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New WordPress Blog!

I've set up a new WordPress blog (with the help of my web-wrangler) because it gives me more options than the blog on this website, including the ability to post more photos, the ability to link with social media across the web, and a subscription service that sends a dandy version of the blog directly to your email inbox. Try it out.

Notes from a Western Life at WindbreakHouse.WordPress.com

You can continue to read the blogs here, however a few of the very long blogs under the category of "Writing: Where I've Been" will only appear on the WordPress blog.



An Index of Blog Topics
may be found lower down in this left-hand column so, for example, you can search for all blogs with "Writing Suggestions."

A dated archive of blogs is also available below the index.

Click here to jump to the index, or scroll down to see a selection of photos related to the blog posts.






Blacksmith or Wordsmith

Iron legs from yesteryear.

Smaller iron items inside.

The scrap-iron table.



Dust, Grass, and Writing

Like the native grasses, the roots of writing go deep and reach out in many directions.

Tough prairie grass roots splitting open a rock.

Green life may be found under dry debris.


Fringed Jacket Foofaraw

Turtle carved from bone.

Turtle made of silver.

Warrior Woman pin.

George's grizzly bear claw earring.

Powwow jingle cones made of tin.

Brass bell.

A tiny dream catcher.

Harley Owners' Group pin in honor of Jerry.

Wally McRae's cufflink and tooth.





South Dakota Poet Laureate? Not Right Now, Thanks.


"An older writer, conscious of his or her limited life span, may have specific projects in mind to complete. Thus, requiring that the Poet Laureate travel and teach extensively may exclude older writers regardless of their worthiness to hold the position."



Don't just click "like" about some political story you read.


Pick up the phone or write a letter and make a difference.



Ah! The Bathtub.

A brass hook on a nearby wall to hold my robe or a towel.

A removable wire basket stretches across the tub to hold my soap and sponges.



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.

www.Facebook.com/​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.



Ah, Spring!


Want to know more about this critter?

See the Gallimaufry Page for more about the bird, including more photos, and some odds and ends that don't fit anywhere else on this website.



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

* 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 www.YouTube.com 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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Notes from a Western Life
Ranging Far and Wide on the High Plains and Beyond
Linda M. Hasselstrom's Blog



Enjoy a Petite Retreat at Home

June 5, 2015

Tags: Writing Suggestions, Writing Retreats, Thinking Is Writing

.
One day in May I realized that I was going to be alone in my house--- except for my dogs--- for several days. I wrote in my journal and on my Facebook page:

Today I am starting a personal retreat to get back to a working routine after a ten days of travel, meetings, illness, pain, a spring snowstorm, and various other disruptions.

I began this retreat by opening a gift sent to me by my friend January Greenleaf, a TED talk by lexicographer Erin McKean. Make time for yourself, for your enlightenment and education, to listen for fifteen minutes. For more information: www.erinmckean.com, which lists various places you can learn more about her projects, which include wordnik, where you can look up words and phrases; VERBATIM, a language quarterly; The Word column for the Boston Globe; her varied blogs, (which include one called A Dress a Day, detailing the dresses she makes and proving that an obsession with words doesn’t mean she doesn’t have other interests), her biography, and contact information.

My retreat was already well begun. At 4:30 that morning, I’d awakened with the dogs, let them outside, started the coffee, let them back in, and settled in bed with my journal. I wrote a plan for the retreat week, had breakfast and fed the dogs.

As soon as I declared myself “on retreat.” I felt more relaxed. Simply making the declaration meant I had time--- when in reality I had made time by making the decision.

I stretched. I walked the dogs, I rinsed my few breakfast dishes and put them beside the sink. Finally I went to my office. My retreat plan prohibited me from checking email until late in the afternoon, but I knew the video was waiting for me and thought it might be a good way to focus my attention on writing, so I allowed myself to go online long enough to watch it before shutting down my Internet connection.

At last I was ready to begin the first writing task I’d assigned myself: writing about creating a short retreat at home--- while creating a short retreat at home.

My first suggestion for creating a private retreat is to choose to do so. Decide how long your retreat will last, and begin to create the conditions that will help you make the best use of that retreat.

Prepare for your retreat: physical space

Most of us have developed a lifestyle built around events that are really distractions from real life, so we may behave as though this disorganization is normal. Email notifications appear on our computers; our cell phones ring; we run to the store for milk; people say “are you busy?” and without waiting for a reply launch into a recitation of their troubles. By planning ahead, you may be able to immerse yourself in work more fully than you can on a normal day. Depending on your circumstances, you might:

--Tidy the house so you won’t be tempted to clean while retreating.

--Cook or arrange for several meals in advance.

--Inform friends you will be limiting email and phone calls.

--Arrange your workspace to focus on your primary project; put aside temptations that might distract you from your main job.

--Remove potential disturbances: turn off your cell phone; put a note on the TV that says “NO!” A friend shuts off her computer’s audio speaker so she doesn’t hear the ding of incoming emails.

--Pull shades and lock doors if you have friends who “drop in;” one writer I know hides in a vine-covered alcove in her back yard, out of sight from six feet away, and unable to hear the telephone in the house or the door bell.

--If you don’t live alone, explain the terms of your retreat to other members of the household and arrange for them to do the necessary chores you usually do.

--If you cannot be alone in your house during your retreat, make the quiet statement of a closed door. Since my study door usually stands open, my partner knows, when he sees it shut, not to knock, call out, or open it. And if my sneaky mind tries to distract me from my work, I’m reminded of my purpose as soon as I grasp the doorknob.


Prepare for your retreat: mental space

These are logical ways to prepare your physical work space for a retreat, but a harder job, I think, is to focus on whatever retreat task you have set for yourself. Prepare for your retreat by walking around your home like a stranger, as if you have arrived at this haven just to enjoy a writing retreat. Arrange a chair before a window so you can watch birds; find a flower or tree or rock to identify. Turn a chair so your back is to the room.

My idea of the perfect retreat would include ordering meals from a personal chef to be delivered on my preferred schedule, but that is a fantasy. So I enjoy a bonus benefit available only to people who have partners: the retreat diet and exercise plan. When my partner isn’t here, I don’t cook as much, therefore I don’t eat as much, therefore I’m leaner and more focused. I often make a big batch of spaghetti or meat loaf, and eat similar meals for several days.

In my study, I look at each project I’ve begun to choose which one I’ll work on. I write notes so I’ll remember, when I’m ready to begin the other projects, what I was thinking, and put them firmly aside. Whether my writing is going well or not, it’s far too easy to sidestep into another writing project that looks more seductive. Even though I am my own boss and have set up my own schedule for writing, I dislike authority enough that my subconscious mind tries to flout it and sneak off to another fascinating story.


