Writers Give Texas Nature the Literary Treatment
Texas writers captivate nature lovers with imagery and history.
By Kathryn Hunter
Like a particularly beautiful piece of music, good writing often manages to express what you couldn’t quite say yourself. You might have had a sense of what you wanted to say, a deep-seated, instinctual grasp of the underlying concept, but sometimes it takes someone else’s words to set your foot to tapping and send your heart to your throat — “Ah, that’s it,” you say. “That’s it exactly.”
Texas has been the birthplace or home of many prominent writers, past and present, including Katherine Anne Porter, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, Elmer Kelton and Mary Karr, to name just a few. But authors who write nonfiction about Texas nature may be less well-known to some readers: names like John Graves and Roy Bedichek, for instance.
Also, titles like Stephen Harrigan’s A Natural State: Essays on Texas and Joe C. Truett and Daniel W. Lay’s Land of Bears and Honey: A Natural History of East Texas receive less recognition than they deserve.
Growing up, I was a bookworm who loved to be outside — if I wasn’t reading in the branches of a mimosa or in a hammock by the river, I was out in the woods or fields collecting chiggers on my ankles. And yet no one handed me Graves’ Goodbye to a River until I was 26, having attended, even, the same university he did. When that book left my hands, it went straight to my grandfather’s, who at 70 and a native Texan himself felt much the same way. How had we never heard of this book before?
Truett and Lay write: “There is only one thing invariably true: for each person quality means a different sum of things, and each will choose, from those things that are available, different ones of them to appreciate.” I wondered, as I read those words, whether people are appreciating nature writing less, or if they simply don’t know how to find the right reading material. Surely most, if not all, people have a capacity to love the natural world.
Goodbye to a River is a book that speaks to many people. It is a chronicle of adventure, history, wildlife and personal experience, as well as a near-complete portrait of a place, the portion of the Brazos River that flows through northern Texas downstream from the Possum Kingdom dam. In 1957, Graves and his dog (whom he refers to only as “the Passenger”) spent three weeks canoeing the Brazos, camping along its course. Five new dams were scheduled to be built on Graves’ “piece of the river,” and he wished to navigate its length, unobstructed, one more time before it was changed forever.
Graves asserts that it’s a person’s “flat duty, if duty exists,” to know the place and the people he or she came from. “Sometimes you take a country for itself, for what it shows merely, and sometimes it forces its ghosts too upon you, the smell of people who have lived and died there,” he writes. “Often they’re only the feel that a time past has for you, the odor of an era. … And they don’t have to smell good.” As Graves paddles the river, he tells the history of what happened along its banks, the triumphs and tragedies of early settlers and Indians, as well as what has become of their old battlegrounds and homesteads.
Often, nature writers focus on these early times — it was a free life then, in a largely unblemished land. In Adventures with a Texas Naturalist, when Roy Bedichek writes “the story runneth thus,” I am reminded of the beginning of a fairy tale — “Once upon a time, long, long ago …” Of course, neither Bedichek nor Graves spares us the brutal moral of the tale, the immense wake of destruction that followed the white settlers’ migration into Texas, those untouched forests and prairies now lost.
Any schoolchild is well-versed on the buffalo. But how many know of the passenger pigeon, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the red wolf? How many could tell you that the passenger pigeon once numbered in the billions, or that the Carolina parakeet was easily exterminated because of its instinctual altruism? (If one of its fellow parakeets was shot, the whole flock of parakeets would return to try and help it.)
Bedichek was 68 when he took a year’s leave from his position as director of the University Interscholastic League to write Adventures with a Texas Naturalist. It was 1946, a time when technology was too limited or too expensive to determine matters like whether baby wood ducks tumble out of their high nests or are carried by their mothers, or whether a praying mantis can catch a hummingbird in midflight.
