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

Sunday, June 26, 2005  
Now I’ve gone and done it. Gotten interested in another craft—papermaking, this time. Here is my first effort.

I can find lots to criticize about it, but it is, irrefutably, paper. More like craft paper than writing paper, and I’m not sure I’ll keep more than a sample of it. (The nice thing about paper is that it can go back into the vat, for another try.) But I certainly learned a lot about the process and enjoyed it immensely. Such satisfaction at seeing the pulp form into sheets and the sheets drying, and then peeling the dried paper off the felts (I used Handiwipes, which are convenient but left a textured imprint). I really don't need another craft, because spinning and dyeing and knitting are always waiting for any spare moment I can find. But papermaking, which I wrote about in a short story in a collection called Murder Most Crafty (just out last month), has been nagging at me for months. And when I decided to include a paper artist in Spanish Dagger (the 2007 China mystery, which I will start in October), I figured I’d better get busy and learn it myself. That’s how I got involved in spindling, spinning, and dyeing--I wrote Indigo Dying, which featured a fiber artist, and was seduced into the craft. Papermaking promises to be just as seductive, I’m afraid. It’s a good thing I love writing more than any of these other crafts. Otherwise, I’d start missing deadlines! And yes, I do consider writing a craft. “Literary art” is a word that’s used to describe writing that the culture has decided (for reasons that are often open to question) to value more than other kinds of writing.

Weather report. We haven't hit 100 on the thermometer yet, but heat index is regularly 105-108. The last few days have been blistering, and when I suggest to the dogs that it’s time for their noon walk, they go outside and flop on the grass in the shade, staging a sit-down strike. Dogs know what’s good for them. Bill has routed our second well into the main water system (here in the country, we do things like that ourselves, rather than relying on plumbers), making it easier to do the necessary watering. I try to keep watering to a minimum out of respect for the aquifer, but there’s no runoff and no waste; the water goes into the earth, into the plants, and through transpiration, back into the air. So now that I don't have to worry about the well, the plants are getting more water. No rain for nearly four weeks. My brother lives in Florida, where it’s been raining constantly. There’s no justice. Forgive me if I start hoping for a little tropical action to come our way. Without it, the rest of the summer will be bone-dry.

Reading Notes. One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, 'What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?'—Rachel Carson, A Sense of Wonder

6/26/2005 09:15:00 AM

Thursday, June 23, 2005  
A reader wrote a couple of days ago, saying that inquiring minds wanted to know about the Book of Days project I’m working on. For those of you who missed the description a while back (maybe a long while back), it’s an almanac, with a different bit of herbal information for each day of the year. Some of the material is tied to China’s books, other bits are connected with particular holidays, celebrations, and so on. Here’s a piece I wrote for May 15--still a draft and will probably be changed when I get around to polishing it, but it will give you an idea. I’m finishing May tomorrow, I hope. December is already done (I did that with the proposal I submitted to my editor), which leaves me six more months to write. Let's see--6x20=180. Sigh....

MAY 15

In some years, today is Hug Your Cat Day.

Cats vs. Catnip
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial member of the mint family, cultivated for centuries for both culinary and medicinal use. In England, the fresh leaves were sprinkled on green salads and the dried herb, mixed with sage and thyme, was used as a seasoning rub for meats. Before Chinese tea became available, everyone drank tea brewed from the catnip they grew in their gardens. In contrast to the stimulant quality of Chinese tea, catnip tea has a calming effect and was used to induce sleep, quiet upset nerves, and soothe upset stomachs. It was also used to treat colds and flu, reduce fevers, and bring on menstruation.

Today, we rarely use catnip as a culinary herb. Instead, we use it as an ornamental and bee plant, or grow it for our cats. The leaves contain a chemical called nepetalactone, which is irresistibly attractive to felines, from tiny housecats to large lions. The chemical induces a harmless physiological reaction that seems to be psychosexual: that is, catnip has both a euphoric and an aphrodisiac effect. Susceptibility, however, seems to be genetic, and varies from cat to cat. Some cats just don’t get turned on, while others go . . . well, bananas. (Be especially careful if your neighborhood is home to large lions.) As China suggests, if you grow catnip from seed, your cat will probably not notice it; if you set it out, be sure and protect it.

Catnip vs. Mosquitoes
Researchers from the University of Iowa have reported that nepetalactone is about ten times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET, the compound used in most commercial insect repellents. And best of all, you can make it yourself.