How it works: retreat reality

As soon as I got to my tidy office, I realized that in my haste to begin a retreat I’d forgotten that after days of travel and trouble, I needed to clear my journal. I’d recorded observations relating to several different writing projects, marking them with sticky notes in my journal so I could find them quickly. Each one needed to be placed it its proper file before I forgot the details.

As I recorded these notes, I recorded comments for the organizer of the meeting I’d attended, and sent those off--- telling myself that while this was not a retreat activity, it was legitimate work as part of clearing my desk for writing.

During my lunch break, I referred to my journal and realized that I needed to revise my class presentation for Road Scholar on ranching in South Dakota. That’s creative, I thought, and it concerns on one of my usual writing topics, so it’s a legitimate retreat task. I completed the revision.

By then, I was distracted by the pain of an injury and called a doctor who agreed to see me that afternoon. The doctor was able to alleviate my pain but as I drove home I wondered if I had killed my retreat by leaving the house and breaking my concentration. Discouraged, I sat in my chair, read a few pages, and fell asleep.

Footsteps jerked me out of my nap. I stepped outside to find an insurance salesman on my deck, the first such caller in six years! Repeatedly and at length, I explained why I did not need additional insurance.

Now what? Nerves jangled, I turned to my calendar and my journal work list and realized I was obligated to attend a meeting the next afternoon, and had promised a friend to car-shop the day after that. My stomach knotted. I’d sabotaged myself by incomplete planning. Should I declare my retreat a failure?

No, I decided. The retreat was not over unless I allowed it to be.

First I had to recapture the feeling. If I allowed interruptions to make me angry, I was wasting my own time and becoming even more distracted. I had to dispose of disturbances efficiently, choosing which jobs I could complete and which I might postpone.

Part of my distraction, I realized, was having had a sketchy lunch; I had no enthusiasm for cooking, but discovered some attractive leftovers. I took my time arranging the meat, potatoes and gravy on the plate and heating them in the microwave while I made a salad. When I sat down to eat, I thought about my choices.

I was still alone in the house. I could recover from these setbacks. Instead of cancelling my private retreat, I decided, I would simply conduct a series of short retreats. I’d begin each day with a couple of cups of coffee in bed, dogs at my side. I’d write in my journal about my primary project: this essay about conducting my own retreat.

Next I planned a simple menu for several days, choosing ingredients on hand, because I knew my concentration would be broken if I was either hungry or constantly snacking.

During the morning before the meeting, I’d write as much as I could. After the meeting, I’d attend to online communication, putting off anything that could wait a day or two. The next day, I’d honor my morning commitment and then write in the afternoon.


The Petite Retreat

So began my week of discovering the concept of the miniature retreat, and I can recommend it. In fact, since many of us are convinced we don’t “have time” for a long retreat, perhaps learning how to conduct a retreat in a day or two, or even a couple of hours, might be considerably more useful to the average busy writer.

Before my afternoon meeting, I wrote notes and drafts of several ideas I’d recorded in my journal, so I was able to attend the meeting with a feeling of accomplishment that allowed me to be patient with the usual delays. Later, at the computer, I read a message from a writer who has been to Windbreak House on retreat. Her husband had just left for a ten-day trip and she had declared a personal retreat. She wrote, “I have the house to myself (it also means I have all the chores to myself, but leave that aside for the moment.)”

Serendipity! I thought. We’re both dedicated to our work and are conducting our own retreats; perhaps we can help each other.

“I seem to be getting over the gloom of separation anxiety,” she wrote, “and am moving into active embrace of the prospect of solitude. I will have some days that I have to go to town and work on projects at the rentals, but I will endeavor to keep the retreat spirit on the days when I’m home. I made a good start today by doing another revision pass and eating at odd hours.”

Again I was struck by the parallels; we both have obligations that keep us from shutting the world entirely out, and we both miss our spouses. I hadn’t thought to call it “separation anxiety,” but I was feeling the same. I don’t enjoy cooking for myself as much as cooking for someone else. When my partner is home, part of my morning journal time involves reviewing any available leftovers and deciding what to make for lunch and supper. Making preparations tells me when to begin both meals, and often keeps me from worrying about meals when I’m writing.

If I’d prepared properly for my own retreat, I would have frozen meals ready for quick preparation. Since I didn’t think ahead, don’t buy pre-packaged food, or live where I can get food delivered, I usually make a batch of one or two favorite meals that can be quickly reheated. My friend said she was surviving on hummus and potato salad and intended to plan ahead more effectively next time too.

Both of us are in a unique position in our homes, making retreats more workable. We both live some distance from town, so we don’t have the distractions of nearby traffic, and few neighbors drop by; we get few phone calls. (If your own home doesn’t lend itself to brief retreats, consider house-sitting.)

We agreed that the main obstacle to retreating into writing is mental. As she puts it, “. . . making the commitment to yourself that you’re dedicating this time exclusively to writing (doing of, thinking about, reading about, etc.) . . .”

Her comment reminded me that a writing retreat requires more than writing; it includes reading and thinking about writing as well. I was also pleased to be reminded that this is the way real teaching and learning works: I offered her some of my suggestions, and her thinking inspired me: we both give, and we both take from the exchange.


The power of intention

My friend commented that making the decision to do the retreat was “weirdly wonderful,” that she, too, felt a huge release, “. . . like I’d just gotten a massage. A marvelous lesson in the power of intention. I took an unseemly pleasure in defining my rules—monitoring email OK, responding unless absolutely necessary if a work project popped up was not. Checking weather OK, but no surfing. No TV. Doing dishes is OK, but only if you want to. Laundry is out of the question.”

Here we differed; my washer and dryer are just far enough from my desk to constitute a brain-clearing stroll with room to stretch, so I declared laundry to be OK that afternoon. With a load in the washer, I sent a few more messages and then found a reply from my retreating friend: “Decided I 'wanted' to get the dishes cleaned up Wednesday evening, and the spell was broken. The motions of that disliked chore turned on the brain-churn of chores looming and the to-do list for town the next day. I still spent the evening reading and writing, but it did feel like the last night of retreat, processing the prospect of re-entry.”

“Brain-churn of chores”--- that’s usually what wakes me up in the mornings if I allow it to. While waking for retreat, I’ve consciously pushed those thoughts away and concentrated my thinking on writing projects. During this rainy weather, I’ve forced myself to ignore the muddy paw-prints on the stairs and the dust in the corners; time enough to attend to those things when the rain stops.


What about those chores?

Still, everyone has daily jobs that, if we allow them to, can distract us from the kind of mood required for serious creative work. I can incorporate some jobs into a writing routine. When I come to a paragraph that baffles me, I may do dishes or defrost hamburger, slice vegetables or weed a flower bed while considering possibilities. None of those repetitive jobs can seriously distract a creative mind at work, though I have been known to burn rice when I rush downstairs to record a thought.

