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

Wednesday, July 30, 2003  
Bones update. Finished, I think. Well, maybe. The deadline is a couple of weeks away, though, so I'll let the book brew for a few days, and see if anything pops up that needs to be fixed. Mysteries are an enormous challenge to write because they are plot-driven. And since this book has five or six plots (depending on how I count them), there's always a possibility that I've dropped a piece of something somewhere. Ack. Anyway, I'm ready to go on to something else. Bill is already thinking about Death at Blenheim Palace (the working title of the next Robin Paige), and beyond that, about the possible Marconi book. Won't know until we get a little deeper into the research whether Marconi will work out. But if we're going to include him, it would be good to spend some time in Chelmsford while we're in England, for a look at his radio laboratory. It's only 15 miles from Dedham, where we'll be staying for a couple of days with Ruby Hild. Bill talked to her on the phone this morning. She said it was chilly and rainy. We can't wait. It hit 98 today.

Wild life. July and August are spider months here at MeadowKnoll. We see quite a few wolf spiders and yellow garden spiders, which are sometimes called "writing" spiders because of the zigzag pattern in the middle of the web. Last year, a writing spider hung her web beside our back door, and we enjoyed watching her for a month or so, before her time ran out. We're concerned about only two spiders: the black widow and the brown recluse, both definitely unpleasant creatures, and aggressive if accidentally disturbed.

But most of our spiders just go nonchalently about their business, staying out of our way. I took this photo last summer about this time. It's a wolf spider (I think) with her babies, just hatched, clinging to her back. Togetherness, but briefly. I went back to look about an hour later, and the babies had scattered, eager to get started on their new spider lives.

Taking a break. Tomorrow, I'm going to take the day off and clean my office. Books stacked up on the floor, papers piled on the desk, mail, cracker crumbs, stuff I haven't seen for months, while I've been working on the book. It's about time I got this mess cleaned up. Ack.

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7/30/2003 06:29:00 PM

Tuesday, July 29, 2003  
Blooming now and very pretty, this double white ruffled hollyhock, with a few red canna blooms in the background.

We don't think of the hollyhock as an herb, but this lovely garden flower belongs to a family--the mallow family, including the marsh mallow--that has long been recognized for its medicinal properties. Mrs. Grieve (A Modern Herbal, notes that "preparations of Marsh Mallow, on account of their soothing qualities, are still much used by country people for inflammation, outwardly and inwardly, and are used for lozenge-making. French druggists and English sweetmeat-makers prepare a confectionary paste (Pâét‚ de Guimauve) from the roots of Marsh Mallow, which is emollient and soothing to a sore chest, and valuable in coughs and hoarseness." (The marsh mallow is not to be confused with marshmallows, those squishy, sugary white goodies that roast so satisfactorily over an autumn fire.)

Fence story. Doing my daily stint with the fence stays this morning, I was smiling about a story my brother John sent me, after he read my remarks about U2's stealthy escapes through the fence. (U2, for readers who have not yet been introduced to her, is a Barbado ewe who likes nothing better than jumping through fences--which is why I'm doing this bit of pleasantly obligatory fence work every morning.) Here's the story, which took place when John was about 12:

"You may not remember this, but on the Horner place [a farm where we lived, near Bismarck IL, in the early 1950s] I was responsible for counting the calves every day after school (about 40, as I recall). We had one extremely adventuresome calf that would simply not stay fenced. No matter what we did, he escaped again and again. One day after Dad and I had rounded him up yet another time, we actually watched him leap over the electric fence. That's when Dad yelled, 'Look at that m.....f....r take that fence!' I was delighted to learn a new cuss word and lost no time in telling my friend Russ and everyone else. So I guess Dad was responsible for introducing the MF word to Bismarck Grade School vernacular."

John's story made me smile and feel a little homesick for that farm, which was snuggled up against the North Fork of the Vermillion River, a wilderness of woods, in those days. When that calf got out, he was river-bound. Dad contrived some sort of wooden yoke to hang around his neck, which was supposed to keep him from going through the fence. Didn't stop him. He snagged the yoke on the barb wire and took that MFing fence with him, wire, post, and all. Amazing. I didn't have a good relationship with my father, but I sometimes have flashes of pleasant memories. That's one of them.

Reading notes. "It is the fashion just now to disparage nostalgia. Nostalgia, we believe, is a cheap emotion. But we forget what it means. In its Greek roots it means, literally, the return to home. . . . Nostalgia is the clinical term for homesickness, for the desire to be rooted in a place. . . . It recognizes the truth--that we cannot know where we are now unless we can remember where we have come from."--Paul Gruchow, Grass Roots: The Universe of Home. pp. 6-7.

