Brett Foster and David Hooker
In the Neighborhood of Comfort and Utopia
BRETT: That's a great description of most visitors' surreal first experience driving on that riverbed, David. The water was at a fairly low level of our rental cars' wheels, but how it jetted upward, splashing the side mirrors, when we gained a little speed! Frederick Buechner has described how he knew he "had reached the Land of Oz" when he was instructed not to turn at the Frio River, but in the river. I found Buechner's impression in a wonderful book on the place, which I was reading during our residence: A Dream That Came to Life: The History of the Laity Lodge Retreat Center (2007), by Howard Hovde, an emeritus director of the lodge. The founders' family histories were the first details that caught my interest. One family moved from Tennessee for the sake of Texas' clean air, dry climate, and gentle winters. They landed in Kerrville, where the youngest son worked as a delivery boy. He eventually founded the H. E. Butt Grocery Company. He also married a daughter of Thomas Kirk Holdsworth, who had worked as a schoolteacher in northern England till a declining wool industry led to decreased enrollments. He sought work abroad and moved his family to scrub country near Uvalde, Texas, in 1880. The lived in tents for three years, enduring chill nights and one-hundred-degree-plus temperatures, while the transplanted schoolteacher worked as a rancher and sewing-machine salesman. Talk about a transition!
The couple was educated at Baylor and shared their big thoughts. One of his letters to her in 1924 sounds like some noble thing out of a Regency-era epistolary novel: "We must have only the highest and best thoughts," he wrote, and "May God give me strength to so live as to always deserve your faith." They formed a non-profit foundation in 1933, and in 1954 acquired the Wolfe Ranch that is the present site of Laity Lodge and other camps. Originally they hoped that one hundred children might "Experience God and the beauty of this place." In 2005, 25,000 people did, with a capacity among the various camps for 700 visitors at one time.
The Cody Center and the adjacent visual-artist studios are some of the lodge's most gorgeous stone and wood buildings, harmoniously blending into the landscape, but it has been a writer-friendly place for a long time, too. For ten years, Madeleine L'Engle spent a month there each year, and some who work at the lodge still recall her memorable presence. Eugene Peterson stunned the crowd at one retreat by sharing an early, colloquial rendering of a psalm—thus The Message was born. To this day, a literary group named the Chrysostom Society gathers at the lodge for readings and book-related conversations. The setting reflects this literary enthusiasm, with rooms in the Black Bluff residence named after poets. Passages from their poetry appear on carvings near the doors, and other textual gems are engraved in places throughout the camp. Here's one from Dostoyevsky: "Be not forgetful of prayer. Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage. And you will understand that prayer is an education."
You might say, too, that prayers and art comes with the territory. The first settlement in Real County was a Franciscan mission established on the Nueces River in 1762. And nearby Kerrville has been the home of craftsman James Avery, western singer Floyd Tillman, and, out toward Ingram amid the cypress trees along the Guadalupe River, stands the Hill Country Arts Foundation. Kerrville is named for surveyor James Kerr, but another Kerr, Irishman poet Hugh Kerr, was the author of A Poetical Description of Texas, and a Narrative of Many Interesting Events in that Country, Embracing a Period of Several Years, Interspersed with Moral and Political Impressions; Also an Appeal to Those who Oppose the Union of Texas with the United States, and the Anticipation of that Event. To Which is Added the Texas Heroes, Nos. 1 & 2. I noticed an early copy of this 1838 poem on display at the excellent Berkman Books in Fredericksburg, where it was priced at a cool two thousand bucks.
DAVID: When you were talking about the history of writers at Laity Lodge, you reminded me of that great photo in the library, I suspect from a writer's conference, which includes L'Engle and several others. It's not hard to imagine all these great writers here, inspired by the land, by the space and time for contemplation, and by each other. We experienced that sort of inspiration during our time as artists in residence. It was great to be there with our friend Roger Feldman, art professor at Seattle Pacific University. It was the first time they had three artists in residence at the same time, and it was incredibly fruitful for all of us; which is a bit ironic because it all seemed so restful. It was great to be inspired by each others' work; getting together during breaks, talking through our projects, or just enjoying dinner together. I particularly enjoyed our gathering and your poetry reading in Roger's Black Bluff room.