The Sacred Temple of Black Rock City… Burning Man 2017: Part 11

Temple at Burning Man 2017

The 2017 Temple at Burning Man with its Black Rock Desert playa and mountain setting.


Peggy and I watched with dismay as several of the stately Ponderosa Pine trees on our property in Southern Oregon teetered on the edge of death, victims of pine beetles and the drought brought on by global warming. It is a story told over and over in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and Nevada where the US Forest Service reports that over a hundred million trees have suffered a similar fate.

This year’s Temple at Burning Man was a reflection on the devastation caused by global warming. The Temple was made from trees that had died. The write up on the Burning Man site described the structure of the temple:

Interlocking timber pieces in formation become a Temple that is both cloud and spire; inverted pyramidal columns suggest the negative-space of a forest canopy, simultaneously supporting a vast pagoda-like ‘cloud’ framework which in turn supports a central spire. In this way disorder gives way to harmony, and a group of dying trees is re-ordered into a cathedral of timbers stretching toward the sky.

Temple view at Burning Man 2017

The forest holding up a canopy of clouds and the spire

Side view of Temple at Burning Man 2017

Another perspective.

Temple view, Burning Man 2017

Looking up at the Temple’s central spire.

The Temple is not a religious edifice, like a church,  but it is a spiritual refuge. Burners come to mourn those who have passed on and seek peace. Thousands of messages are left for loved ones. I always make a point of working my way through the temple while enjoying the sense of peace, reading the messages, and quietly supporting those who mourn.

People inside Temple at Burning Man 2017

Burners gather for a period of quiet meditation.

Messages in Burning Man Temple, 2017

Thousands of messages are left for loved ones. The majority of these messages are written but photos and items of importance to those who have died are often included.

Mermaid Cello in Temple at Burning Man 2017

I would have liked to have known the story behind this cello, angel, mermaid.

It is never too late, Burning Man Temple 2017

More generic messages are included as well.

Change sign at Burning Man Temple 2017

Trans Lives Matter, Burning Man Temple 2017People also leave messages for their four legged friends that have died. The memorials almost always include photos and often include favorite toys, like a well-loved tennis ball. I am always moved by these memorials but I was particularly touched by the written memorial to Kozmo this year, as I am sure you will be.

Kozo memorial at Burning Man Temple, 2017

Meet Kozmo and then read his story below.

Memorial to Kozmo the cat at Temple, Burning Man 2017

Rama with tennis ball memorial at Burning Man Temple 2017

Rama and his well-loved tennis ball.

Toe Licker the Cat memorial at Burning Man Temple, 2017

Toe-Licker. I can almost feel that raspy tongue.

Memorial to cat at Burning Man Temple, 2017

And how can you not love this decorated cat. I remember putting reindeer antlers on our cat at Christmas and receiving a similar look of, “Really, do we have to do this?”

The Temple is always burned on Sunday in a solemn ritual that sends the messages skyward and provides an element of peace for those left behind. For once, the always boisterous, always noisy Burning Man is silent. The music has stopped, the dancing has stopped, the drinking has stopped; there is only silence and respect broken occasionally by the sound of someone crying or calling out the name of a loved one who has passed on.

People watch silently as Temple burns at Burning Man 2017

Flames shoot high at 2017 Temple burn at Burning Man

Final stages of Temple burn, Burning Man 2017

Sparks fly skyward from Temple at Burning Man 2017

I always feel like the sparks represent messages sent on their way.


NEXT POST: More sculptures from Burning Man 2017 with a special focus on trees in honor of the world’s remaining forests.




45 thoughts on “The Sacred Temple of Black Rock City… Burning Man 2017: Part 11

  1. I imagine that those sparks are meant to symbolize the messages going to where they will be read. But I can not decipher the symbolism of burning a spiritual temple in the desert. Aren’t the heat of global warming and destruction of Nature what the gathering was against?

    • I’m sure, G. And your comment, sparked a lot of other comments, which I really appreciated, since it helps raise awareness. It even forced me to do some research. Burning the Temple wins big from a meaningful ritual perspective. Not so much from an environmental one. I’ve always felt that Burning Man earns mixed reviews on the environmental front. The organization emphasizes leave no trace in a big way. I doubt that there is another major event in the world leaves less of a mess, both during and after the event. Every square foot is gone over for trash, and there is very little to start with. Symbolically, the burning of the art is negative from an environmental perspective although the actual pollution is minimal. I suspect that BMORG felt it was doing well by using trees that had been dead before they were cut down as opposed to using live trees that had been cut down, since they were going to burn the Temple regardless. The really big polluter is pulling in 70,000 people from all over the world. BMORG emphasizes using mass transit and ride shares, but most people, including yours truly, bring their own vehicles. And there are what have to be hundreds of thousands of miles of air travel, by far the single largest creator of pollution on an individual level. I calculated that Peggy and I flying back to see our grandkids in Connecticut this past week and returning home, created more pollution than burning the Temple! Thanks again, as always, G, for helping raise awareness. –Curt

    • Thanks, Michael. I may have misstated the case. I think Burning Man felt it was doing well to use dead trees to burn as opposed to using lumber from live trees cut down for lumber. I have, however, enjoyed the discussion and think that it helps raise awareness. The event itself generates a tremendous amount of carbon production when you think of 70,000 people coming from all over the world to participate. –Curt

