The Trees of Black Rock City… Burning Man 2017: Part 12

Nighttime view of Tree of Ténéré , Burning Man 2017

The Tree of Ténéré with its 15,000 leaves lit up at night by LED lights that changed color.


It seems strange to talk about the trees in the Black Rock Desert. The Playa stretches out to the distant mountains, flat and featureless, immense in its nothingness. But this year’s theme, Radical Ritual, encouraged a number of artists to imagine trees in the desert. And they imagined some very interesting ones. They ranged from Methuselah, a 4,848-year old Bristle Cone Pine that lives in the White Mountains of California, 325 miles south of Black Rock City, to the Tree of Ténéré, a solitary acacia that was once described as the most isolated tree on earth and lived some 7000 miles from Burning Man in the vast Sahara Desert of northern Niger.

Looking out from Burning Man across the treeless Black Rock Desert playa.

Tree of Ténéré at night, Burning Man 2017

This close up of Ténéré provides a view that shows some of the 175,000 LED lights that decorated the tree. Artists and technologists from around the world were invited to help develop the software that controlled the lighting and provided ever-changing light shows. The tree was also designed for climbing, capable of accommodating up to 60 climbers at one time.

Tree of Ténéré at Burning Man 2017

The Tree of Ténéré on the Playa provided shade from the burning sun for Burners in much the same way its namesake did in the Sahara Desert for Tuareg wanderers where the tree stood for decades by itself in hundreds of square miles.

Methuselah at Burning Man 2017

Methuselah of Biblical fame, was said to have lived to the ripe old age of 969, passing away just a few weeks before the Great Flood that his grandson built the Ark for. Reputedly, the oldest man ever, he was a mere youngster in comparison to Methuselah the Bristle Cone Pine, which, up until recently, was considered the oldest tree in existence. (A 5,000 year old Bristle Cone Pine has been found.)

Methuselah in balack and white, Burning Man 2017

A different view rendered in black and white. The twisted metal of the tree reflects the twisted wood of the actual tree. Peggy and I have visited Methuselah in its natural setting in the White Mountains and wandered among the ancient trees in a radical ritual of our own.

Sysimetsä was a poignant reminder of the forest fires that have been plaguing the West for the past several years. Put together by artists from Lake County in Northern California, it was a memorial to a fire that had destroyed their county and the Raven’s Landing Art Space in 2015. As I walked through the display at Burning Man, fires were threatening my home in Southern Oregon. As I write today, the terrible conflagration that has destroyed so much of California’s beautiful wine country and taken numerous lives, still rages.

Crows in trees, Sysimetsä at Burning Man 2017

Trees left naked by the Lake County fire were brought to Burning Man to create this sculpture. Ravens, representing the Raven’s Landing Art Space that was burned down by the fire, roost in the trees.

Sysimetsä crow at Burning Man 2017

A close-up.

Crow in Black and White, Sysimetsä at Burning Man 2017

Rendered in black and white by me, I wanted to capture the bleakness of areas that have been burned.

Sysimetsä at Burning Man 2017

The center piece of the Sysimetsä sculpture represented a different message, life rising out of the flames and the ashes, being regenerated by both nature and humans.

Malcolm Tibbett’s’, Wood Carver’s Dream, reminded me of the beauty of wood. This gracefully curving art piece is made up of wood from a number of different tree species reflecting their different colors, textures and grains. As Tibbetts notes on his Web site, “Segmented woodturning is an art form with few limitations. By combining components, I can create just about any shape or size and by arranging different wood species, I can create just about any type of surface design. There are few art forms with this much freedom.”

A Wood Turner's Dream at Burning Man 2017

Tibbetts’ creation seen from a distance. Wind is whipping up a dust storm on the Playa, reminding me that it is time to head back to camp.

A Wood Turner_s Dream close up at Burning Man 2017

A closer look.

Machina Naturale by Dave Boyer from Reno, Nevada brings us forward in time to a kinetic wind sculpture that resembles a tree and captures the wind, mimicking, or bringing together our natural and mechanical worlds.

Macchina Naturale at Burning Man 2017

Machina Naturale with its tree-like look and kinetic wind sculpture.

Looking up at Macchina Naturale, Burning Man 2017

Looking up.

It isn’t hard for me to imagine trees as being sacred, to understand how they have been involved in humankind’s rituals down through the ages. The heat from their fires provided warmth, a means of cooking, and a way to keep wild animals at bay on dark nights for ancient peoples. Spreading limbs and leaves provided shelter from rain, snow and hail— and the wood itself was used for making shelters. Many trees provided food necessary for survival. And finally, there is the awe that the size and beauty of trees can bring.

Giant redwood tree at Redwoods National Park. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

How could one not feel awe when confronted by giant redwoods in their cathedral-like setting. This beauty is a couple of hours away from our home.

Peggy stands next to one of the giants.

Closer to home, we found our own sacred cove of virgin timber while out backpacking this summer, about eight miles from where we live.







34 thoughts on “The Trees of Black Rock City… Burning Man 2017: Part 12

  1. I sure hope you, Peggy and the redwoods are all safe from the fires. We keep hearing that the death toll is now up to 35 (leave it to the media to lead with that statement!) and I can’t help but feel concerned about your well-being out there.

  2. Hope your home is safe, as well. That LED tree is amazing, everything is amazing. Seeing these here is much more interesting than tv!

    • Thanks, Rebel Girl. Our house was out of danger by the second week in September, barring any other fires. But the fire danger is now much less in Southern Oregon. Northern California is a different story. –Curt

  3. Curt: There could not be a more perfect theme than trees. You must have been over the top capturing these glorious expressive art pieces. Your Burning Man Series just keep getting better each year. Your use of Black and White really is expressive. Thank you- JoHanna

  4. Trees are such a powerful reminder of nature as are your varied pictures of them, Curt. At the moment I’m into tree identification, helped on our walks by my considerably more knowledgeable wife!

    • I’ve always had a tree identification book (several, actually) as part of my natural history collection, Dave, starting at a vey young age. It’s fun that it is a passion you are sharing with your wife. –Curt

  5. Some wonderful sculptures here Curt. Ténéré in definitely my favourite. I know what you mean about trees. They are sacred to me. I have two spots in Vancouver – one a cedar grove up on the hill in Queen Elizabeth Park, and the other a grove of Douglas fir (I think) on the forest walk around the golf course near where we live. In both places I just stop. I can feel the communal energy, as if the group of trees is one being filling me with peace. They are powerful beings.

    • One of the folks I follow was just in the white Mountains and talked about leaning up against one of the 4-5,000 year old trees. Her comment was very similar to yours, Alison. In my imagination, I sometimes think of Tree Beard. 🙂 –Curt

  6. I think this might be my favorite of all of your Burning Man posts, Curt. While I’m in awe of the Tree of Ténéré, there are several that resonate: the woodworker’s tree, of course, and Sysimetsä, which reminds me of the stainless steel tree at Crystal Bridges Museum of American art. The effect of an isolated tree is dramatic, of course, but even quite pedestrian groves can offer rewards, especially if the trees are combined with wind, or rain, or the turning seasons.

    • As you know, Linda, I am a big fan of trees, anywhere and everywhere. And I really like your last statement since I was out today capturing fall foliage. Peggy and I spent the last two weeks in Connecticut and I was really looking forward to some leaf-peeping. It wasn’t to be. It was too warm and we were too early. But we returned home and guess what? The trees around here are gorgeous. I suspect you will see some of them on Monday. 🙂 –Curt

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