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7/29/2003 07:03:00 PM

Monday, July 28, 2003  
Sunflowers. Sunflowers are a big crop in Texas--some 200,000+ acres of them. There are two kinds, I understand. The plants that produce black seeds are grown for their oil. Sunflower seed oil is extracted from the seeds, which are then turned into cattle feed. The seeds are also sold for birdseed. "Confectionary" seeds are those that are gray or striped--the ones you find in snack bags. Both are good crops in Texas, since their roots go deep and they can withstand drought. It only takes about 7" of rain during their growing season to produce seed.

The sunflowers in our pasture don't produce a great deal of seed, but the birds covet every bit of it. The seedheads will dry on the plants, and by November, they'll be picked bare. But for now, they're bright and pretty, a sunny sight.

Too many words. It doesn't happen often, but I'm about to OD on words. I spent Saturday and Sunday reading the copy-edited manuscript of A Dilly of a Death, and today drafting the last chapter of Bones. Both of them are long books, over 90,000 words. I love my job and wouldn't trade it for anything else, but just at this moment, it feels like too much of a good thing. Think I'll take a break this evening and do some garden work, although it's pretty hot out there. 92 today, with high humidity. Showers are popping up around us--"seabreeze showers," they're called here--but if we get any rain at all, it'll be just a sprinkle.

Thinking ahead. Bill is plotting our trip to England next month. He has the maps spread out on the dining room table, and is making lists of all the places we need to visit. We'll be staying in the Lake District for a week, while I spend some time researching for the next two Beatrix Potter books. Then we're driving down to Woodstock and Oxford, where we'll do some background work on the next Robin Paige. We'll also spend a day in Chelmsford, where Marconi had his laboratory. There's probably a Marconi book in our future, although we haven't made a decision about that just yet. We'll also be visiting our dear friend Ruby Hild in Dedham for a couple of days. It'll be nice to get out of the Texas heat!

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7/28/2003 04:52:00 PM

Sunday, July 27, 2003  
Beans and more beans. The mesquite trees in the yard are about their annual reproductive business, dropping ripe bean pods into the grass. Bill and I spent a pleasant half-hour this morning, raking them up as a necessary prelude to mowing the grass. The nocturnal creatures--bunnies, possums, and coons--obviously love these beans. The evidence: half-gnawed beans and piles of seeds. There are plenty of green ones left on the trees. If I had time, I'd experiment with making some mesquite wine or mesquite cornbread. Or I might try concocting a variety of traditional mesquite medicinals. But I'm reading the copy-edited manuscript of A Dilly of a Death (China's January book) this weekend, so I'll let the critters have them.

For you Northerners who've never seen a mesquite bean, here's a photo that includes mesquite leaves and the yellow mesquite blossom (against the vase), a green bean, a couple of ripe beans, and a vase that Bill made from a chunk of downed mesquite.

Routines. The writing life can be an uncertain affair, especially if you make your living free-lancing. But series novels create a fairly high degree of predictability in a writer's life, as long as the contracts hold out. Take China, for instance. The contract deadline is August 15, so I set a personal deadline of August 1, just in case I run into trouble. If I'm going to spend three months on the book (that's about par for my course), I need to get started on it by May 1, at the latest. My editor reads the book (along about November) and lets me know if I need to do anything more to it--usually not. The copy-editor reads it and sends it back to me around the end of July; I correct it and send it back (this takes another couple of days). The unbound galley pages arrive around the middle of October; I read them (another couple of days) and send them back. Books arrive the first week of January, and Bill and I break out the champagne. Multiply this process by three books a year (China, the Victorian mysteries, Beatrix Potter) and you have a fairly clear picture of the writing life, as it is lived in our household. This may sound boring to some people, but not to me. The older I get and the more uncertain and insecure the world seems around me, the more I value this kind of order in my life.

Reading Notes About routine, John Jerome writes this: "The same habits of dailiness that you thought would drive you nuts when you were younger are now sprinkled with delights. You begin to learn that there's nothing wrong with a routinized life so long as you're not bored. It is an enormously productive way to live--and living a productive life, and using yourself well, are among the greatest pleasures available."--John Jerome, On Turning Sixty-Five, p. 209.

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7/27/2003 09:35:00 AM

Friday, July 25, 2003  

Here's a pretty sight, greeting me as I get out of the car and walk down the brick path to the house. Portulaca, so brightly, brilliantly fuschia that it almost hurts my eyes. The pot is settled in a 14" rusted iron pipe that Bill rescued from a junk pile. Garden art, a pipe-dream.

