So I am going to try again in the garden this year, since I have the greenhouse that I purchased and assembled last year – too late in the year to do vegetable starts from seeds in a sheltered environment, but this year in the nick of time. The last predicted freeze in this part of Texas is for mid-March, and I have a whole specialty scrapbook of seed packets assembled from various sources. The last couple of winters – cold, frozen and miserable – and summers (boiling hot and dry) have done a number on a lot of gardens. I think my back-yard Santa Rosa plum is entirely dead, and so are all three of the potted citrus plants. But this year, the local HEB chain has favored us with a nice assortment of roots for things like rhubarb, potatoes and onion, so I am having a go at the first two. I may go back and try a crop of onions – the trouble is that onions are so very inexpensive that it’s hardly worth the hassle of making garden space for them.

Rhubarb, on the other hand … I love fresh green beans and peas, garden cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers of various sorts. And I’ve had excellent luck getting them started from seed, as well as herbs of every description. Nothing beats having fresh basil, thyme, sage, parsley, chives, and cilantro instantly on hand. When I was just newly established in San Antonio, I regularly went to the yearly Herb Festival, when it was set up at a local park pavilion and bought a small potted bay tree one year. That sprig in a small pot graduated to larger and larger pots, until I finally planted it in the ground out in the front yard – to my recollection, I have not bought dried bay leaves in years. Neither, I don’t believe, have any of my neighbors. The tree itself got to be thirty feet tall, until nipped by Snowmagedden – but it bounced back and now is about fifteen feet and densely packed with leaves. The birds love it, for the shelter thus provided. As for other herbs, I once had a parsley plant establish itself so firmly that the stem became the size of a small pinecone. The pot of chives comes back, year after year – maybe the thyme will. If not, I have seeds for it, and for sage.

On the other hand, depressingly – growing zucchini escapes me entirely. Which is exasperating, because that is one of those vegetable garden plants which is legendarily supposed to over-produce, to the point of stories of gardeners abandoning sacks of zucchini bounty on the doorsteps of strangers, ringing the bell and running away. But I am going to try it anyway. Costco had super-big bags of raised-bed/container garden soil at a very reasonable price, and I bought two of them. I’d have been out planting zucchini, cabbage and squash seeds today, but I had to spend some time securing and closing up a gap in a corner of the Amazing Catio, where a large racoon was getting in and raiding the cat’s food dispenser – a gap about six inches wide near the eaves, where the bugger was getting in, and sending Benji the dog absolutely spastic in the middle of the night. Sigh. Renovation of the house three doors down has been going on for nearly a week, now, and a whole colony of racoons and other rodents were evicted from those premises – and obviously, they are now looking for alternate digs.

And there are no citrus plants anywhere but Costco, and those are big ones, at a price that I am reluctant to pay, especially as none of them were lemons or limes, which is what I really, really want, in order to replace the ones killed by winter. Sigh – perhaps a visit to a local nursery – but they might be even more expensive there. I swear that Snowmagedden a couple of years ago must have demolished the plant nursery business the length and breadth of South Texas, and prices for potted plants almost immediately doubled – well ahead of the price of everything else doubling as well.

You know, there have always been genres in books and authors that I just didn’t particularly care for – horror, mostly. I have a vivid imagination and a low-gross-out threshold. There are images that I just don’t want in my head, ever. Never really got into suspense, espionage, vampires, or ultra-violent adventure. But mystery, science fiction, historical fiction were all OK – perfectly my cup of tea, as long as there wasn’t explicit gore or mind-boggling graphic violence of any kind, including the sexual, or the sudden inexplicable random deaths of characters that I had gotten to be rather fond of. (Which puts GRR Martin right out. It’s not really good form to do this repeatedly and presumably with malice and an apparent need to kick your readers in the teeth. I have killed a couple of very appealing characters in two separate books, but it was planned so from the beginning and not casually or without regret over the necessity.)

There are other authors who had particularly rackety, disorganized and disreputable lives, with personal hobbies or vices not especially recommended. I could take their books or leave them alone on that basis. There are plenty of writers who apparently and for various reasons are or were eminently dislikable in their personal lives, but to each their own. I honestly didn’t care about private lives or political leanings of writers that I did enjoy reading but in all my reading life I have only personally banned one author from ever reading their books again. I went to the extent of collecting up all those books that I had by her and binning or donating them: Marion Zimmer Bradley, who wrote book after book of science fiction/adventure/fantasy set on a far distant dark world in the space-traveling future, as well some historical fiction. (A rundown of the whole child-abuse controversy is here,)

