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

Wednesday, March 30, 2005  
Fiber stuff. Remember that sleeveless pullover I was working on last month? Here it is, with Becky inside of it! Isn’t she a cutie? Looks like she really likes her new sweater!

Book stuff. The books are here! I drove to Georgetown this afternoon, to the Hill Country Bookstore, to sign the copies of Dead Man’s Bones that people have ordered through our website. What fun. I am always amazed and moved when I sit down for the first time to sign a new book. It never quite seems real until that moment. No, that’s not true. It began to seem really real yesterday, when I got a copy of the very nice Publishers Weekly review. Not that I live and die by reviews, but it always feels good when PW says kind things.

Book tour. I’m getting ready to take the book on tour, which involves a gazillion details, not just tour details, but details having to do with life here at home, which (naturally) goes on without me. Bill already knew how to cook and run the washing machine when we got married, so he can manage himself, bless him. He can manage the dogs, too, although now that there are three of them, a single human sometimes feels a bit outnumbered. (I speak from experience, having been here with them, alone, for the past two weeks, while Bill was in New Mexico.) But they’re good dogs, and although they have very different temperaments (Zach is mellow, Lady is a loner, Toro is hyper), they have learned to live together about as well as three siblings ever get along. Maybe better, actually. There’s never been a dog fight. And if memory serves, there were plenty of kid fights, when mine were growing up.

But even though Bill handles it all with aplomb, there’s still the email. I won’t have a laptop with me, so he will be handling the communications, sort of like Houston, communicating with the orbiting astronauts. (Helloooo up there! Where the heck are you?) If you’re thinking of writing to me, wait until I get back, please. Bill will check the email every day and we’ll discuss it by phone, but he’ll only answer the urgent ones.

I was talking the other day to a reporter doing an advance story for one of the tour cities, and had to laugh when she said she’d never heard of an author going to --- well, I won’t say which little town she mentioned, out of respect for feelings. But it’s true. There are quite a few small towns on the tour. (Check it out here.) But small towns have libraries, and libraries have readers, and lots of people have gardens AND read mysteries. And lots of China’s readers, it seems, are small-town people. In fact, the small town readers probably outnumber the city readers 10 to 1.

So this year, I’m taking the book tour to a few big cities and quite a few small towns. We’ll see what happens. Life is always an experiment—right? You never know what’s around the next corner.

Reading Notes. I believe in not quite knowing. A writer needs to be doubtful, questioning. I write out of curiosity and bewilderment . . . I’ve learned a lot I could not have learned if I were not a writer.--William Trevor

3/30/2005 08:13:00 PM

Sunday, March 27, 2005  
Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora) our most beautiful spring shrub.

We started this plant, one of three dozen now blooming at Meadow Knoll, from seeds we gathered in downtown Austin in 1987, from shrubs growing in big concrete containers in front of a 30-story building. Bill stopped the car (illegally), I dashed across traffic, and pulled about a dozen seed pods off the shrub and stuffed them into the bag. At home, I nicked the seed coats with a file, soaked them for a day, then planted three seeds in each of a dozen gallon containers. They all sprouted—hundred percent germination! Three years later, they were ready to go into the ground along the creek and at the edge of the woods. Now, eighteen years from the time the seeds were hanging on their urban mama plant, the plants are in their third year of reliable bloom, out here in the Hill Country. (Definitely a better neighborhood.) One problem with these plants: the Genista caterpillar, a tropical sod webworm, which finds the mountain laurel irresistible and can munch its way through a spray of leaves in about ten minutes. I pick them off, drop them into a can, and dump the live caterpillars into the creek, so the sunfish and little striped bass can have a feast.

Book Report. I watched Finding Neverland last night—about J.M. Barrie and the genesis of Peter Pan. It’s not very true to the real-life story. (Barrie met the Llewellyn Davies family several years before Sylvia’s husband died of cancer, and was resented for his intrusion into their lives.) But that aside, it’s a wonderful tale about imagination, creative energy, and the way a writer feeds (yes, in this case that’s exactly the right word) off the life situation in which he finds himself. The film doesn’t come anywhere close to the astonishing complexity of Barrie’s psychological state or his relationships with his wife and Sylvia, and while Johnny Depp is appealing as Barrie, the script limits him to an attractive, positive view of a deeply conflicted, profoundly unhappy man. If you want to know about the real Barrie, the book to read is Andrew Birkin’s J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys. I’m about half-way through, and am mesmerized by it.