And some chores can be postponed. I’ll vacuum the house when my partner gets home and I’m distracted anyway. I’ll make a grocery list when he’s here to remind me of items I might forget. I’ll get the mail when I’m taking a break from writing.

My new challenge, then, was how to make my retreat work during short periods between the distracting obligations I’d discovered. I devised several methods and symbols to signal a new period of retreat.


How can I create tranquility?

If a retreat will be only a few hours or a day or two, it’s important to focus quickly, and learn to drop into retreat mode at will. I established signals to remind myself to avoid confusion and concentrate on the purpose of my retreat.

When I sat down to work on my journal at the dining room table, I pushed my nose deep into the bowl of lilacs and inhaled, letting the light, silky scent remind me to inhale and hold my breath, exhaling slowly.

Walking the dogs became part of my ritual when I needed to change mental gears. After I completed a job, whether it was an interruption to my writing or a writing draft, I changed my mood by taking the dogs outside to play or walk while I stretched and did bends.

Wildflowers as well as cultivated plants surround my home, but I usually notice them only when I’m working at gardening. For the retreat atmosphere, therefore, I took time to appreciate my surroundings as if I were in an exotic jungle. I sat on a railroad tie fence and watched a tree swallow swoop to collect a bug. I crawled through the grass looking for bluebells, found a smooth black rock and placed it in the precise center of a bowl worn in a sandstone rock. When one Westie brought me a baby robin carried gently in his mouth, I climbed a tree and put it back in the nest. Concentrating on the details of my surroundings refreshed me. Arranging a few stems of Sweet William in a vase in the bathroom did not break my concentration, but shifted my focus. During these times of not-writing, aspects of the writing I was doing floated to the surface of my mind.


Think instead of talking

Having no other people in my house encouraged my uninterrupted thinking. I didn’t have to consider anyone else’s feelings, or respond to questions; providing attention to the dogs didn’t require much thought. I could walk with them, watch them hunt voles and run in circles, and throw their toys, all while relaxing and clearing my brain, or struggling with a knotty writing problem.

Think about it: responding to human interruptions can take considerable time in part because we observe social conventions; we’re polite, we explain, we listen, we justify. But if the telephone rings and I don’t answer it, time is saved. If someone posts to my timeline on Facebook and I don’t see it, my work is not interrupted. The choice is mine; the person calling or posting doesn’t know what I’m doing and will be happy when I do respond. Ignoring online distractions was similar to being alone in the house, without the necessity to respond to conversation.


Reading as writing

Sometimes I get so caught up in daily chores and writing that I may let significant articles and books that might inspire and inform my writing stack up beside my reading chair. I scan them distractedly while waiting for a soup to simmer or a conversation to be finished. So concentrated reading on the subjects I write most about became part of my retreat. Having given myself permission to read in the daytime, I slashed like a lawnmower through stacks of magazines and books that had gathered dust for months. Instead of reading my usual relaxing mysteries at night, I read serious stuff and took notes for future writing and talks. Because I was working later than usual, I also felt better about any diversions that occurred during the day.

My retreat rules banned reading that was not on a topic related to my work. I was delighted when my friend on retreat said one morning that she’d “allowed” herself to read my note to her about our retreats only when she was on a break.

Meanwhile, she reported that her first mini-retreat was two days long: “an intense writing day, followed by an evening devoted to reading about writing and to writing in my journal about the reading and about the projects I’m working on. The next day was more writing, more reading.” She was exhausted, but “maintained internet/media limits and spent another quiet evening reading.” All this worked, she added, because she had the house to herself.”

I, too, was feeling more satisfied with my small retreats of a morning and then an afternoon, and I wasn’t as exhausted because I hadn’t been able to immerse myself as fully as she had. I had, though, done what I could with the time I had and that was a source of satisfaction.


The retreat attitude

So how is a series of mini-retreats different from a normal work week? And how can we create the energy and the focus of a retreat in a shorter period?

I believe the power of my intent and the attitude I establish toward my work can allow me to conduct a useful retreat, even if it’s brief. During a normal day, my focus is outward: on my partner, on how our mutual day evolves, and on the obligations we have to one another. When he’s gone, I shift my attention to his evening call, leaving the rest of the day free for me to focus on my work. Reminding myself that my primary intention is my writing, I can allow other concerns to become invisible.

A danger zone is the restless periods between bouts of writing. When I get up to go to the bathroom, or fix a meal, or just stretch, I must resist the temptation to go online or check my phone. While the tasks of house-keeping like laundry or dishes don’t automatically pull my mind away from deeper thinking, the mindless chatter of the internet does.

This retreat also reminded me, and my writing friend, of another important element of a successful retreat of any length: reading books instead of the internet ether.

She puts it best: “The focus on hard copy reading reveals how shallow and unsatisfying most of what’s available on the internet appears. . . . It’s easy to justify the surfing by telling yourself that you’re ‘staying informed’ by looking at news or literary sites, but that kind of reading does not allow for the slow reflection one achieves by turning pages and making notes in the margin.”

Moreover, because I have made time, I have the luxury of time to sit and stare at a smooth stone held in my hand and see how my mind will connect that stone, the sun on my back, the birdsong, with my writing. I can watch the cattle moving across the gully below the house, enjoying the way they kick up their heels. I can sit on the deck listening to the birds without checking my watch.

On each day of my retreat since, I have begun the day by planning what it will contain, including obligations to others that I can’t escape. I figure out what to have for lunch. Then I note the times in the day that I can consider retreat time, and note which project I’ll tackle. I can breathe deeply, knowing exactly when I’ll be on retreat, and what I have to do before that time.

My friend remarks that she is learning to make peace with how slowly writing can develop, and getting better at focusing when she has the time to do so. I agree. Once I have established writing time and know that I will keep it, I can be attentive at a meeting, hold conversations, answer email, and vacuum, throwing all my energy into what I am doing at that moment.

When my writing time seems brief, I remind myself that Graham Green created a writing schedule of two hours a day. He was so strict about stopping after exactly two hours that he sometimes didn’t finish a sentence. But at that pace he published 26 novels, as well as many short stories, plays, screenplays, memoirs, and travel books.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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Another Warrior in the Battle Against Voles

May 6, 2015

Tags: Ranch: Wildlife

Eastern yellow-bellied racer at Windbreak House this spring.

We saw the first snake of the season a week or two ago, the Eastern yellow-bellied racer, commonly known around here as a “blue racer.” In other areas, depending on color variations, it’s called the black, brown, or green racer; its under-belly is white, tan, or yellow and it may be twenty to sixty inches long, or from a foot-and-a-half to five feet. This speedy little snake (also called a “runner” in some areas) sleeps at night and hunts during daylight—which is why it’s so often seen—and it lives practically everywhere in the Great Plains. In South Dakota, it’s found only west of the Missouri River.

