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:
Monday, December 27, 2004 Not a flake. It was frosty cold here for Christmas, but we didn’t get a single snow flurry—unlike Victoria (about 120 miles southeast of here), where they got a foot of snow on Christmas Eve, or Corpus Christi, which got five inches--both historic events, since neither city has had any snow at all for nearly a century. But we enjoyed the day anyway, reading and watching movies in front of the fire, with the dogs curled around our chairs. A nice change of pace, after the hustle of the days before, which included a trip to Houston (not our favorite place to drive) to celebrate the season with Bill’s mother.
Cormorants. Last week there was one, on Monday three, on Christmas Day a half dozen—and this morning, just before sunrise, I counted two dozen cormorants perched on the bare skeleton of the ancient oak tree that stands in the middle of the lake. As the sky lightened and the sun rose, they flew off the tree and into the water, where they dove for their breakfasts in water so still and quiet that it reflected the breaking dawn.
When I see cormorants, I always think of Johnson Harbor, on Ontario's Bruce Peninsula, where Bill and I use to spend magical summer weeks away from the heat of a Texas August. There, the cormorants loved to sit on the deck below the house, shoulder to shoulder, like a row of disciplined monks at prayer. As if on a signal, one after the other, they would dive smoothly into the water, and when they surfaced with their fish, they would toss them into the air—not a frivolous business—and gulp them headfirst. There is something Zen-like about their attention, and it’s impossible to escape the perception that when they dive they are swallowed by the water, and only then can they emerge and swallow their fish.
Book report. We polished off Death on the Lizard over the weekend and sent it off to New York via Fed-Ex this morning. The book has been more or less finished for several months, but Bill wanted to write a final chapter, a sort of post-script to the action, and I needed to tidy up a few loose ends and make sure that all the chapter headings were positioned right on the page. Then the printing and packing, and now it’s gone. Both of us remember when the final manuscript felt like much more of an accomplishment, back in the days before word processing and modern printers. Still, we remind ourselves that while the last little bit may be easier than it used to be, the book still represents an enormous investment of time.
Bleeding Heart is not quite done. I’ve actually finished the central plot line (that is, the mystery's been solved and the killer nabbed), but there are still two plot lines left undone—intentionally. These will carry over into the next book, but I haven’t managed them very gracefully and they could use some reworking. I’m going to put the project aside for the moment, though, and come back to it in a couple of weeks.
And in the meantime, I need to start thinking about the next Beatrix book (#3, called The Tale of Cuckoo Brow Wood). I’ll start by rereading the first two books (the first was out in October, the second due out in July), which should bring me up to speed. I’ve also been reading Linda Lear’s manuscript of her new biography of Beatrix, and today I got a book in the mail (oh, how I love to get books in the mail!): Beatrix Potter’s Art, by Anne Stevenson Hobbs, recommended to me by a reader. I don’t know how I missed that book, or how I missed the wonderful tape (recommended by another reader) of Lynn Redgrave narrating Judy Taylor’s script for a Weston Woods VHS tape of Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller, and Countrywoman. I watched that on Christmas Day—a perfect occasion.
Reading notes. There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness, a sign that God is implicit in all of creation. Or maybe you are not predisposed to see the world sacramentally, to see everything as an outward and visible sign of inward, invisible grace. This dose not mean that you are worthless Philistine scum. Anyone who wants to can be surprised by the beauty or pain of the natural world, of the human mind and heart, and can try to capture just that—the details, the nuance, what is. If you start to look around, you will start to see.—Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird.
Friday, December 24, 2004 Bill and I were treated to a rare sight tonight: a pair of antlered whitetail bucks tussling in the south meadow. We were definitely impressed—watched through the binoculars, oohing and ahhing. But the does for whom these bucks were competing were definitely not impressed. They turned their backs and went on with dinner while the boys duked it out. We don’t think it was a serious battle--it seemed as much play as real threat--but these were serious bucks: one had four points, the other eight. This makes them serious bag for hunters, who have until January 2 to kill them. There are more deer this year, so the Texas Parks and Wildlife folks have extended the season (in our part of the state) through January 16—but only for antlerless and spike bucks. MeadowKnoll is posted as an animal sanctuary and a Texas Wildscape, but the owners of the south meadow are allowing a friend to hunt it. I doubt that they have any idea what kind of animals live on and wander through the land they like to call theirs.
