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.

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.

Mike Mosedale

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:

Amaze me
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.

It didn't work. Nothing did. He drank himself into a stupor. He tried to hang himself. He landed in a psychiatric ward, where he was prescribed antipsychotic medications that made him sweat and feel even crazier. He laughs bitterly at the memory: "After a while I said, 'To hell with this. Get these nasty little tablets away from me and let me smoke a joint.'" Finally, he moved to the Twin Cities, got a job with the St. Paul Parks Department, and came out as, in his words, "the first radically, openly queer man" in the department.

Still, he didn't feel like he fit in. While with the parks department, he quit drinking alcohol for four years and started to cultivate his artistic talents. He began by fashioning jewelry and sculptures from found objects--pieces of scrap wire, rocks, broken shards of glass, animal bones. Around the same time, his political beliefs grew more intense. He objected to the drug war, to the criminal-justice system, to American military interventions overseas. As a taxpayer, he figured he bore some responsibility for all this. So about 12 years ago, he quit his job, loaded his dog and his art into an old Dodge van, and lit out for the territories. He declared his life to be an act of art.

"I hit 35 different states and set up my sculptures in installations, usually while I was tripping on acid," he recalls. "I called it 'Fighting for Truth and Justice and the Un-American Way with Art and LSD. This Is Not Just Art, It's War." He planted marijuana around some of the installations. The reason? "I figured if I got away with it as freedom of speech, then people who were dying of cancer or AIDS could actually grow their own medicine."

Soon, he was building large-scale projects in some strange places. In 1994, he erected a sculpture garden on a levee in New Orleans's French Quarter. He relied on the materials at hand: lots of driftwood, bits of mooring rope, rocks. While scavenging on the river one day, he found the papier-mâchè representation of a black man's head. Then he fashioned a scarecrow from a rotting camouflage jacket stuffed full of seaweed; that was supposed to symbolize environmental racism. Dubbing the site Freedom City, he and a band of other homeless men squatted around this creation for a couple of weeks.

When the police came, Badger told them, "This is federal land and you have no authority here. I'm an American artist and I'm living a political cartoon and you cannot mess with me, or the old drunks for drinking, or these people for sleeping here." Not surprisingly, it didn't work. He was chased off, and Freedom City--like almost all of Badger's big projects--was razed.

After New Orleans, he traveled to Austin, Texas, where he built a stone maze called The Temple of the Giant Snail. When visitors came, he told them the story. It went like this:

The revelation came one day that the world is not a giant turtle after all. It's a giant snail. When she gave birth all her children oozed out over her shell. In the slime of their trails grew all things good. Man, in his insanity, has fucked them all up, captured or destroyed them all in a giant snail called freedom to whom I was building a temple. It was from the slime of freedom that the ganja grew.

Badger lived in the Temple for 10 weeks. Then he got busted.

In Gainesville, Florida, he constructed a Nest-like structure along a stream bank that he called "Badgerville." It stood for about a decade, a favorite crash pad for travelers and homeless folk. A year ago, he ran into a young wandering couple who told him that it finally burned down.

In Asheville, North Carolina, he created a piece that employed several hundred tons of waste concrete left over from a bridge demolition. That one was called Rearranging the Furniture.

Badger didn't confine his art to physical crafts. Sometimes, he did performance pieces. In 1993 or '94--he isn't sure which--he caught wind of a Ku Klux Klan rally in Texas. He knew the event called for something special. So he showed up in an old wedding gown and a headdress he fashioned from a pair of military earmuffs left over from his days in the Marines, an alligator head, antlers, wires, and bells.

Like most Klan rallies, it was a tense scene, with hundreds of Klansmen, anti-Klan protestors, and cops facing off. With a wand in one hand, feathers in the other, Badger, who had dropped a hit of acid before arriving, "danced blessings on the crowd" for two and a half hours.

"Everybody was so grim and hateful. Then they would see me spinning through and they'd break into grins and smiles," he recalls. "I even got one of the boys in the Klan to grin. Beautiful boy. Must have been 18 or 19. Blond hair, blue eyes. Rosy cheeks and all that shit. And he's standing there with his little Klan sign, and I said, 'Hey you, yes, you. What are you doing after the show?' Ah, the miracles of LSD."

 

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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