Before we begin; a word of clarification …. the word ‘cult’ has come to have pejorative meaning, bringing to mind the shadow of control and abuse. This is not that type of cult. Rather, it is an homage to a man called John Frum who was representative of an experience during WW II when GIs landed in Melanesia, carrying with them, the bounty of the West. This theme was played out with whimsy and purpose in 2013 at an annual gathering in the Black Rock desert in Nevada, called Burning Man. The design for the to-be-torched platform for The Man, was a spaceship, since to the islanders, it was as if John had descended from the heavens.
For those who are not familiar with the week long epic event, it began in 1986 in San Francisco when two friends built a figure and burned it in effigy on the beach. Since then, people have gathered from all over the world to live in community; sharing inspiration, food, water, shelter, clothing and a bond that connects humanity. There is a sense of acceptance of various lifestyle choices and an over riding commitment to eco-sustenance. One of the guiding principles is that the attendees are to leave no trace of their presence; so cooperative clean up is essential. Would that be the case in every aspect of life and in each spiritual practice.
Their Mission and Vision Statements speak volumes about the inspiration for the glorious coffee table book called Cargo Cult, which was created by talented photographer Karen Kuehn whose work has been showcased in ad campaigns for Campbell’s Soup and MasterCard, as well as magazine covers for Travel and Discover. She has been a regular participant at Burning Man for years and was tapped by her Muse to document an aspect of the experience.
“The mission of the Burning Man organization is to facilitate and extend the culture that has issued from the Burning Man event into the larger world. This culture forms an integrated pattern of values, experience, and behavior: a coherent and widely applicable way of life.”
“The Burning Man organization will bring experiences to people in grand, awe-inspiring and joyful ways that lift the human spirit, address social problems and inspire a sense of culture, community and personal engagement.”
Although I have never been there, I have experienced it vicariously through friends who have attended over the years. They share stories of packing clothes, toys, art supplies , bicycles (the playa, which is the site for Burning Man, is many miles in expanse) and enough food and water to carry them through. Free spirits all, they have delighted me with off the wall tales of serendipitous meetings, huge life changes, emotional breakthroughs and long lasting loving relationships that were sparked. When I opened the hefty book, it was as if I was magically whisked into that world, sans dust and heat. I could feel the bonds created by those Kuehn photographed and interviewed.
She begins the book with this delving question:
“If you could board a REAL spaceship to fly away and create a new world, what idea would you bring with you to create a better humanity?” And from there, she is off to the races.
Responses ranged from the succinct:
“Happiness.”- Heather Thompson
“As much laughter as possible.”- Michael Christian
” PASSION. Without it, we are empty.”- Charlotte Strawn
” A fair wind and a following sea.”- Greg Barron
“LOVE OUT LOUD”- Blaze Nash
To the lengthier and more in depth:
“Music. All kinds of music and lots and lots of dancing with our people.” – Kristin Ingeman
” I would want to share Picasso’s insight that the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”- Arnaud Paris
“Drawing on our camaraderie, diverse talents and resources, I can envision a brighter future.”- Tom Mays
“Unconditional gratitude. Saying ‘Thank You’ to someone goes a lot further than most people expect.”-Adi Azulay
“FREEDOM to be ourselves, fully self expressed, living in love, joy and balance with respect for all life.”- Consouer Valerie BrightHeart Olj
The images leap off the page, some of wildly imagined sculpture and others of people in all their glory. Various rituals and ceremonies are portrayed with a blending of reverence and exuberance. I have not met these folks …..oh, except one, my friend Valerie BrightHeart, I feel a kindred spirit connection. The photos are, at turns silly, poignant, playful, rustic, rugged; powerful depictions of an emerging humanity that sees beyond color, national origin, socio-economic background, political affiliation and love-style choices.
I strive to live in a world as portrayed through Kuehn’s lens, which is filtered by her vivid imagination and wide open heart. Utopian fantasy? I think not.
Oh, and if she were to ask me that question, my response would be: “An overwhelming sense that life is for loving and not harming, that people are gifts that come to us for our mutual benefit and that together, we really can create a new Eden.”