Margaret left a trace

DumpsterWe always think of the principle of “Leave No Trace” as applying to things. To garbage. To left over zip ties. To empty cans on the ground.

But does it apply to people?

Do we want it to?

I was struck, this week, by an email that “This is Burning Man” author Brian Doherty sent out encouraging people in the Bay Area to see a show produced in large part by burners this Friday at the Castro Theatre.

The show is about a woman of whom there was no trace. Whose life was, literally, thrown in the garbage.

While hunting for a place to illegally dump some trash at three in the morning, an old-time Burner (Chicken John) found a magnificent leather scrap book at the bottom of a dumpster. It was, all but literally, the life of a woman named Margaret Rucker. It had her birth certificate, pictures of her life, clippings from news articles about tragic things that befell her, and excerpts from poetry magazines of verse she’d had published. It ended with her death certificate.

It was all there. At the bottom of a dumpster. If he hadn’t found it, it would have been destroyed.

What happened? He had no idea. Nobody knew. For maybe 15 years he carried this scrapbook around with him, read from it, shared it with people – put on shows devoted to Margaret’s poetry and the mystery of her life.

No answers. Except insofar as we all know, deep down, that people are disposable. That at some point all we are will be left in a trash bin. That no trace will be left.

God I hate that principle, right now.  Should it apply to us? Should the same cool and unassailable logic that we apply to keeping the desert pristine apply to the people who walk across it? Of course it must, in time: but don’t we want to rage, rage, against the dying of the light? As artists, don’t we want to LEAVE A FUCKING TRACE?

Even as we burn down our art to prevent exactly that?

I actually left the 2011 burn early in part because I couldn’t stand to see that temple burn. If someone had proposed that we all join hands and form a human shield around it to keep it there, in the desert, forever, I would have joined in – knowing it was impossible. I still would have done it.  I was not on Leave No Trace’s side that year, but that doesn’t mean I had an answer to the inevitable. I didn’t.

A couple of years ago, everything about Margaret changed: Chicken was talking to his friend Jason Webley, a musician who was visiting from the Seattle area, and when Chicken found out that Jason was from Margaret’s home town he said “Hey, I need to introduce you to my friend Margaret Rucker!”

And Jason said “Margaret Rucker? Chicken, 48 hours ago I was standing on her grave!”

They started comparing notes. The mystery began to unravel. Answers became clear. We know what happened.

Jason was so inspired he produced an album of songs about Margaret, many of which set her poetry to music. That album led to a book about Margaret (really it’s 88 pages of liner notes, but let’s call that a book), detailing her history. That album and book led to a concert in Seattle, which is now leading to a Margaret themed multi-city tour, which is the event that “This is Burning Man” author Brian Doherty thinks you should see.

For me, personally, this whole thing is a redemption of Margaret’s life through her art. Her poetry is self-expression, sure, but more than that: it has influenced others, and they are leaving her trace. I am deeply affected by this because I do not expect to be so lucky. I fully expect that, not long after my death, the books will be packed up, the links will grow dusty, and within a few short years (if that) no trace of all my self-expression will be left. Margaret’s life was too short and too tragic but dammit, I want the redemption we’re able to give her. The envy that burns in my heart also heats my affection for her, and for what we can offer.

I imagine it’s what everyone wants. If we can’t be physically immortal, dammit, don’t we want to at least leave a trace? Isn’t that the next logical step to self-expression?

Or is it? Is Burning Man’s ethos of temporary art and Leave No Trace also a rebuke to the idea that we should yearn for some form of permanence? I could see that.

But I can’t see throwing Margaret in the trash. Whatever the intellectual arguments in favor of a graceful exit, I’m so deeply, profoundly, glad that scrapbook was found. Rescued. And now, through it, her life redeemed.

The idea that humans are unique and special is not in vogue right now. We tell each other that we are simply bags of meat and collections of chemicals, indistinguishable from the animal kingdom. We tell each other that there is no grace, no transcendence, no redemption. We can, logically, all be put in the dumpster when we go. There are good reasons for that. And it’s compatible with an ethos of Leave No Trace.

But we love art. We encourage everyone to express themselves. We tell each other “you are special,” we try to treat each other as though we are more than simply bags of meat and collections of chemicals: we have aspirations that rise far above the animal kingdom.  We live, at our best, as though we are possessed of immortal souls.  There is no justification for self-expression that does not in some way suggest you can make a mark.

Self-Expression and Leave No Trace are, of course, locked in a dance that will never end. Life and Death. Thanatos and Eros. I suppose it’s only fitting that Burning Man not offer an easy way out. I suspect that one of the impulses behind religion is the idea, experienced and felt more than “known,” that self-expression has power over death.

I don’t think Burning Man goes that far. I could be wrong.

But I’m glad, so very glad, Margaret is out of the dumpster. Score one for self-expression. Score one for leaving a trace.