Book signings. If you've ordered a book from Hill Country Bookstore and are waiting for me to personalize it, I did that last night. The bookstore's email got trapped in my junk mail filter (gosh, that seems to happen a lot lately), and I didn't know there were books waiting until Holly called and asked when I was coming to sign. Coming, that is, to Georgetown, which is an hour's round trip. Bill went with me, and we went out to dinner at our favorite little Szechuan place. At the bookstore, I was so pleased to see how many copies of Unthymely Death were stacked up for signature! The entire first printing has been shipped, and they're going back to print for a second.

Bones. Just about done. Bill finished his reading of the book yesterday, and I finished mine today. I have one more chapter to write, and a small piece to fix, and the end material (recipes, notes, etc.) to finish. Then I'll let it sit while I spend a couple of days reading the copy-edited manuscript of A Dilly of A Death, the January book. I'm sure there will be some connections to be made between the two books--nice that I have both manuscripts right here in front of me and can work from one to the other. That's the payback for staying so far ahead of the publication schedule.

Nice news from my friend PJ, who writes to tell me that Indigo Dying has been listed by the Quality Paperback Book Club. These subrights deals (that's what they're called) are handled by the publisher, and I almost never know about them unless somebody just happens to mention one of them to me. I was pleased; QPBC is a good club, and Indigo is in the best company.

Reading notes. "Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words."--Mark Twain

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7/25/2003 07:27:00 PM

Wednesday, July 23, 2003  
Rain! A cold front (well, almost-cool front) slid down from the north today and brought us 1.25" of rain, in the quiet kind of rainstorm that most people in this country think is normal. Just hard rain and some lightning and thunder, but no tornado warnings. We don't often have rain around here without lots of theatrics. But today was different, and wonderful, a sight for sore eyes.

Bones. When we get lightning, I unplug my computers, not wanting the electronics to get fried. So I was down for almost two hours today, and then spent another half-hour on the phone with an editor. And then I got bogged down in a muddy patch in the book, requiring serious rewriting. All of which means that I didn't get as much done as I hoped. Maybe two more days to finish the rewrite, and then I need to write the last chapter, and the final Resources section. By the time that's done, the copy-edited manuscript for A Dilly of a Death (the January 2004 China Bayles book) will be here (my editor tells me), and I'll need to spend a couple of long days on that. Busy busy.

Grounded. "I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth." Thich Nhat Hahn--Peace at Every Step. (See entry for July 20, 21)

I thought of this passage again this morning , while I was working on the fence (my outdoor ritual labor these days: an hour's work on the fence before I sit down to the book), and had a minor epiphany. When you live and work outdoors, it behooves you not only to walk on the earth, but to pay attention to where you put your feet. I experienced this enlightenment after having stepped this morning on a prickly pear cactus and a fire ant mound, and narrowly avoided a bull snake.

But if I'd had my eyes on the ground exclusively, I would have missed the glorious sight of a painted bunting singing in the mesquite tree. If you've never seen one, it's worth your while to click on the link--gorgeous photo, splendid bird.

Reading Notes. "Place is one kind of place. Another field is the work we do, our calling, our path in life."--Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, p. 144

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7/23/2003 06:57:00 PM

Tuesday, July 22, 2003  
Bones. I get a little obsessive when I come down to the last weeks of work on a book, and I'm feeling that way about Dead Man's Bones right now. For me, it's really a matter of focus. There's a lot going on in the book, and a lot of details to be pulled together. If I get away from the writing, or if I let something intervene (like the work I ought to be doing for Story Circle), I'm afraid I'll be distracted and forget something. It helps to have Bill reading the book, as he is right now, since he reads carefully, makes good notes, remembers details, and just loves to find something he can fix. I couldn't ask for a better editor. Anyway, today I worked through about 75 pages. Another couple of days like this one, and I'll be ready to write the last chapter. Whew.

Fiber stuff. I'm not reading anything remotely like a mystery right now, for fear of distracting myself. But I'm knitting like crazy, after hours. I can somehow untangle plot issues easier when I have yarn and needles in my hands. Here's a photo of the last three items: a couple of hats (using up odd bits of skeins) and a pair of cotton yarn booties for new granddaughter Rebecca. No idea who will get the hats--they'll go in the Christmas grab bag, I guess. The hats are somehow not the point, nor Rebecca's booties. The point is the book, which is all knitted up with all this knitting, fingers making booties, fingers (brain, too, I hope) making a book.

