Our Pledge To You


Hunting morels and wild asparagus to ditch detritus: Then to Lady Bird Johnson


Ditch detritus and litter remain too common of a problem, even in 2018.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

And I thought of Lady Bird.

Not the 2017 movie that received multiple Oscar nominations, but Lady Bird Johnson, the first lady to President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Why would a woman famous in my childhood come to mind in 2018? Fair enough.

In the last couple of weeks of April and into early May, I spent at least some time every day tramping around ditches, roadsides and other outside places in hopes of being the first I knew to find morel mushrooms or wild asparagus.

I’ll admit it: It was a quixotic, even childish, quest. But I am fond of that sort of quest in myself and others in the outdoors.

The problem was, it was so damn dry, I was completely skunked. Nada. Zero. Zilch. Yes, no morels. Yes, no wild asparagus.

Some of the places that usually hold early morels were so dry that I was kicking up dust just walking around. The rains last week should help.

Some of my favorite ditches for wild asparagus usually have so much water that I either am stepping back and forth gingerly or jumping back and forth to avoid being soaked. Not this spring. I could walk straight down the middle of most ditches, like Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea.

Not that it did anything for finding morels or wild asparagus.

What I did discover was that, even in 2018, we continue to trash our landscape. Glass beer bottles. Paper trash. Aluminum cans. Plastic trash. Indescribable and unknowable stuff. Name it, and I probably could find it for you in some country ditch.

Admittedly, I was ticked off to begin with because I was not finding any morels or wild asparagus. Even so, it really hit me and bothered me more than usual.

That eventually brought me to Lady Bird Johnson. She pushed wildflowers and beautifying America, especially roadways. She had the backing and ear of her husband, a rather astute politician.

Some male politicians of the time — this is a shocker — condescendingly called the Highway Beautification Act ‘‘Lady Bird’s Bill.’’ But President Johnson got it through.


Lady Bird Johnson in Texas Hill Country, May 10, 1990
“My heart found its home long ago in the beauty, mystery, order and disorder of the flowering earth. I wanted future generations to be able to savor what I had all my life.” —Lady Bird Johnson, 2002. Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum photo by Frank Wolfe, D9081-6.

There was a lot more to her legacy than pretty roadsides, though. Real conservation was accomplished during the Johnson years.

After Lady Bird’s death in 2007, Lawrence Wright noted in the New York Times: ‘‘Nearly all of the 200 laws related to the environment during the Johnson administration had her stamp on them, including the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund and many additions to the national parks system. She worked to protect the redwoods and block the damming of the Grand Canyon.’’

Some of those actions still matter greatly for those of us who care about the outdoors a half-century later.

No matter how cynical we have become, governmental action or inaction — regulatory and legislative — in conservation (as we wait and wait on the Farm Bill) and environment (as the Environmental Protection Agency careens toward Opposite Day) matters.

And it matters for more than just ditch detritus.