Every generation is subtly different. Different parents and different environments result in new choices and unpredictable results. Not that most observers would notice. From a distance the Burning Man appears unchanged, a single constant anchor amidst a city of no constancy.
But look closer and you’ll see evidence of a tale forever evolving. Organic, rife with mutations and competing ideas. Of refinements and failures; all the messy flotsam and jetsam of natural selection, packed into a single human figure. The journey of eons – the human journey – recapitulated in a spare wooden effigy.
As Adam might say, “Consider the rib.”
Originally carved by hand, the ribs were for a few brief years cut upon a CNC machine. In 2007 circumstance brought the process full circle, necessitating a quick return to traditional methods. During the rebirth – the heroic, on-playa creation of that year’s second Man – the ellipses that form the ribs were manually scribed by Red Ryan using only two screws, a length of string and mathematics. They were then hand cut by members of the Man KCrew and the DPW, as well as by the many citizens of Black Rock City who had joined us, unhesitatingly volunteering their labors to create Burning Man anew.
“All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.” – Cormac McCarthy, “The Road”
From the ashes of sudden loss arose massively collaborative Man, a thing of grace and beauty indeed.
The following year there was no question. The ribs would now always be cut by hand. But rather than scribing them using string – an ingenious but admittedly fiddly process – KCrew Lead Timothy O’Keefe proposed that we create an elliptical jig. In carpentry, a jig doesn’t refer to a lively folk dance, but rather a tool used to control the position or motion of another tool or workpiece. In this case, using two perpendicular slides to control the motion of a swingarm, such that it would trace an ellipse onto a sheet of plywood.
Devising and fabricating the jig took the better part of a day, but once completed we had a tool capable of describing every one of the Man’s seven unique ribs, perfectly and repeatably.
This year, new KCrew Lead Ilo “Steeltoe” Kratins brought his own spin to process: the 20,000 RPM spin of a router blade. Often used for fine carpentry and cabinetry, a router is a high-speed rotary cutting tool that can – among many other nifty tricks – precisely follow the edge of another piece, a process known as pattern routing. By carefully creating a master template for each rib (for which we once again used our elliptical jig) and indexing the router along the edge of that template, it guarantees that the resulting rib pieces all precisely match the template, and one another. This is especially important as each final rib consists of two sheets of plywood glued together, and any irregularities between them requires tedious sanding & filling to correct. Routing their edges avoids this problem altogether.
Every generation is different. The changes to the Man’s genome that confer benefit – beauty, precision or speed – remain, while those that detract gradually die out over time.
Look closer. What appears to be static from a distance is actually every bit as mutable, as fluctuating as the city it inspires.