If you see one, feel free to leap out of its way, but don’t hurt it. These are non-venomous snakes which eat small rodents (voles!), frogs, toads, lizards, crickets and moths, and other snakes. They occasionally eat small birds such as finches or sparrows, especially those that nest on the ground. But the racer can climb trees well and occasionally raid bird nests for eggs or baby birds.

This last fact may explain to me, sixty years later, why one day when I was walking in the cedar windbreak, I felt a tickle on my neck. I looked down inside my open-necked shirt to see a small blue snake lying against my belly, its head raised, tongue flicking. Without much thought, I yanked my shirt untucked, and the snake slipped to the ground and zipped away. When I described it to my father, he called it a blue racer. I’ve never forgotten the not-unpleasant sensation of that small body against my stomach.

Despite the scientific name of the snake, Coluber constrictor, these snakes do not really employ constriction. They generally subdue their prey by pinning it down with a coil or two of their body length. Smaller prey is swallowed alive. Blue racers are curious and have excellent vision, so you may sometimes see one raising its head above the grass as it crawls to see what’s in the neighborhood.

The snakes’ predators are large mammals and bigger birds such as hawks. Racers use their speed to escape being eaten, but if caught, they bite hard and often as they try to escape, writhing, defecating and releasing foul odors. I was lucky I didn’t try to capture the one that slid down my shirt.

Racers have also been known to rattle their tails among dry leaves to sound like rattlesnakes, a habit which could get them killed. A friend who didn’t know this fact stepped out her door the very day she read the first draft of this article and saw a blue racer; then she heard rattling, and realized the snake was temporarily blocked from escape by some wire and was vibrating its tail in dried grass to warn her off. Read it, see it.

Racers are common in residential neighborhoods in warmer states, and may live near water, but also in brush, trash piles, roadsides and swamps. Most types of racers seem to prefer open, grassland habitat where they can use their good eyesight and speed, and they stay near cover where they can hide.

The eastern yellow-bellied racer mates between April and June. A month later the female lays 3 to 30 eggs in a hidden nest in a log, or under a rock, or in an abandoned rodent burrow. Surprisingly, they’ve also been known to lay eggs in a communal site where snakes from other species have also laid eggs. The eggs hatch in early fall. Until they reach maturity, in about two years, the young snakes have dark blotches along the back with spotted sides and bellies, decorations that make them resemble rattlesnakes at first glance.

Remember: snakes generally do us more good than harm; this little guy may be eating those voles that are eating the roots of your plants. Don’t poison the voles; find a blue racer. And if you think of killing a snake, look for rattles on the tail. South Dakota is home to only one venomous snake: the prairie rattlesnake. If you see no rattles, chances are that the snake is harmless. Leave it to its business of keeping rodents under control.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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Birds of Spring

April 26, 2015

Tags: Birds, Ranch: Wildlife

Red-winged blackbird in cattails.
FreeRangeStock.com photo

Slog, slog slog. Step by step I plodded through the deep mud of the calving corral, pushing a stumbling newborn calf and his mother through the falling snow into the barn where the baby could get dry and nurse. I was wearing the same coveralls that I’d worn all week while wallowing in the manure-laden mud. My nose was not only dribbling but sticky where I’d swiped at it with a muddy glove. My hair itched, sticking to my skull under the two stocking caps. Snowflakes caked my glasses. That spring a few years ago, we were only a week into calving season. The forecast said snow would continue for several more days.

“Wheep-Wheeo!”

The wolf whistle was so loud I nearly sprained my neck looking around.

“Wheep-Wheeooo!”

The whistle sounded again, raucous and confident. The law school boys sounded the same when I walked past them on my way to class fifteen years and a dozen pounds before. I turned my head and spotted the whistler, a black bird with red and gold epaulets.

My spine straightened and I smiled. Spring would come, and here was the proof: the first red-winged blackbird of the season.

Just as our patience with winter wears thin, we’ll see one of the birds for a day or two. Then it vanishes and a couple of days later the main flock arrives.

That early arrival and that wolf whistle are two reasons the red-winged blackbird is my favorite prairie bird. (I’m not counting the birds of prey like owls, hawks, and eagles. They are in a category of their own—but they don’t cheer me with whistles.)

For years, I’d be trudging through calving season on the ranch, and the first bird to herald spring would be the red-winged blackbird—with his raucous sound.

Within a day or two of that herald’s arrival, flocks of them gather in the tops of the cottonwood trees, singing gloriously. For several days, they seem to go everywhere together, like teenage girls, squawking, chirping, singing, and flapping. After a few minutes in one tree, the whole flock WHOOSHES up with incredible precision and lands in another tree in unison. At first, the flocks are mostly males, distinguishable from all other blackbirds by those red and gold shoulders, and by their tumbling, torrential song. They are always visible, perching as high as they can—on the chimney, on electric wires, on fence posts—singing a song that’s described as “conka-la-REEEE!” When they are hungry, they fly in a raucous flock to feast on grass seed, or the delicacies found among the cattails in the gully.

The bird’s scientific name is derived from the Greek Agelaius: “belonging to a flock” and phoeniceus, meaning “dark red,” for their habits. Bird experts say that winter congregations can be several million of these birds, including other blackbird species and starlings. Each morning the flocks fly away from their roosts, traveling as far as 50 miles to feed, then returning at night.

And all the while they chatter. Anthropomorphizing wildly, I assume they are catching up on the migration news, commenting on the qualities of the insects and seeds they’re foraging.

Each spring one would perch on the chimney at Windbreak House Retreats and the writer in residence would always conclude that we’d been adopted as his territory. If so, we female writers were not his only conquests. The red-winged blackbird is highly polygynous, meaning that each male may have several female mates nesting inside his territory; up to 15, according to experts.

The males defend their territory aggressively against intruders, including humans and other birds. I’ve seen these redwings rise to fly above a hawk, darting in to peck and claw at its head. As the hawk flew, more males would rise from their territories to attack the predator in succession, driving him from territory to territory.

Bird-watchers say the males may spend 90 percent of their time defending their space, but fierce as they are, one-quarter to one-half of their nestlings may have been sired by a bird other than the territorial male.

I could pretty easily create a story here about what modest-looking females might be up to while the males are strutting, preening and bellowing, but I’ll leave that to your imagination.

This year, we saw the first redwing on March 13. Now, a month and a half later, we don’t hear their songs so often because they have chosen territories and spread out around the homestead.

Females of the species are brown with white stripes on their backs and over each eye. They skulk in the deep grass, tending to the business of catching lunch and building nests. We are careful to leave bushes and tall grass undisturbed along the edges of fields and gullies.

