Fiery Burning Man memorial tells an Appalachian life story

Courtesy photos
One of the initial sketches by Mike Eros of his 22-foot-tall Burning Man assemblage, Margareta Appalachia, shows Margaret holding a drum and giving a peace sign.
The Margareta Appalachia sculpture is being assembled by a team of 25 volunteers in four states for Burning Man. The sculpture memorializes Margaret Eros Shifflet (left) and will be torched at the end of the festival.
Courtesy photo
Margaret Eros Shifflet, abandoned as a newborn at a Korean bus stop, was adopted and brought to West Virginia, where she was raised in Elkins and Charleston. A mammoth assemblage at this year’s Burning Man festival will memorialize her and the coal-filled hills where she was raised.
Courtesy photo
Some of the working drawings and models of Margareta Appalachia, a huge assemblage to be built in honor of an adopted Korean-born woman raised in West Virginia. The sculpture will burned at the end of this year’s edition of the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert.

More than just Burning Man will go up in flames in a Nevada desert next month, when the global fire arts festival brings a temporary collective city to life in late August.

Along with the iconic Burning Man figure, among the 20 or so mammoth sculptures to be torched at the close of this year’s week-long festival will be one called Margareta Appalachia.

Slathered with pulverized coal, the 22-foot-high, 25-foot-wide wood and fabric assemblage should burn long and hot, revealing a surprise amid its embers.

The story behind Margareta Appalachia bridges mountains, deserts and continents. Its roots trace to an unwanted newborn abandoned decades ago at a bus stop outside Seoul, South Korea.

That orphan girl grew up to be a Harley-Davidson-riding, West Virginia original whose memory will be recalled in fiery fashion in front of the 70,000 or so “burners” at Burning Man 2017.

Where to begin?

Let’s start with Orange Mike.

The brother

Orange Mike is not his real name, but his Burning Man handle. His real name is Mike Eros, and he grew up in Elkins, and later Charleston, with an older sister named Margaret.

Margaret did not look like her brother, with her Asian eyes and slight frame. But she did have a twang to her voice as she grew up in the West Virginia hills with her younger brother and other siblings and friends.

“Her friends would say, ‘Margaret, why do you have a Southern accent?’” Eros recalled. “And she would say, ‘I’m from South Korea.’”

It was the kind of cheeky remark that personified her character, he said. For Margaret was that abandoned newborn, left in a bus station in 1973, then dropped at a Korean orphanage.

Before Eros came along, his parents, Mary Clare and Jim, had been Peace Corps volunteers in South Korea.

“They really wanted to adopt a girl from these orphanages they had seen, which were pretty deplorable, full of unwanted girl children,” he said.

The couple christened the baby Margaret and brought her back to Randolph County in the West Virginia heartland. The family shared land and resources with two other families at a place called Moon Run Farm outside Elkins.

“Three families got together and shared resources and raised their kids together and ended up, at least for a little while, all living on the same farm,” Eros recalled. “It was a really nice time.”

Bad news came when Margaret was diagnosed with kidney failure as a toddler and ended up on renal dialysis from about age 5.

She underwent one failed kidney transplant and then a successful one at age 16, Eros said.

Because of her need for regular medical care, her adoptive parents moved the family to Charleston.

“She grew up most of her childhood in Charleston because, when she got sick, she had to be close to a hospital,” Eros said.

Despite her life-threatening challenges — or maybe because of them, her brother thinks — Margaret grew up a free spirit.

Jill Lineberry recalled how Margaret came up to her the first week of school at Charleston Catholic High and introduced herself, and they had lunch.

From that moment, they were friends until the day Margaret died, said Lineberry, who now lives in Martinsburg.

“She was an absolute joy,” Lineberry said. “She was this larger-than-life human, but just so unassuming.”

Margaret had “this beautiful big heart,” Lineberry said, tearing up as she spoke. “And it wasn’t anything she tried to do. It was just her being her.”

Margaret’s brother picked up the thread.

“My sister was a hilarious, super empathetic, down-to-earth person,” he said. “She rode a Harley-Davidson. She was a headbanger — she saw Guns N’ Roses, Whitesnake, Poison, Def Leppard, Megadeath.”

She was a rebel from the get-go, he said.

“I think living with her condition, she saw the world differently. She wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. It got her kicked out of a high school or two.”

In 1992, the family moved to Martinsburg. Margaret later married, becoming Margaret Eros Shifflet. She found work as a manager then owner of the Old Pharmacy Cafe in Shepherdstown.