I always have mixed feelings this time of year. I love to watch the deer (we've seen two pairs of spring fawns grow up this year), and don’t even mind the minor damage they do in the garden. But humans have destroyed these animals’ natural predators and allowed the deer to multiply, often past the carrying capacity of the land. That means starvation for a great many when the drought comes and there's not enough grass for them to eat. Responsible hunting is the best way to manage them—but taking the big bucks means taking the strongest males out of the mating game, which doesn’t strike me as very smart. It will be a long time before I forget the sight of that pair of bucks, doing what comes naturally, and making it look like fun.
Robins and robin lovers. Several people have written to share their memories of robins. I wonder if there’s something iconic about this lovely bird, which seems to be so much a part of our childhoods. I’m not the only one who remembers looking out the window while robins gather in the grass. Connie watched for the first robin of the spring from her grandmother’s window seat near Rockford IL. Maureen remembers coloring robins in first grade, and then seeing a robin outside the window and making the electric connection: robin in book, robin on the lawn! Leroy recalls "When the red red robin goes bob bob bobbin’ along." To which I might add: "Poor little robin, walkin’ walkin’ walkin’ to Missouri," which my mother (who grew up in Missouri) used to sing as she hung the clothes on the line. Ah, robins.
More from friends. I got a note from Paula Hill, at Hickory Hill Herbs in Lampasas. If you’re out driving around the Hill Country and find yourself in the area (Lampasas is north of Burnet about 30 miles, and southwest of Waco), stop in and see the Hills' herb shop (although on second thought, you might want to wait until spring). Paula and Don work hard at keeping their garden looking beautiful. Here’s her web site--and you don't need to wait until spring to visit: http://hickoryhillherbs.com/index.html (I’m using the long form, rather than hot links, because Blogger seems to reject my posts that include hot links. They don’t seem to feel it’s their problem. I’m just about ready to find a new blog host.)
Reading Notes. The sight of any free animal going about its business undisturbed, seeking its food, or looking after its young, or mixing in the company of its kind, all the time being exactly what it ought to be and can be,--what a strange pleasure it gives us! Even if it is only a bird, I can watch it for a long time with delight; or a water rat or a hedgehog; or better still a weasel, a deer or a stag. The main reason why we take so much pleasure in looking at animals is that we like to see our own nature in such a simplified form. There is only one mendacious being in the world, and that is man. Every other is true and sincere, and makes no attempt to conceal what it is, expressing its feelings just as they are. Arthur Schopenhauer, "Psychological Observations"
Monday, December 20, 2004 Albino cardinal. We have quite a stunning collection of cardinals this year, seven or eight adult males and probably twice that many females and juvenile males. Among them is a partially-albino female, the first I have seen in the two decades we have lived here (before that time, I wasn’t much of a birdwatcher). She’s red at the tip of her crest, on her wings and tail, and bright orange on her beak. The feathers that would normally be brown are all grayish-white. She appears quite striking to me, although the other birds don’t seem to notice anything different about her. I’d love to get her picture, but until I do, here's a photo that looks just like her. http://web.syr.edu/~bpburtt/Birds/Aug17-03.htm You might also be interested in the article, which goes into detail about albinism in birds. Of course, the scientists have all sorts of scientific explanations for this phenomenon, but I’m content with the mystery.
Other oddities. We were walking with the dogs this afternoon when we saw a bright green katydid neatly impaled on a mesquite thorn, the work (no doubt) of a Loggerhead shrike, called by some the butcher bird.
This solitary bird is about the size of a robin, gray, with black wings and tail and a black mask. We see them here most of the year. It’s always interesting to find evidences of this bird’s dining habits, like the grasshopper I saw stuck on a barb of the barb-wire fence, and the tiny hipbone of a frog hung on a larger mesquite twig. The shrike has the appetite of a raptor, but lacks a raptor’s strong talons, so he hangs his prey from an available hook so that he can break it into bite-sized pieces with his strong beak.
The odd thing about the impaled katydid was that it wasn’t eaten, or even nibbled. It still wore its green wings, and its body was bright green. Some researchers say that these birds sometimes cache food in this way, or use the killed prey to mark territory or attract a mate—it’s not mating season here, but who knows? Maybe he's hanging out a green flag in anticipation of spring, or he plans to drop in tomorrow for lunch. It’s all a mystery, and that’s wonderful.
