What The River Brought

For years, a man who called himself Badger lived in an old broke-down van while creating a monumental work of public art. Then, something went wrong down on the Mississippi.

 

Badger spent this past winter in Minnesota. He wanted to go south, but his van was unreliable and he was flat broke. So he remained through the long, cold months. When weather permitted he worked on the Nest. Since its birth in August of 2002, the Nest had grown steadily larger. It was difficult to estimate its exact dimensions. When you entered the thing, it was like falling down a rabbit hole. Sometimes, other people would come upon the Nest and make additions. If their efforts didn't measure up to Badger's standards, he would tear them down. Ever polite, Badger posted a note of apology, explaining that not all the contributions fit in with his plan for the piece.

With the arrival of spring, he became increasingly worried about the fate of the Nest. Over the previous year and a half, he had tried to generate some official appreciation for his creations. He wrote letters, long photocopied explanations of his motives for building the Nest and his "constitutional" rights as an artist. He mailed the missives to Mayor R.T. Rybak and members of the Minneapolis City Council. He never heard back--not when he sent out invitations to "the opening" of The Nest of the Spirit Bird back in May 2002, not when he staged an eight-day "occupation" of The Return to the Nest last September.

He had a bad vibe. On April 15 of this year, he fired off a letter to the Park and Recreation board, with the hopes that he would be able to stave off demolition.

And then it happened. After working on the Nest until the early hours of April 16, Badger headed back to Dinkytown to crash for a few hours in his van. That afternoon, he returned to the river, where he discovered the Nest had vanished. There were signs that heavy equipment had been brought in. He saw deep tire tracks in the sand, with wood chips and a few scraps of driftwood littering the beach.

A few hours earlier, the Nest had been razed by a Minneapolis Park and Recreation crew. The action came at the behest of the Minneapolis Park Police. Badger knew what they would say: fire risk, structural hazard, attractive nuisance. And in fact, that's precisely what Park Police Chief Brad Johnson concluded. "I'm not against the arts or sculpture or anything else," the chief avers over the phone, "but my job is public safety. That's my concern."

To Badger, the complaints seem specious. Occasionally, people crashed at the Nest. But it wasn't a regular flop. "Nobody was staying here full-time," he says. "What is the fucking crime with hanging out on the river bank?"

A proud craftsman, he bristles at claims that the Nest was structurally unsound. He used an intricate basketlike weave to connect the smaller pieces of wood; the main uprights--the stout tree trunks that provided the vertical support--were buried deep in the beach sand. One time, Badger remembers, seven people climbed on the roof. No one fell through. And if it was a fire hazard, what of all the dead wood in the surrounding parts of the gorge--the very stuff of which the Nest was fashioned? No one seems to have made a priority out of clearing the debris, aside from Badger, that is.

After the Nest was destroyed, Badger went to the post office, where he picked up his first official communication from the city. It came in the form of a terse, four-paragraph letter from Minneapolis Park and Recreation Department Interim Superintendent Jon Gurban. The letter explained that Badger should have applied for a permit to build "art sculptures" on park land and that "we would be pleased to assist you through the permitting process."

To Badger, that option lends no solace. His building technique is, by its very nature, improvisational. To get a permit, he would need a plan. And he couldn't draw up a plan for his sculptures for one simple reason: The river supplies his materials, and there is no telling what the river will bring. The process of creating the Nest was organic; it had an inherent serendipity. To Badger's way of thinking, negotiating a bureaucracy is the antithesis of that. "I've been doing this kind of crap for going on 12 years," he says. "To ask someone's permission would be selling out. I'd have to retire from what I do and become something else."

On his recent visits to the site of the Nest, Badger collected a few remnants of his sculpture and arranged them in a sort of memorial. Some people had scrawled words of consolation and encouragement on the remaining chunks of driftwood. That made him feel better, even though some asshole kept throwing the logs back in the river. He just fished them out.

Then on May Day, he came back to the site, and discovered that an unknown person or persons had made a stab at rebuilding the Nest. That buoyed his spirits. He knew he would have to start building again for one reason: He couldn't bear not to.

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