Notes about writing, landscape, and life in the Texas Hill Country

 

"We keep each other alive with our stories. We need to share them, as much as we need to share food. We also require for our health the presence of good companions. One of the most extraordinary things about the land is that it knows this—and it compels language from some of us so that as a community we may converse about this or that place, and speak of the need."
Barry Lopez

"As much as we live in a place, we live in place; we inhabit a condition of the soul. We live where we have made definitions, and in the process of making definitions, we create a place in which to live."
Sallie Tisdale

"The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction."
Rachel Carson

"I can see myself beginning to fashion what I need: new pathways to solitude, new ways of looking at time and at time alone, new ways of conceiving a notion of place, and other ways, if not new ones, to create places apart."
Jacqueline Jones Royster

"There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story."
Linda Hogan

 

 
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Susan Wittig Albert
bio
Ph.D. UC Berkley

author of
China Bayles Herbal Mysteries
Robin Paige Victorian Mysteries
(as Robin Paige)
Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter
Writing From Life
Work of Her Own

Contributing editor:
Country Living Gardener Magazine
writing teacher
garden columnist
Founder: Story Circle Network

Website:
www.mysterypartners.com
Bulletin Board
A Map of MeadowKnoll
Email:
salbert@tstar.net
All text/photos
©2003-2005 Susan Wittig Albert

 
The Edwards Plateau, Central Texas
The Edwards Plateau, Central Texas

Familiar Plants of the Edwards Plateau
History and Change on the Plateau
Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge
(10 miles south of MeadowKnoll)
habitat description, wildlife lists
The Edwards Aquifer
The Trinity Aquifer
Our Weather


Story Circle Network
The experience of Katrina is an experience of place, located at the intersections of the natural and human-made worlds. If you have a Katrina story to tell, the Story Circle Network invites you to record it here, and to read others' stories: storycircle.org/katrina

Killer Plants

Ecotone: Writing About Place


Lifescapes
 
Tuesday, June 29, 2004  
Rain, rain, go away. Can't believe I'm saying this, given how dry it is here, usually, and given that we haven't had any flooding. (Here, at least. It's a different story elsewhere in Texas.) But we haven't seen more than a snatch of sunshine in a couple of weeks, the grass is about to gobble the trees, the usually-resistant roses have yielded to black spot, and everything (including me) is mildewed. More rain on the way this morning, according to the radar. And looking at the satellite, I can see that there's a plume of Pacific moisture streaming up across Mexico, heading straight for MeadowKnoll. If this keeps up, we'll all be covered with an inch of mold. However, the garden is very happy, and the soil is so moist that the Johnson grass gives up easily when I pull it. So there are some benefits.



Prickly pear. I just read this morning that prickly pear has a "new" use: reducing the severity of hang-overs. Of course, the benefits prickly pear aren't news to us Tex-Mex types, for this plant has been in use for centuries here, to treat insect bites, burns, hemorrhoids, asthma, and (more recently) diabetes. Good to eat, although I prefer to buy my nopales (that's what the edible pads are called) from the supermarket--I get fewer spines in my finger. For more interesting info, and some recipes, go here. This photo was taken back in April, when the plant (one of the few remaining on our property) was in bloom. Now, all those blossoms are in the process of becoming fruit: hard green egg-shaped fruits that will eventually turn red and soft--irresistable to raccoons and skunks. Bill has been clearing the prickly pear off our land, on the theory that you can have too much of a good thing. There's plenty on the ranch next door, though, so we don't have to worry about reducing the population.

Endearing. A doe and her still-spotted fawn have taken to crossing the fence and grazing their way up our creek in the evenings, just before dark. The fawn is lively and curious and always on the move. You can almost hear Mama telling Junior to calm down and stop all that horsing around.

Book report. The Marconi book is progressing--up to 21k words, about 1/4 of the way through. With all this rain, Bill has more time to work on his sections, which is one reason why we're moving along so fast. This is one of those books where there is so much technical and historical material available that we have to be careful to keep it from swamping the story line. The truly interesting thing, though, is that things really never change. Yesterday, we wrote a scene in which a hacker (a word that hadn't yet been invented, unfortunately) breaks into a wireless transmission with some code of his own--based on something that actually happened in 1903. And of course, everyone at the Marconi Company is worried about competition, and rivals stealing their technology, and hacking into their systems, while the locals are worried about what those dangerous electromagnetic waves are doing to the environment. Where have we heard this before?

