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

 

 
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Susan Wittig Albert
bio
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

Website:
www.mysterypartners.com
Bulletin Board
A Map of MeadowKnoll
Email:
salbert@tstar.net
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: storycircle.org/katrina

Killer Plants

Ecotone: Writing About Place


Lifescapes
 
Monday, March 31, 2003  
Home again, from a wonderfully renewing weekend with Story Circle women, each of them intent on somehow finding the time, the energy, and the will to write down her story. Christina Baldwin is a gifted teacher, and she pulled us together as a group--a "village," as she calls it--inspired and energized us, and helped us tease our stories out of ourselves. And Mo Ranch was the perfect site, on a perfect March weekend (maybe a little chilly, if you happened to be a bluebonnet along the road and you were expecting an 80-degree day). Altogether, an amazing event, which made me proud of Story Circle (if you haven't been to our web site, why not? Go there NOW! Our next event is another weekend workshop, this one in Austin.

Car stuff today for Bill, and for me, back to the book. He's working on the truck (he thinks now that the problem is the oil light), so we can take the car to be worked on. It's always something, isn't it? I was excused from jury duty because of transportation problems (blessings on the understanding lady in the county judge's office), so I'm doing final clean-up on the book. Bill read it again over the weekend, and has given me a list of glitches to fix. Hoping to get the manuscript (why do we still call it that? it isn't really a manu-script any longer) printed and out the door tomorrow.

After a chilly weekend, spring is back, with blue skies, bright sunshine, and a mild southern breeze. No doubt we'll have summer tomorrow, thought, since Texas likes to swing to extremes. Speaking of extremes, I'm goggling at a redbud I can see from my office window. All the others (we have probably a dozen in the woodlot) are native Texas redbuds; this one is an outlander, from the nursery, and it is . . . well, gaudy is the only word. It's small yet, only about six feet high, but every branch is decked out in purple.

If you have it, flaunt it, of course, and this baby is flaunting herself. When she grows up, she'll take your breath away.

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


3/31/2003 11:19:00 AM

Friday, March 28, 2003  
Cold, windy, bleak, with frigid arctic air driving south. So much for mesquite wisdom (see 3/26 entry). The weather folks are now predicting low 30s for Saturday night--and wouldn't you know it, I'll be gone. Which means that I need to corral all the tender stuff on the back deck and cover it before I go, then send warm thoughts while I'm gone. That'll teach me to listen to a bunch of talking leaves.

This weekend is the long-anticipated writing retreat at Mo Ranch, near Kerrville. The retreat is sponsored by Story Circle, my favorite volunteer project, and is being led by Christina Baldwin. I used her book Life's Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest, when I first started teaching journaling--a terrific book, full of insight, gentle inspiration, wise guidance. I feel that I've known Christina for over a decade, although I've never met her. As a reader, I cherish writers whose work I come back to over and over. Christina is one of those, and I somehow can't believe I've never met her. She feels like a friend.

Bungled Plans. A couple of days ago, a cedar tree ate the front bumper of our Honda Civic. (Don't ask.) Unfortunately, I was driving at the time; I've apologized to the tree, the Honda, and Bill. Last night, we got the estimate, only $600, which was a nice surprise. But while Bill has done a masterful job of duct-taping and wiring (with baling wire, what else?) the pieces together, I'm not comfortable driving the car. So I planned to drive the truck to the retreat. It's not pretty, but it runs pretty well--or at least it did, until the oil light came on yesterday. It's not low on oil, it's who-knows-what-else, and Bill will have to take a look at it. Sigh...no truck to drive to the retreat. Peggy (webmistress, friend, and Executive Director of Story Circle) has come to the rescue. She's picking me up later today, and we'll drive down to Kerrville together.

And on top of everything else, jury duty on Tuesday! Burnet County is large (about 1000 square miles) but it has only 23,000 registered voters and my number keeps coming up--four times in the past five or six years. I was chosen once and got some fascinating research material for a China novel. In fact, China would have been proud of that jury: we agreed with the defense attorney that the defendant was only trying to escape from jail, and didn't intentionally assault the jail attendants when they hauled him out of the closet they had cornered him in. Guilty of attempted escape, not guilty of assaulting a police officer. I'm still waiting for a chance to work that into one of China's mysteries. But maybe they'll excuse me this time because of the transportation problems.

If you've been curious about how this writer spends her time when she's not writing, this is it, folks. Hope y'all have a good weekend--I'll be back on Monday.

3/28/2003 08:49:00 AM

Thursday, March 27, 2003  
Ah, photos! Now I can show you the socks I finished knitting last week. I spun the fiber (Monet's Garden colorway, from Paradise Fibers and some of my own Kool-aid dyed fiber on the spindle Bill made me. The socks are knitted with an interrupted rib. My inspiration: the Twisted Sisters Sock Workbook (isn't that a great title)?



Now that I've declared that the book is done (the last couple of pages are still nagging me--I need to do something with them before I print it next week) I'm--ta-daaa!--housecleaning. My office is a litter of books and papers, the laundry has to be done, the kitchen floor should be scraped, and I need to remove about two inches of dust from everything. Who needs reality TV when Real Life offers so many mountains to climb?

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


3/27/2003 10:01:00 AM

Wednesday, March 26, 2003  
The leaves are coming out on the mesquite trees, a sure sign of spring. Ranchers hate mesquite with about the same passion that they hate prickly pear cactus. The trees are deep-rooted and compete with grass for the limited water. And, back in the days when cows were rounded up by real cowboys on horses, you could lose half your herd in a thorny mesquite thicket. In fact, mesquite is on the list of invasive species (like that aggressive King Ranch bluestem I was writing about a few days ago).

However, there's not a lot of cattle ranching around here now, and it's harder than it used to be to object to mesquite. The tree is perfect for xeroscaping (as long as you don't let the kids go barefoot where they can step on the thorns). Bill loves the wood for barbecue, and mesquite jelly (which I made a couple of years ago) is delicious, sort of like apple jelly. Settlers hereabouts processed the beans into flour, which was in turn made into bread and booze. And artists are discovering the exotic beauty of its wood. At the end of this post is a photo of a mesquite vase that Bill turned on his lathe. I love the colors of the wood and the classic shape of the vase.

But the tree itself has a lovely shape and color--twisted trunk, pale green canopy, tiny bee-laden flowers in May and clusters of beans in September. And I love the idea that mesquite always knows when spring has come and it's safe to put out leaves. Here's a poem by Faye Carr Adams (copyright holder unknown):

Mesquite
Is strangely wise
To Winter's fickle way
Of sudden northers on a late Spring day.
Mesquite
withholds her growth,
Wary, while foolish trees
Flaunt new green buds to die in a
Late freeze.

No late freeze, say the dozens of mesquites here at Meadow Knoll. Warm days ahead, and blue skies, and inevitably, summer.

Peggy has fixed the graphics upload for this log; more photos are in the works. And I finished the Beatrix Potter book today, so I'm celebrating! At least, I think I've finished it. Bill will read it this weekend and make suggestions (I hope not too many), and of course I'll see it at least twice more (at copy-edit and galley stage), and sooner than that, if Natalee wants any work done on it. Feels good to complete the project, although in this case, I'm sorry to leave the world of the book, which is quieter and more comforting than our world.

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

3/26/2003 04:59:00 PM

Tuesday, March 25, 2003  
A mild, drizzly spring morning. The new willow and elm leaves are a mist of pale green, a sweet, calm contrast against the pewter skies. The ash tree outside my office window, only about four years old, is putting up a brave leaf show, promising summer shade (very welcome, since my window faces west).

Bill is doing road work today. One of the "privileges" of living in rural Texas is that we get to take care of our own roads. We're about a mile and a half off a blacktopped county road, on a gravel road that was built nearly 30 years ago by the developer--and not built very well. We've lived here for 16 years, and have kept up the road as well as we could. Now, though, there are lots of new residents, with big SUVs and 4-wheel drive cowboy trucks, and maintenance has become a nightmare. Most (but not all) of these folks donate money to the road fund, but actually getting the work done is another story. Now, though, we have a new county commissioner for our precinct (this is not an accident). He came out last week, and he and Bill talked about the problems. He agreed that the county would haul the gravel, if we'll buy it and spread it. We've collected enough $$ to do the job, and Bill is waiting for the trucks to arrive now.

While Bill is building roads, I'm polishing up the Beatrix Potter book. I'll finish up the final sections today, and do a little more tweaking to the text. Then I'll print a couple of sample pages and decide whether I'm going to use the desk jet or the laser printer. The way things are looking now, I may just go ahead and submit, since any changes I make at this point aren't going to materially affect the text.

Reflecting on all this mechanized production, I think back to the early days. The first fiction I ever submitted (early 1959, as best I can recall) was typed (and re-re-retyped) on a pre-1940 Royal typewriter, designed to create unladylike musles in the forearms. I didn't get my first electric typewriter until graduate school (early 1970s), when my wrist problems suddenly cleared up. I still remember the extraordinary pleasure of my first IBM Selectric (about 1977), which had a correcting ribbon, a tremendous technological advance! By the time writing became my day job, in 1985, I was using an Apple IIc, and could say goodbye forever to on-the-page corrections. Then I married Bill, and he dragged me, kicking and screaming into the PC world, where I've lived ever since. I'm a born reviser, and do my best work on the second or third draft--or, more precisely, the second or third time through a page of text, since I don't really think in terms of drafts any longer. So the computer has made an enormous difference to me, both in the quality of my work and the ease with which I can write. And here I sit, putting these words on the screen, for you to read, instantly. The mind boggles, doesn't it?

To comment, go here and click on "Lifescapes."


3/25/2003 10:33:00 AM

Monday, March 24, 2003  
I think I've finished (mostly, anyway) the last chapter! I read it aloud to Bill this morning. He's heard the whole book, a chapter or two at a time, and has read (on his computer) most of it. He made a few suggestions and reminded me of a loose end that has to be tied up. And I'm not sure that the very last paragraph works--maybe inspiration will strike later today, as I go back through the last 20 pages. I still have to clean up the recipes, add a glossary (which may or may not appear in the book), and finish the bibliography. And oh, yes, there are the maps (of the village and the area), and the drawings of Hill Top Farm and Anvil Cottage which my daughter, Robin has promised to do. Those things can come later, though. I'm on the home stretch, and feeling easy about it. (But there's no other way to feel, is there? Time is running out, and the project is due in New York next week. If I had misgivings, it's too late to do much about them.)

Still no photo capability in this web log--grrr! Especially annoying, since I took a photo of my just-finished knit socks and want to post it! Peggy has added a section in the Mystery Partners bulletin board for comments on this log, so if you want to make a comment, this is the place. I'll include this URL at the end of each post, as well.

Windy today, and the live oaks are shedding the last of their leaves. These large lovely trees stay green all winter, then drop their leaves in March, as the new little leaves push the old ones off the tree. I can't post a photo yet (grrr! again) but here's a page with some live oak photos The oldest tree here at Meadow Knoll is a live oak that Bill named Methusaleh--around 350 years old, Bill says. It is probably the "shelter tree" for the woodlot, meaning that as it grew, it protected the other, smaller trees that grew up around it. When Methusaleh was a seedling oak, this land was open prairie, frequently swept by the grass fires that discouraged tree growth and browsed by the herds of buffalo that traveled through here. Now, the buffalo are long gone and fire is vigorously suppressed. As a consequence, we have a great many more trees, including cedar, mesquite, and plenty of new live oaks. In another 350 years, Meadow Knoll will be forest, instead of prairie. In the meantime, we have leaves to rake!

To comment, go here and click on "Lifescapes."

3/24/2003 10:46:00 AM

Sunday, March 23, 2003  
Somebody emailed me yesterday and asked about pictures. Yes, I want to include photos, and will, as soon as blogger.com cooperates. Setting up this log has not been a trouble-free experience, and if it hadn't been for Peggy, I might not have persevered. Anyway, photos are coming, asap.

The rain is over and the weather map suggests that we'll have several more bright days before the next round of showers comes in from the west. Our average last frost date was a couple of weeks ago, so I've been gradually moving plants from my makeshift greenhouse to their summertime stations: back deck for those that tolerate sun, shaded front porch for those that don't, the backyard trees for the hanging plants. I'll also be moving the scented geraniums (about a dozen of them) and the lemongrass (which makes wonderful tea and vinegar and is good in stir-fry if you chop it very fine) back into the garden.

Our trio of Toulouse gray geese, which lives on the lake but comes up daily for corn, has been joined by a pair of large white geese, introduced by our neighbor on the other side of the lake. It took a couple of days for all concerned to sort out the new pecking order, but it now appears that Major Gander (a gray) has established dominance over Moby Gander (one of the new white geese). No cosmic significance here, but I didn't notice any missing feathers or bloody beaks, just a general agreement on the proper order of things. And this morning, the five geese were peaceably sharing the lake with a flock of cormorants, a pair of blue herons, some Mallard ducks, and a kingfisher. Wish humans could be as civilized.

