Notes about writing, landscape, and life in the Texas Hill Country


"We keep each other alive with our stories. We need to share them, as much as we need to share food. We also require for our health the presence of good companions. One of the most extraordinary things about the land is that it knows this—and it compels language from some of us so that as a community we may converse about this or that place, and speak of the need."
Barry Lopez

"As much as we live in a place, we live in place; we inhabit a condition of the soul. We live where we have made definitions, and in the process of making definitions, we create a place in which to live."
Sallie Tisdale

"The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction."
Rachel Carson

"I can see myself beginning to fashion what I need: new pathways to solitude, new ways of looking at time and at time alone, new ways of conceiving a notion of place, and other ways, if not new ones, to create places apart."
Jacqueline Jones Royster

"There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story."
Linda Hogan


Susan's Hill Country Journal
(previous journal)
03/01/2003 - 04/01/2003
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Susan Wittig Albert
Ph.D. UC Berkley

author of
China Bayles Herbal Mysteries
Robin Paige Victorian Mysteries
(as Robin Paige)
Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter
Writing From Life
Work of Her Own

Contributing editor:
Country Living Gardener Magazine
writing teacher
garden columnist
Founder: Story Circle Network

Bulletin Board
A Map of MeadowKnoll
All text/photos
©2003-2005 Susan Wittig Albert

The Edwards Plateau, Central Texas
The Edwards Plateau, Central Texas

Familiar Plants of the Edwards Plateau
History and Change on the Plateau
Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge
(10 miles south of MeadowKnoll)
habitat description, wildlife lists
The Edwards Aquifer
The Trinity Aquifer
Our Weather

Story Circle Network
The experience of Katrina is an experience of place, located at the intersections of the natural and human-made worlds. If you have a Katrina story to tell, the Story Circle Network invites you to record it here, and to read others' stories:

Killer Plants

Ecotone: Writing About Place

Thursday, October 13, 2005  
Susan has moved!

As you know if you've been reading this blog for a while, I've been thinking of finding a new blog host.

The big day has finally arrived! You can read the new blog here.

Please bookmark this new site. And if I'm on your blogroll, I'd appreciate it if you would change the link.

I feel as if I'm moving my restaurant or my shop, and am crossing my fingers that you'll be interested enough to drop in and see my new blog-place. It has a different look, a different feel (for me, as a writer), and encourages me to see my blogging work (which is in a way like seeing my life) in a different frame, a new context.

It encourages me to imagine my story in a new light, tell it with new tools, reinvent the narrative, recast the plot.

Join me.

Reading notes. One writes in order to know why one writes. It's the same with life--you live not for some end, but in order to know why you live.--Alberto Moravia

10/13/2005 07:19:00 PM

Sunday, October 09, 2005  
Big blogging decision. Peggy and I have spent several hours trying to figure out what’s wrong with the photo upload function on this blog. It’s a mystery, and both of us are still clueless after going through all the troubleshooting strategies. Since the folks at Blogger haven’t replied to our emails, we have to conclude that they either don’t know or don’t care. So it’s time to move. I’ve found another blog host and am setting things up. It’ll be a while, since I’m also working on Spanish Dagger and spending my evenings with the manuscript of Land Full of Stories, which is due to UT Press at the end of November. In the meantime, there won’t be any photos on the Blogger blog. Sorry, folks, but sometimes you just have to know when to call it quits. I’m double-posting to Blogger and the new blog site, and will announce the move in a couple of weeks.

Pecans, crows, and pie. It’s almost time for the annual pecan harvest, which promises to be the best yet. Bill is tending about 30 pecan trees on our 31 acres here at MeadowKnoll, with four or five varieties. Since he doesn't harvest mechanically, these trees are not arranged in rows in an orchard. Instead, he has grafted the native pecans where they have “volunteered,” in the fields, along the watersheds, at the edge of the woods. His theory has been that the native stock has a strong root system, and when a nut finds a place where it can happily germinate, put down roots, and flourish into a small tree, that's a strong indication that a mature tree will be happy and productiv there, too. So he grafts it and lets nature take its course--a non-invasive, non-exploitative way of cooperating with the land to produce the land's favorite fruits.

Every year, we compete for the pecans with the crows. Now, we enjoy crows: they’re sociable and interesting birds with complex personalities and a strong sense of humor. But when one crow—usually a juvenile who doesn’t yet have a territory—finds a few ripening pecans, he perches in the tree and calls for all his teenaged buddies to share in the feast. This is not philanthropy, mind you: crow-watchers say that crows are willing to share the plunder because a mob of young crows can more easily overwhelm the resident property owners (a dominant crow pair) than a single crow. So when Bill hears one crow calling the gang to come and feast, he takes out his shotgun (loaded with #8, a small shot), not to kill them but to tell them that it’s time to get out of Dodge. They learn fast, he says. The pecans will be ready by this time next week. Ah. There are pecan pies in our future!