If you’ve been reading this journal through my tussles with the Beatrix Potter books, especially the fairy material, you’ll understand why I’m interested in Barrie. I was hoping to find a connection between them, but the experts I’ve consulted seem to feel that they never met. Of course, by 1907 (the time of my current Potter book), Peter Pan was ubiquitous, and Beatrix was bound to have known and heard about it—especially with her own interest in fairies. Also interesting: one of the scholars I consulted, Laura Stevenson, told me that there was a "rage for fairies" after 1904, when Peter Pan came on the scene, and that a great many of the "New Women" turned to writing fairy tales—and of course, we all know about Conan Doyle and the Cottingley fairies.

I wonder about the sociological reasons behind all this. A good subject for a book!

Reading Notes. A safe but sometimes chilly way of recalling the past is to force open a crammed drawer. If you are searching for anything in particular you don't find it, but something falls out at the back that is often more interesting. –J.M. Barrie

3/27/2005 08:13:00 AM

Thursday, March 24, 2005  
The bluebonnets are just beginning to bloom, plump and pretty. Soon they’ll spread the meadow with a carpet of blue, patterned here and there with scarlet Indian paintbrush and yellow-orange huisache daisies. In the wilder area along Cypress Branch, the starry blossoms of wild blackberry brighten the grass, and the bees are urgent in the purple blossoms of Texas mountain laurel. Before I sniff (I love the grape Kool-aid fragrance!), I always shake the bloom, to make sure I don’t sniff a bee going about her busy work. Yesterday, I spent a delightful hour clearing spring weeds out of the garden. It’s a treat to be outdoors in the sunshine.

Book report. Up to 75,000 words now on the Beatrix Potter book. I’ve been thinking of my own resistance to the anthropomorphic animals in these books—and the fairies that may or may not put in an appearance—and scoffing a little at myself. If Steven King (and Charlaine Harris, a mystery-author friend) can write vampire novels, surely I can write fairies and talking rats. One problem, of course, is that vampires are cool and fairies are "twee," as the Brits say. A related problem: vampires and other similar supernatural phenomena are used to horrify and excite, while fairies and rats aren’t nearly so dramatic.

And the lack of drama in these books is bound to be a problem for some readers. The plot I’m currently working with could easily include a murder and a suicide—in fact, it definitely would, if I were writing a standard mystery. So there has to be something else in the book to hold a reader's attention, some replacement for blood and violence: character and relationship subtleties, historical texture, an interest in the setting, and so on. On every page, the challenge for me is to discover whatever dramatic tension is implicit in the situation, and find a way to develop it.

This project is an experiment, risky in some ways, exciting in others, and definitely different. In each of the books, I’m consciously pushing the limits of the form (the generic "mystery") in some new way, allowing each scene to be whatever it wants, develop in whatever direction it chooses. And because there is so much new material to work with (cats and rats and fairies and real people and fictional people), something surprising usually happens, something I didn’t intend--sometimes, something I’m not sure what to do with. However the book turns out in the marketplace (that is, whether it’s read and enjoyed or drops into the book biz's Black Hole), the creative process itself is worth it to me.

Reading Notes. You avoid forcing your characters to march too steadily to the drumbeat of your artistic purpose. You leave some measure of real freedom for your characters [I'm sure this must include RATS!] to be themselves. And if minor characters show an inclination to become major characters, as they're apt to do, you at least give them a shot at it, because in the world of fiction it may take many pages before you find out who the major characters really are, just as in the real world it may take you many years to find out that the stranger you talked to once for half an hour in the railroad station may have done more to point you to where your true homeland lies than your priest or your best friend or even your psychiatrist.--Frederick Buechner, quoted in Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

3/24/2005 08:40:00 AM

Monday, March 21, 2005  
Futile Care. Given the events of this weekend, you might be interested to know that G.W. Bush, when he was governor of Texas, signed the Texas Futile Care Law, giving hospitals the right to remove life support if there is no hope of revival, regardless of the patient's family's wishes. Of course, this applies only to indigent patients, since those who can pay will be transferred to a facility that will provide life support. A Houston baby died earlier in the week, after being removed from life support, in spite of the fact that his mother pleaded desperately and publicly for his life. The statute does NOT require a hospital to get a court order to remove life support, and is in fact designed to keep the action out of court. So much for due process, right? For a legal discussion of the complex ethics of this denial, go here.

