Burning Man – Artistic Genius – Then Burn It Up

Since Burning Man begins in a month – always over the Labor Day weekend, giving yet another insane rendering of “Labor” – and make no mistake, for those Black Rock Rangers and the other intrepid workers who lay out and construct what you see below – there is a ton of work they labor at, in a pleasure so pure it hurts:

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In the end, a city of 40,000 campers looks just like this:


The efforts get cleaned in a rather dramatic fashion, later, including the burning, as mentioned below, of everything, no matter how temporarily cool:


I’m doing this post to please a friend who asked about what all the hubub was over Burning Man. She had never heard of it. Since I’ve been there, I have my own very personal opinion. So, Marcia – here ya go. The event is coming soon. Adventurous, thought-provoking, anarchistic, artistic – the adjectives flow like water over the Niagra Falls………..in the end, while it is indescribably interesting, make no mistake – it’s fun!


I guess I’m stretching a bit to present what to many is a scandalously misunderstood event in here in my nice conservative, construction and design-related blog, but I feel somehow almost obligated to. I enjoy sharing my life in every way and I obviously appreciate products I consider items of artistic genius.

My interest in this popular and controversial event  stems from these underpinnings. And I am one who fully believes Burning Man is an event of Timeless value.  There are many sayings and diatribes on how we contaminate reality with belief, but the purity of the vision here and the enthusiasm of its participants, is wholly off the charts. This event is unique in the world – thus drawing so many travelers who design visits around it. I guess that pretty much says it all.

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Burning Man is a week-long event of something more than epic proportions, held on the same “playa” or lake bed where the world land speed record was set a few years ago by the crazed Englishman piloting a virtual jet car at above the speed of sound. Gerlach, Nevada is about 60 miles Northest of Reno and it is an otherwise sleepy, oppressively hot burg of a scattered population of every political persuasion known to man. But the world class events which happen out its front windows are some crazy stuff.


What began in 1986 with a few guys hoisting up an 8′ high wooden “Man” and then setting the sucker on fire on Baker Beach in San Fransisco, has now evolved into something of a virtual culture. This year, 48,000 people will congregate in the Black Rock Desert to participate in this year’s version of Burning Man – a festival like absolutely no other. Here, from the Burning Man’s own website is the timeline and history of the event.

You can see some strange stuff out there!


Nature gets gorgeous and pretty crazy during a stay in the desert like this. One sure needs good shades, some serious sun screen and a ton of water. Dust storms are normal, not rare – it seems every year is good for a nasty, good sized dust storm: Here comes one now!


But Nature also gives………..



It may surprise people to realize that the average age of a Burning Man attendee is around 35. After a walk around, through all the amazingly well-organized streets of campers, sporting silliness and wonder, it becomes more obvious.

Burning Man is a “barter zone” – money is only allowed for use at the Main Tent for coffee, lemonades and for the purchase of Ice. Otherwise, you can leave your wallet back where “civilization” rules. The Burning Man experience is so creative, large and literally engulfing, that you find yourself contributing. In the end, in fact, this is the energy behind the event. It has indeed become something of a culture of its own, led by enterprising artists and Internet-savvy art geeks and it provides a wonder of stuff – nearly indescribable, really. Night time scenes see amazing high tech lighting and nocturnally-inspired art work:



And the “Mobile Art”, lol. The Art Cars have institued their own world of whimsy, now featuring an Art Car Festival in Houston, Texas and a natural outgrowth of the male need to tinker and play, lol. Needless to say, these were always my favorites:


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Some are just for fun



Some are more serious:



And these are just the “cars”. The art?


This is what grownups can do, lol…………


A pretty solid visual feast, no matter how you look at it.


Then it disappears – in 3 days, it will be as if no one had even been there.


From these, the Fire Temple of wood, above and two years of The Man below:




From this……….



To this:


It’s all good, interesting, exciting and always weird  – which is the point. It’s is the single most Artistical Artical Event ever. 😉




High End Landscaping – Workin’ For The Rich Folks

Landscaping at the lunatic fringe of wealth, like carpeting at the lunatic fringe of wealth, or any other contracting trade, is its own class. Whereas it is a most heavenly possibility to help relieve these people from their overburdened wallets and bank accounts, the results can be disappointing, sad to say. Let’s just leave it at the point that not every encounter with the Uber-Wealthy is a positive experience. In fact, it’s about 50-50, the truth is.

