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Leave No Trace

Island Life

I have been thinking about history lately, which is nothing really new, on a number of levels. Along with that I have been contemplating terms that are inherent to the domain of historical record- those of permanence, impermanence, loss, gain, proliferation and extinction. There is also the whole thing of interpretation, where we find something of a curiosity from the past, and because of its oddness or state of decay we surmise and extrapolate a meaning for it that suits our need for an assigning of purpose for this thing’s coming into existence. More often than not, there has been a large disconnect between the then and the now, which also leaves nearly wide open the range of possibilities for which many objects might have been created. A simple example of this might be the spin Woody Allen’s character in his movie Sleeper puts on the various objects handed to him after awakening from his long sleep, and the twisted truths he concocts to explain their place in the historical record. Another example might be the Antikythera mechanism, although the element of humor here is replaced with a greater degree of awe and wonder.

I first read of this device a few years back in the New Yorker, as opposed to the National Enquirer. It is simply a mass of finely crafted gears that became somewhat fused together after two thousand years beneath the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of a Greek island. It has been studied and photographed and scanned and recreated by a number of different people. Because of the many inscriptions it bears, it has been determined to be a machine used to predict times of eclipses, planetary positions, and the dates of upcoming Olympic tournaments. That it’s intricate gear workings predate most other known mechanisms of similar sophistication by over a thousand years leaves one to speculate as to where "modern man" might have stepped further onto the development timeline had this technology not been removed from the trace of record, or if we would have budged at all. And one could wonder further about other steps erased by accident or intent along the way, and where they might have lead us if the march of human advancement had been as relentless as the procession of time.

I think of all of this now, at least in part, because of the recent sojourn to Burning Man, where many things exist only to be destroyed, including the city itself. Most of the entire population of Black Rock City comes and goes in the stretch of a week, allowing it the unofficial and semi-real status of being somewhere around the tenth largest "city" in Nevada at some point in the festival ebb and flow. It is in this span of time that the tale of the six blind men and the elephant is perhaps way more relevant than elsewhere, as each individual’s experience here can truly be unique to one’s own sphere of interaction. The whole leave no trace ethic of the festival, while key to the continued use of these Bureau of Land Management environs, is both a joke and a vast contradiction, depending on who you talk to afterward. There are many people who stick around after the burns have been completed in order to clean up after all who chose to leave some trace in spite of the asking not to. And then there are those who will tell you that the experience of Burning Man has changed their life forever, which on one level belies the no trace mantra on at least a spiritual level.

Two of the objects I came and left with for my time in the desert were a transaxle from a Model A Ford that I had painted glossy silver and a triangle made of wood that inclined to a specific angle and had been painted matte black. Once oriented to the north, these two pieces together became the basis for a crude sundial that became functional as I marked each hour by scratching lines into the dry and cracked lake bed. There was a third item included here- a chrome solar powered patio light- to keep passersby alerted to the presence of this object on the dark side of a desert day. While it did not allow the dial to extend its usefulness beyond sunset, at least this new/old clock did not become a nuisance in the hours of its sunless retirement. And even though the only thing that remained as we packed out of the desert were those faint and fading scratches on the playa surface, one couldn’t help but wonder what interpretation might have been put forth years in the future about the discovery of a lone axle in the middle of nowhere, let alone what might be made of the facts of what really had gone on there. One can only speculate about how traces of history would be better served with more contiguous and detailed tales to limit the speculation, and perhaps keep us moving ahead as opposed to constantly relearning lessons that we maybe have already past by once or many times before.