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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.”

Conceptual drawings and plans of the 2016 temple portray an Asian pagoda with multiple, stacked roofs and a spire that will push the structure's total height to nearly 100 feet. The great chandelier that Watson helps construct will hang just above an interior altar.

Positioned throughout will be the large lanterns. Within a walled courtyard will be eight more altars.

Best's previous eight Burning Man temple designs brought him fame and led to him constructing temples in far-scattered places that know struggle, loss and renewal: Detroit, Northern Ireland, Nepal. He said the one the crew is working on now in Petaluma “is really, for me, the closest to home.”

“This one,” he said, “is the most like my art.”

The 2016 temple will be far more handcrafted than those that have featured prodigious amounts of intricate carving achieved with computer-controlled routers. And this temple will have no name.

Since Best directed the construction of the crew's first Burning Man memorial structure in 2000 and dubbed it the Temple of the Mind, he has conceived labels for the creations: Temple of Tears (2001), Temple of Joy (2002), Temple of Honor (2003), Temple of Stars (2004), Temple of Hope (2006), Temple of Forgiveness (2007), Temple of Juno (2012) and Temple of Grace (2014).

Best's current state of mind has him foregoing the right to name the 2016 edifice.

“I decided this year that the temple is no longer mine,” he said. “I don't feel like I own it. It belongs to the community.”

Each person who'll stand before the temple the first week of September, spend time among the shrines and tributes, and then watch it all burn will be affected differently. Best sometimes recalls how it changed his life when a man approached him as smoke and ash rose from a temple and said, “My son committed suicide. You set him free.”

As in the past, the temple is being created through a grant from the nonprofit Black Rock Arts Foundation, a crowdfunding campaign, and the unpaid labor of people like Michael Jacob.

He's the contractor and construction manager from Sebastopol who the other day gave pieces of wood the appearance of antiquity by dipping them in darkened vinegar.

Jacob said he's been going to Burning Man “probably” for 14 years, and this is the fourth time he's savored contributing to the raising of the temple.

“You've probably heard, people consider the temple the heart and soul of the playa,” Jacob said. The playa is what participants call the piece of powdery, dust-prone earth beneath the ephemeral settlement of Black Rock City.

Jacob said the temple provides the people at Burning Man a place to linger as long as they like with their sorrow and memories and whatever else they carry. He said there's no spot quite like it, on the playa or off.

Greg Watson, a newcomer to the temple crew who was working on the great chandelier, said that to conceive and build the temple, sanctify it with memorials and then burn it fills an important void in contemporary life.

“As we've gone into more of a secular society,” said Watson, a custom metal and woodworker who also makes art from retired fire hose, “we've lost ritual.”

He added, “I love the contemplative arena that the temple provides.”

Though the temple crew is most responsible for putting Sonoma County on the map as a source of grand and audacious Burning Man art, other locals have for years trucked hugely popular creations to the here-today, gone-tomorrow experimental city in the desert.

Petaluma was the birthplace both of Kevin Clark's Medusa Madness, an imposing tangle of snakes-as-hair that premiered in a prominent space at Burning Man 2015, and of Michael Garlington's haunting Totem of Confessions. Actress Susan Sarandon last year stashed some of the late Timothy Leary's ashes into Garlington's edifice before it burned. Also, last year Sebastopol's Michael Coy's interactive carnival amusement Be the Menagerie occupied an important spot in front of the Burning Man.

Temple maker Best said during a break in construction in south Petaluma that his ambitions beyond the playa include traveling to Paris to construct a temple there, and founding a nonprofit that will make grants to temple builds around the world.

Best confirmed reports this will be his last Burning Man temple. But also true: “This is my fifth last temple,” he said.

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