I will absolutely not name names in my blog, other than referring to conversations of a casual or humorous nature. But I can tell of stories where people were strikingly miserable who were wealthy into the hundreds of millions and even billions. They’re people too! They need landscaping and all that stuff. Let’s just say – on a personal level – in many cases people get predictably suspicious of others when they have a lot. There is something to the adage that plenty yields some paranoia. Sometimes, a whole dam lot of it. In some cases, it becomes a threat to your own security. The rich play by their own sets of rules. In fact, many is the time that they make them up!

Anyway, rather than continue this line, knowing nothing we can say will change things that much, just know that merely working for impressive people with “beyond-impressive” homes is not some automatic entree to becoming rich one’s self. You can also go broke working for them – and almost just as easy. Sometimes – through no real fault of your own.

Here’s the third most expensive home in the US: (weighing in at a mere $100 million)

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Here’s the pool! That’s marble, by the way.


Now, I admit, that was something of a freak show. In one case, it may well have been the most nervous time I ever spent landscaping. We literally had to transport ourselves in a huge excavator, complete with about an 8 ton boulder in our grasp, for placing in a water feature I regret to say I have no pictures of. The slightest rock or article in the way as we crept inside could have tipped the machine enough to scar the walls – or worse, of course – of the granite facing, there was that little tolerance. In fact, we graded and raked towards a perfect finish underneath, just so we could get that monster machine between the walls without incident. It was a white knuckle experience, right off the get go. In fact, as interesting as this project might seem to an outsider, it was a small version of Hell in many ways, there were so many eyes, including the owners – on us at all times. Nor did we last – lol, there were a total of 5 different companies who worked on the project, jettisoned one after another like players on a chessboard. Some projects are not worth the trouble, frankly. And that’s a tough lesson.

Now here’s a mere 17 million dollar home. Now we’re slumming!! Actually, this homeowner was in the dumps at various times for reasons which were his own, lol. I confess, I never really cared for the dude. He once referred to it as a “dump”. Go figure. Fortunately, we were contracted by the builder, rather than the owner, so we almost got paid completely! Oh – I almost forgot – it’s rare to get all your money with many of the more miserable of these types. What really makes that odd is the generation of higher prices to begin with for the proactive contractor, familiar with their ways. I once literally gave a rebate to a client in this category of wealth because he paid his bill in full. I’m not kidding, either. It may well have been the best few bucks I ever spent too. He sent more people my way than I had time to do.

So here’s what $450,000 worth of landscaping will get you: (bear in mind the more open areas were filled with perennial and annual plants and some very gorgeous lamps and lighting which were articles of beauty on their own at about $250 a piece, copper tulips, in fact, with blooms for lights, all multicolored. It is typical of this site that my pictures are made either during construction or soon – like real soon – after completion. We then move on.)


That waterfall there is a two part deal, branching out at the top and going in both directions. Here is the other side of it:


From the street, here is a longer range view:


Nor were these the only water features! We installed this one up by the front door.


It’s rather hard to make out owing to the fact that our drip irrigation  sprayers were on at the time. Those Aspens, by the way, were our additions. 30′ feet high, it was a mighty tight fit putting them in so close to the house. They each weighed a couple of tons and were placed by a monstrous hydraulic tree spade, along with some Noble and White Firs we placed at other locations nearby.

Anyway, here is what the little water feature looked like in process. From this:


To this, then the finished product above. What was funny was that we decided to toss this in as a “toss-in”:


It had one humongous rear patio of stamped concrete:


The stone work was a triumph, however. These walls really add to the overall ambiance terrifically:


The driveway was an interesting mix of brick pavers and stamped concrete.


I really enjoyed the brick work on this project. It worked out outstandingly. Note the Firs in the picture above. Those we also planted, same with the Aspens. Here is a look at the large trees we inserted before we worked on the pavers. One is before we finished the project and the other is after. Of perhaps even more interest is a look at the wild numbers of electrical wiring, pipes and the general traffic in underground services, shown only slightly in the picture just below. Wiring for lights was inserted at the same time as the irrigation piping, irrigation wiring, electrical for the pumps running the water feature (220V) and even power for the heat tape and security gate which goes under the brick driveway:



Stressful at times, yet often resulting in sublime satisfaction for purely selfish reasons as an artisan and tradesman, projects such as these are what we literally die for.


