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, September 25, 2005  

Rita is reduced to a rainmaker, and we are back to dealing with the small stuff in our comfortable lives—all the while thinking of the thousands of people whose homes and workplaces have been disrupted by the summer’s hurricanes. We’ve been helping where we can, but the little we can do is never, ever enough. There are too many people in need—and animals, too. Breaks your heart. But it also makes you appreciate the life you have, and the landscape, and days without disruption. My brother John lives in Florida, north of Orlando, where they had three hurricanes last year: he says he spent weeks getting ready for and recovering from the storms. And of course, the recovery is never complete, because the trauma is still there inside, tangled up with the fearful memories.

One of the things I've done in the past week (with the help of webmistress Peggy Moody) is to set up a page on the Story Circle site for people to share their storm stories. The Story Circle Network is a non-profit organization devoted to helping women tell their stories; after the attack on the WTC, we posted a page for people's stories (women and men). Now, we've adapted the idea to storm stories. If you'd like to post, feel free. Go to and follow the links.

It is a quiet, pretty day here—autumn, now that we’re past the equinox. But you’d never know it by the thermometer, which is forecast to hit a record-breaking 101º here today. We still have a few hummingbirds, although the scissor-tailed swallows and the yellow-billed cuckoos have already flown south. The Maximilian sunflowers are blooming in tall golden towers, and goldenrod and bright yellow broom are scattered in wide drifts: the meadows are sun-drenched with their flowers. It's dry here now, but there was more rain than usual in July and August, hence more flowers in September. The grasses are blooming too: the big bluestem is nearly head-high, and the turkeyfoot bluestem thigh-high. When we acquired this land, it was horribly overgrazed. It's nice to see so many of the native grasses coming back.

I've been trying to post a photo of those lovely sunflowers, but Blogger doesn't like photos this morning. (This seems to happen far too often.) I'll keep trying.

But I also need to get to work. Yesterday, between bouts of Rita-watching on TV, I managed 1500 words in DAGGER. I have the main plot pretty well thought through, but now I've come up with a new idea and am seeing where it takes me. Not sure exactly where I'm going with it. Maybe nowhere. Maybe a dead end.

Reading Notes: Reading letters and journals of artists, I am repeated struck by the sense of urgency they mention, a need to respond to something they have seen or felt that moved them. . . Artists pursue whatever excites them, groping sometimes, but always tantalized by the chance that next time they'll get it. Georgia O'Keefe describes the experience: "At the moment I am very annoyed--I have the shapes--on yellow scratch paper--in my mind for over a year--and I cannot see the color for them--I've drawn them again--and again--it is from something I have heard again and again till I hear it in the wind--but I cannot get the color for it--only shapes--None of this makes any sense--but no matter."--Hannah Hinchman, A Life in Hand: Creating the Illuminated Journal

9/25/2005 08:14:00 AM

Thursday, September 22, 2005  
Looks like Rita is shifting to the east, which takes us out of the storm path—for the next few days, anyway. The rain threat is still high, since the storm still looks like it's going to double back. Some forecasts are saying there may be up to 25” in some locations (not here, we hope!), and significant flooding. But we probably won’t get that much wind, which means that we won’t be so likely to lose power. Which means that I’ve decided to stay here. We took the morning to get organized, in case we do get wind—moved plants, stowed lawn furniture, cleaned off the porch and the deck. Bill got out his generator and powered it up, and I filled more water jugs, just in case. We also trimmed a few limbs back, and picked up loose stuff. So we’re more or less ready. And at least we are not out on one of the freeways, trying to get out of Houston. What an extraordinary mess that is!

