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

Monday, June 30, 2003  
Story Circle. Yesterday was a Story Circle Be Our Guest program, with Beth Kennedy, a textile artist and lifewriter. She brought eight remarkable quilts and used them to illustrate the way her work has developed, which is also part of the story of her life. Here's an image of one of Beth's quilts (there's more on her web site.) We also listened to readings from one of our writing circles--wonderful pieces. Whenever I go to one of these programs, I'm delighted and astonished by the writing I hear. Such a pleasure!

Bones. No work today, since I was scheduled to give a book talk in Austin. On Saturday, though, I was doing some research on soy, a vegetable protein that is good for bones. I eat tofu (soybean curd) regularly, and enjoy it. But when I started doing some web research, I was dismayed to find that soy farming is increasingly responsible for destruction of tropical forests. The World Wildlife Fund has a site with disturbing details about this problem. Don't know what I can do about it, at this point--but at least I know it's happening.

Fiber stuff. I finished the red mittens for Coby this weekend (Coby is granddaughter Amy's little boy). This was my first work with pattern, and I found it hard. But I'm pleased with the results. Since Coby lives in Anchorage, he's likely to be wearing them by autumn.

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6/30/2003 07:05:00 PM

Sunday, June 29, 2003  
More on cochineal bugs. When I was on book tour in January, with Indigo Dying, I met a lovely lady in Arizona, Jane Haynes. Jane is a member of the Arizona Herb Association, and has a long-time passion for plant dyes. Jane has developed an interesting, easy method of solar dyeing: she puts the dye plant material into a half-gallon glass jar, filling it about 2/3 full. Then she fills it with water, adds 2 tablespoons of alum and 2 teaspoons cream of tartar (these serve as mordants, or fixatives), and puts in 1-2 ounces of wet white wool yarn. To dye with cochineal, she uses 1/2 cup of the bugs. She puts the jar in the sun and lets it sit until the color has developed, from 2-7 days. Here's a photo of her cochineal sample cards, so you can see the colors she produced. Dyeing can't get any easier than this! Thanks, Jane, for sharing your work.

I've been dyeing, too (stove-top, not solar), using plants from the garden and around MeadowKnoll. I'll post some pics over the next couple of days. Lots of fun, and something I can do during short breaks in the writing.

Bones update. Dead Man's Bones is coming along at about 1500 words a day, more some days. I'm at 67,000 words now, with about 20,000 to go, maybe a little more. The book always gets easier as it moves toward a conclusion. Yesterday I spent an hour devising a recipe for Ruby's Better Bones Soup (a hint: some veggies and legumes contain lots of calcium, for stronger bones). Today, I'm going to the grocery to get the ingredients and try it out. Also today, a Story Circle event in Austin, so I won't be doing any writing. I'm giving a talk in Austin tomorrow, so no writing tomorrow, either. Yikes! There's still about three, maybe four more weeks of work to be done on the book, and when I have to take time out--especially a couple of days--it's hard to get back in the groove.

Book Notes. Our place is part of what we are.... Many contemporary Americans don't even know that they don't "know the plants" [in their place], which is indeed a measure of alienation.--Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, p. 39

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6/29/2003 09:44:00 AM

Friday, June 27, 2003  
Prickly Pear. Bill has been clearing small clumps of prickly pear out of the meadows--we don't have many, but these plants are invasive, and a few can turn into far too many in a couple of years. While he was at it, he noticed the white cottony stuff that is evidence of cochineal bugs. Cochineal insects are related to scale, aphids, and mealy bugs; they secrete the white stuff (which is about the consistency of cotton candy) in order to protect themselves.

But the really interesting thing about these tiny bugs is their use as a coloring agent. The insects are picked from the cactus and dried, then brewed into a bright red dye. When Cortez invaded Mexico in 1523, he saw that the Aztecs were creating a red dye from these insects, superior to anything in Europe; the Indians were enslaved, in part, to produce the dye, which was shipped back to Spain. By 1540, these tiny bugs were a hot commodity, and cochineal had become a significant aspect of New World-Old World trade. They were used to dye the uniforms of British soldiers during the Revolutionary War, as a coloring in food and drink and cosmetics, and as a paint. It wasn't until the 1880s, when red azo dyes were introduced, that the cochineal (happily, no doubt) went back to being just a bug, rather than a geo-political agent in global commerce.

I think of all this when I look at the tiny insects that are munching, unmolested, on our prickly pear. Bill left them, and their plants in place, in peace.

