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
 
Saturday, July 30, 2005  
I took a couple of hours' vacation from the writing today and made several batches of vinegar, inspired by a piece I wrote for the Book of Days. Basil, garlic, and rosemary with red wine vinegar; garlic, dill, and pickling spices with cider vinegar. The herbs are green and lush just now—I ought to be doing more with them, instead of just writing about them!

Landmarks. I got a note from Robert a couple of days ago. He writes to me occasionally when he sees something here that interests him. This time, he was writing about landmarks, and the experience of trying to find a place he had once lived. He finally recognized it when he spotted some cedar stumps that he remembered from his childhood. “To commit to the place where you live is involves acknowledging and celebrating all the places you have ever claimed or have claimed you,” he wrote, and I agree. I've occasionally taught a writing course called "Writing Home"--about the need to look back at the places we've lived, and understand how they shaped us.

When I was in Illinois earlier in the month, my brother John and I made an effort to find a farm where we had lived near State Line IN when we were children. Both of us remembered the angle of the railroad track as it intersected the pasture, which lay beside the road, not far from the house. We had a good map of the various railroads and roads in the area and really thought we might be able to find it—until we crossed what had once been a railroad track and realized that the railroad wasn’t there. No tracks, no crossing, just the trace of the railroad cut, with trees on either side, like an overgrown lane that hasn’t seen traffic in 40 years. At that point, understanding that there had been a fundamental shift in the lay of the land since we lived in the area, we abandoned the search. Our landmarks hadn’t been very clear, or very well-remembered, to start with. It will take some more research to find that place, and I mean to try.

That intention has been sharpened this week by my reading of Almost Home, by Barbara Gates, which we’re discussing in our Story Circle Reading Circle in August. It’s about exactly the need that Robert describes: to acknowledge and celebrate the places you have lived, or the place where you live now, and understand in what ways you are who you are because you live (or have lived) in that particular place. Barbara Gates writes from a Buddhist perspective, about her home in Berkeley, CA, not far from where the children and I lived when I was going to graduate school. The place where she lives is not very pretty, or even very safe: homeless people on the street, violence around the corner, pollution in the streams and the Bay, a rat in her refrigerator. Learning to live with that, to embrace it, is a hard lesson in loving a place. Almost Home is a book I recommend highly. Reading it was like going home again for me, back to Berkeley--but with the perspective that the years have brought, and through Barbara's Buddhist eyes. Fascinating.



Not much blooming just now, with July ticking down to the last hot day. So here’s a photo from early June, just because I think it’s pretty. Easy to embrace what's pretty, isn't it?

Reading Notes. In my explorations of this home terrain, what I found outside led me to examine myself. What I experienced inside seemed to ripple out. I couldn't go out without going in at the same time, go in without going out. That's where meditation begins to seem so crucial. When one trains oneself to pay attention to the breath, one contacts a place where inner and outer meet.--Barbara Gates, Almost Home

7/30/2005 07:47:00 PM

Tuesday, July 26, 2005  
I can see that there’s a big gap in this blog! Part of it was travel, of course: I was gone for ten days—and the necessary packing and unpacking stretched it to twelve or thirteen. The trip was part work, part family: visits to bookstores in San Antonio, Houston, Monroe LA, and Blytheville AR; libraries in Cape Girardeau MO, Champaign IL, and Frankfurt IN—plus several days of family reunion near Danville IL. It was a long drive, made a little more exciting by Hurricane Dennis, who accompanied me through Arkansas and Missouri and hung around Illinois for most of the time I was there. Lots of rain. Lots and Lots of rain. But the bookstores and libraries gave me a warm welcome. I managed to stay dry most of the time, and the car definitely got a good wash.



Holding down the fort at home, Bill managed to accumulate something like 5.5” of rain while I was gone—enough to encourage the grass to grow like crazy, both in the lawn and in the garden. I’ve been trying to put in a half-hour of garden weeding every day, but that just keeps me even, doesn’t let me get ahead. And it’s time now to start shearing the perennials so we can have some fall bloom. Oh, well. It’s called a cottage garden, after all: a jumbled chaos of foliage and blooms, all crowded together. And since it’s green (thanks to the rain) and blossoming, at least it looks happy. Especially the Turk’s Cap, a lovely green flower with small red flowers—small, yes, but intensely, joyously bright red.