Evenings, I've been working on my other big writing project: the Story Circle book about women's experience of nature in the Southwest. The book is an anthology of writings by unpublished and published writers. The other editors (Paula Yost, Jan Seale, Susan Hanson) and I have selected most of the unpublished pieces and are in the middle of the editing process--fun and interesting. But there's still quite a lot to do: choosing the pieces by the published writers, for one thing, to round out the collection. It will be a fairly big book, about 100,000 words--we're hoping to have it done by September, although that's probably a pipe dream. November is more like it, I'm afraid.

Reading notes. If you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise: attack it an an hour when it isn't expecting it.--H.G. Wells.

6/29/2004 07:22:00 AM

Friday, June 25, 2004  
Rain and more rain. Not that I'm complaining, mind you, just registering the fact. About a half-inch today, poured on top of the inch or so we got earlier in the week. It's all adding up to the rainiest June since we've lived here.



Mullein has never done well for me here at MeadowKnoll, but there's no reason it shouldn't. Just an accident, I suspect. Too much rain at the wrong time and it rots out; too little rain at the right time, and it dries up. This is good old English mullein, growing in Beatrix Potter's garden at Hill Top Farm. For some interesting mullein lore and pictures of other plants from the Hill Top garden, you can go here and click on BP's garden. Peggy and I have been working for the past three evenings to get the photos and texts up-loaded to the website, and they're finally done! These are the pictures I showed at the herb conference last weekend. To those of you who were there: please pass this URL along to your friends, so they can have a look, as well. Thanks to Coralee Snyder for pointing out the problem with the violet photo--I've corrected the error here. But Coralee, Beatrix really DOES say that rabbit-tobacco is lavender!

Book report. Really enjoying the Marconi material--both Bill and I are coming up with some good ideas and even (fingers crossed) some good words--about 2200 today, between the two of us. I ran across a story by Rudyard Kipling called "Wireless," published in Scribner's Magazine, 1902, which made me laugh out loud and set me off on another whole train of thought for the book. You can read the story here, if you like--one of the marvels of on-line technology that would have astonished Kipling and bemused Marconi. What a world we live in.

And for another on-line article, you can go to the Texas Coop Power Magazine and read a piece about Bill and me. It's in PDF and the download may take a while, so you'll have to be patient. Go brew yourself a cup of tea, and by the time you get back to the computer, the article should be there. It begins on page 8, and has some nice photos and a great chili recipe. Zach and Shadow (our black Lab and black cat) were not impressed with their pictures, but we were.



Blooming this week, Mexican oregano, AKA Poliomintha longiflora. This bush is beautiful, although the others in the garden are too floppy to be pretty. Lucinda Hutson, in the new edition of her Herb Garden Cookbook, says that she likes to steep it in red wine vinegar with garlic and chiles. Yep. You'd have to put it with something that's big and bold--anything else will be overpowered. Makes a pretty garnish, though. BTW, this is a great cookbook. Lots of good ideas about Southwestern herbs and some very pretty pictures. The photo on page 15 makes me want to paint my garden shed purple.

Reading Notes. I . . . have to constantly balance "being a writer" with being a wife and mother. It's a matter of putting two different things first, simultaneously.--Madeleine L'Engle

6/25/2004 06:10:00 PM

Tuesday, June 22, 2004  

Wall cloud, the sort of cloud that spawns tornados. Thankfully, the cloud in this photo has already gone past us and we're seeing it from the back side as it moves away. It's been a week of storms, and there are more on the way, with a cold front sagging down from the north and plenty of warm juicy air streaming up from the Gulf. This is likely to be our wettest June since we've been here at Meadow Knoll.

Rain on the way, and Bill is irrigating his pecan trees. Go figure.



However, each tree requires at least a hundred gallons a week, and there are few weeks when the skies are going to deliver that much. For the last ten years, Bill has been dragging hoses around to water his 30 trees. (These are not arranged in orderly rows, like an orchard, but scattered around the property.) Now, he's solved the problem. He bought a 3.5 HP gasoline pump that sucks 145 gallons a minute out of the creek. When he first hooked it up, the force of the water blasted a substantial hole next to his favorite tree. Back to the drawing board, to design a "disperser," a 5-gallon plastic bucket that serves to reduce the water pressure and "fountains" the water into the area around the tree. Nifty, huh?