I hung the hummingbird feeder at 10 a.m. yesterday, and the first hummer appeared at 10:15. Don't know if it was just a lucky guess, or an example of bird-to-human telepathy. Bought another couple of bags of bird seed--probably the last, since traffic is falling off at the feeders. I calculate that we'll feed around 600 pounds of seed this season (late November through early April), plus another 25 pounds of corn.

Fiber stuff. The past several evenings, I've been knitting a "spontaneous scarf." This one is in shades of pink-lavender-gray, knitted from odd bits in my yarn stash, and easy and mindless enough that I can read while I knit--or rather, read/knit/read/knit. (Right now, I'm reading a Patricia Wentworth mystery, which I will probably always identify with this particular scarf.) Like other spinners who don't do much weaving, I have more yarn than I can use in a couple of lifetimes, so I'm on the lookout for easy ways to use it up. The scarf idea came from an article in the Winter 2002 issue of Spin-off magazine. I'll put up a photo when I can.

Finished the revision yesterday, added a couple of new pages, and am right at 85,000 words. But I still have at least one chapter to write, so the book will be longish. I guess the real truth is that I just don't want to leave that world--Sawrey in 1905 is a much less angry time and place than our own, and I'm finding it enormously comforting. Somebody emailed me to say that she owns an African hedgehog and hopes there'll be a talking hedgehog in the book. Yes, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is a character in the book, and yes, she does have a speaking part. My publisher has negotiated a licensing agreement with the owners of the copyrights to allow me to use BP's animals--haven't heard that there will be pictures, but I suppose it's possible.



3/23/2003 08:50:00 AM

Saturday, March 22, 2003  
Rain this morning, and gray skies. The redbud trees are a mauve haze in the leafless woods, and the bluebonnets and paintbrush are beginning to bloom, nurtured by the El Nino winter that has created such havoc elsewhere. My office looks out onto a curving border of daffodils and early white iris that meanders around the edge of the woods--such a lovely view that I'd rather gaze out the window than read my computer monitor. I am unspeakably grateful to be in a place where I can see meadows and woods and be transformed by the sight, instead of being forced to see burning buildings and skies dark with smoke. I've promised myself not to write about war or politics in this log, but that doesn't mean that these things don't weigh heavily on my mind.

The writing life is not all beer and skittles. This week's perplexity came from the Herb Companion magazine, where I've been a columnist for five or six years. The magazine has encountered some rocky times and was recently sold to a new publisher, Ogden Publications. When I read the new contract for my column (the Herbal Daybook), I saw that Ogden required me to sell perpetual rights in all media. These rights weren't exclusive, but they still represented a kind of "lien" on the material, and would certainly make it difficult for me to resell these columns, compiled into book form, as I'm planning to do.

I've been in the writing biz for a long time, and I'm used to selling rights--and used to dealing with magazines that want to buy the baby as well as the bath water. But in this case (with republication on the horizon), I decided that I had to take a stand. I fired off an email to the editor, telling her why I couldn't release these rights and asking her to negotiate. She consulted up the chain of command and eventually reported back down to me (the writer is at the bottom of these publishing pyramids) that this "perpetual rights" stuff is cast in corporate stone. So I've bid a regretful goodbye to the good folks at the Herb Companion. I've pitched the material to another magazine and haven't yet heard--and I'm planning to pitch it to Natalee (my editor), once we see how An Unthymely Death fares in June, out there in the bookstores. This little interlude was interruptive and distracting, and I'm glad that it's concluded. Sorry, though, that it turned out the way it did. It is a reminder that writers need to read every word of the contracts that publishers put in front of them.

Yesterday was a good writing day. I finished the revisions I assigned to myself and added about 1300 words to the text--up to nearly 85,000 words now. Today, I'll go back over yesterday's stuff, and then do the remaining 35 pages, and maybe even get some more new stuff written. The first book of a series is always hard, and this one is more difficult than anything I've done before. Not only am I using an historical character (Beatrix Potter) and a real setting (Sawrey village, in the English Lake District), but I'm using (gasp!) talking animals as characters. Yikes!


3/22/2003 08:59:00 AM

Friday, March 21, 2003  
Another bright day, crisp, with the morning temp at 44.

Out with the dogs, the just-risen sun casting long morning shadows as we take a different route this morning, the long way around the field, on the trail Bill has mowed with his antique tractor (a Ferguson, circa 1950), which is running again.