During the Israeli-Syrian peace talks hosted by President Bill Clinton in the town in January 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and a clutch of diplomats had lunch at the cafe. There is a photo of Margaret from those days, a petite figure, her black-hair drawn back from her gently smiling face, posing with Clinton and others.

“Of all the little restaurants in Shepherdstown, they picked that one to eat at every day,” Eros said.

Margaret died the next year, at age 28, of complications from her kidney ailments.

Eros summed up his sister and what he described as her “lifelong bravery” in meeting her life’s challenges.

“She really knew herself and who she was more than most people I know,” he said.

The festival

Eros, now 36, went on to a globetrotting career as an earth scientist and petroleum geologist based in Houston. He prospects for oil reserves, mapping where ancient rivers used to flow.

But taking a break from tracking down hidden oil reservoirs, the last two years you could find him at Burning Man.

Like many burners, he adopts a colorful, artistic persona, matched with a colorful, outrageous costume.

Instagram posts under #burnerfashion include an image of him. There, you’ll find a shot of “Orange Mike,” wearing a tangerine orange outfit with 4-foot-tall orange wings that illuminate at night. He looks like a cross between a Technicolor angel and a life-size rain forest butterfly.

Burning Man has come a long way since a few friends met on a San Francisco beach in 1986, where they burned a 9-foot-tall wooden stick man on the summer solstice.

It’s a complex, sometimes contentious path to how Burning Man ended up a sprawling, radical, global event in the middle of the harsh Black Rock Desert of Nevada, 90 miles north of Reno.

You can track that history at burningman.org/timeline, which traces the increasing growth and evolving philosophy of the yearly recreation of Burning Man’s Black Rock City, plus the literal growth of the central “burn” of Burning Man himself — or just “The Man.” In 2015, he was a whopping 105 feet tall. Last year, he was back down to 70 feet, with the figure’s design inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vetruvian Man” drawing of a naked man with outstretched arms and legs in a circle.

From a beach bonfire three decades ago to today, Burning Man has become a philosophical, surreal, bizarro world of oversized art destined for immolation. The event features art cars and ornamented bicycles, elaborate housing and costumery, a mix of positive principles, some hedonism, and family friendly community building.

The festival — this year’s theme is “Radical Ritual” — is guided by 10 principles: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy.

That’s a long list to unpack. But Eros gave his take on the Burning Man experience while warning, “It would take too long to explain Burning Man, in general.”

First, he said, is the immediate shock of the environment. Burning Man takes place on a Pleistocene-era dry lake bed — called “the playa,” signifying a sandy beach — and the wind kicks up sandy alkali salts that sandblast the skin.

“The environment is very harsh, and so everybody kind of struggles through the terrible dust storms and crazy heat and the very cold temperatures at night,” Eros said. “Dust devils will come up and tear your tent apart. But it happens to everybody. So you kind of rise to the occasion — or you don’t come back.”

Once you accept the setting, he added, “You find yourself in the middle of an intentional community.”

For the last two years, Eros has been a volunteer ranger at various Burning Man events.

“That’s somebody who agrees to be sober and walk around and make sure people don’t, like, light themselves on fire. It’s a fun group,” he said.

Burning Man culture, Eros said, runs counter to a world that now spends so much of its days staring at screens and ordering the next new need via Amazon Prime.

“I’ll just put it this way: You walk into a group and you see 200 people talking and you don’t see a single cellphone because everyone is trying to engage,” he said.

“It’s really hearkening back to things we used to do. We used to go to bowling clubs, we used to have more neighborhood get-togethers and stuff. Sometimes, people have to work harder to unplug and reconnect with each other. So it’s a way to do that but also to create art. And, like, really cool global art for people who aren’t professional artists.”

The Burning Man principle of “giving” manifests in many ways.

“People from all over the world come in and bring what they call camps. And people share something at their camp,” he said. “One morning, a group of people will make enough bacon for 500 people. Or they’ll come from France and make a nine-course meal for 800 people. That happened last year.”

A group from New York City spends all year collecting Broadway costumes, then donates them to anyone who wants one, he said.

“You can get a $100 or more costume on the playa. Now, you may end up having to have a long conversation with somebody to get your costume,” he said. “And that’s kind of the point of it. People want to get to know each other.”

At night, people stroll or cruise the open desert looking at these massive art pieces, he said.

This year, attendees will encounter Margareta Appalachia rising from the playa.

The sculpture

The sculpture is an homage to both his sister and to the ancient history of the place from which she truly sprang. That would not be Korea, as Margaret never even learned Korean, but the Appalachian hills that were her real home, her brother said.

