Petaluma’s David Best creates Burning Man temple
There's woodworking on the scale of Noah's Ark going on in a scruffy lot off Petaluma's Lakeville Street. Some will view the product of all the sawing, drilling, fastening and pallet-loading as perfectly pointless. To others, it will be profoundly sacred.
Here, Michael Jacob of Sebastopol instantly ages pieces of blond, salvaged lumber a few inches long by bathing them in a trough of white vinegar darkened by clots of steel wool.
There, bare-chested Sausalito resident Greg Watson stands back and ponders his next step in the construction of what will be a hanging chandelier, but that one might picture mentally as the ornate, all-wood pendulum of a clock the height of a respectable carillon tower.
Lynne Fisk of Santa Rosa motions to the table saw she used to help make about 40,000 cuts to boards 20 feet long, an inch-wide and half-inch deep. Many were sawed for making scores of great, Japanese-style lanterns, each requiring 372 6-inch sticks and 168 4-inchers.
Before August is two weeks old, every piece will be trucked to a table-flat, ancient lakebed in high desert about 100 miles northeast of Reno. There, these and many more volunteer workers will assemble the components into a grand and graceful temple conceived by Petaluma's internationally known sculptor, David Best.
And on the night of Sept. 4, thousands of dusty people will gather around it, then sit or stand silently and watch, many through tears, as a flame flickers within the temple, then spreads and utterly consumes it, sending starward a massive plume of smoke and orange embers.
Coming together on the property of Petaluma's DeCarli Propane Service is the eighth temple that the snowy haired and bearded Best has conceived for Burning Man, the proudly hard-to-define, eight-day confluence of humans, art and intentionally pursued evolution in the Black Rock Desert.
Best is creating it with a corps of volunteers happy to make their labor a gift to the 70,000 or so souls who'll gather at a city 7 miles square that doesn't exist today and of which there will be hardly a trace following the deconstruction of Burning Man that begins on Labor Day.
Each year, the primary landmarks and attractions of the temporary metropolis erected on cracked Bureau of Land Management property are a towering, wooden effigy of a man and the temple. They rise above an enormous circle shared by dozens of pieces of sturdy sculpture, many of them fantastic, towering, fire-spewing, color-changing and interactive.
Burning Man participants, most of whom must bring with them all the food and water they'll need for the week, camp along concentric roads that ripple out from that central circle. The gathering's top two communal events are the wildly cheered torching of the man on Saturday night and the typically hushed, solemn burning of the temple the following night.
Before the temple is set ablaze, the citizens of Black Rock City will have filled it with tributes to people they loved and who have died, and also with prayers, rants, memorial prose and both offerings of and requests for forgiveness.
Every year, the design and construction of the temple is different. Every year, Burners carry into it and leave homemade shrines and photographs of people and pets they've lost, and possessions that were dear to the departed.
Throughout Burning Man, which opens Aug. 29, there's never a moment that participants aren't perusing the temple's tributes or sitting silently within or just outside it. Using Sharpies, visitors write messages and pleas and memories and such on every reachable inch of wood.
The torching of all that is the closing ritual and most reverent collective moment at Burning Man, now in its 31st year.
For the chief temple maker, this is an extraordinary year.
Since the 2015 Burn, Best, 71, has lost Petaluma people close to him. He said the deaths of multigenerational steel man Rick Van Bebber and Rosemarie DeCarli, whose family is letting the crew use the piece of land at DeCarli Propane, contribute strongly to this year's temple project “coming from a much more personal place for me.”
Also on Best's mind is Petaluma friend and fellow car lover Al Stack, who's been gone three years now. Stack, Van Bebber and DeCarli all had connections to the temple crew.
Even more so than in previous years, said Best, the 2016 temple “is coming from Petaluma.”
The sculptor thinks also of the young man knifed to death on a street in Santa Rosa and of the victims of police killings, terrorism and ambushes of officers as he pushes himself to make this Burning Man temple a worthy tribute to them and a celebration of their lives.
Sitting on an open-air sofa as a circular saw whined and volunteers dyed or attached or stacked pieces of wood, Best said, “I'm really having to work hard, and I'm taxing my crew.”