Oddly, I did not hear one single mention of Bush's Futile Care Law in last night’s extended discussion in the U.S. House of Representatives, although Tom DeLay (U.S. Representative from Houston, Republican whip, and under fire for many alleged ethics violations) was rhetorically fervent on the issue of our moral responsibility to preserve life at all costs. Nor, to my knowledge, did any member of Congress express an interest in keeping the Houston baby alive or preserving his Constitutional right to due process.

I hope I am not alone in perceiving an irony here.

On a brighter note, redbuds.

Reading notes. Every moment is a golden one for the one who has the vision to recognize it as such. Life is now, every moment, no matter if the world be full of death.--Henry Miller

3/21/2005 09:28:00 AM

Saturday, March 19, 2005  
Thundery. The good thing about radar (on the computer) is that it allows you to watch the approaching storm. The bad thing is that it allows you to watch the approaching storm. By the time the storm with our name on it arrived at our doorstep this afternoon, we’d already been living with it for over an hour, watching it move across Gillespie and Llano Counties, into Burnet County, and into our front yard, getting more and more threatening as it went along. Lady (one of our black Labs) took two thunder pills and went into the closet, but even that didn't calm her hysterics. The other two dogs, Zach (a Lab) and Toro (a heeler) wondered what all the fuss was about, and went on about their afternoon business, which is chiefly napping. (They don't watch the radar.) Thankfully, the worst of the storm went to the south of us—hail the diameter of quarters, powerful lightning, and strong winds. Your average Texas spring thunderstorm.

Splash of Yellow. The Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) has splashed the east side of our house with springtime yellow. This evergreen vine (sempervirens=evergreen) is nice all year round, but outdoes itself in March and April. It has a sweet, heavy scent and strongly narcotic properties. Indians used it to to deaden pain and reduce cramping, for it’s loaded with strychnine-related alkaloids. If you have one of these lovely vines, be sure to keep children and pets away from it. Even the blossoms are toxic. There are various undocumented claims that bees have died from the nectar, but all I’ve seen are pass-along reports, so I'm not sure about the truth of that. Jessamine is one of those plants—like datura, oleander, Easter lilies, lantana, wisteria, and many others—that we enjoy for their beauty but need to be mindful of their possible toxic effects.

Fiber stuff. Becky’s sweater has flown off to Alaska and she’s tried it on, and yes, it is too big. But she’s a growing girl, so it won’t be long before it fits. I’m working on a "hoodie" (the current slang, I’m told, for a hooded sweatshirt) for Coby, who is now taking a size 4. Blue, variegated. I’ll post a picture when there’s more to see. No time right now for spinning and dyeing, although I have a carded fleece that’s begging to become yarn, when the current writing projects are finished.

Book stuff. I’ve got about 10-12 more days of work on the Beatrix book, which is going better. Hoping to get the bulk of the writing done before I leave on the April book tour, then print out the manuscript and take it with me for pencil editing. Then I’ll put it aside and get to work on the Book of Days project (my herbal almanac). Once these two projects are finished, there’s another short trip, a "mini-tour" in mid-July, on my way to a family reunion in Illinois. Then I’ll have some quiet weeks before the next writing project, next fall.

Reading notes. Beginners who are first starting out sometimes try to write a novel but they won’t do enough work on it. You only learn to be a better writer by actually writing. I don’t know much about creative writing programs. But they’re not telling the truth if they don’t teach, one, that writing is hard work and, two, that you have to give up a great deal of life, your personal life, to be a writer.—Doris Lessing

3/19/2005 07:05:00 PM

Monday, March 14, 2005  

First rose. This Zepherine Drouhin is always the first rose to bloom here at Meadow Knoll, but this is the earliest blossom I’ve seen in the dozen years I’ve had these roses. Isn’t she a beauty?

Also in bloom this week: redbuds, Indian paintbrush, daffodils (lots!), coral honeysuckle, oxe-eye daisies, salvia, and iris. Not exactly a riot of color, but there are little bright spots almost everywhere you look. Most beautiful, though, is the green, green grass--Kelly green, Irish green, lime green, emerald green, spring green, apple green, sage green, pea green, mint green, as green as green can be. The dogs roll in it, the birds revel in it, I want to loll in it. Lovely, lovely green.

