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
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:
Sunday, November 28, 2004 The Zoo. Just when we thought we had enough animals, the Fairy Wog-dog (remember Watership Down?) brought us another. Meet Toro, a type of Australian Cattle Dog known as a red heeler. On Tuesday, Bill found this little dog sitting on top of the pickup truck cab. He was wearing a collar and a rabies tag, although the collar obviously wasn't his and the tag was long out of date. To cut to the chase: on Saturday, we finally managed to connect with the vet who supplied the tag, and got the owner’s phone number. Turns out that Toro went AWOL once too often, and the owner was more than willing (translation: anxious) to let us keep him. So Toro, who is a very congenial dog, has come to live with us. Zach and Lady (our two black labs), Shadow (our black cat), and Bill and I are all moving over just a bit to give him room to settle in. Welcome to the zoo, Toro!
Tornado! Tuesday was a momentous day in other ways (other than Toro's arrival). A tornado touched down about 5 miles south of us—but by that time, we were all safely in the storm shelter, the two of us plus dogs and cat. Texas, Blossom, and Mutton took their chances in the pasture. We could see a nasty storm brewing to the west, and watched the radar on the computer and the TV until the last minute. The TV doppler radar shows a predicted path south of us, so we weren’t really afraid, and used the event as a practice storm shelter run. We’ve had the shelter about four years, and this is the first time we’ve had to use it. Other than the tornado, the big weather news is more rain and cooler weather. We’re already at 51 inches for the year, 20 inches more than average. The ground is like a wet sponge--squishy--and artesian springs are seeping all along the creek. The dogs love to splash through the standing water and we wear our boots everywhere.
Bookwork. I’ve been back at work on Bleeding Hearts, more or less steadily, and am now at 50,000 words (aiming for 85,000+). Saw something on TV on Friday that gave me a new plot idea, so today I’ll work on that. This requires a revision of the time line and some tweaking of a couple of scenes, but it basically fits the structure I already had in mind. Feeling good about the book.
Reading Notes. It is impossible to divorce the question of what we do from the question of where we are—or, rather, where we think we are. Than no sane creature befouls its own nest is accepted as generally true. What we conceive to be our nest, and where we think it is, are therefore questions of the greatest importance. Do we, for instance, carry on our work in our nest or do we only reside and get our mail there? Is our nest a place of consumption only or is it also a place of production? Is it the source of necessary goods, energies, and "services," or only their destination? . . . If we do not live where we work, and when we work, we are wasting our lives, and our work too.—Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture.
Monday, November 22, 2004 Wet, wetter, wettest. So far, the third wettest November on record for this area. You’ve probably seen the footage on the TV news. The worst of the river and stream flooding is in the counties to the southeast of us—that’s because all the water that falls on the Edwards Plateau goes downstream. The lakes (they're called the "Highland Lakes" for a reason: they're a good 700 feet higher than the Blackland Prairie to the east) are full now. If we get the rain the forecasters predict for tonight and tomorrow, the low-land counties to the east will see even more flooding. Water, after all, has an inevitable tendency to run downhill.
I don't understand why people don't remember that simple fact: water runs downhill. Out here where we live, about 90% of the flooding problems are created by stupid people who have done bad things to the land. For instance, the road above the lake was under water again this morning--I was on my way to the post office, but turned around and came back home, not wanting to ride our truck downstream into the lake. That section of road has been a perennial problem, but it was much less of a problem when the land on the uphill side was covered with trees and grass that held the soil and served as a kind of natural sponge. A few years ago, a woman hauled a house trailer onto that lot, stripped off the grass, scooped out a big hole she calls a "tank," and rechanneled the watershed. Now, eroding silt from her land has plugged the culverts, so that the road flooding is much worse, and silt is filling in the north end of the lake. If you ask her, she'd say, "It's my land and I'll do what I want to with it." (If I sound angry about this stupidity, it’s because that’s just how I feel.)
On a calmer note: here is one of our cypress trees, in the process of putting on her autumn finery.
