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

Wednesday, April 30, 2003  

Nest places. I love to watch the barn swallows performing their amazing aerial acrobats, circling and swirling over the lake on their insect-hunting expeditions. These cousins to the purple martins also depend (although not exclusively) on nest sites provided by humans: porch or barn rafters, exterior walls of buildings, eaves. A pair of MeadowKnoll swallows built their nest, a decade ago, against a barn rafter. The nest--a sturdy structure made of mud, woven grass, and horse hair, or maybe it's goat hair?--has hosted barn swallow broods for the past ten years. The parents raise two families a year, most years, with three or four chicks in a brood. (Or maybe families take turns, with one pair of parents using the nest early in the season, another pair of parents settling in later. I can't tell one barn swallow from another, so I'm only guessing here.) But I love the idea that the nest is their "home place," that they return to it from their migrations, and that their chicks use it when they grow into adulthood and raise their own broods. Nature has a wonderful way of locating all of her creatures in space, place, and time. In our era, humans have been busy disregarding this. But we still have our own unique map, yet shared by others in our community, in our culture. Our task is to learn to read the coordinates, find the place we belong, and stay there. (That doesn't mean that we can't be mobile, but it does mean that we need a home base.)

--a good photo of nestlings and habitat information
--another photo

Bones Update. I've been writing every day for several weeks now, and am about a quarter of the way through the book. It's going well, although I'm having difficulty tying the mystery back story to its front story. It's a point of view problem, actually. Since these books are first-person, China (the POV character) has to know everything that the reader knows. It's always a challenge to manage background information, and sometimes I handle it better than others. But it's been fun to get back to Pecan Springs. Readers tell me that reading the book is like renewing a friendship with people they haven't seen for a while. Writing these books, I feel the same way. I have the idea that the folks in Pecan Springs--China and Ruby and the rest--keep on living their lives while I'm not watching them. Writing another book gives me a chance to catch up on what's been going on while I've been otherwise occupied.

Field notes. "[Self] esteem comes from the knowledge of belonging, not from the fractures of difference. Our deepest longing is to have a place--in the family, in the community, in the culture, in the world."--Paul Gruchow, Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild, p. 61.

To comment, send me an email or leave a note on the Bulletin Board.

4/30/2003 10:26:00 AM

Monday, April 28, 2003  

Wild turkeys. We heard the tom earlier this spring, calling his hens, and saw him last night. He was meandering along the creek that runs through the south meadow, in sight of our front porch--not, however, flashing his courting tail. Last summer, a pair of hens raised two clutches of chicks in the meadow, and we often saw the two moms and their broods dashing across the grass in hot pursuit of grasshoppers, occasionally breaking into short burst of flurried flight. This is the Rio Grande turkey, native to the arid brush of the Southern Great Plains. This bird is a hunting favorite, and the breeding programs designed to increase the species have been dramatically successful, nearly tripling the Texas turkey population (to almost 700,000) in thirty-five years. Such a deal--a few birds for hunters, many more to enjoy the open range habitat of central Texas.

Food for thought. The antelope horn milkweed is in bloom now, in open, gravelly places all through the pastures. This plant is a larval host plant for Monarch and Queen butterflies, and when the Monarchs migrate northward from their winter residence in Mexico, they seek out this plant along the way and lay their eggs. When the larvae hatch, the caterpillars munch their way through as much milkweed as possible. As they absorb the latex sap, which has a bitter taste and is poisonous to boot (full of cardiac glycosides), they take on a bitter taste, too, making them distasteful to potential predators. A nice arrangement, wouldn't you say? The Monarch migration moved through MeadowKnoll in late March, so we'll be seeing caterpillars foraging on the milkweed in a few weeks.

--the monarchs' journey north, with more information about the plants they use along the route

Field notes. "There is no brief way to know a place even so small as this. Places can be claimed but never conquered, assayed but never fathomed, essayed but never explained. You can only make yourself present; watch earnestly, listen attentively, and in due time, perhaps, you will absorb something of the land. What you absorb will eventually change you. This change is the only real measure of a place."--Paul Gruchow, Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild, p. 167.

To comment, send me an email or leave a note on the Bulletin Board.

4/28/2003 07:29:00 PM


Yarrow. The yarrow is blooming right now, saucers of gold balanced on sturdy square stems in a ruffle of gray-green foliage. This pretty herb has a variety of folk names: Old Man's Pepper, Soldier's Woundwort, Carpenter's Weed, Devil's Nettle. (The last one sounds like the title for a mystery, doesn't it?) The plant has been put to a great many uses over the centuries, as a remedy for colds, rheumatism, and toothache, among other thigns. It has also been used as a snuff, as an ingredient in salads, and in Norway, added to beer. I'll just admire it, thank you.

Sad news. One of the week-old goslings disappeared on Saturday night, the other on Sunday night. Bill set the coon traps around the spot where they sleep at night and hasn't caught anything; the predator was probably a snake, or perhaps a turtle, or even one of the feral cats we've seen around the lake, all of them earning a hard living, making a meal on whatever small creatures they can snap up. This reminds me of the brevity of life and the dangers all around us, natural dangers, not evil in intent but nonetheless deadly. Nature is beautiful but not benign.

Field Notes. "Our well-being depends upon the accurate perception that we are small within the scale of the universe."--Wendell Berry, "The Body and the Earth."

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4/28/2003 09:38:00 AM

Sunday, April 27, 2003  

Bluer than blue can be. The dogs and I were at the lake yesterday morning, checking the sheep, and I heard an indigo bunting singing. I'm not very good at identifying bird songs, but for some reason, the indigo's warbled tangle of repeated notes is easy for me to recognize. Easy to see, too. I looked for the tallest tree, the oak beside the lake, and there he was, perched on the topmost twig, bluer than the sky, bluer than blue, a bright, beautiful indigo. Indigo buntings have lived in that meadow every summer for as long as we've lived here. I haven't yet spotted his flamboyant cousin, the variegated bunting. Summer won't be summer until I've seen him, too, and heard the yellow-billed cuckoo. But they're on their way. It was 88 in the shade yesterday on our back porch, and we turned on the air conditioning.

--Indigo buntings winter in Mexico and Central America and plot their flightpath by the stars. (Click on Indigo Bunting. Takes a while to load, but worth the wait)
--Indigo buntings aren't really blue.

New arrival. Our neighbors' horse, Candy, has a new baby, a colt named Mickeydoo, all legs and lively as they come.

Field notes. "I am rich in birds today.."--Sue Hubbell, A Country Year: Living the Questions

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4/27/2003 07:50:00 AM

Saturday, April 26, 2003  

Frogs. One of the delights of spring and early summer here is the constant shrill singing of the frogs in the cattail marsh. I haven't gone looking so I can't be sure, but this seductive, celebratory shout might be the mating chorus of the male spring peeper or tree frog, or both. Whatever the species, they're obviously determined to make more of themselves.

