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, December 30, 2003  
Now it's badgers. One of the wonderful things about writing is that you never know where it's going to take you. Beatrix 1 (The Tale of Hill Top Farm, out next October) has an owl named Galileo Newton Owl, a ferret named Fritz, a Manx named Max, and a choir of Beatrix's cuddly little animals (Mrs. Tiggywinkle, Tom Thumb the mouse, etc). Beatrix 2 (currently titled The Tale of Holly How) adds a badger named Bosworth and a Herdwick ewe named Brambleberry. Having never been intimately acquainted with a badger, I have embarked on some important badger research. I've found a couple of good websites: this one has a wonderful photo; this one will take you to several other good sites. All you ever wanted to know about badgers. As a frustrated reviewer who didn't like what he called my "psychobabble" in Witches' Bane (the second of the China Bayles mysteries), "Who knows what's next?" I don't!

Badgers may be still a mystery, but geese I know. Well, I know the geese I live with, anyway--real ones, not imaginary. Three gray Toulouse geese (Papa Macho, Mama Superior, and Lonesome), two large white Embdens (Moby Gander and Moby Goose). Here they are, chowing down on their breakfast corn, casting long shadows in the early morning sun.

There's not much lake left, though, for the geese to swim in. Normally 17 acres, it's shrunk to a couple of acres or less, a large muddy puddle rimmed with silt, the widening shore ribboned with tracks of geese, coyotes, dogs, buzzards, herons. The normal flotilla of ducks and cormorants has gone elsewhere to swim and fish. In 2003, we got only about 12" of rain, a whole foot shy of our normal 24" annual rainfall. (My son, who lives in Reno, points out that they get only 7.5" of rain a year at their house. It's all relative, I tell him.)

Blogging connects. I got an email some time ago from a writer named Lorianne Schaub, who lives in New Hampshire, has a website where she posts semi-monthly nature columns, and was contemplating becoming a blogger. Yesterday, she wrote to say that she'd taken the leap. In between, we've had several interesting conversations about what web-logging does to a writer, how it changes the way you feel about putting words on the page, what the difference is between spontaneous, raw, rough-hewn posts (like the ones I fling into cyberspace via this log), and the more thoughtful, layered, stylized writing we do when we have longer to think about it. If you'd like to see both kinds of of Lorianne's writing, you can go to her blog. Once you're there, you can click on "Lorianne" and go to her website. Or you can just click here. Good luck, Lorianne, from one blogger to another. May your journey take you where you want to go.

I love the Internet, with its infinite connections, linking us together, putting us in touch with people of like minds, even surprising us, opening our eyes, stretching our minds. We have to be the better for this, don't you think? We just have to.

Last night, we watched the eighth episode of Ken Burns's American Stories. (Or rather I watched it. Bill had a nap in his favorite chair.) One of the pieces (the best, I thought) was about Ethel Waxham Love, a fascinating woman who married a rancher and built a life in the wilderness of Montana at the turn of the century. There's some material about her life on the PBS site If you get a chance, see it. It's worth the investment of your time.

Reading notes.

I know a land where the gray hills lie
Eternally still, under the sky,
Where all the might of suns and moons
That pass in the quiet of nights and noons
Leave never a sign of the flight of time
On the long sublime horizon line.

--Ethel Waxham

12/30/2003 06:55:00 PM

Sunday, December 28, 2003  
Back to four-part harmony! (see below for a full explanation). Tom Nash, our neighbor across the lake, phoned to say that there was a black lamb hanging out in the thicket behind another neighbor's corral. Bill and I filled a coffee can with rocks (rocks shake LOUDER than corn) and drove over--yep, it was the missing Lamb Chop. Bill drove back home to unlock the gate, and Lamb Chop followed me (and my can of loud rocks) around the lake until she got within sight of her pasture--then she broke into a run. There was mutual glee when the others saw her, lots of nosing and smelling and licking and frolicking. Happy days are here again.

12/28/2003 04:08:00 PM

Our quartet of Barbado sheep is now a trio. We think the culprits are dogs, running in a pack. We found Mutton, the wether, in a corner of one pasture, safe but scared witless. Ewe Too and Dolly were in the other pasture, also traumatized, but uninjured. Lamb Chop is gone. We probably won't find the carcass until the buzzards get wind of it and show us the way. It rained briefly about 3 a.m. when a cold front came through, wetting the ground just enough so that the predator left a paw print on the narrow trail that the sheep have created as they walk along the fence. Here's a photo.

The print is large for a dog, 3" x 3" (which makes it about 25% larger than our labs). The green book you can see in the photo has a ruler along the edge as an easy reference for scale. It's Olaus Murie's A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, a copy that belonged to Bill's brother, who was a park ranger in Alaska when he died some 15 years ago. Looking at the drawing of mountain lion tracks in the field guide, I can see that it's also possible that the print is that of a mountain lion, with its claws showing because it was running flat out. We share this place with mountain lions, certainly; a neighbor a couple of miles away shot one from his porch last year, and a large female was hit by a truck on the highway two years ago.

