Alison Shaw
When Lady Bird Johnson walks among wildflowers at the home of an Island friend near Watcha Pond, she steps lightly and speaks gently. Indeed, the former First Lady is home on the Vineyard or anywhere in the world among these perennials that have touched her life from childhood days in east Texas to White House years in the nation’s capital. Even today, more than 20 years after Mrs. Johnson’s departure from the White House, she devotes a central part of her busy life to the preservation of wildlife and beauty in America.
“Don’t you love it when they wave in the wind,” she muses in a soft Texan hilt. I really love it when they just drift. And I didn’t step on a one.” She is busy in this seeded patch, examining the successive growth that began with oxeye daisies, now turned black-eyed Susans, the middle stage. “The a purple flower comes,” she explains from beneath a wide brimmed straw had with thick red sash.
She removes her red sunglasses to get a closer look. “All right, little bees,” she calls out. I won’t disturb you but a minute.” Mrs. Johnson studies the golden blossoms with dark centers.
On this hot, cloudless day a white-tailed hawk rides the wind and disappears into scrub oak surrounding the home of Patricia and the late Thornton Bradshaw. Mrs. Johnson, a frequent summer visitor to the Island, revels in the glory of the back-eyed Susans around her. She is relaxed and dresses casually in yellow skirt, floral print jersey and tennis shoes with white anklets.
At the age of 76 Lady Bird Johnson seems even prettier than she was during the White House years from 1963 to 1969, the pinnacle of an adult lifetime spent with late President Lyndon Baines Johnson over his long political career in Washington.
Her soft radiance and modest attire belie her pioneering strength and leadership in the environmental field. She has sailed America’s polluted rivers, alerting municipal and state government across the nation to the urgent need for extensive cleanups. During her husband’s administration, she ignited a beautification program that still leaves the nation’s capital aflame in the natural color of flowers. “We wanted to put masses of flowers where the masses passed,” Mrs. Johnson says over a glass of iced tea.
In recent years her environmental efforts have led to the creation of the National Wildflower Research Center, an organization in Texas that educates and promotes the propagation of indigenous species of wildflowers. With Carlton B. Lees, she wrote the book Wildflowers Across America, which was published by Abbeville Press last year.
As First Lady, she enlisted the support of her the business and arts communities to help pay for shrubs, flowers and park benches, a part of the reawakening of the civilized and manicured national capital French architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant envisioned. She worked with teachers and held contests at inner city schools for students, encouraging them to paint pictures on cans and thenfill them with roadside trash.
Mrs. Johnson understates the role she played in the enormously successful flower planting and parks program. It is a campaign that stands out today as one of the most successful ever undertaken by the wife of a U.S. President.
“I stepped onto a moving train,” she says with a broad smile and playful eyes. “All I did was applaud, cheer, urge on. That is a strain that is deep on the heart of everyone - the love for your home town, pride in your home town and in your home region.
“In the White House years the accent was on making your home town live up to its best potential,” she says. “Make the most of it. Work where you are. And we were in Washington, the capital of our nation. It just ought to be a place every American can be proud of. European capitals set a good deal of store by their packs.
“My heart is right in tune with nature, and natural surroundings. In Washington there was added to that a sense of great roaring pride in our capital city, and in wanting all these foreigners to go home thinking how beautiful it is and leaving all those visiting busloads of school children that come in May with a picture in their minds.”
Mrs. Johnson’s words always reflect her hope and belief in the country and people she served so long. “I just wanted Washington to be a flagship for the country. I hoped it would have a ripple effect and people would want to make their home town of Birmingham or Sioux City or Austin - wherever - better.”
Letters went out to mayors in every state of the union, encouraging them to start beautification programs in their home cities, towns and neighborhoods.
“Part of the genesis of the whole White House operation was a speech Lyndon made in Michigan,” Mrs. Johnson says. “I set the environment as an important part of his agenda. And I was looking for something to attach myself to. It had to be something I liked, something I was in tune with, something which made my heart sing and was very personal to me.
“The most fun I had growing up was exploring. I explored the piney woods and listened to the ineffable loneliness of that sound, the wind in the pines. The dogwoods, the violets, all these things make east Texas what it is.
“I found what I was seeking in the environment. The environment was more facets than you can count.”
In White House Diary, her memoirs, Lady Bird Johnson dealt with the health of the nation and the world, before concepts like recycling and protection of the ozone layer attracted common awareness, before the environmental movement touched the conscience of this nation.