I spent the weekend in Cleveland, at the annual conference of the Herb Society of America. I gave a slide talk on Beatrix Potter's garden--Peggy has loaded the slides on the website, and once I get the text written from my notes, I'll let you know where to go to look. The flights weren't too terribly bad (I am definitely not a fan of flying these days, though), and the conference was great fun. We went to the Holden Arboretum, where I buried myself in the library, and to the Herb Society's Kirkland office, where I did the very same thing. Lovely gardens, and I have my nose in a book. Well, to each her own. But the most important thing about the conference was seeing old friends, and catching up on people's news. Well worth the time, energy, and $$ I invested in the weekend. Plus, I got to talk about Beatrix Potter's gardens--what could be better?

Back at work on the Marconi book. This morning, writing felt like lifting lead, but I got into the swing of it after lunch and managed to put together about 1500 words. Bill has the plot pretty well defined, so it feels as if we're back in business. I enjoy traveling, but I HATE to take time out of a writing project.

Reading Notes. "We have hurt ourselves and our soil raising cotton, and we have cut down trees that were worth $500 . . . and dragged our women and children down, and ignored and impoverished them, and reduced them to almost slaves to pick cotton and sell it for 5 cents a pound . . . .We have pursued the wrong course in neglecting the pecan . . . a more profitable thing than the walnut groves of California. It excels the olive, orange, the lemon, the peach, the apricot, the prune, and the grape: it excels everything." E.W. Kirkpatrick, 1907


6/22/2004 06:05:00 PM

Tuesday, June 15, 2004  


This June-blooming wildflower is a basketflower (Centaurea americana), a close cousin to the more showy bachelor's button. If you'll take a look at the picture on the Garden Bits website, you'll see why it's called "basketflower." (No, I won't tell you--you'll have to look.) Our upper meadow, called MeadowMarsh because it floods with every rain, is full of these delicate flowers, along with black-eyed Susans, gaillardia, blue gentians (Texas bluebonnets), and Englemann daisies. The past week, there's also been plenty of water in MeadowMarsh, much to the delight of Zach and Lady, our two black Labs, who love a splashy romp. We've gotten nearly 5" of rain since we returned home from vacation, and the radar predicts another batch of showers on the way shortly. All of this rain means that everything that grows is growing growing growing, which means that Bill is mowing mowing mowing--in addition to writing writing writing. We do keep busy.

Bed check. We got home last week to discover that our eight baby martins had grown up and checked out of their martin house, and were off into the wild blue yonder. Unexpectedly, I must say. I must have miscalculated the dates. (Oh, where have I heard that before?) There are four martin nestlings in another nest, though, just in the pin-feather stage, and their parents are busy shuttling bugs all day long. I love the big Troyer horizontal plastic gourd nests, now that I've solved the problem of the lids popping off. However, they do look like hanging urinals, no doubt about it. But when all's said and done, this year, we will send 12 new martins out into the great wide world. Bon voyage, guys. Hope to see you next year!

Writing report. Moving right along, with a total of 11,000 words. Today, we electrocuted a victim. It was Bill's idea, and a very good one, which produced quite a satisfactory result. Don't think we've ever electrocuted anybody before. Perhaps this murder will satisfy those readers who complain that there is too much history in our mysteries: they're too cerebral, and there isn't enough action. (Never mind that these are historical mysteries.) Would more bodice-ripping satisfy these folks, or some more throat-cutting, or maybe just a little more light-hearted costume drama? Really, I should NOT read on-line "reader reviews," especially when Bill & I are spending eight or nine hours every day making the best book we know how to make. Such things only turn me all narrow-eyed and sour-tempered, and lead me to think that maybe it's time to leave off writing the Robin Paige series altogether. Seriously. Grrr.

Reading notes. It's a damn good story. If you have any comments, write them on the back of a check.--Erle Stanley Gardner (note on a manuscript sent to an editor)






6/15/2004 05:49:00 PM

Monday, June 14, 2004  


I know it's June, because the horsemint is in bloom. This beautiful wildflower has another, more elegant name, Monarda punctata, but I like plain old horsemint. The leaves of some of the monardas (didyma, for one, citriodoro for another) are brewed for tea. But this variety has a strong medicinal taste, and since the crushed leaves of horsemint have also been used as an insect repellent, I don't think I'd enjoy drinking a cup. I've read that native Americans made a tea from the leaves to treat flu, colds and fever, and that increases sweating. The plant is said to be high in thymol, which is an effective fungicide and bactericide and is also used to expel hookworms. Obviously, an all-round handy plant--and beautiful, too. The fields and roadsides are purple with it. Enough beautiful horsemint to handle every hookworm in Texas.