--some interesting history of this dyestuff
--for a closeup of these guys
--to buy cochineal bugs for dye, with some suggestions for how to use them

Field notes. If you do know what is taught by plants and weather, you are in on the gossip and can truly feel more at home.--Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, p. 38

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6/27/2003 07:13:00 PM

Thursday, June 26, 2003  
Milkweed. The milkweed pods all over our meadows are maturing and breaking open now, bursting with the wispy white "silk" seed parachutes that kids love to play with. During World War II, children were sent out with empty feed sacks to collect milkweed silk to stuff Mae West life jackets for military use. In 1943, 25 million pounds of this fairy-weight stuff was collected and used to fill 1.2 million flotation vests. That, folks, is dedication! Here's an open milkweed pod, ready to fling its seeds into the wind.

--milkweed as a vegetable
--milkweed as an herb
--and lots more stuff about milkweed as a commercial plant

Field notes. The childhood landscape is learned on foot, and a map is inscribed in the mind--trails and pathways and groves--the mean dog, the cranky old man'shouse, the pasture with a bull in it--going out wider and farther. All of us carry within us a picture of the terrain that was learned roughly between the ages of six and nine.--Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, p. 26. What kind of maps do you carry within you?

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6/26/2003 08:01:00 PM

Wednesday, June 25, 2003  
Back Story. Somebody asked me how I got started as a writer. That's like asking how I began to eat. I became a writer because I was first a reader. I read everything I could get my hands on, and brought bags of books home from Saturday trips to the library in Danville, IL, where we lived until I was 10. My father was a reader--his tastes included mysteries, particularly the Brit writers, Christie, Allingham, Sayers--and he began taking me there as soon as I learned to read. For my eighth birthday, I earned the privilege of taking the bus to the library, alone. I remember that my mother's only concern was that I might get lost. Now, in an age when we worry about kidnapping, child molestation, drugs, that kind of childhood freedom seems irretrievably lost, and unimaginably dear. When we moved to the country, Dad used to go to the library every Saturday, and I'd go along, to get the ten books the library permitted, plus ten more I checked out "for my brother."

I wrote a "novel" (blessedly lost) when I was nine. Like many young girls, I kept a diary during my teen years, laden with angst. At 19, I wrote my first short story and sent it to Seventeen Magazine; the editor eventually rejected it, but not before giving me several tries at revision--my first meaningful introduction to the idea that what you write can be rethought and deliberately changed at someone else's suggestion. A couple of months later, the day after my twentieth birthday, I sold my first story, to a Sunday School take-home newspaper. Over the next several years, I wrote and sold dozens of these short pieces, graduating to magazines like Children's Highlights and Wee Wisdom and Calling All Girls. I always had work in circulation, and when I got a rejection, the piece went back in the mail the next day. I was learning the writing craft, learning the business of free-lance writing, and (maybe most importantly) learning to take myself seriously as a writer. Not bad for a kid of 23, who was also a mom with three kids.

The free-lance stuff got set aside when I entered the university, first as a student, then a faculty member--a lengthy and interesting parenthesis, within which I wrote quite a lot of academic stuff, the normal articles, books, a Russian translation, a couple of edited volumes. Fast forward 22 years, to the point when I left the academic world and returned to my life's love: writing fiction. And that's what I've done ever since. I've found what I was meant to be doing all along. Long story made short.

What's in a name? In the garden, blooming now, is this pretty plant, a Jerusalem sage, which doesn't belong to the sage family, although it grows in Jordan and on the Judean hills. It's a Phlomis fruticosa. The pungent leaves are grayish-green and wooly, set off by bright yellow flower whorls that are arranged along the tall flower stalks of this shrubby bush. The flowers are almost as interesting when they're dried, so I leave them on the stalk until I cut this perennial back in August. A good plant for hot, dry gardens like mine. There's another Jerusalem sage, a true sage. The plants have the same name, but aren't related.

Field notes. The pathless world of wild nature is a surpassing school... Out here one is in constant engagement with countless plants and animals. To be well educated is to have learned the songs, proverbs, stories, sayings, myths (and technologies) that come with this experiencing of the nonhuman members of the local ecological community [SWA: and of gardens].--Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, p. 18

6/25/2003 07:31:00 AM

Tuesday, June 24, 2003  
Posting Problems. If you logged on the past couple of days and didn't find any new entries, it's because I couldn't get onto my posting page. When I logged on this morning, I discovered that the posting format has been changed, just enough to require me to relearn the whole process. Ah, the mysteries of this new technological world. Anyway, the log is back in business.