Reading Notes. More on groundedness, for Robert in Texas, with thanks for his poem. "Those sentences are good and well discharged which are like so many little resiliencies from the spring floor of our life--a distinct fruit and kernel itself, springing from terra firma. Let there be as many distinct plants as the soil and the light can sustain. Take as many bounds in a day as possible. Sentences uttered with your back to the wall." Henry David Thoreau

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7/22/2003 05:13:00 PM

Monday, July 21, 2003  
Yesterday's reading note was a quotation from Peace at Every Step, by Thich Nhat Hahn: "People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth." It reminded Robert (who replies occasionally to posts in this log) of the biblical passage that says, "take off your shoes you are walking on holy ground."

"For many years (Robert says) I took that to mean take off your
foot gear as a sign of respect. I have since rethought that idea and it
seems to me that the meaning is rather: take off your foot gear so that
there is nothing between you and the earth, so that you can be grounded."

Robert quotes the theologian Paul Tillich: "So long as there is even a small patch of earth where a seed can sprout take root and grow, we too can grow our own roots, stand firm and know that we are indeed grounded in the ground of being."

Thanks, Robert. This exchange sent me off on my morning walk to the lake with something to think about. Walking to the lake, walking on earth, the real miracle. Along the way, noting a Monarch on a milkweed, the geese coming up from the lake for their morning corn, the sheen of dew on a thistle. And, yes, best of all, a shy yellow-billed cuckoo in the elm tree by the stone wall, allowing me to glimpse him before he took flight. All miracles, each in its own way, grounding me in what is real, what is important.

Grounded in Bones today. I've untangled the mystery, or most of it, and yesterday started working back through the book from the beginning. Bill is reading too, on his computer, bringing me lists of things he's found that need to be fixed, cleaned up, polished, smoothed--all the last-minute things a good editor can help with. When I quit to feed the dogs and start dinner, I was a third of the way through the book. Next week should see this project just about wrapped up.

Reading Notes.
'Tis a gift to be simple,
'Tis a gift to be free,
'Tis a gift to come down
Where you ought to be.
And when you find yourself
in the place just right
'Twill be in the valley
of love and delight.

--Shaker hymn

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7/21/2003 06:39:00 PM

Sunday, July 20, 2003  
Hot hot hot. When we go to town (that would be Bertram, pop. 1100) to pick up the mail, we hear the question everywhere: "Hot 'nough for ya?" Heck yes. 97 today, and muggy. Summer in Texas. I talked to son Bob, who lives in Reno, where it is just as hot and humid. He says their humidity is being pumped northward out of Claudette, who is now stalled somewhere in Arizona. Amazing connections.

Out of Africa. The haze in our air, however, is not humidity, says the TV weather woman. It is Sahara sand. Yep. Sand, blown from the Sahara Desert all the way across the Atlantic to Texas. The first sand cloud whipped in on Claudette's coattail. The second cloud, 1000 miles long and 500 miles wide, arrived a couple of days later. It is a very small world. The Houston Chronicle has details.

Pretty but poisonous. The Barbados--our six African hair sheep--have done such a good job mowing their pasture that we've invited them to mow a neighboring pasture. (That's their job. Mowing the grass.) But before we could let them in, we had to cut the lantana (Lantana horrida). This is a pretty bush, growing wild and quite large, maybe four feet by four feet. But it's also highly toxic, and if the sheep browse on it, it might kill them, especially the lambs. Here's a photo:

Lantana is often sold as a landscape plant, since deer won't eat it--they're too smart for that. But some cultivars have been known to poison dogs that nibble on it. And lantana isn't the only poisonous landscape plant you might have in your back yard. Azaleas, clematis, oleander, wisteria, and more--for a full list, check out this Animal Planet site. It pays to know what's growing around you.

Reading Notes.
"People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth." Thich Nhat Hahn--Peace at Every Step

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7/20/2003 07:50:00 PM

Friday, July 18, 2003  
Queen of the blues. When I went out to the garden just now, the air was filled with a flutter of butterfly wings--Queens, flocking to enjoy the blue mistflower. There's quite a lot of this flower in my garden, simply because I can't bear to weed it out. Each spring, when I see the baby plants pushing sturdily up through the mulch (it's a perennial that spreads by roots as well as seeds), I begin thinking about the Queens and anticipating their summer pleasures, and mine.

My photo does justice (sort of) to the Queen (a smaller version of the Monarch), but hardly to the mistflower. Here's another, better photo, from the Kerrville (TX) Native Plant Society. "Invasive," one plant authority says. "May be a noxious weed," sniffs another. Invasive, yes. Noxious? Don't tell the Queens!

