This year I was fortunate enough to spend time with some of the Temple Crew and I was privy to the energy, values and belief they put into building the Temple of Juno. I found that talking about the Temple soon becomes a discussion about something ethereal, something bigger than an art project and rather something that is a significant locus not only in Black Rock City but also within each of the people who are working on constructing it, including those who fill it up once the structure is finished. The Temple is something vital and real to our community. It is a sacred place amidst the dust.
I’m not an expert at these kinds of things, but from what I’ve encountered, the Temple Crew is a group who feels deeply about what they build. Many have been touched by grief. They are all unified in their sense of purpose, even if they all bring different points of view and motivations to the creation of the Temple.
I hung around the work site, then at their camp and they were a hard working bunch, but they always had time to talk to me when I asked about what they were doing. That seems to be a running theme among the crew.
Tree J remembered his father at the 2007 Temple. In 2010 he remembered his mother. I asked him why he was working on the Temple this year and he said, “I did it because it means something to me, it means something to our whole community. You have all this techno music and this futuristic stuff. Then there’s the tribal aspect of Burning Man and here at the Temple there’s something sacred and earthy. Wood and Fire. You find them in the same place.”
Bill C and I were talking about the project management of building a David Best Temple and he told me, “We were talking about what to call the Temple and I jokingly told David we should name it Juno, after my daughter. David said, ‘Wait a minute, that’s a good idea. Juno is the goddess of fertility and childbirth’, which made sense this year, so we went ahead and named it that.”
Over the years, I’ve sometimes made it inside the Temple and I’m usually overwhelmed by the focused energy of loss and dignified reflection that is inherent there. This year David Best designed thresholds to keep out bicycles and the distracting sound from art cars. That created quite an environment. Upon venturing out there, I felt like I was stepping across that threshold into another reality. I found myself walking around with the atmosphere mostly silent except for chanting, prayers or other forms of sacred sounds and gazing at all the photos of people looking back at me from the walls with all the notes written on every square inch of the wood that makes up the walls. I saw the altars of remembrance to loved ones, for people and pets lost, and affirmation after affirmation with a didgeridoo softly humming; serious, sad, sullen and respectful faces catching my eye, while all around a tinge of tears wet eyes that glistened in playa colored dusted faces. I felt it all like a cone coming down into our world, cleaved by the chandelier in the main structure, the place reserved for suicides, as if the Temple were a living entity, powered by those who built it and who filled it up with their pain and hope. David Best calls the Temple an “emotional nexus”. That’s an apt way to put it.
The Temple Crew brings the Temple out there as a gift for all of us. It is something unique in our community and it came into existence with sad serendipity. We were discussing why some people “don’t get” the Temple and my friend Jennie said, “It’s a profound space. If people can’t confront it, they want to escape.” I know what she’s talking about. I’ve looked “over there” at what was going on at the Temple and wondered myself. I think that those who haven’t experienced a loss that rocked their world may have no use for the Temple. It may be simply something beautiful to look at to a lot of people. However, after meeting the people involved in creating it, I realize how essential the Temple is for the Burning Man community and how it is always there, just in case you ever need to use it. The Temple as a space adds a level of solemnity and profundity to our community that is a huge part of manifesting the fact that Burning Man is not just a big party.
At the work site weeks before the Temple was opened, Chunk, aka Richard told us, “The 10:30 tea time sets the mood for the day. There’s lots of on the job training and I’m working with David for the artistic and community experience. You don’t get that in everyday life. Seeing people enjoy it. The overall creation is a thing of beauty in the flames. It has a phoenix affect and is catharsis for so many people. We’re all contributing to Black Rock City as a place of worship, a place of grieving. It’s a sacred space, not a disco.”
At the Temple camp, you’ll see David jump up on a table and share some experience he had, or point out someone who deserves recognition or thanks. On the work site, he is everywhere at once, like a white haired, bearded apparition with stunning blue eyes who appears, gives guidance, then disappears to reappear at another spot where assistance is required. From what I encountered, he listens intently to his crew and you can sense an empathy in him that’s special. It is something you don’t encounter very often. He told me “You don’t build a Temple for the finished product; you build it for the crew. It’s for those people who are building it,” and once the structure is up, the community fills it up with themselves as need be.
He stresses that over and over again, how the real meaning behind his Temples in Black Rock City lies in the people who build it and those who put their energy into it. I asked him if he thought that a Temple of some kind would have manifested itself in our community if he hadn’t ever gone to Burning Man. He told me a story of how he’d been to the campus of a large computer company that had barbers and restaurants and all manner of amenities, but they didn’t have a place for grieving. He figured that on average that sized company would have at least three family deaths a year and yet they had no place for grieving.
