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

Monday, July 26, 2004  
I always think of my grandmother's garden when I see my hollyhocks, although I don't remember Grandma Franklin--my mother's mother, who gardened in the rolling hill country of northeastern Missouri-- having a hollyhock as deliciously, elegantly frilly as this icy beauty. Grandma's hollyhocks were usually pink or purple, and single. My cousin Mary Jean and I used to make off with the blooms to create skirts for corncob dolls. Let's see a show of hands, now. Who remembers corncob dolls? One, two? Nobody? Gosh--I didn't think I was that old!

Well, hollyhocks (Alcea)  go back much further than Grandma Franklin's garden. The name comes from two words, holy + bocc. The plant had a history of healing (hence holy), and bocc is from an Old English word that means mallow.  Medicinally, the plant was used primarily as an emollient (something that softens, something used to make a salve) and diuretic. And if you have a sheep with sore feet, follow the instruction of Gervase Markham (1614) and "annoint her feet with the juyce of the Hearb Holyhocke."  None of my sheep have sore feet, so I'll skip that, and go on to the fairies, which of course are delighted with holyhock skirts and hats. I missed the show, but I'm sure that on Midsummer Night, the fairies climbed this tall tower of a holyhock and made off with double-ruffled blossoms for their skirts. And one more lovely bit, before we leave the subject, from Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses:
All the names I know from nurse:
Gardener's garters, shpher'd purse;
Bachelor's buttons, lady's smock,
And the lady hollyhock.
Book report. Writing a novel is a complicated project. Today, Bill and I played around with the question, "What was character Z doing while everybody else was off doing their thing?" Interesting question, fascinating exercise, that led us into one of the book's backstories and clarified an important love relationship. Gosh, what people will get up to while they think nobody's looking!

Bill also finished with his work on the copy-edited manuscript of Death at Blenheim. We sat down together and went over his notes--he found some mistakes both the copy-editor AND I missed. Whew.

And speaking of mistakes, here's something interesting You may have read Death in Hyde Park, which features Jack London. In a section I wrote, I mentioned that Jack could look out of his window in the Oakland Hills and see the Golden Gate Bridge. Momentary lapse of attention here, because the bridge wasn't built until the 1930s. We sent in the correction for the paperback edition (out Jan 2005) and posted it to our website, but of course, people are still picking up the error in the hardcover edition and writing to tell us about it.

We got a lovely email yesterday, from Josephine Smith, of Palos Verdes Estates, CA.  She writes:

 Just before the Bridge was opened my parents and I were staying with relatives stationed at the Presidio.  Part of the entry to the Bridge wentthrough the Presidio.  One day a boy playmate and I found a ladder leaning against the approach.  Being curious children we climbed the ladder, unobserved, and there we were on the Bridge.  We were part way across when some workmen found us, took us back to the ladder, and down we went.  The ladder was removed.  So I walked on the Bridge before it was opened to the public! It is a great memory.
Just think--the first pedestrian on the Golden Gate Bridge, at eight years of age! Josephine is right--it's a great memory, and far more exciting than the holyhocks in my grandmother's Missouri garden. Thanks, Josephine. You lit up my day.

Reading Notes.  As we discover, we remember; remembering, we discover.--Eudora Welty

7/26/2004 06:03:00 PM

Saturday, July 24, 2004  

The rudbeckia--blackeyed Susans--are blooming everywhere just now, encouraged by the June rains and the July sun.  These "Goldsturm" are in the garden, with the yellow lantana and purple verbena, but the wild ones scattered all through the fields are every bit as pretty.  It was cooler this morning; there's a breeze blowing down from the north, presaging a promised cold front (well, a cool front) that's due to arrive tomorrow. So I spent an hour pulling weeds in the garden, and clipping the chaste trees, which tend to sucker heavily and crowd out anything I've planted under them. Then, thoroughly sweaty, I came indoors and settled down to work on the book.

