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John Fairey, regarding Lynn Lowrey

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My name is David Todd. I’m with the Conservation History Association of Texas, and it’s November 13, 2004. We’re in Houston, Texas on the Rice campus, and we have the good fortune of being here because of the event at Peckerwood Garden that Mr. Fairey and his colleagues have organized to recognize the many contributions of noted plantsman Lynn Lowrey. I wanted to say that now we have the opportunity to talk to John Fairey who has been teaching in the College of Architecture at Texas A& M since the mid sixties, and in 1971 he founded Peckerwood Garden which has recently become a public foundation, and in ’86 helped start a commercial garden, a nursery called Yucca Do. In many ways he’s touched on the landscape and visual world that we enjoy. I want to take this time to thank you.

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Thank you for having me.

I thought we might start by talking about how you first became familiar with Lynn and how you first met him.

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Well I owned a small apartment complex in Houston in 198—7—67 I believe it was. And I asked Robert White, who was then the head of the landscape department at Texas A&M what kind of trees I should plant around this thing. And he said well he really didn’t know but he—I should go see Lynn Lowrey because he would know exactly what kind of trees, because I was interested in native trees. And so I—he gave me Lynn’s address. And Lynn owned a nursery at that time somewhere off of I-10, and I—that—that was about the end of, you know, that nursery. He phased that out and moved
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somewhere else after that. And he recommended that I purchase some shumard oaks, and at that point he was the only person in the state who had shumard oaks for sale that I knew of, and that’s how I met Lynn. An after that I—he moved to a nursery not far from Lamar High School, probably the same time he planted those trees at the athletic field they were talking about. And I visited him quite often then. He had a different—a—partner, and I forget who the partner was at that point. I’ve seen him since, but I can’t
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remember the name. And every time I would go in to visit Lynn, I would maybe spend one hundred dollars, and come back with two hundred to three hundred dollars worth of gifts. And it got—it almost got embarrassing—I—sometimes would hesitate to go because I didn’t want to—I felt guilty taking all these wonderful plants that he was giving.

What was your impression when you would go to his nursery? What did you think of the nursery and what did you think of Lynn?

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Well, I immediately liked Lynn because he was quiet and soft spoken, and a very humble, easy to talk with person. And he was so knowledgeable. It was just unbelievable the knowledge he would share and tried to, you know, to spread the word. It was just a—it was a wonderful experience.

Could you see him sort of as a proselytizer of….

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Oh, oh yes…

…a message of…

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Yes, he was, yes he was telling—he was telling people forty years ago what should have been—what should have been listened to forty years ago, and people are just, just beginning to listen, and that’s about diversity. And I think that’s one of the—one of the most important things that he—that’s one of the most important things—that’s just one of the many important things that he, you know, did.

And what do you think the value was that he saw in diversity? Was it an ecological thing or is it…

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Or durability…

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Oh yes, ecological, because just what’s happening to the—to the live oaks in the hill country with the oak wilt, and you know, many ranchers in that area are now realizing that they should have diversified and planted these different trees, you know, twenty, thirty years ago, when it was suggested because they’re losing, you know, left and right, hundreds of live oaks to the oak wilt. And it has been—it has been spotted in Harris County. And it would be a horrible thing if it, you know, came into Houston. This wou—this—the devastation wouldn’t be as great if we had diversity.

Is it also an aesthetic…

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Oh yeah, very much aesthetics, I mean, you know, just the very texture of plants, color, texture all of this enters into it. I mean to me you can’t design without a broad palette. It’s like you can’t, you know, do anything without, you know, build—you can’t put a building together without different, wonderful materials. And I don’t think you can put together a landscape without the diversity of texture, color, form, all of this which enters into it.

Well, what sort of discussions, conversations would you have with Lynn about these ideas of texture and scale…

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Not—not very much about that. It was—it was one of these things you didn’t—you didn’t discuss, you just felt it. You sensed—you could sense this in him. And especially if you’ve been on—you’ve been traveling on a—on an expedition with him. You know, you sensed this feeling that he had. But you know we didn’t sit down and talk about design element or that sort of thing at all.