Interviews One of the interesting things about being a writer is that occasionally other writers want to write about you. In the past couple of weeks, I've had two interviews: a face-to-face with Carolyn Banks, who is writing an article about Bill and me and our work as a writing team; the other via phone and email with Joan Leotta, who is writing an article for the Herb Quarterly--an article which will also feature my gardens. Some interviewers just have the gift, and Joan and Carolyn are among them. Thanks, gals, for making it fun!

Bones What with one thing and another--the Story Circle board meeting, Hurricane Claudette's tail-end thunderstorms, the snake in the toidy, and the HQ interview--work on Bones has been slow this week. I'm at the point now where all the plot strands have to get linked together and the loose ends tied up in a nice, neat bundle. Well, most of them. A couple of unfinished narrative threads will still be dangling, to be continued in later books. Nothing like the cliffhanger that ended Love Lies Bleeding (when it wasn't clear whether McQuaid would still be around in the following book), but loose ends nevertheless. That's what I like about writing a series: the characters go on living from one book into the next, and even between books, when the reader isn't looking.

Reading notes. "How to write a book proposal: imagine that the book-to-be gets onto the Times best-seller list, then write the two-line summary that would run with its listing. Before you write the proposal, write--in twenty-five words or less--what the book is and why it's on the list. I've never tried it, but it makes sense to me.

It would never have occurred to me, of course, if I weren't at least subconsciously entertaining the foolish notion of an appearance on that list someday by something I wrote."--
John Jerome, The Writing Trade: A Year in the Life of a Writer, p. 136

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7/18/2003 07:44:00 PM

Wednesday, July 16, 2003  
Claudette, here and gone, leaving a mess in Galveston and other Texas coastal cities. The closest serious rain was in San Antonio. But we did get maybe a quarter-inch this afternoon, with enough lightning to force me to turn the computers off and read for part of the afternoon, instead of working on Bones. Up to 84,000 words and trying to figure out how to fit everything else in without going over my word limit.

Trumpets My beloved Missouri grandmother had trumpet vines growing on the fence and the chicken house, and I've always loved them. Mine is planted on a limestone ledge and has to struggle a bit, which is probably good for it. In this climate, if it didn't have a challenge it would no doubt blanket the entire place in nothing flat. The hummingbirds adore the orange flowers.

Snakes alive. We held our quarterly Story Circle board meeting on Monday night in Austin. My friend Paula, who is on the board, lives in East Texas, so she drove back here with me to spend the night in our guest house.

Er, ah...not quite. After I said goodnight to her, Paula went into the bathroom and discovered a substantial snake enjoying a long, soaking bath in the john. Yikes! Paula took appropriate precautions. She closed the toidy lid and retreated to her car, where she spent the night. The next morning, apprised of the situation, brave Bill went to fish the snake out of the toilet, only to find that the creature had retreated ALL the way down.

That was yesterday. Today, flushing availed. We have no idea where the snake went, but down is a pretty good guess. Ah, well. There are probably more where he came from, which is why it is highly unlikely that Paula will ever be completely comfortable in our guest house. (Thanks, Paula, for being such a good sport!)

Reading notes, for Paula, a poem by Emily Dickinson.

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him,--did you not,
His notice sudden is.

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn.
Yet when a child, and barefoot,
I more than once, at morn,

Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
Unbraiding in the sun,--
When, stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled, and was gone.

Several of nature's people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

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7/16/2003 07:20:00 PM

Sunday, July 13, 2003  
Hurricane watch cancelled, at least for our area. Looks like Claudette will make landfall at Brownsville or south, in Mexico, so we won't get any rain. Glad that the Texas coast was spared (for now--it'll happen someday), sad to miss out on some much needed rain. Today, I'm watering the gardens on the east side of the house. I usually stop watering about the middle of July, but the late-spring rains made everything pretty green, and I thought I'd keep it that way just a little longer. There's about eight inches of mulch on those gardens, so the soil stays fairly cool, and that counts for a lot.

Claudette update, about 4 hours after the above paragraph was written. Guess I can't count Claudette out. The latest forecast shifts landfall slightly to the north, and increases the storm strength. That's the thing about hurricanes: it's never over until it's over. Looks like this one will go pretty close to Lebh Shomea, where I made a retreat earlier this summer. I know they're watching the weather, though--they have an Internet line and there's a tracking chart in the library.

