Not long ago I visited a friend who’d moved to Silicon Valley to work in the startup industry. He had undergone a baffling change: The formerly sports-jacketed East Coaster had become a gluten-free, paleo-dieting, T-shirt-wearing Burning Man.
Burning Man, for the uninitiated, is an annual week-long gathering in the Nevada desert attended by thousands—around 70,000, at last count. There are no hard and fast rules, but among the 10 guiding principles are “radical inclusion,” “radical self-expression,” and, of course, “gifting.” That last principle means you should always do your best to give something to everyone you meet, even if the only thing you have on hand is an interpretive dance performed from your bicycle. This admirably nonmaterialistic lifestyle obviously presupposes that you don’t have a family at home waiting for your next paycheck.
To a cynical New Yorker—or possibly to anyone beyond San Francisco’s cultural blast-radius—Burning Man appears to be a gaggle of grownups imitating their children in a giant box of dirt.
Attendees can reject civilization (Western, Eastern, whatever) as a whole and try to build something new and better from scratch. Religion is important, but only in the form of yoga and other self-exploratory immediacy-driven experiences. And youth is emphasized, above all and forever. If we’re too old to be kids, we can at least act like them. And while Alexandra Wolfe does not put it in so many words, we could call it a new paganism.