Well would you ever go to him and say, “I’m looking for a fine-toothed…”

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Oh, yes, yes, yeah, quite often I would tell him I went out looking for some sort of tree that had certain kind of leaf, or that had a certain kind of flower, or whatever, but mostly I wa—I was pretty ignorant of what was growing in Texas. And so it was like, you know, a child in a candy shop. And you’d go in and you’d come back with overload of—
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he’s telling you about this and about this and he’d say, “Come on we’re going on a trip to look for chalk maples, and”—which I didn’t go on, which I regret, but that sort of thing.

Tell me as a layperson. It would seem to me that most nurseries would carry what grows locally because it’s easy to find, but that doesn’t seem…

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They—no because the public doesn’t want—they want—they always want what’s on the other side of the fence.

Well why is that?


Why is there a convention of using Asiatic plants?

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Well one reason is the nursery has them and they can make money on them. I remember when Carl and I ow—owned Yucca Do Nursery, we had all these plants from Mexico and from south Texas, and from east Texas and west Texas. And very rarely did one of them ever sell. Right now—well, right now in the—in the garden they’re planted as—that’s an—that’ an Asian plant which is quercus glauca from Japan, and we ordered those
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seed in ’87 and what did you sell Carl? Maybe one or two plants, and so I ended up planting most of them in the garden. Well, I’ve had ten people in the last month asked me, “Where can I buy one of those trees?”

So is it a lack of advertising or imagination?

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Well, I think it’s a—it’s a lack of—well—th—th—and also we could get into the difference between Austin and Houston. And I mean I’m not—I like both of them, I like Austin and I like Houston, but I think that Austin people are much more adventurous gardeners. They’re much more genuine and sincere gardeners than most people from Houston. And that probably attributes that to the climate, that so many people in Houston just don’t want to go out in the heat. And it’s a little cool in Austin and, you know, it’s a pretty—it’s a growing, wonderful environment, and maybe that affects the gardeners. I don’t know, I don’t know the answer to all of this.

You said that one of the ways that you got introduced to these plants was by going on trips…

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Righ—by seeing them.

Yeah, can you talk about some of these trips that you took with Lynn Lowrey?

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Well, we took two into Texas, one we went to collect mahonia swaseia, which is a—a hybrid of—of trifoliolata and I’m not—what is the other hybrid called do you know?


I don’t know (from back of room)

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So, but anyhow it’s a hybrid that goes in the hill country, and it’s quite beautiful and, you know, we saw all sorts of wonderful trees and things. We saw pinus remota on that trip, sceenocolon, which is a lily-like flower that commonly known as the coconut lily, blooms in the spring and it smells like coconut. And it was just an enlightening experience. And we saw rain lilies, trees, shrubs, everything from the little teeniest thing to, you know, the biggest thing. And then the next trip we took with Lynn was into south Texas, and Ed McWilliams, I don’t know whether he—you interviewed him or not, but he was here today. He teaches at A&M, and he was on the expedition as well. And we went to collect tephrosia lindheimeri, which is a pea in the pea family, and in the—near Falfurrias, it grows in deep sand. And that was another wonderful trip. And then we didn’t go on any expeditions with Lynn after that until we went to Mexico for the first
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time. I had tried to get Lynn—I’d tried to interest him in about probably mid 80’s to—for me to get a grant and—from Texas A&M and to record all of the—the monumental plants, you know, like where were the bes—most beautiful styrax growing, where was the most beautiful ilex growing, different ones in the state. And Lynn was very interested in doing this and then he got cold feet, and he said, “Well you know if we do this, that a lot of mean people out there, and they’ll read it and some of them—they’re going to
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come in and probably destroy these trees.” And so we never, you know, we st—we stopped and we didn’t do that. And then after that in 1988—an—in July, the 19th, I believe, we went on the first expedition to Mexico with Lynn, and he was looking for someone to—to sort of take over. He had been a little upset about the way that Lone Star had—some of the treatment that had happened there. And I think that Carl and I were the two people that he thought wo—could carry on and continue what he was doing and go on with it. And after that we made three more—we made four expeditions all together
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with Lynn. One was just with Carl and myself and Lynn. The first one was with Charles Peterson, who taught—is a science teacher, and he taught with at the Vines Center, and—he was very close with Lynn. And then the second one Carl and I went with just Lynn. That was really probably one of the most enjoyable because we went up to Cerrapodesy and went up the back side of Cerrapodesy and went through dwarf oaks and giant pines and agaves growing under these pines and it was just a trem—very traumatic experience. And that’s the—that’s the time when we slept in the motel and—tr—Carl, I don’t think
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you would take a shower that night, and we couldn’t look the door, and so you slept with your foot on the door, something like that. But we would, you know, sit around and clean seed and have a couple drinks of scotch. I always carried a bottle of scotch, and Lynn loved scotch. And we’d have a few—a couple drinks and clean seed until about ten or eleven o’clock and then, you know, go to bed. And then get up the next morning bright and early and go at it.

