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

Friday, October 29, 2004  
I have absolutely no idea what this mushroom is called, but I do know what it looks like. Bill found it in The Back of Beyond, the meadow across the creek. It was growing cap-end up. If you know what it's called, do write and tell me, please. We’ve had rain and warm weather for the past couple of weeks, and the fungi are thriving. There are some odd-looking mushrooms out there, but this one takes the prize. (This is not a joke.)

Night sky. "How nice that it’s dark," Bill said on Tuesday night, as we sat on the porch, watching the silver moon turn red as the shadow of the earth moved across it, while the stars sparkled even more brightly in the dark, dark sky.

He wasn’t speaking idly. In the place we live, sixty miles from the glare of the nearest big city, where the streetlights and mall lights wash the stars out of the sky, the night is really dark. Oh, we can see some of the Austin’s reflected light in the far southeastern sky, but we have no yard light (we disconnected the automatic mercury vapor lamp the Pedernales Power Company insisted on installing on our pole), and there are no streetlights anywhere along our narrow caliche road. When we turn off the porch light and go out into the yard, it is deeply, truly, beautifully dark.

In this absence of light, we can see—and take delight in—the true night sky, empty of human presence and amazingly, astonishingly full of stars. Somehow, the darker it is, the nearer they seem—or perhaps it is that part of me stretches out toward them, through the immense distance to those pinpoint clusters of light. And somehow, the darker it is, the easier it is for me to see my own place in this vast celestial arrangement, my tiny place here on this fragile earth, with the universe opening out in enormous folds of darkness. I feel my aloneness most at night, out here, away from the city, but it is not something that frightens me. I am glad to have the dark, the night. I need it exactly as much as I need the sunlight during the day.

Reading Note. Nighttime is never frivolous. It may appear majestic or brooding, or friendly or filled with terror. But it is never trivial. The swift disappearance of diurnal landmarks; the enveloping hush of this transitional hour; the commencement of the slow, night-long glide of the stars above my garden, all these . . . emphasize the essential loneliness of the individual and the relentless flowing of time.—Edwin Way Teale, Near Horizons

10/29/2004 06:02:00 PM

Thursday, October 28, 2004  
Pure Texas. Here she is. Bill tried to get a measurement on those horns, but Texas didn't think much of the idea, so he prudently decided that a guess was as good as a goring. 42" seems about right, he says. If there's anything she likes better than the cow candy Bill is feeding her in this photo (compressed chunks of cow cake that she takes from your hand), it's her calf Blossom, who is watching this photo session with a fair amount of suspicion.

Still summer. This October is one of the warmest in central Texas history. It was 83 today, and muggy. The last of the migrating Monarch butterflies are flitting through the woods, several kestrals have arrived to spend a few weeks here before heading farther south, and the Mexican mint marigold is blooming, pure gold. We had rain while I was gone--a couple of inches, Bill says--and the bluebonnets are popping up like crazy. Now, if it would just cool down by 10 or 15 degrees... But that's the nature of nature, isn't it? We've read that the winter should be cooler and wetter than normal, an El Nino winter.

Moonshine, the eclipse, and the Sox. We settled ourselves on the front porch last night with a couple of glasses of wine, binoculars and a telescope, and watched the eclipse, the last one we'll see (here, anyway) until 2007. Were you able to see it? What transfixed me was the image of a round moon. When I look at the moon, I see a flat silver disk, like a coin--it's hard to convince myself that it is really a sphere. But last night, the moon was magically colored red and shadowed in such a way that I could actually see its roundness, could believe in its spherical shape. I could see the sides of the moon, so to speak, and it blew me away. Somewhere among the rose bushes, a chorus of peepers was singing; a great horned owl called wistfully from the cypress tree by the creek; and a cricket sat on the step by my feet, tunelessly keeping time. And from the TV in the living room, I could hear the half-muted play-by-play of the Sox game. After 86 years, the Sox have won a World Series. Somehow, last night, as the earth slid between the sun and the moon, the nightsounds filled the quiet air, and the Sox won the Series, everything seemed right.

Reading notes. We are not sufficiently grateful for the great symphony of natural sound which insects add to the natural scene; all those little fiddles in the grass, all those cricket pipes, those delicate flutes, are they not lovely beyond words when heard in midsummer on a moonlight night?--Henry Beston, The Outermost House.

10/28/2004 06:50:00 PM

Wednesday, October 27, 2004  
I’ve been on the road for ten days, doing book talks and book signings and attending a mystery conference (Magna cum Murder, at Ball State University). Here are my notes from the trip.