Reading notes. The cawing of a dozen or two of crows, who were talking politics among the pines on the New Hampshire hillside, affected me most agreeably. There was something of real neighborliness about it. I would gladly have taken a hand in the discussion, if they would have let me . . . Bradford Torrey, Nature’s Invitation.

10/09/2005 07:29:00 AM

Thursday, October 06, 2005  
Home again. Below are notes in calendar order, top down, from my recent trip. This is actually a repeat post. I tried last night, but Blogger ate my post, explaining that their system was down for "planned maintenance." Phooey. Nobody brings down a system this large from 5-7 pm PT. Not only that, but Blogger still won't let me post photos. Peggy is looking into it, but in the meantime, no pics. If you know of a blog host that is easier to use, more reliable, and more stable (meaning: the host doesn't keep changing the software!), I'd really love to hear about it.

Today's big news: a cold front. It was 90 yesterday, 70 when we got up this morning, and the temperature is starting to drop. Autumn is here at last, and Bill is starting to think about harvesting his pecan crop. Pies ahead! Now to the trip notes:

Thursday, Sept 29. Meant to post before I left, but things piled up, and I didn’t get to it. I’m on the road now, at the Austin airport, so I’ll take a few minutes to catch up.

The Culprit is Identified. Bill’s theory (see below: the Mystery of the Missing Goldfish) has been proven. We’ve seen the culprit who made off with a pair of large leopard frogs and two goldfish: a handsome three-foot brown water snake. Snorkle (the gender-free name we’ve given him for easy reference) has checked into the pond for the past three nights, waiting patiently for room service. But since we’ve run out of goldfish and the frogs are keeping their distance, Snorkle will just have to go back to the creek for dinner. We suspect that Snorkle is the same species of water snake that took up residence in the toilet in our guest house at the lake, frightening one of our guests into spending the night in her car. But the snakes live here too, I remind myself. Surely the eco-system wouldn’t be healthy without them.

I’m off to Kansas City this morning. I’ll pick up a car at the airport there and drive to Topeka, where I’m talking tonight at the library. Topic: “From Biography to Fiction: Writing the Life of Beatrix Potter.” I’m looking forward to it, and hoping for a decent crowd.

Topeka, Friday 8 am. A very nice turnout last night at the Topeka Library—good audience, lots of questions. Hastings (a book chain I always associate with textbooks, although that’s probably a dated perception) sold out of the books they brought, and lots of people brought their collections to be signed. Always a nice feeling. I do enjoy talking about Beatrix—such an amazing person. And the library itself is a treat. It was designed by Michael Graves, an architect I knew back in my university days, when we collaborated on a couple of academic papers. The library has some of Michael’s trademark windows, designed so that the sun’s light through the window forms another “window” of light and shadow on the opposite wall of the classical atrium. Very nice. It was a busy library, too. Topeka made the sensible choice of investing in a central library, rather than multiple branches, so the use is heavy.

Today is easy: a drive to Manhattan KS for the mystery conference. I don’t have to do anything until tomorrow, when I’m doing a keynote with Carolyn Hart and Patty Sprinkle and two other panels: one on historical fiction (including mysteries), the other on characterization.

Saturday Oct 1. Manhattan KS. I loved yesterday’s drive to Manhattan from Topeka, across the plains and into the Flint Hills. A beautiful autumn day, with clouds chasing across a blue sky, their shadows following across the prairie. A beautiful land.

The conference opening event was a tea to celebrate the publication of a collection of short stories, all mysteries, featuring the town of Manhattan—a very nice way to publicize the conference and feature the setting. This morning, Carolyn, Patty, and I gave our keynote panel and discovered that collectively, we know a LOT about the the history of the mystery genre, from some Biblical mysteries to the modern day. I was “assigned” to talk about historical mysteries—it was a challenge to make my discussion something more than merely a reading list. The session was a good start to what promises to be an interesting conference. The people who come to mystery conferences are usually avid readers who love nothing better than discussing their favorite writers’ books.

