As usual there’s a lot going on, more than we can fit in here. For instance this Thursday October 26 at 2 PM is the joint Austin City Council – Planning Commission meeting on Council Member Leslie Pool’s proposed redefinition of single family zoning categories, to allow three or more units on every lot. We’ll have a story on that before the Council takes up the item on Thursday. Today, however, we mark the passing of Flo, the iconic pecan tree on the hillside near the entrance to Barton Springs — with some of its graceful limbs curving over a small part of the pool.
I realize that some folks think too much attention has been paid to this single tree already; or that it was too much attention paid to any tree. I really like, however, living in a town that loves a tree that much; that eulogizes a tree and holds goodbye gatherings for it and where countless individuals — including myself — paid private farewells to Flo. I’m all for preserving those cultural aspects of Austin even if some people scorn it. And, for any of you out there saying that people should pay attention to other issues instead of a tree, I would submit that people mourning Flo, and paying their respects to her, have a broad enough mental bandwidth to pay attention to other issues at the same time.
Another reason I’m writing about the Flo saga is that it has a number of classic Austin elements, in particular having to do with trying desperately to hold onto to things that are slipping away. Let’s review. The City Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) has known Flo was ailing for a very long time. For instance in the 1970s PARD planted a replacement pecan tree right next to Flo. Also in the 1970s, PARD tried to treat Flo’s “large trunk cavity.” According to a webpage PARD recently created for Flo, in the ‘70s the City “partially filled (the cavity) with concrete to help the tree close the wound and provide structural stability.” The webpage adds, “This is no longer considered a best management practice in the tree care industry and has been found to speed internal decay.” Some sort of similar treatment had been done even earlier, although PARD is not certain “when the large cavity in the trunk of the tree was first filled.” The PARD webpage for Flo also reports that “the first supports were put in place between 1948 and 1958.”
City PARD website photos of cavity in Flo and cement filing. Photo at the top is a screen shot from a City video of citizens filing out of the October 4 farewell ceremony for Flo.
Then, in July of this year, during a routine inspection, PARD “noticed a fungal fruiting body at the base of the tree.” That’s according to a memo from PARD Director Kimberly McNeeley, which continues, “A sample was sent to the plant diagnostic lab at Texas A&M for analysis.” A&M sent back “results confirming the diagnosis of Kretzschmaria deusta, also known as brittle cinder fungus.” McNeeley and PARD knew that they needed some further outside professional backup and bolstering before making any announcement of Flo’s fate. So they hired four professional arborists to assess Flo’s health and make recommendations. All four confirmed the Texas A&M lab’s diagnosis and all four recommended removal.
City photo of Flo and replacement tree
Veteran arborist Guy LeBlanc, one of the four arborists who evaluated Flo for PARD, elaborated on his recommendation on his website, “This iconic tree has been at high risk of failing for decades, its heavy lean first documented in historical photos from the 30’s. The city of Austin has done everything possible to physically support the tree, from using tar, concrete and rebar to fill the massive cavity in its trunk (where decay created a hollow large enough for a man to easily fit inside of it), to installing steel support posts, to anchoring support ropes to nearby structures. For decades it has been poked, prodded and even internally examined with high tech radar equipment. Realizing its days were numbered, they even planted a replacement tree next to it in the 70’s.”
A photo from the City collection shows Flo cirica 2004 with the then recently planted replacement tree next to Flo.
With the tree’s fate all but set PARD staff erected more steel bracing where Flo hung over the Barton Springs sidewalks and blocked off the sidewalk in that area and the adjoining part of the pool over which Flo hung. Additionally PARD staff created a website explaining the situation plus a page where people could post tributes to Flo. Staff also briefed the PARD Board, followed later by the City Council. And, PARD scheduled a farewell to Flo service on September 13. In the following days, visitors to Barton Springs could be seen paying their respects to Flo or just lingering in the tree’s presence one more time.
In my view these were all classic Austin elements: passionate and loving tributes to a tree; a farewell service for that tree; years of putting off action resulting from how passionately citizens loved Flo; and even the multiple professional opinions before recommending action.
But, then came perhaps the most classic Austin element of the whole saga. Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance launched a last-minute, last ditch effort to save Flo. For instance Bunch wrote to media outlets complaining about coverage that said Flo was likely to “collapse” and injure people. The tree could not “collapse,” said Bunch, because, “It is held in a major metal framework.” Bunch also reported that he had recruited two “renowned Austin metal workers and architects. . . perhaps the most famous of functional/artistic metal workers in Austin.” The pair, continued Bunch, “have proposed a beautiful safety net that would both hide the ugly support frame under Flo’ while also adding yet more protection for people and swimmers below the tree.”