I picked up one of her books – Thendara House, if memory serves, at the Stars and Stripes bookstore at Hellenikon AB – and pretty much devoured that, and as many of the other Darkover series as I could find. I had enjoyed the heck out of the Darkover series, which I came into after serving a tour of duty in Greenland, at a forlorn, ice-bound air base thirty miles north of the Arctic Circle. After that year in Greenland, I could seriously relate to earth-accustomed service personnel sent to spend a tour on a cold, isolated planet with a red sun, four moons, and a dark sky. I had lived it, after all. So I read them all, buying by mail-order, or as they appeared at various bookstores. She wrote fearless, independent, and adventurous female protagonists, and by repute was quite the feminist among pop science fiction writers, as well as being extremely encouraging to other female writers. It was to the point where I even wrote a short story for one of her anthologies, during that period when MZB was inviting other writers to ‘romp in her Darkover playground’. Alas, by the time I submitted it, she or whoever was assembling those anthologies had second thoughts. All I got for the trouble taken was a rejection notice, accompanied by a vaguely threatening letter advising me not to violate her copyrights by publishing anything which impinged in any way, shape or form on the Darkover universe. Pity – it was a good story, too, and an interesting and kick-ass main character … I still have it someplace, that and the two follow-on sci-fi adventures that I started writing in longhand before being diverted by other concerns. Like having to earn a living, post Air Force.

When the whole sordid tale of MZB, the abuse of her children and her pedophile late husband came out – and it turned out that it all had been common knowledge in a circle of fans and intimates, it poisoned every shred of enjoyment I had taken in the books – especially in brief interludes where sexual violence came into the plot, most notably where children were involved in such violence.  My daughter confessed much later that she wished that I had forbidden her to read The Firebrand, as a young girl is raped to death after the fall of Troy. After reading about MZB’s treatment of her daughter, and the blind eye or enablement she provided her husband, I just couldn’t even look at her books on my shelf or read them without being reminded. So, into a box, and stashed under the bed. After one of the cats scratched a cozy nest for himself in the top layer, I wound up tossing the ruined books and dropping off the rest of them at Goodwill. I’ve never felt any urge to read them again. It probably was fortunate that the story I sent in for the Darkover anthology was just too late for the game.

As it happens, the sale of that ‘hoarder house’ was finalized on Thursday this last week. This was the house several doors from mine, built pretty much to the same plan, which had not been lived in for nearly eight years, when the woman who lived there passed away suddenly. She was a hoarder, and gradually became somewhat unbalanced. The technical owner of the house was her estranged husband, who finally was prevailed on to sell it to an investor entity whom my daughter had done work for as a real estate agent. The investors originally wanted to take possession early this month, but the owner’s handyman nephew was still clearing out stuff … and more stuff … and even more stuff, most of it in a ruinous condition, since the place had been invaded by rodents and racoons. The roof had also leaked massively, and part of the ceiling drywall had fallen in places …the hot water heater, bathroom fixtures, and HVAC system were all original contractor-grade installations from when the house was built in 1985. As my daughter observed cheerfully, there wasn’t anything in the place that couldn’t be fixed by a gallon of gas and a book of matches.

But it’s a small, compact cottage in an attractive, affordable, nicely-located, and established neighborhood (but not top-drawer expensive) convenient to two military bases, nice stores and other attractions on the outskirts of San Antonio … so it was well worth it to the investing consortium to purchase the wreck of a house. Still, we were considerably astounded when three pickup trucks and a massive dumpster materialized the very first thing on Friday morning – the day after the sale closed! – and work of renovation commenced even before the sun was well up. Everything down to the studs and the concrete slab foundation will have to go, being ruined through weather, age, and animal incursion. This includes interior drywall, all fixtures, floor covering, exterior siding, roof … everything. My daughter tells me that the investors hope to have their work crew have it all done in time to put it on the market for the summer moving season. In a single day, all the cabinets, bathroom fixtures, remaining carpets and cabinets were removed, and piled in the dumpster, which was amazing, considering – and a darned good start for getting all reno work done in time. As for myself, I’m wondering on the sequence of renovation – will they do the inside first? Or fix the roof and exterior siding, in order to preserve the new interior? In any case, my personal bet is that they will fill up the dumpster at least three times.

Another excerpt from the new WIP – title of which is undecided, as of yet. (Suggestions are welcome.). The Kettering family is about to head west to Independence, Missouri, on the first leg of their journey to California. Sally Kettering tells us a bit about the family wagon –

I should say something about our wagon, since it was to be a home for six months at least, as well as our means of traveling. Pa talked with such of his friends who knew of such matters. He exchanged our old light two-horse farm wagon and some other considerations for one which was slightly larger, with a back and front which sloped slightly outwards like the prow of a boat in both directions. It sat high on the ground, on four heavy iron-bound wheels which were as tall as my chin when I had shoes on.

When Pa first brought that new wagon, telling us that it was the wagon that would take us all the way to California, he took Jon and I out to look at it, standing in the farmyard.  He pointed out the wheels, the axles and running gear underneath the great square box of the body.

“Children – I thought this wagon was perfect for the journey – see the wheels, particularly? I thought them superior to every other wagon which I considered. The hubs are fine, well-seasoned elmwood and the spokes of good solid oak. The trail is long and very rough, in places – and the last thing we want is for our wagon to break down.”

Eight beechwood hoops held up the wagon cover, which was sewn of heavy canvas made waterproof with linseed oil – the hoops on back and front flared out slightly. There was a seat on metal springs that sat on the front of the wagon, somewhat more comfortable to rest up on as the wheels bumped and jounced over ruts and stones in the road. The front and back of the wagon cover could be drawn tight, or loose, with an extra flap to cover up the round opening, keep out the dust or the rain.

