Beautification and Karma (Day 3: Left Coast Mosey)

Tree in Lady Bird Johnson Grove
A 1000 year old tree in Lady Bird Johnson Grove, photo by kajmeister.

In today’s post, I will explain how trees do not grow like beanstalks, why Lady Bird Johnson was a badass, and how I tried to increase the world’s karma.

Trees Are Not Stars

I was about to begin explaining how ancient these coastal redwoods are by saying that when you look up at the lowest branch, some 190 feet off the ground, you are looking back in time. Looking up the details on the growth rate,* I came across a discussion about what would happen if you carved your initials in a trunk and came back ten years later. How high up would that move, and does it depend on whether the tree is an oak, an aspen, or a redwood?

In cartoons, e.g. Jack and the Beanstalk, the plant always pushes out of the ground and then up. However, trees grow more like telescopes than beanstalks. They put out buds, twig, then branch, and the initial bud then buds on top of itself again. The trunk portion on the ground gets thicker; it doesn’t move upward. Your carved initials stay at ground level. This changed my understanding of trees. But then, trees are mysterious.

When you look up those redwood branches, 190 feet in the air, you are not looking at branches that used to be at eye level. It’s not like when you look at stars and you see light that started coming toward you centuries ago, so that looking at starlight is always seeing the past. If you could see the very top of a redwood tree, you could see a branch that was born last year. On the other hand, that lowest branch still might have been born 600 years ago, so it is still correct to say that branch might have started when Columbus sailed across the Atlantic.

Tree in Lady Bird Johnson Grove
Look up 600 years, photo by kajmeister.

I Guess I Shouldn’t Knock Planting Flowers

The other fundamental misconception I had was about Lady Bird Johnson. This was formed from my bias (and political satirists of her era) who pooh-poohed the Beautification of America Campaign that was her slogan. It is fair of me to point out that the solution to urban misery is not as simple as planting a flower in a vacant lot. Cleaning up a place does not remove the root of what caused the blight. On the other hand, maybe her idea, “Where flowers bloom, there is hope,” isn’t as milquetoast and simplistic as it sounds.

Since we spent the morning walking through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove in Redwood National Park, I read up on the former first lady. I was in for a few surprises. She attended college at a time when it was rare for southern young ladies to do so and invested her small inheritance in a radio and television station. The TV station made her a millionaire, the first president’s wife to earn such money in her own right. (She also stayed on the board of the media enterprise until she died, in her eighties).

Lady Bird dedication
Lady Bird Johnson at the Grove’s dedication, photo from

She did promote beautification of the highways, inner cities, and especially Washington D.C. She also campaigned on the road for the Civil Rights Act and established a formalized office for the first lady, including her own press secretary and chief of staff. Her efforts led to the reduction of billboards–aren’t we still glad about that now?–and gave a shot in the arm to the burgeoning conservation movement. On the Pacific Coast, for example, as logging in the 1960s was wiping out the last of some of these old growth forests, it was the pushback from environmental groups, including those she supported, which expanded national parkland here.

As she traveled to so many wilderness places, from Crescent City, California to Peoria, Iowa, she brought a presidential presence to places that may have never seen one before. Once she had visited, and her name had been attached to Memorial Groves and dedication plaques, it was that much harder to pave over or sell that land to commercial developers. Planting flowers turned out to be deviously clever. Well played, Lady Bird! I will redress my misunderstanding.

Wherein I Try to Redress the Entire Balance

I must digress to explain that this was a day where my karma bank, or so I would label it, seemed to empty and fill in various ways. It’s a little complicated, but it started when I got into the car in the morning after putting in the suitcases and noticed my sunglasses on the seat. This was strange because I try to be good about Putting Things Away because traveling things do have a way of getting lost, with favorite scarves being left in motel rooms and pencils with the best erasers on restaurant tables. I put the sunglasses on and off we drove, but after our walk, as I went to put them away in their car holder, there was a pair already in there, so these were clearly Not Mine!

They did look very much like mine, but I had no idea how they got in the car. Yet, clearly I was at fault, and would at least have to spend the rest of the day being called “light-fingered” by my traveling companion. I was determined to redress the balance.

As I drove down the highway, we saw signs for upcoming Elk Meadow, and I noticed several cars pulled rather suddenly to the side of the road, particularly a large camper where it shouldn’t be, so I slowed quickly. This was fortunate because a giant male elk, 12-point buck, came sauntering out from behind the Winnebago. I had slowed down in time. My companion said that elks that size can fend for themselves and, in a fight between car and 600-pound animal, neither would win. She did not take a photo and, of course, I didn’t as I was driving. I am hoping that somehow redressed some of the karmic imbalance.

Not the elk I did not hit, but very much like it. Photo at Getty Images.

Then, after a stop at a grocery store for some afternoon cookies (what else?), I saw something that I am sure put the entire world back on the right path. There was a severely disabled woman in a wheelchair who was being helped into a van, one of those services that provides assistance for people to get out to buy groceries. As she went up the ramp, I noticed she had a tight grip in her lap on the biggest pepperoni pizza that I had ever seen. It spilled over the sides of her lap; it was a redwood-sized pepperoni pizza. I could even imagine her telling her helper at the checkstand, “No, I’ll carry that.”

Doesn’t that redress the karmic imbalance enough?

Yurok Loop Trial ocean view
Another walk, along the Yurok Loop Trail, Klamath, CA. Photo by kajmeister.

*The redwood growth rate, by the way, is between 1-2 feet per year.
Also, it would be bad karma to carve your initials into any tree, especially a redwood tree.

2 Replies to “Beautification and Karma (Day 3: Left Coast Mosey)”

  1. Several years ago we did the same drive you are doing. Stayed in B&Bs along the way (one of them on a boat). From San Francisco to Puget Sound and on into Seattle, we experienced places that left us changed for the better. Good Karma…

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