To build each nest, the female selects long, stringy plants and winds them around several close, upright stems. Then she weaves plant material between the uprights to create a platform usually composed of coarse vegetation, leaves and sometimes decayed wood. She makes zillions of trips to the muddy pond to collect mud for plastering the inside of the nest. She lines this cup with slender, dry grasses. According to allaboutbirds.org, one nest picked apart by a naturalist in the 1930s had been made by weaving together 34 strips of willow bark and 142 cattail leaves, some 2 feet long. When finished the nest is 4 to 7 inches across and 3 to 7 inches deep, and may be tucked under leaves or branches in such a way as to be protected from rain. Each female lays two to four blue-green to gray eggs with black and brown markings which hatch in about two weeks.

We knew as we moved our mowers to the alfalfa fields in June that some of the birds were nesting among the tall plants. We found it almost impossible to see their nests in time to avoid them, and sometimes vultures stalked our mowers, presumably gobbling the dead baby birds.

Still, since the redwings usually raise two broods during a season, the nests may have been empty. The birds build a new nest for each brood, possibly to keep them from being infested by parasites. However when we hayed in a field where tall willow bushes allowed me to gain privacy to relieve myself, I would just be preparing to do so when a male blackbird would dart at my face, sometimes dragging his talons through my hair.

The redwinged blackbird appears to be thriving on the grasslands, along with meadowlarks, but I worry about some of the lesser-known birds. Listening to the changes in the morning chorus today, as the meadowlarks and blackbirds sing less and spend more time building nests, I suddenly remembered the long-billed curlew.

They never appeared close to the buildings, but when I would ride into more distant pasture on a spring morning years ago, I’d see their distinctive landings. As soon as the bird’s feet touch ground, it raises long wings high, then slowly folds them down close to the body. These beautiful birds are aggressive about their nests as well. I seldom saw a nest before the bird zoomed up out of the grass flapping at my face. As I slowly backed the horses away, I’d see a hollow in the limestone on some rocky ridge with a little grass, twigs or rocks surrounding the eggs.

Where have they gone? Online information suggests that their habitat has been declining as the prairie becomes busier with subdivisions, four-wheelers and other human activities. Still, I was able to discover two sightings in my extended neighborhood—one on the grasslands along Highway 40 and another near Folsom School. So I hope that this incredible bird is finding a way to adapt and survive on the prairie that remains.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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Blacksmith or Wordsmith: Time, Patience, Skill, Artistry

April 10, 2015

Tags: Writing Suggestions, Recycle and Reuse

At the basement entrance to our house stands our Iron Wall, a retaining barrier covered with old rusty tools.

The wall is a stack of railroad ties linked by rebar to hold the earth from the hillside back from the basement sidewalk. We salvaged the railroad ties from the railroad’s right of way that cuts through our pasture; they were free, sturdy, and heavily impregnated with tar so they will resist water. We also consider them a tiny payback for the trash we pick up that is discarded by track crews, and the fires occasionally started by the trains.

The wall decorations are rusty antique tools, mostly discarded by my father and hauled out to our personal dump in the pasture. Whenever we walk through the dump, my eye is drawn to some shape that I pick up and bring home. I chuckle every time, because I can see my father shaking his head in exasperation. He spent all that time and energy lugging that stuff out of his yard and buildings, only to have me drag it back in.

Visitors sometimes puzzle over the objects, their functions already a mystery to most. I have used several of these tools, and at least know the purpose of those older than I. After my generation of rural folks is gone, their stories may be a mystery. Another owner might haul them to the recycling center—or back to the pasture where my father dumped them.

But for now, look at some of these tools rusting gently on the wall. Worn horse shoes testify to the miles walked by Bud and Beauty, the work team. Next to them are the ornate legs of stoves and washing machines that a woman may have noticed when they were new, but stopped noticing as she worked over them for years. Here are the hobbles we used to keep the wild range cows from kicking while we were milking them or persuading them to let their calves suck if they rejected their babies. Gears, hinges, pick heads, hand rakes and the teeth from the dump rake I hauled for miles behind my tractor picking up hay for my father to stack. Chains, pliers, and a couple of chain boomers, winches that we used for everything from fastening gates to hauling pickups out of the mud. Several pieces of iron are unidentifiable, swooping curves of metal with rings, probably part of a horse harness. Several wheels with broken teeth hang beside a couple of stirrups pulled apart when a rider long ago was caught in a disagreement with an unruly horse.

The outside Iron Wall isn’t my only collection of rusty antiques. In the basement bathroom is another: this one a repository of small iron objects, and I could argue that I collected them for their beauty as well as their utilitarian charm. Here are hand-forged hooks made for various gates and cupboards in the barn. I’ve saved a hand-forged screwdriver, its length bumpy with hammer marks from that long-ago blacksmith. Jerry built a wooden rack to collect all the horse-shoe nails and square nails we’ve picked up in the area around his shop, where a school once stood. Hanging high are a couple of vicious-looking hay hooks I kept handy when I was living here alone. On the wall are buckles and fastenings from horse harnesses that dried and stiffened into unusable piles of leather in the hay loft.

Suspended in a neat row are several hand-forged nipple picks used to clean black powder from the firing pins, or flash channels, of cap and ball weapons. Two calipers curve against the cream-colored wall. A small fork was part of my child-sized pitchfork for feeding my horse, one of my first chores. A blackened leather bull whip drapes over a nail next to a crude wrench used for wagon wheels. I saved one of the horn weights we used to make a Hereford bull’s horns grow into the gentle curve that was both attractive and safer for the cows and for us. Like the tools outside, many of these are ones I used.

Why have I brought all this stuff into to my home? Am I longing nostalgically for a return to the past?

Absolutely not. While I admire much of the tone of the past, particularly as I lived it on this ranch, I don’t believe everything was better then. My childhood had many fine aspects but it was not a purely idyllic time and place. For example, as the debate rages nationwide about whether or not to vaccinate children against measles, I remember the terror with which my parents discussed whether or not I should be protected against polio—until a friend contracted the disease and was crippled.

By writing about this collection of rusty stuff, I have come to understand that I collect these things because they remind me to respect time, both in my writing and in my life outside of writing.

To make the hand-forged gate hooks for our barn, for example, required that the blacksmith own and know how to operate a forge, collect the appropriate tools and supplies of metal. One didn’t fire up a forge to make one hook, so he probably had a number of forging jobs to do that day. He may have taught himself to work iron because he knew he’d need that skill to save money on the ranch. Or perhaps someone in this neighborhood was a blacksmith, and the others ordered what they needed from him, paying in cash or perhaps in beef.

The blacksmith had to select the steel, then build a small fire in his forge to ignite the coal. He used a bellows or a hand-cranked blower to add air to the fire until the coal is burning well. Then he thrust the steel into the coal while continuing to use the bellows or blower to add air.

My partner Jerry has worked at becoming more skilled as a blacksmith since he retired. He tells me that the blacksmith must heat the steel just enough, but not too much. “Reddish-orange to bright orange is good,” he says. If the steel becomes white hot, it will simply burn up.

