Posted on May 1, 2015
As spring comes to Central Texas, the outdoors call with the warmth of the sun beckoning us to get out beyond our everyday busy life, and the babbling of water running through rain filled streams, creeks and rivers calling to us to come and enjoy their refreshing banks. A recent weekend sojourn not only satisfied these urges, but brought back memories that shaped my understanding of what made Texas a unique place and how it would shape my own cultural perspective on the landscape and what it means to be from this place. I was going back to a childhood haunt, Barton Springs in Austin – a man-made pool built on the natural bed of Barton Creek and it’s cold, clear waters are fed by four natural springs along this area of the creek.
This was a place that as a boy, in the mid-70’s, I would spend whole days with friends, swimming and exploring its natural banks. Dropped off by my mother who was back in school to finish her degree, we were left to ourselves to create our own fun amongst a varied collection of families, hippies, topless co-ed sunbathers on the grassy hillside and swimmers enjoying the cool summer respite.
As I visited this time, walking though Zilker Park I came across a statue that reminded me of stories that I had heard as a child – The Philosopher’s Rock. It commemorates the ritual of conversation among three great friends along the banks of the springs and the great rock that was referred to by pool regulars as Bedi’s Rock. But this was more than just three men gathering to shoot the breeze, it was three of the great intellectuals of our state who would be at the center of what many of their academic peers would refer to as the “Salon of the West”. These three were great thinkers, educators, philosophers and writers – Walter Prescott Webb, a historian whose epic tales documented Texas history and the Great Plains; Roy Bedichek, whose personality bonded these men together and his work was that of a great Texas naturalist; and J. Frank Dobie, a Texas Iconoclast and folklorist whose writing captured the true spirit of the state’s fables, history and mysteries, as well as the character of all that inhabited its landscapes. For 40 years, these men gathered each afternoon from July to October, and their conversation and friendship would be at the root of a way of thinking that would influence a major shift in Austin, from the typical Texas town into an oasis of free, open-minded intellectualism. There they would sit, Webb with his pant legs rolled up and Dobie and Bedichek in the cool waters, and while others were swimming around them, they would be in deep conversation on the nature of man.
Frank Dobie is the one of the three that has influenced my own outlook the most. It began as young boy, when visiting my great-grandmother – an avid reader and historian – she would share his books with me, giving me one on each visit in hopes that we could discuss it the next I was time there. Her gift was one of the richness that all the Texas’ stories have to tell, and Dobie’s capturing and retelling of these great stories shape my view of the place I would grow up. His own bombastic character can read through to those he was bringing to life in these yarns. Coronado’s Children – Tales of Lost Mines and Buried Treasures of the Southwest would be the first to capture my attention, recounting the tales of those who explored the Southwest following the footsteps of the great Spanish Conquistador. On these pages Dobie spun tales from the Lost San Saba Mine to the Relics of De Soto and the Stuffed Cannon of the Neches, capturing the fervent imagination of my youth.
But it was a group of his later books and their stories that really shaped how I understood the sense of place in Texas, and it was not so much about built forms, but from its landscape and natural inhabitants – The Mustangs, a history and collection of tale of “The most beautiful, the most spirited and the most inspiring creature ever to print foot on the grasses of America.” His description of this great beast also captures this idealized view of a land now lost –
Others like The Longhorns, documented the history the Iberian cattle breed that came to the new world and became the iconic cultural image along with its cowboy and their stories.
In the 1930’s Dobie and others would help bring the breed back from the brink of extinction. The dramatic Illustrations of friend and West Texas artist Tom Lea capture Dobie’s stories visually.
These stories and tales of a Texas gone introduced me to the images that shaped the Texas spirit, to facts and fictions that shaped our personalities and our places, and that still ground my own perspective of local history and culture. His talent was capturing in words the unique aesthetic of nature at its most wild, revealing the extraordinary beauty of the Texas plains and the west. What I learned from these stories might be best captured in his own words –
‘Great literature transcends its native land, but none that I know of ignores its soil.” – J. Frank Dobie.