The frogs we see here most often are leopard frogs, most of them green, a few brown. We heard the male calling near the fish pool beside the deck one rainy evening a couple of weeks ago--a gutteral chuckling, snoring call. A few days later, I found a small clutch of eggs floating in a gelatinous mass in the pool, attached to a water clover stem. In the photo, the darker topsides are the developing tadpoles; the lighter color is the nourishing yolk. This morning, I can see the tadpoles wriggling, but it will be July before they begin to metamorphose. We had leopard frogs in the same area last year, and they produced so many tadpoles that the pool was crowded. I scooped some out and released them into the creek. This year, the goldfish are larger and more robust, and I may move the eggs before the fish decide they're snack food--although there are just as many predators in the creek, so maybe I won't. And I like to have the leopard frogs around the house, because they eat mosquitos and sing a cheerful song; the frogs are safer here, because there are fewer predators. A convenient arrangement for all concerned.


Field Notes. "Last evening I was reading in bed and felt rather than heard a soft plop on the bed next to me. Peering over the top of my glasses, I saw a plump, proud gray tree frog inspecting me. We studied each other for quite a time, the gray tree frog seemingly at ease, until I picked him up, carried him out the back door and put him on the hickory tree there. But even in my cupped hands he moved very little, and after I put him on the tree he sat quietly, blending in beautifully with the bark. A serene frog."--Sue Hubbell, A Country Year: Living the Questions

4/26/2003 09:59:00 AM

Friday, April 25, 2003  

Property rights There are three pair of nesting martins in the martin house near the road. This morning, just after sunrise, I saw all six birds, swooping and calling through the clear air, which they possess so supremely that it seems to belong solely to them. Earlier, a sparrow put in his claim to a nest space, but the martins seem to have resolved the dispute in their favor. Dangerously, purple martins have evolved into complete dependence on human-supplied nest sites--the only American bird species to do so, east of the Rockies. If people didn't supply homes for them, ornithologists say, these birds might go extinct. I certainly wouldn't like to be a martin, and have to depend on notoriously careless humans for my existence!

--good martin photos
--a fascinating history of the relationship between martins and people

Wildflowers. I planted this lovely spring-blooming columbine in clumps along the creek and in a couple of shady spots in the garden. This variety ("Texas Gold") is native to the Big Bend area; the Hill Country native, which is red and yellow, has smaller blossoms and isn't quite so showy.

More about property rights. "There are other birds who call this place theirs--buzzards, who work the updrafts over the river and creek, goldfinches, wild turkey, phoebes and whipporwills. But it is a pair of cardinals who have ended up with the prize piece of real estate--the spot with the bird feeder. I have tapes of birdsongs, and when I play them I try to skip the one of the cardinal, because the current resident goes into a frenzy of territorial song when he hears his rival. His otherwise lovely day is ruined."--Sue Hubbel, A Country Year: Living the Questions.

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4/25/2003 09:47:00 AM

Thursday, April 24, 2003  

Good fences make good neighbors. The sheep are diligently carrying out their mowing assignment, and all is well in the north pasture. My brother John sent me a note, reminding me that people who go into the sheep business also have to go into the fence business. True, very true, John. We could embark on this enterprise only because the fence--over a mile of it--is in very good shape. Fences are expensive: about $5 a foot, in this part of the country. So that mile-long fence represents $25,000. Not an investment we'd be likely to make, but we're glad that the previous owner felt differently, and we don't have to worry about our sheep becoming a plague on our neighbors' land.

Another recent addition to the animal population at MeadowKnoll: a pair of Toulous goslings. Bill picked up several of the eggs Mama Goose laid in early March. Our neighbors put them into their incubator (thank you, Jess and Judy), and hatched two goslings. I wasn't sure that Mama would accept them, but she did, and the goslings have survived their first five days on this earth. Papa's not too sure about this parental stuff, though. When Mama isn't paying attention, he nips, as in this photo.

Bones. Managed 1600 words yesterday, so the project is moving right along. People occasionally tease me about not getting the body into the book before page 100, so I've made an effort this time to get the body--the bones, rather--into the first chapter. I like writing mysteries because I enjoy working with a plot that pulls me forward through the action of the book and keeps the reader moving with me. But many people who read the China novels don't care about the mystery--it's China's story they're after, and the stories of China's friends. So there is usually a great deal of character-related material, some of which is only tangentially related to the main mystery. In Bones, I'm also introducing Ruby's new boyfriend, who will be featured in later books. So right now, I'm doing a lot of character stuff and some (probably too much) stylistic tinkering. The plot is unfolding slowly, although I do try to make at least one plot-related move in each scene.

A commercial announcement. If you're in the Austin area and want to get together with other women for lifewriting work, here are two wonderful opportunities, from Story Circle:
--a Writing From Life weekend, based on my book, Writing From Life: Telling Your Soul's Story..
--Schmooze the Muse Saturday writing workshops

"I write to make a difference . . . . To give pleasure and promote esthetic bliss. To honor life and praise the divine beauty of the world. For the joy and exultation of writing itself. To tell my story."--Edward Abbey, Words from the Land: Encounters with Natural History Writing.

To comment, leave a note on the Bulletin Board (under Lifescapes) or send me an email.

4/24/2003 09:16:00 AM

Wednesday, April 23, 2003  

Mowing Machines. Gosh, that was fast! The Barbados sheep--six of them--arrived a couple of hours after I talked to the man who sells them. Since these critters' primary purpose is to eat grass, it doesn't matter to me what they look like or what their pedigree is. But the minute I saw them, I was smitten. You'll see why.

Bill has named the two ewes U-1 (she has a white spot between her eyes) and U-2. I've named the two little ewe lambs Lambchop and Lambiepie. The larger ewe lamb is Biscuit, and the wether (a castrated ram) is Mutton--all are blackbelly Barbados. The minute we turned them into the pasture, they put their heads down and began to eat, without even waiting for permission. Way to go, folks! Live long and prosper. (It would also be nice if you'd eat the grass burrs.)

One of the prettiest prairie plants in Cattail Meadow is a wild foxglove (Penstemon cobaea). I've tried gathering the seed and planting it in the garden without much luck, so I'm delighted to see an increase in the number of wild plants along the path to the lake. The early Plains settlers often confused the plant with a similar-looking Eastern herb called balmony, recognized for its laxative properties--a mistake which is repeated in my favorite wildflower book, Wildflowers of Texas. And even though this pretty plant is a foxglove look-alike, it doesn't belong to the same family as the famous Digitalis purpurea, which has been widely used to treat congestive heart failure. I don't plan to experiment with it medicinally, but it's certainly lovely to look at.

Residents. "It begins to make me dizzy even trying to think of taking a census of everybody [plants and animals] who lives here; and all of them seem to have certain claims to the place that are every bit as good as and perhaps better than mine."--Sue Hubbell, A Country Year: Living the Questions.

