We 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.”