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, March 31, 2004  
Indian paintbrush. If there's an apter (more apt?) name for a flower, I don't know it.

Its official name is Castilleja indivisa , which may be more specific but isn't nearly so pretty. The color is mostly on the leaf bracts of this semi-parasitic plant, which has suckers on its roots that allow it to penetrate the roots of certain grasses and forbes and feed off the other plant's nutrients. This nifty habit makes it a bit hard (translate: impossible) to transplant a paintbrush, so don't try. We've been nurturing our paintbrush stand, from seed, for over a decade. The colors range from a soft coral (like the photo) to an intense red. The paintbrush seem to be out-blooming the bluebonnets this year. Medicinally, local Indians are said to have ground the plant (the root, I believe) and brewed a tea brewed from it to regulate the menstrual cycle--and to cause abortions.

More on Vitex and honey (see the entry for March 26). I got this note from Jack Otis Moore, a Texas blog visitor:
I read in a Rodale magazine (probably 30
years ago) that Vitex negunda as a nectar source would produce more honey per acre than any other source. I was keeping a few hives of bees at the time and considered planting a few acres of vitex...I didn't do that, but I did name a delightful little Nubian nanny Negunda.

I had to smile at the Nubian nanny named Negunda. A sweetie, I'll bet. I've always wanted to keep goats, but our fences aren't quite up to the challenge--they're just barely good enough for our blackbellied sheep. But we have quite a few vitex, which naturalize very easily around here. I try to start a dozen or so new trees every year, and now (having learned about the bees) I'll have a stronger incentive. We no longer keep hives because of the threat from the Africanized bees, but I love to have nectar plants available for the wild bees.

Hummingbirds. Forgot to mention: they showed up right on schedule on March 17. I can almost mark the calendar by these guys. We now have two feeders out, to combat bozo-ism (our name for the nastily aggressive tendencies of some of the males, who try to chase all the other birds away from "their" feeder). Tomorrow, I think I'll put up a third.

And today I heard migrating geese, calling overhead, the surest speech of spring. From Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac: "A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence. A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed. But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of flight on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat. His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges."

3/31/2004 06:32:00 PM

Sunday, March 28, 2004  
Comin' up roses. This is Lady Banks (or Banksia, as some have it). Isn't she pretty? And this is a young plant, only about six years old. Unfortunately, she's chewing her flimsy wooden trellis to pieces, and after she's finished blooming, some drastic pruning is on the schedule. However, I think she is strong enough to stand on her own, without a trellis. This rose is one of the great joys of spring at MeadowKnoll.

Bed check. We now have two pairs of martins, although they're not using the nests yet, as far as I can tell. The bluebirds are at it, though--three of the birdhouses are occupied. And a mama titmouse has once again set up housekeeping in the nest box beside the path to the lake. Maybe the same mama who raised two broods in that house last year? It's a great delight to go walking through a morning that is filled with song.

Home stretch. Coming down to the last 10,000 words. Somebody wrote to ask whether word count was my "main criterion" for progress through the book. (The question was asked honestly, not sarcastically.) Actually, I think my primary measure is something I might call "scene count." When I get into the last third of the book, I make a list of the scenes that have yet to be written, and as the work goes along, I start crossing them out. I'm down to five scenes now, which is just about right for the last 10,000 words. I think dramatists must know instinctively how to do this--how to write "scenes," most of which have something like a beginning, a middle, and an end, plus a bridge to the next scene. (Of course, there are scenes that aren't very straightforward, that contain flashbacks and flashforwards and other time manipulations.) It's not something that all fiction writers naturally think of. But I learned to organize action and narration this way back in the days when I was writing Nancy Drews and other young adult novels, and I've stayed with it.

Reading notes. If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.--Steven King

3/28/2004 06:31:00 PM

Friday, March 26, 2004  
The Texas mountain laurel isn't really a laurel, and it doesn't have much to do with mountains, but it's certainly one of the Hill Country's prettiest little trees. Our mountain laurels (Sophora secundiflora) are about fifteen years old, grown from seed that I collected from a container tree in downtown Austin. This is the first time the whole lot of them have bloomed. They not only look gorgeous, but they smell just like grape Kool-aid! What a treat. You have to watch this one, however. The seeds (bright red beans) might look pretty in a necklace, but they're highly toxic. Another drawback: the "worm," caterpillars of the Pyralid moth, which will be showing up shortly to chew up all the leaves. They don't kill the plant, but they seriously disfigure it.

More on Carolina jessamine. (See the entry for March 19) I got a note today from Don Perkins, at Rice, who remembered a conversation he had with a man who once tasted some jessamine honey. Here's his account:
Some 20 years ago, I talked with Carl English, a beekeeper in Harris and Galveston Counties about Carolina jessamine, and he said that he had once opened a hive in the midst of winter that was near a large stand of
jessamine that was just in bloom and took a taste of the early honey he
found . He said that his tongue swelled shortly after and he was in much
distress. He attributed it all to the jessamine. He believed that the
bees do gather from the plant, but that in most cases the jessamine honey
is so diluted by the time that the hives are producing that there is
little occurrence of poisoning.
Don added, in a later note, that Mr. English planted chaste trees (Vitex) near his hives. I hadn't heard about vitex producing flavorful honey--nice to know. So now you have it on good authority. Jessamine does have the potential to produce dangerous honey. Wonder how the bees deal with it.