And I’m writing, working on the Book of Days: a calendar book with an entry (something about herbs) for every day. It’s due on September 15, and I’m pushing hard to get the draft completed by August 15. With luck, that’ll happen, and I can take it with me to New Mexico to work on while we’re having some vacation. We don’t have Internet connections there yet, and it’s impossible to load up my library of herbal books—hence the necessity of getting the draft finished before we leave. This is one of the most research-intensive projects I’ve worked on since my dissertation, and that was back in the dim, distant past. Tomorrow, I’ll start posting pieces from the project, so you can see what it’s like—if you have any comments or concerns, please let me know. I posted something a few weeks back: a how-to for catnip mosquito repellent containing almond oil. Somebody wrote to remind me that some people are allergic to nut oils. I knew of nut allergies, but had no idea that they extended to topical applications of nut oil! A little research showed me that this is true. I was very glad the person wrote to me, so I could include a warning in the book. What did we do before the Internet?

Reading Notes. I explore the terrain where I live through myself, myself through the terrain.--Barbara Gates, Already Home: A Topography of Spirit and Place

7/26/2005 06:55:00 PM

Friday, July 08, 2005  
I’m doing another bit of book-touring, starting tomorrow. To see where this trip is taking me, check the travel page. I am not happy about the weather, though. Hurricane Dennis is cooking up a storm in the Gulf, and the projected path is right along my route on Monday and Tuesday. By that time, the storm will have lost most of its punch, but it’ll still be enough of a rainmaker to make driving difficult and maybe even keep people from coming out. I cancelled one TV appearance, early on Monday morning in Monroe LA, to give myself a little more leeway in case the weather is really bad. And it will no doubt rain on the family reunion we’re having in Illinois later next week, although I doubt if it will dampen our spirits. All the children and most of the grandchildren, and even a great-grandchild will be there—fun for me. I’ll keep a blog journal and post it here when I get back, around July 19.

Speaking of rain. I won’t be happy to drive in the rain next week, but I was delighted to see it last night. It rained hard here at Meadow Knoll, almost an inch, perking the garden up and delighting Bill’s pecan trees. The first rain in a month. Yesterday, before the rain, it was 103 on the thermometer outside the kitchen window, in the shade.



Compass plant. This is Silphium albiflorum, aka Rosin weed, white flowered rosin weed—a rather unusual plant. Some years ago, this native perennial bloomed in a pretty meadow. Then somebody planted a house trailer there, and the compass plant disappeared. This year, though, I was glad to see that this Central Texas native had cropped up again, in the ditch on the opposite side of the road. The flowers and leaves are stiff, with a sticky secretion (hence rosin weed)that attracts dust. The leaves are said to be oriented north-south (hence compass plant), although I couldn’t see that they were. An oddity: the ray flowers produce seed, and the disk flowers don’t. Clued to that by my trusty wildflower book (Ajilvsgi’s Wild Flowers of Texas) I can see the difference. I’m planning to plant it this fall, not in the garden of domesticated plants, but in some of the dry, gravelly spaces where I think it will feel more at home. I’m interested in the plant’s persistence, brave creature that it is.

Reading Notes. The question is not whether land belongs to us, through titles registered in a courthouse, but whether we belong to the land, through our loyalty and awareness. . . In belonging to a landscape, one feels a rightness, at-homeness, a knitting of self and world. Scott Russell Sanders, Staying Put

7/08/2005 12:54:00 PM

Tuesday, July 05, 2005  
This mountain pink doesn’t need much rain. This clump is blooming in a field along the road just now, where it blooms every year. It's the only place it blooms in this neighborhood, too, perhaps because since fires were suppressed, the grasses take hold and then sumacs and cedars: the natural succession pattern here. Another reason: that part of our primitive, unpaved road is on a hill and Bill ditches it with his tractor, so that when it rains, the water runs off the road, rather than down the middle (the way it used to). The soil is frequently disturbed, giving the pinks their place in the sun. Take a look at that soil, all you Northern gardeners. That’s our native soil: limestone-rich, alkaline caliche. Some plants love it, including this gorgeous pink. (Looks like it's not quite in focus. Pardon. I was taking a picture and checking for snakes at the same time—a bit distracted.)

