CUSTER, S.D. — If life gives you mountain pine beetles, make Bark Beetle Blues art.
That's what the community of Custer is doing in the face of a bark beetle infestation that is turning large swaths of its surrounding forest an ugly reddish brown while loggers remove tens of thousands of trees in a bid to stop the menace.
The tree-killing scourge has drastically altered some of Custer's scenic views and left residents wondering how to deal with their frustration, as well as the changing face of the Black Hills forest, in a positive way.
In response, the newly formed Bark Beetle Blues steering committee along with the Custer Arts Council will host a song-filled Bug Crawl celebration from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday at three venues. That event will be followed by three more community-wide events — at the spring, summer and autumn equinoxes — to mark the emergence, flight and feasts of the pine beetles' lifespan.
The year of "mourning" concludes with a Pine Beetle Blues Wake that will — weather and fire restrictions permitting — include a festive burning of a large wooden beetle in effigy.
Linde Manlove has lived in the forest outside Custer for 30 years. Like a lot of Black Hills residents, Manlove says she is "challenged" by the bark beetle and coping with the changes it has brought to the landscape she knows and loves.
As a patron of the arts who enjoyed the Fort Collins, Colo., public art installation by Tim Upham that marks the devastation of the bark beetle in Colorado, Manlove wondered how Custer might commemorate this time in the history of its forest, too. She gathered some of her fellow residents last summer for a conversation about how to use music, art or poetry to help the community grieve its changing forest and have fun in the process.
"We decided to bring all these concepts together — the community, change, the forest, the arts — and what that would look like," she said.
Songwriter Hank Fridell is one of about a dozen area musicians who will perform at Saturday's Bug Crawl, many of them singing their original lyrics for the event. His "They're a Bad Bad Beetle" is accompanied by the banjo in a Chicago blues style and includes verses like this:
"We're cuttin' and we're sprayin'
The beetles are on the attack
Trees are dyin', people sighin'
I want my forest back."
In addition to an open-microphone session, Color My Beetle coloring sheets and a place to post limericks and messages to the beetles, there will be products made from the "blue" wood of beetle-infested trees at the Bug Crawl. Lumber harvested from bug trees carries a distinctive stain that can range in color from light blue to grayish black.
Custer carpenter Karl Svensson has been making the best of a bad situation, using blue wood in the post-and-beam barns and homes that he's been building in the region for about three years now. He thinks the unique, distinctive stain is attractive and hopes the Bark Beetle Blues events will help convince others to see it that way, too.
Svensson created commemorative blue wood medallions — Bug Chips — that will be given away to the first 250 people at Saturday's Bug Crawl. He'll do a different Bug Chip for each of the events. And he'll also donate hand-crafted blue wood picture frames to a silent auction fundraiser at the Bug Crawl.
"I think it's pretty ... but it's a personal taste thing," he said. "Part of what we're hoping to do with this is to help with the demand for the wood."
The facts, figures and economics of the pine beetle epidemic are important to Custer, Manlove said, but they don't speak to the "whole person the way the arts do."
The Bug Crawl and subsequent Bark Beetle Blues events are intended to do that and to remind people that the forest is not to be taken for granted.
"It's a given that the forest is changing. It's always changing. We can't pretend that it's not happening," Manlove said. "But how do we live with this change, constructively? How do we heal? That's where the arts come in."
Frank Carroll of Custer is an expert on the science behind the beetle invasion, but he likes the idea of dealing with the humanity of it, as well.
"The Bark Beetle Blues' mission is to explore these changes through shared conversation, art, music, a series of community experiences and a few really great parties," he said.