Of the three late authors who made up Texas’ early literary triumvirate—Roy Bedichek, J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb—Bedichek was the last one to publish a mainstream book, Adventures with a Texas Naturalist, when he was 69, and the least known of the three during his day. But time and new generations of readers have turned that around to the point where what was to prove Bedichek’s most significant book has outlived most of those written by Dobie and Webb.
The spirit of independence, inquiry and originality that make the book remarkable are among the same qualities that made Bedichek the person so remarkable. He has been called Texas’ “most civilized soul,” and in a state full of originals, he still stands out.
“Bedichek was, simply, one of the most interesting and unique people in Texas,” Steven L. Davis writes in his book, J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind (2009, University of Texas Press). Dobie and Webb held the same view of “Bedi,” as they called him, and not only urged him to write his book about the natural world but spearheaded a fundraising effort so he could take a year off from work to do so.
That effort, and what Bedichek did with the opportunity, has paid off for subsequent generations of Texans by leaving us with Bedichek’s wholly original thoughts on nature, art and life and how that—and everything else—is intertwined. In Adventures with a Texas Naturalist, first published in 1947, he walks that thin line between art and science and between hard fact and pure passion. He reveres both sides and has little patience for those who indulge one at the expense of the other. “I sometimes think that we have become dominated by a cult of unemotionalism,” he wrote. “We speak of ‘cold’ scientific fact as if temperature had something to do with verity.”
Bedichek was never in danger of joining that cult of unemotionalism. That is nowhere more evident than in a passage that begins with a simple statement about the Inca dove. “The Inca has a curious call, monotonously repeated, especially in morning hours, all through the spring months. Nothing quite like it comes from the throat of any other bird or beast,” he wrote. Then he goes on to relate a remarkable story about a man in an Austin nursing home and how an Inca dove brought the two men together.
The woman in charge of the nursing home called Bedichek one night and asked if he was the man who knew the names of birds; Bedichek allowed as how he might be. The woman asked Bedichek for help with a patient who was unable to sleep for trying to figure out the song of a particular bird he kept hearing outside his window. Bedichek went to see the man the next day and found a “palsied, bed-ridden gentleman, whose speech was rendered almost unintelligible by his ailment.” Bedichek eventually heard the bird’s song and identified it as the Inca dove. The man relaxed upon hearing the news, muttered a sigh of thanks and fell asleep.
The man, it turned out, was a botanist whose intense love for and curiosity about the natural world matched Bedichek’s. After the man recovered from his ailment, he and Bedichek began taking trips into the country, just to have a look around and talk about things. “He was interested not only in mechanism, but also in the mysterious force that uses mechanism for its occult purposes,” Bedichek wrote of the man who, on one of these trips, expressed sadness upon seeing a patch of Mexican evening primroses cut down. “They’re such friendly flowers—they creep right up to your door,” the man lamented.
So does the Inca dove, Bedichek noted. “Since then I never see a patch of these flowers and never hear an Inca dove without a memory of this fine old character, trembling with palsy on the brink of the grave but still, like a youth, in love with sun and flowers and birds and generally with the out-of-doors,” concluded Bedichek, who could just as easily have been describing himself.
Bedichek, who rarely ate meat unless it was cooked over an open fire and who eschewed pesticides in his own garden, distrusted doctors and was rarely ill; he died suddenly of heart failure on May 21, 1959, at the age of 81 while waiting for cornbread made by his wife, Lillian, to come out of the oven. His old friends admired the manner of his going and considered it altogether in character with this Texas original. In a wistful letter to his departed friend, Webb wrote, “Few people are able to call their own shots as you did, right up to the end.”
Clay Coppedge is a frequent contributor to Footnotes in Texas History.