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A Burning Connection: Experiencing Personal Growth at the 2023 Burners Without Borders Summit

By Joseph Miller, Indigenous Community Relations Coordinator


Burners Without Borders is a volunteer organization devoted to providing innovative disaster relief solutions, and supporting underserved communities by participating in service projects that promote resiliency. Since its inception, Burners Without Borders has grown to a worldwide organization and has become a forerunner in creative solutions to bring about positive community change.

The 2023 Burners Without Borders Summit was held on May 19th through May 21st on the Burning Man Project owned Fly Ranch, located on the Hualapai Flat near Gerlach, NV.

This is what I witnessed and felt as a summit participant.

A Burning Connection: Experiencing Personal Growth at the 2023 Burners Without Borders Summit

As I entered the southern end of the ranch, I was enthralled by the beauty of what is referred to as “The Gateway to the Black Rock Desert.”

I checked in with a reception crew led by a cheerful woman in coveralls named Molly Rose, a Program Manager for Burners Without Borders and the summit organizer.

After setting up camp, interested participants were treated to a visit to a unique natural feature at the northern end of the ranch, the Fly Geyser. The geyser was formed around 1916, when a test well was drilled on the site where the geyser now exists. Waters exiting the geyser can surpass 200 degrees Fahrenheit, but then trickle downstream to cooler ponds where invited guests can soak in their healing waters. Upon returning to camp, I took a much needed rest in the shade after taking in the waters of the travertine pools.

Shortly before dusk, as the breeze kicked up and the cloud cover rolled in, dinner was served at the communal kitchen and dining area. The team of people that prepared the food were led by a man simply referred to as “Chef,” and the vegan taco bar they had created was nothing short of spectacular. As we ate together, I was overjoyed to talk with the Fly Ranch Manager, Matt, and a woman who called herself “Dumpster Muffin,” about regenerative land practices. Dumpster Muffin was thrilled to share with us her fledgling project for removal of invasive plant species on the ranch property, as well as her knowledge about composting.

After supper, we were blessed to hear from two guests from the Pyramid Lake Tribe. Beverly Harry and her daughter, Autumn Harry,  were invited to share the story of conservation efforts taking place on their fishery waters and to talk about the importance of looking to indigenous people for land stewarding techniques. This mother-and-daughter team spoke profoundly of the need to preserve what we have now for the next seven generations to come. Being a Numu or Paiute person myself, watching the participants sit quietly and listen filled my heart with pride to see the respect given to these guest speakers.

On the second day, as I was finishing my coffee at around 9 a.m., we were rallied to the morning gathering circle by a man named Breedlove. He slowly meandered through camp cranking a small box at his waist that played a catchy version of the “Imperial March” from “Star Wars.” As we approached the circle, we were asked to take part in some short breathing and stretching exercises. Our host organizers then introduced themselves and gave a brief history of the Burners Without Borders organization and the summit we were attending. Lastly, were introduced to Will Rodger and his wife, Crimson Rose, who had attended Burning Man for decades and were part of the group that obtained funding to purchase Fly Ranch. They spoke of the importance of the ranch, Leave No Trace practices, and the critical need to do all we can to stop activities that destroy the land, such as mining.  As the circle dispersed, we all went on our way to either work or engage in our tour sessions. One group went to build an horno earthen oven, another went to construct a habba shade structure at the Pyramid Lake Reservation gathering grounds, and a third group, which I joined, went to tour the main ranch site.

After a short drive from the camp area, we came rolling up on Fly Ranch Ops Center. As we started the tour, we were greeted by the Bone Tree, an installation sculpture made entirely of animal bone remains. We then stopped at a metal sculpture in the shape of the Pyrg Snail, an endangered spring snail native to Nevada. The next feature we would see was a regeneration pilot project designed to demonstrate the potential benefit of key line landscaping. We then visited Dumpster Muffins’ invasive species mitigation project. The group then got to see the Ripple Project, another regeneration project I would not understand completely until later that evening. The next destination would be the famous Baba Yaga House (see above) from the 2018 Burning Man event, something we had all been eager to see. This 28- foot-tall reclaimed wood house, which sits on massive stilts resembling chicken legs looks like it was plucked right from the Slavic folk tale that gave the inspiration and name to the towering piece of art. As we sauntered back toward the main ranch, we visited the banya, or Russian steam bath, an installation built of steel in the shape of an onion dome. Before the end of the tour, we came upon the Narwal Ship (see below), a large “mutant vehicle” that has made several burning Man appearances since 1999.

After driving back to camp, I quickly ate some lunch and walked over to the shade structure to join in on a listening session. Carmen Gonzalez, a Navajo woman from Las Vegas, gave a compelling talk on indigenous water wisdom. She talked about her life growing up, farming the land with her father, and the environmental work she had done in Nevada and the Owens Valley. That work, she said, bolstered and defined her love of water and the life contained within it. Carmen shared her current mission of advocating for rain water collection not with barrels or tanks, but in the ways indigenous people had been doing for millennia: by observing the contour of the land and working with it, sculpting it in ways that minimize runoff. Again, it was an awesome sight to see an indigenous guest speaker honored so highly!

The next session I would attend was a Regeneration Roundtable, though it was more of what I would call a networking session. Participants included nonprofit organizers, environmental water engineers, tech wizards, film makers, photographers, musicians, data analysts and people working in many other fields. I had a chance to connect with a couple of people who are currently working with indigenous communities as well, and I was able to listen to their perspectives on relationship building with Tribal groups. With the sessions for the day ending, we all took a break before the start of the evening activities.

At dinner that evening, Chef and his team had again created some outstanding vegan offerings. After I plated up, I sat at a table and started chatting with a young man named Raphael. “Raph” had just arrived from the Pyramid Lake Reservation and was one of the organizers for building the habba structure for the Tribe. He told me that he was involved in the recently funded Land Art Generator, Ripple Project and the plans they had for the newly broken ground on the site. I told him that I had seen the grounds earlier in the day, and was excited to know what this project was. He explained to me this learning center would take Traditional Ecological Knowledge and permaculture principles, fused together to create a living landscape in the shape of concentric circles built to look like a ripple. Secondly, it would house native seeds and the resources to learn about everything from sowing, growing and the beneficial uses of these plants. The name carries with it a duality, as it is also meant to draw people in, so that knowledge will flow back outward in a ripple effect. More information on this groundbreaking project can be found here.

As the evening slowed down, something was scheduled to happen with this object that had been present the entire event, which was just a short walk from camp. It was a sculpture made of wood and shaped like a hand rising up from the playa. It would be the first effigy the summit would be permitted to burn on the final night of this annual event, which has been held since 2019. As everyone prepared for the evening celebration, rain began to fall and the wind picked up something vicious. The effigy burn was postponed and I would like to tell you that I witnessed it, but sadly, I did not. Being exhausted, I fell asleep and was briefly awakened to cheers as the fire was lit and burned late into the night.

The following morning, I awoke to the sound of my neighbors socializing and people packing to go home. There would be several more activities through noon, but staying was not an option for me, as I needed to get back home for an in-person meeting. My skin was covered in dust and I was exhausted, but I felt reenergized. Euphoric. Even just a short day-and-a-half at Fly Ranch. I would have loved to stay, as the atmosphere and environment at the summit was one of love, compassion, camaraderie and teamwork. As a native person, I was honored to be invited as a guest and to add indigenous perspective to conversations. Sadness and happiness washed over me simultaneously as I said farewell to my neighbors, but it was now time to break down camp and make the long drive back to Payahuunadu.


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