When the steel is just orange enough, the blacksmith removes it from the fire and begins to shape it. To make a hook, he probably first formed the hook on one end and the loop on the other and then reheated the steel. When the center portion was hot enough, he put the hook in a vise and turned the steel with a turning fork or tongs to create the twist. The twist might add a little lateral strength, Jerry says, but likely it was purely for decoration. Perhaps the hook wasn’t originally made for the barn, but for a home. Still, no matter where it was originally placed, it was created by a man who had plenty of things to do, and still added a flourish to his work. Finally, he quenched the finished hook in a bucket of water, and probably started to make another.

Not only does the blacksmith need materials and skill, he needs time and patience. When Jerry spend a day blacksmithing, he’s already done the planning, thinking about the project off and on through days of doing other work, and evenings of eating good food, watching movies, talking as we play Scrabble or Rummykub. After he has chosen his next project, he collects the materials and waits for a day when the wood stove in the blacksmith shop will heat the place enough so he can work without freezing solid.

Then he must go through each step, slowly and patiently, heating and reheating and hammering until he has created what he visualized. I don’t know what he thinks about, but I know he thinks because hammering iron requires patience and allows time for considering other matters.

Suddenly the similarity between writing and blacksmithing is obvious. Writing, too, requires planning and the ability to imagine the finished product from the crude materials.

I collect the steel of the idea, heating it in the forge of my mind (with plenty of help from air whooshing through the coal!) until I can beat it into shape with my words. I write while the idea is red hot, watch it cool as I revise, all the while keeping the coal hot and ready. I print out a draft, read it, scribble on it as I rebuild the fire, to recapture the heat of composition. I pound and sweat and mumble until I’m satisfied.

Like the books that line my study, these hand-shaped tools symbolize the patience required by writing, or by any other hand-forged creation.

And let’s take the writing and blacksmithing resemblance one more step. Once you have patiently written about a particular issue, you might shape the result in many different ways: as an argumentative essay, as a poem, as a memoir, or as fiction.

So when the handy table by our basement door collapsed from age, I asked Jerry if he could use some of my rusty antiques to make another.

The result is a triumph of recycling, including a couple of steel posts, some hoof clippers, a car jack, a hand drill, some rebar and part of a horse-drawn wagon. Topped with some redwood recycled from the deck we just replaced, the table stands sturdily by the basement door, ready for anything we may stack on it.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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How To Write a Poem: The Snake Within

April 3, 2015

Tags: Poetry, Draft of Writing, Writing Suggestions

Linda checking her young bean plants, 2013.

When I’m having trouble writing, one of my favorite methods to start the process is to write a "How To" poem. This is probably why there are zillions of the things floating around, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't write your own. Working on a "How To" poem can serve several purposes.

First, writing a poem (or prose) about how to do something can clarify your thinking beautifully. One of my assignments to a new high school writing class was always for students to write instructions for something they knew how to do very well. The exercise provided them with practice in thinking, and writing, more clearly than usual. The students were always amazed at the steps they omitted in the first draft simply because the act they were describing was so familiar to them. I’ll never forget the frustration of one young man writing about how to ride a bull in a rodeo, and a young woman writing about how to make a bed. But they did it.

Another attraction of the "How To" poem is that you can use it to review something you haven’t done for a while, recalling memories from childhood. One of these days I need to do a poem on how to milk a cow, to refresh my memory of what started out as a chore and became a joyful duty that taught me a lot more than the direct act of milking.

So here’s an example of a poem written during an August when I was spending more time gardening than writing, and wanted to get back to writing. The file of drafts of this poem contains 9 pages, which is unusually short for my revisions.

Here’s the entire first draft:

How to Pick Green Beans

Kneel
in the garden’s deep soil.
Reach
to lift the bottom leaves.
Watch
for rattlesnakes that may
lie
in shade to wait for rabbits
coming
at dusk to feed.


That’s not a bad poem; it has strong verbs (kneel, reach, watch), some nature observation that includes the rabbits as prey of the rattlesnakes, as well as the ending twist with the rabbits coming to the beans as predators.

But I felt it was incomplete, so I put the draft aside. Once begun, a poem often surfaces in my subconscious, and my mind continued to nibble at the edges of it. This scattered method seems to work for me, though I can’t recommend it unless your mind works as mine does. Just now, for example, I stopped working on this essay to run upstairs to finish washing a sink full of dishes. They’d been soaking in hot water and suds because just after I started this essay, I needed to get away from the computer and think for a few moments. I wandered upstairs and started doing dishes-- but I don’t hesitate to drop a domestic job if I get a sudden inspiration in something I’m writing.

For the second draft, two days later, I delved into my memory of my grandmother, and began to alternate my memories of her gardening with my own experience picking beans. Somehow kneeling in the garden reaching into the sunlight-braided leaves made me see her hands doing the same, brought me close to her, though she’s been gone from my immediate world for many years. The memories this exercise evoked were worth the struggle, even if the poem had never been finished.

How to Pick Green Beans

Kneel
in the garden’s deep soil.
Reach
to lift the bottom leaves.
Watch
for rattlesnakes.

Grandmother kept her hoe handy, wore gloves,
tilted her bifocals until she was sure of the snake’s
skin among the mottled shade cast by the leaves.
She rose, steadied herself in the dirt and chopped.
Once, twice, until the head was loose. Hooked
the hoe to lift the limp body, carry it to the fence
She threw and the snake struck against the sky.

No snakes this morning, only gold
sliding among fat green leaves
beans slender as sunlight. I pinch
each one free, gently, trying not to knock
off the blossoms that will make next week’s
beans. A grasshopper lands on my wrist, feet
prickly. Redwing blackbirds sing
from the cottonwoods, and I commend the soul
of the grasshopper to them. I crawl along the row,
and start back down the other side, finding beans
I should have been able to see. Tomorrow I will
find more I can't believe I missed.
And I will
kneel
again.


Remembering my grandmother and her deft manner of killing rattlesnakes added a deeper aspect to the references in the first draft; the snakes are a threat not just to the rabbits but to the life of the gardener, adding value to the beans. I retained the idea of kneeling, suggesting a worshipful aspect to the harvest.

Now the poem needed to be tightened, refined. In the third draft, ten days later, I focused on the fourth and final stanza, emphasizing the aspect of gratitude.

I flinch from a prickle on my wrist, but
it’s a grasshopper. Redwing blackbirds sing
from the cottonwoods. On my knees,
I shuffle down the row. Grandmother used
even the scabby ones, hopper-gnawed.
Later the beans will sway in the sink
full of water like green snakes.
Tomorrow I will find more beans
I can't believe I missed.
And I will kneel again, my hands
singing praises for this harvest.


My mental picture accompanying the last line was of praying hands, but the idea of hands “singing” praises jarred my logical mind. Over the next several weeks, I worked on the poem every few days, mostly paring it down, whittling away unnecessary adjectives, trying to make the sensory impressions more vivid. In the sixth draft, late in August, I shifted one stanza from the middle of the poem to the beginning to put the reader into the center of the sensory experience before getting into the complications I’d introduced.

