There are many things that children love at Burning Man, but first and foremost is the engaging, interactive art, some of which is gigantic and playful. Animals of enormous scale populate the playa, including polar bears, flamingos, praying mantises, fish, coyotes, whales, boars, dragons, cats, dogs and jellyfish.
In 2018, I got wind of a sweet story about a little girl and a big octopus, Squirt by Abraham Raphael of Agoura Hills, California. Abraham describes Squirt! on the Burning Man website:
“The ‘Free Squirt’ campaign has launched for 2018 and is expected to bring out a host of emotions from Burners the world over. Marine researchers and Translumina Octopoda specialists will gather for a first hand look at “Squirt”, a recently captured specimen. Living underground it can take 30 years to reach maturation. Adults can weigh as much as 800 pounds. The most significant and endearing aspect of these giant playa octopuses is their ability to communicate and emote with playa visitors. Transluminant skin, suckers and nervous system radiate patterns of lights for a dazzling display. For now, the gentle beast is housed in a giant plexiglass jar located in the Black Rock desert. But Squirt has ideas of his own!”
Abraham’s local newspaper, the Thousand Oaks Acorn, also featured an article about Squirt.
One little Burner, Rachel Petty, became very attached to Squirt, developing a relationship with the talking octopus. She visited Squirt many times early in the week, and on Sunday begged to say goodbye to her aquatic friend while her parents were striking camp. Sadly, Squirt had been released.
But Rachel’s mother, Amberley Petty, says Abraham and his strike team took the time to calm and talk to a hysterically crying child, to get her address and then to have Squirt send her a personalized letter and some pendants.
“It’s these special moments and magic that keep us coming back every year and inspire us to create more art and to love more deeply,” Amberley says. “She is planning to frame her letter and these pictures in her room.”
Abraham writes: “As you can imagine, we were touched to have the young lady come to our art installation to say goodbye to Squirt. Over the course of the Burn, we had many people come by and talk to Squirt.”
“Often when I was in the booth voicing the Octopus, people would come and ask deep questions like ‘What is the meaning of life’ and other meaningful things. Often individuals would bring gifts for Squirt and tell it how much they loved her/him.”
“Nonetheless, at the end of the Burn when it was time to tear it all down, and in the heat and stress of the moment, you ask yourself ‘was it all worth it?’ That question was answered when the five-year-old child came to say goodbye. Seeing the connection that she had, and how real it was for her, was confirmation that our project was worthwhile.”
“Interestingly, the inspiration for the art project was based on an experience that I had when I was about her age. My parents had taken me on a trip to Victoria, British Columbia. I was at a museum of some sort and when I turned the corner, I was suddenly confronted by a young white-colored Beluga whale inside of a glass enclosure. I was alone with it, and it was reacting to my presence. If I moved left, it moved left, and we were clearly playing with each other.”
“That memory has always stuck with me, and when I was conceptualizing Squirt, I was hoping that others would have that kind of intimate interaction. So in the end, having a young child deriving so much pleasure from the art piece brings back all those childhood memories. When she started crying that she couldn’t say goodbye to Squirt, I ran into the equipment truck to see if I could find the pendants that our camp leader, Liz Altmiller, had brought to give out as gifts.”
“Unfortunately, with all the mess and commotion in the truck, I couldn’t find the small bag. I took down the address of the family and mailed them the pendants with a letter from Squirt. Part of the backstory for Squirt is that he lived in the playa and was being taken to Washington DC for experimentation regarding its telepathic abilities.”
“There really wasn’t a good way to end this story or to express what was in my mind to anyone. So the letter to the child became a way to end Squirt’s story in that he / she had escaped and had returned to the playa. I had an audience of one but she was worth it. Looking back on this project and the effort that it took to bring it to Burning Man, I have no regrets. It was all a blessing.”
“The person that I initially started discussing this project with was a woman that I met at Burning man in 2012 named Jieva Mulokas. Unfortunately she passed away just as we were starting to work on the project and she left behind a four-year-old who just turned five in September.”
“We dedicated the art to her and with permission from her mother we put a plaque on the observation booth with her name. When Rachel came to say goodbye to squirt, I definitely thought of Jieva and the five-year-old she left behind.”
The art at Burning Man has long tentacles; so many people are reached and moved by it in so many ways. We’ll never know how far these gifts travel and how many hearts they break open. Many thanks to Amberley and Abraham for sharing this lovely story.