Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Wild Lady of Karnack, Texas


Lady Bird JohnsonFormer first lady and plant conservationist Claudia Alta Johnson died July 11, at her Austin residence. She was 94.

Lady Bird Johnson
Photo: Federal Highway Admin.

A world traveler who occupied the White House, she doesn't fit most people's description of a rural American, but she was one. She was born in tiny Karnack, Texas, pop. 775, daughter of a wealthy cotton farmer. Who but a country kid would be nicknamed "Lady Bird" for a red spotted beetle?

And, we think, only someone who'd been raised in the country would have noticed when billboards and trash crept over the landscape, cutting off what Mrs. Johnson used to call "vistas." Lady Bird Johnson, of course, did something about that.

In June of 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower had signed the bill creating the federal network of Interstate highways. Built for high speed cars, the interstates forever changed rural America. Small towns were by-passed, and cities once out of range were brought within a day's easy traveling distance. As a consequence, the American countryside turned from a place either unknown or lived in to something "seen" "“ smeared across the window of a car.

Lady Bird Johnson had come of age earlier but, at her husband's side, she was rising to power in these times. She, too, was changing, from an East Texas farm girl and journalist to a Senator's wife, with one foot in Washington, D.C. Traveling between the nation's capitol on the East Coast to the Johnsons' ranch in Stonewall, Texas, she saw the U.S.A. whipping past like other drivers and passengers. But she was keen (and rural) enough to see, also, how the roadsides were becoming cluttered and "homogenized." Billboards blocked the views of Texas rice fields and Tennessee hills. Who could tell where you were? And from Johnson City to the Chesapeake, the same few boring shrubs had been wedged together by federal highway maintenance crews, a kind of green curbing.


minnesota wildflowers

Wildflowers along Highway 12, Northeastern Minnesota
Photo: Walt K

When her ambitious and philandering husband finally ascended to the presidency, it was payback time for Lady Bird. Then, with LBJ's muscle, she went up successfully against the billboard industry, managing to push through a Highway Beautification Act, "improving landscaping, removing billboards, and screening roadside junkyards."

When LBJ left office and the Johnsons returned to the Texas Hill Country, Mrs. Johnson became more directly committed to plant conservation and habitat diversity. In 1982, she founded the National Wildflower Research Center (now the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center). Five years later, through her efforts and others,' the Surface Transportation Urban Relocation Authorization Act was amended, to require that native wildflowers be planted in landscaping all federal highway projects.


Indiana highway wildflowers
Poppies and cornflower along a road in La PorteCounty, Indiana
Photo: Elsie's Grandmother

You've probably seen this bit of government in silent action: a sward of gayfeather in Maryland, berms solid pink with cosmos in North Carolina and coreopsis shimmering in Arkansas.

"Though the word 'beautification' makes the concept sound merely cosmetic," Mrs. Johnson said, "it involves much more: clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste-disposal, and preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks and wilderness areas. To me, in sum, beautification means our total concern for the physical and human quality we pass on to our children and the future."

This April in Texas was a banner season for bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush and white prickly poppy. A bold final spring for Lady Bird.



Lady Bird Remembrance

My first comment to Daily Yonder thanks Julie Ardery for the fine tribute. Another by Julie on Humanflowerproject.com worth reading.

Excellent post, JA

A lovely tribute to a gracious lady. The photos are awesome - one feels she'd be pleased.

Late addition

Like Wooly Bully and Satisfaction in 1965, "The Wild Lady..." and "Goodbye-Farvel..." seem to have staying power. Una, dos, one, two, tres, quatro, they're not fading away from regular appearances on the Yonders "most popular" list. So getting in the spirit, here's a late addition to "Wild Lady" that I came across several weeks ago. It is a passage from "The American Home Front, 1941-1942" by Alistair Cooke, published in 2006 by Grove Press, page 106. This was written in a time before the interstates had been built and when the signage on the highways, if there was any, was primarily confined to the sides of barns and to those relatively small Burma Shave and Jesus Saves signs along the side of the road. And the passage is: "Perhaps it is because we recall the Southwest in terms of vast distance and daylong travel that we think back to it as being more arid than it is. Easterners gape out into the hard pink haze of sunlight and soon tire of the slow-shifting pattern of rock and scrub. They wonder what in the world the natives can see in it and would applaud the Englishman who thought that the Texans should insist on another war with the Mexicans to lose it back to them. Yet in a unit of this land not much bigger than his own back garden, the suburban Easterner could discover more wild plants and flowers than he could ever grow at home. It must be the scale of the landscape that humbles into oblivion all its exquisite detail. All through the day we were going up through spinning pools of bluebonnets, brilliant mustard, yucca in flower, prickly pear, and verbena..." This, I would guess, describes a time and place that nurtured Lady Bird's passion and forbearance. Now out to my suburban eastern backyard to fire up the grill.