Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swine Flu in the Hill Country

There is concern in the southern reaches of the Hill Country about swine flu. Schools are closed in two counties, athletic events halted, Saturday's New Braunfels Saengerfest wine festival has been cancelled--and what could be more healthy than drinking wine and singing?

The closures came about as a result of several local cases of swine flu. Fortunately the young men are recovering nicely and their flu experiences were relatively mild. In fact there's been only one death so far in the US, a young child, sadly, for whom there were other complicating factors.

I had to make a decision whether or not to attend the local Master Gardeners seminar--whether I was more concerned about plant diseases or swine flu.

It was a great seminar.

I might not go to Mexico City right now...but I drive the interstate fairly often, which is a calculated gamble. The swine flu odds looked pretty good to me--much better than the odds for avoiding cedar fever in winter, which are slim-to-none if you're susceptible (and almost everyone is) and live in the Hill Country.

Anyway, I'll know in a few days. But tomorrow I'll use what I learned to treat my redbud tree and hopefully someday it will look this one in New Braunfels' Landa Park.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Any Excuse to Celebrate

Last week we signed the papers to refinance our house. It wasn't a major milestone and we would have been fine without it but it was a good day. And it's important to celebrate good days.

Underlying our every celebration is gratitude that Denny and I are together, healthy and happy after thirteen years. We didn't know, that first year, how much time we'd have because I was newly diagnosed with breast cancer. In truth, no one knows how long they'll have but we all expect a lifetime. Now, thirteen good years later, I'm hopeful for many more.

So if you're due for a celebration, try the wine we enjoyed last week, the Casa Lapastolle Cuvee Alexandre Apalta Vineyard Merlot, 2005. Deep grapey nose, raspberries and dark plums in the mouth, silky tannin on the finish. Lovely. And a great complement to the grilled garlic-rosemary marinated pork loin with sweet onions, and the accompanying tangy mashed red potatoes (fat-free Greek yogurt keeps our hearts healthy and adds a zing), and lightly steamed young green beans.

Our celebration was as good as it sounds. Hope you make a reason to have a good one of your own.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Eye to Eye

Our very first sighting of a tiger swallowtail butterfly. She flew in at the end of March when only the pineapple sage was blooming.

She was pulled in by the flowers.

We were pulled in by her.

Friday, April 24, 2009

New Braunfels

My book is set in New Braunfels, a quaint Hill Country town with a sense of place arising from history, culture and architecture. The town is known in Texas for its German heritage, and even more for Wurstfest, an October beer and sausage fest. Wurstfest is really more about music but the PR appeal of beer and sausage probably outweighs that of the polka-centric world.

More people know New Braunfels for Schlitterbahn, the world's largest waterpark. And for the two rivers which run through the town.

The Guadalupe drains the northwest Hill Country all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. It floods. But in drought years, like this one, it's low and slow.

The Comal is a sweet spring-fed river, only a few miles long, encapsulated within the town. On a hot summer weekend it's a floating party so thick you could walk across the river on the innertubes.

Great place for a Hill Country mystery.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Drought Relief

It RAINED last weekend!!!

Most folks would prefer that skies not threaten their Easter Egg hunts, but in our water-starved area, rain is welcomed like the winning ticket to the lottery.

My friends in the lovely green damp Northwest probably take water-from-the-sky for granted, maybe even feel put out when it rains. Here we dance naked in the downpour in thanksgiving.

I wasn't always this obsessed. I lived through droughts in Florida. In 1998, it was so dry that the Everglades burned for months, intermittently shutting down the interstates and airports. The smoke drifted all the way from the center of the state into my bedroom on a barrier island in the Atlantic Ocean. That year, the annual rainfall in the town was 42 inches.

Last year the total rainfall in our part of the Texas Hill Country was 12 inches. And five of that came in one burst in May. The Chihuahua Desert had more rain than we did. The thin clay soil that covers these limestone hills baked into something that resembled cracked concrete. Hundred year old oaks died. It's beyond extreme--click here for a full-color Texas drought map and see for yourself. We're in the dark brown area.

We've planted drought-tolerant, deer-resistant, bird-and-butterfly-beneficial plants in our yard. But I only have three species of plants native to the Chihuahua Desert...

So you understand how good it felt to dance naked in the rain.

Monday, April 20, 2009

More Buntings

We first saw the male Indigo Buntings on Thursday, eventually sighting two first-years and two adults. Today, Monday, all four are still here. They're flocking with the remnant of the chipping sparrows. A few Lincoln sparrows and some Clay-Colored sparrows hang out too.

Anyway, we're hoping for an extended visit from the boys and I'm putting out their favorite seed as an encouragement
. I'd also like them to know that it will be refreshed daily, as will the bathwater here at the Scott Inn. There's plenty of room for everyone in the dense thicket behind the house. We haven't seen a female yet, a necessary component of the process, but the guys can plead their case when the girls head north.

Our breakfast table overlooks the front bird-feeding area and I keep a pair of binoculars on the windowsill next to my place at the kitchen table. (Doesn't everyone think binocs are eating utensils?) While we ate our porridge this morning, Denny and I were watching for the Indigo Buntings when a single male Painted Bunting surprised us.

We're rich! Painted Buntings are perhaps the most extraordinarily vivid birds of the entire 800+ US species. I'll share a picture whenever one stays still in the light long enough. (Did I mention that I keep a camera in the kitchen too?)