    • The draught and the pine beetle seem to go hand in hand. Trees get stressed and are easier to attack. Also, having more frequent forest fires that burn the understory, i.e. fallen limbs and trees, seem to help. In this case, it is almost like it takes a forest fire to prevent a forest fire. How weird is that? –Curt

      • Weird as it may be, its the cycle of renewal as we understand. Even without human intervention, these fires were a natural occurence. Perhaps our presence on this planet accentuated it. Plus, we try to “shape” it because of properties and people in its (the fire) way…

      • Native Americans regularly started fires to encourage regrowth, Suan. And you are absolutely right that people living out in the forest, like Peggy and I, are part of the problem. –Curt

  2. I’m on the side of the ritual, myself. There are so many examples of the same dynamic across cultures: the bonfires on the levees at Christmas in Louisiana, the burning of effigies in Eucuador at the New Year, Guy Fawkes night, and so on. Of course, the event takes on a somewhat different cast in the context of what’s happening in California just now. Choosing what to add to the fire is one thing. Having the fire make the choice for you is something else.

    • An interesting debate, to say the least, Linda. It made me jump back in and do a bit of research, which I included under the Animal Courier comment. Fire has always been a double edged sword, able to destroy, able to warm, able to keep the dark night and wild animals at bay. And forever it has been an important part of rituals. And think about forest fires: under Smokey’s regime, it was always bad. Period. But the truth is that by limiting forest fires, we allowed the wood debris under trees to reach the level where forest fires get so hot they burn down forests! It turns out that forest fires were and are an important part of forest ecology, of keeping forest’s healthy. –Curt

  3. Curt, I think I probably say this every year, but the imagination, artistic skill, and work that goes into BM is incredible. Of course, I suspect this is what brings you and Peggy back every year. I’m always glad to see your posts and the great photos for the year. Thanks for bringing it to us. ~ James

    • It can certainly be argued that the burns put carbon into the air. They do. I don’t know how much timber goes into creating something like the temple but certainly no more than a few large ponderosa pines, let’s say an acres worth, so we are looking at up to 4.8 metric tons of carbon. When you look at the millions of acres burning in the Western United States this year, that becomes an important contributor to global warming. And anything we can do reduce that burden helps.
      Another way of looking at it, however, (and I don’t mean to be defensive) is that when Peggy and I fly back to visit our kids on the east coast, we are actually putting more carbon into the air, something like 6 tons of carbon for the two of us. That one flight is similar to what we might do in a year’s worth of driving! –Curt

  4. My opinion is that things change and we cannot stop it. No point stressing about global warming. I don’t suppose Dinosaurs wanted the planet to change so much that they became extinct and ultimately the same will happen to us. When we can no longer sustain life as we know it then something else will live here that can.

    • My thought, Andrew, is more along the line that we have the power to turn this world in to a really great place to live. I never see a utopia, but why not have a world where some of the rough edges of our existence are smoothed out a bit? We don’t have to drop industrial waste into our air and water, it’s okay to have remaining wild places to wander, education can be improved, hunger can be reduced. None of this is going to happen overnight, and the chances of destroying ourselves is probably greater than not, but maybe if we chip away, and continue to chip away we can make a difference. But then, I confess to being an optimist. –Curt

      • I see myself as a realist, the World as we know it will end one day but hopefully not in the next 20 or 30 years. I read an article once that estimated that when our occupation of the earth has passed it will take only about ten thousand years or so to leave no trace. All of our plastic and industrial waste will be gone and the last thing to disappear will be Mount Rushmore! Maybe it was a hundred thousand years but whichever it is it makes us look rather insignificant. Maybe several million years ago someone else lived here and they also had the internet!

      • Sigh. I’ve no doubt about the world’s ability to heal itself, Andrew, as long as there is a habitable world around to heal. Even if it has to go back to being a single celled amoeba and start all over. Too bad evolution is so messy. 🙂

  5. It must be such a sacred experience to be there. And I love that the temple was built of dead/dying trees. It reminds me of one of the Olympic venues in Vancouver (speed skating) the ceiling is a most gorgeous flowing affair built from BC pine trees dead from pine beetles.

    • I certainly feel that way, Alison, more so than I have ever felt in a church, although I confess that some of the worlds great cathedrals or something like the Parthenon evoke similar feelings. Good for Vancouver. That is an excellent use. –Curt

      • I’ve felt that way in most SE Asia Buddhist temples, one or two Indian Hindhu temples, and the mother temple in Bali, never in a church except Sagrada Familia which really is in a class of its own, and frequently in a forest. I guess it’s all about what speaks to us.

      • “I guess it’s all about what speaks to us.” I am sure that is true, Alison. I haven’t been in that many Buddhist or Hindu Temples, but I surely agree about Sagrada Familia . –Curt

  6. Wow! What a moving occasion, Curt! It feels awesome just looking at the photographs, goodness knows the impact of being there in person. I had no idea is was used as s temple and can see the solace and calm it offers…and then the final release on Burning. A fascinating post and always so interesting to learn more.

  7. I am a very real believer in the power, healing, and peace that can come from ritual. Your photos and accompanying words were so well done. The piece unfolds slow and easy with detail and description. Thank you Curt.

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