San Francisco

Artists Building Burning Man Temple With Dead Trees Removed By PG&E

A group of artists is working in an Oakland warehouse building the temple for this year’s Burning Man festival, but this year, organizers are using the project to highlight California’s tree mortality crisis by building the temple using dead trees removed by PG&E.

Once built, it will be an intrinsic part of the event, one of two main structures that are burned toward the end of the festival. Located at the end of Black Rock City, participants make pilgrimages to the building to leave objects with sentimental or memorial value.

At the end of the event, the temple is closed and burned with the objects inside, a somber and often silent moment.

The finished temple at Burning Man in 2014. | Photo: Raquel Baranow/Flickr

Each year, organizers hold a competition to design the temple. This year, a team in Oakland proposed using wood from 100 percent dead trees to highlight the state's tree mortality crisis.

An aerial survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in November 2016 found that there were more than 102 million dead trees in the state, with 62 million dying in 2016. Most are in ten counties in the southern and central Sierra Nevada region and were killed due to drought, warmer temperatures and bark beetle infestations. 

Dead trees increase wildfire risks and contributed to last year's record-setting fire season. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency from the tree die-off in 2015.

The results of the May 2016 survey of dead trees in California. | Via U.S. Department of Agriculture

Lynsey Paulo, a PG&E spokesperson, said the artists contacted the utility in November seeking wood. PG&E saw partnering with the artists as a “unique opportunity” and donated about 100 16-foot logs from trees removed in the Twain Harte area of Tuolumne County in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

PG&E typically removes or prunes about 1.2 million trees each year near power lines, but the drought has led to removing far more, Paulo said. Last year the utility removed 236,000 more dead trees than usual and is on track to remove another 200,000 this year.

Volunteers working on building the temple in Oakland.

Marisha Farnsworth of Oakland, one of the artists involved, said they were able to get most of the wood they needed from the utility.

They’ve rented warehouse space on Mandela Parkway in West Oakland, near American Steel Studios, to construct pieces of the temple, which they’ll then haul to the desert on trucks for assembly. The finished temple will be over 100 feet wide and 80 feet tall.

The pieces of the temple will be assembled in the desert.

The pieces built so far almost look like portions of a bonfire. It’s a “simple stacking system that creates a lot of interesting highlights and shadows,” Farnsworth said.

While they’re getting a small grant from Burning Man organizers to build the temple, they’ve still needed to raise funds for their expenses and try to save where they can.

“We’re pretty scrappy so we do things as affordably as possible,” Farnsworth said.


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