The Wild Lady of Karnack, Texas

Lady Bird Johnson in wildflowersHaving grown up in rural Texas, Lady Bird Johnson didn't think of the American landscape as one "homogenous" drive-through. And she made sure we wouldn't see it that way either.

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.


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