This is one big country, poot. You can can get all tuckered out just flying across it, especially where the air gets chunky over the Rockies. Whee! Green in the east, brown in the west, so much empty space in between it drives people mad. Call me Ishmael wrote Olson, "the pure products of America" wrote Williams (as though such existed in a nation of mutts). People out there in that bright blue emptiness start shooting at the sky. Bang bang. Don't they realize how much the sky weighs?
Take my friend K. and his girlfriend. They get in their painted van and drive for days till the sun burns a hole in their heads. Then they're ready for Nevada, the middle of nowhere. It's the perfect place to set up an encampment on the sand flats, compare tattoos, and incinerate a pagan sculpture in the desert night. The Celts who danced around the effin Wicker Man got nothing on them. My old friend Donut, who lives as quiet a life as possible up in the western highlands of Connecticut, might call it an exultation of the irrational.
K. wouldn't think so, but the Burning Man ecstatics are doing a good job of keeping America safe for the real movers and shakers, the bankers and admen who fly above them at 37,000 feet. Maybe it doesn't matter. The bankers and admen know enough not to fuck with the inner lives of the ecstatics as long as they make their interest payments on time. That's key. Everything's cool in the wide open spaces: you barter and share for a few days and feel better about the world you inhabit. And you get to keep your dope, your handiwork, and your dieties -- anything that doesn't threaten the social order.
I can hear K. saying, "Hey, just because it feels good doesn't mean it isn't good."
After the flames die down and the Burning Man is no more, the site is abandoned and scrubbed clean. You would not know a city had stood there just a few days before. The buskers and jugglers, metal-workers and glass-blowers, body-painters and belly-dancers, they pack up and head back to their mortgages and laptops, Fresh Direct deliveries and unlocked iPhones. Brooklyn or Berkeley -- what difference does it make? These effin cities possess hardly more staying power than Jamestown. All human settlements are but temporary encampments -- Nineveh, Babylon, Thebes. The plane flies over hundreds of American ghost towns. Once the earth's veins are bled dry -- no more silver, no more gold -- the wind and sand come back to scour the last remnants of human habitation, preparing them for the archeologists and curiosity-seekers. From the sky it looks like aliens landed here.
Donut is a wise man. He reads only one text at a time, slowly running his index finger over each word as though to draw out its derivations by sheer physical force. He doesn't watch television or listen to talk radio. When he walks he attends to the world, he doesn't wear earbuds, he lets the presences speak to him. He used to play the guitar like Leo Kottke, but his hand went bad on him. Slowly the music's coming back, like a recovering amnesiac's memories. The last time I saw him, he spoke slowly and so softly that I could barely hear him. It seemed that he had consented to be gathered in by something bigger than himself.
I was reminded of the ecstatics' loss of will in the desert. The wayfarers link arms and do cartwheels, cheer when the straw is lit, and watch in awe as the giant effigy goes up in flames. They have found a way of being together for a few days. I don't know. Maybe that's the best we humans can do.