Stay. While Bill has been gone (back tomorrow, maybe), I've done a little necessary fence mending. Last year, we let our neighbors put their horses in the north pasture. The horses were homesick (truly) and had a habit of leaning against the barb-wire fence in various places, gazing longingly at their home pasture. When they got tired of gazing, they put their heads through the fence and grazed the greener grass (isn't it always?)

This spring, we put six Barbado sheep (2 ewes, 3 lambs, and a gelded ram) into that pasture. We named them U-1, U-2, Lambchop, Lambie Pie, Mutton, and Dolly. U-2 turned out to be escape artist, and it didn't take her long to spy out the loose places in the fence (what would you expect from a ewe named U-2?). The answer: fence stays. These are diabolical coils of heavy wire that you twist down over the barb-wire fence strands. Presto, the fence is tight and ewe-proof.

Well, not quite presto. Over the past five days, I've spent an hour every morning and evening (cooler then) putting in stays. For the moment, U-2 has been foiled, but I'm respectful of her talents. Of course, as I have mentioned to her several times, there's always the butcher. That's U-2 out in front, looking for a hole in the fence.

I view U-2's wanderlust philosophically, though. She's not so different from the rest of us, always looking for someplace greener, cleaner, sweeter. Staying put isn't an easy thing for us to do, since most of our cultural messages urge us to move on, start over again, forget our past, leave our mistakes behind. What was that I heard from an administration spokesman last week? "We need to put all that behind us and move on." (Meaning the issue of exaggerated Iraqi threat and who is responsible for the deceptive statement that came out of Bush's mouth in his SOU speech.) Leave it behind and move on--wrong. Sometimes we have to stay and account for our messes, take responsibility for what we've done. The buck stops here. Right, U-2?

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7/13/2003 09:34:00 AM

Thursday, July 10, 2003  
Hurricane watch. Claudette isn't a hurricane yet, but she bears watching. The current prediction is that she'll come in somewhere between Brownsville and Corpus Christi, and if that happens, we could get some serious rain. long about next Tuesday. I'm not banking on it, though. I've been watering today.

Bones. Not much forward motion. I wrote a scene in which China and McQuaid do a little light breaking-and-entering, reread it this morning and decided it would be more fun if it were China and Ruby. So I did that rewrite today--and yes, the scene has much more sparkle and vitality. I'm not sure what that says about Ruby as a character, or McQuaid, or about my ability to handle a male character. Oh, well. Whatever works. Anyway, I do like the scene better. It has a great deal more life and the pace is faster.

Yellowbells. I'd never seen this plant until I noticed it in my friend Judith's front yard. Hers is entirely yellow; mine is a different variety, with orange flowers. Tecoma elata is its "real" name--important, because there are other plants called "yellowbells." However, it's a plant for tropical and sub-tropical gardens--native to Florida, Mexico, and South America. This one has survived our below-freezing winter temps because it's in a sheltered space, and (coincidentally, not planned) about three feet from our septic tank, which probably heats the ground around it in the winter.

Reading notes "One learns a landscape finally not by knowing the name or identity of everything in it, but by perceiving the relationships in it.... The difference between the relationships and the elements is the same as that between written history and a catalog of events."--Barry Lopez, Crossing Open Ground, p. 64-65.

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7/10/2003 06:45:00 PM

Wednesday, July 09, 2003  
Book talk. Somebody emailed me recently to ask why I set Bloodroot in Mississippi instead of Pecan Springs. "I really enjoyed the book," she wrote, "but it was (to me) deeper and darker than the other China Bayles series. It really was kind of spooky."

Yes, it was deeper and darker, and the choice of setting was quite deliberate. For one thing, I'd been wanting to write a spooky China for a while, but it's hard to do that within the familiar, comfortable setting of Pecan Springs. In fact, it seems to me that one of the limiting factors of a series is the tone. If a series begins with a funny book, it's hard to get serious in later books; if it begins hard-boiled, it's hard to get cozy; and so on. As a writer, I don't like this limitation. I'd prefer to play with tone, if only because it gets a little wearisome for me (and surely for the reader!) to write the same sort of book over and over again. I liked the Old South/plantation setting of Bloodroot, and the historical layers of Choctaw and Civil War history. It's kind of hard to create anything like that in Pecan Springs!

For another thing, I wanted to write a kind of "stand-alone" book, one that was outside of the normal sequence of the series. And I deliberately left Ruby at home, so that China would have to confront the supernatural on her own. (Readers who don't like it when one of the ensemble is missing will be glad to know that Ruby is back in Indigo Dying.)

If all of this is inexplicable to you, I guess you'll just have to get Bloodroot and read it, and then you'll know what I'm talking about. Right? And many thanks to the lady who wrote to ask the question!

