In 1987, the first Burning Man appeared in the Nevada desert, an event that has now become a playground for rich hedonists looking to experience social freedom. However, the concept of burning effigies at the end of summer goes a bit deeper.
The longest-running burn ceremony in the USA may be Zozobra in Sante Fe, New Mexico, an event that began in 1924, although its origins lie in the Fiestas de Santa Fe that appeared 12 years after the Spanish retook that city back from a Pueblo Indian revolt of 1680. Today, the Kiwanis Club are in charge of Zozobra, though the objective (raise people’s spirits by dispelling negative energy) remains the same. For weeks leading up to the burn, residents write down gloomy thoughts on a piece of paper and place those thoughts inside a box burned at the feet of the marionette.
I’ve never been to Burning Man or Zozobra. The only major burn along these lines I attended happened in the early 1980’s, in Glover, Vermont, site of the once-annual Domestic Resurrection Circus staged by Peter Schumann’s amazing Bread & Puppet Theater.
Like Humboldt County in Northern California, Northern Vermont became a refuge for hippies in the 1970s, and Peter Schumann was a puppet master from Eastern Europe who settled first in Germany, then relocated to the Lower East Side of New York, before migrating to Glover. He landed on the site of a former gravel quarry and transformed it into a giant outdoor venue where tens of thousands could watch puppet spectacles involving a cast of hundreds of volunteers and dozens of giant puppets. The Domestic Resurrection Circus took place for many years, but after the event started to get really big, Schumann shut it down, and scaled back to smaller weekly performances during the summer instead of one big annual blow-out.
The Domestic Resurrection Circus was free to attend and you were allowed to camp-out and even vend near the property. As you entered the quarry, you arrived first at a crude, hand-built hut serving free bread slathered in garlic and oil. This was some really delicious bread, the sort you could actually live on. Schumann would get up each morning and bake hundreds of loaves using just water, wheat and freshly ground rye berries, plus a splash of his sourdough starter handed down from his mother. Schumann understood well the primal symbolism involved in providing nourishment for free.
Although Schumann’s script changed every year, the basic outline was always the same: A happy village lived in harmony under the shadow of a nourishing Mother Earth until the day an evil tribe entered the village, usually with gas-guzzling chain saws and other instruments of destruction. Before long, Mother Earth is going up in flames and the bad guys end up killing themselves in the process. But then these enormous white birds appear on the horizon. The birds fly around the burning Mother Earth to help raise her from the ashes.
Schumann’s annual performance was always intensely political, anti-war and anti-big-business. And there was something truly epic and profound about staging such massive events for free.