I have a few of these cataloged and I await some pictures from my brother which include other outrageous projects, all of which mixed pleasure and pain in ample amounts – and in every conceivable way.



Reno, Nevada

RENODowntwnI have gotten some mail from old friends – people I have not seen in ages – who asked “how on earth can one landscape in Reno?” Well – it’s not that hard, given modern technology, irrigation and using all the advances in botanical science, native plant insights, drip irrigation and a love for some space between things. In the end, Reno may well have been my favorite place ever for landscaping, the truth is. It has become easier by degrees, bearing the above in mind. With a healthy imagination, one can literally “go to town”. Anyway, I am recirculating this one for their benefit. Incidentally, I added much to the bottom.

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I was surprised to enjoy this town as much as I did, living there. In 1991, my wife and I decided it was too “shaky” in Santa Cruz, California, where I had spent about 8 months cleaning up after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. The sale of her business and my mobility allowed us to think about living somewhere where house prices were reasonable to raise our brand new daughter. Since Alice’s Mom and Dad were retiring to lake Tahoe and her sister then lived in Truckee, California, Reno became a destination of interest. A real probe of the environment saw me sleeping after 10 minutes of riding. The brown of the surrounding foothills and the crushing lack of natural green did not move me at all. And, of course, like anywhere, there were other secrets – lurking.

However, I woke up at a timely moment. As we drove on the freeway close to what was then the Reno Hilton Hotel, I saw that James Brown was playing there on New Year’s Eve! That most definitely got my attention. So, like the rhododendron blooms which introduced me to the finer side of landscaping, “The Godfather Of Soul” played a role in my deciding Reno was not so bad. I said “Yes”.php0CSltFAM

We moved, bought ourselves a home and lived there for the next nearly 20 years. I was fortunate enough to land a job almost immediately, working for Tom Stille, who I describe better below. However, I temporarily left for Portland in 1996 for a stretch, following our divorce, commuting often by driving 540 miles for a weekend visit, then returning after a day or two. The drives were almost universally breath-taking, cruising the American West in a good car, even if I arrived exhausted. In Reno, I had got somewhat fed up with local attitudes in landscaping but I finally moved back when I realized the strides that had been made in landscaping – and the absolutely booming housing market – in my absence. I began another venture in landscaping, at first working for a guy – Gail Willey – who was connected like crazy to Lake Tahoe, then running crews for another interesting dude, Tim Burkett,  before launching out on my own. More importantly, I rediscovered serious softball. How nice to absolutely be certain you will never be rained out!  I played often – some years over 200 ballgames, including tournaments and regular season affairs and met more friends than is legal. Reno is a softball-nuts town – there were over 800 different teams in a town smaller than Fresno or Lexington, Kentucky.

But back to the “lurking secrets” – here’s one now! (My sister Diane’s back porch):


And her street:


At least 4 times I remember waking up one morning to upwards of 3 feet of snow. Another memorable time, I woke up to 4 feet, then 3 more the next day! That was an amazing storm which fed 19 feet of measurable snow up into the upper regions of the Sierra Nevada Range to our West – in 2 days! And James Brown did not come over to clear my driveway!

But that snow also leads to the other, more pleasant realm of Winter Sports, for which Reno is justifiably famous. Having hosted a Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, hard by Lake Tahoe, the slopes for skiing are the match of anywhere in the world. Plus they continually expand facilities. Pretty much every kid in Reno has a season pass to snowboard or ski at some mountain – of which there are many nearby. Here’s a look at what it looks like, driving around up there:

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Lake Tahoe as you come down from the 10,000 foot high pass.

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And on the other side, looking down into that valley where Reno is, in the far, far distance:

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Interestingly, all that snow has implications for Summers and for my trade. Reno has a pretty well thought-out reservoir system which collects and stores all that snow melt. In fact, it is the primary source for water. With accumulations sometimes over 200 feet in the higher levels over a Winter’s time, it’s easy to see how all that works. Naturally, yes, there are poor years for snow melt, even consecutive ones which do indeed affect water usage.