This is Claudia. (We name our "significant" trees so that we can discuss them. It seems somehow more personal to say, "Claudia is looking splendid this morning," than to say, "That big bald cypress by the bridge . . . ") We planted Claudia in 1987, when she was about three or four years old and about as high as my head. She’s done a lot of growing in the past 17 years, probably because she has her feet in the creek. Obviously, she’s found a place where she can put roots down through the limestone bedrock, anchoring her firmly enough so that she can stretch up into the Texas sky. I love the idea that we have given her a place that she can call home--and that she has enriched our own home place.
Reading notes. This poem comes from Robert. Thank you, Robert, for sharing your recollections of Idaho, and for reminding me that we all have a place somewhere in memory that we call home:
In the slack water of the creek
there will be ice on this November morning
and perhaps a dusting of snow
promise of winter to come.
Cold wind through evergreen
singing to gray clouds
in their forest dens
creatures of the land
dream of a spring’s new beginning.
Many years and many miles
From these mountains and green forest
a part of me still makes ready
to fill the cellar and woodshed
and sleep before the fire
dreaming of spring and new beginnings.
Saturday, November 20, 2004 We found a scatter of cardinal feathers in the lane this morning, under the utility wires. A hawk (or perhaps a great horned owl) happened on breakfast perched on the wire, and dove for it. "Red bird burger," Bill said, looking down at the feathers. I’m sad for the cardinal, glad for the hawk or owl, who has to make his living, too. It reminds me that all living creatures must eat other living creatures, animal or plant, to survive—and that we all participate, one way or another, in this sacred circle of life support. It also reminds me of the respect we owe to these creatures, and gratitude, as well: a hawk circling above the autumn fields is a beautiful sight. I’ve been worried about our hawks this year—we haven’t seen as many as usual. They may have fallen prey to mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus. The virus (as you probably know) came from Africa/Europe/Middle East, and emigrated to this country in the late 1990s.
A small world. Speaking of emigrants, did you read about the purple martin that was sighted in Scotland—the very first martin to be seen there? Apparently, the bird, a first-winter (hatching-year) martin, was blown across the Atlantic by Hurricane Alex, in August. And the Brits got a surprising look at another bird (a first for them, a regular visitor here at Meadow Knoll): the masked shrike, which has an interest habit of impaling grasshoppers on mesquite thorns. And one more emigrant I read of recently: Asian soy rust. This fungus apparently hopped a hurricane or two, riding into several Southern states. It could threaten the U.S. soybean crop, the largest in the world. The moral of this story: whether we like it or not, we are all connected.
In bloom this week, courtesy of El Nino, which is bringing us rain and mild temps from the Southern Pacific.
Reading notes. Knowledge of how one’s region fits into larger patterns is the surest defense against parochialism.—Scott Russell Sanders, Writing From the Center
Wednesday, November 17, 2004 De-construction sight. Yep, we got a flood last night and this morning. Not a big flood—just a medium-sized one, with about 4" of rain here (more in Austin, where several people drove into low-water crossings and were swept away). But our flood was forceful enough to strip the three dump-truck loads of gravel from the crossing our neighbors put in last July, downstream from us us. (See the entry "Construction site," for July 12, 2004.) Their metal culverts stayed put, since this was only a moderate flood. But now the creek bed downstream is clogged with something like ten tons of gravel. The culvert crossing will have to be rebuilt—until the next flood. Or better, taken out and the crossing restored to the old low-tech, low-water crossing that existed before.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen this sort of thing happen often here. On the other side of the lake, a property owner scooped out a huge hole in her front yard, which fills with water when it rains and dumps the water across our communal road, eroding it. Further on up the road, somebody installed a too-small culvert—again, erosion. The same people who installed the culvert crossing burn huge piles of brush, unattended, without paying any attention to which way the wind is blowing, or where the fire might go. Neighbors in the other direction keep thirty-some pet goats on five acres; the grass is shorn to the roots, the ground is bald, and the soil is washing away.