Beatrix goes to the movies. I always read the Beatrix Potter Society quarterly newsletter carefully, and I almost always learn something I didn't know. A previous newsletter introduced me to Linda Lear and her new biography of Beatrix, which will be published in early 2005. The most recent newsletter mentioned a new film of the life of Beatrix Potter, titled Miss Potter, starring Cate Blanchette, the powerful Australian actress who played Elizabeth I and the Elf Queen in Lord of the Rings. It's to be directed by Bruce Beresford, who directed Driving Miss Daisy. Filming starts this fall, in England, according to a report published by the BBC. I'm delighted with all this interest in Beatrix, quite apart from my own greedy speculations about how all the media attention might affect my new mystery series, which is now set to debut in July, 2004, with the publication of The Tale of Hill Top Farm.

Lake birds. Earlier this year, Bill found a green heron on the road, a victim of an auto accident. This morning, I saw a pair of them on the Heron Tree, the large dead oak in the middle of the lake. I'm guessing that there's a nest nearby. If you've never seen a green heron, here's a great photo.

Field notes. In 1840, Audobon wrote this about the green heron:
I have observed their return in early spring, when arriving in flocks of from 20 to 50 individuals. They would plunge downwards from their elevated line of march, cutting various zigzags, until they would all simultaneously alight on the tops of the trees or bushes of some swampy place, or on the borders of miry ponds. These halts took place pretty regularly about an hour after sunrise. The day was occupied by them, as well as by some other species especially the blue, the yellow-crowned, and night herons, all of which at this period traveled eastward, in resting, cleansing their bodies, and searching for food. When the sun approached the western horizon, they would at once ascend in the air, arrange their lines and commence their flight, which I have no doubt continued all night.

This note was taken from the e-book, Life Histories of North American Birds, which contains a great deal more information about this bird and others, compiled from 19th and early 20th century sources.

6/24/2003 09:28:00 AM

Thursday, June 19, 2003  

Student pilots. The first two purple martin nests are emptying rapidly, as the fledglings take to the air over the east meadows. This morning, I counted six martins taking time out on the telephone wire, and another seven on the wing. It's quite a show. I can only imagine their delight at pushing through the front door--watch that first step, junior, it's a lulu!--and suddenly finding themselves whirling and turning and dancing in thin air, under the beaming sun, as easily as you and I draw our first breaths. Pure joy to watch them try their tricks, these ecstatic air-dancers, these wild-winged wonders. I wish I were up there with them, oh yes, yes, I do!

Rooted. Next best thing to being a purple martin trying her wings for the first time: a brown-eyed Susan, deeply rooted. this clump is growing wild, next to the creek. Lucky Susans.

Field notes. "...Your state is your country. There exists no other country outside that which you know. Likewise, neighborhood is a country. As your family is a country. As your house is a country. As you are a country." --Denise Chavez, Face of an Angel

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6/19/2003 07:58:00 PM

Wednesday, June 18, 2003  
Another good writing day, with some strong forward momentum in Dead Man's Bones. I'm going to change the time setting, though--move it forward about three weeks. I don't know why I didn't think about this before. The book is now set in early October; shifting it three weeks later will give me a chance to play with Halloween skeletons and such, as well as opening the way for some spooky Halloweenish stuff in the final scenes. This rewrite won't take much: some work at the beginning, and at a couple of strategic places throughout. I haven't done a Halloween book since Witches' Bane, so it'll be fun.

The basket flowers (Centaurea americana) are blooming now in Meadow Marsh, north of the house, where the soil holds the moisture. This pink cousin to the cornflower or bachelor's button is also called star thistle (the bracts have a prickly look, although they're very soft) and shaving brush (apt, for that's exactly the shape of the flower). An annual, it's also related to knapweed, which has a very bad reputation, especially in the western states. Cornflowers are also unwelcome in some areas--in Colorado, for example, where the plant appears on the Bureau of Land Management's list of noxious weeds. Our basket flowers aren't a threat to anybody, though. I'll just enjoy them.

Field notes. "Narrative threads," writes Scott Russell Sanders in Staying Put, "connect me to every place I have known. I am bound to the earth by a web of stories, just as I am bound to the creation by the very substance and rhythms of my flesh." (p. 150).