Reading notes. What can be seen from my window, what can be reached on foot within a day’s walk of my house, may seem tame enough: no surf breaks on rocky shores, no mountains gleam with snow, no bears prowl. It is a settled region, marked everywhere by human presence. But for all our buildings and lights and roads, for all our signs and words, that human presence is only a thin film stretched over mystery. Let sunlight flame in a blade of grass, let night come on, let thunder roar and tornado whirl, let the earth quake, let muscles twitch, let mind curl about the least pebble or blossom or bird, and the true wildness of this place, of all places, reveals itself.—Scott Russell Sanders, Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World.
Sunday, December 19, 2004 Research query. Can anybody out there tell me what kind of retail bag you'd get at Neiman-Marcus, if you went shopping for a nightgown there? This is a clue in China's current work-in-progress. I don't think I've been in a N-M store for the past five or six years, and I don't have the time to drive into Austin and do the research. Couldn't find a description online, either. You can email me at email@example.com. Thanks!
Solstice Robin. The solstice is still two days away, but the robins are here, a sure sign of winter. When I was a little girl, these were my favorite birds, and I’d sit by the window for hours with my chin on my hand, watching them foraging for earthworms in the soft, deep soil of our Illinois yard. This was in the dark ages, of course: no video games, no Barbie dolls, not even Mr. Rogers and Captain Kangaroo—just robins in the grass. I wonder what they eat when they come to the Hill Country for the winter. I know we have earthworms, but they’re buried under the chipped cedar mulch of the garden, and the soil in the fields is so thin and dry that it's not very hospitable for worms. Maybe the robins hunt in the leaf litter of the woods, like our rufous-sided towhees—the lively, energetic towhees, which scratch busily in the cedar brake beyond my kitchen window, where I can watch them while I’m doing the dishes. (Yes, it’s true; we have no dishwasher. I wash, the dishes dry themselves, and Bill puts them away.)
Winter color. I enjoyed the bright leaves as I drove through southern Indiana in October, but I do love the winter color here at MeadowKnoll. This morning, just as the sun rose, the dogs and I took the pasture path that skirts the cattail meadow, watching the red sun turn the big bluestem and sedgegrass an even brighter shade of copper, against the softer fawn-colored grasses, shading into deeper golds and brown the farther you walk into the cattail meadow. You can’t walk very far into that meadow just now—the soil is still mushy from our heavy November rains and the paths we use in dry weather have become channels for flowing water. The last few years have been wet, and the willows I planted there have flourished. A few still hold their fragile leaves, gold wands turning in the sun. Not as brash as the Indiana hillsides, but lovely neverthess. This is a photo of Bill, on one of our morning walks. The colors are muted in this photo by the dull pewter sky--also beautiful, in my eyes.
Letters. I get a lot of mail these days from people whom the poet, May Sarton, often called "friends of the work." Mostly these are letters in response to the first Beatrix Potter book, The Tale of Hill Top Farm, and they’re often quite touching. Yesterday, a Nevada woman emailed to tell me that the book had evoke beautiful but bittersweet memories, for her mother had read to her from the "little books": the green-covered edition from the thirties and forties that many of us remember from our childhoods. A passion for Beatrix Potter—for the books, the art work, china replicas of the animals, Margaret Lane’s biography—was something that mother and daughter shared through the years, until the mother began to suffer from Alzheimer’s, that cruel disease that robs its victims of their pasts. As I read the letter, I thought what a gift and a treasure memory is, and how it enriches our lives. I was warmed by the idea that the work Beatrix did still lives on in those of us who remember our experience of reading her stories, and that my own work brings those memories forward in time and reminds us (some of us, anyway) of our own childhoods. And by the idea that my recreation of Beatrix, even in fiction, is a way of bringing her remarkable life out of the past and into our present experience.
Reading notes.Essayist Michael Ventura wrote that Henry Miller was fond of quoting his friend Fred Perles: "The mission of man on earth is to remember.’ To re-member. To put back together. To re-attach a lost member." The idea of reattaching a lost member of our tribe through memory is a remarkable concept, because, in truth, that may be the most tangible experience we have of one another. Memories are particular and fragmented, and they are all we have to offer the loved ones with whom we have shared life. That’s what we do when we write memoir: We put back together fragments of our life and the lives of our loved ones in a way that reflects the universal experience of being human. In doing so, we become a part of each other.—Maureen Murdock, Unreliable Truth: On Memoir and Memory
Wednesday, December 15, 2004 Chilly. Another hard freeze last night, which zapped the few surviving roses. This morning, as I walked the dogs up to the lake, I could see everything sparkling. The grass stems and blades were all transformed to diamonds and crystals, a beautiful winter alchemy. And the frost flowers were blooming in delicate, icy curls along the edge of the woods.