In the area around our place, we can see dozens of examples of people coming onto the land and making changes: without observing, without understanding what they’re doing, without the foggiest notion of the consequences of their actions. And of course what goes on in this little corner of Texas is happening everywhere else across the country, on a larger and smaller scale. As a people, we have so little sense of place, so little respect for the natural shape and flow and pattern of the land, so little interest in its appropriate uses, so little care for its health and integrity. Change, destroy, use up, move on. The American way.
Reading Notes. We need a richer vocabulary of place . . . we need to be able to speak about the particulars, the subtleties, the varieties of all our places. We cannot help but carry the land in our bodies, for that is the only source of our bodies; we must make a deliberate effort, however, if we are to carry the land in our minds.—Scott Russell Sanders, Writing From the Center
Tuesday, November 16, 2004 Well, gosh. Looks like winter has retreated and we’re back in the tropics again. Rain and more rain, with 4-5" due tonight and tomorrow, on ground that is already saturated. The lake is brimful and running over already, so we’re thinking that we may wake up to a flood in the morning. Just to remind ourselves of the possibilities, I dug up this picture of the flood we had just three years ago this week, under the same general meteorological conditions: moisture from the Gulf, moisture from the Pacific, a big low-pressure area squatting over northern Mexico. We got 9" of rain in about 24 hours. We're not in any danger here—although it seems that with every flood, somebody drives into a low-water crossing and drowns. The moral of this story: do NOT drive where you cannot see the road.
And more book talks. Last night, I drove to Copperas Cove, about 65 miles away, to do a book talk at the library. We had a good crowd, wonderful food (I sampled some terrific China Bayles’ basil cookies and ginger muffins, and hot mulled cider from Witches’ Bane), and fine fellowship. In the afternoon, I read Peter Rabbit to an attentive group of youngsters who actually stayed put on their chairs for the whole story. Lots of fun. I was thinking of driving across country (from Bertram to Briggs to Copperas Cove), which is about 25 miles shorter—but there are low-water crossings on that route. Discretion being the better part of staying alive, I went the long way around, going and coming.
Fur & feathers. A few weeks ago, Debi (from Westford MA) sent me a photo of her stuffed animals (Tennyson, Bunny, and Byron), reading Hill Top Farm. It's posted in "Nifty Pics," on our website. We’ve been corresponding since, and have discovered that we share a love of British village tales (like those written by Miss Read, Flora Thompson, Angela Thirkell, Mary Russell Mitford). Debi also enjoys birds, and has created a beautiful website, with a slide show and music (fast-loading, too). If you get a chance, drop in and admire her photos of birds. I’m especially fond of the Cooper’s hawk. A very fine feathered fellow, an outstanding photo. Thank you, Debi, for sharing your photographic work with the rest of us!
Reading Notes. The land settles into the end of summer. In the white light a whirlwind moves far out in the plain, and afterwards there is something like a shadow on the grass, a tremor, nothing. . . Away on the high ground grasshoppers and bees set up a crackle and roar in the fields, and meadowlarks and scissortails whistle and wheel about. . . And high in the distance a hawk turns in the sun and sails.—N. Scott Momaday: Words in the Blood
Saturday, November 13, 2004 Autumn beauties. This is what the garden looked like, the last time the sun shone. The blue plant in the foreground is Mexican sage, Salvia leucanthus. Behind that is Salvia, Indigo Spires. The grass in the background is miscanthus.
But that was last week. Winter showed up this morning, with 15 mph north winds, low, dark clouds, and cold rain. Looks like we’re in for a spell of damp, chilly weather, good news for the bluebonnets (many of them are putting out their secondary leaves and forming their winter rosettes), but not such good news for Bill, who is still in New Mexico. He was expecting to drive back this morning, but woke up to snow on the ground and more on the way, so he’ll delay a bit. Our little Honda doesn’t perform very well in snow. I noticed yesterday that Mutton (our sheep) is already wearing his winter coat. Good for him. He’s right on schedule.
