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.

10 Responses

  1. Oh my. I have been reminded about the TX drought the past three years here. We are on the eastern edge of the drought. Of course it isn’t as bad here. We have had enough water to replenish the ground source during winter. It is scary though. It makes one wonder what we will do if the rains don’t return some time. Even here there are trees that have died of drought. As I say scary.

    Yes, it is scary, Lisa. Drought is insidiously destructive. —Pam

  2. Alison says:

    That ghostly tree hanging above the water makes a stunning exhibit. I wish we could send you some of our rain, but it doesn’t work that way. Glad to hear you had some recently though.

    This has not been as bad a year as 2011, but despite our occasional showers this summer (and now fall), the drought continues. I wish we could siphon off some of your excess PacNW water, Alison. —Pam

  3. Ally says:

    The rain gave us an opportunity over the weekend to resume work burning some the dead trees on our small acreage. We used to let the dead trees decompose naturally, but the sheer numbers of dead trees and the Bastrop Complex fire changed all that. When I tree dies, it’s cut down as soon as we can manage and burned as soon as the law allows. We are way behind on these duties due to another hot and dry summer. Perhaps a wet winter without burn bans will allow us to catch up. Finally, I’m starting to think about what to do next with all the open space that used to be forest. When the drought ends, I guess we’ll try to do some re-planting.

    I’m still stunned by the number of trees you’ve lost on your property, Ally. I admire your philosophical attitude about it. It sounds like a lot of work to get rid of the dead trees, but I’d share your concern about letting dry fuel build up around my home. —Pam

  4. I’ve read other stories about this dramatic, new non-publicly funded, foundation grant-supported art installation but yours is better, Pam. Thanks for the super photos and the good reporting!


    Why, thanks, Annie. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. —Pam

  5. Abbey says:

    Thanks for letting us know about this exhibit. That tree is arresting.

    I hope you get a chance to see it, Abbey. —Pam

  6. Katina says:

    Don’t even get me started on that tree…

    What do you mean, Katina? (Oops, is that getting you started?) —Pam

  7. Kris P says:

    The best art inspires thought – and action!

    Yes, that’s what the artists intend, Kris. —Pam

  8. cheryl says:

    It’s beautiful and it did bring me to tears.

    The exhibit does elicit feelings of sadness and worry. We gardeners are always mindful of the drought because we see its effect on our gardens. I admire the artists for putting the drought front-and-center in the minds of non-gardening citizens as well. —Pam

  9. Anna K says:

    I’m with Alison – we’d happily share our rains with you. But I guess it’s not that easy… The worst part is that the weather we’re experiencing now is due to changes in our atmosphere from 30 years ago. I can’t even imagine what it will be like three decades from now…

    Me either, Anna. Traditional weather patterns seem upended in so many parts of the country. Still, drought has always been part of Texas’s environment. We just seem to be in a record-breaking one right now. I know our time here is only a tiny blip in the grand scheme, but still, it’s hard to witness the drought’s impact on the land that we love. —Pam

  10. Upstate SC was in drought for 7 years before the rain returned in 2012. This past summer we had a deluge and exceeded our annual average in August before more moderate weather arrived with cooler temps later that month.

    Thanks for sharing the news and images. Your photography, as usual, is stunning. Hope conditions improve soon.

    I’m glad you are out of drought, Marian. What part of upstate S.C. do you live in? I grew up in Greenwood. —Pam