To comment, leave a note on the Bulletin Board (under Lifescapes) or send me an email.

4/23/2003 09:12:00 AM

Tuesday, April 22, 2003  
Eee-i-ee-i-o. Over the years, a variety of chickens, ducks, geese, and peacocks have lived with us here at MeadowKnoll. When we first moved here, in the 1980s, I kept a flock of laying hens and a rooster to keep them in line. In the spring, I'd get four dozen day-old fryer chicks from the hatchery--Cornish Rock cross, usually--and raise them for the freezer. I liked doing that; growing and butchering our own meat reminded me, as an Eskimo saying goes, that "all our food is souls." But when the China Bayles mysteries began to appear, Bill and I had to travel more often, and it was difficult to arrange for somebody to take care of the various flocks while we were gone. Eventually, by the mid-90s, we gave them up.

Now, however, we have more fenced grazing land, and a substantial crop of grass. We've got to do something about the grass, which in dry weather presents a fire problem. All things considered, we've reluctantly decided to go back into what we call the "eee-i-ee-i-o business," and get some sheep. After consulting with a local rancher and talking to a guy who sells these critters, we're getting a half-dozen Barbado sheep. I don't want sheep for their wool (don't have time to shear and prepare the fleece), and Barbados are what are called "hair" sheep. They shed their coats. So stay tuned. If all goes well, our mowing-machines should be in operation within a few days.

--to learn more about Barbado sheep and see a picture

Wildflowers. One of my favorite spring and summer wildflowers is the Engelmann daisy, or cut-leaf daisy, which seems to thrive on dry weather. The yellow blooms, a cheerful bright gold, are clustered under a hackberry tree in the meadow. The daisy is named for Dr. George Engelmann, a nineteenth-century German-American botanist who lived in St. Louis and who is remembered through three plant genera and numerous species (including the Engelmann spruce) that bear his name. Interesting note: this multi-talented man, also an archaeologist, founded a lying-in hospital (what we would call a "birthing center") and a school for midwives, believing that women needed safer, more effective health care.

--to learn more about George Engelmann
--to learn how to make daisy wine

Stories. "Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader."--Barry Lopez, About This Life

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4/22/2003 10:06:00 AM

Monday, April 21, 2003  

Bunny eggs. My Reno family--son Bob and grandkids Steven (15), Angel (13), and Cody (11)--gave the Easter bunny a helping hand this year. Here's a photo of Angel's decorated eggs. They're beautiful, Angel! Her dad says they'll be eating egg salad for a while.

Other writing projects. One of the projects that has been on and off my desk for nearly four years is a memoir collection for the Story Circle Network. In the late 90s, SCN got a grant to offer memoir workshops for senior women. We collected some of the stories they wrote into booklets for the writers, and then gathered a hundred-plus of the best into a book called With Courage and Common Sense, which will be published by the University of Texas Press later this year. The book got off to a slow start when the its first editor couldn't complete the work as we'd planned, but we've been on track for the last year or so. This morning, I'm sending the page proofs back to the Press. They were absolutely clean--I couldn't find a single typo (although I saw a few things I wanted to change). Can't wait to see the finished book!

Bones. Yesterday was a day for tinkering. I started too far back (somewhere in Chapter One) and got seduced into making lots of little stylistic changes, which didn't leave me much time for the new stuff. Playing with surface texture is always fun for me--much more enticing than doing the harder work of building forward into the various story lines. So today, I'm not going to let that happen. Today, I'll start at the end (well, nearly) and forge ahead, no matter how rough it feels. I'm also playing around with some ideas for loosening the limitations of the first-person voice. Nancy Pickard does a nice job with that, first in her Jennie Cain series (now closed) and more recently, in her Marie Lightfoot series. I think I'll reread a couple of those books and see what I can learn.

Yellow rose of Texas. Isn't she splendid? This climbing rose came from the Hickory Hill Herbs in Lampasas, TX, about 40 miles from here. Paula and Don Hill own this lovely backyard business, which is not very different from China's Thyme and Seasons. You can start here and use the tool bar to visit their gardens. And if you're driving through the Hill Country, Hickory Hill is worth a detour.

Home place. "Where I grew up...people had home-places.... The home-place was the settling place, the one your forebears had come to from the old country; the place where, for better or worse, they had concluded to try their fortunes; or it was the final stop in the family's wanderings, the place where luck, or money, or resolve had run out, where one made a last stand."--Paul Gruchow, Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild

To comment, leave a note on the Bulletin Board (under Lifescapes) or send me an email.

4/21/2003 10:43:00 AM

Sunday, April 20, 2003  

A day off. Decided I didn't want to write yesterday, and since Bones is already a bit ahead of schedule, I took the day off. Bill and I drove into Austin, got a Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's (enough fat grams to see me through the whole week), and did some shopping. I bought a new computer keyboard and a new mouse. I type fast, and I get really irritated when the keyboard slows me down. (Bill points out that it might just be an accumulation of cracker crumbs and popcorn salt that slows the keyboard down, and if I didn't snack at the computer, the keyboard might be better-behaved.) Don't like the mouse, though. It has to be programmed, for heaven's sake. Think I'll take it back and buy a simple mouse with its own little built-in brain. Working with a mouse that is smarter than I am somehow makes me feel dumb.

Fish story. I bought a pot of water clover for my fish pond, half of a whiskey barrel, with a recirculating pump. In the summer, the sun causes algae growth; when the water surface is shaded by the floating clover leaves, the algae doesn't grow as fast. The goldfish are now a full year old. They survived the winter outdoors, fat and wiggly and apparently thriving. If you look closely at the water in the pond, you might be able to see the two gold goldfish (Eeny and Meeny) having lunch. You can't see Mo because he is brown.

Fiber stuff. I also finished the scarf on the loom yesterday, and it has the same problems as my previous scarf project: scalloped selvedges. Sigh.... It'll still keep Bob's neck warm, of course, but it's not as nice as I hoped. Think I'll do some mug rugs next and work on the problem. This will also reduce the size of my current yarn stash so I won't feel so guilty when I look at it. Another solution to the guilt problem: put the stash where I can't see it.

Learning home. "As an adult, it takes a long time to learn a set of local landscapes, to begin to call a region 'home.' To measure that process is to sense the actual ticking of one's lifespan. By the time the learning is done, it is often time to leave and to place a new form of ownership on those landscapes, as the place where you are from."--Don Gayton, Landscapes of the Interior

To comment, leave a note on the Bulletin Board (under Lifescapes) or send me an email.

