Lately, it’s seemed like the whole world is in various states of chaos and upheaval. Beneath the shooting and hate crimes and terrorist attacks lies an overall uneasiness we all feel, and the constant barrage of trauma and tragedies can wear down even the most optimistic of souls.
So we should probably talk about wildflowers and the role they played in the National Beautification Initiative of the ‘60s– not because this is currently the most pressing and urgent issue but because like a lot of small things, it matters more than you think.
Let me take you back in time to my 4th grade classroom in Dallas, Texas. The assignment was to do an oral presentation to share information about our favorite Texan while dressed as that person. Given the sheer size of the state, I had many choices—cool singers and athletes and movie stars. But did I choose any of those? Nah, son. I went straight for the most baller Texan I knew: Lady Bird Johnson.
I’m pretty sure my classmates had never heard of her before, or if they had, it was limited to her role as the president’s wife. (And even that was a bit foggy because to us LBJ was an Expressway, not a politician.) I only knew who she was because my mother had told me: she was the lady who was responsible the wildflowers that grew every spring, and for that, I loved her. Like any true child of Texas, I was enchanted by the beauty that, starting in early March, began blossoming alongside every road and highway, the green grass growing bright with the colors of bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes, and buttercups. So given the chance, of course, I dressed up as Lady Bird.
Though my hair didn’t come anywhere close to the height of hers, I spoke passionately about the issues she’d devoted her life to: the environment, the beautification of neighborhoods and highways and cities; honoring the wildness of nature; and keeping space in this world for beauty. I wore my mom’s red cowboy boots and a skirt/top combo that elegantly paired denim and denim. In terms of being informative, I did well enough to earn an A but for all the facts I learned about Lady Bird, I missed much of the intention behind her action. It’s been roughly twenty years since then and recently I’ve found myself thinking about her again, that wildflower woman. As often happens, thinking lead to researching and reading and realizing—and y’all, what she did was so much more important than I could’ve imagined.
This took me even further back, to 1965, when the Beautification Act was passed, an action which eventually led to decades of bluebonnet blossoms in Texas; generations of children being forced to take photos in those fields, and, you know, a few other things. Known as Lady Bird’s Bill, its deceptively shallow name didn’t reflect its true purpose. Yes, it was to beautify the lands, and limit outdoor advertising and make for more scenic roadways but it was also done to clean the environment. That meant cleaner water and air and roadsides; utilizing methods of waste disposal that were safe and didn’t pollute the lands; preserving landmarks, parks, and wilderness; and finding ways to respect, rather than pillage, the earth around us.
When this bill passed, we were a country in turmoil, filled with deep-seeded civil unrest that boiled below the surface but often erupted upwards in a violently manner. Overseas, The USA was in the midst of the Vietnam War; at home, the battle for Civil Rights had brought battle and bloodshed on our streets. The Watts Riots had barely finished and it had been less than two years since the country had seen its president assassinated.
Meanwhile, there was Lady Bird and her suggestion seemed to be, “I was just thinking- what if we plant some flowers, y’all?”
And I love her for that. I love that this middle-aged woman from Texas who had been thrust into the role of First Lady and now had a front row view of some of the worst horrors of humanity responded by saying, “More beauty, please.” How wonderful is that?
I get that it could seem dumb, maybe even shallow. Lady Bird got it too. When asked about her choice, she said, “Some may wonder why I chose wildflowers when there are hunger and unemployment and the big bomb in the world. Well I for one think we will survive and I hope that along the way we can keep alive our experience with the flowering earth, for the bounty of nature is also one of the deep needs of man.”
I’ve been thinking about this lately—because I also think we will survive, and that while we’re at it, we ought to do some living. Sometimes the grief and sadness feels so heavy that it almost seems inappropriate to do something that isn’t strictly necessary for survival— such as planting wildflowers. But life isn’t worth much without the things that add meaning and color to it. So I think if it makes you happy and makes the world a more beautiful place, you should do it. You should plant flowers, you should spend time in parklands, and you should dance, even if some man with hate in his heart shoots people doing that very thing you love and terrorizes what should be a safe space. If and when that happens, I think you should keep dancing anyway. You should live your life in a way that feels beautiful to you and know that it’s not silly to do so. Seeking joy and beauty is not frivolous or trivial. It’s heart-achingly important because its so utterly human: ephemeral, fleeting, here then gone, but so lovely while it lasts.
The world is hard and even when it seems to be falling to pieces around us, you can find ways to be soft. You can plant your own wildflowers, whatever shape they may take for you. You can do that knowing it matters. Care for the world in the way that makes your heart sing.
And when it feels that your heart is a little bit broken, because humanity has let you down, it’s okay to be sad. But don’t give up– even if one day you discover that the very flowers you have nurtured and loved and so carefully tended to have been ripped out of the ground. Mourn them and love them and then plant more. Keep hoping, keep investing and keeping caring about the world around you. Keep choosing beauty, because no matter what other people pick, you get to make decisions too, so make one that brings more life to the world.
And on the days when you go out there and you give it your all and find yourself just a little worse for the wear, go visit a quiet sacred space that belongs just to you where you can plant your own wildflowers: your room, your journal, your heart. Make it somewhere they will be protected, preserved. Know that when the sadness is too much, you can always return there and find something beautiful, wild, alive, thriving. Remind yourself how much goodness you’ve seen so far in your life, and that there is more to come, and it will arrive in ways, shape and forms you can’t currently imagine, and you, my wild one, will have a hand in creating it– because the world belongs to you too, and even when other people try to destroy it, you carry on, slowly filling every inch you possibly can with beauty and life.