Many years ago, I was in Atlanta to attend a continuing legal education seminar, a requirement of the State Bar for maintaining my license to practice law. The seminar, like all of them in the days before Zoom, was held in a large hotel ballroom and I, as I always did when possible, had found a seat on the back row.
The first presenter was well into his 60-minute talk when a distinguished gentleman entered the room and took the empty seat beside me. I pegged him immediately as an “Atlanta lawyer” — tall, nice-looking, graying at the temples, wearing an expensively-cut dark suit. We nodded at each other and I turned my attention back to the speaker.
At the conclusion of the session, as people pushed their way to the coffee at the back of the room, the gentleman turned toward me and stuck out his hand. “George Busbee,” he offered as way of introduction and, thanks be to every adult who had ever pressed upon me the importance of good manners, I took his hand and replied, “Kathy Bradley.”
George Busbee served two terms as governor of Georgia, almost the entire time I was in college and law school. He was on the ballot in my very first election. And now he was sitting next to me like just another lawyer needing continuing education hours. I couldn’t have told you a single thing about his tenure or his policies, but — because Daddy liked it so much — I remembered his campaign slogan: “A work horse, not a show horse.” I couldn’t wait to get home to tell Daddy.
That memory came back to me this morning as I walked. It seems an improbable thing to have come to my mind as I scuffed through the dust and paused occasionally to reach over the ditch for a wildflower, but it makes perfect sense if you know that a little over a half-mile from home I got a glimpse of beautyberry.
I love beautyberry. It is the prima donna of wild plants. Its fluorescent purple berries shout from amidst the green undergrowth, “Look at me! Look at me!” And one can’t help looking.
The stems are long and slender and the leaves, a startling yellow-green, cup the globes of berries as though making of them an offering. It is the kind of plant that would light up a room. The kind of plant for which tall, elegant vases are made. But also the kind of plant that I no longer approach with anything other than a camera.
I have tried over and over to bring beautyberry inside and every time, no matter how gently I trim the stem or pinch the leaves, the berries drop from those stems in a purple avalanche, leaving nothing behind but a good switch for a disobedient child. The beautyberry flirts and preens and teases. It infatuates and lures, but that is all it does. The beautyberry is a show horse.
As I stared at its plumage and absorbed that reality, I remembered George Busbee. The work horse. When it comes to public servants, the work horse is what I want. It is what I, when I was a public servant, tried to be. I don’t have much use for a show horse.
The afternoon wore down and I felt a question rise: Why can’t something be both?
I did not much care for the question nor for the voice that whispered it. I could not, however, ignore it.
“The Atlanta lawyer that sat down next to you all those years ago,” the voice continued, “looked every bit the part of show horse. It was only after offering his name and, with it, his story, that you identified him as a workhorse. Consider well the distinction. The beautyberry is a work horse, even if it doesn’t work for you. It grows in sandy soil. It manages to thrive among vines and palmetto scrubs. It resiliently waits for rain. The beautyberry has to be a work horse in order to survive.”
I am reminded of the Buddhist koan that says the converse of a great truth is also truth. If one cannot be both a work horse and a show horse, then it is also true that one can be both.
I have absolutely no plans to bring in any beautyberry, but I have every intention of remembering its lesson with every glance.