Taking a spin under the Zilker Christmas Tree

Is it too early for a Christmas tree post? I hope not because last night we attended the lighting of the Zilker Christmas Tree and got into the holiday spirit. This is the tree’s 47th year, and it is as magical as ever. At 155 feet tall, strung from a Victorian Era moonlight tower, the tree dazzles with a spiraling pattern of colored lights that entices Austinites young and old to hold hands and spin beneath it. We’re rather like the Whos down in Whoville sometimes.

After dinner at Chuy’s, we walked over to Zilker Park with my mom and my cousin and her family, who were visiting from Washington state. As we waited, a spectacular sunset turned the sky pink, lavender, and gold — Mother Nature’s own lighting show.

The Austin Civic Wind Ensemble set the mood with Christmas carols and other holiday tunes that got little kids up on their feet to dance, like “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

The winners of the children’s Zilker Tree art contest were introduced…

…and posed with their winning pictures.

The kids helped throw the switch, and the colored lights began to glow, illuminating the crowd of expectant, upturned faces.

For newbies, this sign tells you what to do.

Stand under the tree and spin!

Stagger dizzily and try not to fall down.

Repeat every year with your family for a sweet Austin holiday tradition.

The Zilker Tree will be lit every night through December 31, from 6 pm until midnight. If you’re planning to go just for the tree, avoid going on December 7, when a 5K Fun Run will be held, or the 8th through the 22nd, when the Trail of Lights will close area roads. Or go for those too and make an evening of it!

Want more? I’ve posted twice before about spinning under the Zilker Tree:
Zilker Christmas Tree meets full moon on winter solstice
Spinning under the Zilker Christmas Tree

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

Native plant gardens rev up Austin City Hall

Overlooking Lady Bird Lake and backing up to the tall codominiums of downtown, Austin City Hall delights me every time I drive by. With an angular, contemporary exterior clad in copper and limestone and a front facade that steps down toward the lake, the building has a warmth and openness and a playful vibe that’s so in tune with Austin’s style.

The landscaping too is appealing and very “Austin.” No boring lawn, no traditional shrubbery here. Instead, a bounty of native evergreens, perennials, grasses, and trees fills raised beds, rooftop gardens, and pocket gardens situated around the building.

A limestone plaza in front of the building provides a gathering space and sense of openness in lieu of lawn.

A roof garden adds greenery at the upper windows. At plaza-level, bald cypress and horsetail planted along a boulder-lined rill and pool evoke a Hill Country stream.

Sadly, the water feature is dry and dead, having been turned off for the last several years due to mandatory water-use restrictions. I feel the current ban on most outdoor water features in Austin is wrong, depriving our city of a source of beauty that’s particularly essential in a hot climate. I fully support water conservation efforts, but you can’t convince me that turning off all the fountains in town does much to save our lake water. I could go on, but I’ll save that rant for another post.

A huge swath of inland sea oats adorns this raised bed.

How many other cities care to make their City Hall landscapes as a Certified Wildlife Habitat? (Many, I hope!)

A pocket garden on the west side of the building contains a sun- and heat-loving mix of Texas mountain laurel, four-nerve daisy, prickly pear, yucca, and Mexican feathergrass.

The sign explains that water used in irrigation and the (dead) water feature is recycled from the air conditioning system.

A bloom spike from a Texas sotol pierced the shade arbor above and now leans like a tiki umbrella pole.

These agaves are massive — about 7 feet tall.

A tiered seating area to the right of the entrance is often the site of live musical performances. I cropped out a homeless person sleeping on the steps — sadly, a common sight in Austin. That’s ‘Tangerine Beauty’ crossvine growing atop the wall.

The view from the top of the step seating. Shade structures like this are essential in our hot, sunny climate.

White mistflower spills over the edge of another rooftop garden.

A closer view — I wish I could share the spicy fragrance with you.

On the upper terrace, my daughter and I posed for a reflected self-portrait. There’s the state bird of Texas in the background — a crane. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that old joke.)

Cantilevered over 2nd Street on the back side of City Hall, “the stinger,” also called the armadillo tail, points north. Strolling beneath it on this weekend were visitors to Austin Fan Fest, part of the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix event.

We attended Fan Fest to hear a band my husband is into, Civil Twilight, which was playing a free live show just a block away. I’m not into F1 racing, but any excuse for live music in downtown Austin, right?

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

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.