This morning’s gold breeze slides
among beans slender as sunlight
making snake patterns. Gently, I brush
the leaves aside, careful not to knock off blooms
that will make next week’s beans.


Late in September, I was still tinkering with the poem, but I had decided against making the final stanza a hymn of praise, believing that the reference to kneeling carried that idea sufficiently. I was concentrating on the ending, groping for the right combination.

First I wrote this: “I will taste the green possibility / of snakes within this harvest.”

A month later, I decided to make the reference more direct:

All winter, eating beans with bacon,
I will taste the green flesh,
know the snakes
within this harvest.


At the side of this I scribbled, “Taste the snake?” That was the final touch: making the snake’s presence more vivid and sensory by suggesting something that seemed outlandish, that the flavor of the snake remains within the bean harvest. I knew the poem was close to finished, so I put it aside to rest. In November, I revised the poem for the final time.

How to Pick Green Beans

This morning’s gold breeze slides
among beans slender as sunlight,
making snake patterns in the earth.
I brush leaves aside, careful
not to knock off blooms
that will make next week’s beans.

Kneel
in the garden’s deep soil.
Reach
to lift the bottom leaves.
Watch
for rattlesnakes.

Picking what she called a mess of beans,
my grandmother kept her hoe handy,
tilted her bifocals to see the snake,
steadied herself and chopped
until the hissing ceased.
Hooked him with her hoe, swung her arm.
The snake whirled and struck the sky.

Hold
each stem with the left hand
Pluck
each pair of beans with the right.
One hand
should always know
the other’s whereabouts in rattler country.

Redwing blackbirds sing from the cottonwoods
as I shuffle on my knees down the row.
Later, in the sinkful of water,
the beans sway like green snakes.
Grandmother used even the scabby ones,
hopper-gnawed. All winter, eating beans with bacon,
I will taste the green flesh,
taste the snake
within the harvest.

* * *
“How to Pick Green Beans” (c) 2011 by Linda M. Hasselstrom
This poem was published in Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla Hansen, now the State Poet of Nebraska. (The Backwaters Press, 2011).


Twyla tells me that she’s celebrating National Poetry Month by writing a poem a day. I’m not going to be able to manage that, but I urge others to try it. And you might want to start with a poem on How To Do Something.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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A Little Light Reading: Suggestions by Wendell Berry

March 25, 2015

Tags: Book Recommendation, Wendell Berry

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The 3/20/15 issue of The Week features a book list chosen by Wendell Berry, who is one of the nation’s strongest advocates for wise land use to save our lives as well as being a poet. If you love the earth and haven’t read Wendell Berry, start today!

Berry recommends six books that inspired his thinking, including an account published in 1911 of the organic farming practices in China, Korea and Japan, Farmers of Forty Centuries, F. H. King. How did the people keep their land productive for 4,000 years? Not with pesticides and herbicides, but by returning all “wastes” to the soil, leaving the fertility cycle intact.

Of the books Berry cites, I can recommend the following:

An Agricultural Testament, Sir Albert Howard. Published in 1943. Howard argues that farming can last only if it obeys the laws of nature. “Mother Earth never attempts to farm without livestock,” he wrote. “There is no waste; the process of growth and the processes of decay balance one another.”

Home Place: Essays on Ecology, Stan Rowe, insists upon the importance of the ecosphere (not just the biosphere) as context of our lives. Rowe writes that we should “live on the annual interest and leave the land’s capital alone.”

Nature as Measure: The Selected Essays of Wes Jackson. Berry says this 2011 book addresses “The problem of agriculture” and the prospects for practical solutions.

A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold. This, of course, is one of the bibles of wise stewardship. Leopold’s ethic is simple and clear: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

On a large scale, the problem of how we treat our land is complex, because companies who “use” the land in some way want to make a profit. But at the very least, we who occupy a small portion of the earth can do a great deal toward improving the world by following Leopold’s ethic in our lives as much as possible.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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Dust, Grass, and Writing

March 20, 2015

Tags: Grass, Writing Suggestions

Green grass sheltered by limestone rock.

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I’m on the deck trying to convince myself the weak March sunshine is warmer than it is when I notice the pickup in the field, hauling hay to the cattle. Dust rises behind the tires, swooping up and then spreading out, reminding me how very dry the weather has been for the past three winter months. We are three-quarters of an inch behind our normal one and a quarter inch of moisture for the year. During this month of March, now slightly more than half over, we have had only a trace of moisture.

Yet when I look at the hillside close to my house, I see green grass several inches tall. How can the grass be growing when the ground is so dry?

The answer lies in the native grasses surrounding my house: buffalo grass, blue grama, big bluestem, redtop, and others that have been adapting to this area for millennia. These grasses can tolerate heat, drought, and soils that would be inadequate for more tender plants. These grasses have probably even evolved to fit this particular slope, rich with limestone rock, and to the way the wind blows snow across the ripples in the ground.

The thin roots of buffalo grass, for example, go deep, reaching down as much as five feet for buried moisture. The roots of blue grama are in a dense mass in the top two or three feet of soil, compact to provide efficient use of moisture. Up to 80% of the roots of redtop are found in the top two inches of soil. So these grasses complement each other, utilizing all the moisture that falls, whether it’s scant or abundant.

Immediately I can see the writing simile or metaphor. Some who looked out over this prairie today would find it uninspiring, covered with the gold of dried grasses except where vehicles have left dusty tracks. This morning my mind felt the same: covered by the dried debris of ideas I haven’t pursued, failed possibilities grimy with too much handling. Without inspiration.

Similarly, if I only scan the prairie and turn away on this early spring day, I will miss its subtler beauties. Sitting at my writing desk, if I concentrate on the dust and desiccation and immediately give up, I may miss possibilities.

Standing on the deck, thinking, I hear a cry and see the resident kestrel drop out of sight below the hill, pursuing a blackbird or sparrow as relentlessly as I sometimes follow an idea.

Like the native grasses, the roots of writing go deep and reach out in many directions. These roots may be so thin they appear delicate, but they have strength to draw life-giving moisture from the soil. I’ve learned that I need to be patient. I may begin writing with no clear idea of where I am going, simply describing something I’ve seen, or responding to a news item. I may write and write and write-- and suddenly the subject will present itself, will draw the sustaining moisture out of soil that may seem dry and unforgiving.

Here’s the tricky part. No matter how dry your personal prairie looks, you must start writing. You must start following those roots down. If you think, “I’m writing SOMETHING VERY IMPORTANT” you may choke yourself, and become unable to go on: surely your thoughts are too trivial to be worth recording.

Don’t be afraid to be trivial. You have to start somewhere, and every root may reach down to necessary moisture, and up to a strong blade of grass.