Sunday October 17, Houston. Just back from the signing at Murder by the Book—a good crowd for a Sunday, about 35 people. About the same number at Remember the Alibi, yesterday in San Antonio. Also in San Antonio yesterday, a treat for me: brunch with nine readers, six of whom belong to a book club in Corpus Christi. It was fun to talk about the books--many of them had read several--and about the writing life. We had time to share a nice meal and enjoy one another’s company, before the talk/signing at the bookstore. After the signing, I drove to Houston, found a motel, and crashed for the evening. Today, I spent the morning with Bill’s mother, who lives nearby. Then off to the bookstore, and now back for a quiet afternoon working on the manuscript of Death on the Lizard. I brought that, rather than the current book project (Bleeding Hearts) because I didn’t want to bother with the laptop, and because I’ll only have short stretches of time to work.

Monday October 18, Katy TX. Katy Library tonight. I had dinner with Cecillia Shearron-Hawkins and several of the organizers of the event at a Mexican restaurant in Katy. Then back to the library for the presentation. We had a fairly small turnout, only about 20 people (couldn’t have had anything to do with the fact that the Astros were playing St. Louis at home, could it?) But Dean James, from Murder by the Book, sold a few books, and I got to talk about Beatrix Potter—always fun for me.

Tuesday October 19, Houston. We had a terrific turnout for the Harris County Master Gardeners’ meeting tonight—about 95 people. David, from Murder by the Book, sold books, and did very well. I talked about herbs and plant mysteries, which I enjoy very much, and there was a table full of tasty desserts. Also, I got to see the herb garden the group has been working on. Very nice.

Today was a quiet day spent working at the motel. I finished the Lizard manuscript—the whole thing took a total of about 12 hours. It’ll take another six hours at least to input the changes when I get home. But going over the book again was worth the time and effort. I saw quite a few things I hadn’t noticed when I was reading it on the computer screen. I also had time to do some reading (a Jill McGown mystery) and worked on a knitted Herdwick cap. In England last year, I bought some Herdwick wool so I could show it to people when I talk about Beatrix, who devoted much of her later life to raising Herdwick sheep. I also phoned Bill, who says that Texas (our new longhorn cow) and her calf Blossom are supposed to arrive tomorrow. While he’s getting Mama and baby settled, I’ll be driving all day, heading for Muncie IN.

Friday night, October 22, Muncie IN. Wednesday and Thursday were beautiful driving days, from Houston east to Baton Rouge, then north through Mississippi, across Tennesee and Kentucky and straight up the middle of Indiana. The trees are very pretty, red and gold and russet, banked in bright bands of color along the highway and across the hills. We had 75 people at Carolee’s herb farm tonight—a great crowd. Carolee served tea and several kinds of tasty sandwiches, and I talked about Beatrix, her books, her life, and (yes!) her sheep. So I got to do some show-and-tell with the Herdwick hat, which I finished last night. I’ve visited east-central Indiana several times, so some of the people at the herb farm were old friends. Nice to see them, and to meet new friends, as well. It was after seven by the time I got back here to Muncie, so I didn’t try to attend the conference evening session. Just crashed.

Saturday night, October 23, Muncie IN. Magna cum Murder always begins on Friday night and continues through Sunday afternoon, but this year, I’m here for just one day. I went to a couple of panel discussions and participated in one—nicely led by Ruth Jordan. Then a book signing afterward. I decided not to stay for the dinner (today was another long day, at the end of a very long week), so I bought a pizza and took it back to my hotel room, where I watched the Red Sox beat the Cards in the first game of the series. (Way to go, Sox!)

Sunday night, October 24, Forrest City AR. I got up early this morning and drove from Muncie to Forrest City Arkansas, west of Memphis--a totoal of about 500 miles. It was a glorious day to drive through Indiana and Illinois. The sky was a deep, deep blue, the sun was bright, and the autumn trees were glorious, as pretty as I’ve ever seen them. Seeing the landscape, I was deeply homesick for the Midwest—autumn was always my favorite time of year, when I was growing up on the farm in Illinois. Even the cornfields, harvested now, made me homesick!

