Damn, it’s hot. The high-pressure system that’s wrought wildfires throughout Texas won’t leave us alone. Thankfully, the sun begins its descent as I join the other guests heading to the arched stone entrance of the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. Situated on nearly 300 acres south of downtown, the Wildflower Center is one of the most iconic architectural monuments in Austin, Texas. Its patron was former First Lady Claudia “Ladybird” Johnson, an outspoken environmentalist who devoted her public life to the preservation of native landscapes and sustainable development. When I talk to Rick Archer of Overland Partners, the building’s architect, he recalls Johnson’s simple mandate for the facility: “I just want it to look like God put it there.”
Over the years, the destination has become an educational facility as well as Austin’s de facto living room, playing host to a variety of events. Tonight, we’re gathered for a wedding. We’re dressed for the heat: ladies in soft summer-print dresses and men in cotton shirts with linen trousers, a few brave enough to sport summer suits, jackets already cast over their shoulders. Six weeks prior to the celebration, we’d received invitations explaining that the wedding was going to be green. Every effort would be made to do as little harm to the environment as possible.
After I got the invitation, I wanted to learn more about green weddings, so I spoke to Emily Kahn, founder of Green Fern Events, a sustainable-event-production company. “The Wildflower Center is one of our preferred venues,” Kahn told me. “The meeting and event industry represents the second most wasteful industry in the US, trailing right behind the construction industry.” A new generation of brides and grooms are choosing to make an environmental statement when they exchange vows. “Green weddings are no longer just a trend,” Kahn said. “Many couples are seeking new ways to express their Earth-friendly values as they express their love. From green registry items to wedding attire, there are thousands of sustainable options to choose from.” When Kahn meets with a couple for the first time, she directs them to a website devoted to this topic: greenbrideguide.com. “The Green Bride Guide is a great resource for getting started,” she said.
Tonight, passing through the entrance archway and strolling alongside a native stone colonnade supporting an aqueduct, I feel as if I’m entering a centuries-old ruin crafted by Franciscan monks, not a state-of-the-art event space. Archer remembers when Overland Partners designed the Center in the early 1980s. At that time, there were no LEED guidelines. “The Wildflower Center predates the mainstream environmental movement that has become so prevalent today,” he said. “It was a precursor to the LEED rating system and is widely regarded as one of the first sustainable public buildings in the US.”
We’re led down a path amid the complex of buildings that make up the Wildflower Center. Some, like the observation tower that holds a 70,000-gallon cistern, look as ancient as the entrance aqueduct. Others clearly are contemporary, though they too recall the efficiencies and economics of early settlers’ barn-like forms. We arrive at an expansive meadow of wildflowers. In a clearing, chairs are arranged in rows with a center aisle leading to an area beneath a massive oak tree. We take our seats.
Cheerful chatter subsides as a string quartet begins to play Pachelbel’s Canon. Members of the wedding process through the meadow to the area under the hundred-year-old oak tree, the setting sun creating a dramatic backlight to the native grasses and wildflowers. As the bride and groom exchange their vows, they’re bathed in a golden light, and I’m struck by how simple and transcendent this ceremony is.
Once the vows are exchanged, we’re led back to the open air of the Wildflower Center’s central courtyard. Tables set with natural-fiber cloths, decked with wildflowers, and lit by beeswax candles have been arranged around the pool of a simulated spring. There’s a friendly, festive buzz amongst the guests as servers bring out organic food and local wine. If I didn’t know the wedding was green, I’m not sure I would notice anything different. Kahn says this is normal. “A green wedding might not look different from other traditional-style weddings,” she says, “but making your guests aware will result in conscientious efforts towards gift purchasing and … carpooling or taking a shuttle bus.”
When dinner is over and the cake is cut, when the children have tired of playing hide-and-seek in the display gardens and several pairs of lovers, young and old, have returned from the garden’s secluded alcoves, it is finally cool. The night air is a refreshing finale. And as I give the newlyweds my best wishes and make way to the exit, I can’t help but think how beautiful it all was: the couple, the Wildflower Center, the ceremony, the entire green presentation. Rick Archer said to me, “Sustainability connects us to something deeper. It connects us to the Earth and, by extension, to our own sense of being. It speaks of authenticity and living in harmony with all creation. And isn’t this what true beauty really is?” I couldn’t agree more.