Texas Greeneyes (Berlandiera texana) are blooming now, along the path to the lake, where I take the dogs every morning. These cheerful yellow wildflowers are perennials, named for a French-Swiss physician who collected plants in Texas and northern Mexico in the early 1800s. Pretty, aren't they?

Reading notes. "Living in a world where the answers to questions can be so many and so varied is what gets me out of bed and into my boots every morning."--Sue Hubbel, A Country Year: Living the Questions.

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7/09/2003 05:21:00 PM

Tuesday, July 08, 2003  
Batching it. I had my week-plus getaway--the retreat to Lebh Shomea in early June--and now it's Bill's turn. He's gone to New Mexico to visit our friend Bob Goodfellow (hello, Bill and Bob!), and will be back early next week. I'm enjoying some uninterrupted writing time, and a good book or two. I'm reading Jill McGown's Plots and Errors just now. I like Brit mysteries, and McGown is wonderfully devious. Maybe too devious, this time--but we'll see how the plot works itself out. The book is constructed like a play, which is a really neat twist.

Cattails. We have a two-acre cattail marsh on our property, and the cattails are blooming. Yes, that's what those fat brown sausages are--flowers! Thousands of tiny brown flowers compressed into a compact mass along the stem. Our cattail marsh is full of red-wing blackbirds, and chickadees and cardinals sing their bright, clear songs, from the willows along the little creek.

--Ever eaten a cattail? Try these recipes for cattail pollen biscuits, scalloped cattails, and cattail root flour.
--The "Wal-Mart of the Swamp"?
--Or you can use your cattails to write on!

Reading notes. The more I listen to my soul, the more clearly I hear the truth of other people, of animals, birds, the universe. A unified field! One clear melody--like the song of a cardinal--sings out, and everything else fades away. --Marion Woodman, Bone: A Journal of Wisdom, Strength, and Healing. (I ran across this book when I was doing bibliographical research for Dead Man's Bones, and just had to have it. A stunning journal/memoir.)

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7/08/2003 06:45:00 PM

Monday, July 07, 2003  
Another July bloomer is this pretty little blue wild petunia (Ruellia humilis), found growing in the pasture, along the old stone fence under the elm tree. This family has a great many relatives, some of them, like the Desert Ruellia, adapted to drier conditions. Ours seems to like moist shade, and is (I have read) a larval host of the Texas Crescentspot Butterfly (Anthanassa texana). It was also a preferred food of our dear old gray gander, Papa Macho, who loved to nip the blue blossoms--to the point where I feared we'd lose all our wild petunias. But the petunias have persevered, in all their blue prettiness.

And speaking of blue, Marie Bloechle wrote to tell me about an interesting on-line National Geographic piece about indigo, called "We've Got the Blues: Humanity's Obsession with a Certain Color." The article describes the relative values of woad and indigo, and the switch to synthetic blue in 1897. And now (ta-da! fanfares and trumpets), there's bacterial blue, which holds the promise of blue roses, blue cotton (naturally), and (who knows?) blue people. You don't understand? Click on the link. Thanks, Marie, for the fascinating read.

Reading notes.
A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer's morn--
A flask of Dew--a Bee or two--
A Breeze--a caper in the trees--
And I'm a Rose!

Emily Dickinson

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7/07/2003 06:50:00 PM

Saturday, July 05, 2003  
Rain, by heaven! Everybody's back forty but ours got watered yesterday, but our turn came early this morning, and there's more on the way--I know, because our NOAA weather radio woke us at six a.m. to tell us to watch for flooding at low-water crossings. Since I was still in bed, and hardly in danger of being swept away by rising water, I was neither amused nor especially enlightened. However, NOAA is a necessary evil, and we keep the weather radio turned on most of the time, just in case. We also watch a couple of weather radar programs on the computer. It's always nteresting to see how the weather over MeadowKnoll is influenced by weather systems in the Gulf (in the summer) and to the north of us (in the winter). And it's very nice to have rain without a lot of sturm und drang, although somewhere, it is raining on somebody's holiday picnic.

What's in a name? This lovely annual wildflower (Pluchea purpurascens) has an unlovely common name: marsh fleabane. "Fleabane" is the folk name given to plants that were believed to keep fleas at bay--this one has a strong camphor odor, which is probably responsible for its reputation as an insect repellant. Relatives of this family (the Pluchea) have been used as stimulants, and this one is reputed to have been used in Mexico for making herb tea. I've moved some of the plants to the garden, where they do well, adding color in July and August, when everything else has fried to a crisp.

