what highway wildflowers teach us about our need for beauty

We need to live among beauty. 

We discovered this aggressive vine that was taking over the bamboo in our backyard was wisteria. Noted, we will be pruning it to keep it from killing the bamboo, but goodness in the meantime the blooms are making our yard smell amazing!

We discovered this aggressive vine that was taking over the bamboo in our backyard was wisteria. Noted, we will be pruning it to keep it from killing the bamboo, but goodness in the meantime the blooms are making our yard smell amazing!


First Ladies make me smile, so when I saw a recent article about Lady Bird Johnson and her highway beautification project while in the White House, I knew I'd love it.  (The article was by Michael Gormley in the April 2018 copy of The Artists Magazine). In the article, the author simply highlights Lady Bird's somewhat unconventional passion project with the goal of beautifying our cities and highways, leading to the passing of the Highway Beautification Act
 in 1965. I adored her quote about the endeavor:

"'Some may wonder why I chose wildflowers when there are hunger and unemployment and the big bomb in the world,' she said at the time. '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. [sic] For the beauty of nature is also one of the deep needs of man.'"



Obviously I am not here to trivialize the very real issues which plague the human race and require our attention and efforts (and she was not either), but I am completely appreciate of Lady Bird's emphasis on the importance of living in among beauty. She devoted a tremendous amount of time and energy to bring the beauty of the "natural world" to some of the most mundane views. I completely agree with her, but also want to take it a step further and argue that simply living among beauty is a deep need of man. 

I used to take for granted that we live in a beautiful world, and as I've grown, I've started to appreciate the soul nourishing gift of that expression. It is important, and while it can be easy to take for granted delightful wildflowers along the side of the highway, or the fact that on a given weekend, most of us can visit an art gallery or listen to a concert for a very reasonable fee, consider the void not having those things would leave in us. What if we did not have that? Have you ever been in a place void of culture and beauty? Did you notice a negative effect over time?

My first blog post talks about humanity's need for art, which. In the post I talk about my experience walking through the Athens Archaeological Museum in Greece. I noticed even in historical ages of much less convenience and prosperity than we enjoy today, humans were creating beautiful things. I noticed next to weapons of war and basic utensils, there was decorated pottery and delicate jewelry. Clearly, not "functional," but it was still a priority in even ancient civilizations when day to day life looked much different than it does today. Highway wildflowers aren't solving the hunger crisis either, but history proves we still need them. 

One thing I appreciate about natural beauty, such as Lady Bird's flowers, is how fleeting it is. As a painter, I am among thousands who am compelled to capture a moment that will never happen again. I think we appreciate the flowers on the side of the road more when we know they may not be there next month.  When I was in middle school, I was on a team with a particularly soulful coach. This season was one of those wonderful ones where the team just clicked. The last week before championships, he came to practice with a sunflower for each of us. His reason has stuck with me for over 15 years:

A flower will not survive more than a couple of days cut from its roots, so you must enjoy its beauty now. Soon our season will end, and we will never be in this moment again. I wanted to bring each of you a sunflower to remind you that it does not matter what happens on Saturday, that won't define this group or any of you individually. Instead, appreciate the amazing day that today is and what we have together right now.

I recall wanting to immediately hang the flower upside down to dry it and keep it to remember that perfect season, but after his explanation, had other plans. I put it in water, loved it for a couple of days, and when it wilted, I let go and threw it away. 

I urge you to savor the fleeting moments of beauty that surround us. If you are in Florida, soak in the last few days of the azalea blooms. Light a candle with dinner tonight, enjoy the way the food tastes still warm. (Perhaps I'm speaking more to myself with this one: Make the kind of dinner that won't keep for leftovers tomorrow!) Hug your loved ones for a really long time. Appreciate the flowers on the side of the highway. Pick a few and let them shine for a couple of days in  your living room, and be okay throwing them away when they are finished.