4/20/2003 09:23:00 AM

Saturday, April 19, 2003  

Birds with bad reputations.
If the roadrunner is thought to be comic relief (see the 4/17 entry), cowbirds are often considered to be villains. These birds are "brood parasites," that is, they've given up the hard work of nesting and raising a family and simply deposit their eggs in the nests of other birds, leaving them with the task of feeding the large and voracious young. Some conservationists have blamed the diminishing numbers of songbirds on the cowbird's parasitic habit, and in some areas the birds have been trapped and killed in large numbers, at a staggering expense. But it's more likely that human destruction of songbird habitat is to blame for the reduction in some species, and ornithologists are beginning to call for a more comprehensive understanding of this interesting bird. Here at MeadowKnoll, we have a substantial population of cowbirds, and I love their melodic gurgling song. Since they flock with the redwinged blackbirds (which are abundant in this area), I suspect that they mostly parasitize those nests. Anyway, you're not going to see me trapping and killing these guys. They've been here a lot longer than I have--fossil records of this bird date back to half a million years ago, and DNA sequence data push the date back to over a million years. It is human activity--agriculture, residential housing--that has allowed them to extend their range, and it's likely that pet cats and feral cats are a much greater menace to songbirds than are the cowbirds. Like many other issues, this isn't a simple one.

--a balanced view of cowbirds
--more web resources

"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals....They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."--Henry Beston, The Outermost House, 1928

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4/19/2003 01:06:00 PM

Friday, April 18, 2003  

Archimedes. Bill and I enjoy naming places and animals. When it comes to places, this is mostly for convenience--how do you tell your partner where on the property you will be working unless the place has a name: Willow Corner, or Cypress Branch, or Back of the Beyond? With the animals, though, it has another purpose. It reminds us that these beings are our neighbors here at MeadowKnoll, and (mostly) friends. We try not to give them Disney names (our neighbor has a splendidly dignified turkey cock named Tom Toiky). All of the roadrunners are Ramses, and the path that they take to the creek is Ramses Road. The blue herons are all called Horatio. And the pesty armadillos who regularly tear up the garden are collectively known as Archimedes. These are nine-banded armadillos, nocturnal, about the size of a large cat, equipped with body armor and claws made for digging. When he's startled, he jumps, sometimes as much as three feet into the air, and the female has the remarkable ability to produce litters of genetically identical quads (don't ask me how she does it!). Although I'm annoyed by Archimedes' interest in my garden, I'm also glad, for his activities suggest that the soil is loose, healthy, and harbors some tasty wildlife. I certainly don't begrudge him a few beetles, worms, and grubs.

--an armadillo photo
--armadillo lore

Fiber stuff
Last year, I bought a rigid heddle loom with a stand. I now have it set up in my writing studio where I can get to it more often, and I'm weaving a brown scarf for one of my sons. Looks like I have about 4 more hours on this project, and I'm already starting to think about the next one. I bought a new book, The Ashford Book of Rigid Heddle Weaving, which shows a method for "direct warping" the loom--think I'll try that next time.

Home place.
"In Spanish, la querencia refers to a place on the ground where one feels secure, a place from which one's strength of character is drawn. It comes from the verb querer, to desire....[It suggests] a place in which we know exactly who we are, the place from which we speak our deepest beliefs." Barry Lopez, The Rediscovery of North America.

To comment, leave a note on the Bulletin Board (under Lifescapes) or send me an email.

4/18/2003 09:55:00 AM

Thursday, April 17, 2003  

Roadrunner. He's also called the paisano and the chaparral cock, and since he was featured in a TV cartoon series (in the long-ago days when my kids were small) he's been the Rodney Dangerfield of the bird world, never taken seriously. I mentioned him once in conversation and the other person looked up in surprise and said, "I thought that was a made-up bird!" I have to admit that there is something humorous about this bird, with his habit of sprinting up and down the road, but if you were a small snake or a scorpion and lived on the rocky hillside on the other side of the lake, you wouldn't be smiling. You'd go in fear of your life, for that hillside belongs to the roadrunner family that has raised broods there ever since we moved to MeadowKnoll some sixteen years ago. The roadrunner is a ground-nesting member of the cuckoo family, and vocal. Listen, and you'll hear plenty of chuckles, cackles, chortles, coos.

--more about the roadrunner
--a wonderful picture of a roadrunner with a hapless snake
--a book of great roadrunner photos

Fiber stuff. Rebecca's sweater is not quite done yet (minus one sleeve), but I wanted to show it off.

This is crocheted from a commercial acrylic yarn, suitable for washing off baby barf. Also suitable for crocheting, which seems to work better with a stable, regular yarn (which my homespun definitely is not). From my stash, I'm knitting another spontaneous scarf (the third), which I'll take to Story Circle tonight. We're having a potluck supper and a writing evening at Liz Carpenter's house in Austin. In an earlier incarnation, Liz was Lady Bird Johnson's press secretary. She has some side-splitting, rip-snorting stories to tell, and she tells them with flair. Her books are listed here, along with those of other Story Circle authors.

Today. Finish this blog, order some yarn, work on Bones, and bake an herb quiche for tonight's potluck, using the recipe in Indigo Dying.

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4/17/2003 08:49:00 AM

Wednesday, April 16, 2003  
Bone Lady. One of the neat things about being a writer is that you get to use your reading. My current book is The Bone Lady, by Mary Manhein. Manhein, a forensic anthropologist at LSU, writes about the cases she's studied, and also about her feelings, her experiences. She's a great source for Alana Montoya, a character I have in mind for Dead Man's Bones. I always feel more comfortable, somehow, when I can start from real life. A character seems more real to me (and perhaps to the reader, too) when s/he is based on somebody I know or have read about, although I have to take special care not to model too closely on somebody who might take offense. Manhein's book also gave me an idea for another plot twist, so today I'll go back to the first chapter for another revision. I'd rather make these changes now than half-way through the book!

Yellow flags. Pecan Creek is a lake-fed, spring-fed creek that flows through the western edge of MeadowKnoll, southward into Bear Creek and further south, into the San Gabriel River. The water is cool and clear, and the moist, shady environment along the creek supports a variety of native bog plants. About ten years ago, before I knew better, I bought two or three yellow flag tubers from a nursery and planted them under the footbridge. The flags are blooming now, and they're beautiful--beautiful and dangerous. I have recently learned that these non-native plants are highly invasive and can threaten native aquatic plants and alter the habitat by creating siltbeds in a stream. Clumps of flags have already sprung up a few yards downstream, and if I don't do something, they'll eventually migrate down to the San Gabriel. I can do something, luckily, since the invasion can still be controlled. But it won't be easy--something like trying to put the genie back into the bottle. A word to the wise gardener: be careful what you plant! And don't let plants from your backyard pond escape into the wild.

--more about the threat of yellow flags
--more about other aquatic plants that should not be introduced into natural habitats
--more about invasive non-native plants in general

Today's words:
"Ornamental exotic plants, flowers and trees, or animals that are brought into an ecosystem may increase the diversity of species locally; but then the introduced species can take over, crowd out or kill the native indigenous species, and in some cases cause extinctions of particular species of plants and animals.... Walk gently on our Earth, lest you be a harmful alien species."--Eco-Pros

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4/16/2003 09:20:00 AM

Tuesday, April 15, 2003  
Stories and friends. Yesterday was an all-day Story Circle day, in Austin. Our monthly reading circle met to read Change Me Into Zeus's Daughter, by Barbara Moss, a difficult but rewarding book for those of us who grew up with an alcoholic parent. Lunch after that, with Peggy, Penny, and Judith, our Story Circle "executive group," three women of energy and dedication. Then errands (endlessly, it seems) and in the evening, our quarterly Story Circle board meeting. I love these women: we're focussed on the work that has to be done, yet we're informal and free to share bits and pieces of our lives. The main focus right now: our 2004 national women's memoir conference. When I'm with these women, I always remember Bette Davis's great line: "If you want something done well, get a couple of old broads to do it." Not all of us on the Story Circle board qualify as old broads, but we sure know now to get quite a few things done well!

Back to Bones. Today's work: go back over the chapter I wrote last week, make a few necessary plot changes (the storyline is continuing to evolve, in my head), and move on into the next chapter. I have a couple of uninterrupted weeks ahead, so I'm hoping to make good progress.

Sad. Bill found a green heron this morning, dead, with a broken wing. These birds are solitary and we never see more than one of them at a time, at the lake or the creek, so we have no idea how many there are in our area--one, a pair, a dozen. Still, MeadowKnoll feels a little poorer this morning, with this loss.

Today's favorite words:

--"In a world that tells you where is everywhere, it is no simple matter to get your bearings."--John Hay

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4/15/2003 09:37:00 AM

Monday, April 14, 2003  

Poor Will. Going to sleep last night, I heard a summer sound, the melancholy, monotonous call of the poor-will. A few years ago, I mentioned this bird in one of the China mysteries. The copy-editor, ever on the alert, changed it to whip-poor-will. I corrected her correction, with the explanation that the whip-poor-will is an eastern bird, while the poor-will is western--cousins in the same family, known as "nightjars" for their willingness to shatter the night with their noise. In the 16 years we've lived here, I've never seen one. They're here all winter, according to my tattered bird book, but I hear them only in the summer, when the males shout out their whereabouts, presumably to attract lady poor-wills and let the rest of the world know that this is their territory: "poor will, poor will, poor will." Not being a lady poor-will, I went to sleep.

--More about nightjars

Day's-Eye. The daisies are in full bloom, brightening the garden. It's nice to know that these lovely flowers also have their herbal uses. The daisy (Chaucer called it the "days-eye") was thought to be a remedy for various ailments: coughs, chest congestion, wounds, swellings, jaundice (perhaps because of their yellow centers), and "female complaints." Here's John Gerard (1599), citing his authority, Dioscorides:
"'Dioscorides saith that the floures of Oxeie made up in a seare [hot] cloth doe asswage and washe away cold hard swellings, and it is reported that if they be drunke by and by after bathing, they make them in a short time wellcoloured that have been troubled with the yellow jaundice.'

Drinking your daisies is not recommended if you have sprayed them with something noxious.

Heavy lifting One of our neighbors rented a back-hoe, and Bill went halvies with him, to take care of some big jobs that he couldn't manage with his tractor. He pulled up a couple of big posts put in by a previous owner, dug a drainage ditch (and nearly got the durn thing permanently stuck), and moved a dirt pile for me. This morning, he's taking it out to work on the road. Living in the country means doing things for yourself.

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4/14/2003 08:52:00 AM

Sunday, April 13, 2003  

Nomad thoughts again, on a bright, clear morning when I have nowhere to go but here.

David Quammen, "The Miracle of the Geese," from Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature.
"Listen: uh-whongk, uh-whongk, uh-whongk, uh-whongk, and then you are wide awake, and you smile up at the ceiling as the calls fade off to the north, and already they are gone. Silence again, 3 a.m., the hiss of March winds. A thought crosses your mind before you roll over and, contentedly, resume sleeping. The thought is, 'Thank God I live here, right here exactly, in their path. Thank God for those birds.' The honk of wild Canada geese passing overhead in the night is a sound to freshen the human soul."

John Hay, "Living with Trees," from The Undiscovered Country.
"Under the full moon, the ground is a network of intricate shadows, meticulously drawn. The trees seem to move across the fluidity of light, extending electric arms and fingers. Their trunks are braced against the wobbling, racing planet. They seem to lift me with them in a sailing of their own.... We wait, and we move out at the same time. It is not only the long-distance migrants who make daring leaps into the unknown."

Wendell Berry, "The Journey's End."
"Where I am going I have never been before. And since I have no destination that I know, where I am going is always where I am. when I come to good resting places, I rest. I rest whether I am tired or not because the places are good. Each one is an arrival. I am where I have been going."

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4/13/2003 08:30:00 AM

Saturday, April 12, 2003  

Nomads We got an excited phone call from our neighbor up the road last night, just before sunset, reporting a huge flock of geese overhead. I went outside, looked up, and realized with delight that I was witnessing the migration of a large flock of white pelicans, perhaps 300 of them. The wavering, undulating V of their flight was stretched out as far as I could see to the north, and they were flying low, with slow, steady beats of those powerful wings. These winter on the Texas coast, where you can see large flocks fishing in the bays and bayous. We're on the far western rim of the flyway, and while we often see migrating sandhills in March and October, these pelicans are the first I've seen over MeadowKnoll. Maybe they were headed to the Texas Panhandle, where they stop at Buffalo Lake during their fall migration, heading south. Whenever I witness a migration like this, I get the urge to pack up and fly with them. "Wait for me!" I yell. "I want to go with you!" But I don't have wings. I'm rooted here, in my place on the earth. I'm just glad that this little patch of ground includes, however briefly, 300 nomadic pelicans.

Another first flowering, this one, a Zepherine Drouhin rose--ah, such fragrance!--blooming in front of my kitchen window, where I can admire her while I'm washing the dishes. You wouldn't guess it to look at her, but this thornless climber was first documented in 1868, making her one of the Grand Old Ladies of the rose world, a genuine antique rose. (An antique rose is one that was in cultivation before 1900; most are hardy, disease-resistant, and fragrant.) This one started life at the Antique Rose Emporium, about 60 miles west of Houston, where they know all there is to know about antique roses. Bill and I were there late last fall, and the display gardens were absolutely glorious.

From Barry Lopez, "A Literature of Place:
"Over time I have come to think of these three qualities--paying intimate attention; a storied relationship to a place rather than a solely sensory awareness of it; and living in some sort of ethical unity with a place--as a fundamental human defense against loneliness. If you're intimate with a place, a place with whose history you're familiar, and you establish an ethical conversation with it, the implication that follows is this: the place knows you're there. It feels you. You will not be forgotten, cut off, abandoned. As a writer I want to ask on behalf of the reader: How can a person obtain this? How can you occupy a place and also have it occupy you? How can you find such a reciprocity?"

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4/12/2003 09:54:00 AM

Friday, April 11, 2003  
Book Report. The first chapter of Bones is done--well, done enough to go off to New York yesterday afternoon. Here's the way this works. We execute our book contracts quite a few months or even a couple of years ahead of the time we need to start work on the book. We'd rather take our advance (the amount the publisher pays the author ahead of the book's publication) when we start the project, rather than when we sign the contract, so that our income is tied to our writing schedule in a more manageable and realistic way. This is Bill's idea, and I approve. His approach to free-lance writing--a project schedule and a structured work plan, which leads to a predictable income--makes it more like a regular job, but actually gives us a great deal of freedom. The best of both worlds, maybe. Anyway, the first chapter of Bones has gone off to China's editor, and in a few weeks, we'll get the first half of the advance. The second half will show up after I've delivered the manuscript around the first of August. Meanwhile, I'm taking the weekend off to clean a closet, catch up on the housework, and play with my new drumcarder. Yee-ha! as China says.

First flowering. Somehow, a plant's first flowering always strikes me as important--a debut of sorts, a day to show off, to strut some pretty wonderful stuff. Here is the very first blossom on a young purple clematis that I planted two years ago, in an inhospitable place. That is, it was inhospitable until last summer, when I planted a Powis Castle artemisia on the west side of the clematis, to shade its roots and shield it from the sun on hot August afternoons. Sometimes you don't have to move a plant to give it what it needs to be happy--just a little companionship will do the trick. Although in this case, a large rock would have been as good a companion as the artemisia, and perhaps better, since a rock wouldn't compete for water. Oh, well. Hello, Clemmie. Welcome to the world, you pretty thing!

"Could much of the wilderness experience we crave actually be the increasingly rare encounter with solitude, in the sense of seeing neither humans nor direct evidence of their works?"--Don Gayton, Landscapes of the Interior

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4/11/2003 09:15:00 AM

Thursday, April 10, 2003  
Putting down roots. This isn't always easy. Some years ago, I acquired a crossvine, a native Texas evergreen vine that can grow to 30 feet. I planted it, and waited. The crossvine pouted and sulked. Finally, I got the message and moved it to a sunnier, more sheltered spot on the east side of the house. Now, it's 30 feet high, still growing, and is covered with bronzy-coppery blooms. The moral of this story: you don't always bloom where you're planted. Sometimes you have to find just the right spot before you can put down roots.

Knowing where you are. You can't be intimate with a place if you don't know where it is and why it is the way it is. Our place is on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau, an uplift region where the thin alkaline soils are made up of mostly Cretaceous limestones. The 30" of rainfall a year allows the soil to support abundant grasses--in fact, we're at the southern edge of the Great Plains, and grazing (goats on the poorest grass, sheep on the better, cows on the best) is the most common human use of the land. People began settling here in the 1850s, and by 1890, all the buffalo had been killed off. Prairie fires used to keep the junipers and mesquite at bay, but with increased settlement, fire suppression has become a priority, and the open prairie is rapidly disappearing. Our place is in a corner of what used to be a huge ranch, and we have meadows all around. But the sumac, cedar, mesquite, pecan, and willow are gradually taking over. Lovely to look at, but different from the way it was a couple of hundred years ago.

For more on the Edwards Plateau region:
--plant species list
--history and change
--geology and topography

"It is through the power of observation, the gifts of eye and ear, of tongue and nose and finger, that a place first rises up in our mind; afterward it is memory that carries the place, that allows it to grow in depth and complexity. For as long as our records go back, we have held these two things dear, landscape and memory."--Barry Lopez, "The American Geographies," in About This Life.

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4/10/2003 10:38:00 AM

Wednesday, April 09, 2003  

Back to winter. Well, almost. It was 32 at 6 a.m. this morning, and there was ice on the birdbath. I covered my plants last night, went to bed with an easy conscience, and felt virtuous when I got up and looked at the thermometer. From 81 to 32 in 15 hours--that's Texas for you. Today's forecast high: 65. We really need rain, though. Burnet County normally gets only about 31" a year (in contrast to the Houston area, which gets 46"), and this is supposed to be our rainy season. April showers, come on!

Where we are. One of the interesting things about where we live is that it is located at the confluence of several different geologic regions. On this map, Burnet County (which has a roughly triangular shape) is the county on the eastern edge of that yellow blob in the center. (You can enlarge this map by mousing around in the lower right-hand corner; click on the directional box that appears.) If you look closely, you can see that the county is made up of the hilly Llano Uplift region (the oldest rocks in Texas, with weathered granitic soils, covered with cedar and mesquite), the Edwards Plateau (sedimentary limestones, with caves and deep ravines carved by erosion), and the flatter, grassy knolls of the Rolling Plains. Each of these geologic environments creates its own biological features--and Burnet County is right in the middle of it. Add to this the fact that we're on the western edge of the migratory flyway, and you can see why life is never boring around here.

Bones. Moving right along. Yesterday, I wrote a short scene with China and Ruby to kick off Chapter One. The first chapter always has to include a lot of what a teacher of mine used to call "feather-dusting." He said that in the plays of the late nineteenth century, one of the techniques the playwright used was to put a couple of maids on the stage, dusting the furniture and talking about the situation, informing the audience about the background of the play. So this chapter is a "feather-dusting" chapter, with background on the characters, the settings, and a quick glimpse of the mystery-to-come. Fun for me, and a fairly quick write, since China and Ruby are familiar characters--or they ought to be, since this is the thirteenth book in the series. Whew!

Today's photo A shot of the bluebonnets in the meadow north of the house, taken just as the sun cleared the eastern horizon. A martin was sweeping over the field, singing his dawn song, as I took this photo.

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4/09/2003 10:06:00 AM

Tuesday, April 08, 2003  

Windhover We saw an osprey at the lake early this morning. I've seen the bird often at the coast, but never here at MeadowKnoll, and it was sheer delight to watch him soar and hover over the water, riding the wind, watching for the flash of a fish. I remembered Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "The Windhover," and the lines

I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin,
dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

An absolutely beautiful way to start a day.

Point of View. I was doing some more preliminary work on Bones yesterday, and wishing (as I often do) that I hadn't put the China Bayles series into the first person (the "I" voice). The first person has its advantages, of course. Readers enjoy getting into China's mind and seeing the world through her eyes; I also think they feel closer to her since the story is so immediately her story.
But managing a mystery series from first-person point of view is not a task for the faint-hearted, and it's no surprise to me that so few writers undertake it. The writer has to somehow arrange for the POV character to learn the "hidden" parts of the story--and in a mystery, it's usually the most important stuff that gets hidden. In the China books, the only thing China can know is what she sees for herself, and since she can't see into other people's hearts and minds, there's a great part of the story that is never directly told. In the Robin Paige mysteries, on the other hand, Bill and I use as many POV characters as it takes to tell the story directly, and enjoy a great deal more authorial freedom. In Bones, there are several fascinating stories that I wish I could tell from the point of view of the people involved in them. Oh, well. When you're writing a series, you learn to live with what you can't change.

