Just because I’m not writing about it doesn’t mean I’m not cooking. I’m cooking. I’ve simply been cooking to feed, not necessarily to create. Sometimes, when you’ve put 300 some odd recipes out in the ether, you need to sit back and enjoy them. So I’ve been doing what you have hopefully been doing now and again, rummaging through this website and making good food. It is fun not to have to do each recipe three or four times, or cook with a camera around my neck. But, I have been working on a chocolate cake…
I’ve been wholly distracted by life. Good life. In May of last year, on my birthday, on Mother’s Day, too, actually, I fell in love with a bit of earth on the Red River. I fell headlong into going home. Or at least, close to home…spittin’ distance, if you will. Clay County is due east of Wichita Falls. Henrietta is the county seat. If you’ve driven north on 287 you’ve been through both. You better not tell me you’ve never gotten off the highway. My place is out there. Take a few turns off the highway and as the roads get narrower and narrower, and less paved…I’m out there every moment I am able.
Clay County is about hard work, red dirt, hawks, lovely people, cows, sunsets, flowers, mushrooms, catfish, deer and a life where you can see the stars. I have tossed my children and myself out into the world. Dallas is a beautiful city full of great things, but the urge to be back out with the red dirt and cows overwhelmed me and now, given any stretch of hours to myself, I find my car pointed north, out of town. There are people who would find the stillness (when the wind’s not blowing 25 mph) and the quiet (unless you actually take the time to listen to how loud 50 cows are when they are eating winter wheat) claustrophobia inducing. It is funny how that much space can have a similar effect on some as a tiny elevator. But, I’m not one of those people.
I find balance and beauty. It is interesting that for some, mountain vistas, or thundering ocean waves are the picture of grandeur. I appreciate that. I see that. But for me, nothing can compare to that hour right before the sun goes down, right at the 98th Meridian and the Red.
It has done something to my soul.
I even like it out there when it is 105 degrees. Good breeze. Shady spot. It all works for me.
Given a large canvas like this, one quickly turns to what sort of a painting to paint. Learning the basics is a challenge. Between two people, you can divide the labor. One of you can figure out how to drive a tractor while the other figures out how to put up a rain harvesting system. Someone has to make sure the kids haven’t tried to collect a Cottonmouth for a pet. Someone has to bathe the skunked dog (Pitts). I’ll be honest, the big work chiefly falls on Pitts. But I’m good at what I’m good at. There’s a drought going on, you know. Thank goodness for those who have shared their know-how and ideas and wisdom. But everything out there is so green right now, you would never know how perilous the water situation really is.
What to paint? You don’t need a brush. Just a bag of seed, time, and sunscreen.
Nature puts on its own show. Let’s be honest. You just have to be willing to look in the messy spots. During the January freeze, I happened upon an infestation of oyster mushrooms. I was just a week late. They were a little frozen and a little past prime. But now I know where to look next year. I believe there are plenty of wild plums and I’ve seen evidence of what I think will be Mustang Grapes later on this Spring. Peach trees are a dream. I’m working on that. Thus the water harvesting.
My most wonderful paint, if you will, came in a brown seed bag. With a blessing from my mother, a blessing upon my land and my new adventures in the dirt, a heavy bag arrived on my doorstep. It contained fifty pounds of bluebonnet seeds. Fifty pounds of bluebonnet seeds is an embarrassment of riches. It is a pound of caviar. It is a knobby white truffle. But unlike these, a fifty pound bag of wildflower seeds is an invitation to get out of your porch chair and get to work, figuring out which spots get sun, which spots will likely choke out with weeds, and which bits of bare dirt appear promising, but are not so bare as to indicate that something might be amiss with the soil.