The Marconi book (which I worked on most of today) isn't the only thing on my plate these days, though. I've been working on the Story Circle anthology, a collection of women's Southwest nature writing. It's been an interesting experience. There are four editors, including me, and we've worked entirely by email, no face-to-face meetings. One editor is in West Texas, one in South Texas, one south of Austin, and me, here in Burnet County, west of Austin. Right now, we're working on selecting pieces from published work--which is why I needed to buy the new scanner and the OCR software. I'm relieved to say that the OCR software (ReadIris 9) works very well. Last night, I scanned in a couple of pieces the other editors have sent me. Once they're all in Word and have been shared via email, we can begin making choices. The editors--Jan Seale, Susan Hanson, Paula Yost--are a joy to work with. They've made the process fun, even when we were literally deluged with submissions.

Last night, we watched an old, very good horror flick with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie: Don't Look Now. I remember seeing it when it came out in the 70s, and it hasn't lost its punch--except for Sutherland's mod 70s haircut, of course, which looks a bit silly. Isn't it interesting the way hair tends to date a film? The settings and the photography are really spectacular, although the plot is a little weak and there's quite a bit of filler--including one splendidly erotic lovemaking scene that I don't remember seeing in the theater. The film was based on Daphne Du Maurier's book, which I have ordered and am anxious to read. Probably doesn't have sex in it, though.

Book Notes.  When a feather falls at your feet, it means you are to travel on wings of curiosity. Don't be afraid of strange lands or a language you don't understand. The feather means freedom. Why else do you think the bird gave it to you? -Nancy Wood


7/24/2004 04:36:00 PM

Wednesday, July 21, 2004  
Sun and more sun. It's not just the heat, of course--95 today--it's the humidity, which is up around 90%, making the heat index something like 105. Too hot for people, almost too hot for the sheep, who spend their days under the mesquite trees. Too hot for the dogs, too. When they're let out into the back yard, they head straight for the creek and jump in. Who cares if the water is a little muddy? It's wet, and wet fur definitely feels good in July.

But July definitely suits these sunny beauties, which gild the meadow and brighten both sides of our lane.

These wild sunflowers are small, and their seeds are small, too, but when they're dry, there will be more than enough to feed the seed-eating birds this winter.  They're a double bounty: beautiful to look at, and good to eat--if you're a seed-eater. Of course, thanks to commercially-grown sunflowers, you can find sunflower seed oil in supermarkets and sacks of sunflower seeds for the birds in your backyard this winter.

Forest fires in Alaska means smoke in Texas. No kidding. Our sunrises and sunsets have been extraordinarily colorful for the past few days, and there is a blue haze in the air. The jet stream is swooping north to south this week, bringing the smoke from the fires of burning Alaskan forests into the Hill Country.  Some years, it works the other way, and we get the smoke from field fires burning in Mexico. And still other times, the moisture from hurricanes blowing themselves out on the western coast of the Baja. It's a very small world, isn't it?--a fact that we ought to find both comforting and terrifying at the same time.

Book report. Finished the copy-editing and went back to the Marconi book, feeling good about what we've done so far. Bill untangled a couple of plot knots, and now I'm going back to the beginning to do another revision--then on to the rest of the book. I really need to do some work on the Story Circle anthology, but there just hasn't been time. I just got The Anthropology of Turquoise, by Ellen Meloy, and am looking forward to reading that. Ellen Meloy is one of my favorites: I loved, loved Raven's Exile. I'm reading both of these these for the anthology, not for my personal pleasure--but of course, there's pleasure in the reading. And would you believe that I read my first Barbara Kingsolver this week? High Tide in Tucson. Highly recommended.

Reading Notes. "The fact that I am no longer the spokesman for Slim-Fast makes me sad, but not as sad as [that fact that] someone [is] trying to punish me for exercising my right as an American to speak my mind."--Whoopi Goldberg


7/21/2004 06:21:00 PM

Tuesday, July 20, 2004  
Photos functioning again, although I think maybe it wasn't Blogger, but a piece of @#$@ software I downloaded from my server yesterday, which was supposed to speed up my old slow modem by a factor of five. Today, I de-installed the software, and things are back to normal, or as normal as they get around here, which isn't very normal, by most people's standards. Anyway, here's the photo I wanted to show you yesterday, and was prevented by the Upload Gods.  It's cute, although maybe a bit too large for a three-year-old. The yarn (Bernat, Denim-Style) is super-soft and a joy to work with. Perfect sweater yarn. I'm thinking that I may add some dark blue trim, especially on the kangaroo pocket, which you can't easily see here because it blends into the rest of the sweater.

