We didn't start the fire

In the scorching Nevada Desert, thousands of revellers gather each summer to create a beautiful temp

On arrival at the annual Burning Man festival in the middle of the Nevada Desert, you are greeted with the words "Welcome Home". Last year I returned home for the fifth time in seven years but I don't think I'll ever do so again - in a sense, I've left home for good. Given the evangelical fervour that Burning Man inspires, this might be read as a defection, a loss of faith, but I just don't want to go any more. I certainly do not think that the event is deteriorating. Many people felt that 2005 was the best Burn ever, and certainly Burning Man is still the greatest party on earth. Even people who have never been have heard that it's lots of fun. Chances are they have also heard - and will tell you - that it has become "too commercial". This is nonsense. How can an event where nothing is for sale be too commercial?

In 1990, 89 people travelled to the Black Rock Desert. One of them drew a line in the dust of the playa and said, "On the other side of this line everything is different." From the moment those 89 people held hands and crossed that line to recent years in which 25,000 have made the trip, one thing has been inviolable: nothing - except ice and coffee at Centre Camp - is for sale. It's often assumed that in these circumstances barter takes the place of cash, but barter is actually little more than an inefficient form of contractual exchange. Everything at Burning Man is brought as a gift, with no expectation of anything in return. The nature and scale of the gifts vary. For several years friends of mine set themselves the daunting logistical challenge of serving cool, fresh fruit smoothies, in the middle of the scorching desert, to whoever turned up at Juicy Camp.

Transporting this quantity of stuff out to the desert gives the truck rental companies the opportunity to make a lot of money, but as the event receives no sponsorship, any Budget or U-Haul logos are imaginatively transformed, defaced or hidden. So when people say Burning Man has become too commercial, what they mean is that the scale of people's generosity - of what they are willing to give - has grown enormously over the years. Burning Man benefited greatly from the creative and financial input of the Bay Area's dotcom boom. Unlike Rainbow Gathering, which is essentially a nostalgic, hippie affair, Burning Man has always embraced the potential of new technologies.

One thing is for sure: Black Rock City, the temporary metropolis created by Burning Man, remains the freest place on earth. You can do anything you want - as long as nothing you do diminishes anyone else's enjoyment. The consensus that emerges is instructive. There's a lot of nudity at Burning Man, but, contrary to a widespread misconception, there is little public sex. Or at least the places where people have public sex are discreetly located. Generally, the weirder your preferences, the harder you will have to look for a place catering for them.

One of the reasons why you don't often stumble on people having sex in public is that it's illegal. Yes, Black Rock City is subject to federal and state laws. That's why you don't see people smoking joints. To anyone coming from an English festival, this is rather shocking. Any drugs taken are consumed discreetly. If done so publicly, the consequences are often unpleasant: getting hauled off in handcuffs by cops.

But, in every way, the festival encourages people to give expression to their wildest dreams. The first half of Burning Man's famed rubric - "radical self-expression" - is balanced by the other, equally important half: "radical self-reliance". The latter anchors the former. Burning Man gives you unequalled freedom on strict condition that you be absolutely responsible. The desert offers limitless incentives to the creative and hedonistic imagination, but it is also an environment utterly unsuited to human habitation. The ticket states, starkly, that you voluntarily risk death by attending this event. Other than toilets, no conveniences - no showers, no water - are provided. You are responsible for your own survival.

Nothing is more fundamental to the Burning Man ideal than its "Leave No Trace" policy. There are no litter bins in Black Rock City. It is up to every individual to take back with them everything they have brought out to the desert. For all its claims to a counter-cultural crown, Glastonbury is fundamentally a consumer's festival where people expect to have their crap cleared up after them. Burning Man's ecologically determined imperative adds to the magic of the event. For 51 weeks of the year there is nothing out there. Then a fantastical city comes, briefly, into existence. Then it is gone again - and not a trace remains.

Having said all this, each year mistakes are made, by individuals and by the organisers - and each year the community learns from these mistakes. The days when people tore around in cars, blasting away with handguns, are long gone. When a car drove through a tent and killed its occupant, driving anything other than "art cars" registered with the Department of Mutant Vehicles was banned. Now a city for pedestrians, cyclists and the weirdest cars on the planet, Black Rock has moved from an anarchic free-for-all to a more community-based idea of freedom.

You may never know what you're going to come across at Burning Man, but you do know that you'll be seeing something amazing every 30 seconds. In contrast to the "default" world, Black Rock is a civilisation where art is absolutely central to everyday life. Much of this art is rubbish; some is very good; some is outstanding. In other words, it compares very favourably with the stuff you see in London galleries or at the Venice Biennale.

Naturally, it is not true that everyone can be an artist; what is true is that everyone can play some part in constructing this temporary utopia. And the chances are that, if you do, you will have one of the most intense, moving and wonderful experiences of your life. Let me give one example.

The event used to climax with the burning of the Man. In the past five years or so this has been superseded by an equally spectacular, but rather quieter ceremony. One of the great deficiencies of our secular culture is the lack of viable rituals of grieving and loss. Designed by David Best and built by volunteers, the Temples (of Tears, in 2001; of Joy, in 2002) make good this lack. These huge, Balinese-style structures are made of wooden offcuts from a toy factory. People write messages on the wood to loved ones who have died. On the understanding that suicide places the greatest strain on those who are left, the altar is dedicated to those who have died by their own hand. Needless to say, there are no notices stipulating appropriate behaviour. People wander through in their wild, sex-crazed costumes, but the atmosphere of compassion and kindness is palpable - overwhelming, in fact.

No other works of art in recent years can have affected more people more profoundly. In their way, these temples can hold their own with some of the great sacred places of the world. The difference is that the temples are not built to last, to endure. On the Sunday of the festival, they and the thousands of messages of love, loss and resolution are burned.

Burning Man 2006 takes place in the Black Rock Desert, 120 miles north of Reno, Nevada, from 28 August to 4 September. For further details log on to www.burningman.com

Wind, sand and stars

The Nevadan desert is no Somerset field, and Burning Man organisers provide tips to help festival-goers survive the extreme conditions.

Make love to the playa (a sandy desert basin, not a beach) and she will love you back. Become one with the sun, the stars and the omnipresent dust.

Bring everything you need, including water, food and latex body paint. The festival challenges you to "confront your own survival" in a vending-free zone.

Travel by truck, recreational vehicle or VW van, but not by private plane. The makeshift airstrip is run by volunteers and the area is extremely treacherous flying terrain.

Wear the most outrageous costume you can think of, but leave the feathers at home. They shed, creating Moop ("material out of place") that must be removed from the site before leaving. Try furs instead.

Stay on the beaten track. If you pull off the desert road, you will sink in the fine sand - and require a tribal permit for the privilege.

Join the community. You'll know you have succeeded, say the Burning Man organisers, if the line between work and play blurs and you "often hear laughter and singing".Wind, sand and stars

This article first appeared in the 21 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Al-Qaeda: Britain in its sights