Book Talks. Two of them this week, one next. In Austin on Wednesday night, a benefit for the Story Circle Network. I talked about the challenges of writing about Beatrix Potter’s life. Story Circle, with its mission to help women write about their lives—is exactly the right audience for this. We sold lots of books, made money for SCN, and enjoyed each other’s company. Lots of fun. Not so much fun: driving our old ranch truck to Austin. It definitely does NOT like stop-and-stall traffic.
The second book talk is today, at Barnes & Noble, Westlake (Austin). I’ll be reading Peter Rabbit to the little ones at 11, and talking about Beatrix at 2. Then to Georgetown to pick up/sign books at the Hill Country Bookstore.
The third book talk is on Monday in Copperas Cove, which isn’t far away, 35 miles as the crow flies, but is much farther, because I have to go around by way of Lampasas. I know there’s a shorter way, but the last time I tried it, I got very lost, and I don’t want to repeat that.
Book talks are what writers do when they’re not writing. I enjoy them, but they do take time away from the current project. In the last couple of days, I've added 3,000 words to Bleeding Hearts, and am enjoying the story, which seems to be unfolding without a lot of prodding from me.
Talking Books. Last year, we sold the unabridged rights to several of the books to Recorded Books, and the first one—Indigo Dying—is now available. I just happened to discover this interesting fact when I was surfing through the RB website, looking for something to listen to. So if you want to "read" Indigo while you’re sweeping snow off your walk, go here and rent the book. Or you can ask your library to order it, and save yourself $18 plus shipping. Yes, I realize that I'm pushing the product. But the more people rent these China Bayles books, the more books there will be to rent, and people will stop asking me when they're going to be able to LISTEN to China and Ruby.
What are we willing and able to do, right now, to create the country and the world we want to live in? This election has galvanized millions of Americans into the political process and surfaced the ideological and theological splits of a continent. Many of us don't know where to go right now. What if the practice of democracy means holding space for uncertainty? What if we step directly into the split and create a refuge—not an answer, but a resting place for seeing each other and our dilemma as fully as we can? The Sufi poet, Rumi, states: "Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field… I will meet you there."
That field does not exist in any blue state or red state; it does not exist in any country or religion… it exists only in the human heart. Good news: because we all have a heart, and we can call in that space wherever we are willing to show up and put our hearts into words. We can move forward by creating meeting-places for the heart. —Christina Baldwin. For the full text, go to Christina's PeerSpirit website (and subscribe to her email newsletter while you're there).
Thursday, November 11, 2004 Ah, yes. Feeling much better, after a good day’s work today, on Bleeding Hearts. Do you know the feeling of sinking into a familiar chair? That’s how it feels to me to sink into a day’s writing work, especially after an extended absence. I came up with a new plot twist while I was in Indiana a couple of weeks ago—read something about an Ouija board, and remembered that Ruby and China used one, way back in Rosemary Remembered, which was ten books back. So the Ouija board is putting in an encore appearance in Hearts, and I’m looking forward to it. Should be fun.
Tours and Etc. I mentioned that I took a few days out to do the permissions for Story Circle’s nature anthology. The other project that’s taken some time recently is the planning for the April 2005 book tour. I ambitiously volunteered to Berkley (my publisher) to organize the entire thing—and they took me up on it. (Be careful what you wish for!) We posted a "Call for Invitations" in our Mystery Partners e-letter, and received dozens, literally. It took quite a bit of head-scratching, map-reading, and calendar-juggling, but the tour is finally settled, more or less. Most of the events are being hosted by libraries and herb/garden groups, and the route will take me from Texas to Georgia, then through the Carolinas, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and DC, and then back home. I’ll be driving—couldn’t do it if I had to fly. (Yes, I know that it's a backward loop, but there were a couple of fixed-date events I had to work around.) There are still a few pending events, but it’s all put together, and everybody has been notified. Berkley is now scheduling the bookstore events. Whew.