Here in central Texas, it is the white crownbeard (Verbesina virginica) that produces the frost flower, which isn’t a flower at all, but a curl of icy moisture that has been squeezed out of the plant’s broken stem. The cell structure of the plant’s stem is basically vertical, and when the moisture—sap, as well as water—freezes, it is pumped out through tiny vertical fissures. The curls of frozen sap can look like silvery ribbon candy, or like frosty feathers, or like twirls of white cotton candy—the work of winter fairies. If you touch it, the ice is so fragile that it will shatter. Our frost flowers were gone by mid-morning, sadly. They’re beautiful.
Book report. There’s a great wrap-up article in the most recent Herb Companion, featuring herbs in fiction. Kathleen Halloran, the author, says some nice things about the China Bayles series. (Thank you, Kathleen.) If you’d like to add some novels that contain herbs and herbalists to your reading list, Kathleen will give you some ideas. You’ll find her article on our website, at www.mysterypartners.com. Scroll down the tool bar and click on "Crime Partners Make News."
Reading notes. I know a woman who shifts from word processor to pen to typewriter, o she’ll never grow dependent on one tool. She’s afraid that one day she’ll find herself without her favorite pen and be unable to write. Her objective is to write anywhere, under any circumstance. In the sand if necessary.—Sophy Burnham
Monday, December 13, 2004 Cabaña de troncos. There’s a good reason that Bill’s been spending a lot of time in New Mexico lately: we’ve just bought a vacation and retreat house there—a beautiful log house in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above Las Vegas NM. It’s not a big house, but it has a loft that will serve as my writing studio (when I’m in residence), and a basement for Bill’s workshop (when he’s there), and it has a great wrap-around deck with a view of the mountain range across a wide green valley. We closed on the property last week, and Bill was there to take care of all of the little details. We’ve spent enough time in the area to know that we’ll enjoy it very much—and our dear friend Bob (who came to our wedding nearly 20 years ago) lives nearby, which makes it a very special place.
Feeder’s up! I always wait for a cold snap before I put up the first bird feeder. I hung one last week, and tonight it hosted dozens: cardinals, chickadees, titmice, redwing blackbirds, sparrows of all sorts, Inca doves, whitewing doves. Quite a show out there. Tonight, another hard freeze. Tomorrow, the bird pudding, guys, first thing in the morning, so put on your bibs and line up for big helpings.
Susan’s bird pudding recipe: Mix together 1 cup of lard and 1 cup of peanut butter and soften slightly in the microwave. Stir in bird seed, raisins, corn meal, wheat germ, bread crumbs—anything that will nourish the birds in your area. I put in as much of whatever I have handy as the lard/peanut mixture will absorb. You can spread this stuff on your feeder, on sticks hung from trees, or on the trees themselves. However, the lard will leave a dark stain, so if this bothers you, don’t put it on the trees.
Book report. Yes, I’m still working on Hearts—up to 70,000 words now, with another two weeks to go. The plot has pulled together nicely, and I’ve confronted China with enough dilemmas to keep her busy for the next 15,000 words. I'm planning on leaving a couple of plot threads unresolved, to carry over into the next book. I’m thinking of this book as the first in a three- or four-book arc that develops a story about China’s father. Hoping to finish before Christmas, but I probably won’t make it, since we’re taking a couple of days to visit Bill’s mom in Houston.
Reading notes. When I picture a perfect reader, I always picture a monster of courage and curiosity, also something supple, cunning, cautious, a born adventure and discoverer.-- Nietzsche
Tuesday, December 07, 2004 Adventures. The dogs and I were out for a walk late this afternoon, on a nearly perfect day (what’s not to like about a clear blue sky, sunshine, a crisp breeze, and the temperature in the pleasant 50s?) when the new dog, Toro, spotted something. A deer, a rabbit? Whatever it was, he was off after it. For a little dog, Toro can certainly run fast. I’m not much at sprinting these days, and our two black Labs gave up running a couple of summers ago, figuring that they were past middle age and too dignified to do more than canter.
But the three of us oldies broke into a fast trot in pursuit of young Toro, who had disappeared into the cattail marsh. After a half-mile jog, with me shouting his name crossly at intervals, the dogs and I gave it up as a lost cause and turned around and headed home. I thought Toro was probably at the county line by now, and was trying to figure out what the next best course of action was (do I get in the truck and go looking? do I put up posters? what do I tell Bill?), when I heard a bark and there he was, running along after us, ears perked, eyes dancing, tongue lolling. "Hi, Mom! I’ve been having fun. What have you been doing?" What do you say to a dog who's been having doggie adventures, and obviously having fun at it? Zach sniffed him, Lady butted him, and I gave him a hug. Then home for supper, and a quiet evening for all in front of the fire.
