Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Tag: temple

The Temple Burn

Burning Man was too big to fit into one blog entry. I’ve got a few ideas for things to say, but for now, I’m going to focus on the Temple and the Temple burn.

The Temple was finished on Tuesday, and we spent Tuesday evening getting rid of temporary scaffolding and cleaning up the work site so that we could open it to the public. Finally, Dave and Marrilee, the project leads, called all the crew up to the top floor of the Temple for a champagne toast and to hand out T-shirts. Fine words were spoken. The fire tornado was lit up. We all got to experience the Temple as it had been designed—for the last time.

Once this brief celebration was over, the safety perimeter was dropped and the Temple was instantly flooded with visitors. In that moment, it became a gift to the community, and became transformed into something else.

I later spoke to Johnny 5 about how he felt about the Temple, and he admitted to having complicated feelings about it: the Temple, to him, was about happiness. But to the community, the Temple has always been a place to seek solace—to say goodbye to people who have died or to let go of some negative personal trait. When we dropped the perimeter on Tuesday night, that’s what the Temple became. People immediately began writing on it and leaving memorials. There was at least one box of cremains left there. There were several elaborate memorials to pets, which left me especially choked up and which cause me to mist up just recalling. There was a message from a grandfather to his lost grandchildren. How could one not be moved?

After it had been open for a day or two, it was impossible to walk around in the Temple without being moved by the emotions there. I’m not a spiritual person, but I do believe that artifacts can be sanctified by the labor that goes into them. That definitely happened at the Temple, but it was sanctified far beyond that by the emotional outpouring for which it was the medium. The memorials were like a new skin on the Temple that made it impossible to see it in its original form.

We all knew in advance that there would be plenty to do on the day of the Temple burn, so Gwen and I got out there around noon with our work gloves. When we got there we learned that the plan was to set up a safety perimeter around the Temple pretty soon, to prepare it for the burn that night: the fire tornado at its center needed to be removed, another art piece that was going to be burned needed to be lifted into place (both these operations requiring a really tall crane), and the structure was going to be filled with as much scrap wood as possible, plus accelerants. When we got there, the upper floors were already cordoned off and other crew people were up there being industrious. A young couple arrived with a small chest. It was full of toys that had belonged to their infant son. Everybody there was wrecked.

Shortly after that we set up a safety perimeter, which Gwen and I and several other people maintained. People kept showing up, wanting to leave a message or memorial in the Temple. We couldn’t let them in, but we had offcuts from the panels and sharpies so that they could write messages, which we carried into the Temple on their behalf. We carried in other things too: I scattered the ashes of three people that afternoon. That’s a hell of a thing, to have a complete stranger walk up and give you the ashes of his brother to leave in the Temple. The same went for someone else working perimeter: we both knew in the abstract what the Temple was about, but we hadn’t realized what we were in for when we volunteered. It may have been the most emotionally intense day of my life.

A deaf woman approached me and whipped out a Sidekick, on which she deftly typed out a question asking if she could leave a message in the Temple. I less-deftly typed out a reply telling her what I told everyone else. She came back a few minutes later with a wood scrap bearing her message, gave it to me, and immediately walked away. I imagined she was frustrated communicating through the gadget, and wondered if she wanted someone she could talk to directly.

The people kept coming. We generally didn’t have any trouble with people trying to get past the perimeter, although I recall one couple blithely stepping over the yellow CAUTION tape and when I pointed out that we had a perimeter up, acted surprised. Yes, it does apply to you too. I held back on the sarcasm—it wasn’t the occasion for it.

At about 3:00 PM, Gwen took a bathroom break and found that the cable locking my bike to hers had been cut. My bike was stolen, and so was her headlight. I decided not to let that get to me, but being forced to confront behavior that shitty at Burning Man was a real disappointment.

At about 7:00 PM, we headed back to camp to have a bite and a bit of rest. By this time, a bunch of Rangers had arrived, as had the Temple Guardians. At 9:00 or so, we rode out on Blinky the art car with a bunch of other members of the Temple crew to work perimeter during the burn. I wound up standing in front of a few members of the Pyronauts, and had a chance to chat with them before the burn.

The burn itself was fast and quiet. The burning of the effigy the night before had been a huge party—all the art cars were there with sound systems going full blast. There were fireworks. It was fun. The Temple burn was different. Parachutists trailing fireworks circled down. A single firedancer performed. Only a few minutes passed from the time that the fire started inside the structure until it was completely engulfed, and it was reduced to a pile of embers in less than half an hour, I estimate. Dust devils spun off downwind every few seconds once it got going. Most remarkable was the crowd—there were probably 30,000 people present, and they were all silent.

There were so many people that came to the Temple looking for solace and catharsis. I hope they found it.

The Temple

temple sketch

Today is a minor milestone for me.

I’ve been talking about going to Burning Man for about ten years. Every year I’ve come up with a perfectly reasonable excuse not to go. In the meantime, I’ve become an active member of the local burner community. I’ve been to the regional burn, Burning Flipside, six times, and have become at least a medium-sized fish in a medium-sized pond.

The longer I’ve been involved in the local burner community, the more Burning Man has become freighted with diverse significances. I’ve heard all the stories of how harsh the environment is (I’ve seen playa dust stuck to seemingly impervious surfaces for years), how astounding the art is (I’ve seen the pictures), how corporatized, mainstream, and Californicated that Burning Man is (everybody likes to complain). I know that if I go, I’ll be a small fish in a big pond. A newbie.

And then Dave and Marrilee, two stalwarts of the Austin burner community, were awarded the Temple build this year. With an inadequate budget and half the normal amount of time to finish. Shortly after this year’s Flipside they held a fundraiser. David Best, the artist behind the first few Temples, was present, and a documentary about his work was screened. A whole bunch of burners were there. Before that event, Gwen and I had been talking about how this, too, was not a good year to go to Burning Man. After we got home, we just started making plans, without ever explicitly discussing the fact that we had suddenly decided to go. The decision had become inevitable.

The Temple as Marrilee and Dave envisioned it required a huge amount of new design work, which would be cut into of plywood panels using two robotic routers. They had a wiki to sign up. I dived in and wound up designing 11 panels. There was also a huge amount of manual labor that needed doing: assembling pieces, moving stuff around to make room, or just sweeping away the torrents of sawdust spewed out by the Shopbots. Gwen and I made our way up to the work site as much as we could.

The Temple is being loaded in pieces onto a number of large trucks even as I write these words. Along with dozens of Austin burners who have committed to spend a month living in incredibly harsh conditions, the pieces of the Temple will head out to the Black Rock desert in a few days, where the rest of the construction work will happen.

Tomorrow, Gwen and I are going out to San Francisco to celebrate a friend’s wedding. It’s not the timing I would have picked, but I can’t fault the happy couple, and am happy to be going. But when we get back, the Temple crew will be gone. By the time we get to Black Rock City, the Temple will be up. So today, my role in building the Temple ended.

It’s a hell of a thing to be able to be involved in the construction of the Temple, especially as a first-timer at Burning Man. The Temple is one of the major landmarks and spiritual focal points at every year’s Burning Man. It’s probably the biggest thing I’ve ever been a part of. It’s going to be significant to some 50,000 people. As a newbie, it would ordinarily be difficult to contribute to Burning Man in a serious way. Being involved in the Temple has been an opportunity to do that.

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