cisler on Sun, 10 Jan 1999 22:26:33 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Fire and water

I had forwarded some details of the Next Five Minutes 3 conference in 
Amsterdam to an old acquaintance interested in wireless data. We had not
corresponded for years, and he responded with a spur-of the-moment
invitation to a strange ritual in San Francisco that took place last night.

Millions of Christmas trees are sold every year in the US and those trees
have to be disposed of somehow. Our recyclers in San Jose pick them up on
Mondays after the holiday season, but many are dumped in lots, burned in
fireplaces, or thrown into dumpsters.  In San Francisco one computer guru
started a sort of spin-off event from the now exceedingly popular Burning
Man event (my son's high school is even planning a field trip there. So much
for counter culture).

An email goes out inviting people to gather up old Chrismas trees, gather at
a spot, then move out to an area that is announced only by word of mouth and
burn the trees. The email was forwarded all around the area, mainly with a
loose group of hackers, designers, nerds, and an aging group of old farts
that had grown up on the WELL.

We gathered at a hamburger joint in San Franciso near the Pacific Ocean. I
go into San Francisco so rarely, that it feels like another planet, though
it's only an hour away. I saw some old faces from The WELL , but I could not
remember their names. Oddly, I only remembered that one fellow's uncle had
founded a famous ice cream store, but his name still eludes me.  When a
hundred folks gathered, a U.S. forestry official wearling a green uniform
complete with Smokey the Bear hat, entered the diner and looked for the
disorganizer of the event. He seemed pleasant enough, knowing that any kind
of stern demeanor might squelch the chances of stopping the event. He spoke
with a few of us and then rushed out.

The crowd swelled to 200 or so, and quickly the desitnation address spread
around the crowd milling inside and outside. Everyone quickly went to their
cars and trucks, many of which were piled high with old trees, and we headed
out of the diner in a rag-tag convoy. The beach lay a few hundred meters
from the diner, and the highway led north to a parking lot about two
kilometers away. Everyone piled out of their vehicles, grabbed, wood, trees,
drinks, and stumbled down one of the staircases that led to the wide,
relatively deserted beach. The temperature was about 10 degrees C.. The
night was very clear, and the stars were bright. Surf was very high because
of Pacific storms.  We walked about 300 meters to an area where someone
decided the pile of trees should be. There was no special architecture for
the pyre. Dozens of trees were tossed in a pile as a start, then some old
wood from a construction site, then more trees and wreaths.

The crowd grew to about 300, and drummers began. A dog ran excitedly. It
knew something was going to happen. A man appeared with a large compressed
gas tank with a long pipe extension. He lit it and approached the trees,
just as a policeman came up and began talking with him. Some began yelling
to light the fire, but it was relatively calm. A young man came up to listen
to the cop and  the firestarter. He held a tiny tree in his hand which he
casually held in the gas flame, and he tossed it on the pile.  The cop
grabbed it off the pile, extinguished it, and continued to talk calmly to
the firestarter.

Meanwhile, on the other side, people were lighting the trees with matches.
The cop must have disappeared because the firestarter came around, cranked
up the propane tank and really blasted the trees.  The crowd roared as the
flames grew.  Then it spread in less than a minute until sparks and ashes
and flames climbed 25 meters into the night sky. This is what the crowd had
come for.

"More trees, more trees!" people chanted, and late arrivals brought their
offerings which were tossed onto the pyre.  These caught fire at once, and
the gradations of color and heat as a whole tree was consumed was really
quite beautiful.  The crowd had to move back as the heat intensified. More
trees were added.  Someone shouted, "Ho-fucking-Ho!"  Everyone kept their
distance from the inferno, except to add another tree.

I thought of what a Canadian aboriginal in New Brunswick said to a friend of
mine, "The white man builds a big camp fire and sits far from it.  The
Indian builds a small one and sits close. Let us sit close."

Because of an accident I had had earlier in the day, I had to get home and
recuperate, so I left early. I walked up the dunes to a crest and looked
down on the tribe, enjoying the warmth, the cold air, the closeness, and
perhaps relishing the disapproval of the police, Earth First!, and the park
rangers. And it was a  wonderful change from staring at a monitor all day
and night, but few of us would have heard about it any other way.  It was a
nice change for me.  As I drove off past the parked police cars in the lot,
I could see the flames above the dunes, and as I pulled out the main
disorganizer of the event drove up in a rented pickup, stuffed with a dozen
more trees. I wonder if he made it to his own party. At any rate, I'm sure
he will have something very creative planned (or not planned) for January

Steve Cisler
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