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

 

 
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Susan Wittig Albert
bio
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

Website:
www.mysterypartners.com
Bulletin Board
A Map of MeadowKnoll
Email:
salbert@tstar.net
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: storycircle.org/katrina

Killer Plants

Ecotone: Writing About Place


Lifescapes
 
Monday, January 31, 2005  
A Lake District controversy. Ruby Hild (from Dedham, near Colchester in Essex--thank you, Ruby) sent us a clipping from the Daily Telegraph, Jan 24. I found the story online just now. The National Trust is being accused of betraying Beatrix Potter’s legacy by breaking up one of the farms she gave to the Trust: High Yewdale Farm, Coniston. (There's a picture of the farm here, http://www.visitcumbria.com/herdwick.htm, and some more background.) Briefly, when Potter's substantial Lake District property (over 4000 acres) went to the NT at the death of her husband, it had strings all over it. Beatrix insisted that the Herdwick sheep be left on the land, that farmers be tenanted in the farmhouses, and that the relationship between the land, the sheep, and the farmers remain as it was in her lifetime.

The NT's plan to retire the farmer (now in his 70s), distribute High Yewdale’s fields and flocks among four neighboring farms, and turn the farmhouse into a commercial venture (a B&B, maybe?) is causing a sizeable furor. Judy Taylor’s letter to The Times online http://women.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,17909-1456002,00.html is an understated declaration of war: Taylor is not only BP’s biographer but the past president of the BP Society, so her voice carries a long way. Darlington (of the Trust) answered back , but not very effectively. He raised only the cost issue (how much it costs to keep a tenant in the farm), but not the other important ecological questions that one would expect a Trust official to raise. It’s an interesting controversy, in a country where land use is one of the hottest current issues, and in a district which is very proud of its traditional farms. But please pardon me if I add one personal observation. If the number of sheep are reduced and the land is allowed to return to rough moor, other native wild species will return to it. The domestic sheep may be beautiful and traditional, but they are a man-induced "monoculture," and their presence on the land limits its availability to wild creatures. I wish Darlington had addressed that question in his letter, instead of measuring the problem in pounds and shillings.

Here, rain and chilly weather. There’s even a forecast of snow tomorrow night, in the western Hill Country counties (that’s us). I’m not holding my breath—although it was just this time last year when we woke up one morning to about four inches of the white stuff. The daffodils prefer rain to snow, thank you very much.
Short entry tonight. I have to sign "tips"—first pages of Dead Man’s Bones, to be bound into give-away copies by the publisher.

Reading Notes. One of the chief advantages in visiting different meadows and pieces of woodland is that it whets our perception; we are more on the look out . . . Probably there isn't a ten-acre woodlot, even near home, that has been thoroughly explored. If you think there is, go through it again, and see if there isn't a nut tree that you have passed by without discovery.--William T. Davis, Days Afield on Staten Island



1/31/2005 06:41:00 PM

Saturday, January 29, 2005  
Finished Bleeding Hearts today. I took the book with me to New Mexico and saved four hours every day to work on it—which meant four hours every evening, of course. Which was basically okay, since we don’t have a TV out there yet, and we haven’t set up the DVD player. Also worked on it on the drive out there and back, at four-hour stretches. By work on it, I mean with an actual pencil, on a print-out of the text. The book always looks different when it’s printed out, and I made quite a few changes. I spent this week, Monday-Saturday, putting the changes into the Word file. Finished that part on Thursday, spent Friday filling in the blanks where I didn’t have chapter headings and pulling the end-note material together (herb notes, resources, recipes) and writing an ending to the main plot. Today, I wrote a short chapter that carries one of the sub-plots forward and into the next book. It’s always tricky to leave a plot unfinished—and this book has two of them. Sometimes people accuse you of running out of time or material (yes, they do), or they think it’s just plain authorial clumsiness (heaven knows, there’s enough of that in this world). But one of the reasons I enjoy working on a series is that it has the potential for carrying the story forward from one book to the next: a mega-novel, as it were, in the Trollopian sense. Anyway, I’m doing it, and will just have to put up with the hisses and boos I will no doubt hear from readers who like everything all neatly tied up, all the mysteries completely solved, and order restored in an orderly universe. Tomorrow, I'll print the manuscript. Monday, it will fly off to New York via Fed Ex. Tonight, I’m taking the night off!