Large print. Nice news from my editor a few minutes ago: they've sold the large-print rights to The Tale of Hill Top Farm (the first book in the Beatrix series) to Thorndike.  Don't know if this came about because Thorndike saw and liked the book, or because they normally buy the China Bayles large-print rights. But they don't buy the Robin Paige large-print (not enough market, I guess), so I take this sale as a good omen.
Book work. Finished the copy-edited manuscript (Death at Blenheim Palace) and will send it back as soon as Bill goes over it.  A lot of extra work there, and very frustrating. I'm going to put together a style sheet to supplement the one this copy-editor did, and send it back with the mss.  Tomorrow, I can get back to Marconi--with some new energies, actually. I enjoyed the Blenheim book very much, and admired some of the things we did there, things that I had already forgotten. It was good to be reminded.
Computer stuff. And while all this is going on, I've managed to get the scanner installed and the OCR software running, after a lengthy phone conversation with the OCR tech. He was very patient with my non-techie ignorance, and answered my questions very politely. Had a very sexy voice, too.
The Insider.  A few days ago, I mentioned that we had subscribed to one of these by-mail DVD rental outfits--Netflix, this one is (no commercial).  This thing is made for us. We don't like commercial TV and have watched everything on the science and history channels, plus PBS, at least once.  Now, we can see all the movies we missed over the years, either because we were too busy being young professionals or we were living out here, about 40 miles from the nearest movie house. Last night, we watched The Insider, which is one heck of a fine movie--and spent an hour afterward discussing (well, arguing about) it. I was intrigued by the use of real people, which is what we do in the Robin Paige series, of course.  Our subjects are safely dead--but in the case of this movie (which is about a tobacco-executive whistle-blower and a 60 Minutes producer), most of them are still alive. I was wondering why the writer/director/producer wasn't afraid of a lawsuit. I went web-surfing this morning to try to find the answer, without any luck. If you know, write and tell me.  I love reading books and watching movies about real people--it always feels to me as if there's some truer truth there, even when it is heavily fictionalized.
Book notes.  The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and . . . the reader shall always be able to tell the corpses from the others.--Mark Twain

7/20/2004 04:20:00 PM

Monday, July 19, 2004  
Going slightly crazy here.  Well, I finished Coby's nifty hooded sweater last night and planned to post the photo here tonight--but Blogger has changed the whole editing setup and the photo post doesn't seem to be working. Peggy (my web problem-solver) is out on vacation, so I'm trying to find out what the problem is for myself, which may not be very easy.
Also today: Bill installed my new scanner, which came bundled with ReadIris8 OCR software, when I had JUST bought ReadIris9. (Had to buy a new scanner, of course, because the old scanner wouldn't talk to ReadIris9.) So now I have one new scanner (a very sexy little dish with a glass top, about an inch high), and two versions of OCR software. Do I need to say that the OCR software cost about 30% more than the scanner-plus-software?
And more: dealing with the copy-edited manuscript of DEATH AT BLENHEIM PALACE, where the copy-editor has changed all our Brit-speak usages to American-speak, and wants to make narrated direct discourse into direct discourse, set in italics. Now, maybe this doesn't seem like such a big deal to you, but it's meant hours more work for me, and I am not a happy camper. The basic problem is that nobody has told this person that British and American English are not the same--and that you can't simply read the tag "he thought" as a signal for internal direct speech. (And all you copy-editors out there, do not write and tell me to stop saying nasty things about copy-editors, or I will send YOU this *&#@ manuscript and you can fix it.)
On a happier note, I really enjoyed the cooking class at Central Market in San Antonio on Saturday. It was a sell-out (30 people), very informal, and a lot of fun.  We cooked tomato soup, China's terrific quiche, spicy sauteed veggies, dilled beer bread, Ruby's Hot Lips Cookie Crisps, and watermelon sorbet. Well, we tried with the sorbet, but it went into the freezer too late, so we substituted strawberry sorbet from the dessert cooler. The best part: talking about herbs and cooking and not having to actually DO it. Susan Marie really did a super job demonstrating the quiche and veggies (move over, Julia Childs!), and the Central Market volunteers made everything run smoothly. Thanks, guys! Now, if I could only get Susan Marie to come here and cook for me, I'd be in heaven.
I'll check back tomorrow night and see if Blogger has the photo upload working.  I want you to see Coby's sweater.
Reading noteIt's a damn good story.  If you have any comments, write them on the back of a check.--Earle Stanley Gardner