And what do you mean by the “going at it”? You’d eat breakfast and get in the truck…

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And go. (inaudible) Lynn loved breakfast and I think Carl brought this out in his talk that he loved to sit around breakfast and, you know, he would say, “Well what—what was—what was your favorite plant that you saw yesterday?” And he, you know, he’d—he’d sort of pull this out of you.

And was this sort of a Socratic way of teaching you?

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Ye—yeah, I think so, yes. He—he was a wonderful teach…

He probably knew a lot of these things.

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He probably already knew what some of the valuable plants that you all had seen, but he wanted…

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Oh, yea—yea—he wanted to see what we liked. He was trying to feel—to learn—it’s just like—I wouldn’t still be teaching if I didn’t learn from my students a lot more than they teach me. It’s a—you know, it’s about that exchange process. But the—that…

So at breakfast you’d talk about what you’d seen the day before.

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Yes, and it was small enough that it was just like when on the first trip when it was three of us or four of us. And so it was a small enough group. The—the trip that they—we went on with the big—big group, with the caravan, it was too difficult. It was too many people. It was hard keeping up. It was hard on Lynn because Lynn was, you know, was getting up in years at that point and just trying to be responsible for four vehicles and making sure that somebody didn’t stop along the way and look at something special that they wanted to look at. And it was—I’d say it was very difficult on him. But he, you know, he still—he stood up and did it. And wh—a very funny thing happened on that trip. That was when Alice was along and, of course, it was wonderful for us because we met Alice Dahl…

Alice Dahl.

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Yes, and she became a very lasting friend, a dear friend, and for many, many years. But Alice wanted to stop and look at some Queen Anne’s lace, something that she saw growing on the side of the road. And Lynn pulled over and he said, “Oh my God,” he said, “(?) we came twelve hundred miles, and you want me to get out and drive—turn around and go three miles back down this mountain to look at some old Queen Anne’s lace. You can look at that in Houston.” (laughs) But he was real—he was a good sport about it all.

Was he there mostly to look at plants or was he a plant collector…

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He was a plant collector, because it—to him it was most important—and I (?) feel the same way that this—this plant when you come back it may be gone. The goats will have eaten it, or, you know, over population, people will have eaten it or cows would have eaten it, or bulldozer would have gotten it. And, you know, get the seed now and distribute them and make sure that it’s out there before the public, and if it’s—especially if it’s a—you think it’s a great plant. But of course Lynn liked every plant. He just liked some better than others.

So just to make sure I understand this, you were collecting along the roadsides, I guess.

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Did you ever go into private property; was there a problem with…

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Not—not in Mexico.

…stopping and exploring…

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No—no we never would go into it behind barbed wire, this sort of thing. W—occasionally we would ask people if we could go in and get some…

So most of this was roadways, cemeteries…

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…mostly road—roadways, and that was what was very frustrating wi—with—on the first couple of trips with Lynn because Lynn knew where he was going. He was going specifically for—to see a certain plant, and we would be wanting to stop and look at every plant because it was all very fresh. And he knew that from here to there it took so many hours to get there. And if you didn’t get there by ten o’clock at night, you probably wouldn’t get anything to eat nor a place to sleep. And this—this experience came up with me later when driving, when people would say, “We want to stop here and see this
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and see this.” And I’d say, “No, you know, it takes so long to get there.” And you—you know, this—after many, many trips, you learn how—exactly how long it takes you to get from one point to the other. And, you know, you’ve got just so many stops you can make. Mo—most of the—what Lynn would do occasionally is we’d—he’d go from here to there and say, “Okay.” We’d stopped so many times and he’d just start—sort of arbitrarily stop on the side of the road and say, “Let’s just look on either side of the road and see what we see.” And quite often he—he would see something, and he knew it all. I mean there were very few plants that baffled him. He had some understanding of them.

