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Playa Magic: The Radical Ritual

Kenny Reff/Counterpoint Press

In 1986, Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James put together a wooden statue of a man. They dragged it to Baker Beach in San Francisco on the summer solstice and light it on fire.

From there, Burning Man was born. It eventually left the Bay Area and moved east to the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Now, it is home to 80,000 people every August. Opening day this year is Sunday. 

Writer Neil Shister didn't want to go to Burning Man when he was first invited seven years ago by a friend. In fact, he wasn't sure he was actually going to go until he left a hotel room in Reno with his wife.

The experience was so powerful that he has returned every year since and he's even written a book about it. 

In his new book, "Radical Ritual: How Burning Man Changed the World," Shister explores how Burning Man has evolved from a small gathering in San Francisco to become a global phenomenon in the Nevada desert in just a little more than 30 years. 

“It is an exercise in culture-building disguised as a grand cavalcade of idiosyncrasies: art, personal dress, personal behavior, but fundamentally at the deepest level what’s going on is a construction of a culture,” he said.

Shister believes the event, which he doesn't like to call a festival, has broadened his mind personally and the worlds.

“I think it has introduced me to a huge array of people who have broadened my perspective," he said, "I think it has excited me in the sense that there is an opportunity to have a transformative effect on the society at large. In those respects, it has changed me.”

Beyond the inventions developed at Burning Man - like a pop-up yurt that works so well it is now being used as a prototype for emergency shelter - and the ideas developed there - like Black Rock Labs which is actively looking for ways to improve sustainability, Shister said the event has shown the world the power of collaboration.

“Burning Man is an example of how it’s possible to evolve into a reasonably stable, interactive, satisfying, responsible group,” he said.

Shister said Burning Man's collaborative principal is being taught at business schools and even heavily influenced tech giant Google when it first started.

"Burning Man is being taught as an example of consensual governance,” he said.

He said the art at the event, which is on a scale that people can't imagine until they see it, is only possible through collaboration. Even living on the playa for days on end is only possible through the ethic of communal effort.

“It’s people getting together to figure how they’re going to survive in the desert because they like to be out there because of the fun," he said.

Excerpt from "Radical Ritual: How Burning Man Changed The World":

"Black Rock City is a 24-7 sensory overload. Bizarre get-ups, turbo-charged erotic pheromones in the air, dazzling LED lights, mutant vehicles morphed into unicorns and butterflies and nineteenth-century frigates, wild temperature swings from boiling hot to freezing cold, the aroma of bacon, the ecstasy of a hammock in the shade or an unsoiled porta-potty. Even the sweet surprise of a passionate kiss from a beautiful stranger as she walks past you to forever disappear."



Neil Shister, author,  "Radical Ritual: How Burning Man Changed The World" 

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Since June 2015, Fred has been a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada.