Winfrey Point Debate Stirs Up a Memory of a Blooming Genius

Of course I can't read about the ugly mess at the Dallas Arboretum without remembering Bobby Scott, my weird brilliant friend and enemy who patrolled in front of my house for a year muttering that he wanted to kill me. Then at the very end I visited him in the hospital and saw that, as I suspected, he still loved me. I can't remember the year of his death.

Bobby was an unmarried, unfriended, seldom-employed security guard in his mid and late 20s when I first knew him. He wandered around in empty lots behind commercial properties off Garland Road staring at the ground as if communicating with the dirt.

He was a genius. When he wasn't wandering, he was in the library teaching himself botany. He called me -- I was a columnist for The Dallas Times Herald -- because he wanted me to write a column about how stupid everybody was. And, you know, I did that three times a week anyway.

We wandered some empty lots together. I could see used car sales taking place across fences. Bobby could see wonder in the earth.

He told me he had discovered how native plants grow and interact in soil that has never been plowed. Bobby said he had discovered something no trained botanist believed existed at the time -- virgin undisturbed blackland prairie right in the nasty noisy midst of urban/suburban development.

Bobby is a long story. The end of his story is now called Spring Creek Forest -- a fragment of the many incredibly rare invaluable finds he made of virgin prairie and forest surrounded by used car lots and apartment buildings. There is a historical marker about him there. The city of Garland and a private friends group have done a heroic job of preserving some of his discoveries. Others have been destroyed.

He was crazy in a wonderful way. My favorite Bobby memory is of a very fancy high-society do of some kind at the Galleria shopping center to honor Lady Bird Johnson for her campaign sowing the highways of America with what she thought were "wildflowers."

I forget how I got myself in to it, let alone Bobby. But he went into a colorful rant -- he was never obscene -- at Lady Bird, telling her all the flowers she was spreading around the landscape were 17th and 18th century imports from China and that she couldn't tell a wildflower from a turnip.

Very serious security led him away by the elbow, of course, still ranting. I can't remember if I was led away or just followed, laughing.

Most of Bobby's life, sadly, was given over to bitter disputes with academic botanists, several of whom actually came to admire and respect him, persuaded he was right and his discoveries valid. Bobby suffered from diabetes he didn't take care of and the attendant mental challenges.

He wanted to kill me because I hadn't bailed him out of jail once. I didn't bail him out because he had proved himself a danger to his family.

Bobby was a brilliant man who understood plants and dirt so profoundly he could read all of time and history in them. His antagonists in life, real and imagined, were fancy people who saw plants as either food, weeds or decoration.

In last weekend's nasty showdown at the Dallas Arboretum, the most telling moment for me was when arboretum Dallas Park and Recreation Board chair Joan Walne -- nose very very high in the air -- sniffed that the lakeside field the arboretum wanted to mow and use for overflow car-parking was not a valuable patch of original prairie at all but a mere empty lot covered with noxious growth.

"They are weeds," she told WFAA-TV. "They are invasive weeds."

And there you have it. The dispute between arboretum and the defenders of Winfrey Point lays it all out in a pattern my late friend Bobby would have recognized in a flash.

The arboretum, a vast and glitzy showplace where people pay stiff ticket prices to see man-made plant shows, is a bastion of the botanical decorators, the fancy people, the tribe Bobby Scott believed, often quite unfairly, were his own enemies, not to mention enemies of the earth.

The people who want to save Winfrey Point will always be the Bobby Scott tribe for me, not because they're crazy like Bobby but because they can see and understand plants and the planet at a more profound level than the decorators.

The decorators are not lost. They can still come around. Fancy plant shows can serve as a kind of gateway for urban people who need to realize that non-plastic plants even exist in the first place.

But when I saw Walne on television sniffing that the field at Winfrey Point was to her an ugly place, the first face that came into my mind was Bobby's, leading me across a trash-strewn vacant lot in Garland that first day with his nose bent to the ground, me stumbling behind wondering why I hadn't gone to dental school so I could have a grown-up job.

Bobby Scott turned out to be so right. He saved us a wonderful window on prehistory, a place we can go to and walk with our own noses bent to the ground, just like him. It's so ironic that the Joan Walnes of the world think they're the ones who understand flowers, when the vastly more sophisticated view is at Winfrey Point.

Every once in a while in that last bitter year, a neighbor would say to me, "Do you know there's a homeless guy who walks in front of your house telling people he's going to kill you?"

I always asked for a detailed description. With great relief I would think, "OK, it's just Bobby. We haven't added any." I mean, I didn't want eight guys walking up and down in front of the house shaking their fists at the gables. I had to think of the family.

But Bobby all alone was a threat only to himself. He saw the planet so deeply but was so terribly lost on it. I sometimes peeked down on him from behind the blinds upstairs and prayed he could be rewarded for his contribution with just a moment of peace. And then he was.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze