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
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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

Tuesday, May 27, 2003  

New writing project. Last year, I completed the editing of a collection of memoirs for Story Circle, called With Courage and Common Sense, to be published in September by the University of Texas Press. The Press was interested in another book, so (again, on behalf of Story Circle) I proposed a collection tentatively called Plains, Deserts, Canyons, Mountains: Women Write about the Southwest. Three other women--Susan Hanson, Paula Yost, and Susie Flatau--have signed on to compile and edit the collection with me. I'm expecting the contract this week, and we've started to think about the best way to solicit and collect the material. I'm delighted with the project. For me, it will be a source of new learning and new energies and a chance to work with some wonderful women. And for Story Circle, it's an opportunity for another book, another way to make itself known in the world. Yay!

Now in bloom at MeadowKnoll is the lovely late-spring perennial, St. Johns Wort (Hypericum perforatum), now a popular anti-depressant herb. For me, the sight of these yellow blossoms is enough to lift my spirits.

There's a great deal of information about this plant available on the Internet, but new studies are being published all the time. If you choose to treat yourself with it, you need to do your homework.

--a piece I read on the National Public Radio show "Cultivated Gardener," on how St. John's wort got its name
--Maud Grieve's discussion of the herb, from a book published in 1929, full of fascinating folklore
--some cautions about using SJW as a treatment for depression

Retreat I'm leaving tomorrow for a week's retreat at Lebh Shomea. I'll make entries while I'm gone, and post them when I get back.

Field notes
"I sensed in myself the need to find a breathing space, even in the midst of others, from which I could do more than just breathe and experience the world, but also from which I could envision it."--Jacqueline Jones Royster, "Time Alone, Place Apart," p. 40 in The Center of the Web: Women and Solitude, edited by Delese Wear.

5/27/2003 11:11:00 AM

Monday, May 26, 2003  

Weather report. Ah, rain! Nearly an inch over the past two days, with the possibility of more. The garden is loving it, and so am I. The rain has brought cloudy skies and cooler weather, a change from the near-100s of a few days ago. The greens of trees and grass are intensified by the gray of the skies--restful, lovely, various.

Retreat Once or twice a year, I go on retreat to Lebh Shomea House of Prayer, a silent community in the Wild Horse Desert of South Texas. The name means "listening heart," a phrase that describes why people come to this out-of-the-way place. I love the tender, contemplative peace; the long hours of solitary reading, writing, thinking; the ecumenical community of others seeking something beyond what our material culture has to offer; the vast stretches of coastal savannas and mesquite brushland. It's subtropical and humid, so it will be uncomfortably hot, but I've been there often enough so that it feels like another home, heat and all. Bones is at a place--I'm about half-way through--where I need to go back and reread everything, which I'll be able to do while I'm there, thanks to my laptop computer. Depending on other obligations, I'll either leave on Wednesday or Sunday.

Blooming now is the standing cypress, a gorgeous spike of brilliant scarlet flowers adored by hummingbirds. Ten years ago, I found just one of these plants here at MeadowKnoll; now, there are large patches of them, especially in the old vegetable garden, where they enjoy the looser, improved soil. This biennial blooms from seed in the second year, and occasionally in the first.

Field notes
"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, "Time Alone, Place Apart," p. 37, in The Center of the Web: Women and Solitude, edited by Delese Wear.

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5/26/2003 11:38:00 AM

Sunday, May 25, 2003  
More excursions We've been gadding about this week, going places, doing the sort of thing you only do when you have company. We drove to San Antonio (about 115 miles south), had lunch on the River Walk, and visited the Alamo. I'm certainly not a big fan of commercial development and I've never been very excited about the River Walk, which reminds me of a theme park. But learning the river's history gave me a new perspective. If you visit San Antonio, take the time to read this excellent, well-documented history of man's interaction with the river, from the Indians' early use of it, through the Spanish construction of irrigation canals, to the current urban development.

Yesterday, we drove to Lake Buchanan, about 20 miles west of us, and took a the Vanishing River Cruise to Falls Creek Falls, near the head of the lake. The Edwards Plateau mostly consists of limestone deposited in the shallow seas of the Cretaceous period. But in this area of the Edwards, there was a period of volcanic activity that dramatically changed the landscape, lifting and crumpling the flat sheets of rock and thrusting igneous material upward. Now, the water of Falls Creek plummets over the lip of what was once a huge dome of molten rock, broken and exposed by erosion. The lake was created by the construction of Buchanan Dam in the late 30s. The tour boat dropped us off at Falls Creek Vineyard for a look at the process of winemaking and a taste of some fine Texas wine. A terrific setting for a China mystery, I'd say. (China and Ruby were busy taking notes.)

I admit to a strong tendency to plug myself into my computer and work, so I'm glad we've had this time to get out and about and see something more of this various region in which we live, our place in the wide world, our home land.

Field notes
"We need to recover the ancient sense of homeland as an area defined not by armies and flags, not by religion or race, but by nature and geography and by the history of human dwelling there, a habitat shared with other creatures, known intimately, carried in mind as a living presence."--Scott Russell Sanders, Writing From the Center, p. 160.

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5/25/2003 12:21:00 PM

Tuesday, May 20, 2003  

Excursions Mostly, Bill and I are homebodies, but when company comes, we go places. Daughter Robin and her husband Jeff are visiting from Colorado. Yesterday we drove to Fredericksburg, to the Herb Farm, a lovely place to spend a few hours. We had lunch there, too--good food, in a delightful setting, even more enjoyable in the company of family.

Fredericksburg was first settled by 120 Germans who came in 1846, from the new settlement of New Braunfels, 60 miles to the east--a 16-day journey by wagon. The houses they built are Fachwerk houses, constructed of upright timbers with the spaces between filled with rocks and then plastered or whitewashed, an architecture they imported from their homeland. The growing town maintained its isolation, language, and German way of life as long as it could, trying to retain its Germanic sense of place and identity in a foreign country, an alien landscape. You can understand why: exiled in America, the people wanted and needed to build a place that reminded them of the home that was completely lost to them. But at last, and gradually, the Germans became assimilated, homogenized. English-speaking teachers taught in the schools by the turn of the century, and the railroad came in 1913. The old settlers died and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are clearly Americans, through and through. However, the little community still retains a great deal of its German ancestry, and the fine old Fachwerk buildings are a reminder of the settlers' need to recreate a sense of their original places, to be placed in a way that gave them back their lost homes, that connected them, through memory and heart and spirit, to the community of family and friends they had left behind. Alone in the alien, outlandish wilderness, vulnerable to the dangers of a new place, to the terrors of homelessness, they placed themselves by recreating home.

Field notes. "The man who is often thinking that it is better to be somewhere else than where he is excommunicates himself."--Henry David Thoreau

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5/20/2003 09:28:00 AM

Monday, May 19, 2003  

DVDs (Frustrated sigh here.) Son Bobby from Reno sent me a lovely Mom's Day present, a DVD movie called Rabbit-Proof Fence, that he thought I'd enjoy. Yesterday I bought a DVD player so I could see it, but when Bill attempted to connect it, he discovered that our old TV doesn't have the necessary connectors. Aargh. After a phone call to Bobby (both my sons are expert in such matters) and some fast web research, it appears that if we want to watch DVDs, we will have to buy a new TV. Adaptors can be had for $30, apparently, but are unsatisfactory, for a variety of technical reasons I prefer not to understand (so don't write and tell me). This is why we hate buying anything new, and would much rather live with our old stuff, which we at least know how to operate. Life in the electronic cottage is not easy.

Summer excursion The past few days have been a foretaste of the July and August yet to come, with record-setting temperatures near 100. The spring flowers in the meadow in front of the house (the part that we call our "front yard") have all set seed and been mowed. But a cold front is predicted tomorrow, dropping down from the north, so we're hoping for cooler weather. Daughter Robin and her husband Jeff are visiting from Colorado (where it's a delightful 40+ and cloudy). Today we're heading south and west to Fredericksburg, to sight-see at the Fredericksburg Herb Farm and say hello to the Varneys, who own the lovely place.

A green thought in a green shade Yes, it's hot, but the path along the creek is always shaded and cool. In the photo, we'rell looking from the footbridge over Turtle Pool, north and west to Long Pool, which has its own footbridge. Turtle Pool is full of little fish: sunfish, bluegills, striped bass, and a slider turtle. Once we watched a slider dig a nest on the bank and lay a clutch of clean white eggs; the next morning, we found the eggs broken and empty, a raccoon's midnight snack. In Long Pool, there are carp and a few larger bass, and, two years ago, a pair of snapping turtles we named Simon and Schuster (after a publisher we had once). There's a small falls at the foot of Long Pool (in a fit of hyperbole, we called it Canyon Falls), so the carp and larger bass are confined to Long Pool, unless there's a flood, in which case they're likely to surface in the San Gabriel River, 20 miles to the southeast. On the county map, the creek is marked as intermittent and has no name; we call it Pecan Creek. It's fed by seeps and springs, which are fed by the lake, and the water is clear and clean and cool. When we get heavy rains, the creek rises and the torrents have torn our bridges out. We've also seen the creek bed dust-dry, but most of the time it looks like this, quiet, calm, a sweet place to sit on a hot afternoon and watch the dragonflies and listen to the cicadas. Last week, I startled a great blue heron below Turtle Pool, fishing for frogs and minnows in the shallows. He lifted out of the water with an indignant squawk! and an ungraceful flap of his great wings.

Field notes

The Garden

...Meanwhile the mind, from pleasures less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas,
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

--Andrew Marvell, 1621-1678

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5/19/2003 08:56:00 AM

Sunday, May 18, 2003  

A plant for all seasons and reasons. The native people who inhabited this land before us had a use for every plant. The buffalo gourd--a sprawling plant that looks like a huge cucumber vine and bears round green gourds about the size of a tennis ball--was one of their most versatile resources. Daniel Moerman's massive reference book, Native American Ethnobotany (which I own and use often), shows that at least two dozen tribes used the plant's root, vine, flower, and fruit for foods, dyes, medicines, rattles, ladles, lashings, soaps, shampoo, insecticide, and toys. Medicinally, it was used to treat sores, venereal disease, parasites, toothache, and a variety of other ills. An astonishing plant, put to so many uses, by wonderfully resourceful humans. It grows in a couple of spots at MeadowKnoll; it's blooming just now, but also bearing fruit, and the ground around it is littered with the dried fruits of past years.

--an amazing collection of information and photos
--other interesting members of the gourd family, all useful

Somebody wrote to me a few days ago, asking a question and adding the comment that she'd love to come to Texas and bring her camera. To her (and others who may think that other places are more interesting or more beautiful than the place where they live), I'd like to say this: Yes, Texas is a wonderful place to visit. But you live at home. Home is the place where you need to use your eyes, your nose, your ears, where you notice the patterns and shapes of the landscape, learn the land's history and its stories, become aware of its times and seasons, of its rivers and watersheds, plants, animals, birds, stones, soil. Learning home, you'll never leave it, (even when you come to Texas) because it will be home base, the place you've found your heart.

Field notes. "For each home ground we need new maps, living maps, stories and poems, photographs and paintings, essays and songs. We need to know where we are, so that we may dwell in our place with a full heart."--Scott Russell Sanders, Writing From the Center, p. 8.

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5/18/2003 08:07:00 AM

Friday, May 16, 2003  

Pecans, the cracking of. A few days ago, I wrote about pecans--grafting, growing, baking with. I mentioned that the word pecan is an Algonquin word that means "a nut too hard to crack in the hand." Hence, the need for nutcrackers, one of my husband Bill's collecting passions. When he first got into this project, I thought he'd be looking for those cute decorative nutcrackers--you know, little toy soldiers, like the ones in the Nutcracker Ballet. No. He prowls E-bay and junk shops, looking for antique mechanical nutcrackers. He studies their mechanisms and pores over the patent applications and drawings for those mechanisms. And then he writes articles, mostly published in the Nutcracker Collectors' Club Newsletter. In other words, he's relapsed into his life as a mechanical engineering student. I told him I wanted to post something about his obsession, and asked him for a picture. He gave me this photo--it's a Miller nutcracker that came on the market before World War I, manufactured in Austin TX. Handsome thing, isn't it?

Bones update. I'm up to about 37,000 words now, just short of halfway through. (I usually shoot for 85,000 words and end up with around 88,000.) I'm feeling generally good about the book, although a couple of the sub-plots need work--I haven't exploited all of the potential of one sub-plot yet--and one of the characters hasn't yet settled down yet. More work to do there, figuring out who he wants to be in future books; he'll be a continuing character, and I need to think ahead, so I don't write myself into a corner and so that I create a character with substantial possibilities for ambiguity and nuance. A wonderful thing about writing a series: you're really writing a mega-novel, with an arc of character development (and sometimes of plot) that carries on through several books. Maybe, if you can manage it, a couple of arcs. Each book must stand alone, but each book also connects to the one before it and the one after it.

I love the reader who says, "I'm reading the books in order." That's the way they were written, and the way they're meant to be read. But since not every reader does this, or can do this, each book also has to be complete, by itself. I'm grateful to a supportive publisher who keeps all the books in print--although that's really a matter of numbers. As with products in any business, the books have to sell at a certain rate in order to justify reprinting. New books, that is. Not used books. Used books don't count in this brutal numbers game. (Which is why every writer grits her teeth when her readers tell her that they've just picked up a full set of the series at

Bed check. Yesterday was our day to check the martin nests. Two more eggs, in a nest that was empty the last time I looked, for a total of eleven eggs. The earliest hatch date is May 21. Gotta love these industrious martin moms, who are sitting on their eggs in those un-airconditioned boxes, in 100-degree temperatures. Go for it, baby! And yes, it was 100 yesterday, in Burnet, just 15 miles to the west of us. 99 in Austin, 97 here at MeadowKnoll (a cool spot). Summer's here, hot as hades.

--info about martins

Family. Daughter Robin and son-in-law Jeff will be with us for a few days, so entries in this weblog may be intermittent.

Field notes.
"Every thread you discover in the local web of life leads beyond your place to life elsewhere."--Scott Russell Sanders, Writing From the Center, p. 19.
"When you pick up something in the woods, it is not only connected to everything else by virtue of its being a set piece in an ecosystem, but it's connected to everything else by virtue of the fact that you have an imagination."--Barry Lopez, in Words from the Land, edited by Stephen Trimble, p. 13.

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5/16/2003 04:21:00 PM


Family and fiber stuff. Last year, when Bill and I were in Canada on vacation, I knitted a yellow-red-blue sweater for my great-grandson Coby's first birthday. (Yes, I know. I was a child bride.) Click on the link below, and you can see Coby in his sweater, being a cute kid. (For some reason, I can't post this directly on the page.) Coby and his mom, my granddaughter Amy, live in Anchorage. When I see that sweater, I think of the lovely, quiet hours in that Canadian cottage, watching cormorants and loons fishing in Lake Huron. I often associate the place or the time I made something with the thing itself: a kind of duplex memory, colored with remembered emotions. This one (despite its lively colors and the acrobatics of the delightfully energetic little boy who wears it) is colored peace.


Another duplex memory. It's been in the 90s for the past week, and the smoke from Mexico is back, after a couple of clear days. No rain since early April, but lots of muggy Gulf air. I spent some time weeding in the garden early this morning and came in drenched with sweat. But I just heard the surest sign of summer singing down by the creek: the yellow-billed cuckoo, who has arrived from its winter stayover in Bolivia or Argentina. My mother, who grew up on a farm in rural Missouri, called this bird a "raincrow," and when she heard it, she'd ask me, with pleasure, to listen. Each time, she would say that it reminded her of summertime on the farm, and home. Because of my mother's love for this bird, its song was one of the first I learned to listen for--another was the red-wing blackbird--although it was decades before I actually caught the flash of its rufous wings and white rump and realized that I had seen it at last. The spring before Mom died, bedridden in her nursing home, she asked me with longing in her voice if the raincrow had come back yet, and whether I'd heard it sing. Now, when I hear that throaty call with its cascade of clucks, I think of my mother, and my childhood, and her childhood, and summers long past, and homes.

--a photo and life history of the yellow-billed cuckoo
--mom and chicks
--why this bird is endangered and what you can do to help

Field notes. "I pray to the birds. I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the messages of my heart upward. I pray to them because I believe in their existence, the way their songs begin and end each day--the invocations and benedictions of Earth. I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen."--Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

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5/16/2003 09:19:00 AM

Thursday, May 15, 2003  

Mystery Week is happening just now, and May is Texas Writers Month. To celebrate, the Austin Sisters in Crime group organized four presentations involving local authors. Mine was a panel discussion on humor in mysteries, last night in Austin, with fellow writers Barbara Burnett Smith and Carolyn Banks. We had a good crowd, and I enjoyed talking about mysteries--although humor is a difficult subject to talk about. It's also difficult to manage, in a mystery, because the subject itself (violated promises, broken dreams, evil deeds, murder) is dark. In a note at the beginning of Chile Death (one of the China mysteries), I quote George Bernard Shaw: "Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh." A little humor is a good thing, even when there's a dead body on the page. Anyway, the panel was fun, and I enjoyed it.

Prickly Pear. May is also the month when the prickly pear cactus blooms, and this year, the bloom is prettier than usual, because of all the winter rains. We've cleared out most of the prickly pear from Meadow Knoll because it's painful when you blunder into it, or the dogs step on it. But we've kept a few specimen plants, because they're so much a part of this landscape. (And if we didn't keep clearing them, we'd have lots more.) Here's one that's growing next to the fence, beside the lake.

Bees crawl drunkenly over these bright yellow blossoms, which will ripen into a ruby-red fruit in September (the fruit is called tuna). The fruits are used to make a tart, beautiful jelly or syrup--I've done this a time or two, an interesting if labor-intensive process. The pads (without the thorns) are eaten with pleasure in Mexico and Central America: they're called nopales and can be found in many grocery stores. Some research shows that the fiber in the fruits and pads helps to reduce cholesterol, and the plants were used by Indians throughout the Southwest (and most likely also the Tonkawa who lived in this area) to ease sunburn, treat insect and snake bites, and earache. It is fire-resistant, has few predators (you'd have to be pretty hungry to challenge those thorns!), and many uses. I've read that in rural Mexico, it was used (with water, lime, and salt) to make a waterproof paint for walls. The plant also been used as a fence (just try getting through that dense, thorny wall), its fibers used to make paper, its thorns used as needles and pins, and the insect that feeds on its pads and fruit (the cochineal) is used to make red dye. A durable, adaptable plant that makes itself at home in the arid, inhospitable lands we call deserts, and also flourishes here, in our pastures--sometimes flourishing too well, and making itself a pest.

--good info here
--traditional medicinal uses of desert plants, including prickly pear
--prickly pear recipes

Field notes. "The love of the desert came to me slowly, for it is a hard-mind place, not a soft-skin place, and concealed in its openness. You cannot stroke it as you would a meadow, you cannot dissemble, nor are there corners in which to hide... To join it, one must come to know it, and to know it one must walk in it."--Ann Woodin, Home is the Desert, p. 6

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5/15/2003 08:45:00 AM

Wednesday, May 14, 2003  

Bluebonnet seeds. When we first moved out here, there were only a few bluebonnets on the place. Bill's parents gave us some money for our second wedding anniversary, and I bought bluebonnet seeds. They weren't a big success the first couple of years--probably because I didn't scarify the seeds, which have hard coats and often just lie in the dirt for a couple of years before they get soft enough to sprout. If you're in a hurry for bluebonnets, you can scarify the seeds: knick them with a knife or file; rub them with sandpaper; or freeze them overnight, then dunk them in boiling water and let them soak for a couple of hours.

Or you can get chickens, which is what we did. Turns out that chickens eat bluebonnet seeds, and that the chicken gizzard is an ideal mechanism for scarifying them. Once through the chicken, and that seed is anxious to sprout. Within two more years, we had bluebonnets galore.

The chickens are history, but their legacy lives on in our bluebonnets. Only now I get to do all the work. I've gathered bluebonnet seeds several ways over the years, and have discovered a relatively easy method. Before the seeds are ready to pop, I pull up the entire plant and toss it into a wheelbarrow. (I don't pull all the plants in a given area, but leave some for next year.) When the wheelbarrow is full, I take it to a place where I want bluebonnets, pull the plants apart, and toss them on the ground, aiming for the bare spots. Since I don't mess around with scarification, these seeds will sulk for a couple of years and the germination rate will be fairly low, but eventually, there will be bluebonnets. Over the years, lots of bluebonnets.

Blooming this week, blue iris, among the last of the bluebonnets in the garden along the woods. I don't usually cut flowers because I would rather see them in the garden, but the wind was whipping up a storm the day I took this picture, so these beautiful blue iris came indoors with me.

Field notes. Robert Brandt wrote to me about the Tonkawa entry, and told me about finding flint along Possum Kingdom Lake. He sent a poem, which I share, with his permission. Thanks, Robert.


Shards of flint
A hunter long forgotten
Made his weapons
For the hunt
Leaving something
Of his spirit
And the campfire
Not quenched
By the rains
Of a thousand years.

Standing there above
Where once a river
Had wound its way
Flint in hand
In sight beyond sight
I saw my shadow
And that of another
Flickering in the light
Of campfires of three
Thousand years
Not stopping but
Stretching beyond
Where I stood in time
To the future so long ago.

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5/14/2003 09:15:00 AM

Tuesday, May 13, 2003  

Persephone. Bill and I fell into the practice, long ago, of naming the important trees on our place--trees that we visit often, or that have some special significance. There are Methuselah and Gaia, the oldest oaks, and Leviticus, which has a raccoon den under its roots. There's Rachel Carson, also an oak, and and Bridget, a hackberry, and Merlin and Persephone, both pecans. Persephone is a large, multi-trunked pecan with an ample branch-spread of seventy-five feet. She was probably nipped by a grazing animal when she was young, and retaliated by putting up several trunks growing outward from her center. Persephone lives at the north edge of the woods and it's cooler in her shade than anywhere else, a relief on a hot day's walk. She's wild and native, and we leave her small pecans for the squirrels, hoping that they'll eat so many of her nuts that they won't have room left for the larger nuts from Bill's grafted trees (always a vain hope).

Archaeologists say that people have been using pecans for a very long time. Pecan seeds and leaves have been found in Baker's Cave, on the Rio Grande, that date from around 6000 B.C. The Indians made a flour of the nuts, and sometimes fermented it as a ceremonial intoxicant. Some say that nomadic Indians, like the Tonkawa who traveled through the Hill Country, planted pecans around their campsites to provide a reliable food source for future generations that would continue to pass this way. The early explorers marveled at this abundance, botanists praised the tree, and Thomas Jefferson planted pecans at Monticello (the hogs ate some of them). Pecans were often bartered for food and supplies.

More importantly, pie. Four years ago, my friend Catherine sent me her recipe, which I have modified slightly. We love this pie.

10" pie shell, unbaked (it's a big pie)
3 eggs
2/3 cups brown sugar (I like dark)
1 cup corn syrup (light)
1/2 cup melted, cooled margarine (Catherine's recipe used butter)
2 cups coarsely chopped pecan pieces (don't skimp)
1 tsp vanilla

Beat eggs, add sugar. Add syrup, margarine, pecans and stir. (I melt the margarine in a measuring cup, then use that to measure the syrup--the syrup comes out of the cup better that way.) Pour mixture into the pie shell and bake at 350 for about 45 minutes. When you take it out, it will not be quite set, which is fine. (If you bake this pie too long, it gets tough.) Wonderful warm or cold. (Refrigerate leftovers, if any.)

Bill's pecan vase. Bill's friend Charlie Goertz, now ninety-plus and still going strong, is a pecan grower extraordinaire. Bill's graft-wood comes from Charlie's place on the south side of Austin. The pecan wood from which Bill turned this vase came from Charlie's place near Giddings. In my imagination, this vase lived inside a pecan tree for many years, storing up sunshine and rain, loving the breeze in the leaves and the feeling of roots going deep. When her tree came down in a storm, she was still there, waiting in the wood--until Bill came along and let her out.

Field notes
"To inhabit a place means literally to have made it a habit, to have made it the custom and ordinary practice of our lives, to have learned how to wear a place like a familiar garment, like the garments of sanctity that nuns once wore."--Paul Gruchow, Grass Roots: The Universe of Home

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5/13/2003 09:05:00 AM

Monday, May 12, 2003  

Pecans Travel across the southern states, and you'll find pecan trees, mostly in the bottom lands--spreading, long-lived trees that can can live to 300 years and grow to a hundred feet high, with a trunk four feet in diameter. To the Algonquian Indians, the word pecan meant "a nut too hard to crack by hand." Here in Texas (where it is the state tree), we mostly call it "pe-KAHN." If you live in the southeast (the tree has been successfully introduced as far east as the East Coast, south into northern Florida and north into North Carolina), you might call it "PEE-kahn." The native pecans aren't anything to write home about unless you're a squirrel. But the tree has been in cultivation for a long time, and cultivars have been developed that do well under particular conditions of soil and climate.

For the last fifteen years, Bill has been grafting pecans here at MeadowKnoll--that is, grafting cultivated stock (Choctaw and Kiowa are his favorites) onto small native trees. He does between two and a dozen trees a year (less than half of the grafts "take," though) and now has something like thirty grafted trees. This is basically a spring-time task. The photo below is one of this year's grafts. You can see the white wax he paints on the graft to protect it from dehydration. He's also applied a copper-wire splint (to keep it from being ripped off by the wind), tied on with pantyhose (which has become a scarce commodity since I gave up power dressing). Three buds have erupted into a green brush of leaves at the top. The grafted tree will produce its first nuts in eight to ten years. This is a long-term project, obviously, full of a green hope for the future. (Bill says: "It's ironic that people will probably be enjoying our pecans long after our books are out of print and forgotten.") His first grafts have been producing for several years. Last year was an "off" year (pecan crops seem to cycle, as the mood and the weather strikes them), but the year before that, we were awash in pecans. This leads, of course, to gluttony, and to pecan pie. Come back tomorrow and I'll share our favorite recipe.

--a photo of a couple of trees and some facts
--pecan is a large-scale commercial product here in Texas
--people make beatiful (and expensive) things of pecan wood

Field notes "All history is ultimately local and personal. To tell what we remember, and to keep on telling it, is to keep the past alive in the present. Should we not do so, we could not know, in the deepest sense, how to inhabit a place."--Paul Gruchow, Grass Roots: The Universe of Home

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5/12/2003 07:45:00 AM

Sunday, May 11, 2003  

Exchanges. I had several interesting emails yesterday from people who read my notes on the Tonkawas, the nomadic people who lived in the Hill Country until the 1870s. Pat, who lives on the East Coast (don't you just love the Web, linking people from distant places?) wonders about the name the Tonkawas called themselves: Tickanwatic (or Titskan Watitch, or Titskanwatitch), the Most-human-of-people. "To whom were they (apparently favorably) comparing themselves?" she asks.

Thinking about Pat's question, I remembered that other Amerindian tribes had similar names for themselves--the Lenni Lennape called themselves "the Genuine Men" and the Taino referred to themselves as "We the Good People." I went surfing to see what I could find. I ran across a website authored by Phil Konstantin, who offers a comprehensive list of tribal names and their meanings. In the introduction, he writes this:
Many tribal names mean "People," "Us," "human beings," or similar words . . . Some tribes’ names were acquired from Europeans, using a second tribe's name for the first tribe. The "New Name" was used so much, it gained an "official" status or became the common name.

Historians say that it was the Heuco (or Waco) Indians (a band of Wichita Indians that lived to the north-east of us, around Waco TX) who gave the name Tonkawa, Those-who-stay-together, to the nomadic peoples who traveled through the Hill Country. Perhaps the name was a reference to the fact that separate clans (clan membership was matrilineal) often banded together for travel, or perhaps to the fact that the Tonkawas were an amalgam of other peoples. Konstantin's comment (above) makes you think, doesn't it? Tonkawa was the "new name," bestowed by others, that became the Tickanwatic's name, the name we know them by today. The name they called themselves is less often used, perhaps (I'm speculating here) because it was sacred and hence reserved for private use.

Bones, but not exactly. As you probably know, I always try to include herb and plant lore in the China Bayles mysteries. Although this plant has nothing to do with bones (the name of the current work-in-progress is Dead Man's Bones), I was captured by its name (there's that thing about naming, again!), which seems to refer to its skeletal stem and lack of foliage. These lovely lavender-flowered plants grow in isolated areas throughout our fields. Here's another picture, which shows the stem more clearly. And this photo, on the Kerrville (TX) Native Plant Society site, shows why it also goes by the name "purple dandelion." A rose by any other name would smell as sweet...

Field notes.
It is above that you and I shall go;
Along the Milky Way you and I shall go;
Along the flower trail you and I shall go;
Picking flowers on our way you and I shall go.
--A song of the Wintu people

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5/11/2003 09:23:00 AM

Saturday, May 10, 2003  

The Tonkawa Indians lived here at MeadowKnoll before we did, and they left a few of their belongings behind. Bill found these two pieces of flint recently, near a road called "Indian Wells." They show unmistakeable signs of human workmanship, he says: the "bulb" of percussion at the top of the left-hand piece or core, where a flake (like the right-hand piece) was struck off the core with a hammer-stone, probably a rounded stream pebble, perhaps of granite.

The road where Bill found these pieces once led down to several springs where the Tonkawas camped on their migrations through this part of the Hill Country. The springs and the old encampment--called "Indian Wells" by the first whites who settled here--now lie beneath a 20-acre lake, which was bulldozed into the landscape in the early 1970s. Anything that was left of the camp was destroyed. The last remnants of the tribe, which called itself the Tickanwatic, the "Most-human-of-people," were exiled to a small reservation near Tonkawa, Oklahoma, in the 1880s.

I often imagine, though, that I can see the Tonkawa (a Waco word meaning "They-all-stay-together") trekking across the open grasslands, heading for their camp at Indian Wells. They are buffalo hunters and gatherers, and they live in buffalo-hide teepees, which they pitch along the higher ground where we now walk every day. They use a wide variety of the native plants that we find no uses for: cattails, buffalo gourds, dewberries, acorns, willow, hedgeapples, prickly pear, mesquite. The land provides meat and fish, too, in plenty: buffalo, deer, turkey, rabbits, squirrels, rats, skunks, turtles, fish, crayfish, snails, and rattlesnake. They didn't find this flint here; it could have come from a site near what is now Georgetown, about 30 miles to the east. They carry it with them and work it wherever they stop, for arrow and spear heads, scrapers, knives, and drills. They use bone for needles and awls, to sew leather for moccasins and other clothing. They weave willow baskets to carry what they have made.

I often think about these early nomadic travelers, passing through this landscape, finding it so rich and varied and hospitable. They didn't live here, as I do now, but they dwelled here in a deeper sense, I think. This land was their life, their sacred life, their entire life. It was home, while for many of those who live here now, it is merely a place to live. But as I have thought deeply about The Most Human of People, as I have imagined how they lived, how they worked, how they used this land, I have come to share in their deeper connection to it. It is home to me, too.

--more about the Tonkawa
--an excellent history of the Tonkawa
--a traditional Tonkawa tale about Coyote

Field notes "To understand the profound meaning of land--to walk on it with the respect, born of real understanding, of the traditional Amerindian, to see it as sacred--is to be terrified, shattered, humbled, and in the end, joyous. It is to come home at last."--Sharon Butala, Wild Stone Heart, p. 188

5/10/2003 09:57:00 AM

Friday, May 09, 2003  

Bones update. Writing every day, all day (usually about six hours, about 1300 words). Lots of interesting things going on with the characters in this book. I love it when fictional people come to life for me and start going in their own directions. Sometimes this unruliness even gets to the point where I can't contain it within the plot whose rough outline I am following, and I have to start rethinking the book's direction. I welcome this kind of creative, unpredictable disorder when it happens early in the book (I'm about a third of the way through). I'm not very happy when it happens later, which means that big sections of text have to be rearranged and rewritten. So if my characters want to be insubordinate, I hope they'll do it early on. This is usually what happens (thankfully), because by about the middle, a sense of inevitability begins to overtake both me and the characters, and we all seem to settle down.

Purple passions. The passion flower (also known as maypop) is in bloom on the trellis beside the deck. It's a woody perennial vine whose flowers have become symbolic. Legend has it that in 1620 a Jesuit priest traveling in South America happened on this plant, which reminded him of the crucifixion or passion of Christ. The five petals and five sepals became the ten apostles (he left out Peter and Judas), the three pistils the nails of the cross, the purple corona the crown of thorns, and the stemmed ovary the Lord's goblet. The plant has a long tradition of medicinal use as a sedative and a treatment for stress and anxiety. There's more information here, and a close-up that shows the parts of the flowers.

Sheep stuff. The Barbados sheep we put into the north meadow are doing a fine job getting the grass under control. They're also getting tamer. They love the little bit of corn and pellets we hand-feed them every morning, and come running from the far corner of the pasture when I shake a coffee can filled with rocks, a noise they associate with the corn. Bill is building them a mini sheep-shed where they can get out of the rain (if it ever rains again, that is). A neighbor down the road has a new dog, though, a Doberman, and no fence. Gives me cold chills. When people move to the country, they sometimes think they've come to the Wild West and they can do anything they like--such as letting dogs run loose or burning brush piles on windy days. No sense of consequence, for themselves or others.

Field notes. "As a human being, I am a great meddler; I fiddle, alter, modify. This is neither good nor bad, merely human, in the same way that the snake who eates mice and phoebes is merely serpentish. But being human I have the kind of mind which can recognize that when I fiddle and twitch any part of the circle there are reverberations throughout the whole."--Sue Hubbell, A Country Year: Living the Questions, p. 77. To which I add: Having been gifted with this consequential intelligence, we have the obligation to use it. For example, to fence in the dogs.

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5/09/2003 09:35:00 AM

Thursday, May 08, 2003  
Weather report. My son Bob (the Reno son) mentioned the other day in a phone conversation that he'd just looked at one of the Austin webcams and wanted to know whether that was fog he saw, or mist, or what. "Smoke," I said. "From Mexico." Sounds crazy, but it happens almost every year, and always reminds me that what a few people do to the earth affects a great many more. Farmers in Mexico and Central America burn their old crops to prepare for new spring plantings, but they've had the same drought we've had, and the out-of-control field burns have fired the forests--or maybe that's an excuse for clearing the rain forest. Accidentally or deliberately, their land is burning, and the smoke gets in our eyes, and our lungs. It's a very small world.

Another Central American invader, and a much more welcome one, is the migratory scissortail flycatcher, which arrived here a couple of weeks ago. This bird (also the state bird of Oklahoma, but we won't mention that) has a long tail that looks like a pair of scissors, opening and closing in flight. It's courting season just now, and the males are performing their aerial ballet, an elaborate courtship display in which the bird soars high in the air, and then, singing, plunges down in a graceful zig-zag, trailing that long, sweeping plume of a tail. The scissortails need open grasslands for feeding and trees for perching and nestbuilding, but sadly, habitat destruction in Central and South America (those burning forests) is threatening the scissortail, like all of our tropical migrants.

--a stunning photo
--lots of information about this bird

Wild flowers. The silver-leaf nightshade is in bloom now. If the blossom shape is familiar, it's because this wildflower belongs to the same family (Solanaceae) as tomatoes, potatoes, chile peppers, and tobacco. In Wildflowers of Texas, Geyata Ajilvsgi says that Southwestern Indians used the fruit of this plant (yellow, about the size of a cherry tomato) to make cheese, and to treat sore throat and toothache. I've read elsewhere that the Kiowas used it, mixed with animal brain tissue, to tan hides. Another member of this family is belladonna, or deadly nightshade, which is hallucinogenic and highly toxic.

Field notes. "How much land do I need and what do I need it for? Do I need the land, actually, or only the knowledge that the land is there? Space or a photograph that suggests vastness set apart?"--Penelope Grenoble O'Malley, "Urban Nature: Your Place or Mine," p. 66. In American Nature Writing 2003, ed. John A. Murray

5/08/2003 09:03:00 AM

Wednesday, May 07, 2003  

Bed check Yesterday was Tuesday, five days after the last time I checked the purple martin boxes, and time to check again. And there are eggs! One egg in one nest, four eggs in another nest, and one nest that looks pretty comfy but doesn't have any eggs in it yet. Other martin landladies will understand my feelings of pride, even smugness. What clever martin females, to lay such delicately perfect, white-porcelain eggs! What marvels of mud-hut construction, these admirable nests! What dedication and commitment, this daily watching over the brood-to-be! Yes. Well, I'm almost as pleased as if I'd laid those eggs myself. And I'm not only counting the chicks (who haven't hatched yet) but the crowd of martins that will surely come next year, when the word gets out about the accomodations here at MeadowKnoll. Oh, foolish humans.

Wildflowers to dye for. Coreopsis tinctoria is blooming now in the north meadows, and there's quite a lot of it. I'm hoping to have some time next week, when the bloom peaks, to pick a basket of flowers for drying. Coreopsis is a traditional dye plant (hence its descriptive species name, tinctoria). The dried flowers are simmered to make a dye bath. In an acid solution, they produce a yellow dye, and in alkaline solution they produce a red dye. (That's the short of it; the long of it is more complicated.) Two dozen plants should provide enough flowers to dye a pound of wool. If I actually get around to doing this, I'll post some photos of the process.

Three good books on natural dyes:
--Wild Color, by Jenny Dean
--A Dyer's Garden, by Rita Buchanan
--The Craft of the Dyer, by Karen Casselman

Field notes

To make a prairie it takes
a clover and one bee.--
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.
---Emily Dickinson

For other nature poems by Emily Dickinson, go here.

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5/07/2003 10:09:00 AM

Tuesday, May 06, 2003  

Weather Report. So far this year, we've had only a half-dozen tornado watches and a couple of warnings--no big storms, at least in our corner of Burnet County. No rain, either. April 2003 went into the record books as one of the two driest years since people have been watching their rain guages. We're lugging hoses around the yard to water the garden, and cracks are opening up in the areas where the soil is mostly clay. In a good year, we get only about 30" of rain, which can be delivered in four or five hard rainstorms--rarely do we have the kind of gentle rain I remember with pleasure from my childhood in Illinois. And just now, our NOAA weather radio broadcast a severe thunderstorm watch for our county through the afternoon, which means that I'll have an eye on the sky all day, and keep our local radar running on the computer. A couple of years ago, we installed a below-ground storm shelter near the house, and yesterday, we held a drill (not entirely successful) with the dogs. These strategies don't arise out of fear, but out of a deep respect for the powers of storm. I lived through a tornado in 1953, and I still remember the awesome sight of the funnel as it dropped down out of a purple-green sky laced with lightning. It was exciting, exhilerating--and I didn't know enough to be frightened. Now I do, so I pay attention to spring storms.

Fiber stuff. The latest scarf/hat combo is finished--another one of those "spontaneous" knitting projects. I'm getting addicted to this, and am thinking about knitting a vest in the same way: choosing yarns from my stash and putting them together as fancy strikes me. Guess I'm just that kind of person. I get bored with patterns, but colors excite me.