Reading notes. Although the term meditation has mystical and religious connotations for many people, it is a simple and plain phenomenon. Deliberate stillness and silence. As anyone who has done this knows, the quieted mind has many paths, many of them tedious and ordinary--and then sometimes unexpected. But meditation is always instructive, and there is ample testimony that a practice of meditation pursued over months and years brings some degree of self-understanding, serenity, focus, and self-confidence to the person who stays with it.--Gary Snyder, A Place in Space

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7/05/2003 09:19:00 AM

Wednesday, July 02, 2003  
Hot, hot, hot. We've settled into deep summer, with days in the 90s, nights in the 70s, and an abundance of humidity pumped up from the Gulf. The forecast suggests occasional showers, and if one of these baby thunderstorms settles down over the back forty, you might get a couple of inches--while your frustrated neighbor, bone-dry, watches over the fence.

I've settled into the routine of watering the garden, 30 minutes on, 30 minutes off (to give the well time to recharge). Our aquifer, the Trinity, doesn't have the oomph of some Texas aquifers. If we pull too much water, the pump shuts off, and we have to wait for 20 minutes for the water to pool around the bottom of our 400-foot well-shaft. So I'm careful, watchful, and try to match my use of water to the quifer's production. It's an interesting relationship, requiring me to think like an aquifer. Doesn't hurt me at all.

Daylilies dominate the garden now, and benefit from the aquifer's water. These orange beauties, the color of peach sherbet, are the "common" daylily--although of course there is nothing at all common about them.

These lovely plants have been used medicinally for centuries in the Orient, where they are employed to treat a variety of ailments, from urinary disorders to cancer. As a food, daylilies have been a favorite in the East and now in the West, where no summer salad dares call itself gourmet without a sprinkle of daylily petals. Personally, I'm lazy. I'll just look and enjoy, maybe even imagine I'm thinking like a daylily, or like the hummingbird that dips deep into the daylily's throat.

--the daylily as wild food and medicine
--a history of the daylily
--how to eat a daylily

Book notes. Inhabitory people sometimes say, "This piece of land is sacred"--or "all the land is sacred." This is an attitude that draws on awareness of the mystery of life and death, of taking life to live, of giving life back--not only to your own children but to the life of the whole land.--Gary Snyder, A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds. p. 185

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7/02/2003 07:31:00 PM

Tuesday, July 01, 2003  
Fiber stuff. As I said, I've been dyeing. Not enough for a fiber project, but just to try out some of the plants from the fields and garden, and a few things from the spice shelf. Here's a selection of sample skeins. The wool is some of my hand-spun, Corriedale plied with mohair.

Left to right, top: turmeric (an out-of-date jar on the spice shelf that I was going to throw out); coreopsis, from flowers I gathered in MeadowMarsh; marjoram (it was time to prune the blooming tops). Bottom left: coffee, from my morning coffee grounds. Bottom right: barberry, from the bushes in front of the porch. All of these were mordanted with alum. I ordered (on-line) some tin and chrome and want to see what those produce. The little white tags are supposed to help me remember what these are.

Random bits of back story, because people have asked. My parents were living in Maywood IL when I was born at the beginning of World War II, in a tiny garage house at the rear of a big brick house where the Van Tassles lived, on Fourth Avenue. Mrs. Van Tassle, my mother said, hoarded coffee in her basement--a serious breach of etiquette during those war years, when everything was rationed. I remember the sunlight in that little house, the way it fell across my crib and trickled down the wall like dusty honey. I remember my Aunt Pearl, unimaginably fashionable with her perfume and lipstick and high heels and Andrews-Sisters hair. She worked at Marshall Fields in Chicago and (to my child's mind) far outshone my plainer, quieter mother. My father, who at 37 was too old for military service, worked in a defense plant. My brother John was younger than I by 18 months, but to me he always seemed much younger, perhaps because I learned to tie my shoes first and hence felt superior in a sisterly sort of way, or perhaps because I was just by nature bossy (more likely the case). This was in the days when children were . . . just children, and parents (especially the ones who were struggling to make a living) didn't have time to pay much attention to them. I grew up that way, without a lot of attention, not because I wasn't loved, but because my parents were simply preoccupied with adult business, not all of it very happy. When I see kids now, the center of their parents' lives, I feel ambivalent. Modern children have won something, but they've lost something, too: the ability to be just kids, on their own in a corner of the back yard, without their parents looking on. (To be continued....)

Book notes. Narratives are one sort of trace that we leave in the world.--Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild

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7/01/2003 07:10:00 PM


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