Both Bill and I are back at the writing desk. For those who have just tuned in, the book we're working on now is called Death on the Lizard. It's in the Victorian/Edwardian series, and features (like the eleven other books in that series) real people. The real person in this one is Guglielmo Marconi, who was the first to send a wireless signal from England to America. We're aiming to be finished with the book by mid-August, so we've settled down to writing every day.

Well, not quite every day. Wednesday, I'm packing up for a trip to Cleveland, where I get to talk about Beatrix Potter's gardens at the national conference of the Herb Society of America. If you live in the Cleveland area, it's not too late for you to register for Saturday's events. So I'll get another break from writing for a few days, which is not altogether a good thing. By the time I get back, I'll have forgotten where I am.

Becky's sweater. I don't think I mentioned that I was knitting a sweater for grandbaby Becky, who celebrated her first birthday two weeks ago. It was knitted of FunFur, which (believe me) is not fun to knit--at least, not all by itself. If you're thinking of using this eyelash fiber for a project, choose a pattern in which the FunFur is knitted with another yarn. That way, you'll at least be able to tell where you are. Becky's sweater is full of mistakes, but she doesn't seem to mind. Look at that grin, and those pretty red cheeks! Mom Sheryl has the honor of holding Becky on her lap--she has a nice smile, too!



Reading notes.
'Tis a gift to be simple,
'Tis a gift to be free,
'Tis a gift to come down
Where you ought to be.
And when we find ourselves in a place just right,
It will be in a valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To turn and to bend we shan't be ashamed.
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

Quaker hymn

6/14/2004 05:57:00 PM

Thursday, June 10, 2004  
Vacation Notes, May 27-June 7

Friday, May 28. We’re staying for a few days with Bob Goodfellow, who has a lovely log house on a mountainside above Las Vegas, New Mexico. From Bob's front window, I can see across a deep, wide green valley to the green slopes of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Behind the house, the land rises rapidly, the slopes filled with Ponderosa pine. The space around the house has been cleared for fire safety. Bob lives here with two elegant, regal, sweetly obedient greyhounds, Renegade and Nellie, both retired from a racing career. The temperature was 41 at sunrise, and the air is bright, crisp, pine-scented.

Later. We drove up to Chimayo, where we had a marvelous lunch, visited the Santuario de Chimayo, and Ortega’s Weaving Shop. At Orgetga’s, there was a whole wall given to books of Southwestern fiction—and there on the shelf were several of China’s mysteries! Gave me a great thrill. Bill bought some chile pepper, chipotle, and hot NM green peppers--another kind of thrill.

Saturday, May 29. We drove up Mora to visit the Victory Alpaca Ranch. It was their “retirement” dream, one of the owners said, but with a herd of some 200 alpacas, I doubt if they’ll be taking it easy anytime soon. The alpacas are easy to love, and the shop was a treasure house of alpaca weavings and knitted things—and of course, fleece and fiber (rovings, batts), and yarn. I was terribly tempted by a fresh alpaca fleece worn by a ginger-colored alpaca named Maya until yesterday. But I resisted the temptation (it was 20 ounces, and I don’t need that much alpaca!) Instead, I bought five ounces of black roving. I brought a couple of spindles with me, and last night, while we watched a movie (Chocolat—simply delicious), I spun. Alpaca spins like a dream. I’ll put it with some white alpaca Bill got for me last year, and some that my friend Jane Ross brought back from New Zealand, for mittens.

What strikes me about this place—the eastern slope of the Southern Rockies, the western edge of the Great Plains, the northern range of the desert—is how enormously varied it is. Valleys with streams and valleys without, mountain slopes facing east, west, north, and south, each orientation creating a different slope climate. Then, of course, there’s altitude, not to mention the seasonal variations: cold or warm winters, abundant or scarce monsoon moisture, wind. Water, exposure, altitude, and the seasons—every slight change creates a different plant and animal community, always changing, moving. I’ve learned at Meadow Knoll that it takes a long time to know a place. It would take a lifetime to know these mountains, and by that time, man’s intervention would have changed the place so much that you’d have to start over again.