Catnip Mosquito Repellent

2 cups catnip, washed
2 cups almond oil

Bruise herbs and pack into a clean jar. Cover with oil, put a lid on the jar and set in a cool, dark place for two weeks. Shake jar lightly every day or so for two weeks. Strain into a clean jar, seal and refrigerate for up to 8 months. To use, rub on exposed skin. (You can also add other strong-smelling herbs, such as rosemary, pennyroyal, basil.)

So that's it. The Book of Days for May 15.

Cat vs. Mouse. I don’t have a photo of catnip, so here is a photo of our cat, Shadow, with her mouse.

Reading Notes.
Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet, but first
you must have the quiet.
--Wendell Berry

6/23/2005 06:21:00 PM

Sunday, June 19, 2005  

June’s signature plant is the monarda (Monarda citriodora, or lemon mint) spreading the meadows with a lovely purple blanket. Linnaeus named the genus in honor of Nicolas Monardes, a 16th century Spanish botanist who never made it to the New World, but established a botanical garden in Seville where he cultivated specimens and studied the effects of medicinal plants imported from the Americas. Citriodora comes from the Latin citrus, plus odoro—which pretty much describes its sour-lemon smell. It makes a decent tea (although maybe a little resinous). If you crush the leaves and rub them on you, the bugs will leave you alone. I’ve seen a soap made from it, and I understand it’s used in perfumes. Dried, it’s lovely—I have a bouquet of it, with dried grasses and miscellaneous weeds, on my kitchen window sill. When I was making herbal wreaths, years ago, it was always one of my favorites. I gathered baskets of it, hung it upside down to dry, and used it as a major floral component of each wreath.

It’s been hot hot hot and dry dry dry here—no rain for over six weeks. My gardens are designed to tolerate long dry spells, but I think I’m going to have to give everything a good watering. The orange day lilies are blooming now, and the Shasta daisies.

Writing Projects. Back at work on the Book of Days, as well as miscellaneous writing projects. I did a draft of the Teachers Guide for the Beatrix Potter series, and am emailing it to volunteers who will test-drive it in their classrooms. I’m putting together an advisory group to develop ideas for teaching a unit on Beatrix Potter, with my books as supplementary reading. Fun for me, and interesting. I’m also starting to think about the next China, which I’ll be writing this fall: Spanish Dagger, it’s called. You recognize that as the yucca, right? The “artist-in-residence” in this book will be a paper-maker, and the book will involve the mysterious death of China’s father—which is about as far as I’ve got in my thinking. Bill’s going out to New Mexico for a few days; while he’s gone, I’ll have time to give the book some serious thought.

Reading Notes. Every tree near our house had a name of its own and a special identity. This was the beginning of my love for natural things, for earth and sky, for roads and fields and woods, for trees and grass and flowers; a love
which has been second only to my sense of enduring kinship with birds and animals, and all inarticulate creatures.-
Ellen Glasgow (1874-1945)

6/19/2005 08:42:00 AM

Sunday, June 12, 2005  
Bambi. Around noon yesterday, the dogs and I happened on this tiny, very young fawn nestled at the foot of Persephone, the huge wild pecan tree at the edge of the woods. The dogs were surprisingly respectful and allowed themselves to be hustled away without disturbing the fawn. I came back later with the camera, and got this photo. When Bill went out to check a couple of hours later, the fawn was gone: Mama had undoubtedly come to fetch it. I feel extraordinarily privileged to have caught this small glimpse of a new life, and wish it health and joy in this beautiful place.

Rivers, Tides, and Walls. I watched Rivers and Tides last night, a fascinating documentary about British artist Andy Goldsworthy, who works in natural media, in place. One of the most striking installations was a stone wall—“The Wall that Went for a Walk”—at Storm King Sculpture Park in New York. It’s a meandering stone wall that crosses a river, winds among trees, and take aim on a freeway. If you’re interested in the concept of place, take a look at this artist’s work, for that’s what he’s all about: using the materials of a place in an artful way to call attention to the nature of the place, and to the way it changes through time. I often feel that being able to live here at MeadowKnoll for nearly 20 years has been a great gift. Twenty winters, springs, summers, autumns, each with its own seasonal changes, each season working a change in the place as a whole, and in me.