We have no grazing animals just now, and last year's unmowed grass, dry and brown, is waist-high. It's a lovely mix of native grasses and wildflowers, delightful to look at. But unfortunately, the Hill Country has been invaded by an aggressive species of grass called "King Ranch bluestem," which was bred at the south-Texas King Ranch in the 1930s for its high protein content and ability to withstand drought. Some people think that the seed originally came from China, in 1917. Whatever the truth of that, the grass flourishes on the shallow soil of our rocky limestone hills, and withstands heavy grazing. It also tends to crowd out the competition. Which is okay if you have lots of cows to feed, I suppose, but not so okay if what you want is a meadow rich with a variety of native grasses and forbs. In the 15 years I've been observing the fields and roadsides in Burnet County, I've seen this aggressive bluestem taking over. Not much I can do about it, though. KR bluestem is here to stay. This qualifies as messing with Texas, in my book. The Union of Concerned Scientists agrees. A recent report, lists 122 alien invaders, including fire ants, saltcedar, the boll weevil--and King Ranch bluestem.

I'm up to page 212 in the Beatrix Potter mystery (this one is called The Tale of Hill Top Farm), and feeling pretty good about it. I cleared up a couple of minor problems yesterday and am hoping for a productive day today, once I stop fooling around with this log.

3/21/2003 10:15:00 AM

Thursday, March 20, 2003  
Bright morning sun, brilliant sky, a cool westerly breeze with the promise of warming. As the dogs and I walk to the lake just after sunrise, I see a flash of bluebirds in the meadow, hear a wild turkey cock calling on the hill.

We live in Central Texas, in an area known as the Hill Country. The limestone rocks here were laid down a hundred million years ago by the shallow seas that covered what is now the western United States, and I often like to play with the thought that the land on which we live was once ranged by whales and dinosaurs. The soil is limey and thin, usually no more than a few inches deep, except in the creek bottoms, where it's deep enough to support pecan and elm trees, which need deep soil and moisture to thrive. Live oaks, cedars, mesquite, and hackberries are shallow-rooted and will grow just about anywhere. Parts of the Hill Country are spectacularly scenic, with deep-cut canyons and limestone outcroppings. Our 32 acres is pretty ordinary, mostly meadow, with patches of woods along Pecan Creek. This little creek comes out of the 17-acre man-made lake on the western border of our land, and is fed along its length by seeps and springs--clear, clean water filtered through layers of limestone. A beautiful place to live and work. Here are some postcard photos of the general area, so you can get an idea of what it looks like.

And speaking of work, I'd better get to it. Today, more revisions on the novel, with the hope of polishing another 50 pages. These revisions should be done by Saturday, and I'll be ready to write the last couple of chapters next week. Then I'll let it sit for a few days (I'm going to a Story Circle retreat the last weekend of the month), then do some more tinkering, and submit sometime during the first week of April. The contract due date is March 30, but Natalee (my editor) usually gives me another couple of weeks, if I ask. I'm obsessive about deadlines, though, so I'll try not to ask.

3/20/2003 10:39:00 AM

Wednesday, March 19, 2003  
For several years, I've been posting my journal on the web site that Bill Albert (my husband and co-author) and I share, but when I discovered weblog technology, I began to think that a weblog might give me some greater flexibility and allow me to do more frequent posting. So here goes...

Introduction: This weblog is the journal of a working writer who lives in the Texas Hill Country, where she tries to pay an intimate attention to the landscape, to the geography of the place, to the contours of the land, the color of the sky, the songs of the redwing blackbirds, the smell of cedars in the sun....

More about landscape later. I'll start with the writer part of me.

I've been writing full-time (by that I mean: writing is my day job) since 1985, when I left the university (Southwest Texas State, where I was a VP and an English professor). For the last dozen years, I've been writing mysteries, and I now have three series currently underway (and, happily, under contract). At the present time, I'm working on the first book in a new series featuring Beatrix Potter. The book is due at the end of the month, and is nearly finished. I'm up to 83,000 words now, close to the contract limit of 85,000, although I don't always take the limit seriously, and I'm doing revisions. Today, I worked through about 50 pages, pushing words around, polishing rough spots, and trying to solve (not very successfully) a couple of substantial problems in the plot. I'm distracted with this log, though, and curious to see how it goes. I'm about to push the "post & publish" button. That easy, huh?

3/19/2003 04:14:00 PM

 

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