7/19/2004 06:00:00 PM

Wednesday, July 14, 2004  
A garden beauty

The garden is full of daylilies just now. Did you know that these pretty things are also good to eat? They have a mild taste. Here's a recipe for sauteed daylily buds:

2 cups small daylily buds (unsprayed!)
3 tablespoons margarine
2 tablespoons chopped green onions
1 teaspoon fresh tarragon
2 teaspoons fresh parsley
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper

Wash and drain the daylily buds. Dry and sauté in a skillet with margarine and green onions for five-six minutes. Add the tarragon, parsley, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Sauté for another four-five minutes, stirring frequently. Serve hot.

Don't worry about losing the flowers. Picking the buds (judiciously, of course) will result in even more flowers. Another tip: go slow with your first day-lily meal, to see if they agree with you. Some people say that the yellow ones (Stella d'Oro, for instance, which Bill and I enjoy in salads)have the sweetest taste; the blooms in the photo above might be a bit on the tart side, since they have some red in them (red tends to be bitter). Try them in stir-fries and salads. You can eat the buds and flowers raw, out of the garden. In China, the buds and flowers are dried and used to thicken soups. And yes, they can be frozen, too. For more recipes, check out this book: The Delightful Delicious Daylily: Recipes and More, by Peter Gail.

In the Orient, daylilies have been used as a folk medicine for centuries to treat cancer, urinary tract disorders, uterine bleeding, vaginal yeast infections, and as an anti-bacterial agent. The roots and fibrous crown were used as a diuretic and pain reliever.

Book report. Chugging along, to 47,000 words today. Bill dumped a bunch of words on me this afternoon, which helped bring up the total. I'm getting ready to write a scene featuring automatic writing (as in seance, yes)--that should be fun. Turns out that Oliver Lodge, an early rival of Marconi for honors in the invention of the wireless telegraph, was also a spiritualist, and deeply into automatic writing. Now, if that isn't an invitation to a surprising plot twist, I don't know what is. There's so much in this book we haven't figured out yet: we're still peering through the fog, wondering what's ahead. Actually, I Bill knows what he wants at the end of the book, but we've disagreed on a couple of concluding scenarios and haven't quite found common ground. That's okay. It'll get straightened out, one way or another.

Reading notes. When I start a book I have no idea of how it's going to end. I really don't know what's going to happen more than a chapter or two ahead. The characters audition in their opening scene--I listen to them, see how they sound. The plots develop on their own. If I'm curious enough to turn the pages, I figure it will have the same effect on readers.--Elmore Leonard

7/14/2004 05:50:00 PM

Monday, July 12, 2004  
Construction site. Turns out that the grapevine was the sign of things to come. The same neighbor who cut it down is now building a road over the little creek below our property. We've spent the day nervously watching a front-end loader operator install two large metal culverts and a dump truck bring in three loads of rock.

Our nervousness stems from the fact that the culverts might turn into a mini-dam if they're blocked by grass, sand, or debris. However, Bill points out that one strong flood, like the one we had in November 02, will probably rip both the culverts out and wrap them around a tree downstream. So maybe there's nothing much to worry about. It's the idea of the thing, I suppose, and the uncertainty about the purpose of this new road.

