John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Since 2001, more than 300 million trees in Texas have perished due to insufficient rainfall and human water usage.
Most city dwellers know about "ghost bikes," those white-painted bicycles that serve as grave markers for people killed in traffic accidents. Austin has taken that idea organic with what might be the country's first "ghost tree," a deathly pale and leafless plant that levitates like a hallucination above the sluggish Colorado River.
The skeletal entity, standing between the Lamar Boulevard Bridge and the Pfluger pedestrian crossway, is surrounded on any given day by curious kayakers kept at distance by a floating barrier. So what's the deal – did a psychopathic lumberjack commit arboricide and chuck the victim's barky skin into the water? Actually, this quizzical public art is about the lack of water, specifically the vast number of trees that have died in the recent American drought.
Since 2001, more than 300 million trees in Texas alone have perished due to insufficient rainfall and human water usage, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. (Those were the rural fatalities; in urban areas, it's estimated than there were 5 million more deaths in just 2012.) To draw attention to this gigantic shriveling of plantlife, the activist group Women & Their Work staged a public intervention in Austin called "Thirst." Working with artists and without any city funding, they hung 14,000 "prayer flags" emblazoned with little tree icons and then balanced their pièce de résistance, a 35-foot-tall cedar elm colored bone-white, on a pedestal in the middle of the river.
The exhibit, which will 'run' until mid-December, acknowledges the "devastating impact that changes in weather patterns have had on Austin and also sounds a call to action for conservation and sustainability," says Women & Their Work. "Aldo Leopold, the father of conservation ecology, said we must learn to 'think like a mountain' when considering the balance of an ecosystem. THIRST seeks to help us learn to think like a drought."
I'm not sure if my mind was thinking like a clod of dried-out dirt when I encountered the thirsty tree last week. It was probably thinking if some joker at lunch had dropped something into my drink: