THIRST art exhibit: Memorializing 300 million trees killed by drought

Lady Bird Lake is a constant-level lake — kept that way through releases of water upstream — which means that the ongoing, devastating Texas drought has not touched this beautiful body of water that meanders through downtown Austin. While Lake Travis and other Highland Lakes continue to shrink alarmingly into large puddles, dwindling our sources of drinking water, our region’s scenic beauty, and the tourism and entertainment dollars the lakes bring to our city, Lady Bird Lake remains full. Driving over the lake on the way to work or jogging past on lakeside trails, it’s easy to forget we’re even in a drought.

THIRST, a temporary art installation at Lady Bird Lake between the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge and the 1st Street Bridge, challenges viewers to think about the drought. Symbolizing its destructive power with a single dead tree hovering over the lake, its roots unable to reach the water, and with a 2.5-mile string of prayer flags — 14,000 of them — printed with the image of the dead tree, THIRST reminds us that all life depends on water. Look what we’ve lost, it says. We may be next, it hints.

This is not a happy or hopeful message. And yet there is a haunting beauty in the exhibit, a tender memorial to the 300 million trees estimated to have succumbed to the Texas drought so far.

Yesterday evening we joined a crowd of a couple hundred people on the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge to witness the unveiling of the exhibit.

The rain we’d received the night before (ironic, yes?) and cloud cover kept temperatures comfortably cool, and the atmosphere was quietly festive.

A band entertained the crowd. This is Austin, after all.

On the east side of the bridge, the city skyline gleamed in the fading light.

Pac-Man-inspired graffiti on the railroad bridge offers a message of hope: Never give up.

Looking west at the THIRST tree, however, you couldn’t help feeling more somber.

This 35-foot-tall cedar elm — killed by drought and donated by its owners to the project — has been mounted several feet above the lake’s surface. Painted ghostly white, it seems to hover just out of reach of the life-sustaining water.

As dusk fell we watched kayakers positioning themselves beneath the bridge.

Paddleboarders too

Almost time

And then, after interminable speeches that we couldn’t hear due to a poorly amplified mic, the tree was lit, its ghostly reflection shimmering beneath. We clapped and took pictures. The band was respectfully silent.

The prayer flags fluttered in the cool breeze off the lake.

Many prayers for rains to refill the lakes and aquifers have been made during the past few years. THIRST reminds us that so far they remain unanswered.

The tree and prayer flags will be on display through December 20. THIRST was funded by a $50,000 Artistic Innovation and Collaboration grant from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and it’s sponsored by Women and Their Work. If you go, be sure to visit the Pfluger Bridge Circle, which is a nexus for the prayer flag installation. I plan to go back during the day to see this part of the exhibit.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Lake Livingston, I presume? Birding and boating in the East Texas pineywoods

We wrapped up our spring break vacation last weekend with a visit to the pineywoods of East Texas and the cute little lake house that belongs to my sister and her partner. This is the view from their yard.

Located on the Kickapoo Creek side of Lake Livingston, about an hour’s drive north of Houston, their weekend getaway is a light-filled cottage with a wraparound porch, a cushy hammock suspended between a tall pine and a pecan, a fishing dock, a couple of kayaks, and a pontoon boat for puttering around the lake. The weather was perfect—sunny and in the upper 70s, and at night it was just chilly enough to enjoy roasting marshmallows and making s’mores around the firepit.

Their pontoon boat was a new purchase since we’d last visited, so we were excited for the chance to go out on the water. Lake Livingston is a fairly shallow, man-made reservoir, with an average depth of 23 feet. With a number of “islands” of flooded-out trees, swampy thickets, and tall pines, the lake is a great place to bird-watch. My sister photographed bald eagles fishing at dockside recently, and huge flocks of pelicans migrated through a few weeks ago.

Alligators live here too, as in all southeast and northeast Texas lakes. My daughter went kayaking with C. after lunch, staying close to the bank as they paddled around the cove. She soon spotted a big gator in the water, and they turned around and paddled right out of that area. But I imagine there are plenty you don’t see, stealthy as they are. During one of their early visits, they told us, an alligator stalked their dog as it played near the water, tracking the pet’s movements with only its eyes visible above the surface. They scared it off and soon had a bulkhead constructed along the shore, which they hope will keep alligators from coming into their yard (which is fenced on both sides all the way down to the bulkhead).

Unless they’re fed, though, alligators aren’t naturally aggressive toward humans. People who live with them don’t ever seem to worry too much about them. People swim and ski in the lake, including my sister and C. I don’t believe I’ll ever swim with the gators, however.