With all these distractions, there wasn’t much time to work today. For those of you who are interested in the writing biz, the current project is a China Bayles book (#15) called SPANISH DAGGER. I’ve been working more or less steadily on it for a couple of weeks, and have about 16,000 words. One interesting thing happened when I settled down and started thinking about the plots--this is one of those multiple-plot novels: one mystery for China to solve, one mystery for McQuaid to work on. As I worked out the two story lines (not in detail, but in a general way), I realized that there are some things that don’t quite dovetail with the previous book, BLEEDING HEARTS—finished late last year, due out in April 2006. Luckily, though, the book is still in copy-edit. I’ll get it back in the next couple of weeks, and can make the necessary changes. I’m always fascinated by this aspect of series writing: that one book leads into the next, that all the books add up to one long mega-novel, and that all of the stories in this mega-novel are related to one another, sometimes in very complex ways. In this book, I’m even thinking about the possibility of ending the novel with a murder and leaving that plot open and unresolved. I can’t think of another crime novel in which that happens—if you know of one, write and tell me:

Reading notes. We can lie to ourselves about many things; but if we lie about our relationship to the land [or to the sea, or the wetlands, or the Arctic wilderness, or global warming] the land will suffer, and soon we and all other creatures that share the land will suffer. If we persist in our ignarance or dishonesty, we will die. . . . Seeing the danger of ignorance, we may be moved to invent or recover some of the lore that connects us to the land, that tells us how to live in our place.--Scott Russel Sanders, Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World.

9/22/2005 06:59:00 PM

Wednesday, September 21, 2005  
Rita, Rita, and More Rita. We’ve been getting ready for this unwelcome guest—even as far inland as we are (about 180 miles), we’ll feel some of the effects of the storm. More than we want, maybe. Tonight’s runs of two of the major computer models suggest that the storm may not charge right on through the way it was predicted, but might get stuck in central Texas, dumping huge amounts of rain. Our lake is pretty low right now, but it’s not designed for a Big Rain, and there will be a lot of flooding. Add to that a loss of power (wind will take down many trees) and it’s not looking like a pretty weekend scenario. Not as bad for us as for the folks on the coast, but not very good, either.

I’ve spent the day intermittently working on the book and helping Bill get things organized. One possibility: I’d take the dogs and drive to New Mexico on Friday, and let Bill deal with whatever problems develop here. It’s not something I want to do, but it might be the best option. It would give him less to worry about. I have a plane to catch on Thursday (a trip to Kansas and Missouri for a mystery conference), so I have to be back by that time.

I'll try to post again before I leave.

9/21/2005 08:30:00 PM

Monday, September 19, 2005  
The Mystery of the Missing Goldfish Minor mystery here at Meadow Knoll. When I got back from New Mexico, I could see only one goldfish in the pond (a half-barrel with a liner). Since I couldn’t actually see very far through the murky, greenish water (yes, the pond was badly in need of cleaning), I emptied the water. Sure enough, only one goldfish, where before had been two: Eenie and Meenie (Miny and Mo are long gone). Also missing and unaccounted for, a large, handsome leopard frog named Leopold who entertained us nightly with his sexy serenade. Bill couldn’t report any signs of a predator, but suggested a snake.

I refilled the pond and redeposited Eenie in the clear, clean water. Next morning, poor Eenie was gone as well. Bill’s suggestion seems to be the most logical, since there was no disturbance, no wet footprints, etc. As Thoreau famously remarked, "Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk." Or in this case, when you find no goldfish and no frog in the pond. The goldfish were about five years old and almost the right size for pan-frying (no, of course not—-it’s just a figure of speech). We theorize that there is a fully satisfied snake sleeping off his meal somewhere close by, maybe under the deck, where it is cool and damp. But he will have to go somewhere else for next week's dinner, since there will be no more goldfish served up.

The Scene of the Crime:

Rita, rowdy Rita. Looks like the next hurricane might be headed for Texas. It's still early and there is the usual uncertainty in the computer models, mostly having to do with how soon the high pressure area that's now sitting over us moves off to the east, allowing Rita to slip in behind it. The predictions now seem to be focused on the coast between Houston and Beaumont. A thought on Katrina and New Orleans and place: Much of the damage that was done by the flooding came about because we don't understand the places we live. We alter them to make them more humanly habitable (in our own short-sighted view), without fully appreciating the consequences. Surely this catastrophe must teach us that need to come to terms with nature, stop trying to remake the earth, and learn to fully and truly inhabit the places where we live.