I loved “The Wall” because it made me think about how we use walls, enclosures, and other boundaries. Walls keep the wilderness out, keep “civilization” (domestic animals, crops, gardens) in; walls say “The owners have paid for this land, it’s theirs.” Walls and fences tell us that this place has value (in human terms), and that place doesn’t; this place is productive, that is fallow; this place is accessible, that is off-limits. It also made me think of “in” and “out,” and the difference between them, and how to get "inside" from "outside" and vice versa. And about time and natural change, as well, for Goldsworthy’s “Wall” is made of rocks that have been worn by water and wind, used once to build a wall that then fell down and reused now to build a wall that reminds us that nothing, not even rock, is permanent, and certainly not ownership. Which in turn reminds me of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”:

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast…

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence…

You can read the rest of the poem here. And if you get a chance to see this film, do. We rented it from Netflix (no advertisement).

Reading Notes. Once we thought that earth was all there was to the universe. Then we discovered the solar system, but thought that we were at the center of it. When that idea failed, we settled for an image of human beings as at the domineering center of life on earth. Now that idea has failed, too, and we see that we must be resigned to understanding ourselves as one species among many living a mysterious existence in the outer reaches of a minor galaxy in an infinite universe… With every downward revision in our estimate of ourselves, we have more clearly seen ourselves to be participants in a universe infinitely complex and intertwined.—Paul Gruchow, Grass Roots: The Universe of Home

6/12/2005 09:32:00 AM

Tuesday, June 07, 2005  
Reviews don’t usually stir up great excitement in our house—we’ve been writing too long to pay much attention to them, unless the reviewer makes a factual error or says something terribly silly. But yesterday’s Publishers Weekly review of THE TALE OF HOLLY HOW was cause for rejoicing. Publishers Weekly is the most important journal in the business, and the review was starred, which indicates a book “of outstanding quality.” The operational sentences: “…a mystery that's a stellar tribute to the famous children's author. As charming as the "little books" themselves, this is sure to delight Beatrix Potter fans and cozy lovers everywhere.” If I said I felt as if I’d just won the lottery, it would be an understatement. I’ve gotten starred reviews before (for the China books), but to get one for Beatrix—well, that’s special.

Fiber work. Here it is, ready to hang on the wall. I pieced it on the machine and planned to machine quilt it. But I didn’t like the way the machine quilting looked, so I took it out and quilted it by hand. Took a while longer, but was very satisfying. I’m pleased. Now I’m thinking of using the scraps to piece a table runner.

Book report. I’m finished with CUCKOO BROW. Bill is reading it now, and making suggestions. It’s good to have his eye on it, because he's both sympathetic to my purposes and critical of what I've done (a difficult combination). He's also a careful reader, and picks the tiniest nits. I’ve gone back to my BOOK OF DAYS project, and happily worked on that all day today. Fun and interesting, and a nice change of pace from fairy stories.

Reading Notes. 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 [and how we live, I would add] define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity.—Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America.

6/07/2005 06:36:00 PM

Wednesday, June 01, 2005  
Family photo time. How about this for a pair of cuties? Becky and Michael, my two newest grandchildren. (Becky was the lucky recipient of that modular knitted vest I made a few months back.) Isn't Michael lucky to have such a helpful sister?

Coming down to the wire. Cuckoo Brow Wood is nearly 90,000 words, which will make it the longest book I’ve done in a while—and it’s not finished yet. There is one story-line too many in the book (the Ridley Rattail story) but I can’t bear to take it out. (If I did, you wouldn't get to read about Custard's Last Stand.) Anyway, like all the other stories, it’s tied into the central plot, so I’m stuck with it. I wrote the final chapter today, although now that it is done, I’m thinking there may be one more, or maybe two. There were 255,000 words in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, so I’m safe. ;)

On the subject of the Beatrix Potter books, I've drafted a teacher's guide for middle and high-school classes. If any of you are interested in giving it a test drive, please email me. I'd like to assemble a panel of teachers to critique it and possibly add to it, for use in classrooms and in home-school settings.

Fiber Progress. I should be finished piecing the top for the quilt hanging tonight, so maybe I’ll post a photo tomorrow. It's a nifty pattern and gorgeous colors, very rich and bright, exactly right for that blank log wall. And my sewing machine is still working, which is by itself a major triumph. When this is done, the poor thing needs to come apart for a good cleaning.

Reading Notes. Fidelity to human order, then, if it is fully responsible, implies fidelity also to natural order. Fidelity to human order makes devotion possible. Fidelity to natural order preserves the possibility of choice, the possibility of the renewal of devotion. Where there is no possibility of choice, there is no possibility of faith. 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.—Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America.

6/01/2005 06:39:00 PM


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