And there's a basic difference in philosophies here. Our mantra has always been "small is good," and Bill tries to choose the tool that will do the least environmental damage while still getting the job done effectively. We're both paranoid about power equipment in the hands of people who don't think about potential damage--or don't think, period. What these folks wanted to do could probably have been better achieved with a low-impact low-water crossing. We're not much on muscle boats, ATVs (anti-terrain vehicles), super-sized SUVs, and jacked-up pickups with cow-catchers, either. But we do believe in the power of the small act, thoughtfully imagined, respectfully executed.

Book report. But even with 'dozers and dump trucks roaring through the quiet meadow south of the fence, and a couple of other serious interruptions that distracted us, we still managed to put in a good day's work. We're about half-way through the Marconi book now, at 43,000 words, and the rest of the book is emerging out of the soupy fog of ideas and characters and plot fragments. Another month ought to see it finished.

Fiber content. Somebody wrote to ask what I'm knitting these days. Answer: a cute hooded sweatshirt for my g-grandson, Coby, who will be three in August. I'm using the same Bernat "Denim Style" yarn, who is 70% acrylic/30% cotton, and very soft. The front, back, and sleeves are done, and I'm working on the hood. After that, the "kangaroo" pocket. If the construction equipment photo didn't do much for you, try this:

However, since the sweatshirt is still in pieces, this might not do much for you, either. But maybe you can get an idea of the way the yarn works up. However, I'm concerned about the size. This is supposed to be a size 2, but it looks big to me. Maybe he'll still be wearing it when he goes to first grade. When this is done, I'm back to socks for a while.

Reading notes. What to believe in, exactly, may never turn out to be half as important as the daring act of belief. A willingness to participate in sunlight, and the color red. An agreement to enter into a conspiracy with life, on behalf of both frog and snake, the predator and the prey, in order to come away changed.--Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson

7/12/2004 04:50:00 PM

Friday, July 09, 2004  
On the brighter side, blue gentians

I'm still grieving over the mustang grape, with hard thoughts toward the neighbor who sponsored the carnage, who came to look at it today and left without a word. But what's done is done, and the gentians (sometimes called tulip gentians, because that's what they look like) are distractingly gorgeous just now. People also call them Texas bluebells, which is beautifully descriptive. When they show up in a botany text, they go by the name Eustoma grandiflorum . They are blooming along the edge of a meadow that is still marshy from last month's rains. The sight of them comforts me.

I am also comforted by the thought that you can't keep a good mustang down. This 20-year-old plant (read the previous entry, if you're feeling a little lost) no doubt has a very well established root system. Come next spring, he'll be up and about like gang-busters, and in five or six years, the fence will be covered again. Somewhere back in the archives of this blog, I've included some mustang grape wine and jelly recipes. In addition to being a food, the leaves were used by Hill Country Indians to make a yellow dye. The wine was medicinal, too, at least according to this wonderful account of life in the Elkhart/Palestine area in the late 1800s.

Good fences make good neighbors--that's what Robert Frost says. But the truth is that borders of any sort have a kind of uneasiness and tension about them, an ambiguous sense of between-ness, of not-here-not-there, not-now-not-yet. We have a great many borders at MeadowKnoll: the border between the creek bottom and the high-rise bluff to the west; the border between the woods and the boggy marsh, between the marsh and the grassy meadow, the meadow and the gravel road. The border, always fluctuating, between sunshine and shade. And the lake shore, another interesting border because the level constantly rises and falls. And there are the borders between seasons: spring and summer, summer and fall, fall and winter, winter and spring. And the borders of the day: dawn and twilight. Some of these borders are precise, like the fence line; some are ambiguous, like the grapevine growing on the fence, some on our side, some on the neighbors' side. On the map grid or the surveyor's plat, property lines and fence lines may look fixed and absolute. In the real world--as the borderland between the U.S. and Mexico--things just aren't so clear-cut. Things that grow up on one side migrate to the other, and vice versa. Things that flourish and are admired on one side have an entirely different identity, an entirely different meaning on the other. Ah, border thoughts. Fence thoughts. Grapevine thoughts.