But more likely dogs, Bill says, and I agree. Penning the sheep at night isn't an option for us, so I suppose we have to expect to lose some. But I despise the careless, ignorant jerks around here who let their dogs run loose at night--the same jerks who start fires on Red Flag days and use bulldozers to knock down trees and backhoes to change the natural drainage. They're far more dangerous, in many more ways, than the mountain lions.

Happier thoughts. We spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in Houston with Bill's mother, who has an apartment in an independent/assisted-living facility. It's nice to see her settled and safe. Also saw some friends, and enjoyed a pleasant, comfortable drive there and back (about four hours each way), talking, listening to the radio, and knitting. Well, I was knitting. Bill was driving. Santa was very good to us this year. I got a new purple martin residence--a dozen plastic gourds and a jim-dandy tower that I can raise and lower all by myself. Bill got the pressure washer he's been coveting for months. He promises not to use it to wash the dogs.

And here is a photo of the scarf that Peggy (our web wizard) knitted for me. Aren't the colors fabulous? Peggy is amazing. She manages a husband and three kids, directs Story Circle, and does all our Mystery Partners web stuff. She also knits--and reads more than anyone I know. Thanks for the scarf, Peggy. It goes with everything!

Last call for the cheaper early registration fee for Story Circle's second national women's memoir conference, in Austin Feb. 6-8. Susan Hanson and I are doing one of the program sessions together; it's called "Voices from the Natural World," and focuses on writing about our lives in the context of the landscapes in which we live. The conference will be unique and wonderful, and Austin is always a terrific place to be in early February, with daffodils in bloom and maybe even the redbuds. I hope you can make it!

Reading notes. When we enter the landscape to learn something, we are obligated, I think, to pay attention rather than constantly to pose questions. To approach the land as we would a person, by opening an intelligent conversation. And to stay in one place, to make of that one, long observation a fully dilated experience. We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more than we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language. Barry Lopez, The Rediscovery of North America.

12/28/2003 12:49:00 PM

Tuesday, December 23, 2003  
"This is likely to get a bit Western," the vet said when he stepped into the sheep pen this morning, to give our quartet of Barbados their annual worming and round of shots.

It did. He wrestled three of the four into submission, but the fourth--Dolly, always the skittish one--cleared a five-foot gate from a standing start. Up, up, and away. Far away. Dr. Tom got out his lariat (how could you graduate from Texas A&M vet school without a degree in roping?) and almost managed to drop a loop over her head, but she stepped neatly out of it, and went on with her business.

"Not my fault," I tell her, "if you get worms." I ask Dr. Tom if it's unusual for a Barbado to fly. "Nope," he says. He's a man of few words.

Dolly is named for the Texas rancher lady who told us that Barbados were a good choice for grass-mowing. I saw Dolly (the rancher lady) at the gas station the other day, filling up her big old white Texas pickup truck, and told her that her Barbado namesake was the most skittish of the four. "Good for her," she said approvingly. "Don't trust nobody, that's my rule. Hers too, sounds like." Yep.

Shadow. Others of our animals have stricter rules of conduct. Here is the cat, making sure that the dogs don't get out of line.

No writing today. At least, not what you might call writing--as in putting words on paper. But I did a lot of thinking about badgers. The book (this is the second in the Beatrix series) will be called The Tale of Holly How Farm. And yes, there is a badger in it. A badger named Bosworth, who lives in The Brockery, the oldest badger sett in Between-the-Lakes (located just a stone's throw from Beatrix's farm). Bosworth is responsible for maintaining the Brockery Badger History, which traces his badger lineage back for generations, back to the time when Victoria came to the throne. I may be carrying this too far. On the other hand, maybe not. Maybe it should go back to the time of Queen Elizabeth.

Reading Notes. I never had much patience with women who said, "Well, I can't work this week or next week or the week after, but maybe I'll work in six months' time or maybe in a year's time." I found one had to do some work every day, even at midnight, because either you're a professional or not."--Barbara Hepworth.

12/23/2003 06:27:00 PM

Monday, December 22, 2003  
I often think that you have to live in a place for a long while--years, a decade, two--before you can fully see and feel the changing seasons. Maybe this isn't true if you live in the mountains, where there's a certain dramatic flourish when one season enters and another exits, where you know for certain that winter has come, or spring. Here, today is the first day of winter, but the thermometer topped 72 this afternoon, and I left my sweater behind when we walked the big loop around the two middle meadows after lunch.

But it's definitely winter here in the Hill Country. The grass is frost-bleached, the color of old ivory, and the the morning sky was full of racing gray clouds with a chilly look to them. The pecans have lost their leaves, and the elms. The woods are full of robins and meadow larks are churring in the fields. The sky is full of . . . yep, those are buzzards, that's what they are. Definitely buzzards. A large flock has taken up residence in the meadow to the south, and I counted three dozen roosting on the dead tree in the middle of the lake this morning and feeding along the shore. No water birds yet--unless we get some rain, there won't be any water when they do come south.

Here's Bill, trailed by one of the dogs and five geese, eager for their morning handout of corn. Another sign of winter, not so subtle: Bill is wearing a coat.

