The Final Piece

Heather practiced moving around inside the last Temple piece when it was still on the ground
Heather practiced moving around inside the last Temple piece when it was still on the ground

To hear Gregg Fleishman tell it, there was never any doubt.

Gregg is the creator of the Temple of Whollyness, the modern yet very ancient manifestation of the power and elegance of geometry. And this morning, the topmost piece of the 60-foot pyramid would be dropped into place. All the planning, all the measuring, all the careful calculations carried out on paper, on computer, and simply in Gregg’s head, would either work, or they wouldn’t. The thing would fit, or it wouldn’t. There could be no “almost.”

“I was a little cranky this morning,” Gregg admitted. “I was barking at people, ‘Do this, do that,'” he said. “I just wanted to get going.”

Lighting and Syn and Carmel, husband, wife and daughter, nervously donned safety harnesses as the crew prepared for the lift. Safety procedures were reviewed, crew assignments were made, questions were asked and answered. Then it was time to go.

“Ok, ok, huddle up,” J.J. said suddenly. He drew the crew around him, and he spoke his heart. “I just want to say thank you,” he began. J.J. works on the Temple build crew, and he also works in the camp’s kitchen. On this morning he had either forgotten to take off his aprons, or he had decided to keep them on. “Oh, look at him,” Heather teased, “making cupcakes and building Temples.”

J.J. spoke at some length with the bodies pressed close around him, hands clasped tightly above their heads. “I’ve had the best time of my fucking life out here,” he said, and a cheer went up, and then it was truly time for the lift to begin.

There always seems to be a special closeness among the people who come together to build the Temple, the most sacred (if that’s not too strong a word) of all the installations at Burning Man. They eat together, camp together, and work together, and they do it away from the rest of Black Rock City. The work – and the heartaches and drama – ultimately binds them together. They will never forget what they did here, and neither will we. The DPW crews that do so much of the other work here are rough and gnarly on the outside, but no less gooey inside. But the Temple folks are much more likely to acknowledge the spiritual nature of their work, and the intention behind their task.

And why not?

The Temple is the place at Burning Man where the people who are no longer with us are remembered and honored. It is a place of joy and sadness, but maybe most of all it is a place of stillness. We remember the people who gave us solace, the people who took us under their wing, the people who gave us the opportunity to redeem ourselves, and we thank them.

There is a great trust placed in the hands of the people who build the Temple, and they are mindful of that trust.

J.J. huddled the crew before the lift began
J.J. huddled the crew before the lift began

As Carmel approached the scissor lift that would take her to her post at the top of the Temple, Syn drew her aside. Syn is a cheerleader as well as a mom. She is exuberant and tireless, and she, like many of the others here, possesses a great sense of moment. So she took her daughter aside and she said, “You’re representing me up there.” They hugged, and then the bubbly and irrepressible Carmel laughed and scrambled onto the machine.

It’s not the first time that Lightning and Syn and Carmel have worked together on a big art project at Burning Man. The past two years, they joined Gregg in building the Otic Oasis out in the walk-in camping section of the city, a respite from the noise on hubbub of Burning Man. They also built the Pistil, which was installed in the Man base last year.

How many families do you know who are bound together by such sense of purpose and joy? Years ago, Carmel wanted to learn how to sew, but Syn didn’t know how, so she got Bunnie to come over and help. You could say that the teaching and the guidance took hold, because today Carmel is studying textiles in college. And Bunnie is here today too, right over there under the Temple shade, getting ready to install acres of fabric on the inside of the Temple as an artist collaborator.

Fixit climbed into the cab of the giant crane. Jess, a Temple builder herself, grabbed one of the guide wires that would help stabilize the piece as it was lifted. Heather stood silently off to herself inside the Temple. In a few minutes, she would be 60 feet in the air, climbing around inside the last wooden piece, removing the rigging that was attached for the lift. Heather is fit and lithe, perfect for the task.

The giant wooden diamond was lifted slowly into the air. Cameras snapped, crews oohed and ahhed, and slowly it moved toward the opening at the top of the Temple. And when it started to descend, the moment would arrive when we would find out if all the work had been careful enough, if every detail had been seen to. The piece would fit, or it wouldn’t.

And then … only minutes later … there were cheers. The fit was sure and simple. The jeweler had set the diamond in the ring, and the Temple was a beautiful whole.

Gregg was walking from corner to corner now, trying to get the the best angle to see through to the top. He had his cameraphone out, and it was as if an excited first-time-Burner was getting his first look at the Temple. Gregg is quiet and understated, almost always subdued. But there was a gee-whiz quality about him as he looked up at it all, like he couldn’t quite believe it. So had he been worried?

“There was no way for it not to work,” he said quietly and confidently. “What you do along the way makes sure of it.”


Gregg admitted to being a little barky before the lift


Bunnie taught Carmel to sew
Syn had some final words for Carmel
Trippit was in the cab of the big crane
Team members took their places to guide the final piece into place



Other crew members watched from the shade



Jess Hobbs was one of the people holding the guide wires




The struts slipped smoothly into place


Once the last piece was in, Heather had to climb up in it to remove the rigging



Her mission accomplished, Heather took a look around from outside, as Cyn and Lightning looked on from a scissor lift
Gregg seemed full of wonder after the last piece was set in place


About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

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