The Temple, The Fire, And The Flood

The Temple, The Fire, And The Flood June 8, 2018


I spent Memorial Day weekend at Playa Del Fuego, the East Coast regional Burn (Burning Man-style event).

I’ve written before about some similarities between the 10 Principles of Burns and the values of the Pagan festival community. But beyond that, as Burner culture has grown it has taken on ritual (one might even say “religious”, in the broadest sense) aspects, even without a deliberate inital plan to do so. Chief among these is the Temple.

The Temple was not originally a part of Burning Man; the first Temple didn’t appear on the Playa until 2000. If I recall correctly, there wasn’t one at my first PDF in 2007.

But as a community formed and grew, it found a need for a space of grieving and remembrance. And so at PDF, as at Burning Man, a Temple is built, a structure that invites contemplation and which people inscribe with messages: memorials, hopes, thanks, prayers. And it is burned on the final night of the event.

And that was a space that I needed, still grieving the death of my father.

His death was “service-connected”, in the lingo of the military-industrial complex. He was not killed in battle, but during his time in Vietnam he was exposed to Agent Orange, the herbicide tainted with dioxin. It was only in the last ten or fifteen years of his life that we came to understand how his various health problems were related to this exposure.

So some part of Memorial Day belongs to him now; an ownership he shares with all the other men, women, and children killed directly or indirectly by centuries of brutal and stupid foreign policy, in wars declared and undeclared, fighting for or against the United States Government — or killed as “collateral damage”.

So I wrote a message to him in the Temple (and a few other messages to the universe as well), and blessed the space by reading Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl” in the afternoon.

As it happened, when the Temple burned it was the corner where I had written that message that caught first. And standing there watching, I kind of lost it, weeping openly.

The PDF 2018 Temple Burn. Photo by Jill Ward, used with permission. Temple by Wil Allyn.

I didn’t know it then, but a few hours earlier a flash flood had again destroyed the historic district of Ellicott City — the second “thousand year storm” to hit there in two years — and damaged several houses and businesses in downtown Catonsville.

My own home, located between the two, suffered only minor flooding in one room and an enclosed porch. But an old friend lost her Ellicott City business — again.

The intense storms we saw here in 2016 and again in 2018 were influenced by climate change. But the flooding is also the direct result of overdevelopment.

In both the 2016 flood and this one, it was not the main body of the Patapsco River that did the damage, but the Tiber and Hudson tributaries. These are normally small streams, but as far back as the 1980s residents could see how development was replacing woods and field with impervious pavements and roofs, and directing more and more rain runoff into these little tributaries.

It was obvious long ago that overdevelopment would lead to flooding. But it was inconvenient to take action.

It was obvious long ago that pumping fossil carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would disturb the climate. But it was inconvenient to take action.

And it was obvious at the start that invading a nation and soaking it in dioxin-laden herbicide would be both a moral and a political failure that would come back to bite us in the ass. But the military industrial complex must have its way.

Perhaps this sort of inaction on obvious issues helps drive the formation of counter-cultures like the Pagan revival and Burner culture; and before them, the hippies, the Beats, the lebensreformers, the Transcendentalists, the Romantics…we can trace the thread back a long way.


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I will be performing and presenting at the Free Spirit Gathering next week. (Day passes available! Come up for Saturday) And I’ll be speaking at Starwood Festival next month.

If you do Facebook, you might choose to join a group on “Zen Paganism” I’ve set up there. And don’t forget to “like” Patheos Pagan and/or The Zen Pagan over there, too.

About Tom Swiss
Tom Swiss describes his spiritual path as "Zen Pagan Taoist Atheist Discordian", which usually baffles questioners enough to leave him alone. He is the author of Why Buddha Touched the Earth (Megalithica Books, 2013) and has previously served as President of the Free Spirit Alliance. You can read more about the author here.
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