One of the most amazing projects assembled at Burning Man this year was the Cradle of Mir. Mir, written as Мир in Russian, is a word meaning both ‘Peace’ and ‘World’. It was a wonderfully poetic name chosen for the first space station made by mankind, and for 15 years it circled our home planet before burning up in re-entry over the South Pacific.
This year the Cradle of Mir crew (Колыбель Мира) travelled from Russia to spend a month in the Black Rock Desert. The Cradle of Mir was their project, and it was a perfect first attempt. Their piece has everything that makes a Burning Man project great.
The structure was a 3-story tall wooden pyramid. Inside, the Russians built a 1/3 scale model of the Mir space station. The model was constructed from wood, and adorned with random bits of found junk. An antenna might be made from a bent fork, or a barbecue grill. A radar dish might be built from a pie plate, and a thruster from an old duct fan. The end result was Mir, and reminded me of the days when space travel was a wonderful new frontier of science, and I was building model rockets out of paper tubes and balsa.
The Cradle was literal as well as figurative. Inside each corner of the pyramid are a pair of hammocks, providing shaded, protected shelter from the heat of the day. There is even a comfie chair that can be used as a place to sit and read under the arms of the station.
Where Mir touches the playa, there is a circle of books of art and poetry. These are gifts to the community, and a reminder that beautiful science springs from a nest of imagination and dreams. None of these books are burned with Mir… they are all taken away by Burners, literally sharing the knowledge from this project with countries around the world.
Like any great Burning Man project, Mir invites visitors to write their messages to be sent out into space when the Cradle is burned. The structure is covered with messages, from puerile frat humor to deeply sad and personal messages of people struggling to communicate with one another.
And on Friday night it’s time to burn the Cradle of Mir. Many, many people are involved in a major burn. The Russians provide their own perimeter security. For every two Russians, there is one Black Rock City Ranger. A large crew of Emergency Services personnel stand by, as well as a firefighting crew. The Pyro team has been busy for the last few hours preparing the structure, setting up things like fire canons and stuffing extra wood into the structure to help the burn go quickly. In Black Rock City, a major burn is not extraordinary… it’s what they do.
And then, finally, four women from the Russian team approach the structure. They carry fire sticks; long wooden sticks with flares tied to the ends. They use these to paint the Cradle with fire. And the Cradle burns eagerly. The fire canons explode and the Mir station disintegrates instantly. It disappears sending off a parade of fiery djinns, each carrying messages from Mir to the heavens.
Eventually the four walls of the pyramid fall, one after another. When the fourth falls and nothing is left standing more than six feet tall, the crowd is allowed to flow in to the flames. As with all burns, the crowd circles counter-clockwise, coming as close as possible to the flames, but being held back by the searing heat.
As the flames slowly die away, so does the crowd, some looking for the next spectacle, and some lingering to stare into the embers. The Russians will guard the fire all night long, slowly banking the embers into a tighter and tighter circle. This was their art, they have released it. Now they watch as it slowly fades away, sharing stories (and possibly vodka) with one another, as the stars circle overhead.