The cypress trees are budding, and Bill and I spent our lunch hour today wrapping chickenwire cages around five six-year-old trees, which we grew from seedlings we dug at the base of our Big Mama Cypress. The deer find these baby cypress irresistible, so the cages help curb their appetites. Also helping keep the deer at bay is Toro, our blue/red heeler, who loves to chase them. I love to see the deer in the meadow, but when they come into the yard, I summon Toro, who sends them back where they belong.

Second shift. Things are pretty busy here just now. I’m writing all day, my usual 1500 words, or as close as I can come. I'm up to 61,000 words in the third Beatrix book, and feeling good about it, although there are a LOT of loose ends to be tied up in the next 20,000 words.

But I'm also spending the evening hours doing the dozens of chores related to next month’s book tour, publicizing Dead Man's Bones (out on April 5). Always before, the publisher has set up the tour in bookstores in various cities. This year, I set up the tour myself (with the publisher's OK), after inviting groups to let me know if they’d like me to come and speak. Most of these groups are selling the books themselves, as a fund-raiser, so it’s a win-win situation. I’ll be in twelve states, with nearly 50 events (counting the Texas events before and after). Whew. The tour schedule is here. If you're in the neighborhood, stop in and say hi.

And I’m also working on the Herbal Book of Days, which is due at the end of May. I’ll probably miss that deadline, but it won’t be for lack of trying. I love writing this sort of thing (it’s an herbal almanac, with entries for every day). Just wish for a little more time.

Reading Notes. This is Glenn Close, in an interview with Time Magazine (March 14, p. 75), on the pleasures of working in television. "It’s incredibly creative. Michael Chiklis and I were saying the other day that we feel like Ferraris in a garage. When the job starts, you just wonder how many gears they’ll ask of you. We [actors]only have the process, and if that’s not full of creative and challenging stuff, you may as well be doing something else."

The same goes for my own life as a writer. A different gear every few minutes, and I love it. And if the process itself doesn't feel creative, I might as well be doing the laundry.

3/14/2005 06:21:00 PM

Wednesday, March 09, 2005  
Odd Bird Update. Someone emailed to say that she (sorry, didn’t keep track of who) had consulted a couple of bird guys, who suggested that my Odd Bird was either a Fulvous or a Black-bellied Whistling Duck. I checked a few websites, and have to agree—although I think it was probably an immature bird. It had yellow legs (instead of the characteristic dark legs) and it didn’t exactly whistle. In fact, it sounded more like somebody blowing across the top of a bottle. But maybe whistling is a skill that a whistling duck develops with a little maturity. Many thanks to the people who helped with this identification.

Illinois Authors Book Fair. I enjoyed my trip to Springfield last weekend. (Yes, you really can go home again!) I met quite a few readers of China Bayles and Robin Paige, and introduced a number of people to the Beatrix Potter series. Our mystery panel—Libby Hellmann and Michael Allen Dymoch were on it with me—was fun and interesting. Even the plane flight was good (which is saying a lot, for me—I HATE to fly these days). Now, if only the Springfield Hilton had sent a security officer to shut down the college kids who ruined Friday night's sleep for all the adults on the tenth floor (and the eleventh and the twenty-fourth and ….)

And speaking of Illinois, Danville (my home town) is one of the stops on my book tour next month. The Danville Public Library is hosting the events. With a little help from my old friends (make that really old, since we all went to high school together), they’ve assembled some photos from one of our high school yearbooks on a web page. To get there, go to the library page, then follow the links for a glimpse of my youth. Yes, that commanding blonde chick piloting that high-tech stroller down the streets of Maywood IL is really, truly moi. The navy-blue coat I'm wearing was cut down from one of Aunt Mildred's dresses. We didn't have much money in those days, and people "made do," as we used to say. Don't think I'm any the worse for the experience, though.

Book report. I am soldiering on with my current project, The Tale of Cuckoo Brow Wood, in the hope that all these odd bits and pieces will begin to come together at some point, and I will figure out where I am and what (if anything) it all means. I'm also currently reading the first-pass galley pages of Holly How, which I am enjoying very much. In fact, part of my gloom about Cuckoo Brow is probably due to my comparing it with Holly How, which in my unbiased opinion is a highly original book, one of the best I've ever written. In a way, it's humbling to read the book and wonder where in the world all that stuff comes from.