The Tale of Holly How is out today! Peggy Moody(my wonderful webmistress) posted the new "News from the Land Between the Lakes" in PDF on the site (check it out), and moved the Beatrix Potter tea party from the China pages to the Potter part of the site. My box of books came last week, and they're beautiful. I like Peggy Turchette's cover much better than the cover of Hill Top Farm. What's more, I own the art, so I'm free to play with it as I like. Peggy T is now at work on the art for Cuckoo Brow Wood, the next book in the series.

Reading Notes. I never ask about sales. It’s better not to know. I feel like I write a book, I give it to my editor, then I go back and write another one. That’s what I do.—Alice Hoffman [Not my style. I DO ask about sales, and watch them as closely as I can. Meanwhile, I'm writing another one—Susan]

7/05/2005 07:46:00 AM

Monday, July 04, 2005  
July 4. No holiday for me. I’m working on the Book of Days and keeping my eye on that storm that’s crossing the Yucatan and moving into the Gulf--Cindy, when she's upgraded later today. It looks like it will go to the east of us, which will put us on the dry side. But there’s another one coming along behind it. A tropical storm is only chance of any real rain between now and October, so I hope all you folks in Florida will pardon me if I engage in a little wishful thinking. Lots of people don’t need rain—we do! 34 days without rain, 34 days over 90. Yesterday it was 101.

Aimed to post a photo here of a pretty mountain pink that's blooming, despite the drought, in a nearby field. But Blogger doesn't feel like posting photos this morning--again. Major frustration here. I'll try again later.

Another entry from my Book of Days, this one for July 5 (appropriately). The entries range from the typically “herbie” sort of thing to the personal, to things like this, which are more fun to write:


“It was a hot afternoon, and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”
–from the film Double Indemnity

Sweet, Sweet as Honey

Honeysuckle and murder don’t usually go together, but Raymond Chandler’s line from the famous Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck film is one of China’s favorites, and she insisted that I use it somewhere in this book. Maybe I’d better explain why.
Honeysuckle, as a literary symbol, has long been beloved of poets and novelists. Calling it “woodbine,” Chaucer wrote about it in Troilus and Cressida:

When she understood his loyalty and pure intention,
She put her arms around him,
As about a tree the sweet woodbine twists
Encircling and entwining . . . .


Unfortunately, things don’t work out very happily in the end, because Cressida betrays Troilus, giving herself to another man while Troilus looks on, which is not a very sweet thing to do.

Still, the honeysuckle was clearly alluring and definitely delightful. Hence herbalist William Bullein, in his Book of Simples (1562): Ah, how swete and pleasaunt is Woodbinde, in woodes or arbours, after a tender soft rayne; and how frendly doth this herb imbrace the bodies, armes, and braunches of trees.

There was, however, another side to the story—the tree’s side. The poet William Cowper warns:

As Woodbine weds the plant within her reach,
Rough elm or smooth-grain’d ash, or glossy beech . . .
But does a mischief while she lends a grace,
Slackening its growth by such a strict embrace.


“Does a mischief” as she “weds”? (Notice, please, that the woodbine is portrayed as feminine, and that Cowper’s image—like that of Chaucer—is one of seduction.)

Well, yes, of course the honeysuckle can do mischief, as any observant gardener knows. In The Englishman’s Flora, Geoffrey Grigson remarks: “Woodbine, honeysuckle, hugs more like a killing snake than a friend, often squeezing saplings into a spiral.” When we see honeysuckle embracing a small tree, we know there may be trouble ahead. If we care for the tree, we will remove it from the honeysuckle’s potentially deadly embrace.

So perhaps Chandler’s line does make sense, after all. In Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck plays the role of a dangerous femme-fatale, seducing and entwining and eventually getting her clutches into the soul of love-struck, sappy Fred MacMurray, whom she persuades to do murder for her.

Yes, indeed. “Murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle.” And honeysuckle, sweet, sweet honeysuckle, can sometimes smell like murder.

7/04/2005 09:03:00 AM

 

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