Despite this signature example of Bunch’s legendary persistence, his proposal was ultimately rejected and PARD scheduled a second farewell service for October 4. This reporter was unable to attend the service, but paid my last respects again later that evening when I went for a swim. According to an excellent story by Isabella McGovern in Reporting Texas, a publication of UT Austin’s School of Journalism, “two protesters held signs and interrupted Wednesday night’s farewell event.” The story was accompanied by a photo of Bunch holding a sign reading, “Save Flo,” “A Design for Life and Limb,” “Choose Beauty,” and “Stand Up For the Trees.”
October 4 farewell ceremony for Flo. Arborist Don Gardner addresses the crowd. PARD Director Kimberly McNeeley stands to his right. Bill Bunch holds up a protest sign at the far left. Originally from Reporting Texas, published under terms listed on their website.
Workers took Flo down the next day or sometime shortly before or during the nearby Austin City Limits festival.
In my view you really have to give Bunch credit for his determination and his willingness to fight to the end; although I hope he doesn’t make a habit of protesting at funerals, including mine — although I’m not sure I’ll care at that point. On the other hand Flo was diseased and a danger to swimmers and people walking on the sidewalk. Plus, trees are creatures who have life spans — long life spans — but they can die like the rest of us. Flo was thought to be at least 100 years old, with the first known pictures of her in 1925.
Also, Flo never had a choice to tell us whether or not she wanted to sign a do not resuscitate directive. We can’t know if she would have really wanted to be propped up by a metal structure after she was hollowed out inside and couldn’t hold herself up any longer.
How dignified is that? Whatever the case, the debate will likely continue even with Flo gone — once again classically Austin.
Workers begin to remove Flo
The Springs Themselves
A few nights ago I went to the springs for the first time since Flo was removed, not knowing exactly how it would feel for there to be an empty space where Flo once stood. Surprisingly, to me, my first impression was that the replacement tree is looking really, really good; including having a lot of foliage stretching over where Flo once stood. I think the as yet unnamed replacement tree will become beloved all on its own. I can envision current and future generations of Austinites — and out of town visitors — sitting where Flo once stood while being shaded by the replacement tree — which needs a name. Maybe the City could also put up a plaque with a photo of Flo.
Now, with apologies to longtime Austin folksinger Bill Oliver I am going to offer a new verse to his classic Austin anthem, “Barton Springs Eternal.”
“There might come a time
When Flo has to go
But, Barton Springs Eternal.”
I offer that suggested new verse because, even though Flo is gone, the springs that Flo watched over for so long still flow and they’re still there for the people of Austin to enjoy. Nothing beats it for cooling off from the Texas heat; if you’re willing to take that plunge into the cold waters. After all it’s only the initial plunge that is really the cold part.
Barton Springs is a natural antidote to our region’s heat and the springs were put there by nature; although humans built the dam and the amenities that make it more enjoyable for humans. And, it is that combination of nature, human enhancement of the natural experience, and humans doing everything possible to protect what nature provided us that makes Barton Springs the iconic, joyful and even spiritually fulfilling place that it is for so many.
As Oliver puts it:
“If it’s warm or if it’s a freeze
It’s always 68 degrees
In a world of uncertainty.”
(At this link you can listen to Oliver’s “Barton Springs Eternal” sung by him and a host of other Austin musicians.)
Unlike with Flo, however, there are no replacement springs standing by for Barton Springs. Springs don’t work like trees. You can’t plant new ones. And, while there was a lot of disagreement about what should be done about Flo, there is a lot of unity that the springs should be saved.
At the same time I know that a lot of people in Austin believe that the struggles of the 1990s saved the springs. I also know a lot of people have moved to Austin since then or were born here since then and don’t know about those struggles. I refer to the citizen rebellion that stopped the infamous Barton Creek PUD proposal in 1990 and ultimately resulted in passage of the Save Our Springs (SOS) Ordinance in 1992. Those were great victories and I believe that they did indeed save the springs from the primary threats to it at that time. But, those victories did not save the springs forever. In an upcoming post we will discuss some of the current threats to the survival of the springs. We will also discuss how it is still critically important to preserve them.
In closing I want to return to Isabella McGovern’s article. She reported that “Gary Perez of the Native American Church opened Wednesday’s (October 4) farewell celebration with a water offering to the pecan tree and surrounding area.” That is very fitting. Native Americans were of course the first to utilize the springs, although I have never been able to find a lot of detail on that.
Today there is a lot of focus on acknowledging and honoring the original inhabitants of North America. This is something I have believed in since I was a kid. Bill Oliver acknowledged the Native American connection to Barton Springs years ago in “Barton Springs Eternal.” He writes that they came to the springs to:
“Feel the chill, feel the sun
And, as they filled their water sacks,
To them it was a sacred act.
What would they say if they came back?
To Barton Springs Eternal.”
That’s a good question. And, it brings to mind what a tragedy and a crime against all past and future generations it would be if we let the springs die on our watch. So how about if Austin honors the memory of Flo — and all generations of humans who came before — by recommitting to do everything possible to ensure that we pass on a healthy Barton Springs for future generations to enjoy, and so all of us who care to enjoy the springs now can do so for the rest of our days.
Please stay tuned.
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