Tuesday, June 1. We’re staying in a old adobe house outside of Taos. It’s rich in New Mexico charm: pale adobe walls, hand-hewn log rafters, a couple of kiva fireplaces, an abundance of Mexican tile, and bright rugs. The thing that impresses me most about this place, perhaps, is that no line is straight or “true”: the corners are rounded, the horizontals and verticals are all slightly off, some of the floor tiles bear the impression of puppy paws. The wooden surfaces are irregular, the tiles and rugs are a mix of colors and patterns. A profusion, confusion, a riot of shapes and colors and yet it all fits perfectly. Ann, the owner, is an artist.

Yesterday (Monday)was a working day—we read a couple of the background research texts we brought with us and talked about the book we need to start writing (yes, seriously!) when we get home. But it wasn’t all work. We went for a walk, and then drove up to the Taos ski area. Bill has seen the place at all stages in its development: in the mid-fifties, when there was nothing but mine-tailings and dirt roads; in the mid-sixties, still no skiing, no residences or commercial buildings; and in the early eighties, after the road was paved but before the building boom. We played in the Rio Hondo, which is icy with snowmelt, and picked up kindling for the fireplace. A lovely afternoon.

Wednesday, June 2. Yesterday, we drove over to Abiquiu (pronounced AbiQUE, I learn), about 60 miles from Taos. We had a specific errand: to look at a house on the Chama River, not far from Georgia O’Keefe’s house, where I might be able to go and write for several weeks at a time. Until two years ago, I could go to a ranch near Las Vegas, where a friend had built a little house just for retreats. But she sold the ranch, and I’ve been without a place to go (except for my beloved Lebh Shomea, a monastery in South Texas). I think now, though, that I’ve found it, and it’s perfect: on a hillside, far away from the road, above the river, with a wide view of mesa and mountain, and only the sound of the wind and birds. I'm already eager to be there.

Friday, June 4. This is a working vacation, and the last two mornings are evidence of this fact. We’ve brought a dozen background books and spent the early mornings reading, talking, making notes. We stayed here at the house all day yesterday, and I wrote a prologue and the second chapter, skipping the first chapter that Bill will be writing when we get home. But it’s still vacation: today, we drove to the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, to see the famous adobe built by that eccentric and individualistic woman. (If you stay there, you get to use the D. H. Lawrence bathroom. Lucky you.) Then we took a slow stroll through shops and galleries around the Taos Plaza, where I bought several rugs and a chile ristra. Now, I’m sitting on the patio, looking out over the deep Arroyo Seco, the Taos mountains to the east, the Rio Grande Gorge to the west. We’ve had afternoon thunderstorms yesterday and today, and I can see lightning flickering over the Gorge, against the gray-blue thunderheads.

Saturday, June 5. Early this morning, we drove up the canyon above Arroyo Seco, parked, and walked along the tumbling Rio Hondo, icy cold with snowmelt. The fir branches are fresh-tipped, the new growth like bright green candles. The aspens’ leaves are shiny chartreuse; the rabbit brush is covered with white blooms. It’s already hot, sultry summer in the Texas hill country, but spring arrived in this mountain canyon just a few weeks ago.



Ah, mountains. Everywhere, always here, the mountains shape the landscape, claiming the eye, lifting the heart. From the front window of our adobe, the shoulder of the mountain rises above a deep arroyo. North and west, beyond the Rio Grand Gorge, another mountain centers a stunning sweep of pinon-clad hills. South and east, over the sagebrush mesa, is Taos Mountain, the Taos Indians’ sacred mountain, their guardian mountain, watching over the Taos valley, like a benign, dispassionate Buddha.

Monday, June 7. Home again, to a rainy day, a very green landscape, and a marvelous rainbow promising bright days to come.



Reading notes. If these mountains die, where will our imaginations wander? If the far mesas are leveled, what will sustain us in our quest to be larger than life? If the high valley is made mundane by self-seekers and careless users, where will we find another landscape so eager to nourish our love? And if the long-time people of this wonderful country are carelessly squandered by Progress, who will guide us to a better world?—John Nichols, If Mountains Die: A New Mexico Memoir

6/10/2004 06:31:00 PM

 

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