Beetle to go up in flames
Published: Thursday, January 16th, 2014
After years of watching the Mountain Pine Beetles ravage the Black Hills, many Custer residents are finally reaching acceptance — but not before setting fire to the little buggers.
The Burning Beetle, sponsored by the Bark Beetle Blues, will put an end to a year-long mourning for all the pine trees killed by the Mountain Pine Beetles. The event will kick off Saturday, Jan. 18, at the Custer High School theatre with a memorial, which will include music, word, dance and a slide show documenting a year of Bark Beetle Blue events.
After the memorial, a drum corps will lead the revelers, torch bearers, puppets and mourners to Pageant Hill and the Custer Volunteer Fire Department will set off fireworks and the Burning Beetle, a 28- foot long beetle sitting on 20 feet of slash piles from beetle trees. After the beetle goes up in flames, the second annual Bug Crawl will begin in downtown Custer where five venues will feature live music, food and other activities.
The Burning Beetle, which came to life from an idea by Frank Carroll, member of the Bark Beetles Blues, was put into action by craftsman Karl Sversson in just a month’s time.
“We’re entering the 18th year of this beetle attack. We’ve spent our time and treasure on fighting the beetle, and nothing dealing with the emotional impacts of one of the biggest changes to the physical aspect of the Black Hills in our lifetimes,” Carroll said. “Tens of millions of dead trees and people are traumatized, much in the way people were traumatized in the wake of the ’88 Yellowstone fires.”
The Bark Beetles Blues committee spent a year following other groups’ models of creating a series of events, celebrations, craft shows, music events and book readings to help people understand what’s happening, in addition to get them through the grieving process.
The idea for the Burning Beetle came from other effigies created — a Zozobra in Santa Fe, which represents all the bad things of the year past, and the Burning Man epic in Nevada, which is a symbol to wash away all that plagues participants.
“Our community is the epicenter of the beetle attack, just as it was in 1909,” Carroll said. “It’s about recognizing and accepting and moving on, all in a night of fireworks, a funeral pyre and wake, followed by several hours of music in five venues, food, drink and contemplation.”
Before solidifying the event, Carroll went to Mayor Gary Lipp to get support for the Burning Beetle.
“I asked him about the event and wanted to know if the fire department would like to set a beetle on fire and he said, ‘Cool!’ He was all for it,” Carroll said. “The fire department was on board to lead the parade and put on a show. It will be very ‘cool’ to have an event like this in January.”
Bringing the Burning Beetle to life was Sversson, who put his master carpentry degree skills to use. Sversson, who worked on and off on the project for four weeks, estimates he put $100 of his own money into the effigy, with most of the materials and labor donated by the community and volunteers.
“The community has donated materials and has been really helpful,” he said. “They’ve been a great support and really rallied around this project.”
The huge beetle was constructed monocoque style — resembling a boat — with plywood as the main structure and strips of blue bark beetle wood covering the outside. The bug will be covered in burlap and have legs and antennas made from logs.
Funds for the building of the beetle have come from a variety of ways, including donations, the Custer Area Arts Council, sales of T-shirts and tickets and volunteers.
“This whole event is about acceptance and moving on. It’s symbolic — bringing in the new and getting rid of the old,” Sversson said. “I have found more acceptance in the community than I originally thought there would be. It’s been more positive than negative.”
Through this project, Sversson wants others to embrace what the Mountain Pine Beetles have done.
“One of the positives to come out of the beetle destruction is this blue stained wood,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s beautiful when done in the right way. I’ve built some furniture and done some houses with it.”
“The blue wood, in a way, is a gift,” Carroll added. “Not a lot of places want to deal with the blue wood, so it’s in surplus. It’s a thing of beauty and power — it’s iconic.”
While the Burning Beetle and Bug Crawl could be the event of the year for Custer residents, it’s also gaining national attention. A photographer from National Geographic, which has been covering and reporting on the destruction from the beetles, will be in the area to capture the festivities.
Carroll, who is friends with Mark Thiessen at National Geographic, found out it was doing a story on the beetles and how affected communities deal with the issue. Photographer Peter Essick will shoot photos for the story and spend Saturday in Custer.
“The story will not only show how the beetles are affecting the forest, but connect people with what’s happening and how we are dealing with it,” Carroll said. “This is a fun community project which, these days, are hard to come by.”
“This will be a fun event,” Lipp added. “You can cry if you want to (about the devastation of the trees), but this is a fun and different way to deal with the problem.”
The Burning Beetle begins at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 18, at the Custer High School. A $5 wristband will get participants into all of the activities. Commemorative sweatshirts and T-shirts may be purchased at Shanklin’s.
For more information on the Burning Beetle, the Bug Crawl or the Bark Beetle Blues, visit http://theburningbeetle.org.
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