What people will encounter is a 22-foot-tall woman rising up out of a fold of mountains, wearing a traditional flowing hanbok Korean dress. The woman flashes a peace sign with one hand and cradles a drum in the other.

“The project is dedicated to peace because the peace symbol was my sister’s favorite thing,” Eros said. “Every time she went to the beach, she would make a peace sign in the sand. And she had a necklace that was a peace sign.”

He won’t be pulling off such a mammoth project alone, as the effort will cost about $20,000, paid for through a Burning Man honorarium and fundraising.

“I work with a crew of volunteers we call The Deviled Angels, which is 25 people strong and includes folks in West Virginia, Texas, California and Washington.”

The assemblage has added twists and surprises. Approaching the illuminated sculpture at night, burners may wonder why the flowing hair and face are glittering black, throwing off iridescent colors.

The entire sculpture will be roller-brushed with a mixture of ground-up Pocahontas bituminous coal and biodegradable glue.

Eros gets animated when talking about his late sister. But he also gets revved up talking about the geophysical story of Appalachia and the multimillion-year history of coal.

“As a geologist, I’m kind of nerding out on this project, too, because I get to talk about rocks,” he said, laughing.

When admirers of Margareta Appalachia approach the back of the assemblage, they’ll see what looks like a coal mine entrance that they can enter.

Given the sandstorms, heat and cold of Burning Man, protected spaces and hangouts are a cherished part of the event. Eros and his team will offer both a multimedia experience and temple space, framed in coal.

“It’s a little reflection room, a space for quiet,” he said.

Bluegrass music will play along with sounds of a mine being worked and recordings of his sister’s voice. Embedded in the walls will be messages Eros solicited from attendees at the unofficial Burning Man-related event Frostburn, held in February at Marvin’s Mountaintop in Preston County.

The messages include, “In the future, I hope Appalachia is a place with clean water.” And, “In the future, I hope Appalachia has un-removed mountaintops.” And, “In the future, I hope Appalachia is a place where town and city can work together.”

The pulverized coal on the walls will end at about 5 feet high. Replications of extinct trees from the Carboniferous era ring the room at that point.

“These are actually the plants that the coal is made up of. These are the extinct plants that used to cover West Virginia, which I used to look at in the Cultural Center [museum] in Charleston as a kid,” he said.

Eros, the rock nerd, will happily go on at length about how the bands of coal found in the West Virginia hills can also be found in Ukraine, a result of when these lands used to be grouped close to the equator.

“Coal, you know, used to be trees and plants 300 million years ago in the Carboniferous,” Eros said. “Actually, West Virginia was kind of at the heart of what may have been the largest belt of rain forests in Earth history.”

That belt ran from what is now Illinois, through Kentucky and West Virginia, through the coal belts of England, through Central Europe and over to Ukraine and the edge of China, he said. “That’s why there’s coal in all those places.”

He is more than happy to serve up a Carboniferous Appalachian experience in a Pleistocene-era lake bed.

“There’s a lot of folks who don’t know much about Appalachia,” he said. “We wanted to show the deep ecological beauty of it as represented by the beauty of the coal. Most people haven’t even seen coal. Every time I carry around a piece, everyone wants to look at it.”

The big burn

Memorials are a part of Burning Man culture. Every year, volunteers build a temple and fill it full of photographs and memorials to people who have died, he said.

“It’s really a place of loss, but also renewal,” he said. “It’s kind of strange to some people to take all this time and effort to make something as big as a 22-foot-tall statue and then burn it. But it’s a reminder that we’re not permanent. And also that we can really remember the people who’ve gone before us, and they live on in us. That’s what it is with my sister, as well.”

After Margareta Appalachia turns into heaps of smoking ash, a nearly 10-foot-tall sculpture of a coal-covered steel angel housed inside the assemblage will rise from those ashes, a symbol of renewal and endurance.

“The coal will not burn as fast as the wood and will burn for a long time,” Eros said. “It’s hopefully going to be pretty wonderful to see.”

Eros said he also hopes Margareta Appalachia’s fiery peace sign will be a timely message.

“I wanted to bring this message of peace in the time in which we are in right now,” he said.

The sculpture is also meant to memorialize one particular life story out of West Virginia.

“Unfortunately, so much of what you hear about West Virginia is super political and often very demoralizing,” he said. “I think the more we can look at the human story behind what’s going on at home — and anywhere — the better. And to remind people we have caricatures of what it means to be from Appalachia.”

Given his sister’s life story, she hardly fits anyone’s caricature, he said.

“The most Appalachian person I’ve ever known was a Korean-American adopted orphan.”

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at

douglas@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-3017 or follow

@douglaseye on Twitter.

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