Would you ever meet with local people who might be guides in a sense?

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Well we—we—Carl and I did later, but not with Lynn. We had—we had a young man that went with us from the University of Nueva Leon. He was head of the—he’s still head of the herbarium and now a doctor as a matter of fact, and just published a very outstanding book on legumes of—of Mexico. But he was our guide for five or six years. Every expedition, he went with us and we would collect seed and he would collect herbariums.

So there was somebody collecting seed and doing pressing…

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Yeah, but actually Carl collected herbariums for years and we deposited a lot of those at the Arnold Arboretum in probably ’90, ’92 something like that, ’93.

Arnold Arboretum is…

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At Harvard.

At Harvard.

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And was anybody taking photographs of…

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Carl took—yeah, Carl took photographs of almost—Carl has beautiful slides of…

And those slides are with him?

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C—yea Carl has all the slides.

Okay, and now tell me, after a trip you come back and as you are unpacking, what would you find?


And how would you decide if this was a successful…

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We hoped—we hope to find everything that we collected. Occasionally sometimes it got taken at the border, but Lynn knew—I mean Lynn was an educator and just like he would—they were telling this morning about boiling the acorns and all, he—you know, he gave us—you know, talks and you know, he showed us how to—everything from getting papers to get across the border, how to handle the people at the border on the American side; how—how to handle if you got stopped by the Mexican military, how to deal with
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it. How to clean the seed, how to store the seed, how you have to every night dry the seed, put them out to dry. After you’ve cleaned them you’ve got to unpack them and let them dry. And then you’ve got to label them with botanical names, correct Latin names. Any weevils you’ve got to get out, like the acorns—he had picked up another habit—of—you know, another technique of doing that when we went with him is (?) putting them in a plastic bag and warming them up, and then the crulliana the little worms would
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come out on their own. And so you just take those bags, and you’d have a little hole and throw all those seed out, that wa—so that—because if you went through customs and they found one or two or maybe three, they would say, “Well we have to fro—fumigate your seed.” And that meant they kill all the seed. And so if—if—if they want to fumigate our seed, we’d say, “Keep them. A—they won’t germinate.” But anyhow most people don’t realize how hard it is—how much h—hard work it is. I mean, it’s worth it because of the adrenaline that goes sky high when you’re finding these things, but
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then once you find them, you’ve got to, you know, take care of them. Then once you get them home, Carl and I would just sort them out and say, “Well, this isn’t going to do in Texas; we’ll keep a little bit of it. This would do well in California. This is going to do well in Korea. This is going to do well in North Carolina. And those are the dominant places we shared our seed with. North Carolina State…

Did you distribute this to…

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Yeah, yeah we distributed—for about five or six year we distributed to—J.C. Raulston grew nine thousand plants in one year from our seed collections, and distributed them. And all those plants are now thriving in North Carolina. Plants that they had no idea would do there. And these are plants that Lynn had shown us, you know, that Lynn had introduced us to.

And you would mostly send them to…

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…nurseries, or arboretums.

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No, botanic—botanical gardens.

I see.

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The University of California, at Berkeley. I have a letter saying that one third of their collection at the Mesoamerican Garden came from the seed we sent them. Ferris Miller, who was the only American to ever be given Korean citizenship; he owned a 150 acre arboretum south of Seoul and he in return sent us lots of seed but we sent him, everything that we—practically everything we collected.

Do you have any estimate of how many species you brought from Mexico on these trips?

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Yeah, I found some papers the other day and—and they’re in Carl’s writing with—with some of—just some of the lists, and it will show the seed, the collection number, and who they went to. And then sometimes in the journal, he or I wan—also go and see—we’d say “J.C.” which meant J.C. Raulston, or “C—CA” which meant California, next to each thing we’d collected. So there’s a lot of work that goes on once you get a, you know, get back home.

