When I went to Burning Man this year I went with the intention of working on two stories, and having the good fortune to have been awarded press credentials I also planned on shooting specifically for those pieces. I did accomplish those things however, as with most things related to my annual week on the playa, things took a little bit of a left turn as Burning Man approached. First, I saw a presentation on memorial art at Burning Man and although it was a good presentation I felt it lacked in addressing the multiple facets of that particular phenomenon, specifically the work of the temple crew and guardians in the role of the temple. Secondly, I became aware that someone I had camped with one year had recently died after being diagnosed with cancer a few months before and so it seemed I would have more of an association with the annual temple than I have had in the past.
A little bit of background, for the last ten years a temple has been built at Burning Man with the intention of providing a sacred place for burners to say goodbye to those who have passed as well as to free themselves through a ritual of fire of those things they wished to be rid of in their life. The way in which this typically happens is by people placing memorials in the temple as well as writing on the temple walls.
As I explain to non-burners and first time virgins on the playa, during Burning Man, the burning of the man is very much like New Year’s Eve while the temple burn is more like a funeral. Consequently the man burns to great fanfare and celebration, fire dancers and noise, it ignites with fireworks and the whole burn has a party atmosphere. The temple burns each year in relative silence with reverence for what is happening and the feelings of the people who at that moment are trying to let go, to move on, to in some instances say goodbye to the dearest people in their lives, it is a sacred moment.
This year’s temple, the Temple of Flux, was the most organic temple I’ve ever seen. It was a solid departure from the image of a temple as a church or a traditional pagoda form instead it was reminiscent of mountains or sand dunes. The most intriguing effect of the design was that internally the temple created a canyon and a series of caves that reminded me very much of the canyons of Southern Utah and Arizona. Particularly at night it felt to me like an isolated canyon in the middle of the desert, an effect hard to achieve in the middle of a 51,000 person party. I think the ability to achieve this effect is a huge compliment to the women and men, the temple crew, who spent the many months designing and building this magnificent structure.
The temple crew deserves some special notice and attention. Like other groups at Burning Man who are not often seen, they spend months designing, accumulating materials and building and pre-assembling parts of the temple. They arrive early to begin the assembly of the structure, and once finished they are ever present maintaining and preparing the structure for its inevitable demise by fire merely days later. This year they even maintained nightly community fires within the valley of the structure. All in all the temple crew designs, assembles and burns the heart of our community each year, providing a service for which they are rarely seen providing and cannot be thanked for enough. So to all of you on that crew accept my personal and insufficient thank you for what you do for burners everywhere.
Each year people come to the temple and say their goodbyes in either memorial form or written messages on the temple itself. At night there are a group of people who volunteer to be in the temple from 6PM to 6AM, these Temple Guardians pull three hour shifts in the temple to help protect the temple and the people who are there, to be a shoulder to cry on if need be, or just another caring human presence as you swim in the emotions going through you. The guardians are there not as law enforcement or to enforce any kind of regulation but to be there as fellow burners providing a helping hand at the heart of our community. During their shifts the guardians may be purely invisible for the whole shift, part of the ebb and flow of the crowd in the temple or they may be involved in consoling folks or even mitigating issues between burners as emotions bubble up and communication breaks down.
The beauty of their presence is that they are prepared for this and are very often able to provide a calming voice that allows people to be as good as they can be at that sacred space. This year I personally witnessed an interaction between a temple crew member and someone who seemed to be tagging the temple with graffiti. The initial interaction was brusque and rubbed both people the wrong way, the writer feeling like he was being wrongly accused, the temple crew member believing the writer was being disrespectful to this memorial that he’d poured his heart and soul into building. In the end, as emotions calmed and discussion flowed the truth came out. The writer wasn’t tagging the structure with his name, but in fact was saying goodbye to a dear friend and was just trying to find an open spot to write upon. The temple crew member mellowed out as he came to understand this. The two were then able to share a hug and a moment, realizing that both of their intentions were true and focused on what the temple was all about. The initial tensions, like the things written on the walls were now ready to disappear into the flying embers of Sunday night’s burn.