In his “prodding around,” as he puts it, Bedicheck discusses a lifetime of observation, experience and relentless questioning. Even with today’s high-speed cameras and lab experiments, some of the natural mysteries he describes still have no definitive answer. I can’t help but wonder who will carry on that legacy of faithful recording, who will chronicle the before and after of our border fences and oil spills, because, after all, we have not ceased to change and damage our world. And do we even know what we are losing?
It’s often difficult to find such texts, and frequently they are only stumbled upon — again, like that song that seems to speak to you at just the right moment, the one that stills your hand on the radio dial or stops you cold in your tracks in front of an open door. I was lucky to have found Harrigan’s 1988 essay collection A Natural State, a work of great imagination and a thorough look into several of the most interesting environments in Texas. His essay “The Secret Life of the Beach” is the literary version of the nature specials I adored as a child: the sand is teeming with different organisms, the myriad creatures setting about their life’s work — namely, eating and being eaten.
Truett and Lay’s 1984 Land of Bears and Honey is part history, part fiction. Truett, like Harrigan, is a contemporary and prolific writer. Lay worked for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as a wildlife biologist for more than 40 years. A pioneer in conservation, he died in 2002 at the age of 88.
Bedicheck, Graves, Harrigan, Truett and Lay — these writers’ methods, subjects and philosophies differ widely at times, but each has something of value to offer a reader who shares a love for what lies beyond the pavement cocoon that humanity has constructed for itself. They often speak of an interconnected quality in nature, a wholeness, and if nature is not entirely fair, then it is at least predictable, unsentimental.
“‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ is only a partial view, and expresses incident rather than plot or principle,” Bedichek writes. Most people who love nature recognize the beautiful, if sometimes terrible, pattern of it, a system from which human beings have willingly distanced themselves. Doubtless this separation is safer and more comfortable, but there remains a longing to understand, a longing to fit within something that moves with such grace and purpose.
This article’s small selection is in no way representative of what is available and worth reading on the subject of Texas nature — each region of the state, in some era or another, has had its poet of the natural world, even if that poet remains unpublished.
Several years ago, my grandfather gave me a typewritten manuscript, the memoir of a great-aunt, Willa Mae Trotti Bailey, born in 1905. She explains at its beginning that her daughter had asked her to write down some of the stories she was always telling about her rural childhood near the border of Texas and Louisiana.
“I have a fond feeling for those forests of virgin pines,” she writes. “No other trees or bushes grew beneath them, not even grass, just pine straw that had been collecting for eons of years. You could easily get lost here, and if you left a hat, coat, toy, or anything else somewhere under the trees it was very difficult, sometimes impossible, to find it again.
“I was born and lived eleven years in these pines, and I won’t very easily forget the sounds that we constantly heard and that we went to sleep by every night. Sometimes the trees seemed to be whispering, very lonesome and sad. At other times they seemed to be chattering, and then again they would sound angry. I’ve heard the older people at that time predicting the weather by the sound of the trees. Anyway, if you ever heard the sounds you wouldn’t forget them. I don’t think there are many people alive now that ever heard the pines moaning as I did.”
Now we know, however, what they sounded like to her, and in this way, the experience also belongs to us.
Bedichek closes his book with his encounter of an elderly man chopping cedar with a dull ax. The man, emaciated and 86 years old, was not engaged in this activity because he had to, but rather because “he wanted to do something or, he was afraid, he might soon become bedridden like his neighbor.” The image is so perfectly fitting that if I did not trust Bedichek’s integrity, I would think he had made it up. In my mind’s eye, the cedar cutter is Bedichek, is my great-aunt, is John Graves on a dying river, fighting mankind’s helplessness and mortality with something as small, but as powerful, as a pen.
This year marks the 50-year anniversary of the publication of Goodbye to a River. The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University-San Marcos, which also houses John Graves’ major archives, is showing a special exhibition through Dec. 12 of the author’s personal papers, vintage photos and all print editions of the book. Goodbye to a River is published by Knopf Press (www.randomhouse.com). Adventures with a Texas Naturalist, Land of Bears and Honey and A Natural State are published by the University of Texas Press (www.utexas.edu/utpress).