And sometimes, it also makes for the most intense disasters, such as in 1997, when a massive accumulation of snow was followed by temperatures literally in the 80’s and with the accursed poor luck that the front also containing rainfall of equally massive proportions. It led to The Reno Floods of 1997 .

So – it is definitely glitzy downtown – (the natives don’t really get down there much except to entertain out-of-town guests or to see the many shows which circulate through) and actually somewhat homey if not “small town”. Reno, it turns out, is a warm-hearted, family-oriented and surprisingly professional town with progressive ideas in terms of the  environment in general. For one thing, it is nearly all electrified now by Thermal Energy, tapping into its situation as the most active thermal spot in the country. I’ve done landscaping out by these thermal “leaks”, where you can smell the sulphur of volcanic emissions coming right out of cracks in the ground. There is a thermal “spa” out on the route to Carson City, going South, complete with abundant little puffs of smoke to be seen on a regular basis. Currently, I read where Reno is now 100% dependent on this form of energy and its developer is a leader in the world for the technology.


I was fortunate enough to begin working in Reno under Tom Stille, President and resident Landscape Architect for Interpretive Gardens of Reno and the Pinyon Design Group of the same address. A pleasant and smart-as-a-whip dude with a low tolerance for fools, Tom was at one time a leader in the then-new technology of “Drip Irrigation” as well as a front-runner in the concept of “Xeriscaping” – the most productive possible use of low water volume landscaping with the implementation of native plantings. Having come from environments such as Vancouver, British Columbia, my knowledge of irrigation was less than zero. Tom taught me a ton. Tom’s attraction to the Xeriscape concept was early and total. He saw its obvious necessity and he took to it and helped develop many local projects – including the Reno Airport Landscaping and the incredible Reno Automobile Museum – which exist to this day, 20 years later. Tom ruffled some feathers in the “British Model” community, attempting to talk sense and sustainability to the sod growers and nuttier designers, often to no avail. He could get hot.


In the end, it led to my embracing a far more “minimalist” perspective in designing my own projects – something which, by stressing the economy of water usage placed more emphasis on other factors, such as mulches, garden art and hardscapes. As well, it acquainted me far, far more – and totally satisfyingly – with native plants – no matter where I landscaped.


In the end, Reno was a marvelous experience for me as I sit writing here in Louisville, Kentucky, where irrigation is a near-foreign term. I love me some Reno, Nevada.

(Added later)…………Interestingly, people with wells on their own properties can feel a bit more free about finding enough water to irrigate large lawns and water-hungry plants. Here, for example, is a case of that, out in the Washoe Valley – a home we designed and did for a builder there:


The pavers here circle the home as well as fill in not only a large driveway but also a substantial patio. His views were magnificent, obviously, with “Slide Mountain” – the reverse side of Mount Rose –  towering in the distance. But most interestingly, he had a great well, nearby as he was to Washoe Lake, which allowed him to do more things than your normal water-challenged souls in Reno proper.



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Autmun In Reno and Other Hilarities

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Back before the settlers moved in and the casinos exploded, Autumn in Reno, Nevada used to be a mix of the yellows of the local Cottonwood/Aspen, maybe the Willow population and a few bushes, generally willows, at that. Always a swampy area, Reno surfaced hard by the Truckee River by virtue of bringing in back fill and raising the town itself to its current level. The presence near the river distanced it from the desert which surrounded it, most particularly to the East. Needless to say, the mountain ranges a very few miles to the West, featuring Lake Tahoe and Donner Pass, determined that particular geography and that the flora there would give a few great-looking splashes of brilliant yellow Aspens in the crevices of the mountains, already mixed with a bazillion Pines. So, Reno has hardly been a deciduous “Autumn Spectacular” historically. It has been “passable” as a feature, said by the finicky landscaper.

Well, now people went and showed up. Now it is becoming something else entirely. On the dozens of projects I worked on in Reno, Fall Color became one of the most-desired elements. I guess what is most ironic about it all has been the discovery of what a lush variety of trees and shrubbery actually thrive there. Maples, Sweet Gums, Ashes – all sorts of bizarre and riotously-colored Fall trees have become popular and are in the process of determining a more than slightly interesting development into an amazing Fall series of breakout color. Needless to say, the incredibly popular Euonymus Elata – “Burning Bush” to the rest of us – also made a showing, among other Autumn glories.