Zach and Lady and I have been batching it for the past few days, while Bill is in New Mexico, visiting a friend and looking at a house we’re considering purchasing. Details on that later. In the meantime, this is Zach, who fancies himself the Man of the House in the master’s absence. Handsome fellow, isn’t he?
Reading Notes. How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one's culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light. --Barry Lopez
Sunday, November 07, 2004 If you likedthe yellow flowers I posted on Nov. 6, have a look at this pretty yellow flower.
This is granddaughter Becky, who lives with dad Michael and mom Sheryl, in Juneau. The sweater, with all those beautiful cables, was knit in cotton yarn by Sheryl, who is obviously a very talented knitter. Sheryl teaches music and extended learning classes at Riverbend School, and Michael is a stay-at-home dad, teaching his daughter how to be a kid. Lucky Becky!
Book work. Since I got home from the Indiana trip, I’ve been trying to clean up the permissions for the Story Circle nature anthology, which turned out to be a daunting bit of business that took four whole days. We (the other editors and I) had kept a good record of where our selections were published, but sometimes the publishing history is complicated, particularly where poetry is concerned, and we had to do some detailed sleuthing, most of it on the Internet. And a lot of busy work--writing letters, making copies of selections, addressing envelopes. But it’s mostly done now—just a few problem pieces left to try to figure out. And we’re several months ahead of the game, which is nice. The book has gone out to be juried. The first reader was positive. One down, one more to go!
Also during this period, I read the galleys of Death at Blenheim, which took a couple of days, and put in the changes I made (and some of Bill’s changes, too) to Death on the Lizard. We still have the last chapter of Lizard to write, but Bill is doing that, and I’m not going to think any more about it until the file shows up on my computer monitor!
So it’s back to Bleeding Hearts today. I haven’t done anything on that book since October 18, which is a long, long lay-off for me. I went back to the beginning and worked through page 43 (I’d completed 96 pages), mostly rereading but also doing a little tightening. Tomorrow I’ll finish the existing material, and by Wednesday, I’ll be ready to start writing again. But there are several interruptions coming up in the next couple of weeks, which means further slow-downs. Aarggh. Still, what’s done is well done. I’m happy with it. And I feel good about getting back into actual writing again—even if it is only reading the writing I’ve already completed.
Reading notes. "I rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before I was satisfied," Ernest Hemingway once told an interviewer. "Was there a problem there?" the interviewer wanted to know. "What was it that stumped you?" "Getting the words right," said Hemingway.—Judith Applebaum
Saturday, November 06, 2004 Thank you to Duncanville, TX, a suburb of Dallas, where the Friends of the Duncanville Public Library named me "Southwest Author of the Year" and invited me to be their guest at a dinner on Thursday night. It was a delightful evening, and I was truly honored by their kindness and hospitality. Thanks, Friends. I enjoyed every minute of it--except for the flat tire that I got on the way home on Friday morning on I-35. A nail in a brand-new tire, wouldn't you know? I stopped in Eddy to get the tire fixed, by a young man who seemed to know everything there is to know about fixing flats, in a garage that looked like it came out of The Last Picture Show. I took some mental notes on setting and China got a couple of good ideas about plot. You never know when China might get a flat tire.
Beautiful. To brighten this election week comes copper canyon daisy, the nursery trade’s colorful name for Tagetes lemmonii, which blooms in my garden in early November. This plant can always be counted on to fill a large empty space, because the ends of branches that touch the soil will root—a generous habit that I appreciate. It isn’t a daisy, though; it’s related to the common garden marigold. A native of the Huachuca Mountains in Arizona, it was discovered in the late 1800s by a husband and wife team of botanists named Lemmon. I always thought that it was called "lemmonii" because of its strong scent, which some people (including Bill) find a bit overpowering. Lemon or Lemmon, I’m glad to be able to see its mound of yellow flowers outside my office window. And I love its fragrance. More power to you, I tell it. More power to you.
