Preserving Austin's Natural Mecca

Interactive documentary project Living Springs celebrates Barton Springs

Karen Kocher (Photo by John Anderson)

By around noon on any recent summer day, the line of swimsuit-clad Barton Springs Pool hopefuls wraps around the bathhouse. Perennially listed as one of the top things to do in Austin for locals and visitors alike, the 72-degree natural spring water and peaceful green scenery are a beloved oasis, a refreshing reprieve from soaring heat indexes and urban sprawl. But it's so much more than a cool swimming hole: historical and cultural icon, spiritual and artistic mecca, scene of love stories and scientific exploration. Barton Springs is a living ecosystem, and a new interactive documentary is launching to blow our minds and capture our hearts with the details of its unique, enchanted worth.

Filmmaker Karen Kocher has been involved in the documentation of all things Barton Springs since 1989, when she moved to Austin to obtain a film degree. After the infamous all-night meeting (see "The Battle for Barton Springs: A Brief Timeline," News, Aug. 3, 2012), Kocher made her half-hour thesis film, "Common Ground: The Battle for Barton Springs," on a budget of $85. The movement to revise the Comprehensive Watershed Ordinance to stop damaging development in the area led to the formation of the Save Our Springs Coalition (SOS). Kocher went on to become a PBS documentary producer and make other films, but the story of Barton Springs stayed close to her heart. "I really try to produce work that has a great utility," she said of her filmography. In 1997, the tiny endangered Barton Springs salamanders were federally listed as a threatened species, and with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service protection came a mandate for an education center on-site. The Beverly S. Sheffield Education Center was built, and the Splash! exhibit was born. Around the same time, one of Kocher's grad school colleagues, Marshall Frech (who, with Turk Pipkin wrote Barton Springs Eternal: The Soul of a City), wanted her to collaborate on his in-progress CD-ROM (remember those original interactives?). That same interactive feature has been the mainstay audiovisual ever since, so in 2010, Kocher decided it was time for an update.

"People think that when SOS was passed, the Springs were saved," says Kocher. Not necessarily the case, she explains. Noncompliance by various means is grandfathered in, allowing potential ecologically devastating loopholes. The rapid development and significant recent population increase encroaching on the Edwards Aquifer has already contributed to the alteration of the Springs' chemical composition. "Death by 1,000 cuts," as Kocher describes it. More than ever, a documentation of the true value of Barton Springs is essential to its longevity. "How can we make the experience richer and so people can really create a connection to that place?" Kocher asks. Create a multiplatform, transmedia, interactive documentary film website and installation, of course.

"Living Springs is, on the one hand, not politicized, but just a document of the place and all the values it has. That's the optimistic idea of what it is. The pessimistic idea is that I'm trying to record this as fast as I can to create a record so we can look back and say, 'This place wasn't just a swimming hole. It was a place of spiritual practice for some people. It was a source of meaning for art.' It's certainly an interesting place to study science because of the hydrology of the Edwards Aquifer and the salamanders that only live in the Springs," explains Kocher. Native American women's water-gathering ceremonies are held in the sacred waters, Chinese monks and Tibetan monks cross oceans to visit the cool waters and offer blessings, and Eastern Orthodox priests and congregations re-create baptisms from the River Jordan. Hydrogeologists and other scientists are interested in the protection of the one-of-a-kind Barton Springs ecosystem – salamanders in particular – and the medical research field is enamored with the elusive little amphibians' fantastic regenerative capacities. Tony Hoagland and Wendell Berry wrote poetry, Willie Nelson and Robert Redford recount memories. There really must be something otherworldly in that water.

This month marks a milestone for Living Springs, as it officially becomes part of the installation at Splash! in the bathhouse. The Splash! physical space is designed with education, and kids, in mind: big buttons on multisensory features, crawl spaces that mimic the underground tunnels of the aquifer, a periscope, and live aquarium tanks to offer a glimpse at the amazing little salamander. Living Springs, which mirrors that interactive, exploratory feel, offers the much-needed update to the center. "Before Living Springs existed, there were one or two films that played over and over. Now there are many, and an element of choice," says Kocher. "Just like we want people to explore the Springs, everything [on the website] is not just served up in an obvious way."

Kocher explains that the fluidity serves as a perpetual metaphor for the Springs themselves. "This is a living place. It's not just set in stone." Intentionally designed with hidden treasures and surprises, Living Springs features underwater footage accessed by clicking on swimming fish. There are also multiple audio tracks and soundscapes, and Graham Reynolds created original mini-compositions for all the underwater short pieces, too. The volume of information delivered by a growing number of films, mostly shorts with features highlighted at events, makes it ideal for teachers and parents to revisit more than once. Located near the entrance gate, Splash! makes it convenient to enjoy a free, unguided tour of the exhibit. (The mobile site will direct you to the Living Springs YouTube channel where the short films are available.) More videos are being added to the trance-inducing website, and everyone is welcome to submit their contributions to this open-ended project.

On Friday, July 31, Living Springs hosts the first full-moon screening of the year. A film called "Barton's Four Springs" gives a tour of the little-known geography, complete with original animated artwork. "When people think of the actual springs at Barton Springs, they just think of under the diving board where most of the water comes out. [This film] shows the other parts of the system," explains Kocher. Another, "Cleaning Day," is a "fun piece portraying a day in the life of the Springs on a Thursday, when it's closed. What's happening in there when you can't get in? There's the work the staff does to maintain, and the volunteers that go in one day a month. They're an example of stewardship; people who really care put their money and muscle into it, and literally scrub the pool. It also shows what happens when the pool floods, which it's done a lot this year," she adds.

On August 29, a still-in-progress film screens. "It's a historic piece about Barton Springs from the time just before Zilker gave the gift of the Springs to the city in 1917, and it covers the period when Austin was a very different place. Once the city took it over, it was closed to people of color. There were a lot of actions between 1953 and 1961, and none are documented in the newspapers or photographs, so part of what we're doing is bringing these stories to life through historic re-creation." Kocher and team have amassed resources from the Austin History Center and the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, to give the oral history of the pool through the time it was reintegrated in 1962.

Kocher sums up the reason for decades of documentation, citing an old friend's wisdom: "Barton Springs is Austin's shrine, and we should treat it as a place of pilgrimage. We should treat it as a place of importance and we should treat it as the unique place in the world that it is. It merits 30 or 40 or more films about it."

The first full-moon screening of Living Springs will be Friday, July 31, 8:30pm, on the south side of Barton Springs. The next screening is Aug. 29. For more info:

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Living Springs, Barton Springs, Karen Kocher, Save Our Springs, Edwards Aquifer

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