I'm thinking again of my mother, who never really left her home place in Sullivan County, Missouri, although she moved away from there as a young woman. It must have been those narrative threads that bound her, the memories of those green Missouri hills and wooded valleys, each hill and valley, each house and barn a story. Her mother's and father's stories, which were also the stories of her grandmothers and grandfathers, all of whom lived within a few miles. In 1849, the year of the California Gold Rush, her great-grandfather Conrad Franklin gathered up his family--two at least of the women were pregnant--and they all trekked together from Mercer County KY to Sullivan County MO, arriving in time to show up in the 1850 census there, in what became Polk Township. And for the next hundred years, most of the Franklins lived right there, in that one green place, raising cows and chickens and children, their stories and memories binding them to the land. Narrative threads. No wonder my mother was never able to truly leave it, and always carried it like a lover in her heart, a fidelity that my father never understood.

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6/18/2003 07:08:00 PM

Tuesday, June 17, 2003  
Good writing today. I'm at 49,000 words on the book (Dead Man's Bones), and have a pretty clear sense of the scenes that need to be written. And for once, I even have a sense of an ending. I usually know how the mystery is to be resolved before I begin the actual writing, but I don't always know how the ending is going to look or feel--that is, what's going to happen to the person who causes all the trouble. This book is different. Not to be a tease, but I do have an idea, a bit more dramatic than usual, and that makes me feel a little more secure than usual. Another 25-30 days of work should wrap it up--fewer than that, if I get any more good writing days like this one.

Texas bluebell is the common name for this uncommonly pretty wildflower, growing in Meadow Marsh, just north of our house. Other names: lisianthus, prairie gentian, and officially, Eustoma grandiflorum. I can't bear to cut these--they're too beautiful where they are, reflecting the blue of the sky and the gold of the surrounding coreopsis--but I'm told that they last up to a month in a vase if you handle them gently and whisper soothing words to them. These are perennials here, annuals farther north. Aren't they gorgeous?

I hear the quail calling every time I step outside, with that clear, bright whistle my mother used to love so much. "Bobwhite! Bobwhite!" It reminded her of the Missouri farm where she grew up, she said. Her heart was there, in a real and very unsentimental way--unsentimental because she knew, first-hand, the terrible work involved in making a life on a farm, tending cows and chickens and pigs, taking care of the garden, churning butter by hand (I still have the Dazey churn her mother gave her), doing the washing on a scrub board, living without refrigeration or central heat and air. But she somehow felt that life was more real, then, when people worked with their hands and lived on the land. I think of that, and of her, when I hear the quail calling. There's a family of them, living in the meadow just south of us: we saw an adult and four chicks just last week.

--photo of a bobwhite quail
--as much as you ever want to know about bobwhite quail in Texas

Field notes. "The best of me was formed in a midwest town..." For the rest of this exuberant, loving poem by Karla Rogers, go here. Please.

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6/17/2003 07:02:00 PM

Monday, June 16, 2003  

Something very nice happened today. I was invited to participate in the Texas Book Festival's display at the Austin International Airport next fall, as one of two Texas mystery authors chosen (18 other authors will participate in the display, with two authors sharing a single glass case). They've asked for a loan of Indigo Dying, plus several other items that might catch people's attention as they dash through the airport. I'm sending them a cake of indigo dye, a skein of indigo-dyed silk, a drop spindle filled with my blue homespun wool, a chunk of coal and a couple of shotgun cartridges. (If you've read the book, you'll understand all this.) With any luck, the display will be up when Bill and I come back from England on September 12. The Book Festival folks say that a million people will walk through the airport during that three-month period--and the airport bookstore is going to feature all the books that are on display. Yee-ha! (as Ruby would say)!

Fiber stuff I've been knitting mittens, as a change from socks. Here are the latest. The black pair is Bill's (made to order); I don't know who will get the gray pair. Now that I have the general idea of the way mittens are constructed, I'm going to try one with a pattern. To take on our trip to England, I've ordered some merino to knit a couple of lace scarves--my first attempt at knitted lace.

Reading. Somebody asked, so here's my current stack. When I write China, I always keep a mystery going--right now, it's Kathy Reichs' Fatal Voyage, which I admire for the sheer virtuosity of the technical stuff. Lots of gruesome, fascinating detail. I also have a very different mystery underway, one of Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver adventures: The Brading Collection. Reichs is in-your-face, while Wentworth is subtle and devious--and I love the fine writing. I just finished Ellen Meloy's The Last Cheater's Waltz, which is . . . well, not what I was expecting. Startling, ironic, intense, angry. A strong, clear book, about the desert Southwest.