Whose America? On a darker subject: I received an email this morning from a blog reader, scolding me for my choice of reading materials (see the entry for Oct. 27) which he views as seditious, and cautioning me against writing about politics. Setting aside my offense at being told what I should read and write and my feelings at being accused--obliquely, but unmistakably--of being unpatriotic, I was profoundly dismayed by the subject line of this man's email: "The good guy won!!"
I'm not sure that the writer understood (or even intended) the moral implications of his choice of words, but they seem pretty clear to me, and I'm scared. This attitude—"my candidate is morally good, your candidate is evil and immoral," "I'm a patriot but you're a traitor," "I'm straight and true but you're gay and deviant," "I'm born again but you're damned to hell"—is taking us down a wrong, wrong road, to a dangerous place that doesn't feel like the America I thought I lived in--tolerant, open to others' ideas, supportive of equal rights for all. "Wait a minute," I want to say. "Isn't free speech what this is all about? The freedom to share views, to listen, to read, to write, to dig out the facts, to use those facts when we speak truth to power?"
The writer suggested that writing about politics isn't relevant to discussions of place. Phooey. The politics of place is a crucial topic for every thinking, caring citizen of this planet. Here's just one example of the literally thousands we could choose on any given day: the story about the melting of the Arctic ice pack, which scientists say will result in 30% less moisture in the already drought-stricken American Southwest. The long-term real-world political implications of that environmental change (caused, in part, by real-world political decisions being made in this country, this week) are enormous. Want to consider other politics of place (the loss of diversity, the ruin of rain forests, the rising tide of human population growth) and ways you can add your muscle to making your place, and all places, better for all creatures? Here's a list of resources.
Reading Notes. This was written by Terry Tempest Williams, who uses her gifts as a writer to speak up for the environment. When Edward Abbey calls for the artist to be a critic of his or her society, do we live on the page or do we live in the world? . . . We can create beauty through the dailiness of our lives, standing our ground in the places we love. "There is a real world that is really dying," Marilynne Robinson writes in Mother Country, "and we had better think about that." –Terry Tempest Williams, An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field
Monday, November 01, 2004 The mushroom mystery has been solved. Winifred (a regular blog reader) gave me a clue when she wrote this: "I'm no expert, but the photo you posted looks like a mushroom in the order Phallales, the stinkhorns. Apparently they smell really bad. There are some 19 species of stinkhorns in Texas."
Our mushroom didn’t smell noticeably bad, but then I didn’t apply my nose to it, and Bill doesn’t have much of a sense of smell. But following up on Winifred’s lead, I found some photos that seem to identify the mysterious mushroom as a Mutinus elegans, which is often called the "dog stinkhorn." (If the reason for this name isn’t immediately apparent to you, I don’t think I should try to explain it.)
I learned something else while I was surfing around the web. In some cultures, this mushroom is considered to be an aphrodisiac. The use apparently derives from the old Doctrine of Signatures, whereby God was thought to have created a cure for every illness or ailment and revealed that cure through the plant’s "signature"—its appearance, color, texture, etc. This mushroom’s shape must have suggested its particular efficacy, in the same way that the kidney-shaped leaf of kidneywort revealed its use as a treatment for kidney problems. I often think that everything I look at in the woods and fields here at MeadowKnoll was probably useful to somebody, at some time, in some place. Mutinus elegans is just another intriguing example.
Many thanks, Winifred, for helping to solve the mystery!
Reading notes. Reflecting on the loss of our sheep to coyotes, I found this poem by British poet John Gay (1685-1732). If you're thinking that I intend some sort of metaphoric parallel to current political events--well, you might just be right.
"Friend," says the wolf, "the matter weigh; Nature design'd us beasts of prey; As such, when hunger finds a treat, 'Tis necessary Wolves should eat.
A Wolf eats Sheep but now and then, Ten thousands are devour'd by men. An open foe may prove a curse But a pretended friend is worse."