Sunday morning, Oct 2. I don’t usually expect to enjoy myself at conferences, but this one was different. Carolyn Hart and I have adjacent rooms, and more time than usual to talk—and there's been time to talk with other writers too: Eve Sandstrom, Nancy Pickard, Marcia Talley. It’s a nice feeling of connection with some of the pros in this business, people who have been there and done that, some of them for 20 years. Nice, too, to share war stories and be reminded that while these are difficult times for writers—changing media and technologies, the rise of the used-book market, the decline of independent bookstores, Google wanting to copy everything in print without worrying about copyright—we’re in it together. It was a great relief to listen to other writers--even experienced ones!--describe how they grope their way through to the book's conclusion, with many detours along the path. And enlightening to hear other writers' horror stories about editors and copy-editors (who probably have horror stories about authors who don't meet their deadlines or whose manuscripts are full of--gasp! grammatical errors). We live and work separately (writers are a notoriously independent lot); it’s a pleasure to get together every now and then and remind ourselves that we all face the same problems.

Another thing that’s been good for me this weekend: idea time. I’ve spent several stretches of time with a couple of books (writers new to me) and writing magazines—jotting down ideas for the current book, ideas to make the best use of next year’s tour, even a batch of ideas for the website. Most of these won’t survive, but the most important will resurface after I get home. A good investment of tim.

Tuesday Oct 4, 8:20 am. At the KC airport, on the way home. Yesterday was busy: an afternoon talk to the KC herb group, an evening talk at the Lackman Library in Lenexa—both well-attended and fun. I Love a Mystery, a mystery bookstore in Shawnee LINK, sold books. Altogether, a pleasant and productive trip. I’m anxious to get home, though. I have some new ideas for the book, have a couple of new projects for the website, and a gazillion things to do. And on Thursday, Bill and I are going to Llano, a small Hill Country community, for a library lunch.

Reading Notes. My students assume that when well-respected writers sit down to write their books, they know pretty much what is going to happen because they've outlined most of the plot, and this is why their books turn out so beautifully and why their lives are so easy and joyful, their self-esteem so great, their childlike senses of trust and wonder so intact Well. I do not know anyone fitting this description at all. Everyone I know flails around, kvetchng and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.--Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

10/06/2005 08:03:00 AM

Sunday, September 25, 2005  

Rita is reduced to a rainmaker, and we are back to dealing with the small stuff in our comfortable lives—all the while thinking of the thousands of people whose homes and workplaces have been disrupted by the summer’s hurricanes. We’ve been helping where we can, but the little we can do is never, ever enough. There are too many people in need—and animals, too. Breaks your heart. But it also makes you appreciate the life you have, and the landscape, and days without disruption. My brother John lives in Florida, north of Orlando, where they had three hurricanes last year: he says he spent weeks getting ready for and recovering from the storms. And of course, the recovery is never complete, because the trauma is still there inside, tangled up with the fearful memories.

One of the things I've done in the past week (with the help of webmistress Peggy Moody) is to set up a page on the Story Circle site for people to share their storm stories. The Story Circle Network is a non-profit organization devoted to helping women tell their stories; after the attack on the WTC, we posted a page for people's stories (women and men). Now, we've adapted the idea to storm stories. If you'd like to post, feel free. Go to and follow the links.

It is a quiet, pretty day here—autumn, now that we’re past the equinox. But you’d never know it by the thermometer, which is forecast to hit a record-breaking 101º here today. We still have a few hummingbirds, although the scissor-tailed swallows and the yellow-billed cuckoos have already flown south. The Maximilian sunflowers are blooming in tall golden towers, and goldenrod and bright yellow broom are scattered in wide drifts: the meadows are sun-drenched with their flowers. It's dry here now, but there was more rain than usual in July and August, hence more flowers in September. The grasses are blooming too: the big bluestem is nearly head-high, and the turkeyfoot bluestem thigh-high. When we acquired this land, it was horribly overgrazed. It's nice to see so many of the native grasses coming back.

I've been trying to post a photo of those lovely sunflowers, but Blogger doesn't like photos this morning. (This seems to happen far too often.) I'll keep trying.

But I also need to get to work. Yesterday, between bouts of Rita-watching on TV, I managed 1500 words in DAGGER. I have the main plot pretty well thought through, but now I've come up with a new idea and am seeing where it takes me. Not sure exactly where I'm going with it. Maybe nowhere. Maybe a dead end.

Reading Notes: Reading letters and journals of artists, I am repeated struck by the sense of urgency they mention, a need to respond to something they have seen or felt that moved them. . . Artists pursue whatever excites them, groping sometimes, but always tantalized by the chance that next time they'll get it. Georgia O'Keefe describes the experience: "At the moment I am very annoyed--I have the shapes--on yellow scratch paper--in my mind for over a year--and I cannot see the color for them--I've drawn them again--and again--it is from something I have heard again and again till I hear it in the wind--but I cannot get the color for it--only shapes--None of this makes any sense--but no matter."--Hannah Hinchman, A Life in Hand: Creating the Illuminated Journal

9/25/2005 08:14:00 AM


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