It was in late Spring, 1971, and I won a high school speech contest in Waco that was sponsored by the Garden Clubs. The theme was the environment, and I remember that I had read some of Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring in preparing for it. The world felt scary in 1971 -- we were in an extended war in Vietnam, and there had been several riots in major cities in the preceding summers, my head was full of the apocalyptic warnings of my Baptist faith, and the Cold War was still on. I am sure that I was adamant that we must do something right away. But I cannot remember what it is that I wanted us to do, nearly 40 years later.
Somerset Maughn once wrote in his memoirs that politicians off prove that the gift of speech is often not followed by the gift of thought.
But as a result of winning, I was invited to speak at a regional luncheon of the Garden Clubs that was held at the Austin Country Club. It was a well-lit room, full of ladies with hats and soft pastel dresses, mostly older. I was a factory worker's son from South Waco, and felt quite out of place. The main speak was Lady Bird Johnson, the former First Lady. She wore a simple blouse and skirt, no hat. "Lyndon and I just got back from Acapulco," I heard her say to the woman who was in charge of the event. We all sat at a head table.
She asked me about Waco, always speaking in a soft quiet voice. After I gave my speech, she reached over and whispered to me that it was a real barn burner.
Years later, when I lived in Austin, a friend and I started walking each day around Town Lake, the small lake in the middle of the downtown. There were a series of crushed granite paths that went along each side of the lake shore past landscaped hills, grasses, flowering trees and wildflower patches. Everybody said that Lady Bird Johnson was responsible for these beautiful pathways along the lake.
My first spring living in DC, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the city, bulbs blooming on almost every corner, flowering trees and shrubs, making spring one very long production of wave after wave of color. In Lady Bird's White House Diary, she wrote about going out with the garden club ladies and planting 500,000 daffodils along Rock Creek Parkway. She inspired, pushed and prodded people to help beautify Washington, DC.
Hidden on the South Lawn of the White House is a secret children's garden, completely surrounded by trees and shrubs. Mrs. Johnson developed that garden with its rock paths. Inside it, one cannot see or be seen from the gaze of official Washington.
The campaign in the early 1960s to beautify America was an easy thing to mock. For most people it meant picking up litter, and ok, that was something we should do. But it also means taking the opportunity to tend living things, especially in public places. To take care of living plants, to garden, requires time, and slowing down, paying attention to weather conditions, stopping and looking and touching plants.
The effect, the beauty of gardens, is the opposite from what one gets from living and walking and driving by shabby buildings and vacant lots. We respond to the beauty of a river, to the sunlight and breezes alongside it, to the coolness of green shrubs and trees, to the delight of blooming plants, to the mystery of a path that turns and bids us to walk further on, to see and experience place.
Of course, gardens are designed, artificial, high maintenance. But I do not think it is an accident that paradise was described as a Garden.
Sometime later, Partner and I flew in to Austin to visit with family and friends. Mrs. Johnson was sitting on a bench to one side. A few feet away were, I suppose, her security people. She was waiting for someone who was flying into town. I wanted to go up to her and say thanks for what she had done, how I had enjoyed the beauty in two cities that she had a direct hand in making happen, but she seemed so quiet and in her thoughts, so I walked on by.
Tuesday, July 17, 2007