Good work today, winding up Blenheim, just short of 86,000 words. Bill brought in his author's note on a disk and pasted it into the big computer file; I added mine and polished his. Then we went over his flags (about a gazillion of them), cleaned everything up, and declared the book finished. Since he reminded me that it's not due in New York until January 1, and since everybody there has closed up shop and gone home for the holiday, there's no point in sending it until after Christmas. But it's done, and I can muddle on with Beatrix with a happy heart.

Reading Notes. Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.-- E.L. Doctorow [Yes, and when you get where you're going and turn your lights off, you have no idea where you've been. All that's left is you and the car. The road is a total mystery.]

12/22/2003 07:00:00 PM

Saturday, December 20, 2003  
Lovely December weather, mornings in the thirties, afternoons in the sixties, crisp and clear. But we need rain, badly, badly. The 17-acre lake has shrunk down to less than an acre. Long Pool (the deepest, darkest pool on Pecan Creek) is now shallow enough for the great blue heron to fish. We startled it this morning, out for our walk with the dogs. It lifted up on slow, unhurried wings, with an irritated awk!, a huge bird that always makes me think of flying dinosaurs.

Others on the wing: the robins are down from up north, and a few waxwings. The late-fall bluebirds are passing through; another cold front will carry them farther south. I heard a meadow lark, another winter visitor, but haven't seen one yet. We cleaned out the bird nest boxes, marveling at the artistry of the nests. One, a box occupied by a titmouse mom and chicks, was constructed of white goat hair; another was a double-decker, one wren nest built on top of another. Today, I put two feeders out: one finch feeder (no takers yet), the other a general feeder that immediately attracted chickadees, a couple of cardinals, a flock of sparrows (including an early Harris sparrow), and several redwing blackbirds. The blackbirds are noisy and aggressive, but I love their melodic song in the spring--makes me think of the Illinois prairie where I grew up. I'm a non-discriminating bird person. If it flies and sings, I admire it--except, of course, for those bully-boy sparrows that try to sneak into the martin house.

Writing today. Well, sort of. Actually, I'm still in the planning, note-taking, organizing, Internet-researching phase. Specifically, this afternoon, badgers. I'll leave you to imagine why. The mail brought the cover of The Tale of Hill Top Farm, which I will share as soon as Peggy (my webwitch) scans it in for me (my scanner talks to the wrong computer--don't ask why). I like it, although I'm not wild about it. They pictured the animals, which is definitely a plus: Galileo Newton Owl, Fritz the Ferret, and one of the bad rats.

Knitting tonight, so I'd better get to it.

Reading note. Knit on, with confidence and hope, through all crises.--Elizabeth Zimmerman

12/20/2003 06:04:00 PM

Thursday, December 18, 2003  
Flying While Under the Influence. Robert, from North Texas, writes this, in response to my photo of pyracanthus.
Whenever the pyracanthus is mentioned I get a picture of robins crashing
into the windows. The library of my undergraduate school had pyracnthus
all over the walls. Late one fall, a week or two after the first hard
freeze, the robins began crashing into the windows of the library, and we
noticed that they were not flying any too straight either. One of our bird watching friends determined that after the berries had
frozen, they had fermented and we had a bunch of birds FWI (flying while
under the influence)
That brought a smile. Thanks, Robert. A happy holiday to you and yours, too.

Knitting. This pair of socks went into one of the Christmas packages (won't say which one, in case one of the recipients is reading this--you'll just have to wait until Dec. 25).

Wish I could remember where I got this yarn--it's superwash merino, and very nice to work with. A good body without being too stiff. (Kids: I have enough for another pair, so if you didn't get these under your tree, maybe the birthday fairy will bring them.)

Writing. Not quite done with Blenheim (Bill's still working on his author's note), but I'm pushing on to the second Beatrix Potter book, which now has a name: The Tale of Holly How Farm (a "how" is a "hill"). I now have a cast of characters, which will lead shortly (I trust) to a plot--actually, to several plots. And I know where the book is going to begin, and end. Beyond that, it's still a big muddle, but I prefer early muddles to too much clarity too soon.

But the real fun of the past couple of days began with a phone conversation on Saturday with Linda Lear, Beatrix's biographer. When Bill and I were in England in September, we spent quite a few hours at the Kendal Library reading newspapers from 1903-1908. One of the things we found was the obituary of the man who owned Hill Top Farm prior to Beatrix's purchase; the farm had been in the Preston family since at least 1855 (which I confirmed with an on-line search of the 1855 census). I also found a newspaper notice of the farm sale, describing the livestock that was sold off after the owner's death. And just as interesting: a long description of a flower show, sports, and dog trial event that was held at the farm in September, 1905. It was fun to be able to discuss this information with Linda, who had some of it already. Makes me feel like a real researcher, instead of somebody who has the luxury of digging out just enough factual material to support her fictions. I don't envy biographers: they have to dig up everything.

Speaking of biography, did you see the PBS three-part piece on Dickens last night? I enjoyed it very much, although I got a little tired of Peter Ackroyd's psychologizing. Dickens's problems didn't all stem from that short stint in the blacking factory. Also recommended: Claire Tomalin's biography of Ellen Ternan: Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens.

Reading note. You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair--the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.--Steven King, On Writing

12/18/2003 04:18:00 PM

Tuesday, December 16, 2003  
Bill says that Christmas always comes at the wrong time of year, and he's right. Of course, what he means by that is that it's cool enough for outdoor work in December; what I mean is that whenever Christmas comes, it would be the wrong time of year. Today was package wrapping, boxing, and mailing day, ALL DAY, and I'm feeling moderately grinchy about this. I did get the outdoor lights up, and our small tree (yes, it's artificial, the same tree we've been using for over a decade), and the lights over the fireplace. So we do look Christmassy. Maybe the feeling will follow. The pyracanthus is in a celebratory mood, though, bright and pretty. Here it is, before the birds get it. The waxwings aren't here yet, though--they're the ones who really love it.

I haven't been blogging because I've been 1) reading the copy-edited mss of the first Beatrix book and 2) writing thank-yous for the quilt. The mss took quite a long time, for various reasons: for one thing, I decided to do a style sheet for the dialect words; for another . . . well, there were just a lot of little things the copy-editor didn't catch. Ack. My son Michael is doing the bible for the book (I think I told you that); as he's worked through, he picked up quite a few things the copy-editor missed. With all three of us working on it, I think we've got it mostly cleaned up.

Had a talk with my editor this morning (yes, we actually talked on the telephone, that strange gadget that sits on my desk and almost never gets used). Plans for the book are moving along. The cover art has been approved and we have permission to use some of Beatrix's little pencil animals for chapter motifs and line art. The book is set for early October 04 publication, with Book 2 appearing in July 05 (along with the paperback of the first book). We talked about endorsements (who to ask, who should do the asking) and the map art, which I thought was being done in-house. Turns out, though, that the map has fallen through the cracks (you know what that means, I'm sure), which gave me the perfect chance to say I'd take care of it. So I quick-as-a-flash emailed Peggy Turchette, who did the terrific map of Meadow Knoll for the Herb Quarterly Magazine, and she's already said yes! Tomorrow, I'm going to dig out all my Beatrix research material (assuming I can find it) and reorganize it. That should put me on top of everything--right? Well, half-way to the top, anyway.

Oh, yes, the sheep. The vet was scheduled to come out this morning and "drench" them (treat them for parasites) and give them assorted shots. I got them penned up--with some difficulty: Lamb Chop wasn't very cooperative--and waited for nearly an hour, but he didn't show. A surgical emergency, it turned out. So we've rescheduled for next week. I imagine that the life of a country vet is much more chaotic than mine.

Reading notes. A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.--Virginia Woolf (It would help if she didn't celebrate Christmas.)

12/16/2003 06:45:00 PM

Thursday, December 11, 2003  
Sunsets. Tonight's sunset was spectacular. Bill took this from the edge of the south meadow. The darker, streaking clouds are fast-moving, high-level clouds laden with Pacific moisture, blowing in from the southwest, heralding (we hope) the possibility of rain tomorrow night. But in the meantime, this sunset, which is sign enough of hope.

Rattling along at top speed, finishing and polishing and yes, adding words, 2200 of them today. Inserted a new piece of scene (at Bill's request), added an entirely new scene (chapter length--my idea), and recast the last chapter substantially. I'm not totally pleased with the ending, but it'll come. I love working from multiple points of view. The events of the novel always look different when you see them first from one character's viewpoint and then from another: this deepens the mystery, opens the potential for character conflict, strengthens the tension, and makes the whole thing much more complex. I love China's voice and I'm glad (well, mostly, except when I'm not) that I opted for first-person with that series. But MPOV is so much more satisfying to me as a writer than FPPOV.

Anyway, today was a good writing day, topped off by a nice conversation with Son #2, Michael, in Juneau, who is creating a bible for the Beatrix Potter series for me. A bible? You don't know about series bibles? When I signed my first contract as Carolyn Keene, back in my Nancy Drew days in the mid '80s, the editor sent me a bible: all I needed to know about Nancy and her gang to keep my Nancy Drew in line with all the Nancys in all the other Carolyn Keene books. The first one I wrote was called, White Water Terror, and yes, to my amazement, it is still available on Amazon. So if you hurry (there are only 17 used ones), you can buy my very first Nancy Drew, and several are only 50 cents plus shipping. What a kick!

But how did I get there? Oh, yes, the bible. A series bible is a list of all the characters, settings, major events, even possessions (like Nancy's blue roadster and China's blue Datsun). Its raison d'etre is to keep the writer straight, so that she doesn't inadvertently give a guy blue eyes in one book and brown eyes in the next. For the Nancys, of course, there were multiple writers, so the bible is even MORE important. Anyway, Michael is constructing the BP bible for me, and promises to have it ready by Christmas (right, Michael?) so I can have it as I prepare to get started to commence to begin the second book in the series. Still no plot on the horizon, but surely by next week something will emerge. Sheep-stealing, maybe?

I was going to write more about fires, but this is pretty long already and I have thank you notes to work on tonight (see the quilt story, below). So I'll just add the Reading Note and call it quits. Fires later.

Reading Notes, a recollection prompted by the vision of tonight's sunset: What we need, all of us who go on two legs, is to reimagine our place in creation. We need to enlarge our conscience so as to bear, moment by moment, a regard for the integrity and bounty of the earth. There can be no sanctuaries unless we regain a deep sense of the sacred, no refuges unless we feel a reverence for the land, for soil and stone, water and air, and all that lives. We must find the desire, the courage, the vision to live sanely, to live considerately, and we can only do that together, calling out and listening, listening and calling out.--Writing From the Center, Scott Russell Sanders

12/11/2003 06:44:00 PM

Wednesday, December 10, 2003  
Yes, it's The Quilt!

As you can see (well, you could if you could count the quilt blocks) there were 30 contributors to this fabulous memory quilt. And if you think this is the kind of thing that a few industrious gals can whip up overnight, think again. The Story Circle gals began thinking about it in January, organized it (that was Peggy Moody's Internet wizardry), and got some expert help: Beth Kennedy, quilt-maker extraordinaire! And since this was a Story Circle project, they documented the whole thing with a wonderful book, which they gave me with the quilt. You can read a history of the project on the Story Circle website: click on the link, then on "Susan's Quilt." You'll also find photos of the quilt there, too. Thanks, Timothy Newman, for your fine camera work! Wow--what a present. I'm still glowing. (Oh, and while you're on the Story Circle site, check out our national conference, coming up in February.)

Moving right along. Finished revisions up to the next-to-last chapter today. Bill points out that the manuscript isn't due in New York until January 1 and is lobbying to hold off on the authors' notes for a couple of weeks. Sigh...I'm ready to be done with this project. Not that I don't like it, mind--it's a Very Good Book, if I do say so myself. But I'm ready to move on to the next Beatrix Potter book.

I got an email from Linda Lear today. Linda is an environmental historian and Beatrix's biographer (her book will be published in 2005) and more: she is the author of the very best Rachel Carson biography, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. Linda has read the manuscript of the first Beatrix mystery and we're going to talk about it on the phone on Saturday. Linda will be my toughest critic, so I'm really anxious to hear what she has to say. But she's already said she liked the book, so.... We'll see.

Lovely weather, crisp and chilly in the mornings, warm in the afternoon, cold enough at night for a fire. The robins are here, always the first real sign of winter. And more buzzards, spiraling in widening circles high in a very blue sky. And a marvelous red-tailed hawk that sat in the oak tree outside my office window for a half-hour this afternoon, preening himself in the warm sun. The creek is going dry, though, and if we don't get rain soon, the bluebonnets won't make it through the winter.

Remember my comments about fire a couple of days ago? Well, somebody let a trash fire get out of control in yesterday's 40-mph wind, and burned 250 acres just to the southeast of us. Downwind, thankfully. Don't ask me what that @#$% person was doing, burning trash on a Red Flag day (that's the term the Weather Service uses to designate a day with low low humidity and high high wind--a day when you should not even think of lighting a match out of doors). Some people are terminally stupid where nature is concerned. Yesterday's fire was created by somebody who doesn't have a sense of place: a tourist who happens to be living here temporarily, rather than an inhabitant.

Reading Notes. If we pay attention, we begin to notice patterns in the local landscape. Perceiving those patterns [such as a high wind and low humidity]...we cease to be tourists and become inhabitants. The biogregional consciousness I am talking about means bearing your place in mind, keeping track of its condition and needs, committing yourself to its care.--Writing From the Center, Scott Russell Sanders

12/10/2003 06:41:00 PM

Tuesday, December 09, 2003  
Wonderful surprise. On Sunday, Story Circle's Austin Chapter had its annual holiday party. I was absolutely floored when the gang gave me a beautiful handmade friendship quilt, in honor of my retirement from the SCN board of directors. I thought I'd have a picture for you tonight, but it doesn't want to load. (Human error, most likely.) So I'll just say that the quilt is gorgeous, each of the blocks is an individual treasure, and the whole thing--the quilt, the creativity that fashioned it, and the love that it expresses--is totally overwhelming. But I'll save the story for another time, and for now, just say thank you to everyone who made this possible.

Story Circle conference. I've been meaning to mention this, and keep forgetting. It's our second women's memoir conference, and lots of people have been working very hard on it. Take a look at the website and see what's going on. I'd love to have some of my mystery-reader friends join us at the conference!

More revisions today, all day. I'm up to page 260, managing about 50 pages a day. Should be pretty much done by the end of the week. Of course, Bill is still finding little glitches (and a few not-so-little), so we'll plan for a marathon session on Friday, to go over all the stuff he's found. Then the authors' notes, and then--ta da--FedEx! I'm itching to get to Beatrix, although it would be nice if I had something resembling a plot in mind. I have a few vagrant ideas, but they won't sit still long enough to be sketched. Oh, well. Next week.

Fiber stuff. I'm going to quit blogging here in a second and go and knit. Still working on Christmas presents, wouldn't you know it?

Reading notes. Peggy's quilt piece has this inspiring sentence on it. Knit on, with confidence and hope, through all crises.--Elizabeth Zimmerman. Yes!

