Roy Bedichek was an Austin boy better known as a naturalist than for his actual profession. If he were alive today he would most certainly be a highly sought after guest speaker for master naturalist chapter meetings across Texas. Roy Bedichek, like Stevie Ray Vaughn, is so beloved in Austin that he has been immortalized in bronze near one of the city’s most adored bodies of water—Barton Creek Pool. More on that later.
I was first introduced to Roy Bedichek by my daughter-in-law, in the form of a book entitled, Adventures with a Texas Naturalist. If you haven’t read it, there’s still time to save your Texas Master Naturalist reputation; it was first published in 1947 by the University of Texas Press. As a new initiate of the program at the time, I was attracted by the man’s elaborate writing and his down-to-earth views. On scientific names:
“The botanists assign fearsomely cumbrous names, sometimes two or three, each cluttered up with the name of the individual who fathered it, and they are all duly frozen in print for the great convenience of scientists scattered about over the world; but you can’t use these names in a flesh-and-blood conversation.”
Shut my mouth! You can’t talk like that and be a naturalist—can you? Well, he did. And he most certainly was.
Roy Bedichek was not a free range naturalist, like Darwin or Muir, who had the luxury of endless days roaming the outdoors at will. No, Bedichek had to make a living; exploring nature was a hobby, it came second after putting bread on the table. Truth be told, he was actually a writer, teacher and academic administrator for the majority of his life, finding clever ways to blend his love of the outdoors into supporting his professional career. But this doesn’t mean that Bedichek was any less intense. Acutely curious, personally disciplined, he had a penchant for observation, inductive reasoning and non-contradictory identification. An avid reader, he loved a good argument and was a deep thinker.
Born in Illinois, Bedichek moved to Texas when he was six. He shared this first impression of Texas in the early 1880’s with his long-time friend and fellow writer William A. Owens:
“I remember that it was just a bald prairie,” he said. “My mother, who had been used to pioneer conditions, cried all the way from the train to the place six miles away that we went to.”
Bedichek’s father was an ex-Confederate soldier who quoted philosophers and talked philosophy regularly at the dinner table. He later opened the Eddy Scientific and Literary Institute (AKA the Bedichek Academy) near the small town of Eddy, known today as Bruceville-Eddy, about 18 miles south of Waco. Mrs. Bedichek boarded and roomed some of the pupils. Young Roy attended this school, as well as other rural schools in the area. Roy developed a decided aptitude for books in this atmosphere of literature and thought.
On his father’s homestead, Roy absorbed the sights, sounds and rhythms of the blackland prairie. This was his birthright as a Texas country boy; however, securing a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Texas, Austin was a familiar stomping ground and a place he would call home for much of his life. During his first years after college, Roy bummed around the country and the world. He peeled potatoes on a river boat, picked cherries in New Jersey, dug coal and scouted rivers in West Virginia and lived in a dugout in Oklahoma. He also tramped around English, French and German countryside. But he eventually settled down. Bedichek served as a reporter for the Fort Worth Star, taught high school in Houston and San Angelo and was city editor of the San Antonio Express.
Bedichek’s main professional career, however, was set when he joined the University of Texas Interscholastic League in 1917. An organization established by U.T. to promote athletics and academics in the state’s high schools, Mr. Bedichek served as director of this institution from 1922 through 1948. It was through these years that notoriety in Austin and U.T. surged and his reputation as a naturalist grew.
Roy forged a lifeline friendship with J. Frank Dobie (folklorist) and Walter Prescott Webb (historian) while at U.T. All three taught at the university, lived only a few blocks apart and saw each other almost every day. The true cement of their friendship was a love of discourse, exchange of information and ideas through correspondence and passionate debate. These three men genuinely enjoyed each other’s company—their affection for one another was well-known in Austin.
So how was Bedichek’s love of nature and the Great Outdoors realized? Bedichek’s position with the Interscholastic League required him to travel frequently to visit schools throughout the state, and in those days accommodations in rural areas were scarce. With a natural love of the outdoors from his upbringing, Bedichek took these travel opportunities to camp out whenever he could. He became interested in wildlife, especially birds. He preferred camping on a hill so that he could study the night sky, rather than down in a shady valley near water. He drove an old Dodge pickup that was outfitted with a tent-fly, complete camp equipment and enough water to make camping on a hill comfortable for a day or two. Among the items he always carried were field guides for plants, birds and something stimulating to read. Walt Whitman and Thoreau were his favorite American writers.
Roy believed that one of the biggest impediments to a fulfilling life was the stifling routine of modern society. People need to get away and get outdoors frequently to reconnect with nature and their heritage. Describing modern life as a “treadmill,” Bedichek said that routine ‘slays everything worthy of the name of life.’ More specifically:
“Routine machines our lives to conform to industrialization. Life is its opposite: dawn, stars, storms, calm, the witchery of twilight, the whimsicality of the seasons, and the vast and ample variety of the natural day—all proclaim an antagonism to routine.”
Roy Bedichek thrived around a good campfire. In the early 1920’s, after being treated for a rash supposedly caused by eating too much protein, Bedichek became what Sam Houston called a “damned vegetarian.” Cooking meat over an open fire mitigated, however, in his mind any “protein poison” it might have. Bedichek believed campfires served to satisfy a primordial need in all men, especially for those who lived in a city:
“Half the hunting craze of the city man is at bottom the yen for a campfire. Something, he knows, has been left out of his life. We have lived on intimate terms with an open fire so long that our souls freeze without it.”
Sitting and talking over a campfire was a form of religion for him. The loss of natural things was a common rant. He often blamed the invention of fences more than any other of man’s advances for destroying natural life in North America. Fences allowed mankind to promote species of plants and animals that served him while systematically thwarting species that didn’t. Most of the problem with nature was man. Bedichek especially didn’t care for self-serving politicians:
“Did you ever notice that Homo Sunvabichicus is one species than can never disguise itself?”
Bedichek, despite his rather stuffy occupation, was anything but. For example, for years he milked his own cow. There were vacant lots not far from the Bedichek home at 801 East 23rd street in Austin where a cow could graze. Frank Dobie once shared that Bedichek so admired the independence of being outdoors that he preferred to ‘walk out and empty his bladder on the ground instead of having to go inside the house and empty it into a mechanical contrivance.’ At the urging of his friends, Dobie and Webb, Bedichek wrote his first book, Adventures with a Texas Naturalist at age 68. During his sequestration while writing, Bedichek would rise before dawn and read pages of Plato with his morning coffee. A classic of American nature writing, Bedichek’s book—like Thoreau’s Walden—mixes natural history with moral and philosophical speculation. The prose is crisp, unpretentious, and engaging. He would publish three other books during his remaining years.
The three amigos of Bedichek, Dobie and Webb spent many a hot summer afternoon at Barton Springs Pool in Zilker Park to swim, bask in the sun and discuss current events. A bronze statue was commissioned in 1994 depicting the famous trio gathered around a large rock engaged in zesty debate. Known as “Philosoper’s Rock” the sculpture was in honor of their promotion of the preservation of Barton Springs. Today you can find it under a pecan grove near the entrance to Barton Springs Pool.
Bedichek died in 1959, supposedly waiting for his wife’s cornbread to come out of the oven. He is buried at the Bruceville-Eddy cemetery. His grave there is marked by a Texas Historical Commission marker.