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Windbreak House
Writing Retreats

In the center of the nation, deep in the grasslands of western South Dakota, essayist and poet Linda M. Hasselstrom grew up as an only child on a family cattle ranch homesteaded by a Swedish cobbler in 1899.

Today she invites you to benefit from a writing retreat on that same ranch. Come to the house where she discovered the Great Plains outside her windows, where she began to write the poetry and non-fiction books that have established her as one of the strongest voices on behalf of the prairie.

Linda holds a BA in English and Journalism, an MA in American Literature, and has been a teacher of writing for more than 40 years. She has hosted writing retreats at her ranch since 1996.

Not a writer but a reader? Enjoy Linda's vivid descriptions of her life and work on the ranch, as a writer, and as an advocate for the preservation of the prairies and the people and wildlife who inhabit them.

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Windbreak House
Now on Facebook.

If you "Like" me on this Facebook page you'll get notifications of my newly-posted blogs as well as announcements about my books, writing retreats, and other events to do with Windbreak House.​WindbreakHouse

No kitten videos, but I post Tuesday Writing Tips, Wednesday Word Posts, and various other writing-related stories, announcements, book reviews, photos and the occasional joke.

Worldwide Circulation!

Ted Kooser, US Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006, writes a weekly poetry column sent to 3 million readers worldwide via newspapers and individual email subscriptions.

In August, 2014 he shared Linda's poem "Planting Peas" in his column #490.

Read it here.

Listen to Linda:

Major Construction Project Underway

The BOOKS & MORE page had a major overhaul recently which broke most of the links within the website.

I have been poring over each page, sanding down the rough spots, and sticking the links back together one at a time and I think I've found most of them, but there's still a slight chance you'll be taken on a detour to an unanticipated location when you click on a link-- try to enjoy the trip and sorry for the inconvenience.

Yes, that's Linda in the photo above, at a playground in Sheridan, Wyoming, 2008.

Stories and Essays by Linda
may be found on this website.

* Linda's Blog
Linda covers a wide range of topics.

* Home Page Message archives
Many of these essays have writing advice. All have photos, some have recipes, a few have poems.

* Poetry Page essays
Read suggestions for writing and performing poetry and the stories behind some of Linda's poems.

* Critter Stories
Brief stories and photos of birds and wildlife seen on Linda's ranch may be found on this page.

* Gallimaufry Page
Stories and photos that don't fit anywhere else.

Linda on YouTube

Nancy Curtis, publisher and owner of High Plains Press, recorded a couple of videos of Linda reading her poetry and posted them on YouTube.

To see Linda read "Where the Stories Come From"
click here.

To see Linda read her poem "Make a Hand"
click here

Or go to and search for Linda Hasselstrom.

You may also want to visit the High Plains Press facebook page where you will find these two poetry videos and much more about the many great western books-- poetry and non-fiction-- published by High Plains Press.

Thanks, Nancy!

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Linda M. Hasselstrom's
Windbreak House Retreats
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Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2014.

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The Samhain Trumpet: The Great Horned Owl Announces Summer’s End
A Home Page Message from Linda for Samhain --- October 31, 2014

Autumn flirts with winter for weeks this year, peeking over her shoulder, flipping her green and gold skirts of cottonwood leaves, and tossing tall grass on the shoulders of her hillsides.

On September 11, we got an inch of snow, the earliest since 1888. The downy green brome grass began to glitter with red and yellow stripes. Lilac leaves rustle, maroon and brown on top, yellow underneath. The oak tree glowed rust for one day and lost its leaves in a night wind. At dawn the pond feels empty without the great blue heron but the ducks still sail in the sunlight. We look up into the tops of cottonwoods to see the golden waterfall of leaves. Birds settle onto the very tips of bare branches, the sun striking through their flared wings.

Meadowlarks flock, fly, and flute.

At night, showered in moonlight, we stand on the deck listening to the great horned owls in the cedar trees at Homestead House.

The owls’ hunting calls are nature’s trumpet signaling Samhain, meaning “summer’s end.”

The great horned owl is one of America’s most familiar birds, the one most people picture as “owl,” because it lives nearly everywhere-- from east to west coast, and from just south of the tundra in Alaska to the grasslands of South America. These owls inhabit deciduous and coniferous forests up to nearly 11,000 feet, as well as swamps, deserts and river valleys. Wherever grassland meets forest-- in eastern Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas and southern Saskatchewan-- they thrive.

