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Friday, June 29, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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At home with the "burners"

Seattle Times staff reporter

Down in Maple Valley, past the rows of inching commuters on I-405, past the scrap-metal yard and the Wonderland Estates trailer park, there's a little campground that 400 people will call home this weekend. Most of them will even use that word. Home.

That's because this is not an ordinary weeklong arts festival. It's Critical Massive, an annual gathering of self-described "burners" — a community that spans generations and genres of music, and unites under an ethos of radical self-expression and anti-materialism.

This regional festival, and the participants themselves, draw inspiration from the annual burner Mecca: Burning Man — a 19-year-old carnival of art and drugs that draws about 40,000 revelers to the Nevada desert for one week each year, and traditionally culminates in a massive bonfire of a 40-foot wooden man. Hence "Burning Man" and hence "burners" themselves.

Critical Massive hosts a fraction of that number, usually between 300 and 500 people since its creation in 2003, but it mirrors the wild hedonism and roiling madness of its parent festival, and it's tempting to reduce it to just that: A bunch of naked freaks doing drugs in the woods for a week.

And, to be sure, there is some of that — Behold the middle-age men in loincloths! The women, sashaying only in robes of cigarette smoke! — but there's also something more. Something that makes these 400-plus people take a week off work. Something that makes them spend 10 months and an enormous amount of money building the art projects they carefully assemble in their campgrounds. Something that makes them drive hundreds of miles, from Texas, Alaska and Montana, to get to this rented campsite in the woods — to get to the place they call home.

Come on in, look closer. Past the '70s, tail-finned station wagon painted Willy-Wonka-purple that stands sentinel at the gate, look! Behind these trees, where the white wild flowers are untrammeled, someone has hung his artwork — sculptures made of discarded hard drives and borrowed paint. And over there, a man plays a concert on salvaged instruments. A rusted trombone, muted with a pineapple can. An improbably lonesome rendition of "Danny Boy."

And there! A young man arranges a mosaic of crystals on a table. He explains, his voice shy, that the pattern reflects the vibrations that each crystal emits, ever so softly, somewhere outside the realm of human detection. And when he holds your hand, placing each stone in your palm with such care, you almost feel them hum.

And if you don't, that's OK. Because this isn't one of those gatherings where everyone subscribes to the same set of beliefs, where the strength of the community is derived from homogeneity.

Here, it's almost the opposite. This is where the most eccentric and rabidly individual people you'll meet (a man who lived alone on a sailboat for 22 years in the South Pacific; a professional dominatrix) come to celebrate, without judgment. Some of them shake their heads and smile at the other's quirks ("That's not my thing, man, but it is what it is").

Jake Thornburg, a 60-something man in an orange Polynesian skirt and a faux-fur robe — who says he's a Merry Prankster of yesteryear and a poet still — explains it like this:

"Everyone comes here to be who they see themselves as, man. They come to be indulgent, to live their fantasies, to shed the cocoons they must live within in this society. It's like a dream here, baby. You are who you are. This is the way life should be."

These are the rules at Critical Massive: There is no exchange of money (you may barter or gift; a hug will get you a pancake breakfast). Once you're here, you can't leave and come back ("Submerge yourself in the event," a woman wearing fuzzy slippers and leopard print says). Everyone must be self-reliant (no free-loaders). And everyone must, in his or her own way, participate in the event. Spectators are not allowed.

That last rule is what gives this place life. Music, dancing, massage and every kind of visual art — sculpture, handmade costumes, painting, architecture — abounds here. One man paints bodies. Another manipulates stuffed animals. Another has decorated a double-decker bus like a birthday cake, complete with sputtering, fiery candles on top.

Most of these people have spent months making their art projects, sawing and hammering in the backyards of rented houses, planning for this one week. While some of them will go on to Burning Man in August and haul their projects there (where they will live again briefly on borrowed time), for many art projects — most, even — this is their only stage, powerful and tragic for the same reason: it's purposefully temporary. At the end, art projects are burned, destroyed, gifted or dismantled. Nothing goes in a gallery later, nothing is sold.

Because of the inevitability of destruction, everyone is forced to appreciate the beauty — or, often, the absurd and hilarious — right now. Turn it over in your hands, feel it, because tomorrow it'll be gone. Live in this moment, instead of collecting material things to live through later. You can't buy a postcard for life. And that's the whole point.

On Wednesday morning, people were still setting up their projects for this weekend, "when the real crazy party begins," and most of the crowd was still trickling in.

By the entrance gate, un-manned in the quiet before the storm, a confused newcomer asks if you'll take his ticket.

You explain that you're not working the gate, but you welcome him anyway.

"Thanks," he says, smiling. "It's good to be home."

Haley Edwards: 206-464-2745 or hedwards@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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