Cattail marsh. Strictly speaking, I suppose you’d say that the cattail marsh is the largest patch of herbs on our property. They have so many uses, it’s hard to enumerate them all. The Indians used the sap to treat boils and sores, ate the immature flower head and the rhizomes, made a kind of flour out of the pollen, used the leaves to thatch roofs and weave baskets and make rope, and used the fluff from the mature heads to stuff into bedding for added warmth. Here at MeadowKnoll, the cattails provide a home to redwing blackbirds, deer, wild turkeys, frogs, and rabbits—and whatever in the world Toro was chasing this afternoon. They also filter the flowing water and prevent erosion. Here are a few cattails on a sultry day in July, when the dragonflies and bees were busy among the green leaves. The cattails are bronze and gold and brown now, with a wintry look about them. I like this photo. It brings the summer into the winter and pulls all the past into the present in a lovely, lively way.
Book report. The copy-edit took longer than I thought (it always does), but it came at just the right time. After reading BONES, I could see what I needed to change in BLEEDING HEARTS, the current book, and I’m back at work on that, with some new energy and enthusiasm. Bill is in New Mexico this week, so I don’t have to cook meals—gives me a little extra time.
Reading notes. All history is ultimately local and personal. To tell what we remember, and to keep on telling it, is to keep the past alive in the present. Should we not do so, we could not know, in the deepest sense, how to inhabit a place.—Paul Gruchow, Grass Roots: The Universe of Home
Saturday, December 04, 2004 Pewter skies and a pearly sun—winter in Texas. The dogs are full of frisk and fun as we make the loop through the pasture to the lake. Blossom, the longhorn calf, is wearing her gorgeous winter coat, the color of golden maple syrup. Mama Texas is gaining some weight, now that Blossom is (mostly) weaned, and Mutton (a Barbados sheep) has lost his fear of both of them. He stands close to Texas, as if he were a calf, and he butts Blossom away from the corn as if she were his size, instead of three times larger. The geese walk up from the lake, eat their corn, and fly back. I’m still keeping Toro on a leash, since he was a town dog, and these barnyard animals tantalize him. And he’s an Australian cattle dog, bred to manage cow herds, so when he wants to chase the cows, he’s just doing his job.
Fiber stuff. I found a pattern for a scarf knit in garter stitch on the diagonal—simple as can be, and stunning, done in various yarns. It’s a good way to use up my stash. This one includes some of my hand-dyed handspun, plus odds and ends purchased for other projects. And it’s mine, mine, mine. Goes perfectly with my favorite red jacket. (Nieces and granddaughters, hold on. Yours are in the works.)
Book report. Guess I will build a fire and settle in today to work on the copy-edited MSS of Bones. It’s usually about a 12-hour job, although—just scanning the copy-editor’s notes—I may have a bit of a plot tangle to resolve. Hope it can be fixed without too much trouble. The book is due out in April and Editorial is way behind on its production schedule; I should have had this copy-edit back in October. In fact, I woke up in the middle of the night on the day after Thanksgiving, thinking "I haven’t seen Bones yet!" Sent a worried email to my editor, who said (in her soothing way), "Don’t worry, it’s coming, we’re just a little late." A little late? The cover is finished (I don’t like it as much as I usually do), the tour is planned, and we’re just now doing the copy-edit? I’d say we’re a lotlate. I’ll do it this weekend and Fed-Ex it out on Monday.
Reading Notes. I try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Friday, December 03, 2004 Watersheds. Unless you live in an area that is regularly flooded, you might not know (and probably won’t care) what a watershed is. We have an interest, because the way the water moves (downhill) has become a rather important part of our life at MeadowKnoll. And a great deal of the history of the place where we live—Central Texas—has to do with the control and use of ground water.