Ferocious hunters, the owls can weigh two to five pounds, stand almost two feet tall and spread their wings nearly five feet. Silently they float, then drop into the killing strike. Clenching their sharp talons in the neck of their prey, they may sever its spine. Researchers have been required to use a force equivalent to 28 pounds to open a great horned owl’s closed talons.

A great horned owl is Death dropped from darkness, Winter on the wing.

Great horned owl.
Icarus, who cannot fly, lives at the Black Hills Raptor Center and is shown at educational programs.

Owls may eat scorpions and frogs, but mostly dine on mammals including rabbits, mice, rats, squirrels, opossums, woodchucks, bats, weasels, skunks and occasionally a domestic cat. They don’t hesitate to eat birds, including grouse, herons, ducks, Canada Geese, and even hawks and other owls.

A guest at my retreat house once spotted a wounded screech owl in a tree near the cedar where the great horned owls habitually roost. The next morning the screech owl was gone. She told herself it had flown away. Unlikely. Most other raptors, including red-tailed hawks, leave the neighborhood when these owls arrive. Not long ago, we saw a great horned owl chasing a screaming red-tailed hawk away from the cottonwoods east of the retreat house.

The owls gulp their food whole or in chunks, and later regurgitate indigestible bones, feathers, and fur, leaving smooth oval pellets beneath roosting trees. Schools buy sterilized pellets for students to dissect to learn about owl diets.

Feathers contribute greatly to the owls’ hunting ability: so thick and soft they make flight utterly silent while insulating against cold. Their wide wings enable them to maneuver in close quarters, as among trees. The tufts of feathers that stick upright on their heads look like horns, hence the name, but they are neither ears nor horns, and lie flat when the bird flies.

My first memorable encounter with a great horned owl occurred when I was eleven years old. I was gathering cattle and had ridden under one of only seven cottonwoods in a prairie pasture.

An owl dropped straight out of sunlight and shadow into open air, great wings snapping open a few inches above my face, wing span greater than my outflung arms could reach. The owl glided down the draw and floated into the next cottonwood. . . . By nearly flying down my throat, the great horned owl became one of the first wild creatures I learned to identify.
--- “The Owl on the Fence” from the book Between Grass and Sky

Her flight was so silent that if I hadn't looked up, and the horse hadn't shied at her shadow, I might never have known she’d flown a foot over my head. Naturally, since I was already a writer, I looked for more information.

“I felt I had discovered a secret, as if I’d learned the Lone Ranger was my big brother, and I wanted to share my excitement.”

Once I had connected with that owl, I realized that a pair of them lived in the cottonwoods beside my parents’ house every fall, perching in the trees above the ranch yard, which became their pantry. All winter they devoured rabbits, skunks, mice and cats. They’d arrive just in time to make spooky noises for Halloween, as we call Samhain in modern times.

(While drifting through the Internet ether recently, I found a site that advertises “Download owl sounds right in time for Halloween.”)

Great horned owl foot showing the talons, used in educational programs by the Black Hills Raptor Center.

Because the owls are nocturnal, even people who live and work on the prairie may not see them often. Listening carefully, even in the city, you may hear them; they’ve learned that cities can provide reliable provender. In their duets, you may be able to distinguish male from female. A male’s call is a repeated pattern of four to five hoots: whoo, whoo-hoo, whooo, whooo. Because his voice box is bigger, his calls are deeper. A female’s call is lower-pitched, and consists of six to eight hoots: whoo, whoo-hoo, whoo-oo, whoo-oo.

(The website, maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has wonderful recordings. When I played them, my Westies-- small mammals who could easily become owl prey-- leaped up, seriously alarmed.)

If you can spot the calling owl, you can identify the male: he holds his body nearly horizontally, drooping his wings and inflating his white throat patch. The female is larger. Great horned owls vary in color, depending on their region and habitat. Generally they are dark brown on the upper parts, with mottled stripes in black and white. Underneath, they are brown to buff-colored, with thick feathers on legs and feet.

Hunting for prey, the owls perch near dusk on fence posts or tree limbs. They have great hearing, aided by facial disc feathers that direct sound waves to their asymmetrical ears, hidden under the dark edges of the facial disk, split by the beak and forehead. Owls can hear noises ten times fainter than human hearing permits; so, for example, they can hear a mouse scurrying through a snow tunnel or scuffling leaves under a bush.

Their large eyes feature pupils that open wide for excellent night vision; if our eyes were in proportion to theirs, they’d be the size of grapefruit. But their eyes don’t move in their sockets. The owl must turn its head to look around. And here’s another reason they are used as scary symbols of Halloween: they can swivel their heads three-quarters of a complete turn, about 270 degrees, to look over their own backs. The superstitious of earlier ages believed the owls could spin their heads completely around, and thus identified them with demons and other symbols of devilish doings.

