It was there when we arrived so for us it could have always been there. It wasn’t, obviously, but the point is it had history long before we came along. Our history together, our story, is just part of what it was. We’ll never know the rest, what came before we intervened, or who else it might have touched. We only know our time together and what it meant to us.
We affectionately called it the “The Artichoke” even though we knew that wasn’t what it was. The beautiful structure growing up and out of the dead barren wasteland of The Playa was actually a Lotus flower. It sat upon a serene dwelling surrounded by wooden catwalks that skirted its edges. It invited people to come relax in the shade, grab a moment of peace, have a drink with a friend, or simply sit and watch Burning Man unfold all around you. It was the first major piece of art I saw at Burning Man and it was beautiful.
I didn’t realize it at first but I developed a sort of affection for our artichoke. It wasn’t just a structure, a piece of art, or a congregation center. For us it was a waypoint – something we could always rely on to be there. The open Playa isn’t like the city. There are no roads, streets, signs, or navigation points. The only references you can make are to the art scattered seemingly at random across the harsh desert floor. Navigating the open Playa during the day can be challenging enough but at night when nothing can be seen in the distance except blinking glowing lights it is easy to lose your way. For my friends and I the Lotus was our beacon. Glowing a dull red and stretching up from the ground it gave us direction in a place that has none by design. Once we knew where the Lotus was we could point our glowing bikes in the desired direction and ride off on our unplanned yet guaranteed adventures. When we were exhausted and pushing our last functioning brain cells way past their capacity it acted as warm friendly voice calling to us through the cold morning air. “Hey Guys! I’m over here! Home is this way just follow me!”
The Lotus was the focal point of some memories I’ll have for the rest of my life. Experiences in a place, time, and the universe that can never truly be repeated. I’ll never forget the time I had a beautiful wingsuit jump over the Playa and then landed right next to it. I know, I know, we were supposed to be 100 feet from any structure, but just because I was in the sky doesn’t mean it wasn’t beckoning me, showing me the way to go. I picked it out from the sky, used it to get my bearings, and then I swooped the shit out of it. Grinning from ear to ear and giving a whoop of delight I shot across the Playa fast enough to break every bone in my body mere feet from the catwalks and ropes that surrounded it. Later that night/morning my friends and I sat on its stairs and shared one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen. If it wasn’t for the Lotus I wouldn’t have some of my favorite memories. I wouldn’t have shared these amazing experiences with my friends that brought us even closer together.
So you see I was truly grateful for the Lotus. I appreciated its contribution, its beauty, the experience it provided. In hindsight it really was a thing of wonder…
…and then they fucking burned it down.
When I was told they were burning our artichoke that night I didn’t really understand why. I knew that at Burning Man you burned the giant wooden man. I guess I missed the part where you burn everything else too. OK, no big deal, hell it will be more fun this way I thought. Instead of just one big burning event we had a lot now. I still felt a pang of regret, although I don’t know whether it was from head or heart, that it would soon cease to exist. Where were we supposed to watch these beautiful sunrises from now? Did we really just get the one and that’s it? Oh well I thought, this was the plan all along. It served its purpose, shared its magic, and when it’s finished it will go out in a blaze of glory.
It started off with fireworks. They weren’t big but they were fast, low, and a LOT of them. They eventually started igniting the fireworks from inside the structure. At first it was amusing – setting off fireworks inside? Awesome! There was obviously some sort of fire accelerant inside because next thing we knew the structure was on fire and it went up fast. So fast it caught everyone by surprised. I’m not sure if the “Woah” I heard in my ears had come from my mouth or one of the hundreds surrounding me. In less than a minute the whole structure was ablaze in an extremely hot and intense fire. The crowd stopped cheering, the mood turned somber – maybe even ominous. This wasn’t what we expected. This wasn’t exciting or beautiful at all. This was intense, angry, vengeful, devastating. The flames were hot and the heat felt like it was searing your skin as they licked up and across the Lotus and its habitat. The crowd grew quieter yet and started inching their way further from the flames. The smoke was thick and black stinging our eyes and burning our lungs. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any more intense the wind picked up. Not only did it fan the flames making the Lotus burn hotter and brighter but it kicked up 3 dust devils. These devils turned into funnels of flame – giant columns of bright glowing fire that danced and twisted all around the Lotus like snakes dancing to a charmer.
No, there was nothing beautiful about the burning of the Lotus. It was downright violent. Standing there near the fire, enveloped in smoke, I realized it was gone forever. It was crushing. Knowing this was a possibility, that it was an eventuality, didn’t make it any easier in the end. Saying that it served its purpose, went out in a blaze of glory, or died doing what it loved made no sense. I realized at that moment these are things survivors say to feel better about the situation, to deal with their grief and pain of loss. There’s nothing romantic or beautiful about a sudden violent death even if you know it’s eventually going to happen. In that moment, standing in the heat and smoke, I was grateful for my goggles and buff. Not because it kept the smoke out of my eyes and dust out of my lungs, but because it hid the tears that were pouring down my face.
The tears were of sorrow and of joy. Pain at the loss of something that contributed so much, but thankful for all the memories and experiences it provided. Grief at the sudden, violent, and selfish manner of its demise, yet reminiscent and fortunate that we got to play a part in its story and life. Anger at the fact something was taken from me that I truly loved…and acceptance that eventually, on a long enough time line, everything always works out in the end. That last thought, that I can accept something like this happening so easily, is at times comforting and other times terrifying. I cried for my friends – who have to deal with this so often it makes us hard.
The next morning and following days if you looked hard you could still see where it used to be. A twisted and charred metal structure – everything else had burned away. It was a hollowed out shell of its former self, but it existed none the less to remind us of what it used to be, where it used to sit, and the memories and experiences we shared there. It was now a thing of the past. We no longer looked towards it as a beacon. If we saw it we would say “Hey, there’s where the artichoke used to be” and have a brief moment of nostalgia. It was gone forever but never forgotten. We’ll always remember it – the experiences, memories, and interactions. Maybe we’ll be joking, reminiscent, or somber, but we will always remember.
Photo by Dan Dupuis http://www.ddupuis.com