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There are always “caveats” to planting anything in Reno. Unremitting sunshine can literally “scald” tree  bark so many wise Reno-ites apply Latex or “Whitewash” to help with the lower barked areas of trees as a sort of “Sunscreen”. Dealing with bugs and fungi are also issues – always occurring for ‘introduced’ species anywhere, but, by and large, Maples, Sweet Gums and the rest are already real close to a natural adaptation. A bit of help with water and looking out for the ravages of Sun and they absolutely thrive.


My sister Diane, who teaches school in Reno and who also loves the photography of her own neighborhood’s small delights, sent me a raft of photos from this Fall’s Autumn display along with some more-than-interesting pictures from another realm of irony – the historical “Sequoia Love Fest” of Reno. She has moved into one of the older areas of Reno – a very-established neighborhood of immensely pleasing walking sights and sounds, peaceful and satisfyingly inhabited. Very treed-up, these are sights available which the newer areas of Ren0 – immense and now-sprawling – do not have. It was in Diane’s current much-enjoyed neighborhood where those real historical experimentation’s took place.

But first, her local Autumn color, beginning with what has to be a Norway Maple – to my mind, a very popular and healthy tree in the Reno climate:


Check out this gorgeous Red Oak, famous for its brilliant Fall color:


I love the deep purple of this Raywood Ash –


Ground covers are another under rated aspect of Fall color and I think she really captures this particular delight in this picture where we see a few remaining green leaves midst the severely altered Fall color:


Experimentation’s with architecture also happened! I love this little white home, shady as it is and so well-placed among the neighbors. Cosy and welcoming, it adds a personal and eccentric touch to the homes surrounding it.


Now to the “hilarity”, with a great “segue home” above.

No doubt while casting about for the right trees and plants to establish in Reno, there was some wild enthusiasm shown to Giant Sequoia’s. This happens to also be one of my very favorite species and they are incredibly handsome to look at as they develop, then tower over just pretty much everything in their march to Lord knows how high. Which is the point. At their height of development, who would not love looking outdoors and seeing this view?


Or this?


There is nothing that is NOT impressive about these gorgeous behemoths. These here are probably 60-80 years old and are already over 100 feet high. Perfectly balanced, unimpeded by competition, they show a breath-taking beauty of form and of power. They shade an entire street, easily and those soft-looking needles make quite a show during windy days. Very much the Gentle Giants, what do they look like down below? Did people literally plant these trees hoping for fast growth and as lawn ornaments? I fear the answer is a qualified “Yes”.


They do get large!



And they are pretty rough on pretty much anything that gets in their way. I suspect these large guys have found a water table in their march upwards- and downwards – and that it is more than a bit satisfying to them. Sequoia’s tend to root laterally in many cases, although they do root deeper than other trees – such as Cedars – which also thrive in creek bottoms and river flood plains. These particular trees have thrived beyond doubt, no doubt to the dismay of those watching their Imperialistic Ways march relentlessly on. They have also been very toughened up by the relentless Reno winds which prevail in Spring like nobody’s business, daily. I think it’s safe to say they are not going anywhere.


Once pampered, now “on their own”, these guys which were once beloved owing to their shape and foliage are now creeping into problematic areas, such as foundations, streets and sidewalks.

This is not uncommon anywhere, don’t think I am picking on some failure of projection for Reno people. All cities deal with specified plants which act other than was initially desired. Any look at power line work, angry cable installers, telephone personnel testifies to this – anywhere. But these are unique to me, in that they are such gorgeous and humongous specimens now. The implications of planting trees which grow far beyond what we planned is on display here – and nothing else. People love what they love and will work around their “mistakes”.

Even gorgeous Blue Spruces can crowd a guy a little bit!


I love the dilemma, don’t get me wrong. It’s always super to see people with love affairs for trees and plants, no matter how much soup they find themselves in.

Just the same, there are some plants who do better than thrive, if that’s possible. Pyracantha, for example, seem to have adopted Reno as the greatest place on Earth.


Cool stuff.