Also this week: worked (evenings) on the copy-edited manuscript of The Tale of Holly How, which went to New York yesterday. Some copy-editors have a tendency to Americanize the British English in these books, which makes me cross. But this was a very good copy-editor, careful, thoughtful, but not an interventionist, which I deeply appreciate. And since I had worked over the book myself, just before Christmas, and had found most of the things that needed correction already, it was a relatively easy job.

Did I mention that we're expecting a new grandson? Michael and Sheryl, in Juneau, will be adding a boy to their family (which now includes granddaughter Becky) in a couple of weeks. Hang in there, Sheryl! Becky is keeping busy while she waits.


Here in Texas, the weather is too warm. A few brave daffodils are blooming and the ferns are coming up next to the house. And some of the rosebushes are putting out new leaves. It’s almost time to start pruning the roses—Valentine’s Day is the magic day here in the Hill Country. Any earlier than that, and you risk forcing the roses into leaf and getting zapped. Any later, and you’ve let the rose waste some of that leafy energy. And there are a LOT of roses to prune. Over two dozen, and some of the climbers are very large. But this warm spell (with rain in the offing) tends to push things along too quickly. I’m in favor of having winter in the winter months and putting summer off as long as possible.

Deer, Abundantly. We have two deer herds this year: a herd of eight in the south meadow, with a substantial buck, three does, four yearlings; and a different herd of five or six in the north meadow. We watch the south herd every evening as they graze the short grass, but only catch quick glimpses of the north herd. The dogs, though, sniff them out every morning, as we walk past their deer bedrooms, where they bed down for part of the night in the high grass. The dogs can smell them as if they were there, and I can see their absent shapes, vivid as shadows where they’ve pillowed the grass to fit their bodies. Seeing deer where they are, and where they are not.

Reading Notes. From Philip Booth's poem, "How to See Deer." Look into light falling: in deep relief things even out. Be careless of nothing. See what you see.



1/29/2005 05:01:00 PM

Monday, January 24, 2005  
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you must have guessed that I was out of town. I don’t like to make Internet announcements of our absences, as you might expect, for security reasons. I apologize if you were checking in the hope of finding new entries. When I first started this, I used one of those weblog announcement services, which sends out emails when the blog is updated. But because I usually make several entries a week, the announcements began to feel like spam to me, so I unsubscribed. Guess there’s no simple answer to this. Anyway, I'm back, and will be until April (more or less), when I go on book tour.

We spent last week at the new place in New Mexico, mostly cleaning, deciding what sort of furniture we need, and admiring the view from the windows, across a wide valley to the hills and mountains beyond. It's a view that is going to take some getting used to, for it is less intimate, less comforting, than the view from our windows here at Meadow Knoll. There is something austere about it, and distant, detached, serene. But as I grow to know the mountains as well as I know the hill country around us here, I'm sure I will love it in something like the same way I love this land. The weather was wonderful--cool days, cold nights, no snow to complicate things for us. We didn't do any walking or exploring around the house, since there wasn't time. But one night, we went out to eat at Hatcha’s Café in Mora. Hatcha’s is a real down-home place, with a wood stove going full blast,and big baskets of chips with salsa on the tables and the kind of Mexican-American food we’re used to here in Texas. (I'm always in favor of eating in a place where you don't have to dress up. ) It was a good trip—a working trip for me, since in addition to house-cleaning, I also went over a hard copy printout of Bleeding Hearts, which is all-but-done. Made pencil changes to it, and have started putting those into the computer. Hope to finish that in the next couple of days, so I can get back to the Beatrix project.

Recorded Books. We’ve just negotiated an arrangement with Recorded Books, selling them the rights to put Bloodroot, Dilly of a Death, Mistletoe Man, and the next China Bayles—Dead Man’s Bones—into unabridged audio format. Yay! People are always asking about the availability of these books in audio, so I’m delighted. And I liked the reading of Indigo Dying, which is available at www.recordedbooks.com right now. Don't have info on the release dates of the backlist books yet, but I think Bones is likely to be released with the hardcover, in April. (Just a guess.)

Fiber stuff. My d-i-l, Sheryl, sent me a pair of terrific socks, Kroy. Here in Texas, I wear sandals all year round, and love knitted socks. This is what Sheryl’s socks look like. Aren’t they handsome? Thanks so much, Sheryl!




Reading Notes. 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

1/24/2005 09:15:00 AM

Sunday, January 09, 2005  
Remembering the farm. Feeding our two longhorn cows (Texas and Blossom) these damp, chilly mornings, I am again and again reminded of the years in the early '50s when I was 12-14, and we lived on a tenant farm in east central Illinois, about 15 miles from Danville. My morning chores included pushing bales of hay—the old-fashioned rectangular bales—out of the barn loft and dumping them into the mangers where the cattle fed, along with buckets of grain. We were tenant farmers on forty acres of good Illinois pasture, along the North Fork of the Vermilion River, and got our rent free in return for managing the animals.

