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.