In the meantime, click the title at top to see one at the Cornell Ornithology site.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Magic on the Wing

Thursday, when I got home from wrestling rosemary bushes with my fellow volunteer gardeners, Denny rushed me to the back window to share the vision.

An Indigo Bunting, the first we've seen in Texas, he's a first-year male, bright blue scuffed with the brown of youth. He'll be a pure brilliant cobalt by courting-time next year.

He's small,maybe 5.5 inches long, but he flew perhaps a thousand miles from his wintering grounds to my backyard, navigating by the stars.

Extraordinary life.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Fox Mystery

Fox must have been feeling good on Easter Sunday, because he came in full daylight--half an hour before sunset. 
And seemed not to mind that we sat on the porch with our oysters and wine.

He usually comes after dusk to clean up birdseed from the rocks. I'll admit that once we found ourselves in his nightly pattern, we began to add a light sprinkling of dog chow, or Fox Food, as we call it, to the rocks.

I don't know that we're doing the right thing with the feeding but I don't know that it's wrong either. What I do know is that I love seeing Fox.

On Easter, his occasional companion showed up two minutes later. Sometimes the two arrive in tandem. Sometimes they approach from opposite directions. Trot off together. Go separate ways.

What is their relationship? Do they live together? Where do they come from? Where do they go?

It's a mystery.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hope and Joy

It took all of Easter weekend but we finished building raised beds and planting the Madrone Nursery plants. Plus the herbs and tomatoes. And the transplants of West Texas Mist Flower (Eupatorium greggii) and five Texas Betony (Stachys coccinea) get the idea.
By the time we finished, we were sore, ant-bitten and tired. But happy. Happier still to sit on the porch with smoked oysters and sparkling wine. A good start to summer beauty.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Beautiful Spring

He was too sweet, napping in the shade on a small redbud tree at Madrone Nursery. A testament to organic gardening, where good bugs and bad bugs and frogs balance everything out.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Morning Mystery

Before I had coffee this morning, at a time when I might be just a little foggy, I went out to feed the birds and found the hanging feeder on the ground. That's never happened before. It's the one that's hung high. The squirrel-proof feeder (really, they've have been trying for three years now without success--and doesn't that make the feeder an engineering miracle?).

So who done it in the dead of night?

I know which of our wildlife visitors didn't--not the gray foxes who come at dusk to clean birdseed off the rocks. Gray foxes are rumored to climb trees but we've never even seen them try and the feeder tree wouldn't be easy. 

Not the skunks who usually arrive after the foxes; but do sometimes waddle in before the foxes are quite through, which results in a careful raised-tail dance for both parties. The skunks dig holes in mulch and flower beds but they don't climb trees.

That leaves possums, raccoons and deer on my maybe list. What do you think?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Madrone Nursery

Denny doesn't like it when I go to plant sales alone. The last time that happened, about a year ago, I came home with 11 trees and 18 bushes...

He's the primary hole digger in our family. It's not a sexist thing. When we lived in Florida we shared the chore. I mean, how hard is it to dig in sand? But here in the Texas Hill Country, it takes a pickaxe to break ground. And you might have to lever out a boulder just to plant a 4-inch pot. Most folks give up and build raised beds.

Today I took a field trip with some friends to Madrone Nursery in San Marcos. So, technically, I wasn't alone. I did bring home 17 plants but none were bigger than one gallon. And it didn't even cost much. Madrone Nursery is a native-plant-lover's place. The owner propagates everything he sells and has a story to tell about everything. Among my bounty are two Dwarf Barbados Cherries,
Malpighia glabra. Descendents of the ones in front of the government building at UT, bushes that survived the killing freezes of 1987 when the temperature was eight degrees for three days straight. So they have a cold-hardy heritage, something to brag about if you're a Malphigia glabra. OK, they're three gallons each, but I'd already built raised beds for them and I can dig the holes.

I know what we'll be doing for Easter weekend, planting for the future. My kind of worship.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Mental Savings

We're into saving money these days...but I'm not good about giving things up so I'm looking for ways to keep our pleasures and save too.

One of my favorites is to take a picnic to the park and feed the ducks. Sit in the shade. Watch the people. Watch the water. A mental mini-vacation. I always feel refreshed when we come home. The ducks like it too.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Ernest the Extradigital Tiger

My husband, Denny, and I live with three cats. I can't say we 'own' three cats because no one truly owns a cat. 

Having said that, I'll admit that no one needs three cats, including us. Three is one cat more than we have laps, which results in occasional domestic shorthair brawls. But each of the cats is such an individual that, somehow, we couldn't imagine living without any of them.

The youngest is Ernest, who is four or so. He came to us via the streets of coastal Florida. We knew when we saw him that he was of Hemingway cat lineage. The spark, the verbosity, the willingness to engage...and the extra digits on each paw. 

He's the one that stalks deer through the windows, the one who chases a ball, the one who tells us when it's time to go to bed. He was a last cat, an unneeded cat, but he's essential. So much so, that he's also a character in the novel I'm writing. He brings humor and warmth to the story, as he does to our home.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Life is More Than a Calendar

'Our' hummingbirds were early this year. The first one, a male black-chin, arrived on March 10th. We know he was ours because he went for the porch, hovering where his feeder should have hung, before making do at the nearby pineapple sage. I'm glad the mild winter spared some blooms to welcome him back.

Now just four weeks later, they're everywhere.