In Memoriam: Lady Bird Johnson

(This 854th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 5, 2007.)

Mrs. Johnson receiving roses named in her honor

from Bill Williams, president of Jackson and Perkins

—PR Newswire

As a salute to an important woman who died on July 11, I reprise my August 18, 1991 column:

Dear Lady Bird Johnson,

I write to thank you for your lovely book, Wildflowers across America, and to thank you as well for your major contributions to the beautification of this country.

I have regularly regarded our United States presidents' wives with affection and respect. In your case that regard has been heightened by your interest, which I share, in the natural world. But there is a difference between us. You have done something about it.

"The Constitution of the United States," you write, "does not mention the First Lady. She is elected by one man only. The statute books assign her no duties; and yet, when she gets the job, a podium is there if she cares to use it. I did. The public nature of the White House allowed me to focus attention on the environment, especially on plantings for roadsides and parks."

Like most others I knew before I read this book only about your sponsoring highway legislation eliminating billboards and screening automobile junkyards. Years ago Kenneth Roberts wrote an essay, "Roads of Rememberance," in which he set against stories of the deeds of Revolutionary War heroes descriptions of the highways established in their memory, each road desecrated by a terrible proliferation of advertising signs. Where soldiers marched and fell, we read only of Burma Shave. That essay struck a chord, so I have always given full support to your efforts to address this problem.

Sadly, I note that those billboard regulations are slowly being compromised by aggressive advertisers unchecked by irresponsible agencies. Here we see from our Thruway ever increasing numbers of motel advertisements, and when I drive south on interstates I find still more signs. Outside Decatur, Alabama on I-65 there is even a huge billboard advertising the Huntsville Space Center — a case of the Federal government compromising its own regulations.

Your Wildflowers across America, is more than a coffee table book. In addition to its hundred pages of striking wildflower photographs, it also balances more technical essays by Carlton Lees with your own personal memories. I especially enjoyed one of Lees' chapters — What is a Wildflower? — in which he exposes the weak boundaries between wildflowers and weeds, separates native plants from exotics, describes how plants evolve and "migrate", and discusses problems related to the introduction of plant species.

I knew of the difficulties associated with that attractive exotic, purple loosestrife, which we see in such prolific evidence along our roadsides just now. I was unaware, however, of the similar problems with a favorite shrub, multiflora rose. Widely used in the 1930s for hedgerows, it soon began to choke out other plants, take over open fields, and spread rapidly to new areas. I have had to rethink my attitude now that I find it grouped with that aggressive monster, kudzu.

I also appreciated Lees' word portraits of many of this country's early naturalist-explorers, among them Catesby, Bartram, Nuttall, and of course Lewis and Clark, each narrative accompanied by exquisite botanical watercolors.

Your own essays then bring into clear focus contemporary problems and show us some of your own solutions.

Recently a Minnesota friend extolled the Midwest Regional Office of the National Wildflower Research Center at Chanhassen. Now I learn from this book of your personal gifts of land, seed money, and support to establish in 1982 the original Center in Austin, Texas, in order to continue and expand your beautification programs.

This Center facilitates research on the preservation and restoration of native plants, derives from that research vital and reliable information to promote their use and conservation, and disseminates that information to governmental agencies and the public. A rapidly growing membership, now over 15,000, represents a good evaluation of this work.

Mrs. Johnson, you have indeed used your bully pulpit to advantage. I salute you for your leadership and I look forward to your continuing contributions over many years ahead.

                                                      Sincerely yours,


                                                      Gerry Rising

When that column appeared, I was honored to receive a lovely personal thank you note from Mrs. Johnson. I thank goodness that her "continuing contributions" went on for these eighteen additional years.-- Gerry Rising