I hoped for a gator sighting from the boat, and a photo op, but they eluded me this time. Still, we saw lots of beautiful great egrets (pictured) and great blue herons hunting along the shore.

They’re fairly tall birds, and when they take off their wingspan seems enormous.

We also spotted cormorants flocking in trees on marshy islands…

…along with great blue herons, who were carrying sticks to build their nests.

This one perched atop a pine tree seems to be preparing for the crane kick.

The great egrets were busily nesting too and sporting their breeding plumage—wispy, ornamental feathers along the back and green on their faces.

Such a gorgeous bird!

We had a lovely, relaxing time at Lake Livingston. Thanks for your hospitality, sis and C.!

Upcoming: Lawn Gone! talk and book-signing, this Saturday
Hey, Texas Hill Country peeps! Please join me this Saturday at 10 am at Backbone Valley Nursery in Marble Falls for my talk, “Lawn Alternatives for Central Texas” and a Lawn Gone! book-signing. I don’t know about you, but since it’s bluebonnet season, I’m going to take a little wildflower-peeping drive while I’m out there.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Austin Open Days Tour 2012: Rockcliff Road Garden

My fifth stop on last Saturday’s Open Days tour, the Rockcliff Road Garden, was really more of a sculpture garden. Lots of open space on this lakeside property, graced with a home designed by Lake Flato Architects, gives prominence to many large works of art placed on the grounds. But I couldn’t help noticing a devotion to Japanese maples in the entry garden. There were dozens, not all in the best of health, but clearly they were part of a collection, like the art. This one is a beauty, its rusty leaves set off by the chartreuse foliage of the tree behind it.

Some glowed red…

…and some greenish yellow along a curving limestone path. So many Japanese maples lent an Asian vibe to this part of the garden…

…played up even further with this courtyard combo of pines, junipers, and boulder.

Overall, however, plants seemed chosen for their sculptural qualities more than anything else, like these weeping blue atlas cedars, bent like wizened, gray-haired women and framing a boulder set on a concrete pad—art or nature? And are the plants part of a garden or pieces of art themselves? It was hard to tell.

Moisture-loving leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum) brightened a shady spot. Many of the plants in this garden were water lovers, but since the garden sits on the banks of Lake Austin it may well be naturally moist.

Leaving the entry garden behind, you step onto a railing-less boardwalk edging a small canal. The boardwalk leads in a straight shot toward the main house, set closer to the lake.

As you near the house you see this fascinating sculpture of crouching men stacked in a vanishing line atop the shoulders of an Atlas-like figure.

Each figure is blinded by the one above—a somewhat disturbing effect. Talk about a monkey on your back! Now that I think about it, all of the sculptures on the property had a vaguely ominous or unsettling mood, or so it seemed to me. Many were so visually off-putting that I didn’t photograph them. The owners obviously have a particular taste in art, and it doesn’t involve beauty but provocativeness.

Beauty was to be found in the design of the home itself, the natural lake view, and dramatic accents like these hanging, bare-root orchids.

I’m not usually much of an orchid fan, but I found these quite appealing.

Looking back down the boardwalk we just crossed—long vistas, straight lines, and vanishing points.

A soaring porch was open to garden visitors. In fact, we passed through the porch to see the rest of the garden along the lake.

Succulents in organically shaped pots and saucers

Another look—beautiful framing and craftsmanship

A wider view

I admired the interior for a bit, and then I noticed that a stone-block side table was engraved with some unsettling declarations. Later I learned that they are from Truisms (1978-1983) by Jenny Holzer. Hmmm. “Murder has its sexual side” is not something I’d want to read every time I set a drink down.

Stepping outside, a green-and-blue vista of lawn and lake greets you.

But uh-oh, here’s another vaguely creepy piece of art, like a swirling whirlpool, or a black hole ready to swallow you up.

Another look

Ah, I much prefer the view of water and green hills.

Chairs at the end of the lawn overlook the lake…

…but mischievously, some of the chairs are cleverly disguised pieces of art, placed in unsettling positions—one leg hanging off the edge of a deck or tilting to one side or, like this one, strewn into the lake as if a really good party had occurred the night before. Well, it was fun to see! This was definitely a garden with a sense of humor and a dark side.

Up next: The cactus and agave collector’s garden of Jeff Pavlat and Ray Clayton. For a look back at the contemporary Bonnell Drive Garden, click here.

All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.