If you want to meet Margaret, her friends will be in town. Including San Francisco, this Saturday night. Here’s the tour schedule:
Dec 18 – Portland – Wonder Ballroom
Dec 19 – Eugene – Wow Hall
Dec 20 – San Francisco – Castro Theater
Dec 21 – Los Angeles – Bootleg Theater



Here’s Brian Doherty’s email:


“San Francisco people into mystery, stories, lost lives rescued, hauntingly gorgeous songs, and the principle that There Is No Such Thing As Garbage and that everyone’s story can be deep and dark and stab you in the heart, you MUST seriously consider going on Saturday night Dec 20th to the Castro Theatre to see the stage show MARGARET, telling the story of (real-life) lost poet Margaret Rucker, whose life of beauty and tragedy and mystery has been reconstructed via a scrapbook telling her tale (in bright/dark flashes, via photos and clippings) found in a dumpster in San Francisco in the 1990s, about 40 years after her death.

It is moving and wild and unbelivable on many levels and you’ve never seen or heard anything like it. A book and a CD and a stage show have been made based on her story and the story of how her life and that of her family was reconstructed via how the tale moved those who found her scrapbook in the trash, and showed it to others. The stars of the story and the show include Jason Webley, John Rinaldi, Eliza Rickman, and more. Neil Gaiman would tell you to go, if you and Neil were still talking. I’m telling you to go.”

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

10 Comments on “Margaret left a trace

  • Jeffz says:

    Very amazing! I wish I lived on the west coast to see this, is it broadcast any where?

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    • oreely says:

      You can watch many parts of the original one-off concert of April 11 in Everett, WA on Youtube. Also, you can buy the book and CD. The book isn’t just liner notes, but has reproductions of many of the artifacts from the scrapbook. It is a beautiful little book. There was a kickstarter involved in launching the CD, book and concert tour after the original concert — look up Jason Webley.

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  • Jason says:

    Interesting post, not least because of this similar story I found on Reddit just a couple of hours ago:

    Can’t get the text to copy properly on my phone but I think you’ll enjoy the click through.

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  • Andy says:

    That i such a stunning and uplifting story. I have always worried about what mark I would leave on the world. My art is inventing games and I’ve always wondered if I wrote a book about my games and put a copy in the Library of Congress, would someone come along 1,000 years from now and read it, like it and bring it back to the world. With people like Chicken John around, I guess anything’s possible.

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  • chicken john says:

    If you want to read the book, you can buy a copy here:

    If you wanna hear the music for free, here:

    There is no such thing as garbage


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  • Tracy says:

    The first time we hear the fictional tale of Shelley’s Ozymandias, we nod our heads knowingly… The older you get, the more you realize that hubris is the enemy of everything good. There comes a moment where healthy ambition tips over into a vain struggle for that fleeting drug of self-worth and there is nothing that can take us all down a peg like good old time. Especially in this day and age. A good legacy isn’t worth as much as it used to be.

    But that isn’t the story here. This very non-fictional Margaret is innocent of all trespass. We can celebrate her specifically because that scrapbook was rescued from obscurity…and because, like all of us, she was on that same surfboard riding the same wave of chaos we all do.
    Just as we get to point and laugh at good old Ozy’s dilapidated statue time so wisely destroyed, we get, as a counter point, to enjoy this human being for majestically tripping over the chalk lines of life, art, and time itself. We can relate. We need to relate.
    Hope to see you at the show…

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  • Chromatest says:

    The book is (I believe $20) and comes with the CD album. The music is really good. The book is a little haunting…. I went to the show on Saturday and it turns out that Margaret Rucker’s grandson was there. He read about the show in the SF Weekly!

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  • dbcooper says:

    This article seems more an advertising teaser for the show rather than real news.

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  • epiphanystarlight says:

    I enjoyed your gracefully eloquent expression. But fret not, Caveat. It’s all there in the Akashic Record for eternity. Create away. Be bold and grand.

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  • Rebecca says:

    I think Margaret’s story is a fascinating one. I listened recently to a podcast about the ME’s office scattering the remains of the unclaimed ones at sea, and how poignant that was for all of them (and for me, listening). Too many real people do have no place in any history I think, even though everyone I’ve ever met has a story worth hearing.
    One of my sons dislikes intensely the idea that the art is burned at Burning Man. To him, that is heresy. Perhaps the two thoughts are more intertwined than we know. The first man burned to recognize the disintegration of a relationship that was no longer wanted, and to recognize the healing power of letting go/starting fresh. But there is also healing power in keeping the spark alive and passing it on. Context and timing means so much when you are talking about symbolism, and balance is the key to understanding.
    For me, Leaving No Trace is a physical thing, not a metaphorical one. I do not hold that we go through this world without touching lives and leaving a mark, even if no one sings our songs, or praises our art. The unknown can be just as powerful as the celebrated, just not necessarily recognized.

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