But you’re talking about introducing dozens of species, is that right, or what’s the scale?

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Well, we didn’t introduce them; we just shared them because many of these things—it’s like they were talking about this morning that Lynn had brought in, but you know, they we never on the market, but he—they were planted at somebody’s house, so in a way they were introduced. I don’t think you could go back and say that this person introduced that and this person introduced that. I can just say that Lynn introduced us to a whole new way of living, a whole new way of seeing things.

Why don’t you discuss that a little bit about how Lynn might have affected the way you saw the world or the way you saw landscape or the way you…

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Especially the—with landscape because just introducing us to these habitats and seeing how plants grow in the wild, and you—you—I’ve never tried to reproduce nature because I don’t think, you know, nature’s nature, we’re not—that’s a whole different—we’ll get into that, but you can learn from seeing how they grow, you know, what—what do they want, the east sun? Do they want morning sun, afternoon sun, full sun, or what? And just seeing—going into areas where I—before I went down there I didn’t like palm trees particularly. I had, you know, I had seen them in parking lots, and you know, invitation
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to California, and they don’t work in parking lots because they don’t produce the right kind of shade. But anyhow, I—you know, I just didn’t really like palms, and then I went down there with Lynn, and we saw these wonderful palms growing up under these huge risophylla oaks. And, you know, you’d see them on the ground, you’d see them three feet high, you’d see them peeking out maybe twenty feet tall. And I had a whole
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different understanding of palms after seeing this. And Lynn had another thing. He knew—he knew that certain things would interest certain people, and he usually brought—tried to bring that up. He would say, “Well, we’re going to go through a canyon,” and he’d say, “John I know you’re going to like this because it’s very architectural and it’s very whatever.” And, you know, it usually was correct. And this is how—Carl mentioned this in his speech this morning—his talk this morning about taking
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us to this Hacienda Santa Engracia which is near Ciudad Victoria. And a lot of Houston people used to go down there in the fifties and spend two and three weeks. It was a family that owned this hacienda. And he took us in and he said, “John, I know you’re going to like this architecture, and so we’re going to stop and look in there.” And so we did and I got a card while I was in there and called the woman and you—this—well anyhow he said, “this is the place where my rich friends from Houston stay.” Well at that point it wasn’t very expensive, and you could have stayed there—you could well have
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stayed there. But anyhow that—this taking us in there did—changed our lives tremendously because I called the owner and asked her—I said, “Lynn had said that she—that the owner owned some very beautiful property which was like a Shangri-la. And so I said, “I understand you have a be—beautiful forest and it’s like a Shangri-la.” And she said, “No.” But she said, “I do know some place.” And so she—we went down and she arranged for us to go to Rancho El Cielo the biosphere. And she had a guide that spoke English and a guide that spoke Spanish. She got the—actually he was head of
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eight avis for the state of—State of Tamaulipas. And that just, you know, changed the whole way of seeing things too. And so that all happened because of Lynn. So you can go back and say, you know, it’s a—I could po—almost point to everything in my career that’s been affected by this man. Indirectly, not—some of it very directly and some very indirectly.

And today with the talks that you helped organize, we got to see Lynn’s impact on people who are very knowledgeable and very concerned about plants. And I ‘m curious if you’ve been able to pick out an impact of Lynn’s life and work on some of us who aren’t as aware of or involved in the world of plants. Is there a larger kind of social impact, cultural impact that you’ve seen from Lynn that you’ve seen from Lynn’s…

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Oh the—the cultural—yeah the cultural would be, yeah, would be like, you know, Scooter Cheatham’s book. I mean to me that’s—that’s about cu—that’s culture. That’s one of the finest pieces of writing on plants that’s been done in the twentieth century. I think. I think it’s an—an immense contribution to our culture. And, you know, it’s about useful plants so that should affect everybody in—and I know most—a lot of people are not affected by—but indirectly it affects a huge group of people, and not just—not just the plant people di—you know, there are a lot of what I call plant nerds, but it—it you know the general public, I hear people all the time talking about that book, that have read it or want to read it. So that’s a product of—just like going into the museum—they
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point—someone pointed out the sycamores in the contemporary arts museum, and that affects people. I don’t think they’re aware that, you know, Lynn—they’re not saying, “Oh well Lynn Lowrey brought these sycamores in and introduced them to Texas.” But they’re affected by the shade and the beauty of the bark and all these sort of things. So he has infected—he has affected our en—the environment that we live in, aesthetically. I don’t think he in—he was thinking about aesthetics. He—he probably was but he would tell you he wasn’t. He—he would say, “Well, you know, I’m not a—I’m not a designer.”
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I’ve heard him say that many, many times, “I’m not a designer.” But he was, but he wasn’t—he wasn’t trained, you know, he doesn’t—doesn’t make drawings on paper. Am I—is this getting close or not?