If you have never been to the temple you can’t understand the power of the things written there. I often tell people, as I did one virgin burner I was camping with this year, “that if you can walk through the temple and read what’s on the walls and not cry, then you are not human.” He looked at me a bit incredulously but after visiting the temple he took a moment to pull me aside the next day and say, “you were right about the temple.” At the end of this post I will include a series of photos taken from the temple and I provide this warning, these pictures will shake you and quite probably bring you to tears. These are the words of people in the rawest and most vulnerable moments of their life and they will touch that part of us all that we so often shy away from.
Several years ago as my friend and I prepared for Burning Man we had worked out an agreement to camp with a particular theme camp. When I arrived my friend informed me that the other camp would not work, but a good friend was connected to another camp. Taking us in as homeless refugees and opening their arms to us was a group called Lodie Camp. Shortly after arriving and setting up I met one of the guys from the camp as he greeted me with a jumping, snapping, knee slapping greeting he simply said grinning, “I’m Murph.” This was my official introduction to the Lodies, the incredibly innovative, hardest partying, most insane group of mad geniuses I have ever encountered. Quite frankly, and those who know me will be shocked, I was seriously intimidated by these guys. What I would come to find out over that week as I drank at their bar, pet their mascot “skinny kitty” and was regaled with stories of the infamous art car, The Shark, was that the most prominent part of Lodie Camp has and will always be their heart. The genuine concern and caring that exists within their camp is truly magnificent. It was for that reason, that when I was told Murph had succumbed to cancer, a mere six weeks before the burn, I knew that Lodie Camp would be raw with emotion and that I needed to include Murph in this story.
My initial thought was to sit down with the guys in Lodie Camp and listen to stories about Murph and share with you who Murph was as a person, but that my friends is not the story. That Murph was a character, that he was part of what is special about Lodie Camp is not the point, suffice it to say he was and that if you want to hear those stories, and worth hearing they are, find your way to Burning Man and search out the Lodie Camp bar. There, under skinny kitty’s eternal grin, and in front of a picture of Murph, I assure you Sid, Baloo and others can tell you Murph stories until the sun comes up and trust me they will. Instead I want to talk about those who were left behind, the people of Lodie camp who with heavy hearts and pain in their eyes memorialized Murph with great style in the Temple of Flux.
Upon my first visit to Lodie Camp this year I found a memorial to Murph at the bar, a picture of him with his arms extended to the heavens.
Baloo, when I first saw him even made an attempt at recreating Murph’s snapping, jumping greeting and others were wearing shirts memorializing their absent friend.
Even further adding to the feeling that Murph was with us was the ten foot tall memorial man they had constructed to represent Murph, detailed to even the cigarette dangling from his mouth. Both a picture memorial and eventually the statue made their way to the temple so that people could say goodbye to Murph in their own way. When I arrived Sunday night to work the perimeter for the temple burn I saw Murph’s statue proudly standing at the 6:00 side of the temple. As the temple burned initially there was a beautiful moment where the temple was fully ablaze and there was Murph, not a lick of fire on him standing in front of the temple seemingly puffing on a cigarette. I can’t imagine anyone on that side of the burn not seeing him at that moment, allowing Murph one last second of being the center of attention in this life. A few minutes later he began to burn and as the support beam behind him burned through, Murph’s effigy slowly fell backward into the pyre like someone falling into a pool. I muttered, “Goodbye Murph,” under my breath and wondered how the Lodie boys were doing.
The thing to remember is that as that moment played out for Lodie Camp and for me, during every second of the temple burn similar scenarios were playing out through the 10,000+ person crowd. I personally knew people who had placed memorials to their parents, siblings, friends, and pets. People who were using this ceremony to help free themselves from the pain of recent breakups and parts of themselves and their lives that they no longer wished to bear. Working the perimeter you are focused more on the crowd than the burn and never have I seen a sea of faces so focused or connected as I did that night the flames flickering in their eyes. Never was it so evident that the story of the temple is not a story of goodbye or of pain, but a story of love and the heart of Burning Man’s community.
The pictures below were photographed on the walls of the Temple of Flux: