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

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Killer Plants

Ecotone: Writing About Place

Tuesday, May 25, 2004  

My mother loved "Easter" lilies--the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum). During the five years she lived in the nursing home (she died in July, 2000), she always received at least one pot of lilies (sometimes more) from friends and family every year. Naturally, the lilies came home to my garden. Some years they've done well, other years there's been scarcely a bloom. This year, they're blooming all over themselves--an amazing display. I went out to the garden in the moonlight last night. The sight of them, pale and luminiscent, was breathtaking, the scent intoxicating. This lily has been in cultivation, they say, longer than any other flower. Pharohs of the 18th Dynasty, I have read, decorated their tombs with white lilies, and the ancient Minoans immortalized them on their pottery. And the Greeks and Romans used the bulb in a medicinal ointment. I could think of these things as I admire this lily. But I just think of Mom. These Madonnas belong to her.

Yesterday's nightshade photo led to an interesting email exchange today. Rana Williams invited me to take a look at this lovely nightshade photo. Please do click on the link and look at it--such astonishing detail, so beautifully captured. I was so impressed by Rana's work that I explored more of her site, and found this industrious bee, loading up on pollen from a gaillardia, also called blanket flower, or Indian blanket, or firewheel. Thank you, Rana, for sharing your work. (Rana also has a blog you might like to visit.)

Vacation time. Bill and I are checking out for ten days, heading off to New Mexico and some cooler weather. In previous years, we've driven to Ontario, to the Bruce Peninsula. Last year, we went to England, for Beatrix Potter research. This year, we decided to stay a little closer to home, so we found a nice casita for rent just outside Taos. However, we're taking the laptop. No rest for the righteous. We really do need to get started writing that Marconi book Bill has been researching for the last six months. But we won't have email, so hold your communications for a while.

Reading Notes. The only sure antidote to oblivion is creation. So I loop my sentences around the trunks of maples, hook them into the parched soil, anchor them to rock, to moon and stars, wrap them tenderly around the ankles of those I love. From down in the pit I give a tug, to make sure my rope of words is firmly hooked into the world, and then up I climb.-- Scott Russell Sanders, Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World

5/25/2004 06:09:00 PM

Monday, May 24, 2004  
Silver nightshade (Solanum elaegnifolium) is so pretty, it's a darned shame that it's also prickly! "Stems have spines," says one souce. (Now, that's an understatement.) "Noxious weed," says another. Bill says, "I'm spraying those suckers," and he does.

However, my wildflower book says that the yellow fruits (which look like yellow cherry-tomatoes)were mixed with cream to treat poison ivy. And here's a site that reports these appetizing facts: "Pima Indians added crushed berries to milk when making cheese. The Kiowa Tribe combined silverleaf nightshade seeds with brain tissue and used it for tanning hides." However, the researcher says that it's definitely toxic to cows and horses, and even sheep can be affected. Okay, Bill, get after it. I will have to forego harvesting the fruit to make cheese, or adding it to brain tissue and tan hides. But I still think it's pretty.

Life in the country. Don't try it unless you are a D-I-Y expert. The well pump quit today, half-way through a washer load of blue jeans and work shirts. Usually when this happens, it's because fire ants get into the contacts and short-circuit them (fire ants apparently get a big happy jolt out of being electrically fried). Today, though, Bill says the wiring contacts to the pump's capacitor (I'm assuming here that you know what this is) were corroded. He kissed them with a wire wheel on one of his grinders and all was well. If I had to live in this place by myself I would have to learn a whole new set of skills, starting with disassembling the well pump motor.

"A Collage to Kill For." If you think this sounds like the title for a short story, you might just be right. Marilyn Wallace is editing a new story collection for Berkley, to be called Murder Most Crafty. She invited me to submit a story. First I said no, then I said maybe, and then I thought of a nifty idea for a murderous blackmail plot, snickered, and said yes. The story features China and Ruby up to their usual tricks, and was fun to write. Can't believe I put this together over the weekend, but it's true. I'm just about finished with it--only a little fine-tuning and tinkering, I hope. Anyway, I'd much rather do this than scrape fire ants out of the pump contacts, or take a wire brush to the pump's capacitor. The book will be out in May, 2005.

Reading Notes. What might my life be like were I to give in to the rhythms of my own ragged dance? Like this, I imagine, walking down the trail, past grapevines and winecups and huisache blooming in the sun. Just like this attentiveness, this pleasure, this being present to the world.--Susan Hanson, Icons of Loss and Grace.

5/24/2004 06:15:00 PM

Friday, May 21, 2004  
Golden May. April is scarlet and blue, with paintbrush and bluebonnets dominating the color palette. May--the last two weeks, anyway--is mostly burnished gold and blazing yellow. The Engelmann daisy is brightening our meadows just now. It's named for Dr. George Engelmann, 1809-1884, a German-born physician and botanist who described and studied a great many plants of the Midwest. He also founded a school for midwives in St. Louis, worked as a newspaper publisher, and did archaeological work--all in addition to putting together a remarkable collection of botanical specimens, many of which had never been identified before and which now bear his name. A man of many talents. I think of him when I see this energetic, cheerful wildflower that gleams like gold coins strewn across the fields, and I smile.

Family company for the last couple of days (Bill's mom and brother), so I haven't gotten much writing done. However, I've been knitting, which is exactly the right thing to do while everybody's talking (and it would be rude to go off and write). Of course, I talk too, which sometimes means that I don't pay enough attention to the knitting, which leads to . . . well, you know. I've been working on a sweater for my granddaughter Becky, who will celebrate her first birthday shortly. It's made of that wild fun fur sold by Lion Brand yarn. Not exactly fun to work with, since it's virtually imposssible to see when you've dropped a stitch. However, after several false starts, it is all but done. Now, I've embarked on a sweater for her father's birthday. But don't tell him--it's a secret.

Writing about place--that's what I've been reading for the past few days, until our company arrived. I'm working with three other women to edit a book of women's writing about the Southwest for Story Circle and the University of Texas Press. We advertised a good bit earlier in the year, and ended up with 279 submissions--twice what we expected. And most of them were very good, too. This hasn't made our job any easier, but we are working our way through them. It's a labor of love, and joy, to read so many strong pieces of writing from women who are deeply aware that we live our lives in a world of natural landscapes, not just in the artifactual, human-made world, women who are alive to the mystery of everything that is around us. One of the co-editors on the project is Susan Hanson, whose new book has just been published by Texas Tech University. Tonight's Reading Note comes (as did the Note in the previous entry) from Susan's book.

Reading Note. "Why write about nature?" a friend asked me not long ago. Why say what seems so obvious to the eye...Why write about nature?..Is it not enough to see the harrier, the marsh hawk, perched atop the telephone pole, to feel the touch of velvet-leaf mallow against my skin, to smell the dampness of the pungent earth? Must I write of these things as well? I must...--Susan Hanson, Icons of Loss and Grace

5/21/2004 06:21:00 PM

Wednesday, May 19, 2004  
Summer's here. We hit 90 yesterday, and the air is heavy and muggy, muggy. But all told, it's been a good spring, with cooler-than-normal temperatures and plenty of moisture. The weatherman was saying last night that this is the latest "first 90" in recent memory.

Munch, munch. The bronze fennel has been a recent host to a black swallowtail butterfly caterpillar, who is doing his level best to eat the whole thing. But that's mostly why I grow fennel, and I know from past experience that the plant will come back after the caterpillar has gone on to greater glories.

Bed check. The two mama geese and the mama wild turkey didn't make it this year, but there's still a net gain. Four bluebird nests, all fledged, for a total of some 15-20 young birds. A couple of titmouse nests, ditto, 6-8 birds. Cardinals nesting along the creek, with the indigo bunting close by (to judge from the male's territorial song). Four martin nests: one mama doing her duty on 7 eggs, another nest with 5, and two nests with 3 eggs and 1 egg, both apparently inactive. The air is filled with cheerful song.

Mountain lion sighting? Speaking of the geese and the turkey (all three of which were thoroughly eaten, which lets out dogs), we think we caught a glimpse of the culprit night before last: a mountain lion, loping unconcernedly across the south meadow, on the other side of the creek. If we're right, this would be the third sighting in our area that we know of in the last five years or so. These animals were here long before humans arrived on the scene, and while I'm not anxious to meet one up close and personal--and I regret the loss of the geese and the turkey--I was glad to see this one. Maybe he'll help hold down the deer population, which is growing. The herd we see almost daily now has eight deer.

The Fort Worth Herb Society threw a wonderful party last Saturday, at the Ft. Worth Botanical Garden. It's always worth the trip just to get a glimpse of the gardens in spring, but there was a double dose of pleasure in seeing so many old friends. Books on the Square, an independent bookstore in nearby Granbury, was kind enough to bring both the China Bayles and Robin Paige books. Thanks, Sherry. I bought some familiar herbs to use as a demonstration for my talk--lavender, rosemary, dill, hen-and-chicks (did you know that this was once thought to protect a house from lightning?)--parsley, thyme--so I need to put in some digging time in the garden this afternoon.

Reading notes. My body knows this life as well--in the sight of giant swallowtails dancing their double helix in the sun, in the scent of rosemary brushed against my flesh, in the sound of my husband's breathing as he sleeps. Come in, this life urges in a million different ways. Humming in the wasp nest on my porch or glowing in the moonlight of an early summer night, it tells me what the wren intuits in the hollow of her bones. Come in, it tells me. You are home.--Susan Hanson, Icons of Loss and Grace

5/19/2004 08:55:00 AM

Thursday, May 13, 2004  
We didn't get 12 inches of rain, and we're glad! That's what they got about 70 miles to the east of us, in a four-hour period. Way too much rain, coming way too fast. It caused an earthen dam to break. We do not like to hear reports like this, since we live downstream of an earthen dam, built more than 30 years ago by a man who was definitely not an expert at dam-building. Our lake is full, the ground is saturated, and there is more rain on the way tonight. Ack.

Lost another goose this week. This one was sitting on a nest, too. (I was obviously wrong about having only one goose, the one we lost about a month ago--but then I'm not an expert on the sex life of geese.) I'm sad, of course. But motherhood for geese--for any large birds, actually--is a high-risk occupation, particularly for those who build their nests on the ground. We're down to a trio of ganders now, or at least I'm pretty sure of this.

Motherhood, for me, has been a much more satisfactory affair. Mother's Day brought a card from son Michael and his wife ("A Mom goes to bat for you when the going gets rough...") and this beautiful bouquet of daisies from son Bob. Thanks, guys!

Also got nifty phone calls from all three, son Bob, daughter Robin, and son Michael & D-I-L Sheryl, with granddaughter Becky chortling in the background. How nice to be a mom, and especially when I see what a great job they're doing raising THEIR kids. Makes me feel I did something right, way back then. At least, I didn't build my nest on the ground.

Tomorrow, I'm back on the road again, this time for a two-day trip to Fort Worth. (Hope it stops raining!) To celebrate Mystery Week, we're having a panel of mystery authors at the University Park B&N in Fort Worth tomorrow night. On Saturday, I'm giving a talk at the Fort Worth Herb Festival. Details on the website--click on Crime Partners on the Lam. Bill will be holding down the fort at home.

Today. Not quite writing, but getting close. The next book on the calendar is the Robin Paige mystery, featuring Marconi. We've got the general Charles/Marconi plot laid out, and today I spent some time doodling over Kate's plot. The book is set on Lizard Point, at the southwestern tip of Cornwall, where Marconi built his experimental wireless station. This is also the country of Daphne Du Maurier, whose books I enjoyed years ago. I'm rereading her Frenchman's Creek and thinking of setting part of this book in the area where her novel is set. It's on the eastern slope of the Lizard peninsula, and the Marconi site is just across the downs, only about 4-5 miles to the west. Lovely, lovely country.

Reading notes. The work of belonging to a place is never finished. There will always be more to know than any mind or lifetime can hold. But that is no argument against learning all I can.--Scott Russell Sanders, Staying Put

5/13/2004 05:53:00 PM

Monday, May 10, 2004  
Unseen Singers. One of the pleasures of inhabiting a place for a long time (it's hard for me to believe, but we've lived here for almost 17 years) is that you don't have to actually see something to know that it's there. This morning, as I was walking with the dogs to the lake, I heard a mockingbird, a cardinal, a titmouse, a bob-white marking his territory, several martins chattering about breakfast, a mourning dove, and a wren. After lunch, walking around Cypress Meadow, I heard the the spilled melody of an indigo bunting and the season's first yellow-billed cuckoo, the bird that heralds the beginning of our summer. My mother, who grew up in Missouri, called it a "rain crow" and insisted that every time it sang, rain followed. (Maybe there, not here.) I've lived at MeadowKnoll long enough to have met each of these birds and watched them sing their songs; now, I have only to hear them singing to know that they're there, celebrating their residence in this place just as I do, hidden away in the tops of trees or deep in the grass.

Speaking of birds, my brother John writes from Florida with this optimistic observation: We enjoyed a visit from mama and papa sandhill crane this morning. They were escorting a pair of chicks--each about 15 inches high--still wearing their yellow pin feathers. Looked like a couple of Easter peeps on steroids. They must have hatched nearby, because they
didn't appear to be ready to fly....With all the bad things going on in the world, it's good to see that life in nature still goes on.

And speaking of life in nature, I offer for your contemplation this tidy little plant, a staghorn milkweed (Asclepias asperula), a favorite host plant of Monarch butterfly larvae:

For more lovely photos (including a closeup of an industrious bee) and an explanation of why this plant is called "staghorn," go here. Our staghorns are now decorated with Monarch eggs. I love to think that these Monarchs, in their deepest beings, will call MeadowKnoll home, too.

Reading notes. To inhabit a place means literally to have made it a habit, to have made it the custom and ordinary practice of our lives, to have learned how to wear a place like a familiar garment, like the garments of sanctity that nuns once wore. The word habit, in its now-dim original form, meant "to own." We own places not because we possess the deeds to them, but because they have entered the continuum of our lives.--Paul Gruchow, Grass Roots: The Universe of Home

5/10/2004 06:12:00 PM

Friday, May 07, 2004  
Lady does laps. I took the dogs with me this morning to feed the sheep (we have four black-belly Barbados, if you've tuned in late), and Lady squeezed through the fence and bolted for the lake. Lady is one of our pair of black Labs, and she's crazy for swimming. Before I realized she was even in the water, she'd swum out about 100 yards, to the dead oak in the middle of the lake. Thinking that she might just try to swim all the way across, I jumped up and down on the bank, waving my arms and yelling. She finally heard me, turned around, and came paddling back, then was good to go for another ten minutes of fetching her tennis ball out of the water, and a half-mile walk home. Whew. Wish I had her stamina.

A peach of a rose. Most of our roses are "old" roses; this one's a hybrid climber, growing on a fence. Pretty as a picture.

Moisture Plus. That's the name of a product that is supposed to help keep the soil in containers from drying out--some sort of polymer crystal that absorbs water, then releases it as the soil dries out. The stuff actually works, too. I bought some a couple of years ago and used it all, then went out and bought another jar of it. Brought it home and left it on the dining table, along with the assortment of items also purchased during my shopping spree. (Nothing exotic, just necessary stuff.) Went to pot some plants, looked for my polymer crystals, and couldn't find them. Searched and searched, and finally located them in the bathroom where Bill had put the bottle, thinking it was some sort of facial stuff. Moisture Plus, right? "Look at this face," I said to him. "Does it look like the kind of face that uses facial stuff?" Wisely, he didn't answer. Anyway, the plants are all potted and happy. They'll be even happier when I've neglected to water them and this stuff does its job.

Soon I'll get back to serious writing. But not today. Today I am going to clean the goldfish pond, pot some more plants, pull some more weeds, and think about writing. Bill is thinking about the Marconi book, Death on the Lizard, which we're supposed to write next. I can't help myself; I am thinking about the next China Bayles, which will be called Bleeding Heart. Don't know what it's about yet, which is why I'm thinking.

Reading notes. People want to know why I do this gross horror stuff. I have the heart of a small boy--and keep it in a jar on my desk.--Stephen King

5/07/2004 02:56:00 PM

Thursday, May 06, 2004  
Bed check. The purple martins are doing their spring thing. The new birdhouse, Martin Manor, has apartment spaces for 12 pairs. So far this year, we have three mating pairs, and three of the apartments are occupied, with a total (as of today) of 6 eggs. Hatching expected the last week of May, and the gang will be fledged by the third week of June. This morning, checking the nests, I put in my hand and encountered a martin mama engaged in her maternal affairs. I don't know who was more startled, Mama or I. But she just hunkered down and ignored me. I excused myself and came back a couple of hours later, after she'd gone out for lunch, to count the eggs. Three. This gal means business.

A couple of years ago, I planted several Texas columbines along Pecan Creek, near Hidden Pool. I don't remember the variety, but I think it might be "Texas Gold"--not the red Central Texas native, but a variety from the mountains of West Texas, hybridized by the plant wizards at A&M. They're beautiful this year, and reseeding themselves like crazy. I counted 17 mature plants--think I started with three or four.

The new floor was put in yesterday, and is gorgeous. It was also a LOT of work, since all the books had to come out so that the bookcases could be moved. Whew. But they're all reshelved now, and things are (mostly) back in order, although much cleaner than they were. A big part of the work was dusting everything. I am definitely not the best housekeeper in the world.

Postcards. One of artist Peggy Turchette's projects this spring was the drawing of a postcard for the new Beatrix Potter mystery. Since the book is called The Tale of Hill Top Farm, I asked Peggy to draw Hill Top Farm itself, and get it printed up as a postcard. The picture is similar to the drawing on the bookmark, but larger (of course) and more detailed. Over the next couple of months, I'll be mailing them to libraries and bookstores, and to members of Sisters in Crime and to my own mailing list. But for the moment, I'm just admiring them. They're beautiful!

Reading notes. Plot depends for its movement on internal combustion.--Elizabeth Bowen

5/06/2004 06:54:00 PM

Monday, May 03, 2004  
Home Again from a weekend in D.C. to a beautiful Texas spring. Today was one of those gorgeous days--cool, bright, sparkling--that always make me glad to be living exactly where I'm living. And there's no traffic, unlike Washington. Maybe four vehicles on our road today, one of them the guys who are installing the new laminate floor, another UPS, delivering the page proofs of the first Beatrix Potter mystery, due out at the end of September. Both of these deliveries mean lots of work ahead, but on such a beautiful day, even that can be overlooked.

Malice Domestic--that's the name of the conference I attended in Washington. I saw lots of old friends, talked to authors I hadn't seen for a while, had lunch with my editor (and successfully pitched her a new book concept, my Herbal Book of Days), and also with Linda Lear, Beatrix's biographer. This was my first meeting with Linda, but we chattered away like old friends. We have, as you might guess, a great deal of research in common. But Linda is definitely the expert. What she doesn't know about BP isn't worth knowing. I took one evening off for some quiet time, did some knitting (socks, yes), and reading.

Somebody asked me what I'm reading these days. Some true crime (Before He Wakes, by Jerry Bledsoe) and House of Bush, House of Saud, by Craig Unger. The latter is one of the best-researched, best-documented books on foreign policy and national security that I have ever read. A challenging read, highly recommended. It is guaranteed to change your understanding of the current U.S.-Saudi relationship and give you a new view of the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Along the creek, the yellow flags are blooming. Yes, I know that these beautiful plants are wickedly invasive, and I'm ashamed to admit that I've given them a home. But I can't get rid of them and they're so stunningly ornamental--sunshine in a blossom--that my chagrin is mixed with admiration. The plant has a long history of medicinal uses, this among them, from John Gerard, around 1690: 'The root, boiled soft, with a few drops of rosewater upon it, laid plaisterwise upon the face of man or woman, doth in two daies at the most take away the blacknesse and blewnesse of any stroke or bruise.' The flowers are said to produce a yellow dye--don't know for sure, haven't tried it.

Son Michael is making a bid to be selected for the Showtime reality show, "American Candidate." His page is here. He's invested some time and thought in the issues, and I'm especially pleased with his statement: "Why I'd make a good president." Turns out that the two of us agree on almost all the issues, except for the death penalty. I also have to smile at the photo of father and piggy-back daughter posted on the page. Yep, that's Becky, all right, the youngest of my four lovely granddaughters. (Son Bob has one, Robin has one, and Michael has two.) Good luck to Mike in his run for "office." I have as much confidence in him as I do in . . . bite my tongue. I'm trying to stay away from politics here.

Reading notes: Feelings are bound up in place . . . Can one explain otherwise what makes a given dot on the map come passionately alive, for good and all? --Eudora Welty

5/03/2004 06:35:00 PM


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