He said, “It’s like, when Burning Man built up that population, we all of the sudden needed that. … .. it was just an obvious absence. There was a void that no one really noticed. They got the porta potties, they’ve got the police station, they’ve got the medical, they’ve got the Man. They just didn’t have a place for grief. And the Man kind of did grief, but it was a mixture of so much celebration that it was hard to really have a quiet place. “
Then he finished, saying, “So in all truthfulness, it would have happened sometime. The fact that I was lucky enough to do one is a lucky punch.”
I also met Jane who told me that the Temple Guardians just appeared and started working one day, like so many other things associated with the Temple. They are an organized bunch now, but just like the Temple fulfilled a need, the Guardians appeared to fulfill that need. We talked about the weddings that happen out there and she noted that grief and love are intimately intertwined. They both have the ability to overwhelm and change you forever.
The Temple provides a space for those essential urges of grief and love, but unlike religion, that feeling is coming directly from our core, unadulterated by dogma. It is simple. The Temple is a place for grief and forgiveness, for honor and love and it is a place of letting go.
There’s a reason Black Rock City is laid out the way it is. Moving onto the playa, off the pavement, you first make it to Gate who pick you over like mad hyenas and verify you are worthy to proceed. If you pass that test you move along to Greeters, the inverse of Gate to a sticky sweet extreme. The next point along the City backbone is Center Camp Café where you’re given a choice of staying where you can still buy coffee and ice and can be entertained (or entertain). Or you can move on and explore the unknown and possibly find something that’s looking for you to find it.
Beyond Center Camp is the Keyhole: an imaginary step into the unknown realm where nothing but art awaits you. If you choose to wander up the promenade to the Man you will reach the “axis mundi”, the center of the Burning Man world, the pillar that joins earth and heaven. As Mr. Harvey has noted, the city is “open in the front, open to infinity” and the last large gathering point before reaching the outer playa, a place of the “Wholly other”, is the Temple. Beyond that and the scattering of projects in deep playa is the Unknown (unless you live out there, then you’ve probably seen it all). The Temple is at the edge of where we bring order to chaos. It is where our community goes to unburden themselves.
I asked David how he handles all that emotion; how he’s able to be the one leading the building of the Temple without being consumed by all the feeling that’s placed inside it. He told me, “We cried every night. We cried at lunch time, we cried at breakfast, at dinner, when we built the temple, when we were out there working on it. I was crying most of the time.”
I believe it. The Temple Crew is all about listening to your story and helping you find a way to share it then unburden yourself of that load, be it guilt or sadness, confusion or pain, simply by building an amazing Temple in the middle of the desert on a prehistoric lake bed floor where you can meditate and remember, then come to terms with it and take part in the catharsis of letting it all go with Sunday’s fire revival. Funny how we can take something like that almost for granted. That’s Burning Man I suppose.
Everyone I met on the Temple Crew said it was an honor to work with David Best this year. For me, it was an honor to meet them, hear their stories and gain a bit of understanding about what the Temple thing is all about. I knew that many of the crew were in that burn circle Sunday night at dusk. Many of them would light the fire that would take all that energy up into the endless night sky. They would help to release what was placed in the Temple and thereby be catalysts for so many others to face and hopefully come to terms with whatever they’d brought with them. That Temple Crew would have completed the cycle they jumped on when they joined the Temple Crew, possibly found healing but also helped others find healing, and I was happy for them.
On Sunday night I walked out to the Temple burn and hung out, unexpectedly, in the Temple Bus with two new friends, one who was celebrating her mother who’d died 19 years ago. My friend had been allowed to get on a boom lift to place her mother in the spire towards the top and her mom was next to a cat which delighted my friend. She said. “We celebrate the dead, but life is for the living. She’s been with me for 19 years, and she’s next to a cat. She always loved cats.”
Bagpipes played. Diva Marisa and Reverend Billy’s choir sang “Ave Maria”, and the three of us took swigs of Jameson befitting an Irish wake as the full moon inched towards the Temple. Once the Temple was lit by wandering purposeful shadow shapes in the courtyard carrying fire, we watched the roaring orange and red flames grow then engulf that structure until it became a delicate black skeletal outline against the glowing blazing inferno. I hugged my friend and saw the flames in her eyes as she looked on smiling, and said, “Mom has the east, the best view on the playa. Her and the cat.”
When the spire outline grew thin, it finally leaned over slowly, then collapsed upon the rest of the Temple sending a great chimney of embers floating upwards. My friend said, “Mother is free and so am I now. I really feel her. She would have liked this.”
I have no doubt she did, indeed, like it.
all photos portaplaya