Field notes. "Each of us has a geography of character to match a physical geography--a curve of river, the evocative power of aridity, the way we respond to colors, weather, and light. When geography is earned, by ecological literacy, by truly knowing the inhabitants, history, and limits of one's home terrain, some new frontier arrives." (Meloy's "new frontier" was inspired by a boiled lizard.)--Ellen Meloy, The Last Cheater's Waltz, p. 188.

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6/16/2003 07:04:00 PM

Sunday, June 15, 2003  

A tree in a bottle. Somebody wrote and asked how to start vitex cuttings (see 6/13 entry). Here's a picture of the way I do it.

With a knife, I cut an empty 3-liter soft drink bottle in half. I poke drainage holes in the bottom with an icepick I've heated in the gas flame on my stove. I put vermiculite or potting medium in the bottom half, and soak it until the water drains out. I dip my cuttings (vitex, in this case) in a rooting compound, poke holes in the vermiculite with a chopstick, stick the cuttings in the holes, and water it once again, tamping the vermiculite around the cuttings. Then I slip the top of the bottle onto the bottom. Voila--a plastic mini-greenhouse. When the moisture builds up, I take off the cap; I put it on again to create a more moist environment. It takes vitex about six weeks to develop good roots, at which point they go into pots outdoors, and into the ground the following spring.

Birds in boxes. Bill and I checked the purple martin nest boxes yesterday. We have 13 baby birds, some of them developing real feathers and anxious to be off into the wild blue yonder. According to my calculations (admittedly inexperienced), the first four should fledge as early as June 18, with the rest taking their maiden flights on June 20 and June 30. The sky over the meadow has been full of martins moms and dads, who make regular visits to the nest boxes, delivering lunch. Meals on the wing, as it were. I've been sitting under the cedar tree with my binoculars, watching. It's a wild, wonderful show.

--for more on martins
--one man's martin mania

Field notes. "This is a lonesome place without those birds, just like if your family left you and moved out of the house."--George Finney, owner-builder of a 620 room martin house, Winnfield, LA. Quoted in The Purple Martin, by Robin Doughty and Rob Fergus, p. 21.

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6/15/2003 07:19:00 PM

Friday, June 13, 2003  

The vitex trees are blooming now, as pretty as lilacs (which we can't grow here) and enormously popular with the butterflies and bees, who are seduced by the nectar in the purple flowers. I enjoy this small tree (it doesn't get much taller than 15 feet) because of its extravagent blooms and because, as a Mediterranean native, it thrives in our hot, dry summers. It's very easy to start from cuttings, too--most of my trees are offspring of the great-grandmama Vitex I bought when we first moved out here.

The vitex has a couple of other interesting names: monk's pepper tree and chaste (or chasteberry) tree. As an herb, vitex has had a long history of use as an anti-aphrodisiac: that is, an herb that is used to reduce sexual desire, hence the name chaste tree. (Bet you didn't know herbs could be used that way, did you?) The name monk's pepper tree came about because the seeds have a peppery taste and were used to season monastic food--and (not incidentally) to inhibit the monks' forbidden libidonous desires. I don't know if it works that way or not--I haven't experimented with it myself (being a person who rather enjoys sex). It was also traditionally used to treat post-partum hemorrhage; more recent scientific studies support its use in the treatment of PMS. But all that potential usefulness doesn't hurt it one bit--it's still a beautiful little tree.

Rain and storms today. Almost two inches of rain, lots of wind, and enough lightning to send Lady (our black Lab) into sobbing hysterics, in spite of the Thunder Pill I gave her a half-hour before the storm hit. We unhooked everything, including my computer, so I didn't get as much work done today as I had hoped. But I did spend some time on the phone with my dentist, contriving a dental clue for use in Dead Man's Bones, the book I'm currently working on. And Bill showed me how to unload a gun, while I converted his actions into a verbal description. Ah, the many thrilling excitements in the life of a mystery novelist.

Field notes, from a wonderfully ironic, unsentimental book about the deadly beauty of the Colorado Plateau. "What binds a person to place? The Pueblo ancestors were tied to place by how far they could walk before starving. Today's reasons are more freely chosen. We are born somewhere and never consider leaving, or livelihood or family drew us, or in certain places, as people say about the West, the sex is better.... 'I may not know who I am but I know where I am from,' Wallace Stegner said..." Ellen Meloy, The Last Cheater's Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest, p. 188.