“My heart found its home long ago in the beauty, mystery, order and disorder of the flowering earth.” –Lady Bird Johnson
It is an invitation to spend hours, often in punishing sun, walking about with your head down, dreaming of a Spring full of flowers by appreciating what is on the ground in the Fall. A fifty pound bag of seeds fills about a thousand soup cans, or so it seemed. Each can is distributed one beautiful pinch at a time. It hurt to have a seed fall where it might not grow, at first. By about the 900th soup can, I was flinging them out the window of my old Jeep, hoping they would find purchase in the red dirt, but unwilling to feather the nest, so to speak. It is a lot of seed.
Sounds heavenly, doesn’t it? But there is about a 90% chance you would walk out there and exclaim that I was a nut. It is hot, there are ticks and rattlesnakes, and skunks, and scorpions, and flies. There are. There was an infestation of grasshoppers so extreme that my car looked like a grasshopper float entered into a parade.
But this past weekend, my blessed wildflowers started blooming. There weren’t nearly as many as the big bag would imply, but enough to make it utterly worth every moment spent…and with a hope that even more of the seeds will make a showing next year.
Bluebonnet seeds are the toughest of the tough. In fact, they look like little multi-colored pebbles, and feel that hard too. This is a defensive mechanism so that a number of seeds will still be available should a season prove too harsh for the plants. To raise the chances for germination, commercial seeds are “scarified” or chemically treated to make them more apt to germinate. Seeds that are not so prepared stand only a 20% chance of germinating. And all conditions have to be right on top of that, so the number goes down, actually. Bluebonnets are fascinating for many reasons. There are actually legumes. They co-exist with a bacterium (Rhizobium) that pulls nitrogen out of the air and into the soil, thus actually improving the soil. The lore of the bluebonnet is charming. It was almost beaten out by the cotton boll as the state flower. But reasonable women prevailed and caused the naming of Lupinus subcarnosus as the state flower in the early 1900’s. In the year of my birth, 1971, the law was amended to include the most oft celebrated Lupinus texensis and “any other variety of Bluebonnet not heretofore recorded” as the stars of the fields.
The proper time to plant them is in the early Autumn for blooms in the Spring. I planted in September and October, and a little in August and November, truthfully. But I got them all out. They need the heat to germinate and they need the cold to establish a root system. You cannot expect great results if you simply cast them, and you cannot expect great results if you bury them deeply. If you disturb the earth too much, all you do is wake up dormant weed seeds. If you cast them, you are giving the birds an expensive snack. Though presumably they will deposit them elsewhere later. I hope. They like full sun, and they are happy in seemingly inhospitable soil. The seeds do need to make good contact with the soil. They like good drainage. They really are the perfect Texas flower.
But then, as if by miracle, weeks later, you will begin to see the little unmistakable leaves sprouting from the ground.
Then, in late March or early April, the survivors burst forth. With so much grass and so much stubble and so much of life breaking through the soil, the first one doesn’t catch your attention. But once you find that one, first bloom of your own, your eye starts scanning and seeing the blue. This past week, I was lucky enough to take a writing day in Clay County, and just as I was about to load up and head back to the city, I thought I would go check on one hardy and hearty bluebonnet plant that I knew had made it. I didn’t expect much, save that I had seen bluebonnets popping on the side of the highway on my way out of Dallas. And there it was, by a rusted green painted fence post, a glint of sapphire. My first bluebonnet. Then I drove around to other likely spots and found her cousins scattered about, proud and lovely.
This is a start. I now cannot imagine a September when I won’t scatter bluebonnet seeds. Before the heat breaks, sweating and sunburned, I’ll be out there scratching the surface, and laying out a few precious seeds, as a prayer for cool weather and a hope for a glorious Spring to come.
Texas A&M has a great extension article on the history of the bluebonnet and best practices for planting them. It was a big help. My seeds came from Wildseed Farms in Fredericksburg. You’ll need to call them to inquire about giant bags, but they also sell reasonable amounts, as well. And you might also enjoy this page on The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center site. Please also consider reading All About Bluebonnets, a charming history by Camelia Maier.