It was a little after three o'clock in the morning on April 16 when Badger last saw his creation. As usual, he had arrived at the work site under cover of darkness. For more than a year and a half, he had spent most of his free nights there, a lovely stretch of white sand beach tucked along the east bank of the Mississippi River near the University of Minnesota campus.
Over the months, Badger devoted countless hours to harvesting his supplies from the river and nearby environs. He liked the waterlogged, half-sunken tree trunks best; the river's current did some of his work for him, stripping away the bark and leaving a smooth surface for anyone who wanted to inscribe a poem, thought, or screed. Which was the point. Or at least a big part of it. Other times, Badger would locate dead trees in the surrounding forest, drop them with a handsaw, and strip the bark by hand. And then he would begin building.
All this work would have been considerably easier in daylight. But Badger wanted to avoid the cops. He had been arrested a few times previously while practicing his art. Two years earlier, he was busted at the very same spot--not for committing an act of art, but for having an illegal campfire and possessing an open beer.
That experience was the inspiration for the first sculpture he built at the site, a sprawling driftwood hut he dubbed The Nest of the Spirit Bird. After a Minneapolis Park and Recreation work crew razed the Nest, Badger mourned. Then he went back to work and built something larger and stouter and more madcap. He called this one The Return to the Nest.
While working on The Return to the Nest, he got better at dodging cops. At night, when the Minneapolis Park Police would cruise the asphalt bike trail that runs parallel to the river, Badger hid behind the big trees, circling slowly around the trunks to avoid the spotlight. If the officers got out of their patrol cars to see if anyone was occupying the Nest, he would scurry into the woods for cover.
And then, invariably, they would leave and Badger would go back to work. He often toiled until dawn. Sometimes, he would engage in strenuous physical labor for hours on end. Other times, he would just drink cheap beer or smoke pot, stare at the Nest, and contemplate the next move. As he saw it, that was work, too--thinking and mulling and waiting for new inspirations. At first light, he would return to the battered old van that he parked on the quiet side streets of Dinkytown, crawl inside, and go to sleep.
He would often return to the Nest in daylight--not to work, but to inspect the messages people scrawled on his creation. He always left a black, felt-tip magic marker at the Nest for just that purpose. By the end, he figured, at least 300 people had written on the thing.
Some of the messages were angry. Some joyful. Some confessional. Some lusty. Some woozy. Some philosophic. Some were all of the above. Badger's favorite was an unsigned poem that read:
I'm so lazy
In this crazy river home
And it's built of hobo's laughter
It is built of this tree's bones.
It was that phrase--"this tree's bones"--that grabbed him. Other inscriptions broke his heart. One read: "Mark, we pray for your recovery. O river let your healing waters rise." A few days later, Badger discovered a new inscription that said simply, "Mark, we are going to miss you." When he thinks about it, that one still makes him cry.
Of course, Badger wrote, too. Complaints, verses, confessions, insights, drunken ramblings. The inscriptions from the Nest flow from his mouth as if they are just now boiling up inside him, and he has to release them fast or risk losing them. Words and phrases stick with him. Everything sticks with him. It is his gift and his curse.
Badger is 47 years old. If you have spent much time the coffeehouses in Uptown or in Dinkytown, perhaps you have seen him. If you have wandered the river's east bank just below St. Anthony Falls, you probably have. He has a sturdy build with strikingly muscular hands and chiseled features. He wears his long, graying blond hair in a ponytail, usually pulled taut under a baseball cap. He looks weathered. This is not surprising, given that he has lived outside for most of the past 12 years, surviving on handouts, donations, and the contents of dumpsters.
Before he was Badger--or D. Sinn, his art name--he was plain old David Erickson. He grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, an unhappy boy who was picked on by his peers for his lisp and his effeminate manner. He remembers sticking a .12 gauge shotgun in his mouth when he was 11 years old and wishing he had the courage to pull the trigger. He remembers being molested by a church janitor. He remembers being different. After high school, he signed up for a four-year hitch in the Marine Corps--a last-ditch attempt to conquer his affection for boys.