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6/13/2003 06:57:00 PM

Thursday, June 12, 2003  

Home again, from Houston, where I talked at the Mercer Arboretum, a treasure of a botanic garden and aboretum north of Houston, near Humble, TX. If you're in the area, you really must go and see the native plant garden, the herb garden, the vine garden, and all the other beautiful gardens, gathered in a lovely oasis along Cypress Creek, in the midst of a highly-developed area. I talked about herbs and mysteries, two of my favorite topics, to a roomful of "friends of the books," as May Sarton used to call her readers. Below are Greg Harmison and Suzzanne Chapman, the two Mercer folks who invited me to speak--we're standing in front of the lily pond, where (Greg says) a green heron occasionally drops in to snack on unsuspecting koi.

In the evening, Bill and I (as Robin Paige) went to Murder by the Book, our favorite Houston bookstore, and talked about Death at Glamis Castle. Thanks very much to David and Dean, two members of the store staff, for setting up the signing and making the evening so easy and pleasant. All of this, of course, is part of being a writer--a mystery writer, anyway. Readers like to meet people who write books and hear the stories behind the books. And we like to meet readers. Somehow, it makes the whole thing (which often seems almost like a fairy tale) more real.

Gardens, familiar mysteries. The gardens at Mercer, in a corner of the vast, sprawling metropolis that is Houston, come as something of a shock. They aren't wild, in any sense of the word: the gardens themselves (quite apart from the wilder places along the bayou) are tamed nature, organized to focus our attention on beautiful forms, intense fragrances, glorious rainbows of color, planned to intensify our experience of the natural world. But somehow, in the unnatural, artificial context of city and suburb, of billboard signs and convenience stores, of interstate and traffic and too many cars, the gardens seem wild, a wilderness of foliage and bloom. The stillness of the garden is even more still, its serenity more serene, because it is enveloped by the noise and hurly-burly of the city. I think this is true of even the smallest garden, in the tiniest corner of a city yard: a place apart, not wild, but definitely not civilized, either. A place where we can go and be quiet, a place where we can learn what nature has to teach us about ourselves. If there is a mystery in gardens, it is this familiar mystery, that somehow mediates between the landscape of wilderness, where humans are seldom welcome, and the man-made, artificial jungle of jumbled cityscape, built to the scale of human need and human ambition.

Field notes.
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.
--William Shakespeare

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6/12/2003 06:50:00 PM

Tuesday, June 10, 2003  

Back to work. Back to Bones today, and feeling good about the book. But I didn't do as much as I'd planned, because Bill wanted me to cast an editor's eye at one of the articles on nutcrackers that he writes for a collectors' journal. It was a good piece, and we got involved in it. Tit for tat, since he reads everything I write.

And back on the road. Tomorrow, Houston and the Mercer Arboretum, where I'm talking about the mysteries of herbs. In the evening, a Robin Paige booksigning at Murder by the Book, where (as their web page says) a good crime will be had by all. Prime thyme crime, maybe? I'll also be talking about An Unthymely Death, if there's thyme . . . er, time.

And speaking of herbs, the echinacea--everybody's favorite--are in bloom at MeadowKnoll. This herb was used extensively in the 19th century (Plains Indians used it for everything from snake bite and bee sting to influenza), fell into disrepute in the 20th, and in the last decade has come back into use again. Here are a couple of sources:

--An article about the various uses of this plant, with recipes for tea and sore-throat remedies, and instructions for making a tincture; and
--Steven Foster's Echinacea: Nature's Immune Enhancer. Foster makes a plea for conserving and protecting this herb in the wild, where it is becoming scarce.

Field notes. "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."--Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

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6/10/2003 06:51:00 PM

Monday, June 09, 2003  

More bull. Somebody wrote to ask what kind of bull Moby was (see entry for 6/8), and somebody else speculated about a possible mythic ancestry. Hey, that's a creative suggestion! The fearsome Minotaur, maybe, on the lam from the labyrinth? Moby, though, is just his own lovely, non-mythic self: he's a charolais bull who loves getting his groceries and keeping an eye on his cows. We still dunno what brought Moby to our corner of the county, but his visit was nice while it lasted.

