Texas Legacy: Roy Bedichek

by Lyman Grant

If the State of Texas were to welcome new residents in the manner community "Welcome Wagons" did in days past, one item would be essential. Among the hot sauces and pecans, Texas-shaped cookie cutters and packets of bluebonnet seeds, the maps and voters’ guides, would be a copy of a book published 50 years ago, Adventures with a Texas Naturalist by Roy Bedichek. In its pages, newcomers can discover the best that Texas has to offer and, if they let it, the kind of person that Texas can inspire them to become.

Although Bedichek has been called the most civilized soul Texas ever produced, he might better be described as the most balanced. In Adventures with a Texas Naturalist, as in his other book on Texas natural history — Karankaway Country — Bedichek blends close observation, a lifetime of reading, and good old American common sense. The particular charm of his writing is that the reader hears a man talking — a large man full of contradictions that complete rather than diminish him.

One of those contradictions is that Bedichek was a man of the Texas countryside and an active citizen in one of Texas’ most cultured cities. Born in Illinois in 1878, Bedichek grew up in Eddy, a farming community located south of Waco. His parents owned their own school, farmed, raised chickens and the like. Bedichek was a country boy — so much so that even after graduating from the University of Texas, he couldn’t get land fever out of his system until he tried homesteading a section of land near Deming, New Mexico. The story goes that he rode a bicycle from Eddy all the way there, even carrying it over the old Pecos River railway bridge.

Yet from the time he was in his late 30s, Bedichek made a home for himself among the professors at the University of Texas at Austin, where he worked at several posts. For 26 years he was director of the University Interscholastic League (UIL), the office at the university that organizes and sponsors sporting and academic competitions for Texas high schools.

As a city-dweller, Bedichek maintained his connection to his rural roots. One evening he might attend a "Town and Gown" meeting with leading city businessmen, university faculty and administrators, and the next day he might hike along Barton Springs watching birds. Today, a statue at Barton Springs Pool in Austin commemorates "philosopher’s rock," the spot where Bedichek, folklorist J. Frank Dobie, and historian Walter Prescott Webb gathered for summer conversations about the deeds of men and beasts.

Bedichek was universally regarded as an adept conversationalist. Because he was the kind of man who could talk with anyone, and because his reading was wide and deep, his writing became a blend of friendly storytelling and intelligent commentary. The last essay in Adventures with a Texas Naturalist, "Cedar Cutter," illustrates the ease with which Bedichek combined the two. In a chat with a wizened cedar chopper, Bedichek discovered the man was 86 years old and had been cutting trees since he was 10. He was still cutting, not just for money, but because he did not want to end up like a neighbor, in a hospital bed. Noticing it was getting late, he and Bedichek discussed the location of the sun and the probable time. The old man complained about "that fast time," daylight saving time. This exchange leads Bedichek to write about the "resentment out-of-door people feel toward artificial time — as if all measuring of time were not artificial," then about the role of time in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and finally about the idea of mortality. Throughout his writings, as indeed throughout his life, Bedichek was able to combine keen, sympathetic observations of country people and life with the heritage of Western intellectual culture.

Still more fascinating is how Bedichek incorporated hard science into his literary and humanist sympathies. Bedichek had no formal training in science and, as a young man, began observing nature as an extension of his interest in outdoor exercising. So when he writes, for instance, about the origins of common folk names of Texas wildflowers, he writes as someone who genuinely appreciates the genius of common people. He tells us, for instance, that "much that has been beautifully thought about birds and flowers will be found bound up in their folk names." And when he writes about racial and ethnic prejudices reflected in particular bird and flower names, he writes as a fellow citizen honestly offended.

With his years of observing nature and man, Bedichek developed fairly sophisticated theories about competition and cooperation. On the one hand, as director of the UIL, he advocated use of competition as an educational tool, and it is probably through this work that Bedichek has influenced Texans the most. Because of Bedichek’s devotion to the idea that fair competition can spur individuals to excellence, young people throughout the state — from quarterbacks to math geeks — have discovered the hidden depths of their dedication and talents.

On the other hand, Bedichek was not willing to let others take from nature half-baked theories supporting a kind of social Darwinism. In a letter to a longtime friend, he wrote, "That is exactly what nature teaches: everything admirable in Nature, except orchids and a few other pretty parasites, stands upon its own bottom. It faces the world, fights, contrives, endures, and dies…. There is also another principle that runs throughout nature and that is cooperation — willing, useful, voluntary cooperation." Then he adds, "Without this great principle, we couldn’t run a ship or do anything else which our complicated civilization demands." Bedichek had learned this principle by watching plants and animals protect and feed each other.

When Roy Bedichek died in 1959, waiting — the story is told — for his wife’s Southern cornbread to come from the oven, he left a standard for all Texans who love their state and its natural resources. Though he ridiculed patriots, Bedichek was one. He was a patriot of the land. He loved the trees, flowers and birds as teachers of a wisdom equal to the wisdom of the world’s great thinkers. His four books and his published letters still convey that wisdom for new Texans and old, with grace, clarity, and humor.

Lyman Grant, a poet and teacher at Austin Community College, co-edited The Letters of Roy Bedichek.

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