It’s been an interesting trip, with good crowds at the book events, decent driving (the only problem was an hour-long traffic jam near Nashville), and good books to listen to (audio books) on the way. On this trip, I listened to A Pretext for War (James Bamford), Intelligence Matters (Senator Bob Graham), and Against All Enemies (Richard Clarke). All three books covered similar territory—the intelligence mistakes that led to 9/11 and the distortions of intelligence that were offered as reasons for going to war—but each book was written from a different angle, with different insights, by writers with different spheres of knowledge and responsibility. At home, I wouldn’t have had the time to listen to these three books carefully, without distractions; the trip gave me that opportunity, and I’m grateful. I feel much better informed about national security (or rather, the lack thereof), but even though I’m somewhat wiser, I am much sadder at the thought of the resources that have been squandered: the money that could have been spent on our own citizens, the efforts that could have gone into security for our ports and our borders, and most of all, the American and Iraqi lives that have been lost.

Monday night. Home again, after a day’s hard driving through a gully-washer. It took me nearly two hours to get around Dallas. Saw several accidents and feel glad to be home safely. Texas (the new longhorn cow) is very handsome and surprisingly tame, although I’m a little spooked by that rack of horns. I’ll post a picture when I can.

Reading Notes. Naturally, the common people don't want war, but after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.--Hermann Goering, Hitler's Reich-Marshall, at the Nuremberg Trials after WW II

10/27/2004 06:15:00 PM

Tuesday, October 12, 2004  
A mixed-up few days, with lots of interruptions. Saturday, the Georgetown independent bookstore (one of a very few left in the state!) hosted a signing for HILL TOP FARM. We had maybe 50-60 people wandering in, and sold quite a few books—a real boost for the bookstore, I suspect. And fun for me. I got to see several people from various decades of my past, a friend of my Illinois cousin, and lots of China Bayles readers. On Sunday, I had to draft a magazine article that’s due at the end of the week, and do some work on the Story Circle nature anthology. On Monday, Bill’s mother (who lives in Houston) was taken to the hospital—except that EMS took her to the wrong hospital and didn’t tell her care facility where they'd dropped her off. So she was "lost" overnight. Not really lost, maybe, but nobody (not even her doctor, or the manager of her care facility) knew where she was. Amazing that something like that can happen in a high-tech society, right?

But finally, on Tuesday, I was back at work on BLEEDING HEARTS. I’m about a third of the way through the book, and it’s going very well. I’ve been working with four major plot lines, and today a fifth one popped up, one that I hadn’t exactly planned on. I don’t want to be mysterious here, but this is a mystery, and it wouldn't be smart to give it away. I’ll just say that China has discovered a close relative she didn’t know she had, on her father’s side of the family. Anyway, I’m having fun with that, and finding it very intense, which for me usually produces story lines that flow (rather than sputter) along. I love to be pulled through a book, rather than feeling like Sisyphus pushing his rock up that hill.

One challenging thing about October in the Hill Country is the amount of pollen in the air. According to the TV weatherman, we’ve been hit by a wave of red-berry juniper (Juniperus pinchotii) pollen that’s surfing down from the Panhandle on the northers than have been blowing through for the past week or so. And if Panhandle pollen isn't bad enough, we also get the pollen that is ejaculated (speaking freely here) by the male heads of the ubiquitous poverty weed, Baccharis neglecta, which Bill and I commonly call "yew willow." I posted extensively on this plant last year, after I became entranced with the various names, pedigrees, and purposes of this interesting (if neglected) Baccharis. You can read one of these postings on the 9/21/03 blog, and for several days plus and minus. You'll find a photo there too--and a great closeup of roses.

Reading Notes. Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such a purpose—and you allow him to make war at pleasure . . . If, today, he should choose to say he thinks it necsesary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, "I see no probability of the British invading us" but he will say to you, "Be silent; I see it, if you don’t."—Representative Abraham Lincoln, 1848. Quoted in A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies, by James Bamford.

10/12/2004 07:23:00 PM

Saturday, October 09, 2004  
You’d have to see this to believe it: Mutton (our surviving sheep), wearing a dog collar and following docilely (mostly) on a lead, trailed by our two black Labs. Since the latest round of coyote attacks, and since Mutton is on the pasture all by himself, we’ve been bringing him down to spend the night in the dog pen—not his favorite thing, but I tell him it beats the alternative. We hope our longhorn cow (who is billed as a great coyote-chaser) will arrive soon, at which point we’ll get some more sheep to keep Mutton company, and this business of penning him up in the dog run will be a thing of the past. Thanks to those who have written to tell me that llamas and donkeys are good guard animals. A donkey or burro could do the job here, but the hot summers in the Hill Country are pretty uncomfortable for llamas.

Making snow. Speaking of hot summers, here’s something to cool you off. This is my grandson Jason, who has a job making snow in Arapaho Basin CO. This is one of his two jobs, and on top of both, he’s going to college. Jason is a busy guy, and we’re very proud of him. He’s also a first-rate cross-country and downhill skier. Make it snow, Jason!