Reading notes. This sense of place is truly an elective affinity: you can choose to let it influence you, or you can choose not to... It is costly, in personal terms, to go from the practical to the mystical.--Don Gayton, Landscapes of the Interior

7/09/2004 05:45:00 PM

Tuesday, July 06, 2004  

Take a good, long look, because this beautiful Mustang grape, which has flourished along our south fence for the past 16 years, died this morning. Our neighbors hired somebody to "clear out the fenceline"--never mind that it's not their fence, never mind that they can't even see that grapevine from their big house on the hill on the other side of the creek, nearly a mile away. Anyway, they hired this man, and then went out of town on vacation, and he went to work with his handy-dandy chainsaw. Before we realized what he was doing, he had cut the Mustang's three stems and left it dying on the fence. Awful. It's like watching a pet die at the hand of some careless, brainless person, and not being able to do anything to save it.

Not much of a tragedy, you say, in comparison to the 13 Iraquis and 3 Marines who died today--and you're right. The war is an unspeakable, unnecessary, unforgivable horror. But that doesn't make the dead grapevine less of a tragedy, and the birds that perched in that vine, and electric blue dragonflies that hovered over it, and the raccoons and possums that enjoyed its grapes will mourn it, maybe as much as I will. They probably won't be angry, though, and I am angry. That plant was cut down without any reason, without any thought, or plan, or need. A man mindlessly following an order. A man with a chainsaw with lots of horsepower. Only a grapevine? That exuberant green plant was a joyful celebration of life, and vitality, and the resources of the fertile earth. Didn't take much to kill it, only one pull on the chainsaw rope and three quick slashes. Doesn't take much to dig a strip mine, clear-cut the rainforest, raise the levels of the ocean, change the climate. There's a moral here, and I'm staring at it.

Reading Notes. What most needs our attention now, I believe, is the great community of land--air and water and soil and rock, along with all the creatures, human and otherwise, that share the place. We need to imagine the country anew, no longer as enemy or property or warehouse or launchingi pad, no longer as a lost homeland to be recalled from a distance, but as our present and future home, a dwelling place to be cared for n behalf of all beings for all time.--Scott Russell Sanders

7/06/2004 06:11:00 PM

Monday, July 05, 2004  
Echinacea--with its bright orange center and purple petals--has got to be the most striking blossom of all the herbs. I never get enough of looking at these beautiful plants (also known as purple coneflowers) which have seeded themselves throughout the garden.

Do you know the echinacea story? The North American Plains Indians used the plant to treat poisonous insect and snake bites, toothaches, sore throat, wounds, and bruises, as well as measles, mumps, and smallpox. It was their "heal-all," the plant they turned to as a treatment for almost everything that ailed them. The settlers copied these uses of the plant, and by the early 1900s it was in wide use. When plant medicines fell into disrepute in the U.S., echinacea disappeared with the others, although the Europeans continued to find it useful. It was brought back to attention again in the 1990s. You'll find a detailed history, research info, and plant chemical information here, along with some advertising.

Cooking class. Got a nice note today from the organizer of the cooking class I'll be teaching for Central Market in San Antonio on July 17. Turns out that the class is already full, which made me very happy. (If you were thinking of coming, phone them and put your name on the waiting list--there are always last-minute cancellations.) Also, they're providing "prep" cooks and assistants, which means that I have all the fun and they do all the work!

Book work. Just when Bill and I think we've got the book (this is the Marconi book) organized and under control, one of the characters decides to break out and be somebody different. I love it when that happens, but it's a little disconcerting. In this case, it suddenly emerged, about 10 minutes before I was planning to quit for the day, that Pauline Chase is the former lover of Bradford Marsden, and when they re-encounter each other in this book, it leads to all sorts of problems. Exactly what isn't clear yet. But I'm sure that Pauline and Bradford will come up with something. Anyway, this new conflict will bring some welcome tension to the middle of the book, and may make it unnecessary to kill somebody. (That's the common remedy, you know, for a flat middle.)