“I was looking over my book, and I found a passage about the tangled skein,” she says. “You work on the physical looks, the planting of public areas, and somehow that leads you to clean air and clean water, and wilderness areas and open space, control over pollution.”
The Johnson administration enacted more environmental legislation than at any other time in history, according to Nash Castro, a longtime family friend and now president of the National Wildflower Research Center. Mr. Castro and his wife Bette visited the Vineyard with Lady Bird this year. Besides the creation of numerous national parks and park sites, President Johnson enacted the Clean Water Act and set up the Land-Water Conservation Fund. He won the battle to remove billboards from state highway systems. Today these laws are considered milestones in the continuing fight to protect the American environment.
Mrs. Johnson puts it this way: “You might really say that what our administration did was walk a lot of problems onto the stage, and plead with people to face them.”
While the Committee for a More Beautiful National Capital toiled in the 1960s for more attractive city parks and neighborhoods, these efforts, in a time of widespread unrest at home and abroad, were described by detractors as merely cosmetic.
“We didn’t apply ourselves purely to the aesthetics of it, though I have to say it appealed to my heart more,” Mrs. Johnson says. “We spent a good deal of money and tried to get rid of the rats in certain parts of town. We were saddled with an unfortunate description: ‘beautification.’
“I just believe if you are surrounded by order, cleanliness and beauty that you are going to be a better person. I don’t think of it as a collision. I see it as part of a package of aspiring for and working towards better health care, better educational opportunities and civil rights.”
For the past seven years Mrs. Johnson has devoted her time to wildflowers, one strand of the complex and fragile environment she has written about. Until recent years the value of wildflowers had largely been ignored, except by her home state of Texas.
“Wildflowers had always lain in the back of my mind and had been my personal pleasure and joy, and never cease to be,” Mrs. Johnson says.
Unlike cultivated plants, wildflowers do not require water, labor, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or gasoline-powered equipment. Mr. Castro says that as the nation’s water tables become depleted, the country increasingly wilt realize the value of wildflowers, which are now gaining more attention from landscape architects and as plantings along federal, state and local road systems.
Mrs. Johnson carries the title of cochairman of the wildlife research center in Austin, Tex., with actress Helen Hayes.
“I guess what enabled me to finally engage in the wildflower center was that, upon returning from the White House to Texas in January 1969, all those open fields, meadows and broad sweeps, and lovely little hidden places on country roads — I just gasped to see how they had all been filled up with grids of housing, great big sprawling shopping malls on the outskirts of cities, acres of paved parking, spaghetti networks of highways everywhere,” says the former First Lady.
“I returned to Texas, looked and saw what had happened to the world in all the years I’d been gone, though I’d never really lost my roots. But I was so involved in the busy life we led, I really didn’t see what was happening to the physical world I had loved. It had gotten so full of people, and all those things I’ve talked about, there was no room left for the wildflowers I had known and loved in my childhood days and university days.
“Wildflowers were special to me and I just got to thinking, ‘Is my world changing? May these not be here for my grandchildren?’ The only thing we could do was planned was planned landscaping of the country, which finally led me on my birthday in December 1982 to start the wildflower center.”
The goals of the center are to encourage planting of native wildflowers, shrubs, trees and planned landscaping; to serve as a clearinghouse for field research drawn from botanical gardens, arboreta, land grant institutions, garden clubs, private gardeners; to distribute information to park managers, highway planners, landscape architects and individuals; and to educate through seminars.
“I’m using research in a practical, not a scientific sense,” Mrs. Johnson says. “You get research because you have to know when to plant what in all the different regions, and how to plant it. Do you shake it out on the ground like you’re feeding chickens? Drill it in? Rake it with a rake, on cultivated ground?
“This information is practical. You get as much psychic income as you do in a lot of material things.”
During her Vineyard stays, Mrs. Johnson has discovered the wildflowers best suited to the Island climate. “I take walks here, not as many as I used to. I come across these lovely little dappled meadows of Queen Anne’s lace, and a good deal of black-eyed Susans and chicory. Chicory everywhere! Not as much butterfly weed as I’d like to see - it just sparkles with its brilliant color - and some fuzzy purple things, I just don’t know what they are.
“Martha’s Vineyard is visually blessed, distinct. It obviously has its history and its own personality,” she says.
Lady Bird Johnson insists she will never again become involved in the heat of political controversy. But the former First Lady has a message for Americans about the future if this country and its environment endangered by oil spills and medical waste. “Just look at how mad everybody is about it,” Mrs. Johnson says.
“An aroused citizenry can get almost anything done.”