The wagon itself had tall sides. Together with the hoops holding up the cover made it like a small room with an arched ceiling, nearly tall enough for Pa to stand in. But once the wagon was loaded with all that was said to be needful, there was no room to stand –The one space which was not packed almost to the height of the cover was at the front, just behind the seat. A pair of big flat-topped trunks sat there, topped with some straw pallets and a featherbed – this was where Jon and I would sleep, once we set out.  For themselves, Ma and Pa had a stout canvas wall tent to sleep in at night. We had a small patent tin stove, and a box full of tin plates and silverware, another box of Ma’s kettles, a big frypan on legs and a covered iron Dutch oven. We had a fine maple rocking chair which Ma treasured since it had come with her family from Pennsylvania, and the parts to a cherrywood bedstead, stowed in the wagon. Pa’s precious patent steel-share plow was strapped to the back of the wagon, as he intended to take up farming again, when we reached California.

Most space in the wagon was taken up with supplies. There were but two or three places beyond Independence where one could buy more, but Pa had told us it would be better to bring everything we would need for ourselves to carry us through the journey, enough for six months or longer; so many barrels of flour and cornmeal, sugar, and a firkin of molasses, a box of coffee beans and a tin-lined box of China tea, another of hard tack, some fine smoked hams and sausages of our own smokehouse and another barrel of salt pork. A covered crock of fresh eggs packed in isinglass, a bushel bag of beans and another of rice. Pa said that he would rather we purchase good quality from merchants which we knew and trusted, rather than strangers in Missouri. Of course, Ma had some crocks of pickles, jams, and dried fruit of her own preserving, all packed away in boxes or in crates padded with straw.

We had been all that late winter, packing and procuring those supplies we would need on the journey. We packed our few precious things as well – Pa’s carpenter tools and his fiddle, Ma’s sewing basket and the box of china dishes which had come from England; my brother Jon had his wooden Noah’s ark with the pairs of animals that Pa had whittled and painted in lifelike colors for him, all winter long when Jon was four years old, and I had my doll, Priscilla – with her rag body and china head, hands and feet – although at eleven and nearly twelve, I wondered if I were almost too old to play with dolls, but I couldn’t bear to think of leaving Priscilla behind, any more than Ma could countenance abandoning the maple rocking chair, or her fine English china dishes.

… in the swing of things, generally. The current crud, seasonal flu, heavy pollen allergies, new COVID variant or whatever – or a combination of all of these – laid my household low for the last week. First my daughter, who was exposed to the mold, dust and assorted animal-dropping crud inside a derelict house that her investor clients were interested in purchasing and gutting. She was recovering from the massive affront to her immune system, when Wee Jamie began running a temperature high enough to be of concern. Pronounced by the pediatrician to be not in any danger, he recovered in a day and a half … and then I fell in turn. Fortunately, a lot of daytime sleeping and rounds of Theraflu knocked back the worst of whatever – but I had a seriously reduced interest in doing very much at all over the last week, beyond walking the dogs around the block, checking various blogs, answering email, and crawling back into bed.

The YA pioneer trail adventure is chugging along, though – I’m doing some refresher reading for it. Another commenter on regular weekend book post that I participate in recommended the Lockley collection, and I sent away for two volumes of the Lockley Papers. Fred Lockley was a turn of the last century writer and local news reporter in Oregon; he had a practice of interviewing as many of the old pioneers as he could corner and setting down their unvarnished reminiscences about the trail and the early days. The Lockley archive ran to thousands of interviews of first-hand recollections of all kinds of people, many of them children or teenagers at the time of the events related. It’s basically the same sort of goldmine for researchers as was J. Marvin Hunter’s collection of interviews of Texas trail-drivers; both men were from the same generation and had the same background in newspaper reporting. I’m also reading some of the Lockley volumes to get a sense of the archaic voice and vocabulary of the time.

It wasn’t all skittles and beer, either – several of the accounts were from surviving sisters of the Sager family – seven brothers and sisters, the smallest a newborn infant, whose parents both died on the trail. The Sagers were adopted by Oregon missionaries Narcissa and Marcus Whitman – and orphaned again several years later when the Whitmans were murdered by Indians angered by Dr. Whitman’s inability to save their people from an epidemic of measles which were ravaging the local tribe. Another woman related the murder of her father and three small younger brothers in another Indian uprising. Later, her mother was murdered by two white men who were convinced that her mother had some money hidden away and tried to force her to reveal the hiding place. Yep – trauma galore, but only some of this will be part of my narrative; it will be happening to other people, on the fringes of my heroine’s story.

Anyway, this was the first day that I felt up to working on a project; it wasn’t a book project, I regret to say, although it was at least as much fun – another miniature scene, this one of a garage, full of tools and car parts, and advertising for various automotive products. A fun build, and very much outside the usual project of this kind, which more usually runs to twee little bookstores, coffee shops and homey kitchens. And so – now that it is done, after a day and a half of fitting, gluing, sanding and painting – back to the book projects.