds) to do two things at once. Its subtitle is “How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.” While simultaneously working to show the influence the Burn has had on the default world, he also reports on the profound influence it had on his own life. For all the special access he’s had, Scribe’s journey is a familiar one to many long time Burners. He begins with a wide-eyed, almost innocent excitement at his profound experiences and the way they might change the world; moves into a period of relative disillusionment and almost burn-out and then returns to the joy, love, and commitment to the event and the changes it can bring which the most fortunate and dedicated of us rediscover.
This book touches on the history of the event in passing, but it doesn’t try to take the place of works like This Is Burning Man; Scribe clearly admires Brian Doherty’s book, referring to it repeatedly and even quoting it in places. Instead, Tribes is a more modern recounting. It begins in 2004, when the idea of Black Rock City as a completely lawless frontier was already a dying memory of the old days, and continues right up into 2010’s Metropolis themed event, using the city as an apt metaphor for what the event has become and how it’s influenced the life of American cities, especially San Francisco, in turn.
Scribe travels far afield in his quest for better understanding of Burner culture and its role in the larger American life. During the last election, he drove between the playa and the Democratic National Convention, sharing his thoughts on the vast differences between the two he sides of America’s “liberal” culture along the way. He chronicles the work of Burners Without Borders, who formed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina with the goal of putting Burner abilities to good use in the larger world. He travels to the regional communities, from Figment, held on New York City’s Governor’s Island, to Texas’ own Burning Flipside. Scribe describes us as “even more neighborly” than That Thing In the Desert, but also comments that the heat and humidity lead to even less clothes being worn.
The Tribes Of Burning Man makes no effort to gloss over either the event’s rough edges or the aspects which are less accepted or understood by outsiders. This includes the mature aspects — including the sex and drugs, both of which are dealt with explicitly in the text — but also the conflicts that occur. Of special interest are the conflicts between the events’ contrasting hippie and punk mindsets, as well as the one between the sound camps and ravers and those who want to see Burning Man as purely an arts festival. The book reveals that the sound camps were only grudgingly allowed into the Black Rock City after their exclusion caused a serious accident. Even now, he argues, they continue to struggle to receive a fraction of the organizational support which art projects receive despite the massive number of people drawn to the event through their presence.
The book contains many reprints from Scribe’s Guardian columns, mixed freely with new information. This means it is at times repetitive, but it’s repetition that may be valuable to people who are less familiar with Burning Man culture than this reviewer. Overall the book is entertaining, readable, and easily held my interest. Scribe includes just enough of his own experiences while still being able to pull back and give us a glimpse of the larger picture of a growing counterculture.
The Tribes Of Burning Man is a wonderful addition to the literature of Burning Man. For the curious, a free-preview is available from the Burner-owned publishers of this book. This book would be great for newcomers to the Burn, but is also perfect for anyone who wants a better idea of how we’ve grown, how we’ve changed, and where we might be going in the near future.
Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review, but I was sent a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion.