A lone, goggled swimmer cut through the markedly empty waters of Austin’s Barton Springs Pool on Wednesday evening.

“Excuse me, sir?” said a man in a suit and tie, standing next to a lifeguard chair and speaking into a megaphone. “We’re clearing the pool now for the tree.” The remaining swimmer, who continued his strokes undeterred, didn’t seem to be the only one newly clued in to the evening’s planned celebration of life for a beloved, albeit leaning, pecan tree called Flo. 

“It’s sick, so they’re going to cut it down,” a bikini-clad woman explained to an inquiring couple sharing a towel nearby. “It’s a couple thousand years old, so yeah, it’s pretty sad.” 

Yes, confusion (and misinformation) seemed to be making the poolside rounds. Flo wasn’t quite a couple thousand years old—or even a measly one thousand. The large tree, which first appeared in a photograph of Austin’s shining oasis in 1925, clocked in at around over a century and was widely considered to be one of the city’s oldest trees. The famed Treaty Oak nearby is estimated to be more than five hundred years old, and for statewide context, the oldest tree in Texas is thought to be a thousand-year-old oak in Goose Island State Park, known simply as the Big Tree.  

Austin arborist Don Gardner speaks to a crowd about Flo’s life at Barton Springs Pool. Photograph by Amanda O’Donnell

Although Flo was a sapling in comparison, dozens of community members gathered to sit together on Barton’s sloping lawns and peer up at the tree in its bent glory one last time. No one was allowed to actually sit or walk under the tree; the section of sidewalk and the water beneath it had been blocked to the public for weeks after city officials determined Flo a safety risk. Removal of the tree began on Thursday, a decision that city officials did not seem to arrive at easily. In fact, the city pushed back the celebration of life and removal, which had been scheduled for last month, in order to review “additional considerations” after members of the Save Our Springs Alliance led a campaign, mostly through email, to keep Flo in place.

The tree had a distinct tilt, appearing to jut out of the ground horizontally. Its trunk and branches had long since been supported by cables and a steel brace. The structure was reinforced with additional rope after the tree was diagnosed with Kretzschmaria deusta, or brittle cinder fungus, in August. But Flo was in trouble long before that.

“I mean, the trunk has always been weird,” arborist Don Gardner, who was tasked with giving a eulogy of sorts, told the half-shirtless crowd Wednesday. Although an early picture of Flo shows the tree standing upright, Gardner directed onlookers to a photo from around 1935, showing it beginning to lean. “The tilt usually means roots broke on the back side of it, often because of a tropical storm. If a tree lives through that, well, that’s already notable.”

Brittle cinder is a fungal pathogen that often attacks a healthy tree’s trunk and roots, making them vulnerable to collapse. There is no cure. As Gardner pointed out, trees sick with brittle cinder can often appear healthy at their crown and canopy and continue to grow. “You wouldn’t know just by looking,” he said. The crowd murmured appreciation for a theme familiar and cruel: sick things can often appear just fine.

“It spreads through open wounds, as well as connected roots,” ecologist Alison Baylis of the Texas A&M Forest Service told Texas Standard last month of brittle cinder. “What this fungus does is it decays the cellulose within the tree. And that cellulose and loss of cellulose actually causes a rapid loss of strength, which can actually make this a very dangerous type of disease.” Baylis also confirmed that this summer’s relentless streak of days over 100 degrees stressed trees, making them more susceptible not just to diseases but also to simply withering up. Pecan farmers across the region are struggling with that reality; a farmer in San Saba recently told Texas Monthly that he expects to lose 10 percent of his trees.

After Flo’s initial diagnosis, the tree was inspected by a small team of independent arborists and later by a city structural engineer. The inspectors concluded that while options to prolong Flo’s presence with added supports existed (an endeavor Save Our Springs advocated for and estimated could cost between $10,000 and $30,000), none could fully ensure the safety of pool patrons. “A tree of this size in an area of high use, even with barricades blocking access, is a life safety hazard,” Austin Parks and Recreation director Kimberly McNeeley said in a memo announcing the planned removal of Flo. 

“Quick show of hands—has anyone ever done tree cavity work?” Gardner asked Wednesday’s crowd after recounting how a large hollow in Flo’s trunk was filled with cement in the 1970s. A common practice at the time, cavity filling was thought to help keep a tree supported and healthy, but it is no longer done and has since been found to sometimes further damage an ailing tree. Just one man raised his hand (“To tell the truth, I kind of recognize you,” Gardner joked). When I found him in the crowd later, Jim Rogers told me that his ties to the event went beyond experience in tree work. “I worked on that exact tree. I was twenty-four years old, and I helped plant the one on top of it,” Rogers said. Often mistaken as being an extension of Flo, the tree Rogers was referring to was planted with the future in mind. The fully upright pecan sits directly behind Flo and was intended to create shade in the same area. Although it’s not quite as thick and lacks the quirky slant that endeared Flo to so many, the time for the healthy, upright tree to stand alone has come. 

Wednesday’s event was a chance for Austinites to say goodbye to Flo. “People have asked me a lot over my career, ‘Do people grieve for trees?’ ” Gardner said. “Let me tell you, they really do. I’ve grieved over many trees, and I’m grieving over this tree.”

After a water blessing performed by a member of the Native American Church, a few memories of Flo were read aloud, and Gardner offered his thoughtful reflections. There were only a few (though loud) interruptions from Save Our Springs executive director Bill Bunch, who shouted “But it is safe!” and “You should feel guilty!” while holding a sign overhead appealing to the crowd to protest the tree’s removal. “This is my friend Bill,” Gardner said into the mic before carrying on. Then the short celebration of Flo’s decades-long life was complete. Less than a minute after lifeguards whistled the go-ahead, a chorus of splashes resounded as swimmers resumed their laps. The rest of the crowd seemed reluctant to leave—lingering and chatting while some timidly sidled up to Flo. 

The text on Bunch’s sign read “CHOOSE BEAUTY” in big block letters. But even with my back to Flo’s bowing trunk, facing a group of engaged community members of many ages (the youngest who came to pay respects was propped up on a hip and screeching excitedly), things were looking pretty good.