Delta Wagon Pilot Run
The Sacramento–San Joaquin’s 10,000 miles of river delta offer a vast blank canvas for interactive floating art. This canvas moves and breathes with the tide. The flood tide holds back the river’s westward flow and the ebb sucks it out to sea with surprising speed. It took a little over four hours to tow my half-ton “Delta wagon” platform against the current four and a half miles to Mandeville Tip, home of the annual Ephemerisle festival (aka “Burning Man on the water”). I guess I had to learn my lesson about the tides the hard way before installing my first art project.
The Delta has mostly been the province of fishers and farmers, plus a handful of speed freaks and too-tan river-rats. More recently it’s become a temporary home to a handful of festival goers and “seasteaders” looking toward the ocean as a future habitat for humankind. Seasteading aims to turn a political problem — the lack of diversity and choice in governance — into an engineering problem: the construction of floating autonomous communities to challenge the status quo. My interest lies there, not in late-night raves. However, the Burning Man culture of building temporary interactive art has created a bridge between a particular Wild West sub-culture and the drive toward earth’s last frontier.
I conceived of my platform as a standard module for “Deltasteading” to serve as an addition to sailboats like my little Columbia 24'. While the Delta is hardly a real or rugged frontier, it can serve as an incubator for the “life support” technologies that will make seasteading possible in the future. A small sailboat provides many of the amenities of a houseboat, except living space. I wanted a comfortable place to dwell, move around, and eat meals, all under a shade covering. More important than comfort and habitability, however, I wanted my platform to be inspiring and visually appealing like so much of the art at Burning Man.
I appreciate how much life slows down on the Delta, but the slog from the Pirate’s Lair Marina to Mandeville Point was too rapid a deceleration given my low tolerance for boredom, reinforced by my worrisome addiction to distraction — especially coming off of a week of frantic construction and preparation. I alternated between checking my cruising speed and Google Maps, while listening to the last chapters of an audiobook — Kevin Starr’s California: A History.
Perhaps more accurately described as a sailboat patio, my Delta wagon was inspired by the Conestoga wagon that opened new tracts of western land to American settlers in the 1800s — sometimes bringing them to the banks of the Sacramento in search of gold. Now, the gold is gone, but the dream of something glittering remains. Starr writes about California as a perpetual Shangri-La — a paradisal mega-state where countless pilgrims have flocked in search of a better life. Science and technology have been rumored to hold the key to this utopia, and California’s natural landscape has been reshaped by engineering to a greater extent than any other. The elaborate system of levees that divert fresh Delta water hundreds of miles to Southern California and farms in the Central Valley make Starr’s case in a single point.
My last article laid out my plans for the Delta wagon, transposing time-tested houseboat building techniques onto a triangular frame.
Here’s how that went:
The platform — just wood, bolts and barrels — took about a week of driveway prep, culminating in a day-long assembly sprint at the boat ramp at the “Pirates Lair.” It took another day of working on the water to lay smooth redwood floor boards over the coarse plywood and to set up a makeshift awning, repurposed from an old worn out jib.
In the end, we only got to enjoy the wagon–patio for a couple of days before towing it back to land (going with the tide this) and disassembling it in a record two hours.
Was it Worth It?
I consider the pilot run a success. The thing got built and was safely transported to and from the event. It also hosted some overnight visitors, several hearty meals, a workshop on writing blessings, and an impromptu improv session (h/t to Jacob Lyles). Few people from the festival came out to visit the Delta wagon, or were even aware of its presence — in part because I intentionally anchored it away from the earsplitting electronic dance music zone closer to the main islands.
Next year, the Ephemerisle festival will celebrate the 10th anniversary of radical freedom on the water, but I think I may opt out and instead come a few weeks earlier to enjoy the 243rd annual celebration of regular old freedom, at the Hilton-sponsored 4th of July fireworks show at the same location.
There’s a certain amount of dont-give-a-damn pioneering spirit that is necessary to break out of land-locked mediocrity. Toward this end, Ephemerisle has served a noble purpose. Society pats itself on the back for technological progress, yet this same progress seems to be driving us deeper into isolation and soul-sucking unreality. Hunched over our screens and peering into the abyss of our endless digital timelines, our shoulders curve in a bit more with every limp scroll and click. Our hands grip with less force, and our bodies have forgotten what it’s like to navigate a harsh physical environment in search of new means to sustain life and give it meaning. There’s much to be said for the effort involved in taking to the water and building stuff — physical stuff — to live on for a time.
I could harp on the shortcomings of Ephemerisle — the obnoxious music disturbing the peace, the gratuitous nudity, the grunge, and the mindless intoxication. But the biggest offense to my mind, more noticeable this year than in years past, was the lack of interesting interactive art on display and the incoherence of what little could be called art with the surrounding structures. An aesthetic and cultural monoculture seems to reign over the event — made worse by the lack of individual houseboats, and their replacement with bigger vessels (barges, tugs, and pressure-treated platforms in varying states of disrepair).
I did not end up putting too strong an emphasis on production over consumption, as I said I would in the last post. The “Ketosis Cafe” served approximately four “customers” besides its residents — a group of partiers who exchanged some of their grapefruit mezcal cocktail for Carbquik™ pancakes.
I did, however, remain fairly faithful to the original design (albeit scaled down), and am fairly certain I got myself into ketosis for the majority of the time, which gave me the extra endurance during long days of lifting, hammering, drilling, sailing, and swimming.
Finally, I kept my plan to make it an island of prayer — intercessory prayer, to be specific. One of my prayers was for the people on the other islands, that they might salvage the seed of goodness at the core of the Ephemerisle event. It needs more dissenters, and people splitting off to form their own island art projects.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “a dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” Just as the land needs seasteads to demonstrate a better way of doing things, Ephemerisle needs more artists to challenge the status quo of what a festival is all about. The artist’s job is to fight the modern malaise. I believe this malaise is rooted in a general spoiling of our senses by inane distractions and overindulgence. The internet is partly to blame, but so are our cities and the bread and circuses they offer.
Festivals, floating or otherwise, should be a sharp break with the culture of frenetic intemperance and ugliness we’ve become accustomed to in our overstimulating cities. Ephemerisle needs a return to beauty, not only for its own sake, but to point to a better way for all of those back on land still struggling to find meaning, still looking for Shangri-La.