New toy. A couple of weeks ago, I ordered a drum carder (a Friske petite). It arrived yesterday and Bill put it together for me last night. I'll use it to blend fibers and colors; it creates a batt of wool in which the fibers are aligned and straight--easy to spin. Fun!

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4/08/2003 10:26:00 AM

Monday, April 07, 2003  

Book Report Got some good preliminary work done on Bones yesterday. Someone asked me recently whether I use an outline. The answer to that is yes and no. Bill and I usually construct an outline of sorts for the Robin Paige books, since there are two of us working on the same project, and we have to know where we are and where we're heading. We usually do a chapter outline on Bill's story board--a cork bulletin board on which we pin notes.

But with the China books, I take a looser approach. I imagine the plot as a "braid" of related, connected stories. In Dead Man's Bones, there is the central mystery plot, which involves a couple of 70-something sisters who have donated a theater to the Pecan Springs Community Theater. There is also Ruby's story (she has a new boyfriend). There is a third story involving the forensic anthropologist (the Bone Lady) who helps to solve the crime. And there's China's continuing story--I'm still working on that one. Once I've got a pretty clear understanding of these stories (beginnings, middles, and ends--this is the outline part), I can begin braiding them together. I don't outline the braid, just trust to my experience and story-sense to make all the strands come out even. In addition, of course, there is the herbal material, which is related to the book's "theme." To use another metaphor: I like to pull together a lot of very rich, very resonant material, stir it up, and see what I can learn from the way it interacts. This is the fun part for me, the part I can't predict, and the part that can't be outlined.

Frog Stitch You will not find instructions for this stitch in any knitting book, but every knitter knows it. It means to rip out an entire row (as in rip it rip it ribbit). Last night, I frogged the entire baby sweater I had begun for Rebecca, because it was beginning to look like she might just be able to wear it on her third birthday (and she hasn't even arrived yet). When will I ever learn to swatch first? Anyway, I changed down a needle size, and I'm back in business.

Some rose triva For those who asked: Lady Banksia is the botanical Latin name for this lovely rose. Her full name is Rosa banksia lutea, but she's known to her best buddies as Lady Banks. Her white cousin is known as R. banksia alba plena. If you want to refer to them collectively, you could call them the Banksiae sisters.

Summer Let's see, we had spring from Wednesday through Saturday, and summer arrived yesterday. It was 88 degrees here, and we turned on the air conditioning. The garden has a lovely cottage-garden look, with bluebonnets, verbena, and daisies all in bloom.

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4/07/2003 11:23:00 AM

Sunday, April 06, 2003  
Labs galore The Heart of Texas Lab Rescue folks had their picnic at our place on the lake yesterday. I really don't know which was more fun, seeing the people or seeing the dogs! Every dog there was a Lab, and each one had been rescued from a shelter or a puppy mill or other awful situation, or picked up as a stray. Our senior Lab, Zach, came from the Round Rock Shelter back in 1996; Lady was a stray who crossed the path of one of the Rescue people. Both of them have been wonderful dogs from the very beginning, old enough to be past the chewing stage and mature enough to have some sense. If you're in the Austin TX area and have thought about getting a dog, check out the HOT Lab Rescue website. You'll find photos of adoptable dogs (now in foster care). And they have an urgent need for foster homes for dogs that are waiting for their "forever" home--maybe you'd be interested in doing that. Either way, with a Lab, you're a winner!

Bones. I spent some time yesterday morning making notes on Dead Man's Bones, the next writing project. There are a couple of interesting characters, one a forensic anthropologist, another a hemp activist. I was surprised--no, amazed--to see the information about hemp available on the web these days. I was especially impressed by the website of the Hemp Industries Association. I don't want to get mired down in an argument about medicinal marijuana (at least, not in this book), but I do want to focus on hemp, which has been used by human cultures for at least 8,000 years for rope, baskets, fabrics, and more. When I have an idea like this, I usually try to transform it into a character who personifies the passions and contradictions of the idea--and there are a great many passions and contradictions surrounding Cannabis, whatever its uses and current legal status. So there's going to be a hemp activist in Bones, who will appear in at least three more books. Today, I'm reorganizing yesterday's notes, and getting a little closer to plunging into the first chapter.

Fiber Stuff. But I'm also taking some time today for fiber fun. I want to do some weaving, and I've started crocheting a sweater for granddaughter Rebecca, who is scheduled to make her appearance in early June. I also finished the second "spontaneous scarf" yesterday (from the Winter 2002 issue of Spin-off. Here's a picture of the two I've knitted so far, with scraps of handspun yarn and commercial knitting yarn (fringe not yet trimmed). These were fun. I'll do more.

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4/06/2003 11:28:00 AM

Saturday, April 05, 2003  
Ramblin' Rose I promised a picture of the Lady Banks rose, and here she is, in all her spring glory, covered with thousands of double yellow blossoms.

To look at her, you wouldn't know that she's a couple of hundred years old and qualifies as an "antique rose." The first specimen of Lady Banks, the single white form, was brought to England from Canton, China, in the early 1800s. This lovely lady isn't cold hardy, and grows only in Zones 8, 9, and 10. My Lady Banks is evergreen and wildly aggressive, flinging her canes with grand abandon 20 feet in the air--and she's still a young thing, only six years old. Silly me, I gave her only a flimsy lath trellis to climb on. Sometime soon, I'm going to have to build something more sturdy. Like yesterday.

For Lady Banks' lovers:
--cultivation and more pictures
--Lady Banks in Tombstone

Summer visitors. Our first hummingbird showed up a couple of weeks ago, and now they hover around the feeders in clouds. Here is a pair, enjoying breakfast.

The purple martin scouts are here, too. Yesterday, we relocated the martin house that I'd put too close to a building. Now, it's out in the middle of the east meadow, away from trees and telephone wires. I saw a martin sailing around it early this morning, spilling his dawn song over the spring landscape, so maybe we'll have nesting martins this summer.

Picnic time. The Lab Rescue folks are having their annual lab reunion here today. or more precisely, up at the lake, where the dogs can swim. We're expecting somewhere around 35 labs and their humans. Fun!

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4/05/2003 09:05:00 AM

Friday, April 04, 2003  
What's up this week. Well, our wild verbena, for one thing. I have several garden varieties, but the one I like best is the wilding that spills onto the path to the lake. This time of year, it is a lovely purple accent among the green grasses.

Also up and blooming: daisies, daisies, and more daisies. A few early bronze iris, the Lady Banks rose (a riot of yellow blossoms--picture coming tomorrow), bluebonnets (of course) and paintbrush. Ah, paintbrush! This flaming beauty is known as a "hemi parasitic" plant--that is, it's a root parasite. To survive, it pushes its roots into the roots of a host plant (typically, a grass). It depends on the host for food and water. I don't suppose the host plant objects. The grasses around our paintbrush appear to be flourishing. However, not all paintbrushes are red. In the lower right corner of this photo, you'll see a yellow one. This was taken in the field in front of our house.