Yesterday we drove up to Granbury for a lunch with the Friends of the Library. Nice lunch, a chance to meet some old friends and make new ones, and a lovely drive through a pretty part of Texas, at the prettiest time of the year. We took a cutoff through Hood County, south of Bluff Dale on 2481. Hilly, with beautiful views and some interesting formations, not far from Glen Rose and the famous dinosaur tracks. Some day, I'll have to get a look at those. Also yesterday, I got to meet Sally Wasowski, who (with her husband Andy) wrote Native Texas Plants: Landscaping Region by Region. I've admired her work for years, and used this book often. Highly recommended for native landscaping in Texas. It was fun to listen to Sally and Andy talk about the way they began writing and compiling their books--but also daunting. Think I'll stick to fiction!

Speaking of which, up to 69,000 words today. Tied up several more loose ends in one of the major plots, wrote a funny (I think so, anyway) scene in the badger burrow, and patched a few awkward places earlier in the text. Had a long talk about children's literature with my publicist, Susan Raab, who is not only doing a super job of getting the word out, but has made me think more seriously about some things that were sort of floating on the parameters of my awareness. One of the things I really like about this business is the chance to work with some really smart people. Thank you, Susan.

Reading notes. No one ever found wisdom without also being a fool. Writers, alas, have to be fools in public, while the rest of the human race can cover its tracks.--Erica Jong.

3/26/2004 06:49:00 PM

Wednesday, March 24, 2004  
Bluebonnets. Here it is, the first of the year at MeadowKnoll. Welcome, spring!

Some nice news to report on the review front. The AP wire service review is cropping up all over the place--as well it should, since the AP entertainment package feeds to about 1700 newspapers. Readers have sent reviews from Augusta GA and Ashtabula OH. Yay! Thanks, folks. And if you see it in your newspaper, please clip and send: Susan Albert, PO Box 1616, Bertram TX 78605. China will be eternally grateful.

Fiber. And here is the photo of those mini-mittens I've been knitting, designed for little kids in Afghanistan. This is what I do when I'm not signing bookmarks.

More progress. 1500 words today, and feeling good about it. I'm going to have to tighten up some to fit all the plot pieces into 85,000 words, but that's definitely not a problem. The first third of the book is always pretty loose, and could certainly do with some cutting. Figure that I have about 10 more days of writing, then about a week of trimming, polishing, and making it pretty.

Reading notes. An airplane or bus or train is an excellent place to write: you cannot leave.--Sophy Burnham

3/24/2004 06:22:00 PM

Tuesday, March 23, 2004  
Lovely, lovely spring. Gray skies, mild temperatures, the smell of moisture from the Gulf, the fragrance of honeysuckle. Our redbud trees are all in bloom, mostly native redbuds we transplanted from the fence along the road (and I got a terrible case of poison ivy digging them up!). The blooms are a sweet purple mist along the edge of the woods.

Spring Goldenglow is a fanciful name for the shrub we've always called elbow bush or devil's elbow. But this is the time of year that I understand the more romantic name. The woods are full of its tiny yellow blossoms, like . . . well, like a golden glow. Very light and pretty. The rest of the year, I better understand it as devil's elbow--a wily, wiry shrub that catches you round the ankle or the knee and sends you sprawling.

Birdhouses. Bill made four more bluebird birdhouses (the continuation of a project begun some ten years ago), and we put them up today, on plastic pipe that he sank in the ground. Those pipe posts aren't the prettiest solution, but one designed to deter snakes, we hope. He went around to check the boxes for ants and other unspeakables--opened one and found a mama bluebird sitting on her finished nest, glaring at him. (Oh, these nosy landlords!) He just showed me another finished birdhouse with a wren-size hole, designed especially for wren-sized birds. It's going to go on the wall next to the sheep shed. We heard a wren singing there this morning.

Fiber. Somebody wrote to ask if I still had time to knit while I was signing those 6,000 bookmarks. Yes, the answer is yes, only I've gotten tired of knitting caps and I'm knitting mittens. Photo when I get around to it. The plan is to sign 300 bookmarks every evening, then knit. Who wanted to be a writer when she grew up?

Progress report.. 66,000 words, and slipping into the final movements, with all the motifs and melodies coming together at last.

Reading notes. When it is going well, the words flow off your fingertips; you are immersed in the music. You could not possibly tell anyone what songs you are hearing, what ecstasies you feel.--Sophy Burnham

3/23/2004 06:29:00 PM

Monday, March 22, 2004  
Purple martins. They're here! They haven't moved in yet, but we've seen two pairs of birds on the roosting poles above the bird house. And this morning, as the dogs and I walked up the road, we could hear them chattering and chirping to each other in that wonderful martin manner. I thought how far they had flown to arrive here, and how many different landscapes they had seen, and was very glad to see them. More on the way, I hope. Y'all come, martins--there's plenty of room.

This is a strange-looking birdhouse, with plastic gourds that have screw-caps on the sides, so that an inquisitive landlord can look inside and see how the renters are getting on--make sure that they don't have pets, you know, and they're not tearing up the carpets, that sort of thing. The house has space for a dozen pairs--the photo shows just six, because we haven't hung the other gourds yet. And the pole now has a predator guard, to keep the coons and snakes from shinneying up. All the comforts of home. Now, if I can just manage to keep the sparrows from setting up housekeeping . . . .

I'm still focused on the Beatrix book (up to 64,000 words today, after taking yesterday off to go into Austin and give a talk), but Bill is working on the Marconi book, which we have to start as soon as Beatrix is out of here. We have a couple of good books about Marconi--one by his daughter, the other called Signor Marconi's Magic Box, by Gerald Weightman. The Weightman book gave us a couple of good plot ideas, and Bill sat down this morning, wrote the precis, and sent it off to New York via email. This one will be called Death on the Lizard, the "Lizard" being Lizard Point, which is the southwestern tip of Cornwall where Marconi built his sending station. The land of Daphne Du Maurier and Rosamund Pilcher, to name just a couple of writers who have described that lovely landscape. I'm looking forward to working on it. Not that I'm tired of Beatrix, because I'm not. But it will be nice to confront some different narrative problems for a change. I always feel this way when I get about 3/4 of the way through a book: ready for a new story, new characters, new setting, new background materials to work with. Bill says it's because I'm such a research hound, and I love nothing better than diving into a book that will give us good stuff to work with. He's probably right.

Bookmarks. The requests are coming in thick and fast, I'm glad to say. If you want some bookmarks to share with friends, librarians, booksellers, etc, here's your chance. These are the Beatrix Potter bookmarks, which you may have for the price ofa stamp. Go here and click through on the "Cottage Tales" links until you get to "free bookmarks." I have a BUNCH of these, and I'm anxious to get them out where people will see them.

Reading notes. The first four months of writing the book, my mental image is scratching with my hands through granite. My other image is pushing a train up the mountain, and it's icy, and I'm in bare feet.--Mary Higgins Clark. [Right now, I'm on the down side of that mountain, and the book is coasting along like Clark's train, and moving faster and I'm just hanging on, trying to keep it on the rails and under some sort of control until we--the train and I--get to the station and it's safe for me to get off.]

3/22/2004 05:05:00 PM

Friday, March 19, 2004  

Here's one of our prettier vines, blooming on the trellis on the east side of our house. It's a Carolina jessamine, the state flower of South Carolina. Very toxic, I understand, because it contains a strychnine-like alkaloid. The deer won't eat it because of its bitterness (smart deer). Some people think it may even be poisonous to bees, but there apparently isn't any scientific validation of the belief. It's a pretty plant, as long as you don't snack on it.

Writing stuff. I took a day off from writing yesterday to drive down to San Antonio to give a talk at the Friends of the Library luncheon at the Texas Library Association meeting. Met some old friends, made some new friends, and got to talk about China Bayles, Robin Paige, and Beatrix Potter. Also handed out lots of my Beatrix bookmarks (for your free bookmarks, go to and click through on the Cottage Tales links). Since we posted that page last week, we've gotten about a dozen requests, so the word is getting out.

Up to 62,000 words today, and feeling a little urgent about getting the various story pieces all tidied up before the book ends. Beatrix has to find her sheep and solve her house-construction problems; Captain Woodcock and Will Heelis have to corner a badger-baiter; a badger cub and his mother have to find a new home; a grandmother and her granddaughter have to be reconciled; and a legacy-hunter has to get her just deserts. Gosh--all of that in just 20,000 words (which is all I have left, more or less)? But I'm comforted with the thought that there ARE plots in this book. It's not all just fantasy and talking badgers.

Oops & Errors and We Beg to Differ. Finally, a solution to the "review problem"--at least, a way for me to talk back. To have a look, go to, click through on the Robin Paige mysteries, down to Death in Hyde Park. And yes, Frances Barnes, thank you very much for pointing out the problem with the Golden Gate Bridge! That one got right past both of us, an editor, and a copy-editor. All four of us are embarrassed. But that's okay. This one wasn't as embarrassing as the "breeding steer" in Dilly!

Beatrix goes to the movies. Well, now they're saying it won't be Cate Blanchette, but it WILL be Emma Thompson who will play Beatrix Potter in Bruce Beresford's film. I'd love to see her in the role, but there have been so many ups and downs with this film that I'm wondering if it will ever be made. The other night, we watched the "bonus" DVD of Kevin Costner's movie Open Range. What an eye-opener that was! If I ever start thinking how hard it is to write a book, I'll just remember how many thousand times harder it is to make a good film.

Reading notes. My personal impulse in writing memoir [and writing this weblog?] has been to understand--to genuinely inquire about certain events in my life so that I can recognize the continuing influence of these defining moments and move beyond them... The self-reflection required of memoir writing prepares the way for the evolution of a new self. We are, after all, the only species we know of that reflects upon its memories.--Maureen Murdock

3/19/2004 06:54:00 PM

Tuesday, March 16, 2004  
Sturm und drang but only two-tenths of an inch of rain. Poor Lady (one of our two black Labs) was hysterical, in spite of the thunder pill we gave her. Lots of lightning, a couple of power outages (brief), and wind.

The white iris have been joined by the blue Japanese irises. Isn't this a beauty?

Another copy-cat review of Death in Hyde Park surfaced today, parroting the Publishers Weekly review. [See my angry entry for Feb. 25] I confronted this reviewer too, via email (I'm getting very bold about this). Of course, she too denied having read PW--but the evidence is there, in the similar language. (Don't most former English teachers have a nose for plagiarism?) Not that it does any good as far as this book is concerned, but it might make the reviewer think twice about borrowing from other reviews. Anyway, Bill just gave me a wonderful final word to this person: "Your review might work if the book ended at the end of the first chapter. But it doesn't. Ultimately, the motivation for the bombing turns out to be far more complex. It's analogous to someone in Chinese or North Korean intelligence masterminding a botched 9/11--to discredit the Taliban!"

Of course, this isn't just our problem, and it's getting worse all the time, now that we have the Internet. "Reviewers" don't read, they just borrow--from the book jacket, from the publishers' blurbs, and from other "reviewers." This kind of thing makes authors crazy--especially when the Big Cheese Reviewer from whom everyone is borrowing makes a stinky mistake. But there's very little authors can do, except to ask the publicist to make sure that the plagiarizing reviewer doesn't get another book. Or maybe bombs?

Reading notes. Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois so that you may be violent and original in your work.--Gustave Flaubert

3/16/2004 07:09:00 PM

Monday, March 15, 2004  
What's blooming this week. For starters, a wonderful white iris.

When Bill was in college at UT Austin, he lived in the old Campus Co-op, on Guadalupe. The building is long gone, but he rescued a couple of clumps of early white iris. This one is a daughter of that long-ago plant. It blooms before everything else (well, not quite, but almost), and is purely beautiful.

Maybe more later. Big thunderstorm looming to the northwest, heading in our direction. So I'm signing off.

3/15/2004 06:17:00 PM

Sunday, March 14, 2004  
Green herons. These are among our prettiest birds, but we don't see them very often, and usually from a distance. This morning, I spotted a very large one perched on the dead oak tree in the middle of the lake--not a very attractive tree to look at, but dearly loved by the birds. He looked exactly like this photo. As I watched, he lifted from the tree and flew to the shallows. When I finished feeding the sheep, he was still there, looking for a breakfast of crayfish and frogs, no doubt. Yum.

Rain report. Well, heck. What a disappointment. On Saturday morning, at 4:30 a.m., we were awakened with a flash flood warning by our NOAA weather radio, which keeps us posted on storm conditions. But we only got four-tenths of an inch in the last 48 hours, according to Bill's rain gauge. Sometimes, NOAA is more of a nuisance than anything else, especially when it broadcasts flood warnings for a wide area like the Hill Country, where flooding (if it occurs) is very localized. But it's a real security blanket when it comes to severe thunderstorms and tornado watches and warnings. WXK27, in Austin, is our station, and our radio is on all the time. They've also recently begun broadcasting Amber Alerts, which is a major public service.

Book report. Finally feeling the wind in my sails, or something. 1700 words a day for the past couple of days. There's a plot here somewhere, I'm sure.

Bookmarks. You wouldn't think that a little thing like a bookmark would take such a LOT of time. But finally, here it is. Peggy Turchette (the artist who did the great map of MeadowKnoll for the Herb Quarterly magazine, has done it again. She produced some lovely art work for the bookmark, and did all the work of reproducing it. Thank you, Peggy Turchette! And Peggy Moody, our stalwart webmistress, has posted the bookmark for you to see--and to have, if you want some, for free. Actually, I'd be tickled pink if people would help me hand out these bookmarks, which are of course advertisements for the new Beatrix Potter series. So please ask for as many as you're willing to hand out. (Not via email, please. Just click on the bookmark link and follow the directions there.)

Reading Notes. It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support-system for art. It's the other way around.--Steven King.

3/14/2004 06:12:00 PM

Friday, March 12, 2004  
Rain today. A cold front from the north, Pacific moisture from the southwest, a recipe for rain. Yay! It's not that we never get enough rain here, it's just that . . . well, we never get enough. The 17-acre lake on the west side of MeadowKnoll has shrunk to a 2-acre pond, barely big enough for the geese to sail around on. The creek is full and running, but that won't last long if we don't get a LOT more rain. Forget about bluebonnets this year--we'll have a few, but nothing like the blanket of blue that we normally have. However, it's due to rain tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday, which will help a bit; I can see it coming on the radar, through Marfa and Junction, a moving green blob. And it's cold enough for a fire in the fireplace, so we're feeling cozy this evening.

Chokecherry. Here's the photo I promised you a couple of days ago, of one of the chokecherry trees in our woods. There's a good bloom this year, and the trees are lovely, especially on a gray, rainy day. They look like pale ghosts wafting through the dark woods.

And for the person who wrote to ask, I found a chokecherry jelly recipe here. I've read that stronger-tasting chokecherries make better-tasting jelly, but you can't prove it by me. I'll just look at them, thank you, and let the wild creatures enjoy eating them.

Marfa (which I mentioned above, re: the radar). Now, there's a place for you. Have you ever been to Marfa, Texas? (West Texas, not far from Big Bend.) Have you ever seen the Marfa lights?

Well, I have. And I was stone cold sober. I was with a bunch of academic types (biologists, geologists, a couple of astronomers), and they were sober too. It was 1983, and people had already been writing and talking about the lights for about 100 years (although the Apaches reported seeing them before then). About a dozen of us drove out to a spot on Mitchell Flat, east of the little town of Marfa about nine o'clock one night, got out of our cars, and waited.

And there they were, bright and quick, erratic and darting, joining and separating playfully. Two and three lights at a time, sometimes just one light, in the air over the desert, at some indeterminate point between the road where I stood and the Chinati Mountains. The usual theories (mirage, methane gas, St. Elmo's fire, reflections) don't pan out, and the team of University of Texas scientists that spent two summers out there in the late 80s couldn't crack the riddle, either. No lie, no tall tale, just an enduring Texas puzzle. Next time you're out that way, plan to get to Marfa about dusk and see for yourself. While you stand there and stare, disbelieving, use your imagination. What do YOU think is going on out there in the dark, silent air? (Could be the plot of a great novel!)

To get to Marfa, take I10 west from San Antonio. At Fort Stockton, take 385 south until you reach Highway 90. Take Highway 90 west through Alpine. About ten miles before you're due to get to Marfa, start looking. There's a plaque, and a pull-off where you'll be joined by people from all over the world, trying to figure out what's going on out there.

A brief history of the Marfa lights.
A photo of one of the lights, and some local anecdotes.

Reading Notes. Imagination is more important than knowledge.
-- Albert Einstein

3/12/2004 07:10:00 PM

Thursday, March 11, 2004  
Double-crested cormorants don't live here year round--they're "snow birds," coming down for the winter to escape the cold temperatures that freeze their lakes up north. Now, they're making their way back north to their breeding grounds; we're on their flyway, and we're seeing small flights passing overhead. Usually, our lake hosts a flock of a couple of dozen cormorants for at least a part of the winter, but this year, the lake was so low that they gave us a pass. Do take the time to check out the link (above). The photos of these goony-looking birds will make you smile. At the bottom of that page, I found this note, which also brought a smile: According to one account (Forbush, ~1925-29), fishermen visiting a cormorant nesting island found that they had decorated their nests with pocket knives, men's pipes, hairpins, and ladies' combs that the cormorants had gathered by diving to a sunken trading vessel. The aquatic version of the pack rat.

Fiber stuff. Still doing hats, and a couple of scarves. This scarf is knit lengthwise. I did it on a 29" circular #9 needle, with a cast-on of about 200 stitches. It used up a lot of odd bits of yarn, some of it hand-spun

Gardening. Yep, it's that time. Bought a couple of dozen petunias for the porch box and the window box, some dianthus, and three 6" geraniums. Potted everything up, then cleaned the winter clutter off the deck, and brought a few of the hardier plants out of their winter "greenhouse"--the kitchen end of our old single-wide housetrailer, now used as a craft studio and library space. The rosebushes I pruned around Valentine's Day are leafing out happily, and the white iris are getting ready to bloom.

Writing. Up to about 50,000 words, and feeling pretty good about it. The plot is gradually coming together, although I've had to do quite a bit more back-tracking than usual, as new ideas emerge. I'd rather have these ideas in the beginning, so they could be incorporated in their logical order. But better late than never Another 20,000 words, and I'll stop and give the whole thing a good polish. By that time, I hope, all the bright ideas will have occurred to me--because by that time, it will be too late.

Nice news. Dilly was reviewed for the Associated Press Weekly Features, which means that some 1700 newspapers will get the review, which was a very good one. A wire-service review is a cause for celebration around here, as you might imagine. Dancing, fireworks, balloons, confetti, that sort of happy thing. Well, literal dancing, metaphoric fireworks. Let's keep it in perspective, as our editor always says.

Reading Notes. You write a book and it's like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it in the ocean. You don't know if it will ever reach any shores. And there, you see, sometimes it falls in the hands of the right person.--Isabelle Allende.

3/11/2004 07:33:00 PM

Wednesday, March 10, 2004  
Burning day. Burning is one of our life-in-the-country chores. We do it 4-5 times a year, always on a damp morning with no wind. In preparation for burning day, Bill piles up heaps of branches and trees--cedar, oak, elm, hackberry--and garden stuff (the twiggy part that doesn't get composted). He calls the sheriff's office to let them know that we're burning (in case somebody calls in and reports smoke), he starts the fire, and I report for duty once he's got the thing going. Even a big pile is reduced to ashes in a few hours. This morning, we were done before 10 a.m. A good job, well done for another few months. The dogs think we do it just for their entertainment.

Applause for Lorraine F, from Vermont, who knew the right button to push to get that obscene "review" removed from Dilly's webpage. Thank you, Lorraine!

Darts. We get quite a bit of mail and email from readers, most of it (thankfully) supportive. However, every now and then, something comes in that . . . well, it sort of knocks you for a loop. This email, for instance (the spelling errors are those of the writer), which came from Las Vegas NV:

I brought your book 'A Dilly of a Death' and on page 184 you mark a remark about President GW Bush that I thought was very inappropriate especially in this day and age. My son has served in the US Air Force for 16 years and serving under the George Senior and George W. brought piece of mind to me. Serving under Clinton was a military mother's nightmare. Your comment disturbed me so much, I will never purchase another book authored by you.

Here's the sentence from Dilly, p. 184, that has so "disturbed" this emailer. The scene is Bean's Bar & Grill, where folks go "to stuff themselves on Bob Godwin's deep-fried pickled jalapenos, drink beer, shoot pool, [and] throw blasphemous darts at an irreverent poster of a former Texas governor who has gone on to bigger and better things..."

Well, heck-fire. The more I thought about this business, the more I felt that the email was an attempt at intimidation, and the angrier I got--especially since I felt that China's remark on p. 184 was actually waaay too mild. In another book, for instance, the guys at Bean's are heaving darts at a different former governor's life-size poster, sitting astride her white motorcycle. That's former gov Ann Richards, of course; the photo famously appeared on the cover of Texas Monthly magazine. Ann's a Dem, with a healthy sense of humor.

As I say, the more I stewed, the madder I got. So I sent this reply to "disturbed":

You know, now that I think about it, I agree with you. That remark was inappropriate, and even a bit ambiguous. Here's what I should have said:

Since I am personally acquainted with Bush's history, his policies, and his practices (having lived as a Texan under his governorship for an interminable two terms), I am quite ready to see him booted out of the White House, along with the right-wingers who are calling his shots. It is increasingly clear that G.W. Bush misled the nation into believing that Saddam possessed nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and was prepared to use them. This president's doctrine of unilateral preemptive war has alienated our allies and created jihadist enemies around the globe. His budget deficit is a nightmare that will haunt our children and grandchildren (yes, yours). And the ecological policies of his administration have taken us backward by decades.

There. I think that's more appropriate.

Reading Notes. I am delighted to be here with you this evening because after listening to George Bush all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texas accent sounds like. --Ann Richards [Keynote address, Democratic National Convention]

3/10/2004 07:18:00 PM

Monday, March 08, 2004  
Contrasts. While I've been home in Texas, enjoying spring, Bill has been enjoying a New Mexico get-awy, at the home of our friend Bob, who lives on the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, west of Las Vegas NM. Bill and Bob have been having SNOW, lots and lots and lots of snow. He'll be home this evening, but he's already emailed several photos, along with a blow-by-blow report on the snowstorms. Gotta love this technology. Here's one photo I really like.

Feeding birds. It's always hard to know when to stop feeding for the winter. Usually, I quit around the middle of March. I'll run out of seed next week, so that's probably as good a time as any. This year, we haven't had a great variety of birds, but rather more birds of a few species. There are lots of red-winged blackbirds, the usual allotment of sparrows (at one point I counted seven kinds of sparrows), and cardinals. Tonight, there were six male cardinals, all at one time. They like the birdbath, too, although I have to remember to dump it if the temperature falls below freezing.

One of my favorite birds is the mourning dove. which sings its low, sad song from the cedar tree and feeds on the seed that the rest of the birds toss out on the ground. A pair of them built a nest in the elm tree beside the stone wall last year, a flimsy, poorly-constructed nest--not much more than a collection of sticks--that got blown out of the tree before the female could manage to lay any eggs. I didn't see their second housing attempt--hope it was more substantial.

Another of our Texas doves is the Inca dove, which looks like it's wearing a kind of scaly body armor. And then there's the white-winged dove. We're on the northern edge of their range, but when we see one, we'll usually see a half-dozen.

It's thought to be great sport to shoot these birds, which are smaller than pigeons but are said to be very tasty. Our local brave-heart hunters seem to enjoy shooting them off the telephone wires, which is definitely not good news for the telephone company. It publishes a plea every September, at the beginning of dove season. You wouldn't think people would be that dumb, but... However, that's September, which is still six months away. So I can feed the doves and not worry about the hunters. Not yet.

Reading Notes. One writes to make a home for oneself, on paper, in time, in others' minds.--Alfred Kazin

3/08/2004 06:31:00 PM

Sunday, March 07, 2004  
I was out with the dogs several times today, because it was almost too pretty to stay indoors. A north breeze, advertised as a cold front, but not even cool enough for a sweater. The elm trees are sporting tiny green leaves, and the Chickasaw plums in the fence rows are beginning to bloom.

Along the edge of the woods, the chokecherry is putting out blossoms, too. There's an on-line photo here, and maybe in a couple of days our bloom will be significant enough to take a photo of it. Some people make a wine out of the fruit, which is okay as long as you discard the pits (which are toxic). I've read of jams and jellies made of it, too, but have never tried any. The Plains Indians made a mix of chokecherry fruit, pounded with suet and fat and buffalo meat that they called pemmican--a staple of their diet. The tree was medicine for them, too. The fruit juice was used to treat sore throat and diarrhea, while tea made from the bark was used as a cold remedy. Tea made from the roots was used as a sedative and stomach remedy. An all-round useful tree. Ornamental, too. And the bees love it. In another day or two, those trees will be blissfully humming, full of bees drawn from miles around.

The daffs are putting on a brave show, especially considering how few there are. The drought did them in, but those that are left are hardy souls, blooming for all they're worth. A beautiful swatch of yellow along the edge of the woods.

But for all that outdoor stuff, it was a writing day, and a good one. 1600 words, up to 45,000 words, which is more than half-way through. (This is the second Beatrix Potter book, for those of you who are just tuning in.) Had a good phone conversation with my son Bob, who has always been a reader. He was reminding me that Robert Heinlein, one of his favorite writers, wrote juvenile fiction, and we talked a bit about the crossover potential of fantasy--adult/juvenile crossover, that is. These Beatrix books are my first foray into fantasy, and they're FUN. The further along I go with them, the more I begin to see what kind of a world I've stumbled into, and what its potentials are, and pretty soon, I may even stop apologizing for these talking animals. Of course, all fiction is fantasy, in one way or another. But Bosworth Badger and Professor Gallileo Newton Owl (the two characters I'm working with just now, are serious fantasy, and I am seriously enjoying them.

Reading notes. I feel at times that I'm making up these little people and I've lost my mind.--Carolyn Chute.

3/07/2004 06:24:00 PM

Friday, March 05, 2004  
Spring songs. Wherever you live, whatever the place, spring makes itself known by its songs. Here in the Texas Hill Country, it's the birdsong that marks spring.

The cardinals are among the easiest to recognize: what-cheer, what-cheer, cheer cheer cheer. Both the male and the female cardinal sing, and sometimes they even sing duets. (Some interesting research suggests that female cardinals learn faster than males--how about that?) I read somewhere that cardinals have over a dozen calls and songs, and that there are local and regional "dialects."

And then there's the mockingbird, the state bird of Texas. It's not unusual for a mockingbird to have 30-35 songs tucked away somewhere deep inside, and spring is the time when they stand on tiptoes on their "song posts"--the top of the utility pole, the tip of a cedar tree--and spill out one song after another, in an endless musical variety show.

The Eastern phoebe, however, has just one song: fee-bee, fee-bee. All day long today, just outside my open office window: fee-bee, fee-bee. And then, just to be different, on the front porch, on the beam up under the eave. Fee-bee, fee-bee. A couple of years ago, a pair of these little flycatchers raised a brood of four in a nest about the size of my palm on that porch beam, and I have to wonder whether this spring singer is one of the birds who fledged from that nest, come home again now to claim his place and advertise. Fee-bee, fee-bee, here I am, where are you, you beautiful female fee-bee, fee-bee?