Did he think in terms of—if it wasn’t plant designers or aesthetics, what was it that gave him the impetus to go on these trips and try and educate people at his nursery, and go plant things in people’s gardens. What was the drive behind it?

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The—the excitement of finding. That part—that’s the first thing that probably comes in. And then the excitement of sharing and getting—and seeing it distributed and seeing it preserved. As I said many of these things—it—it dangerously—getting—getting dangerously scarce in the wild. We’ve seen, you know, any number of times where you’ve seen a plant and you—you know, you don’t—it’s gone the next time you go.

Have you found personally that you’ve started to share the same excitement of exploration and sharing through Peckerwood Gardens? Is that something that you’ve carried on?

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Yes, I—I—I guess. Yes. I—oh, of course you want people to enjoy it, yeah, and you—you want people to go away and—and say, “Well, I’m going to do something with the environment. I’m going to…” you know, if it’s just planting one tree or two trees or two shrubs or whatever, that all helps. I mean I—I don’t really sit back and think about that. Maybe I should. But I know wha—I know—I do want it to affect people’s lives, and I—I know that Lynn wanted it—all this sharing and all of these plants to affect people’s
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lives. I don’t say—th—it’s isn’t (?) like he didn’t think about the design. He did think about the design but he wasn’t—it wasn’t—it wasn’t—it was sort of like—maturity—it that (inaudible) it wasn’t—consciously planned out.

This may be a naive question, but how do you think he would have thought plants could improve our lives?

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Well, just like they were showing the Southline Equipment, the building that—where the—the commercial building, and he did talk about that. He told me once that they—one of the professors at A&M had brought the landscape students out, and they said—they looked at it, and they said, “Well, there’s a bunch of t—trees—and shrubs,” and they said—said, “Well where’s the design?” And he wa—he was sort of taken back, and he was talking about that well maybe the design wasn’t, you know, it wasn’t obvious, but the design was also about the people that went by there everyday that enjoyed and
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experienced those trees and the Mexican women that would walk to, you know, the grocery store by there and would pick a leaf off something that they knew from home. And all of this brought, you know, some—a bit of happiness, a bit of something to somebody. So that—and I think that’s what, you know, this—is design—what design is about. It’s about, you know, giving someone some sort of feeling, about evoking the senses. And so whether he was—he—I think he was conscious about—of this, I know he
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was of the smell and feel and touch. And Lynn always said at the end of the day you could smell your hands and see what you’ve been collecting because he loved the smell. He’d pick every leaf and then see what kind of fragrance it had. So, you know, I—I—go ahead and ask me some questions, I…

Well, no I think this has touched on a lot of the interesting aspects to Lynn and his impact on people and the place where we live. And I guess I would just conclude with sort of an open ended question, is there any thing you’d like to add about Lynn that maybe hasn’t occurred to us before or we haven’t touched on?

00:33:52 – 2301
No, most—so many things were brought up this morning, I mean it was really—some of it was very amusing and very funny and brought back lots of wonderful memories. It’s just—you know, I think that his impact is just—it’s there and it sh—I agree with you, it should be, you know, it shouldn’t let go—you know—foul—it should be cultivated. And it takes what you’re doing to do it.

Well, and that applies to what you’re doing at Peckerwood, so many thanks for the work you’re doing at the garden and the work you’ve done here in organizing this symposium.

00:34:34 – 2301
Thank you.

Appreciate it.

00:34:35 – 2301
Yeah. Thank you all for doing it.

All right.

[End of Reel 2301 and end of Interview with John Fairey]