Our house is high and mostly dry (which is not to say that we won’t ever get flooded, especially if we get the remnants of a hurricane). But we live on a creek that regularly floods, which flows out of a 17-acre lake on the northwest corner of our property, which receives the runoff from several square miles of rugged cedar-and-pasture range land to the northwest of the lake. If the land is dry and we get a one-inch rain, it soaks in. If the land is saturated, an inch of rainfall across the watershed above the lake can translate into a two-foot rise in the lake. If the lake is already full, the water flows around the dam to the spillway that feeds our creek, which we call Pecan Creek. About a half-mile downstream from our place, Pecan Creek flows into Bear Creek, which flows into the North Fork of the San Gabriel, then into Lake Georgetown (about 1300 acres, built in 1980, for flood control). Below the lake, it merges with the Middle Fork and both flow into the Brazos, which flows into the Gulf at Freeport. Quite a journey, when I stop to think about it.
And that’s just the surface water. Beneath us, there is another watershed, the Trinity Aquifer. But that’s a whole different story, for another day.
Gray and chilly today, perfect for an all-day fire in the fireplace. But mostly I kept my focus on the book I’m working on, Bleeding Hearts. I’m up to 60,000 words. However, the copy-edited manuscript of Dead Man’s Bones arrived via Fed-Ex yesterday, and I need to spend a couple of days on that. Still hoping to get Hearts wound up by Christmas, but it will be close.
Fiber stuff. And just in case you think I’ve forgotten all about my knitting, not so: it’s been scarves recently. I’ll post a photo tomorrow, or soon.
Reading Notes. More from Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America:
The only real, practical, hope-giving way to remedy the fragmentation that is the disease of the modern spirit is a small and humble way—a way that a government or agency or organization or institution will never think of, though a person may think of it: one must begin in one’s own life the private solutions that can only in turn become public solutions.
Wednesday, December 01, 2004 Frosty. Our first hard freeze nipped the roses last night, in an unusual intersection of seasons, even for the Hill Country. The freeze was right on schedule (it usually happens Thanksgiving week or shortly thereafter); it was summer that lagged behind. The roses just couldn’t seem to convince themselves that summer was truly over—and I can’t say I blame them. For the last few weeks, we’ve had daytime temps in the 80s, and it rained for days on end. At last, cold nights, cool days, and winter. Maybe I’ll finally get into the Christmas spirit.
But while summer’s roses are finally done for, one member of the rose family is just coming into her own. The pyracantha (Rosaceae Pyracantha coccineai) that grows along the front fence is covered with gorgeous mounds of scarlet berries. Its common name is Firethorn, or Flamethorn. I think you can see why. No, you can’t see the thorns, sorry. But I guarantee you, they’re there, and sharp, sharp, sharp. The robins and redwing blackbirds will eventually eat most of these berries, after several freezes have mellowed the tart taste.
Jelly. If your birds leave any behind, you might want to consider making jelly. (No, the berries are not poisonous—that’s an urban myth. The seeds, however, are said to be toxic, so don't eat the seeds.) Here’s an easy recipe.
Put 7 cups washed ripe pyracantha berries and 5 cups water into a very large non-reactive sauce pan. Simmer uncovered for 20 minutes. Strain through a cheesecloth. Measure 3 cups berry juice, 1/2 cup lemon juice and 7 cups sugar into the pan. Over high heat, bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Immediately stir in one bottle liquid pectin. Bring to a full rolling boil and boil hard for one minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, skim off foam, and pour into sterilized half-pint jelly jars. Cover with 1/8 inch melted paraffin. Makes about four half-pints.
Some people like to use grapefruit juice instead of or in addition to lemon. For a brighter color, add a few drops of red food coloring. For extra vitamin C, add a handful of ripe rose hips to the berries when you make the juice. I haven’t tried this, but I’m thinking that the jelly would mix very nicely with cooked cranberries for a different cranberry relish. You can also make the juice and freeze it for other jelly-making experiments.
Toro. To those who have inquired about our new dog: he’s settling in nicely, thank you. Today he got his new crate, a new bed, a new doggie dish, and a couple of new squeaky toys. He goes to the vet tomorrow for shots and a physical—and a date for a certain surgery that should make him a little less prone to (ahem) wander lust. In the meantime, he is enjoying long walks with Zach and Lady, as well as ball-throwing and frisbee-flinging. His first meeting with the geese was startling for the geese, and a revelation for Toro. He'll probably think twice before he tries to nip any more tail feathers.
Reading Notes. I’m still rereading Wendell Berry. If you haven’t discovered him yet, you’re missing one of the finest writers-about-place that I know anything about. This is from his 1977 collection of essays, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture: There can be no such thing as a "global village." No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. . . One who returns home—to one’s marriage and household and place in the world—desiring anew what was previously chosen, is neither the world’s stranger nor its prisoner, but is at once in place and free.