More about paintbrush
--a beautiful closeup
--Yes, you can sprinkle paintbrush on your salad, but be careful

Today's stuff We have to drive to Cedar Park to pick up the car, then errands. We don't go to Austin very often (maybe a couple of times a month), and I always have a long list of stuff to do. Meanwhile, the story-generator in my brain is fooling around with Dead Man's Bones. It came up with a dandy subplot yesterday, and there's more where that came from, I hope. I'd like to get a first chapter by the end of next week, but there's no tearing hurry. Due date: August 15.

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4/04/2003 10:33:00 AM

Thursday, April 03, 2003  
Bluebonnets. It's that time again, and they're simply spectacular. In fact, they are so abundant that you almost (but not quite) stop noticing them. But not all bluebonnets are blue. Texas A&M University (known fondly as the Aggies) have bred a maroon bluebonnet (maroon is their school color). So, with a tip of the hat to all the Aggies out there, here is the Aggie bluebonnet.

Items of interest about bluebonnets:
--the bluebonnet war
--how to grow bluebonnets
--where to buy bluebonnet and other Texas wildflower seed

Bed check. Yesterday, Bill and I and the dogs did a walk-about to check our bird boxes, about a dozen or so. There are five nests (one with three bluebird eggs, another with three titmouse eggs), and a couple of nest attempts. Bill says that we may have overbuilt the renters' market, but it's still early days yet. We took down last summer's flycatcher nest on the front porch, with the hope that they may rebuild on that site--it was such fun to watch the parents' attempts to feed that greedy brood (especially because I wasn't paying the grocery bill).

More on mountain lions . Synchronistically, a neighbor sent a photo of a mountain lion that was shot on a ranch near Witchita Falls, in the northwest corner of the state. I can't post the photo because it isn't mine, but picture a 6'2", 220-pound man struggling to hold upright a dead lion that is just about his size: overall length, over six feet, weight 256 pounds! Obviously, it took a lot of deer and cows to keep that cat alive--not the sort of creature you'd want to meet when you're out for your daily jog. Yes, nature is dangerous, and yet the animal was lovely, even in death, a great, powerful creature that evokes awe and respect and admiration.

Playtime. The Beatrix Potter manuscript flew off to New York yesterday morning. And yesterday afternoon, I opened the file for the China mystery I'll be writing next: Dead Man's Bones. Maybe today I'll fool around with the first chapter. I'm not serious about writing yet, but it's fun to get it started. Pecan Springs feels like home, and starting a new book feels like a homecoming of sorts. But before I settle down, I'm taking a few days to play with my loom. I warped a wool scarf for my son; the weft is gold, orange, brown, and a bit of maroon. And I'm still knitting that "spontaneous scarf" I meant to finish over the weekend.

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4/03/2003 09:06:00 AM

Wednesday, April 02, 2003  
Last night's local TV news carried a story about a mountain lion sighting in Leander, about 20 miles to the southeast of us. This seemed to come as a great surprise to the residents and the reporter filing the story, but not to us. The old maps used to say about unexplored territory: here be dragons. Here, in this explored and populated region, be mountain lions.

A couple of years ago, we had a definitive sighting a little closer to home: a big cat, struck and killed by a truck on Route 29. The driver saw another cat--during breeding season, they may travel in pairs. About the same time, we found evidence of a large animal hunting rodents at the back of our property. Persuaded that this was a mountain lion, I found a website with information about the big cats in Texas, with pictures and links to a couple of other sites. The animals seem to prefer canyons and escarpments to our rolling hills, but they've been sighted in almost every county in the state. The sightings are increasing, too, as we humans encroach on their habitat. They're dangerous, yes, certainly. That mountain lion would just as soon eat our dogs or our cat as he would eat a raccoon or a deer. But the natural world is as full of danger as it is of beauty, and to know the one, we have to accept the other. (We can't kill everything we fear, although some of seem determined to try.) For a lingering look at mountain lions, read Shadow Cat, a collection of essays edited by Susan Ewing. It contains a beautiful piece by Terry Tempest Williams about Navajo children singing away their fear of the cat.

I had a lovely surprise yesterday. Rachel Carson is one of my heroes, and I loved Linda Lear's biography, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. Yesterday I learned from the the Beatrix Potter Society newsletter that Lear has a biography of Beatrix in the works. I emailed her, and learned that it will be published by Penguin UK in 2005. It's described as an "environmental biography" and will be called Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature. Another wonderful book to look forward to!

To comment, leave a note on the Bulletin Board (under Lifescapes) or send me an email.

4/02/2003 09:51:00 AM

Tuesday, April 01, 2003  
In Landscapes of the Interior, Don Gayton writes "A poet friend of mine has a theory about children. She says there is a period in their lives when they bond with a particular home landscape, and the image of that landscape stays with them through their lifetime, as a profound psychological imprint"--a kind of primal landscape of the soul's home. I believe there's something to this theory, and I think of it often.

The landscape image of "home" that I've carried with me through my life is what my mother always used to call "down home" (as in "we're going down home"). Down home for her was Polk Township, Sullivan County, Missouri--a green and rolling landscape of fields and woods, where her great-grandfather built a log house in 1850, and where she was born in 1909. We went there in the summers, in the 1940s, when I was a small child, Mother and my brother John and I. I thought it was the most beautiful place in the whole world and I dreamed of those fields and the creek and the trees when we went back to Illinois. I loved the old farmhouse, too, although my adult self knows that it was draughty and inconvenient (there was no running water when I knew that house) and must have been the dickens to heat in the winter. And the garden, lush with tomatoes and green beans and peas, and the chickens. And the way the sunlight fell across the fields at sunrise and sunset.

When I first saw the place where we live now, I felt a strong "landscape kinship" with it. Bill bought five acres here in 1974, built a weekend cabin, and came out whenever he could get away from his work in town. When we met in 1985, he brought me here, a bit diffidently, not sure he wanted to share. I think he'd brought other girlfriends, and they hadn't enjoyed it. The cabin was primitive, the road was unspeakable, and the landscape lacks the dramatic beauty of other Hill Country landscapes.

But it was love at first sight for me: the green meadow rising to the south, the woods along the creek, the meadows full of summer flowers. I used to wonder sometimes whether I married the man or married the land--but of course it was both, because he was a man who loved the land too. But I think at the heart of it was the thought of coming "down home," as my mother would have said. I've seen many other beautiful landscapes in my life, but nothing that quite speaks home to my heart the way this does.

To comment, leave a note on the Bulletin Board (under Lifescapes) or send me an email.

4/01/2003 09:36:00 AM


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