Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America

This afternoon, shortly before I headed out to my part-time job, I learned that Lady Bird Johnson had passed away within the previous hour at the age of 94. I decided now might be an appropriate time to review a biography about her that I had purchased while working on an interdisciplinary unit for one of my classes: Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers written by Kathi Appelt and illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein.

I actually purchased my copied (signed by both the author and the illustrator) at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in South Austin. The Wildflower Center was founded by the former First Lady and Helen Hayes, the actress, in 1982 as the National Wildflower Research Center. The Center moved to its current location in 1995 and was renamed in Lady Bird's honor in 1997. Last year, it became part of the University of Texas at Austin. I never went there when it first opened - I moved away just a year later, but I've been several times in the past 3 years. The best time to go is in the spring when the Texas bluebonnets are in bloom. Currently, the Center's home page has a tribute to Mrs. Johnson, which concludes:

"Lady Bird Johnson's Family has expressed Mrs. Johnson's personal desire for memorials to be made to The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Endowment Fund. You endowment contribution is a sustaining gift that will help the Wildflower Center continue Mrs. Johnson's vision for conserving the beauty of the American Landscape."

Now, on to the book...

The book is wonderfully and colorfully illustrated - it helps bring to life Lady Bird's love of flowers:

"She loves the bright California poppies, the wild prairie roses of Iowa, and the thick bluebonnets of Texas, all of which grow along the highways of our great country.

There was a time when our roadsides were ugly. They were cluttered with billboards, rusted old cars, and miles of trash.

They might still be this way if not for the woman we know as Lady Bird Johnson."

As with most biographies, this one gives us the facts of when and where Claudia Alta Taylor was born. Also, we learn that she came to be known as "Lady Bird" because her nanny said, "She's as purty as a lady bird," a lady bird being "the name of the colorful and lively beetle" native to that area in East Texas.

We learn that young Lady Bird lost her mother three months before her sixth birthday. Lady Bird had a lonely childhood, living in the big house outside of Karnack. A neighbor told young Lady Bird a story about her mother, Minnie, dressed in white, holding a bouquet of bluebonnets, and running barefoot down the path to meet Lady Bird's father, TJ. "The vision soothed Lady Bird, and every time she saw a bluebonnet, it filled her with a sense of being loved."

TJ owned a general store and would have to take Lady Bird with him to the store when he had to work late, and would put her to bed in the upstairs room, but he didn't like raisig his daughter this way, so he sent for her Aunt Effie.

Aunt Effie taught Lady Bird an appreciation of nature. As she got older, she would spend her free time in the forest near her home. "As much as she loved the forest, though, Lady Bird yearned to explore the world beyond its tall trees, beyond the walls of the Brick House."

At the age of 18, she did something uncommon for young women at the time: she went off to college, becoming a student at The University of Texas at Austin. While in Austin, she met Lyndon Baines Johnson, and married him in November 1934.

Once her husband became a Congressman, she came to serve as a tour guide around Washington, D.C., taking visitors to its monuments and museums.

"However, as she became familiar with the city, she noticed the dismal parks that were nothing more than concrete slabs, the dirty streets and shabby lawns, the unkempt and weedy shores of the filthy Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Remembering how beautiful flowers and trees had helped her thrive, she worried about children growing up with only cement and asphalt beneath their feet."

When she had children of her own, she made sure she had a flower garden for them, but she wanted all children to be able to have flowers.

The book tactfully deals with the death of President Kennedy. The illustration here is of the funeral cortege in Arlington National Cemetery, complete with caparisoned horse following the caisson. But, that event propels Lady Bird into a new role - First Lady.

"One of Lady Bird's first responsibilities in her new position was to help her country begin to heal.

She knew from her own experience that beauty would help the country recover. Thanks to her boundless energy, and with the urging of the president, the Highway Beautification Act was passed by Congress. Because of that law the landscapes along the interstate highways of our great land were cleared of signs and rusted cars. The roadsides were blanketed in native wildflowers.

In the capital itself, more cherry trees were planted, trees that filled the city with blossoms every spring. Best of all, a million daffodils were planted along the Potomac River, just like the ones that Lady Bird dubbed "princess" when she was a little girl."

After returning to the Texas hill country, she began to make improvements on the ranch by planting the overgrazed fields with native wildflowers: "Indian blankets and Indian paintbrush, bluebells, purple horsemint, and especially bluebonnets."

Not long after returning from Washington, in 1973, her husband passed away, and "once again her house felt empty." She again turned to her wildflowers. Out admiring the wildflowers with a friend one evening, Lady Bird first heard a tractor, and then saw a farmer mowing down the wildflowers in his field. Lady Bird confronted him, finally forcing him to stop by standing in front of the tractor. He said he needed to plant hay to make a living. On the spot, Lady Bird had an idea: "I'll pay you for your wildflower seeds." They made a deal.

The book also tells us about the Wildflower Center which Lady Bird helped create.

"There scientists study the uses and effects of wildflowers. They also collect and preserve seeds of those flowers on the brink of extinction.

When asked why she helped found the center, Lady Bird told reporters that it was her way of 'paying rent for the space I have taken up in this highly interesting world.'"

The book closes with a reminder to thank Lady Bird whenever we drive down our now beautified roadways.

At the back of the book, readers are challenged to find the wildflowers illustrated there in the other illustrations within the book. Also, the final page is "Miss Lady Bird's Legacy" - the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center:

"it resides on 284 acres just south of Austin, Texas [ed: it used to be "south of Austin", but is now surrounded by housing developments resulting from Austin's growth over the last decades]. Nestled in the heart of the Texas hills, the center's mission is 'to educate people about the environmental necessity, economic value, and natural beauty of native plants.'


The Wildflower Center serves as a living laboratory. Even though it is located in Texas, its impact is nationwide. Scientists from across the country conduct research there in landscape restoration, plant conservation, horticulture, and environmental education. Mrs. Johnson stated, 'Wildflowers and native plants are as much a part of our national heritage as Old Faithful or the Capitol building.'"

I would recommend this book (recommended for chilren ages 7 to 10) for any children's library, personal, classroom or public. Although it is about the life of one of this nation's First Ladies, politics does not enter into the story, and the message is a positive one.


Luella said...

Do you know the name of Lady Bird's childhood nanny? She resembles my aunt who played with Claudia between seven and ten years old. We were thinking that perhaps she was related to our aunt. My aunt's family lived in a small town next to Claudia's hometown. In those days, the only way a black child and white child would have played together would have been if a relative worked there and took the child along with her.

Miss Ladybug said...


The book doesn't tell the name of the nanny who took care of Claudia as a child. I've not read any other biographical information about Lady Bird, either. Sorry I can be of more help. Perhaps if there was a way for you to get in contact with the book's author, she might be able to give you additional information. The nanny is properly illustrated in the book, even though she's isn't specifically named.