Field notes "How can one live a meaningful, gathered life in a world that seems broken and scattered? That question has haunted me for as long as I can remember. Insofar as I have found an answer, it has to do with understanding my place in marriage, family, and community--my place on earth, and ultimately in Creation. To be centered, as I understand it, means to have a home territory, to be attached in a web of relationships with other people, to value common experience, and to recognize that one's life rises constantly from inward depths."--Scott Russell Sanders, Writing from the Center, p. ix

5/06/2003 09:51:00 AM

Monday, May 05, 2003  

Writing From Life. Story Circle held its semi-annual women's lifewriting workshop this weekend, in Austin. It was a wonderful experience that left me more sure than ever (as if I needed more convincing!) that every woman owes it to herself to write about her life, whether she journals for herself; writes a memoir for herself and her family; self-publishes a book about her life for her family, friends, and community; or writes a life-experience book that has the potential for regional national publication. The women who came to the workshop this weekend were stunning--from novice writer to published author, they were all willing to write, read, share. Such a joy! If you're within driving distance of Austin, consider participating in one of Story Circle's Schmooze the Muse Saturdays--small, intimate, intensive writing experiences.

Rock Daisy (Melampodium leucanthum). This native perennial is one of our prettiest wildflowers. It blooms mostly in spring, but reblooms as late as November across the Hill Country, in rocky, gravelly, limestone soils. Wish I knew the origin of its other name, Plains blackfoot, or blackfoot daisy. (If you know, write and tell me.) The butterflies seem to appreciate it, and I love it for its friendly, sturdy cheerfulness.

Field Notes. "What does it mean to be alive in an era when the earth is being devoured, and in a country which has set the pattern for that devouring? What are we called to do? I think we are called to the work of healing, both inner and outer: healing of the mind through a change in consciousness, healing of the earth through a change in our lives. We can begin that work by learning how to abide in a place. I am talking about an active commitment, not a passive lingering.... Strength comes, healing comes, from aligning yourself with the grain of your place and answering to its needs."--Scott Russell Sanders, Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World, p. 120

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5/05/2003 09:53:00 AM

Friday, May 02, 2003  

Fiber stuff. I finished Rebecca's baby sweater and hat a couple of days ago, so will send them on to Michael and Sheryl (my Alaska children) early next week. Rebecca isn't due until early June, but it's always good to be prepared. I think the sweater may be a little large, though. It's newborn size, but looks like 3-4 months to me. The other project on the needles is another "spontaneous" scarf, this one in purple, red, and blue--it's just about done. I think I'll crochet a hat to go with it.

Writing from Life. I wrote a book (published in 1997) called Writing From Life, for women who want to use writing as a way to understand and explore their life experiences. The book turned into a non-profit organization, the Story Circle Network, and twice a year, we hold a weekend writing workshop called Writing From Life. I look forward to these workshops with pleasure--the women are wonderful, and it's a joy to see them discover new things about themselves as they write. This spring's workshop is scheduled for tomorrow and Sunday, in Austin, so I won't be making an entry here until Monday.

Now blooming in the Hill Country. A few paintbrush and bluebonnets are still hanging on, but the fields are gilded with the bright yellow of dandelions, Engelmann daisies, Texas star daisies, hymenoxys, and golden dalea. I've found a wonderful website with wildflower information compiled by the Miller Springs Nature Center at Lake Belton, about 50 miles north of us. The wildflowers are listed by month, with links to photos. Here's the May list.

Field notes. "For all our buildings and lights and roads, for all our signs and words, the human presence is only a thin film stretched over mystery. Let sunlight flame in a blad of grass, let night come on, let thunder roar and tornado whirl, let the earth quake, let muscles twitch, let mind curl about the least pebble or blossom or bird, and the true wildness of this place, of all places, reveals itself."--Scott Russell Sanders, Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World, p. xv.

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5/02/2003 09:52:00 AM

Thursday, May 01, 2003  

Close encounter. I was walking through the meadow with the dogs after lunch yesterday, on my way to check the nests in one of the martin houses, when I heard a rattlesnake. This was not a timid rattlesnake, either. This one was in-your-face, get-the-hell-outta-here mad. I didn't see him, but I had the distinct impression that he was a foot or so off to my right. I executed an amazing leap to my left and yelled for the dogs, who were behind me. I was afraid they'd blunder onto him, and since he was now awake, aroused, and angry, he'd go for them. The snakes we usually see around here--bull snakes, king snakes, grass snakes--are interesting and fun to watch, when I can get a glimpse of them. Rattlers are another matter entirely. However, Bill has been on this land for thirty-some years and can only count five rattlesnake encounters, including this one, so they aren't that common. Darn good thing, too. My heart didn't stop pounding for at least ten minutes.

--If I had seen that rattler, here's what he would have looked like.
--Another photo, and some lifestyle info.

Boring lawn. I saw a TV commercial for weedkiller last night. It featured a boring lawn, entirely green, totally and monoculturally grass. The lawn-keeper boasted that his weedkiller had killed all the dandelions. What a pity. This wonderful plant (Taraxacum officinale) has been used medicinally for centuries, makes a dandy wine, a fair substitute for coffee, a zesty salad, and a lovely source of nectar for the bees. My son Bob, who lives in Reno, told me a couple of weeks ago that his spring lawn was filled with dandelions, and every dandelion hosted a delighted bee. What will the bees feed on if we root the dandelions out of our lawns? I've written about dandelions elsewhere, so I won't repeat myself. But please. Don't poison the dandelions.

We have ordinary dandelions around here, and also a larger, Texas-sized dandelion (Pyrrhopappus carolinianus, sometimes called "false dandelion"). I don't think I'd want to brew up a cup of coffee from its root, but it's pretty to look at, and the bees adore it. I'm glad to say that the grass in our front yard, which is laced with these lovely yellow flowers, is definitely not boring.

Field notes. "Home is not where you have to go but where you want to go; nor it is a place where you are sullenly admitted, but rather where you are welcomed--by the people, the walls, the tiles on the floor, the flwoers beside the door, the play of light, the very grass."--Scott Russell Sanders, Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World, p. 31.

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5/01/2003 09:21:00 AM


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