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.
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.