What we don't know is why he did it. Period.
We don't know if he intentionally committed suicide in front of a large crowd, or if he had a spontaneous psychotic breakdown.
We don't know if he was on drugs, and if he was, we don't know if they contributed to this event, or whether he took said drugs intentionally. It's not like nobody's ever been dosed without consent, right?
Nobody knows, and anyone asserting they do is full of shit. All I see is utterly baseless speculation, depressingly frequently used to attack a dead man, sometimes even in venues where his family is reading what's written.
Because I know that at least one of his immediate family members will read this, I'm not going to quote anything attacking Mr. Mitchell. In summary though, I've seen many people in the community posting things accusing him of being a selfish jerk for doing this in view of others (including the rangers and firefighters who tried and failed to stop him) and traumatizing them, and/or accusing him of damaging their burn and future burns.
If you're traumatized by watching a man run into a raging fire, I think that's understandable. I'm glad I didn't witness it. However, lashing out at him is really not ok. You have no idea why he did it. You have no idea if he was of sound mind at the time. Unless you know otherwise (and you don't), the only appropriate response is empathy, for him and the terrible way in which he died, and most of all, for his family. And frankly, if he was of sound mind, I think I feel even worse for him. What kind of pain and suffering must he have endured to be willing to run into a fire and try to burn to death?
And imagine what it must feel like to have your husband or brother or son cross an ocean and a continent to get to an event that he, like nearly all birgins, was eagerly anticipating. You give him a hug and send him on his way, looking forward to the stories he'll have to tell.
And then you get a call that you never want to get. A voice on the line tells you that your husband, your brother, your son is dead. Not just that, but you see pictures of him just as he was running into the raging fire that would kill him spread all over the internet.
Then it only gets worse, when people on the internet start attacking your brother, your son, your husband. Talk about driving the knife home.
Think about that before you decide to throw empathy to the wind and convict the man based on nothing but speculation. Please. Let's be better.
I want to include these words from his sibling, Micah, who said this about Mr. Mitchell on a reddit thread I had posted:
"Joel was my brother. I don't want to share to much at the moment but I do want to let the world know how much he cared and loved every single person on this planet. He was the kind of man who would give you the shirt off his back, his meal before he had taken a bite, or the last dollar in his wallet (these are actually things I saw him do first hand). He was truly selfless, humble, compassionate, and cared about everyone. He only knew love and nothing else."
Now, for those whose petty complaint is that he 'ruined' the Temple burn the next night, or that the burns will be different going forward because there may be a fence or a wider perimeter or whatever, I have this for you, you self-centered, entitled pricks:
Edit: To my surprise, this crossed 100,000 readers faster than anything I've ever written about Burning Man. Mr. Mitchell's death has really had a strong impact on the Burner community, one way or another. I hope we can avoid this happening again.
Charlie opened by talking about how things they'd been seeing the last few years really came to a head last year, including:
Now, none of this is new to anyone paying attention - it's pretty obvious the culture is in trouble. Charlie (the BM Operations Manager) said that when they came back from Burning Man this year they realized that what their #1 focus this year has to be isn't anything to do with improving gate operations, or whatever: It has to be addressing the slow dissolution of the culture that made Burning Man what it is, or was. I was really shocked - pleasantly - to hear this, as it was the first time I'd heard the Org so forthrightly admit that there's something slowly going rotten in the culture.
Ultimately, the worst case scenario is that we end up with an event dominated by idiots like this (not sure where this was taken or who took it, but it's not at BM....yet.)
What is the Org going to do to combat this?
The good news is the Org has clearly put a lot of thought into this, and correctly, I believe, it's a diverse, multi-faceted approach.
To begin with, they've got four high-level areas of focus:
Ultimately, most of what they're going to do boils down to communication and education, focusing on about 75 different ways they have to reach individuals, and getting better at boiling down their messages into short, digestible chunks.
Individually, all these (and they're just some of the tactics that will be used) probably don't seem that impressive, but there's no silver bullet here. This has to be a communication and education war waged on as many fronts as possible, because we're ultimately talking about influencing peoples' attitudes. We can't force people to give a shit about our culture, but I do think that most birgins would, if they understood what the culture is, enthusiastically participate. There'll always be some we can't reach, but we shouldn't let perfect by the enemy of good. Let's do what we can!
What Can We Do?
Correctly, Charlie and Jim also pointed out that this isn't just the Org's problem. It's the problem of everyone who doesn't want to see Burning Man's culture further deteriorate, meaning we veterans. How can we help? Some ideas from the session included:
I'm hoping the Org provides some suggested action items for individual Burners to take too, as I think there's a not-insignificant population that would respond to that with passionate action.