Blooming now at MeadowKnoll is Mexican oregano, Poliomintha longiflora, pretty in pink. A bit on the strong side for my taste, but the hummingbirds love the tubular flowers. Not to be confused with the other Mexican oregano, Lippia graveolens, which has a rather nicer flavor and is much used in Tex-Mex cookery.

Bed check. A peek into the martin houses yesterday showed 13 baby birds and a couple of yet-to-be-hatched eggs. For our first season, I think it's been a great success, and I'm already planning to add another house next spring. I love watching the adult birds whirl and tumble above the meadow, harvesting bugs to stuff down 13 throats.

Field notes From a poem by Carl Sandburg, in his book Smoke and Steel.

Purple Martins

Twirl on, you and your satin blue,
Be water birds, be air birds,
Be these purple tumblers you are.
Dip and get away
From loops into slip-knots
Write your own ciphers and figure eights....

A man on a green painted iron bench
Slouches his feeet and sniffs in a book,
And looks at you and your loops and slip-knots,
And looks at you and your sheaths of satin blue,
And slouches again and sniffs in the book,
And mumbles: It is an idle and a doctrinaire exploit.
Go on tumbling half over in the water mirrors.
Go on tumbling half over at the horse heads of the sun.
Be water birds, be air birds.
Be those purple tumblers you are.

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6/09/2003 07:36:00 PM

Sunday, June 08, 2003  

Moby. The weirdest things happen when I go away. This time, Bill played host to a wandering bull, a great white beauty of a beast that he christened (what else?) Moby Bull. Moby crossed a creek and two fences to get to our pasture, and liked the grass so much that he decided to stay. After a couple of days, Bill located the owners, who came to get him. No word on whether Moby is happy back at home, or whether he's planning another getaway.

Book notes. An Unthymely Death is out this week. I had reservations about this story collection, mainly because I wasn't sure how all those sidebars with herb lore and recipes and odd bits were going to go together. But the pages look good, and I'm starting to hear from readers--ah! the wonders of email!--that they're enjoying it. Not a serious read and probably not something you'd want to gobble down in one sitting. But good summer fun, I hope, the sort of thing you'd take to the beach or the pool.

Weather report. Rain this morning, with a glorious hour of thunder/lightning. (Lady, our black Lab, adjourned to the closet, where she put her head under a tee shirt.) The grass is wildly, wonderfully green, matching the green chameleon who lives in the ferns beside the porch--and now needs mowing, of course.

Field Notes. For this month's Story Circle reading circle, I've been reading Rowing to Latitude, by Jill Fredstone. It's a memoir about the trips that Jill and her husband Doug have made--she in her rowing shell, he in his kayak--in the seas and rivers of the far, frozen north. Here's what she says about her life with her husband, which is very much like the way Bill and I feel about writing and living together: "There probably isn't a more stringent compatibility test than working together full-time. We are so often referred to as 'DougandJill' that sometimes we suspect people think of us as one person. Yet the circumstance of rarely being apart has allowed us to peel back successive layers of interference, ultimately giving each of us greater creative freedom. Our intimate collaboration feels a lot like sculling. To keep the boat moving in a reasonably straight line, we must stroke separate oars as one."

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6/08/2003 05:17:00 PM

Saturday, June 07, 2003  
Big news. Granddaughter Rebecca Susan arrived on Tuesday, as predicted, weighing in at 8 lbs 11 oz. Dad Michael says that everybody is fine, although sleep-deprived. Here is a photo of Mom Sheryl and her new daughter, who is named not just for me (how lovely!) but also for two other Susans in our family tree: Mary Susan Franklin (1881-1977) and Susan Emberton Jones (1812-1897). Congratulations to Mom, Dad, and daughter!

And here's a poem I wrote at Lebh Shomea:

Owl and Orioles, in a Mesquite

The orioles are furious,
the whole fluttering
flock of them, flashing
violently orange among
the pale green fringes of mesquite.
I go to see and see nothing
but the brilliant, blinding
fire of orioles.
Is it a snake, curling
like innocent smoke along a green twig?

It is an owl,
not a large owl,
hunkered against the trunk
of the tree,
pretending he's not there at all.
His beak is polished malachite,
hs eyes golden, slitted
against the violent
orange lightning of the orioles,
ear tufts erect like cat’s ears, hearing
their curses and not caring,
feathers fluffed, ruffed
around his shoulders
like a cape
to ward off the shower
of orange sparks.

