If you’ve not yet heard, Larry Harvey, the man behind Burning Man, just died. (NYTimes; burningman.com.)

It has been my great luck to have met someone remarkable, to have realized it at the time, and to have been able to share and benefit from their presence. Larry Harvey was one of those remarkable people; a product of character, chance, circumstance, and interesting bedfellows.

It was the Burning Man festival, the product of his evolving philosophy, that has provided the backdrop to the biggest positive changes in my life, and for that I am immensely grateful. I’m doubly grateful that I was able to tell Larry several times how much his work meant to me and who I had become.

When I first heard about Burning Man, it was a by-product of a book I was writing in 1994 about sharing streaming video across the nascent Internet. (I captured some images from that streamcast.) It was two years later that the late Stig Hackvan and members of the Otaku Patrol Group told me that there was this event that could really use my experience with emergency medical services; without much more information we caravaned up to the playa and volunteered as Black Rock Rangers (which, back then, was a short pep talk and the handing over of a logo’d tee-shirt).

The above shows the entirety of the Ranger Station (right next to a silver RV, not pictured). (While Larry is often pointed to as the face of the event, my experience of the day-to-day Ranger operations was Danger Ranger and Big Bear.)

I mention this brief history, and show that photo, to provide some context.

When Larry  Harvey (and Marian Goodell) came to the Ranger Station to speak with us, it was a special event. That’s how infrequently we saw Larry in those days.

Larry, like most celebrities who are asked the same questions repeatedly, had a stock speech that covered the basic points of most people’s interest. I heard him give it many times over the next decades.

In contrast, he was most interesting when you asked him something that wasn’t on the main path; then he’d light up, you’d feel the traction of ideas on pavement, and he’d be in his element. That man had the gift of gab and wasn’t afraid to follow a train of thought no matter where it went. (There was a reason that his official title was Chief Philosophical Officer.)

It seemed to me that Larry keenly felt the weight of responsibility as the face of Burning Man, that in later years his answers were circumscribed as to not adversely impact the acceptance of the event, to not increase friction as legal entities and communities sought to both get a piece of the financial pie (and, paradoxically, do away with the pie entirely).

It was my pleasure to have the tradition of opening many Burning Man years at Larry’s side, as he’d visit at my preferred station at the perimeter of the Man, where annually he’d fret about the success of that year’s event. That was until the throngs would be through the gauntlet of ticketing and the gate and would approach the Man en masse. Then Larry would relax, realize once again that all was good, engage the crowd for a bit, and then melt into the First Camp compound.

The photo of Larry on a stage is from one of the few times that I saw Larry speak to the burner community at large, personally, without the press in tow. It was a scheduled question-and-answer session, held in Center Camp near Arctica, where Larry addressed spontaneous, real-world, practical questions about:

  • day-to-day life on playa,
  • differences between what was happening and what he’d envisioned,
  • the tension between being a money-less society for a week but generates huge sales of disposable consumer goods in the surrounding Nevada cities

I wouldn’t say the crowd was hostile in any way, but they were taking his philosophy seriously and preferred to evaluate the merits of his words by living them, putting them into actual use.

Of course, not every idea that popped into Larry’s head wound up playing out as he expected. The “Golden Dubloon” experiment of Burning Man 2002, The Floating World, for example, was a fun treasure hunt (in his head). In contrast to years before, and since, all denizens of Black Rock City could enter the building on which the Man stood. In 2002 Larry decreed that entry was restricted to those who could redeem a gold doubloon, available by finding one that he scattered around the event or by completing a treasure hunt across the city. The citizens revolted, resulting in angry crowds storming the Lighthouse. I’m sure it was well-intended, but the populace wasn’t as evolved or enlightened as Larry had expected.

The last worry about which Larry and I spoke was the ever-growing size of the event. As we stood at the perimeter he opined that perhaps the event had gotten too large to maintain the community density and spiritual energy he’d sought to nurture. He confessed he’d thought about reducing the event size by restricting attendance, but couldn’t figure out an equitable entrance policy that would ensure the faithful would be represented. We’d been there for set-up week, a long week of work, and I looked at Larry, looked at the laminate ID card around my neck, and said “Larry, you’ve already got the faithful tagged. We’re easy to spot, and you’ve got all of our email addresses too. If you want a tiny event, with a fervent membership, we volunteers have self-selected ourselves.” Larry looked at my “lam”, nodded, and that year’s crowds surrounded us at the Man.

Larry, you will be missed. You and your cohorts brought something wonderful and necessary into this world. We’ll take care of it and pass it along. The AfricaBurn crew have extended the ten principles around which you built Burning Man: each one teach one.

We will.

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