Like all farm business, this was a seasonal affair. The owner of the place, who lived in Danville, would truck in 25 or 30 young white-faced feeder steers in April or early May, just as the grass was getting green. The steers would fatten on the lush summer grass and on the hay and grain we fed them through the winter; then in March or April, or earlier, if cattle prices were strong, they’d be herded into a truck and sold off for steaks and hamburger. This always saddened me, but not for long, because the next batch of cattle would be along in a month or so, and the whole thing started over again.

I loved working in the barn on cold winter mornings, with the steamy breath of the cattle and the sound of their contented munching. It was always dark—the school bus came at 7 a.m. so I had to be in the barn early—and there was something very comforting about being surrounded by those big, gentle animals, with their large eyes, their long white eyelashes, their shaggy brown winter coats, the heat rising from their thick warm bodies. It’s a time and place far away, and yet very dear to me, and as near as the landscape of memory I walk every chilly winter’s morning. Here in Texas, a half-century later, I am still that girl in an Illinois barn, in the winter dark.





Reading Notes

"Representing Far Places"
William Stafford

In the canoe wilderness branches wait for winter;
every leaf concentrates; a drop from the paddle falls.
Up through water at the dip of a falling leaf
to the sky's drop of light or the smell of another star
fish in the lake leap arcs of realization,
hard fins prying out from the dark below.

Often in society when the talk turns witty
you think of that place, and can't polarize at all:
it would be a kind of treason. The land fans in your head
canyon by canyon; steep roads diverge.
Representing far places you stand in the room,
all that you know merely a weight in the weather.

It is all right to be simply the way you have to be,
among contradictory ridges in some crescendo of knowing.

1/09/2005 09:58:00 AM

Tuesday, January 04, 2005  
Shorts and tee-shirt weather. Nearly 80 degrees today, and last night’s low set a record high of 69 degrees (you might have to think about that for a minute). And muggy? The humidity is up around 80 percent. It’s been like this for the past week. The daffodils are six inches high, the roses are budding, and the grass that frosted earlier has turned Irish green again. I tried to print a manuscript and the paper curled so badly that it wouldn’t go through the printer until I turned on the AC for a couple of hours and lowered the humidity. Ugh. There’s a cold front hanging off to the north of us. Tomorrow, they say, it’ll sag down in our direction. But they’ve been saying that for a couple of days, so I’m not getting out the sweaters yet.

Meanwhile, in Reno, son Bob hasn’t had any mail since New Year’s Eve, because the mailbox is snowed in and the mail persons won’t get out of their mail trucks. (Can’t say I blame them.) And the mailbox is snowed in because the snow plow person pushed up a six-foot snow berm in front of the box, which probably won’t melt until Easter. So maybe I shouldn’t complain about our hot, muggy weather.

Kingfisher. Besides the ducks, cormorants, great blue herons, white herons, and domestic geese on the lake, our pair of belted kingfishers is back, after an unexplained absence of several months. I love to hear their chirring call and see them swoop low, skimming the water or hovering over it, ready to dive. Seen in profile, our kingfisher is an odd-looking, hammer-headed bird, with a shaggy crest and no neck to speak of, and stubby but powerful wings. When he dives, he folds those wings and plunges head-first without a splash. An impressive example of bird engineering, a totally functional form.

Back to the book. After a layoff of several days (for various reasons, none of them very satisfying), I’m back at work on The Tale of Cuckoo Brow Wood, the third Beatrix Potter book. I know I won’t be doing these books forever (there are only eight of them), but in a way I wish I were. I love the world of these books, especially in contrast to the world we’re living in just now, with the tsunami, and the escalating disaster in Iraq, and the fight over Social Security, and a deficit bigger than anything I can imagine. (If you want to imagine it--or even if you don't--go here to see how much we owe.) In the face of all this, I retreat to the Lake District of the early twentieth century with pure pleasure. One critic wrote (with justification, I think) that I wasn't trying to write a mystery when I wrote The Tale of Hill Top Farm--I was writing a life of Beatrix Potter. But he's only partly right. I was really writing about the Lake District a hundred years ago, and wishing I could be there.

Reading notes (thanks to Sunny Merriweather): What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. -J.D. Salinger.

1/04/2005 06:47:00 PM

 

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