Plot flaws. Spent an enjoyable couple of hours last night watching North by Northwest, a 1959 Hitchcock with Cary Grant. Lots of plot flaws, which we enjoyed picking out, one by one. Gosh, we could never get away with sloppy stuff like that in our books! Tonight, we're watching Enigma. Night before last, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. We've subscribed to one of those DVD rental outfits that sends you movies through the mail, just as fast as you can watch them. For us, out here in the country, it's pretty wonderful. We're catching up on a lot of movie-watching.

Reading notes. It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.--Virginia Woolf

7/05/2004 06:40:00 PM

Thursday, July 01, 2004  
Bill's peppers. I'm not the only gardener around here. Bill has a couple of half-barrels full of jalepenos and habaneros, and he has begun to reap the bounty. This is today's harvest, and there are more on the way--lots more. He's tells me that he's drying the habaneros (which score 200,000 on the Scoville Heat Index), and freezing the jalepenos (a paltry 3500). And of course, he's eating lots of both. His experiments include chile powder, chile jelly, and chile-and-garlic vinegar. The first two are quite successful (according to him); the jury's still out on the third, while this explosive brew is steeping.

Taking this photo is about as close as I'm going to get to these babies, though. I am definitely not a chile-head. I have too much taste. Yep, it's true. People who can eat chiles have fewer taste buds per square centimeter of tongue than those of us who can't. I have more taste buds than Bill does--and what's more, I can SMELL the pepper heat. When he starts working on his chiles, I find something else to do, somewhere far away from the kitchen.

P.S. He says to tell you that he's been trying different ways to judge the heat of various habanero pods. He says that the only non-fatal way he's discovered is to put a pinhead-sized bit on the tip of his tongue with a tweezer. He does not chew. When he begins to feel the heat, he spits it out. Chicken.

Pennyroyal, pro and con. Today was e-letter day, the day Peggy and I send out our email newsletter to the people on the Mystery Partners list. If you didn't get your copy, you can go here to read it--and subscribe, while you're at it.

This issue had a short article on herbs you can use to fight fleas, including pennyroyal. By return email (well, almost) I got this interesting note from Betty Wilhelm: I used to live in a house where I planted one tiny sprig of pennyroyal in the ground until I could get a pot to plant it in - what a mistake!! The pennyroyal takes over everywhere and is impossible to irradicate. It literally jumps 20-30 feet. I still don't know how it got to some of the places it got! Plus, when it stops blooming it turns brown and ugly and it grows to about 12" in height. The stems/stalks are tough and weedy. I refuse to use any kind of poisons, herbicides, weed killers, or any other type of substance like that, so it's just cut , dig, and pull. Pennyroyal defeated me. The people who bought my house probably still hate me! But on top of that, it didn't seem to repel bugs in any way - including fleas!

Then I got this, from Janet Day: Re: pennyroyal. Boy, is that good stuff. Planted some by the dog kennel and cut way down on the flea problem. It gets straggly and wants to spread, but I weed-whack it and just leave it on the ground, on the theory that it'll do as much good dead as alive.

So there are several sides to pennyroyal, pro and con. However, it is VERY invasive (as Betty says), particularly if it likes your soil, climate, rainfall, etc. Thanks, Betty and Janet.

Fiber stuff. Somebody wrote to ask if I'd given up spinning and knitting. No way! It's just that I've been knitting the same thing for about a month now, and if I were to write about it every time, you'd be almost as bored as I am with this project. But I finished it last night, and here it is, just before it jumped in a box and got on a plane for Juneau. Happy birthday, Michael! (If it doesn't fit, don't tell me.)

Mystic River. We finally got around to seeing this, on DVD, and loved it. A very powerful film, with plenty of dialogue to keep a writer glued to the screen, ears perked, notepad handy. Instead of reading notes tonight, here's a line from Clint Eastwood, who directed the film: It's always fun when you have characters who have to overcome something, rather than just stand and deliver. Yeah. I have to write that one on the palm of my hand, where I can see it every day.

7/01/2004 05:55:00 PM


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