Reading Note: If you can't find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?--Dogen Zenji, circa 1250

9/19/2005 08:39:00 PM

Thursday, September 15, 2005  

Vacation Notes

Monday September 4. Coyote Lodge. (The photo is taken from a point above the house, with a view of the mountains across the valley.) I’m enjoying a lunch break on the front deck of the New Mexico house (about 25 miles west of Las Vegas NM), where I’m spending a 10-day working vacation. So far, it’s been long on work and short on vacation, but that equation will improve with time, I hope. The floors are wood, and you know what that means: I spent all day Friday and part of Saturday getting them clean. Bill was here for a couple of weeks in July-August, and did quite a few of the fix-up things that always have to be done with a new place. Now we need something to sit on, so I made a trip into town to get a futon (which can double as a bed, for guests) and a comfortable reading chair and lamp table, which will be delivered tomorrow.

Bill set up a computer in the loft, which has been designated as my writing studio (I get the loft, he gets the workroom in the basement), so I spent some time rearranging the desk and bookshelves up there and finding my computer files. The computer is one of our old machines with a newly-installed hard drive, into which he has transferred all my data. It’s there somewhere, I’m sure—just a matter of finding it. I worked a little yesterday and again this morning. Feels good, going back to China Bayles and into the new book, SPANISH DAGGER. Feels good, being here, too. Toro (our blue heeler) is with me—a comfortable companion and an instant hit with the neighbors, whom I met when I was out for a walk.

Coyote Lodge—named in honor of the coyote concert that greeted us on our very first night here—is built on the side of a mountain, above a valley carved out by what is now the narrow, lazy Manuelitas Creek but must have been a rushing glacial river. The valley, once the famous Pendaries Ranch, owned by the Pendaries and Baca families, is grazed by cows during the summer; during the fall and winter, especially when there are fewer cows on the range, the elk sometimes come down from the mountain. Across the valley is the Santa Fe National Forest and three ranges of the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The nearest range is green (about 8000 feet), the more distant one blue-green (maybe 9500 feet), the most distant a hazy blue (some 11,000 feet). Earlier today, a storm blew over the farthest range, curtains of rain racing down the slopes, gray clouds draping across the green, pine-covered slopes. Now, sheafs of cloud blur the mountain rim, and the sun is setting in shimmering bands of pink and gold, gray and blue.

I don’t know enough about this place yet—I don’t know anything about this place! I realize this as I walk along the road and can’t name the plants I see. And when I do recognize a plant—a salvia, an artemisia, asters and flax—it’s with a deep sense of pleased surprise, like meeting old friends in a new place. I have a lot to learn here, and new friends to make—plants, birds, animals, people. I’m looking forward to it.

Tuesday, September 6. This has been a wet summer, my neighbor Bob tells me. It’s rained every day since I’ve been here, so I believe him. Today’s storm has the feeling of fall about it—leaden skies brightened by patches of smoky white clouds with a few streaks of blue showing through. Cool last night, in the 40s, with an eerily melodious coyote songfest about midnight. There’s a bear in the neighborhood, I understand—a small black bear, although his fur is the color of cinnamon. I hope to see him, but not close up and personal. Everyone seems to be careful about keeping their garbage in and their pets confined, so he must be indulging in healthy meals of acorns and berries. The woods above our house are wild, and the forest embraces this valley on three sides, so there’s plenty of wilderness to sustain him. The bluebird parents that nest in the box on the south side of the house have just fledged a brood of four. I saw the fledglings teetering on the deck rail this morning, evidently on their maiden flight. Later, they were swooping like seasoned veterans through the pine trees; it didn’t take them long to get their wings. Bill says the same box was home to another brood of four earlier in the summer—obviously a successful nest site. Tomorrow, if there is sun, I’ll take a photo of the mullein that’s blooming beside the road. Didn’t get as much writing done today as I wanted: drove into Las Vegas to do some shopping (towels, kitchen ware, other needfuls), and by the time I got back, the storm had launched itself over the mountain and the lightning was so fierce that I didn’t plug the computer in. I read instead: a wonderful book called THE GHOSTS OF EVOLUTION, by Connie Barlow—an ingenious explanation of the anachronistic hedgeapple and other fruits that have outlived the animals they evolved to feed. A very fine piece of scientific writing, a pleasure to read.