Another sign of spring. Mud. Dogs have more feet than people do, and naturally track in more mud. We have two dogs, hence eight feet. Plus four feet on the cat. Twelve feet. If twelve feet track outside six times a day, that's 72 feet coming back through the door, onto the carpet or the the clean kitchen floor. 72 muddy pawprints. You can't even yell at them (the way I used to yell at the kids) WIPE YOUR FEET, GUYS! And I'll be darned if I stand at the door with a towel and wipe off their paw as they come in. 72 paw wipes. The mind boggles. Anyway, I have better things to do, such as write.

Which I did, finally, this afternoon. Had a whole series of phone calls this morning, mostly to do with the writing business. A few days ago (2/26) I mentioned that we were planning to use a publicist for the Potter series. We found one we like, who will help us bring the books to the attention of school librarians and teachers--or at least, that's the plan. The books aren't written for young adults, but I think there's a strong crossover market there, and we're going to see whether I'm right or wrong. Anyway, the person we finally found knows and appreciates Beatrix Potter, so that's a big plus. However, it's like anything else: there's all kinds of stuff I have to do up front, which takes away from the writing time. But at last, after lunch, I got down to it, and ended up with my word quota for the day, just as the dogs (on their eight feet, which they had wiped clean on the living room carpet) trotted into the office to remind me that words are nice but doggie dinner is nicer, and it's time, Mom, so get the heck on with dinner. (I've been writing animal dialogue all afternoon. Can you tell?)

Reading Notes. I might write four lines or I might write twenty. I subtract and I add until I really hit something. You don't always whittle down, sometimes you whittle up.--Grace Paley

3/05/2004 06:47:00 PM

Thursday, March 04, 2004  
Weather and climate, it seems to me, are among the things that make a place unique and interesting. Today was one of those spring storm days, with a squall line ripping through the state, reaching from the Rio Grande in the south to the Red River in the north--and beyond, actually, almost to Chicago. The forecasters were saying that it would be crossing the Hill Country early this morning, and I went to bed thinking that we'd be awakened by our NOAA weather radio, with its strident weather alarm. But the low pressure area stalled out over West Texas and didn't start moving until mid-morning. I watch a couple of radar sites on the computer (a distraction from the writing?) and was fascinated by the way the storm moved.

We bought a tornado shelter a few years ago. It's a big concrete box, about 8x10x10, with a metal door, which was dropped into a big hole in the ground and covered over with dirt--designed to withstand an F-5, we're told. It's a far cry from the old "storm cave" my grandparents had in Missouri, where Grandma Franklin stored her canned beans and jellies. I can remember Grandpa waking us up and night and making us "go to the cave," which was rather an adventure, I always thought. Our shelter is fine, but I don't know how I'd ever get the dogs into it if I was here by myself and had to use it. They absolutely refuse to go down those stairs (even with the most tempting of hot dogs held out to seduce them), and they're too big for me to carry.

When the storm got close enough to hear the thunder, I gave Lady a thunder pill and unplugged the computer, which meant that I got a couple of hours to read this afternoon. Nice, really, a cup of tea, a good book (one of the Thrush Green series), and rain beating on the roof. Nearly a half-inch, not enough for run-off, just enough to make all the blooming and budding plants feel good about being right where they are.

All's quiet now. Lady's feeling better. The cat's asleep on the desk beside me. The sun's coming out, just in time for sunset, casting long gold bars across the meadow. There are a couple of deer down there by the creek, and a flight of buzzards taking one last turn through the high, cool sky. The land is washed and clean, and I feel very good to be a part of it. Bloom where you're planted, as the saying goes. Yes.

Reading notes. There is, in fact, only one life, one pulse animating the dust. Sycamores and snakes, grasshoppers and grass, hawks and humans all spring from the same source and all return to it. We need to make of this common life not merely a metaphor, although we live by metaphors, and not merely a story, although we live by stories; we need to make the common life a fact of the heart.--Scott Russell Sanders.

3/04/2004 06:34:00 PM

Wednesday, March 03, 2004  
It's almost hot today, warm enough for shorts and tee at noon, when I went out to clip the pyracanthus and do some general cleanup in the beds and borders. Kept an eye on the weather this afternoon; we had a few brief showers, but the storms--the forecast is for severe weather--aren't supposed to come through until early tomorrow morning. But even this afternoon's thunder (not much by Texas standards) gave poor Lady fits. She had a thunder pill (as our vet calls it) and is feeling temporarily better.

It's fun to walk through the meadows at this time of year, noticing what's budding and blooming and what's not. The elm trees are beginning to leaf out, the oaks are pollinating, but the mesquites are still another 45 days away. The Englemann daisies are spreading their green leafy mats. The bluebonnets are burgeoning (but won't bloom here for another three weeks), the blue-eyed grass has already poked up its tiny green sword-leaves, and I've even spotted a couple of patches of henbit, which you have to look for in order to see. Down by the creek, I found a couple of ten-petal anemone, which some people call Granny's nightcap.

There's been enough rain so that the creek is running again, but the lake is still pretty low and Cypress Branch, at the foot of the dam, is dry. However, the ground is saturated now, and the next time we get an inch or two of rain, there'll be enough run-off to start filling the lake. The lane is muddy, and every morning when I walk up to feed the sheep, I take note of the night's traffic: this morning, I saw the tracks of several deer of various sizes, overlaid with the tracks of a heavy raccoon. One of the deer tracks involved a long skid. I had to smile at that, imagining a surprised deer, stiff-legged, launching into a muddy skid.

