The button bushes (Cephalanthus occidentalis) that grow along our little creek are in full bloom just now, their round, highly symmetrical blossoms delighting the bees, hummingbirds and butterflies--especially the giant swallowtails, no doubt graduated from the larvae that consumed all my dill and fennel earlier this spring. The bushes had a hard time of it the last couple of years; they love to keep their feet wet and when the creek dried up during our long, hard drought, several gave up the ghost. I'm glad to see that most have recovered after our spring rains: a sign that nature, left to her natural rhythms of dry and wet, is robust and rich with insistent life.
The button bush is one of our native Hill Country plants that we modern humans, so oblivious to the real earth around us, don't fully appreciate. The foliage, stems, and roots contain two toxic glycosides; hence, the plant is labeled as "poisonous." It is, of course. But the native people of the Southwest and Southeast understood how to use it. The glycosides that we consider poisonous stimulate the digestive system, so they used it to treat various stomach, intestinal, and urinary ailments. Different tribes used the plant in different forms: decoctions of the root and stems; teas of the stems and foliage; and poultices of the bark and leaves. The bark was also chewed to relieve toothache. And in its natural habitat, along streams and in wetlands, the roots help to resist erosion and provide habitat for many aquatic animals.
So many of the plants around us tell the same story. Their usefulness to us now is merely decorative (okay, okay--being decorative is also a wonderful thing), but the other important uses of the plant are invisible to us. Which means that it's easy to simply cut them down (as did a neighbor, who yanked up a half-dozen button bushes as he cleared his side of the upper portion of the stream bed a few years ago). One of my practices is to try to learn, each day, some new thing about the earth immediately around me--what I can reach out and touch or smell, or as far as I can see--and write about it in my journal. Our earth is an infinitely patient teacher, although we may not appreciate some of her lessons.
Homestead report. The new batch of six Barred Rock chicks are living contentedly with the Buffies--not always a sure thing, since older chickens often object to new coop companions. It's been brutally hot, and I've ordered a mister to cool off the chicken yard in the afternoons. I gathered the last of the cantaloupes and squash and cleared the beds, getting ready for the fall garden, which I'll start putting in next month. I love the repeated routines of our homestead life and the comforting regularities of the seasons--boring to some, I'm sure. But not for me.
Book report. My copy editor is back from her vacation, so Loving Eleanor goes to her next week. The cover for that book is all but done, so I'm planning to share it with you soon. My longtime editor, Natalee Rosenstein, has retired--sad to see her go but happy to be working with Michelle Vega on the next China Bayles mystery: The Last Chance Olive Ranch, which I'll start in another couple of months. In the meantime, my brother John and I have been working on our memoir. Fascinating process: digging up ancient family secrets, comparing notes on our Fifties childhood, working together on one anecdote, one plot line, one chapter after another. We're seriously critiquing each other's work while we respect each other's individual voices.
The new Darling Dahlias mystery (the last in that six-book series, at least for a while) will be out in early September. There will be a limited number of signed copies available; if you want one to add to your collection, pre-order it here. (Really. Limited. Believe me. We're ordering just enough to cover the pre-orders, and that's it.)
Story Circle. I've assumed the presidency of the non-profit women's writing community I founded in 1997. We're coming up on our 20th in a couple of years, so now seemed the right time to step back in. Lots to do, plans to make, projects to pursue. Right now, we're planning our 2016 women's writing conference, Stories From the Heart VIII. You might want to put that on your calendar. Oh, and if you've been thinking of joining us, now is a very good time. We're offering our anthology, Kitchen Table Stories, as a special gift with each membership.
Reading note. Write about small, self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you remember them, it's because they contain a larger truth that your readers will recognize in their own lives. Think small and you'll wind up finding the big themes in your family saga.--William Knowlton Zinsser