Thursday, September 8. Making progress on DAGGER—6200 words, into the second chapter. But the beginning is always the easy part, because a lot of this is backstory and plot setup. The really hard work comes a little further along, when I try to figure out how I’m going to tie the two mystery plots in this book together—or at least manage to make them compatible enough so they fit into the same narrative. I don’t mean to be obtuse here: just don’t want to give out any spoilers, at the same time that I want to tell you something about the work.

Other than writing, I’ve been enjoying the house and the quiet-an enjoyment that is somewhat marred because the furniture that was supposed to be delivered yesteday wasn’t, and apparently isn’t going to be delivered today, either. But other than that irritation, it’s been a wonderful few days. Our friend Bob came over for dinner last night, and even without comfortable chairs, we enjoyed a pleasant evening. Bob has two greyhounds, both retired from racing careers—delightful dogs. Toro, who is not quite half their size, is very respectful of them, although they are very gentle creatures.

Friday evening, September 9. Breaking news on the furniture: It arrived this afternoon, only three days late. The chair and the table are fine, but the futon was not the one I picked out. It had to go back. Big disappointment but hardly a surprise, I have to say. All the neighbors have stories to tell about the screw-ups of this particular furniture store, which is something of a local legend. Anyway, making lemonade out of this bowl of lemons, I have decided to reupholster an old loveseat and chair we like (now back in Texas), to coordinate with the chair that did arrive. You didn’t know I could do that? One of my hidden talents. This will be the second time around for the loveseat, the third for the chair. I’m already beginning to think about the kind of fabric. Don't know yet when I'm going to find the time to do this.

Sunday, September 11. Getting ready to go home tomorrow. The weather has been wonderful—a couple of lovely rainy days, the rest sunny and breezy, the sky very blue. This area, originally part of the Spanish Mora Land Grant, was settled in the 1860s. Jean Pendaries, a French immigrant, established his ranch headquarters near the old village of Upper Rociada, on the Rito San Jose. I haven't driven up that way yet--too lazy. The Pendaries descendants went on to some political importance in the state during the 1930s; the ranch was sold in the 50s, and this mountainside village development—Pendaries Village—grew up in the 60s. The elevation here is about 7000 feet: the winters are cold and snowy; the summers are cool and bright.

I got quite a lot done on Dagger while I was here—finished the first two chapters. I haven’t seen the copy-edit of BLEEDING HEARTS yet (the book that comes out next April); it’s due to arrive in the next couple of weeks. Yesterday, I spent the morning rewriting the ending of that book, in order to fit it into the DAGGER plot. Handling these continuing plot lines (keeping them straight from book to book, making sure I don’t drop something important) is a challenge. There are lots of things to like about working in series, but carrying open (unresolved)plots from one book to another is one of the most interesting. It's something that mystery writers (and to some extent romance authors) have begun to explore only in the last decade.

So tomorrow, heading home, starting around 7 am. It’s an 11-hour drive, maybe a little longer because I have Toro with me and he needs to stop every so often and take a little walk. He’s a good traveler and a fine companion. I’m looking forward to getting home. It’s been nice to have the time away, but I’ve missed Bill, and I have quite a lot to do. There's a book trip to Kansas at the end of the month, and a trip to Massachusetts in early November--and in between, plenty of writing to keep me busy.

9/15/2005 07:32:00 PM


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