Turning into trees, students connect with the national parks

AddThis

Retired professional tennis player Andy Roddick participates in virtual reality experience at the tower Tuesday evening. The event celebrated the National Park Service’s Centennial.
Photo Credit: Gabriel Lopez | Daily Texan Staff

Sergio Cavazos is 5 feet 10 inches tall. But for a couple of moments, he became one with nature, turning into a 307-foot-tall redwood tree. 

“It was a dream turned into reality,” government junior Cavazos said. “We don’t ever see anything projected on the tower; it’s very rare.” 

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS), founded in 1916, NPS turned UT students and other guests into redwood trees projected onto the tower through interactive motion sensor technology. Waving their arms up and down and from side to side, participants transformed into swaying trees. Projected birds flew across the face of the tower, creating the feeling of being in nature. 

“[I felt] incorporated into nature,” physics freshman Cira Feeney said. “You’re mixing something special to us here [the UT Tower] and the national parks.” 

This comes as part of a larger effort to bring awareness of the National Parks, including Big Bend in Texas, to urban areas that don’t traditionally visit these places, said Peggy O’Dell, deputy NPS director. NPS is bringing similar events during the upcoming months to Chicago and New York City, she said. 

“Redwoods are a special, unique thing about this country. They’re so massive, and matching it to the scale of the tower was just the best match for this place,” O’Dell said. “We’re trying to find great college campuses, great student body, folks who don’t know about the national parks because there’s not one right in your city.”

The event also included several daytime activities, including an interactive compass that displayed the distance of various national parks or monuments from the Main Mall when turned in a circle. Stations set up on the Main Mall displayed information about finding nearby national parks and the history of the national parks.

The National Park Service came to UT because the tall height of the virtual redwoods was the perfect fit to project to the top of the tower, O’Dell said. The UT Tower is 307 feet tall, and the tallest redwood is about 379 foot tall, according to the NPS.

Like the vast ambitions of UT, the height of the tower matches the tall redwood trees found in California, said Fritz Steiner, dean of architecture. 

“We are unifying two very different icons: historical trees form the Redwood National Park and our iconic UT tower in our rapidly growing city of Austin,” Steiner said. “In true Texas fashion, the Board of Regents kept urging the architect to keep growing the tower taller and taller. In many ways, the Tower is like a redwood tree that grows and grows.” 

Andy Roddick, former No. 1 professional tennis player who said he’s visited several national parks including Big Bend, said he encourages people to keep attending the parks long after the centennial celebration of the parks. 

“I’ve been lucky enough to travel and see a lot of the national parks,” Roddick said. “To think about something that’s been around that long — it’s important to make sure this generation knows to discover it, so it’ll be here long past any of us.” 

A nature enthusiast, Feeney said the event inspired her to encourage her friends to come to national parks to reconnect with nature like she has. 

“This is our earth,” Feeney said. “We should be experiencing it and enjoying it.