Our ancestors lived in settlements lit by candle and lantern light. Picture a tired worker heading home through the forest, carrying his flickering lantern, shielding it from the wind. The trees creak overhead; leaves rustle. Suddenly something cries eerily and he glances up to see a pair of yellow eyes, unblinking as they swivel to watch him. No wonder owls became symbols to fear. Perhaps such ancestral memories are why modern humans seem compelled to surround their houses with glaring porch and street lights!

Cottonwoods east of Homestead House.
"We look up into the tops of cottonwoods to see the golden waterfall of leaves."

As Christianity spread throughout Europe, citizens began to fear their ancestors’ pagan practices, and revise the celebrations to fit new ideas. Samhain (pronounced Sow-when) became All Saints’ Day, commemorating the souls of those who had died during the year. The night before became known as Halloween, or All Hallows Eve. November 2 was christened All Souls day, when prayers are offered for those waiting in Purgatory until they could be prayed into heaven. For centuries, pagan and Christian beliefs existed together, intertwining in a grand tapestry of revels from October 31 through November 5. Gradually, governance by pagan matriarchy became governance by Christian patriarchy. Today, some say, the wheel is turning back.

Those pagan ancestral feasts were solidly based on the connection of each people to their own particular land and seasons. Samhain became important in the Celtic year, celebrated with thanksgiving for the harvest before the cold closed roads, drove people into their homes, and enforced solitude in darkness and often hunger.

All during autumn, the people collected hay to feed their beasts throughout the winter. They selected those animals to be slaughtered for winter sustenance. Everyone pitched in to gather the harvest-- barley, oats, wheat, turnips, apples and other crops. Peat and wood for winter fires were stacked by the hearth and under shelter outside. Families, households and settlements united to bake, salt meat, and make preserves for winter.

At Samhain, the people celebrated as they said goodbye to the open skies of summer, knowing they would spend much of the winter in dim and smoky homes. As at all the turning points of the Celtic year, the gods were believed to draw near the earth at Samhain, so the people made sacrifices of their precious harvest. These gifts, along with prayers and faith, they believed, would convince the gods to help them to survive the winter, to live until spring brought new life to the earth.

So each autumn as they have for many owl generations, a pair of great horned owls settles in the cottonwoods on the north side of Homestead House. They honor Samhain with their courting duets, fearless in the face of the coming winter as they create their future.

In January or February, the female will lay two eggs, or more when food is abundant, in an old hawk nest in the trees along a watercourse east of the house. Nest furnishings are only a few of those soft feathers; the owls themselves are well insulated. Sometimes snow covers the nest and the incubating owl, or the eggs freeze and a new clutch must be laid. After a month, the chicks hatch. At about six weeks, they may toddle out on a nearby branch, but they can’t fly for six more weeks, and remain dependent on their parents for food until fall. Their harsh cries of hunger can be heard from the vicinity of the nest throughout the summer. This is why I know “our” owls move away from the buildings to nest: we've never heard those fledglings cry. Under the courting tree we find pellets-- regurgitated bundles of bones, feathers and fur-- but we have never heard or seen owlets.

In the silence of night, a silence so profound it seems to echo, the owl’s hunting cry signals the end of life and its new beginning.

Just so, Samhain signals the last warm wisps of autumn as we head into winter. Rather than lamenting the loss of warmth, we need to recall the heat we have already enjoyed as we look ahead. The coming of darkness need not be a depressing time of cold and waiting. Turn on the bright lights in your writing space and be grateful you don’t have to work by candlelight. Collect the harvest of work you finished this summer; savor it. Congratulate yourself. Relax from summer’s busyness.

Then gather the notes you scribbled in odd moments during the season past. Perch like an owl above your pantry of writing possibilities. Widen your eyes to catch the faint light of a hidden concept. Listen in the night for the voices: of owls and of stories. Hear the skritch of the tiny feet of a new story as it hides beneath the leaves: then pounce and feed your writing self.

Blessed be, this Samhain and throughout the winter.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
For Samhain, October 31, 2014
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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For more information:

To learn more about Icarus, the owl pictured above, see the Black Hills Raptor Center website at

These Home Page Essays Are Archived --- Linda posts a new message on her Home Page a number of times each year. We've archived the essays (click here) so you can read the ones you missed and re-read the ones you enjoyed. Some of them include recipes or poems or writing suggestions. All of them have photos.

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