Is there anything in the world more important,
more real than this:
a small hunched owl
with golden eyes and a malachite beak
waiting for a storm of orioles
to pass.

Susan Wittig Albert, June 3, 2003

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6/07/2003 01:57:00 PM

Friday, June 06, 2003  

Retreat notes I did quite a bit of journaling while I was on retreat, but I'll post just a few thoughts here. If you want to know about the place where I went on retreat, you can check out the Lebh Shomea website. Here's some additional background:
--an article about what happened when a bombsite was proposed nearby
--some history

A few passages from my journal.
Silence. The silence, sweet and beneficent, wraps around me like a prayer shawl. No traffic noise, no voices, no radio or television or jingling cell phones, only the sound of the birds. The silence itself can be overwhelming. For a couple of years, I taught classes at the Austin Jung Society on silence and solitutde, and brought several groups here for 4 or 5 days. While the students were prepared, theoretically (we’d been reading, writing, and talking about the importance of solitude and silence in our lives), the practice is quite different. Some were literally overpowered by the silence and left early. For me, it's a release and a joy.

Everyone who makes a retreat does it differently. Some people catch up on their rest, others spend the time in prayer, or read or write or draw or paint. I’ve brought the current book on the laptop computer (Bones) and I work on it between breakfast (at 7:45) and lunch (at 12). I have 40,000 words now, about half of the book, and will use this quiet time to go back to the beginning and work my way through, sweeping out the cobwebs, cleaning, patching, fixing. I know of a few major repairs, and I’ll no doubt make dozens of little ones. It’s valuable work that will give me the momentum to coast into the second part of the book when I go home.

So the mornings are set aside for writing work. The afternoon is given over to reading (I’ve brought a big box of books, and there's a substantial library here) and what I think of as my "contemplative writing"--self-explorations, mostly, like journal work. I begin to wind down about four or five, in time for a walk and a phone call to call Bill to find out what his day has been like. Talking to him, hearing his quiet support and being grateful for it, some of the guilt I inevitably feel about coming away begins to disappear. Supper is at 6; after that, I read and knit or spin (I’ve brought my favorite hand spindles and some roving to work with.) There’s enough looseness in the day’s plan to give me time for anything else that seems worth-while to do, and enough structure to keep me steady and give coherence to the day. But there are no deadlines, no demands, just quiet, thoughtful time.

Settling in. When I first arrive, I am busy with my unpacking, with putting my books on the shelf, the computer, my clothes and personal items, my knitting—all the little things you bring with you when you’re going away for a week. The first day is easy, because everything is new. The second day is very hard—I keep thinking about the work I’ve left behind, the emails I forgot to send, the chores I should have done, thinking about Bill and worrying whether he’ll find something to eat, whether he’ll remember to feed the animals (he always remembers both). The second day, I go quietly crazy. By the third day, though, I begin to sink into the quiet, to settle softly into my work, my reading, my contemplative writing, even my meditative knitting. I’m not going anywhere but here, I’m not doing anything but this. Nothing happens, and that’s exactly what I came for.

Orioles. Outside my window, a pair of Altamira orioles are discussing important matters in the oleander bush. Both sexes look alike, so I can’t tell whether I’m seeing two males or a mated pair. These exotic, flashy, orange and black birds don’t venture as far north as MeadowKnoll, and it's a rare treat to see them. Someone has hung an abandoned nest on the library door in the Big House (the building that houses the library, the dining hall, and guest rooms): a sturdily woven stocking of plant fibers, grasses, and Spanish moss, quite a lovely thing. The female crafts this nest, suspending it from a high branch of a mesquite or a willow tree—trees with flexible twigs that won’t bear the weight of a hungry raccoon or possum.

The kiskadee is another bird I can’t see at home. A flycatcher, it puts MeadowKnoll’s more modestly-attired flycatchers to shame. Brown above, yellow beelow, with a black cap and a black mask on its white head—a black-masked bandit. Noisy (kis-ka-dee)and aggressive, too, and a flashy flier.

There's lots more, but that's enough. Tomorrow, I'll post a poem.

Field notes. "It is harder for women, perhaps, to be 'one-pointed,' much harder for them to clear space around whatever it is they want to do beyond household chores and family life. Their lives are fragmented...[they cry out] not so much for a 'room of one's own' as time of one's own. Conflict becomes acute, whatever it may be about, when there is no margin left on any day in which to try at least to resolve it."--May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

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6/06/2003 08:10:00 PM


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