I was surprised and pleased that Editor Linda Mostert and team accepted my poem, “Kayaking on Lady Bird Lake,” for the new South African journal, Hotazel. I think this poem is one of the better ones I have written, and I am excited that it will come out in South Africa, where I have not published before.
Lady Bird Lake, much like South Africa, is a study in contrasts. On the one hand a kayaker finds themself in an urban wilderness, nesting ground for several species of water birds, not to mention turtles and the famous bat colony that makes its home seasonally in the tiny space between the surface and the concrete undergirding of one of the bridges across the lake. On the other hand, the lake has a lot of trash in it, and giant skyscrapers, including a new Google tower, rise on every side. These contrasts are oddly parallel to my experience of taking a bus outside Johannesburg to visit an elephant sanctuary, though I did not think of that at the time.
Lady Bird, too, seems to me to embody many contrasts. I have only read her Wikipedia bio, but her decade of determined work on what was then Town Lake supports some of the details I read about this apparently traditional Southern lady who famously concerned herself with the beautification of US highways. Though some might consider that preoccupation the kind of lesser field deemed appropriate for ladies before the era of feminism, Lady Bird was the first First Lady to have her own office and staff to carry out her initiatives—in other words, she transformed her position into a real job with some real power. “The Highway Beautification Act was informally known as ‘Lady Bird’s Bill’” (from her Wikipedia bio). She was also a trained journalist and a successful businesswoman who used an inheritance to help her husband run for Congress.
As for the supposition that Lady Bird’s beautification efforts were a sort of decorative hobby (a supposition I myself had entertained, I admit), the amazing urban biome she got constructed at the lake that now bears her name shows how important and serious her work was. In fact, she reminds me of my mother, who was also raised to be a Southwestern lady, but worked hard to earn her Ph.D. in art history and become a professor.
Finally, the art of the lake presents yet another evocative set of contrasts. Graffiti, often regarded as vandalism and defacement. becomes a shifting tapestry in which mostly anonymous artists put their stamp on the lake and make their voices heard. For me, the command, “BREATHE,” on the bridge depicted above, evoked the tension between the peaceful solitude I found in the kayak and the busy urban culture around it, between the natural richness and the sinister throwaway culture of our times, a culture embodied not only in the trash of the lake, but also the fate of George Floyd and so many others.
I look forward to my study of these contrasts appearing in a land of different, often troubling, contrasts, and I hope to see other, similar work in Hotazel.