12/09/2003 06:51:00 PM

Monday, December 08, 2003  
Buzzards. It's said that Texas is home to more vultures--or buzzards, as they are called around here--than any state in the Union. Right now, it looks as if MeadowKnoll is hosting a vulture convention. I counted three dozen on the dead tree in the lake this morning; Bill says that he counted nearly five dozen when he was out mowing. That's a whole lotta buzzards in one place. These road-kill kings probably aren't residents, but migrants, just passing through, snacking en route on anything they can find that's been dead long enough to be interesting. Since it's still deer season here, it's entirely possible that one or two of our great Texas hunters missed a clean kill, and these vultures flew in from our neighboring counties to take care of the job.

There are two kinds of buzzards in this current batch: black buzzards and turkey buzzards (they're the ones with the small red heads). Of the two, the black buzzard is aggressive and will kill for food; the turkey buzzard eats only carrion. For this reason, it's said, the Cherokee called it the "peace eagle." It looks like an eagle (well, vaguely) but does not kill. Both are utterly beautiful in flight, not so pretty close up. But what they do is beautiful. Buzzards are vital scavengers that play a crucial role in landscape maintenance and upkeep. If it weren't for them, we'd be knee-deep in death.

--For some good vulture photos
--To check out the Turkey Vulture Society
--For some fascinating vulture facts, like this one: In the wild or open country a Turkey Vulture will sometimes become attached to a person. A lady in Southern California wrote that she and her husband would drive their car five miles from town and take a daily walk in the country with their dog. A Turkey Vulture would join them, soaring above and watching them. And then one day at home she broke a leg and the walks were not possible for a while. One day she was in her back yard on crutches and there was her Turkey Vulture sitting on the fence, waiting to say hello. He had found her in a town of 12,000 people!
--For a whole book about vultures, read Vulture: Nature's Ghastly Gourmet

Reading Notes. And then there is this lovely poem, by Pablo Neruda

Black Vulture

The vulture opened its Parish,
endorsed its black habits,
flew about in search of sinners,
diminutive crimes, robberies,
lamentable cattle thefts,
inspecting everything from above:
fields, homes, dogs, sand,
it sees everything without looking,
flies outstretched, opening
its priestly garb to the sun.

The vulture, God's spy
does not smile at springtime:
it circles round and round, measuring heaven,
solemnly settles on the ground,
and folds up like an umbrella.

12/08/2003 06:52:00 PM

Friday, December 05, 2003  
Happy faces. I like this shot of son Bob's two boys, Steven and Cody, musing hungrily over the Thanksgiving turkey, which is waiting to be carved and served. Bob's kids--Cody 12, Angel 13, and Steven 15--are arranged in the same order as mine: a girl sandwiched between two boys, all three very close in age. Mine were a circus, and Bob's are, too. But they're great kids, and I enjoyed the holiday with them.

Yesterday, I mentioned that I taped a segment of "Austin Now," which is hosted by Tom Spencer--who also hosts "The Texas Gardener." Today, I dropped in at Tom's website, and very much enjoyed the visit. He's a gifted photographer, as well as gardener and writer, and his descriptions of the gardening life in Central Texas are wonderful. And I love the pages of quotations, illustrated by Tom's photos. Here's an old favorite, which I delighted to discover on his site: "Conversion consists in doing the next thing you have to do, doing it with your whole heart and finding delight in doing it."--Meister Eckhardt. (This has been a kind of mantra for me for the last 15 years.) Be sure to take the time to read "The Daily Muse." For a good introduction to Tom's busy and artistic world, and to see how he finds delight, I recommend his October 2003 journal. Thank you, Tom, for sharing your life, your work, and your joy!

The revision work is going fast, mostly because the first 150 pages of the book has already had a careful once-over. Past that, though, I'm expecting to have to slow down and do some stylistic work. Bill's strong on story-line and not much of a stylist (not much of a speller, either, come to that); I'm weaker on plot, but oh, I do love to tinker with the textual surface. So each of us complements the other's strengths. I sometimes say that I married him when he suggested a way out of the plot corner I'd painted myself into in one of the early Nancy Drew books--and it's true.

Also today, Bill cracked a couple of cups of pecans and I made a batch of fudge and a loaf of banana nut bread. It's cold, so we've had a fire in the fireplace most of the day. Tonight, we had clam chowder and biscuits (since the oven was hot from the banana bread). A cozy day, a quiet evening. Peace.

Reading Notes. This, from Kathleen Norris's Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Norris writes about what can be learned from living on a dry, largely unpeopled prairie: Maybe the desert wisdom of the Dakotas can teach us to love anyway, to love what is dying, in the face of death, and not pretend that things are other than they are. The irony and wonder of all this is that it is the desert's grimness, its stillness and isolation, that bring us back to love. Here we discover the paradox of the contemplative life, that the desert of solitude can be the school where we learn to love others.--p. 121.

12/05/2003 06:57:00 PM

Thursday, December 04, 2003  
Heavy lifting. Yesterday, burning; today, road work. (And you thought you wanted to live in the country?)

We live at the end of a mile and a half of gravel road that the county does not maintain. Doesn't matter that 24+ families use the road every day, plus a school bus, the garbage truck, and FedEX and UPS--the county says it's our job to maintain the road. For years, 3 or 4 families pitched in to buy gravel and Bill used his old tractor (Ferguson vintage 1950) to spread it out. We begged our county commissioner for help, but he said "no" to every request.