I'm really happy to see the Org taking this growing threat to the culture of Burning Man seriously, and I hope that as they start to get the message out to the veteran Burner community, we respond by, collectively, enthusiastically joining in the fight to save our culture. I also hope this is only the beginning of action by the Org, because this will not be enough.
So...are you with us?
Finally got around to updating it! Check it out here!
As I wrote about a month ago, I had the chance to visit a small portion of Fly Ranch during Burning Man this year. In that same post I asked the community to comment on what they'd like to see the property used for, gathering feedback from this blog, Facebook, the ePlaya forums, private messages, and on Reddit.
I got quite a bit of feedback, organized into 10 rough categories. One of those categories is what I'd categorize as 'cynical', though I make no judgment as to whether rightly or wrongly cynical. Those responses generally expressed the belief that Fly Ranch will be for friends of the Org, VIPs, and those with money. Personally, I hope they're wrong, and I've been repeatedly assured by those in the Org that they are, but only time will tell.
It's also worth noting that a number of responses spoke to the need to preserve the land of Fly Ranch, not trash it, and act as responsible stewards for it.
Onto the responses, without comment from me, along with a sample quote for each category:
As you can see, there was quite a variety of responses! It'll be pretty interesting to see what comes out of Fly Ranch, but I wouldn't hold my breath on them moving quickly. My understanding is they intend to move in a slow and considered fashion on this, which I think is wise.
What is Fly Ranch?
It's a 3800 acre property near the playa that hosted Burning Man in 1997 (just a few miles past the turn-off you make every year into Black Rock City), though only for that year, and back when the event was 10,000 people. You can read more about the event in 1997 here if you'd like.
The Burning Man organization has tried to acquire it four times-ish over the past 20 years, finally succeeding this year, with $6.5m in funding completely gifted by wealthy Burners.
The ranch has a diverse ecosystem, with one part of it dominated by swimmable hot springs that are pretty amazing. They're huge! The first thing we did on getting there was to strip off our dusty clothes and hop into the water, which is, I'd guess, between 99 and 101 degrees F. The bottom is delightfully muddy in a good way, and my god it was a pleasure to be there, soaking with other Burners.
Why did they take us out to the ranch?
Our group of 14 (out of about 200 they took out to the Ranch in total during the week) included the regional contact for Burning Japan, artists like Bryan Tedrick who has built things like the giant boar sculpture on the playa this year, a meta-regional coordinator for the Midwestern regionals, someone leading a theme camp whose name I can't recall, me, and so on. It was a pretty diverse group of people in terms of what we do at and around Burning Man.
They explained that though they'd love to invite everyone, it's just not possible, which was clearly evident. There's simply no infrastructure there. There was one temporary shade structure, a couple porta-potties on a trailer, and a wooden pathway/viewing structure around the Fly Geyser. That's it. Plus, there are ecological concerns around the health of the pools and the surrounding grasslands. It's just not set up to deal with a flood of people.
While we were there, they just wanted us to get a feel for the surroundings, in order to get an idea of the kind of property it is, and start the creative juices flowing as regards what we might do with Fly Ranch.
We were also told a few things about their intentions for developing a plan for the ranch...
Why did Burning Man buy Fly Ranch?
Well, interestingly or recklessly (take your pick!), what was driven home to us while there, and what's been further emphasized in private conversations with people in the Org since then is that they do not have a plan for the land yet because they don't feel it'd be in keeping with Burning Man's mission to dictate a plan. Instead, they want to involve the community - us - in figuring out what should happen with it.
There are, however, some concrete reasons to have purchased it. Two, in particular, stand out:
How Can You Help?
Think about all the questions and potential Fly Ranch brings up. We now have a 3800 acre permanent home very close to the Mecca of Burning Man - the Black Rock Desert. Literally, just down the road.
The BMORG plans to take this slowly, and is taking inspiration and advice from multiple groups, like Esalen and the Long Now Foundation, with a focus on long-term thinking, but ultimately, the answers will come from all of us - the Burning Man community.
I have my own thoughts, but I'd really love to hear what you think. The Org seems serious about doing this with heavy community involvement, so let's take put that to the test. I'll funnel your feedback to them and do another post talking about the feedback I got, so please, share what you think.
I don't ask these rhetorically. Please, think about them and leave feedback either in the comments below, or in the reddit thread about it:
Below are some videos and photos I made of the landscape there, to give you a sense of what the portion of the property I visited feels like.
Those white dust clouds across the low mountains in the distance? Yep, that's Burning Man!
I'm Dr. Yes, Professor of Affirmatology. Just say yes, folks!