When Austin art gallery Women & Their Work recently unveiled THIRST a massive public art project on Lady Bird Lake — you know, the dead tree and prayer flags you must have seen by now — the goal was to engage Austinites on the matter of water. Austin was suffering from extreme, prolonged drought — lake inflows were the lowest in history, and Lake Travis was 60 feet below where it should be. The installation was meant to raise awareness about water as a scarce resource as well as memorialize the more than 300 million trees that died in Texas during the 2011 drought.
Then a weird thing happened. Almost immediately after the white-painted, 35-foot, dead cedar elm tree began hovering over town lake, it felt like the skies opened up over Austin. First, the great ACL flood of 2013 dumped a ton of rain (more than a foot, in some parts of Central Texas) onto our city on October 13, enough to cancel ACL for the first time in the fest's 14-year history. Then, just two weeks later, a storm that lasted into the early morning hours of Halloween Eve brought us another 15 inches of water.
Crazy voodoo or not, the real irony is that, even though the tree designed to raise conversations about water scarcity has been severely damaged by an onslaught of rain, the drought is not over.
If you’ve seen that picture of the submerged Stevie Ray Vaughan statue after the Halloween deluge (if you haven't, it's here, uncredited it photographer Reagan Hackleman —also, where have you been?), then you’re not surprised that the THIRST tree hasn’t fared so well under the recent weather. After the October 13 flood, Women & Their Work worked hard to keep the installation intact — they rewired and replaced the tree’s lighting, repaired the root flare and restored the safety buoys — all just in time for the second flood.
Even though the temporary exhibit ends on December 16, Women & Their Work is hoping to raise $15,000 quickly to pay for all of the repairs needed and to relight the tree, which is currently without night lighting. The gallery, in asking for donations, avoids seeing the situation as ironic, calling the floods a “creative rain dance” that “appears to be working in tandem with our collective prayers to end the drought.”
But around town and on Twitter, Austinites are jokingly — or maybe not so jokingly — suggesting a more direct link between the tree and the recent floods, as if the tree has some sort of magical effect on the town. Just a few examples:
I can't help but think that Austin is getting all this rain because they put that crazy voodoo art tree in the middle of Lady Bird Lake.— Amy Averett (@amylu) October 31, 2013
Crazy voodoo or not, the real irony is that, even though the tree designed to raise conversations about water scarcity has been severely damaged by an onslaught of rain, the drought is not over. While the recent rain is putting us back on the right track, the Lower Colorado River Association explains, the lakes are only 36 percent full. According to a LCRA drought report, the mid-October storms added about 50,000 acre-feet to Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan; they still need an additional 1.3 million acre-feet to reach capacity.
Women & Their Work is asking for Austin’s help to keep the tree lit,and keep the conversation going about how to respond to loss of trees, drought and climate disruption. They’re even offering a THIRST prayer flag signed by artist Beili Liu for donations of $100 or more. Whether the ghost tree is magically, literally bringing us rain or simply reminding us to think about our relationship with water, we hope it sticks around — at least until we get those lakes up to 50 percent full.