Last year, however, we elected a new county commissioner, who is quite a lot more helpful--81 tons of helpfulness, today. (See photo).

The neighbors chipped in (well, most of them--there are a few deadbeats) to pay for the materials, the commissioner sent out 7 loads of road base (thanks, Russell Graeter!), and Bill went out with his tractor to spread it out on the road. It'll probably take him the rest of the week. If he didn't do it, it wouldn't get done. I tell him it's time to buy a new tractor, but he likes the old Ferguson, which is a genuine antique. He says it reminds him of the first truck he ever owned, a 1950 Chevy named "The Blue Beast," which he drove with reckless abandon from British Columbia to Montreal, and from Austin to Playa del Carmen, south of Cancun--which had not yet been carved out of the jungle then.

While Bill was working on the road, I was in Austin, taping a segment of Austin Now, a popular local PBS TV show hosted by Tom Spencer. Tom interviewed Pat Flathouse and me about the OWL-Circle Memoir program and SCN's new book, With Courage and Common Sense. If you're in our viewing area, check it out on KLRU on Dec. 26 at noon and 9 p.m. It was Pat's first TV appearance, and she said she was nervous--but you'd never know it. She was a real pro, and the interview was lots of fun.

Reading Notes. Thinking of Bill's tractor, and his old truck, I happened on this lovely bit, from A Country Year: Living the Questions, by Sue Hubbell (p. 118). She's writing about her truck, which she calls "Press on Regardless": The white truck is commodious and dependable, and I am fond of it. It is a part of my life. One night I dropped off to sleep after reading about the nature of the soul. I dreamed about my own soul, and found that it is a female white truck, buoyant, iimpatient, one that speeds along, almost too fast in an exhilarating way, skimming slightly above the road, not quite keeping to the pathway. I rather enjoy having a soul of that sort.

12/04/2003 07:18:00 PM

Wednesday, December 03, 2003  
Fire! Remember all those trees that Bill (the Botanical Butcher) trimmed? He trucked 18 loads of the trimmings up the road to the burn area, and this morning, we (yes, I helped) did this:

The photo was taken at 7:15 this morning, about 20 minutes into the Big Burn. Bill had stacked the cut limbs and trunks in a big circle around the fire itself, and we dragged it, piece by piece, to the bonfire. The fire continued for a couple of hours, and by 10 a.m., we'd burned the whole lot. A good thing, too. When we started, there was a cool, damp fog and no wind, not even a breath. (See the flames going straight up?) By 9:30, though, a front was coming through--just enough wind to make burning dangerous.

Burning is a hot issue in our part of the state, where we've had even less rain than usual this year. Things aren't as bad here as they are in California or Colorado, because the terrain isn't as rough--but brush fires are something that most rural people think about. Yesterday, when he decided that today might be a good day to burn, Bill called the sheriff's office to make sure that the burn ban that was in effect through much of the fall had been lifted (it had). This morning before he lit up, he called the sheriff's office to report that he was starting a burn, so that if somebody called in the smoke, they wouldn't send out the volunteer fire truck. And we always burn where we can reach the burn area with a hose, in case we get a hot spot. Bill's been doing this a long time--he's careful to do it safely.

Not everybody does it that way, though. A few years ago, a neighbor (new to the country) stacked a huge pile of cedar brush in the middle of her pasture and let it dry out. She waited until the county had imposed a burn ban, picked a day when the wind was whipping out of the north-west about 30 mph, then poured a can of gasoline on the pile and tossed on a match. You can imagine the rest. I saw the smoke and flames heading in our direction and called the fire department. No help there--they were already fighting a big grass fire on the west side of the county. Stopping it took rakes, hoes, and some damn good luck. It was a very near thing.

Of course, we don't burn all of the wood in the bonfire. Bill had already taken half a cord of fireplace wood out of what he cut. He stacked it to dry--the small stuff for a year, larger chunks a couple of years or more. Some of the wood we're burning in the fireplace tonight was cut a decade ago. When I watch it burn, I think of something Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac: a tree stores solar energy; burning the tree returns the solar energy to the universe. Watching the leaping flames, I think of the trees pushing toward the sun, folding its light into their leaves, turning its energy into tree-flesh and sinew. And I'm grateful, to the trees, to the sun. And to Bill, without whom this life, in this place, wouldn't be possible.

Back at the computer.... Bill hung out at the bonfire until after noon, but I came back to the house to start revisions to Death at Blenheim. And the copy-edited manuscript of the first Beatrix Potter book arrived today. Yay! As soon as we finish this project, I can get started on the second BP (can't remember the title just now--must have it in my notes somewhere). And I'll start by reading this copy-edited manuscript. It'll be a good way to get me back in the swing of things.