Chugging along. I'm just about half-way through the book now(I'm working on the second book in the Beatrix Potter series, for those of you who don't read this blog regularly). I'm realizing, though, that I've moved the story along too fast, and that there are some minor stories that need to be woven in. So I'm doing what I think of as "layering," adding these secondary pieces into the existing story frame. I did a lot of fiddling today, and only managed 1300 words, but hey. Ten days of fiddling=13,000 words, so I'm not complaining. Those of you who do read this blog regularly are probably sick of reading about BP, because it feels like I've been working on the book forever. Calendar-wise, you're right, since I started after Christmas, just about 11 weeks ago. But according to my handy-dandy little writing notebook, I've only put in 28 writing days. 28 down and about 30 more to go. Hoping to wrap it up about April 15, when the bluebonnets are in full bloom.

Reading Notes. To be a writer is to be a shuttlecock in a badminton game, one racquet of whic is naive optimism and the other a cynical despair.--John Jerome

3/03/2004 07:15:00 PM

Tuesday, March 02, 2004  
Odd gander out. A social catastrophe. The big white gander (Moby Gander) has now totally beaten out the gray gander (Major Gander) for the heart of the gray goose (Mama Superior). I found a pile of white down beside the path the other day, and noticed that Major Gander was missing a hunk of feathers in his rear end. Today, grazing with the other four geese in the yard, he was kept at a distance of 30 feet or so by Moby Gander, who chased him off every time he tried to approach Mama Superior. This is a very sad event, you understand, since Major Gander has been in possession of that goose for three breeding seasons. To lose her now must break his heart.

I can't think of anything we can do to help, short of shooting Moby Gander (which I'm really not prepared to do). Or exporting him to Lake Buchanan (which means catching him first, not an easy feat). Or getting more geese, which is a big project, since I have to buy at least a dozen before the hatchery will ship them, and then I'd have all those baby geese to tend and to worry about. And that wouldn't solve today's problem. Ah, love. Or lust, as the case may be. Whatever, I really feel sorry for that gander. One good thing, though: testosterone season will be over in about 60 days, and all their differences will be forgotten. They'll be one happy flock again.

Rain today, but the bluebonnets and I aren't complaining. Beautiful gray skies, a thick mist over the south meadow, a gentle rain falling most of the afternoon. Maybe close to an inch. I haven't been out to the rain gauge yet.

Fiber stuff. The items for the Afghan children are due this week, so I bundled up the hats I've been knitting and sent them off to the collection center in San Francisco. There were a dozen in this lot. This is a photo from last summer, but it will give you an idea of what I'm doing. For me, these little hats are like pattern samplers--quick, fun to make, and I learn something new with each one. And somebody NEEDS them. A lot of little somebodies, I expect.

Peggy Moody and I put up a couple of new pages for the Beatrix Potter series on our website yesterday. This has been in the works for some time, but the pieces all finally came together, and voila! Go to the main page, and click on the Beatrix Potter link on the tool bar. The graphics were drawn by Peggy Turchette, who drew the map (you'll see it there too) and is currently working on the bookmark. Peggy Moody (lots of Peggys in my life!) put the pages together for me, as she does all of the other pages on our site. Nice job, I think. There's more to come (Beatrix's bio, a list of her books, something about the farm and the Lake District, materials for librarians and teachers, etc.).

Reading Notes. There are hours and hours of a writer's time that aren't worth the paper he is not writing anything on.--E.B. White. Or she, as the case may be.

3/02/2004 06:51:00 PM

Monday, March 01, 2004  
A beautiful day, pure and simple. That's all you can say about a spring day filled with abundant sunshine, birdsong, and blooming daffodils. There aren't quite as many daffs as I might have hoped--think we must have lost a third to a half in the drought. But those that remain are brave and beautiful. Here they are.

Off to a lovely start. Got a nice note from a Canadian reader whose husband is in Afghanistan, about to be sent to Iraq. She says he's a dedicated Robin Paige reader, and asked for an autographed something to put into his next care package. So we're sending the new book (see #4 below). What a great way to start the day.

Other nice things today. 1) Found another goose nest (who says a goose needs only one nest?) with two eggs in it; 2) Got a big slurpy kiss from a sheep this morning when I went to feed; 3) Saw a sharp-shinned hawk sitting in a juniper in our yard; 4) saw four deer and a roadrunner in the south meadow, while I was eating supper; 5) got our authors' copies of Hyde Park and Glamis, which always makes us feel GOOD; and 6) got 1400 words in the Beatrix book.

Forests and trees. I picked up a Miss Read book today (that will mean something to a few of you, but if it doesn't, there's no way to explain) and remembered immediately why I am writing these Beatrix Potter books. It's an effort to recreate Thrush Green and Fairacre. Sometimes I get so focussed on the minutiae of the writing that I forget the original vision, something like paying too close attention to the lichen and moss on the trees and ignoring the whole darn forest. Just a couple of pages (the book was Winter at Thrush Green) were enough to remind me of the landscape I set out to explore. Except that my landscape has talking animals in it. Miss Read with talking animals. Sigh...

Place-writing. If you're thinking of submitting a piece of place writing for Story Circle's new anthology of women's writings about the Southwest, you have just one more month to do it. All the info you need is right here. No, you don't have to belong to SCN to submit, although of course we hope you'll want to join. As of this afternoon, we had 76 entries. In addition to the work of unpublished writers, we'll be selecting excerpts from published writings, as well. If all goes according to plan (it won't, of course), we'll be sending the manuscript off in September and we'll have a book in 2006. Maybe.

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

3/01/2004 07:07:00 PM


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