Far out at the periphery of the Burning Man venue, there is a four foot high net “fence” which defines the event site. The ‘Trash Fence’, as it is called, serves several purposes. For one, it defines the furthest authorized perimeter of the event. For another – as the name suggests – it catches the wind blown debris escaping the event which would otherwise end up irretrievably scattered across the Black Rock Desert.
And what might be most valuable of all – it keeps participants from becoming frighteningly and perhaps fatally lost in a harsh, nearly endless environment. In the dark, or in a disorienting and sight-obliterating whiteout, an encounter with the trash fence will always provide a safe, if long, route back into the city.
And though it can be a long way out to the trash fence, there are many reasons to explore this far reach of Black Rock City. Out there one finds a taste of the space and tranquility of the open playa, and the beauty of the dark starry sky.
There is also art.
This year my favorite art installation of all – in a year exceptionally well provided with outstanding installations – was located at midnight on the Deep Playa, just in from the trash fence.
My son discovered this installation his first night out exploring. It was not deliberate. He had got turned around and was inadvertently moving away from the center of the city, and safety. Instead he encountered both the surprise and the relief of that comforting perimeter, and the somewhat less comforting and creepy Rat’s Nest. In the dim light he found skeletal faces, leering vultures, gnawing rats, chunky well-fed cockroaches, all surrounded with rustling and crackling hangings whose corporeal bodies could not be determined in the darkness. He had stumbled into Kathy D’Onofrio’s ‘A Rat’s Nest’
The next morning he told me of his adventures and highly recommended a Trash Fence Journey to experience this wonderfully eerie place. He also strongly suggested that I should visit it in the dark as he guessed that daylight would reveal too much, and that a significant part of this experience lay in the mystery.
I took his advice. That night I headed out near sunset and by the time I arrived at the trash fence it was full dark. ‘A Rat’s Nest’ was everything he had suggested it would be – enticing, mysterious, spooky.
And it felt like just the place I was seeking for a daytime visit with my brother. My late brother, passed away 11 months before. I had brought a few photos and a few objects, meaningful to him and me, to place in the Temple. The Temple is the usual site for Burning Man catharsis, but I wanted something more, and this was most definitely it.
In the morning we were blessed with high clouds, preserving the morning cool and softening the harsh desert light. I rode out to ‘A Rat’s Nest’ with my objects, with the pain, with the memories. And there I found exactly the one place that my brother would have truly loved in this vast crazy dusty hot city. He was a huge fan of weirdness. This was clearly his proper BRC home.
And he said to me that yes, this place made sense to him, and sitting here he could see what it is about Burning Man that I so love.
He said that he was just staying right here, forget the rest of this Burning Man madness.
This was right. This was good.
Though my son had been wise to encourage me to visit first in the dark, what he did not know was just how entirely beautiful this spot would be on this lightly cloudy morning. It was all purples and blues and dusty pinks and lime greens – the colors of the mountains. It was a stunning dynamic painting on the canvas of the playa. Full of surprises. Full of meaning.
And we sat – my brother and I – while people came and went, in gentle camaraderie, in reflective peace, in healing.
We were joined gradually by others and the next thing we knew there were six of us there in that deepest recess of ‘A Rat’s Nest’, and one was my brother. One woman had lost her mother six months before. Another had the same loss just three months earlier. And together we talked of our lost loved ones, shared the pain, shared the joy, shared the letting go. It was more a temple for us than the designated Temple could ever have been.
And though my brother’s photo and other memorabilia went later that day to David Best’s elegantly Eastern (and supposedly final) Temple to remain there until the final burn, a more profound part of him stayed right there - among the leering rat faces, among the beautiful ghoulishness of this transcendent site.
Sometimes among all of the fantastic, intriguing, clever, startling and often massive playa art, you find a piece with a deeper personal meaning, a more profound presence. For me – in 2016 – and for my brother, ‘A Rat’s Nest’ was exactly that. My deepest gratitude to Kathy for creating this haven of weirdness, in the perfect place, and in the perfect time.