12/03/2003 06:49:00 PM

Tuesday, December 02, 2003  
Harvested a quart of bay leaves this morning, and now they are drying on a cookie sheet in the oven (with just the pilot light on)--all but a couple, which I popped into the pot of chicken bones stewing on the stove this evening. Once the leaves are dry, I'll store them in a glass jar with a tight lid. I use bay in just about everything--soups, stews, veggies, eggs, meat. For chicken, bay seems to go with lemon and sage (or rosemary); for beef, it's bay, summer savory, and maybe a bit of orange peel; for lamb, bay with mint and rosemary. My bay tree is now about 6 or 7 years old but is only 3 feet high, because I've allowed it to have multiple stems. It lives in a 5-gallon pot, outdoors in the shade in the summer, in our make-shift greenhouse all winter. A nice garden companion, compatible in the kitchen. (No photo, sorry. I'm too lazy to run to the greenhouse and shoot it. Maybe tomorrow.)

Instead, more feet. These are Angel's, in the blueberry waffle socks I knitted for her last summer and didn't get around to sending.

The only thing that bothered me about these socks was that I ran out of yarn just as I got to the toe of the second sock. Darn! (or words to that effect) Had to order ANOTHER skein of yarn to finish it, and now I have most of this extra skein left over. Come to think of it, though, there might be just about enough to knit a pair of blueberry waffle booties for Becky.

A beautiful day today, not least because I ended the afternoon with 2600 words, which might be a record for me. Good words, too. Bill (who talked me through the middle of the chapter) says confidently that it's the last chapter. I'm not so sure, but maybe. Anyway, tomorrow I'll go back to the beginning and start clearing up the niggling little problems that need to be fixed and adding in a plot piece that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle, sort of like the puzzle piece that falls down behind the radiator or into the air conditioning duct. Not quite 81,000 words--and we'll probably pick up 3,000 in the revision. (Somehow we never lose words in revision, but always gain.) Then the Authors' Note, and then the book is outta here. Maybe a week? Maybe two? Doesn't matter. It's basically, fundamentally done. Yay!

Reading Notes. Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, writes that any pen suffices, so long as it moves smoothly without catching on the paper. I add another caveat: the ink must last. Not long ago I discovered a new fine-point, black-ink, sweetly rolling ballpoint pen and bought a handful and used them happily until eight or ten months later when, hunting through my notes, I found the ink had faded. I could hardly read the words. Another year and nothing would remain: the crypto-dream of every spy. Rudyard Kipling wrote superstitiously with the blackest possible ink on special blue paper. Ernest Hemingway wrote in pencil on onionskin. Athol Fugard, the South African playwright, chooses a new pen for each play, grinds his own ink, and retires each pen after the play is done.--Sophy Burnham.

Maybe I should retire my word processor, now that this book is done (well, almost)? Guess it isn't quite the same as retiring a pen. Maybe I'd better hang onto it. And I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have the time to grind my own ink. Athol Fugard probably has a wife.

12/02/2003 06:37:00 PM

Monday, December 01, 2003  
I wasn't looking forward to the air travel to Reno--at the busiest time of the year--but it turned out to a very good trip. No delays, no terribly long lines, and only one small glitch: a tire problem on the rent car. Travel-wise, a good trip. And otherwise, a very good trip. I loved seeing the kids--Steven 15, Angel 14, Cody 12--and son Bob. And their two dogs (Darlin' and Sam), plus two parakeets and a hamster. This lively household, where there's never a dull moment (not even a quiet one!) makes my home feel like a monastic retreat. How Bob keeps it all together I'll never know, but keep it together he does, and I'm very proud of his achievements. He also cooks a pretty terrific turkey and trimmings. Here's Angel, intent on her knitting.

While I was there, Angel finished about a dozen of the squares for her knitted afghan, and Cody learned to crochet. He's working on a scarf in gray and blue with touches of red and a bright variagated yarn. Such concentration, and a good job, too! Steven, meanwhile, was concentrating on his skateboard techniques and a social relationship with Sam, the new dog (mostly Lab). Also in the family group: my ex-husband, Bob's father, who drove up from California for a couple of days. We went to see Cat in the Hat (not an uplifting experience), but the rest of the holiday was wonderful.

Back home, it's summer again. Daytime temps in the 70s, nights in the 50s. A couple of hard frosts have turned the grasses a lovely, pale gold, with patches of red-brown. The darker colors are the King Ranch bluestem, the pale gold is our native bluestem. The mesquite trees have lost their leaves, and the hackberry and pecans. But the dark green oak leaves will cling stubbornly until March, when the emerging leaves force the old to finally let go. There's a lesson in there somewhere, I suppose.

The drought is deepening, as November came and went with only an inch of rain, bringing the deficit for the year to something like 11" (a third of the total we should have had). The lake has shrunk to a puddle, and the creek stopped flowing a couple of weeks ago, leaving water in the deeper pools and stranding the little fish--perch, sunfish, striped bass, minnows. The great blue heron doesn't mind a bit, though--I saw him fishing this morning, striding with slow, strong purpose through Iris Pool, reaching, jabbing, gobbling.

Meanwhile, at the computer, Bill and I are definitely coasting down the last long slope. We finished a couple of good chapters yesterday and today. I have one more to write, and then each of us will write his or her section of the Authors' Note that always appears at the end of the book. Then both of us will go back to the beginning and start patching the glitches, filling the holes, and generally sweeping out the dust and construction debris. Another couple of weeks should see it finished.

Reading notes. Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. To “Why am I here?” To uselessness. It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.--Enid Bagnold

12/01/2003 06:55:00 PM


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