And here’s some unusual and interesting book business. Bill and I have agreed with the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University’s Altek Library to deposit our "literary papers" in the archive there. Normally, a writer's papers includes manuscripts, books, editorial and related correspondence, etc. However, since Bill and I are moving determinedly in the direction of the paperless office, we have agreed to provide this material in electronic formats. Which means that I am saving daily "takes" of the current China Bayles project (Bleeding Hearts), so that scholars and others who are interested in the process of book creation can look over our shoulders as we work, so to speak. When you're working on the computer, of course, you write over the earlier draft every time you save—the "dailies" will help to remedy that. Don’t know whether I’ll do this for every book, but we’ll certainly do it for one book in each of the three current series. Bill and I visited the archives in early September and were impressed by the way they’re managed.

Reading notes. When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know soon, or this time next year.—Annie Dillard

10/09/2004 04:18:00 PM

Wednesday, October 06, 2004  

We're still mourning our lost sheep, butthere are happier things. It’s raining again tonight, for the third evening in a row, and summer seems to be almost over here in the Hill Country. But the fields are bright with broomweed (Amphiachyris amoena) which seems to exist only for the purpose of reproducing itself—and lightening up the rich browns of our autumn prairie. A large infestation of broomweed is a serious problem to ranchers and farmers, and a sign that they have allowed their lands to be overgrazed. It's also a problem in areas where there are wildfires. Tossed by the wind, like tumbleweed, it can spread flame into dry grasses. We have less broomweed here at Meadow Knoll, now that we’ve been able to bring back some of the native prairie. Pretty as it looks in this photo, and much as I admire the bright golden color this is one plant I wouldn't be sorry to see disappear from our fields.

Back to the this case, back to Bleeding Hearts, after more than a week away. It's always hard (for me, anyway) to return to a project. I have to reread the whole thing, just to find my place in the narrative sequence and remind myself of what's gone before. I'd much prefer to shut myself up for 60 or 65 days straight and do nothing but write. But life isn't lived that way, so I've been playing catch-up. I'll have about 10 days to work before it's time to travel again: San Antonio, Houston (3 events), and then up to Indiana, for a tea and book talk at Carolee Snyder's herb farm in Hartford City and a mystery conference in Muncie. I enjoy the travel itself and enjoy talking to readers, hate to be away from Meadow Knoll during this pretty month, and really hate to be away from the book. A totally mixed bag of feelings.

Reading note. I never ask about sales. It's better not to know. I feel like I write a book, I give it to my editor, then I go back and write another one. That's what I do.--Alice Hoffman (I do ask about sales, and THEN I go back and write another one.--Susan)

10/06/2004 06:54:00 PM

Tuesday, October 05, 2004  
While we were in Tulsa, doing a couple of library presentations and a panel and a workshop for the Celebration of Books, three of our remaining four barbado sheep were killed—by coyotes, we think. We’ve been hearing coyotes at night, and a friend who raises goats has been complaining that he’s lost quite a few. So the loss doesn’t come as a great surprise, although it is certainly a sad one. We decided when we first got the sheep that they were farm animals, not pets, and that we wouldn’t pen them up at night. We couldn’t, anyway, when we’re gone on a trip—as we were when the three were killed last week.

But there is one thing we can do, and we’re about to do it. Our friend Dolly Knox, who always helps us out with good advice and wise counsel, has asked us if we’d give a home to a special friend of hers: Texas, a Longhorn mama who is reputed to be a great coyote guard-cow. In fact, Texas is doing guard duty in Dolly’s maternity ward right now, where the other longhorn mamas have their calves. That little job will be over in a couple of weeks, and Texas will be coming to live with us.

Once Texas is on the job, we’ve promised Mutton (the sole surviving sheep) that he’ll be joined by a band of brothers. Meanwhile however, he is making the nightly trek from his pasture to our place, where he spends the night in the dog pen. Not an optimum solution, in his considered opinion, but at least he isn’t coyote bait.

One more thought. It may sound heartless, but while I’m sad about the sheep, I don’t blame the coyotes—or the buzzards who flew in to gorge themselves. Predators have to make a living, too. (I don’t feel that way about the dogs that run loose, though.) And here is a photo of the barbados in their prime, happy and healthy.

Reading note, for those of us who have been following the debates and the daily stump speeches. For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.—H.L. Menken

10/05/2004 07:07:00 PM


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