Another source of gloom: the delay with our Story Circle book, A Land Full of Stories, which now can't come out any earlier than Spring, 2007. One of the manuscript reviewers disappeared, and by the time we got the project back on track, we'd missed the deadline for Spring 2006. These things happen, of course--one doesn't like them to happen to oneself, however.

I know it must be spring because the rosemary is blooming outside my door. (Apologies to those of you who are still buried in snowdrifts.) An old saying: Rosemary blooms where the mistress is master. (But don't tell Bill.)

Reading Notes. Writing is an affair of yearning for great voyages and hauling on frayed ropes. Israel Shenker.

3/09/2005 06:56:00 PM

Thursday, March 03, 2005  
Fiber stuff. Finished at last, with Becky's sleeveless sweater! I was slow with this strip-knitted project (fun and interesting!) because I’m doing double shifts writing just now, trying to get the Book of Days together. It’s due at the end of May, but I’m doubting I can make the deadline, even with devoting most of my evenings to it.

Becky, this sweater might be a bit big for you, but I'll bet you'll grow into it.

And here's Becky, working on her own book:

Reading Notes. Patriotism is supporting your country all the time and the government when it deserves it. -Mark Twain

3/03/2005 09:46:00 AM

Wednesday, March 02, 2005  
Chuckling. The consensus of opinions (there have been several) seems to be that Odd Bird was some sort of exotic cross—others have seen strange winged creatures, too. As we’ve discussed these sightings via email, I’ve heard some interesting and funny nature stories. Here’s one, from Ann:

We are wintering in Florida (Indian Shores, near St. Petersburg) and there is a Seabird Sanctuary down the road from us on the beach -- they rehab injured birds. They tell the story of a pelican that was injured (plastic rings from pop cans or fishhook -- I forget what) and they fixed him up and returned him to the wild. Well, he was injured again in some way, and didn't he start marching up the beach toward the sanctuary -- they were getting phone calls from each condo building that he passed. When the rescuer went out with his equipment and the pelican saw him, he simply stopped waddling along and waited to be helped with this expression, "It's about time you got here!"

Funny story. It made me chuckle—hope it brings you a smile, too. Thank you, Ann!

Ann also mentioned snapping turtles, and suggested that’s how Major Gander’s leg was injured. I still think it was dogs or coyotes, since there was a scattering of feathers on the shore. But that made me think of the snapping turtles in our creek (we called them Simon and Schuster, after a publishing company of whom we were not fond) who gobbled up swimming goslings, right in front of our horrified eyes.

And that reminded me of the Sweet Pea’s pea chick. Sweet Pea was a lovely pea hen, a very conscientious mother, who roosted with her five or six two-week-old chicks on the top of the compost bin. Early one morning, Bill found a rat snake in the bin, struggling to swallow a large pea chick. The chick was already dead, the snake soon after. But Sweet Pea and her consort, Picasso, went on to hatch many more chicks, until we were inundated with pea fowl, and had to call a halt to the whole colorful business.

And then there was Jonah. We had quite a flock of Toulouse geese, most of whom started life as one of the many goslings of Mama Superior and Papa Macho. One year, a bull snake ate two of the three eggs Mama was setting on. We caught him in the act, and managed to retrieve one of the eggs, unharmed, from his decapitated corpse. (We show no mercy to egg-eating snakes.) We returned the egg to Mama’s nest, and she hatched it. We named the little guy (what else?) Jonah. Jonah was a lively little gosling, but short-lived. When he was only four or five days old, Papa Macho stepped on him and killed him.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

Traveling. I’m off to Lockhart TX tomorrow to give a talk, then on to Illinois for the Illinois Authors Book Fair this weekend. I just got the first-pass galleys for TALE OF HOLLY HOW today, so I’ll take those with me.

Cheering. Debi (who takes the BEST bird photos!) sent this neat photo of a well-fed chickadee enjoying a bit of winter sun. Thanks, Debi.

Reading Notes.
It is useless for sheep to pass resolutions in favor of vegetarianism,while wolves remain of a different opinion.--W.R. Inge

3/02/2005 06:40:00 PM


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