This essay began with two simple observations: dust rising behind a pickup, and grass growing green, two pictures that contradicted one another. Those two sights led me to one of my main themes and interests, native grass and its ability to withstand drought and abuse. I've written about this subject often in attempts to persuade readers to save native prairie grasses, but this time my thoughts turned to writing and the comparison emerged.

Each of us contains “native grasses,” possibilities rooted deeply in childhood or our pasts, events that are the foundation of everything we are. From those deep roots we can write endlessly, following their twisting course down into the rich soil fertilized by our years of experience. Or we can follow the roots up to the stalk that is our present and our future, reach into the clear air of tomorrow. Either way, taking time to look at the landscape around us, whether it’s literal or imaginative, can start the writing we need to do.

Flannery O'Connor, in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

Ignore the dust. Follow the roots.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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The Cloak of Visibility: Foofaraw, Jangle and Clanks

March 13, 2015

Tags: Clothing, Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Public Appearance, Poet: Wally McRae

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The fringed jacket that I wear to The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering was a gift from my partner, Jerry, and has become a weighty, but necessary, part of my performance, my Gathering armor.

The jacket was made by Double D Ranchwear as part of a collection apparently inspired by Western and Indian styles. In its original form, the jacket was probably inspired by military action on the Northern Plains. It’s heavy blue denim, cut like a military jacket, but decorated with fringe and a bead breastplate.

The beads down the front echo an Indian hair-pipe breastplate. Hair-pipe beads are tubular, and may be from a half-inch to as much as four inches long; mine are three inches long. Usually they are tapered at the ends, with a center hole.

Nobody seems certain when and where hair-pipe beads were first used and made, but archaeologists have found shell ones nearly 4,000 years old, probably made in coastal regions and dispersed through trade. After about 1624, hair-pipe style beads were made of glass, brass and silver, as well as horn and bone, mostly in the eastern part of what is now the U.S. The beads were particularly popular between 1880 and 1910.

By that time, the hair-pipe breastplate had been adopted by Indian tribes west of the Rockies and were also worn by tribes in the northwest. They are still used in powwow regalia in chokers, breast plates, earrings and necklaces worn by both men and women.

Little information is available on how the beads were made, but they were probably drilled with a rotary, belt-powered drill and shaped on a lathe. Some beads are still made of horn or bone, and may be black, white, or decorated in a variety of ways. Cheaper plastic ones are also available.

My jacket may recall the fact that Indian warriors sometimes picked up military clothing after a battle, and adapted it to their own use; the hair pipes down the front would function as both a shield and as decoration.

Fringe also adorned the buckskin clothes worn by fur trappers and traders in imitation of Indian clothing, but it wasn’t solely decoration; it helped shed rainwater, as well as helping a garment to dry faster because the fringe acted as a series of wicks to disperse the moisture. A buckskinner might also use a piece to tie up broken gear.

So the jacket’s original style is a combination of American Indian and military influence, which appeals to me as symbolic of this prairie where I live: occupied by Indians who were chased off by the military, and then adopted by people like me who don’t fit willingly into a particular mold.

When I was in buckskinning (reenacting the beaver-trapping era of the 1830s with muzzle-loading rifles) with my second husband, George, we collected a considerable number of accoutrements. I have muzzle-loading rifles, clothing of the era, and plenty of what we buckskinners called “foofaraw”—jewelry and other decorative objects.

I realized the jacket wasn’t quite “cowboy” but I’ve never considered myself to be purely a “cowboy” poet. I like and respect many cowboy poets, but have many other interests, including the historic era of the beaver trapper where a white woman would not have been welcome or comfortable. I own western clothes—boots, hat, boot-cut jeans—but don’t wear them full-time. Depending on my task for the day, I may dress like a rancher or like a professional businesswoman. So in a spirit of irony, I began turning the jacket into something that was neither cowboy nor buckskinner attire: a War Shirt to bolster my courage when I have to stand up in front of people to speak.

I realized that without George, I wasn’t likely to attend many buckskinning rendezvous, so I tied souvenirs from my buckskinning life onto the fringe. I wore the jacket the first time as armor; nervous, I wanted familiar things around me. I also wore my buckskinning hat, a broad-brimmed felt with a beaver fur hat band, and talked about being one of the muzzle-loading reenactors.

I was also curious about the reaction of these cowboy folks I didn’t know. Would the folks at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering be offended by my failure to adopt cowboy attire?

I tied on several metal cones of the type used to make jingle dresses for Indian powwow outfits. The first ones I saw were made of the metal discs from the top of chewing tobacco cans—Indians recycling--but now they are manufactured for powwow use. Several brass bells add their tones to the sound. A friend made imitation scalp locks from tiny deer toe bones and hair from horses’ tails. A grizzly claw set with turquoise was George’s earring. His horn tobacco container hangs from one fringe. I tied my jaw harp close enough so that I could play it while wearing the jacket.

To honor Jerry, I placed a HOG (Harley Owners’ Group) pin at the shoulder. As balance, on the other shoulder is a pin featuring a woman with a horned headdress holding a shield in one hand and a sword in the other: a militant feminist symbol. Somewhere is a miniature dream catcher given me by a former student when I visited him in the penitentiary. Among the fringe hang several millifiori glass trade beads made with flower designs in Venice, and Chevron glass trade beads, watermelons, and other beads that have been used for several thousands of years as trade items. Some of my beads are old enough to have been used during the fur trade days of the 1830s on the plains. My Cloak of Visibility carries memories I can’t even articulate. The jacket jangles and clanks, and carries symbols of many different parts of my life.

I’m not sure how the average cowboy poet views my jacket, but at least one man understood and appreciated its humor and symbolism. Wally McRae, the greatest living cowboy poet, raised his eyebrows the first time we were onstage together and said with a smile, “That’s quite a rig.” I wasn’t entirely sure how he meant that until the next year, when he brought me one of his cufflinks to tie on.

When I mentioned the cufflink while performing, the Western Folklife Center archivist asked if I’d will the jacket to the Center when I’m finished with it.
I suspected he was more interested in Wally’s cufflink than in my jacket.

This year, when I mentioned the cufflink exchange onstage, Wally told me that he’d lost a tooth at a recent gathering. He promised to bring it to me next time we meet, and if he does, I’ll find a way to wear it. More good memories will follow me.


Afterword:

I wrote this blog on February 13, soon after returning from the Cowboy Poetry Gathering. A couple of weeks later the mail contained a small envelope with Wally McRae’s return address. Inside was this note:

This is the tooth I, like a three-year-old cow, shed at the Gathering a few years back. It appears I should have been more dedicated to brushing and flossing. So—hang it on your war shirt as a token of the good medicine we seem to develop while sharing a program. ---- Wally McRae


The Wally McRae Fang now hangs next to the Wally McRae cufflink on the jacket’s left side, where my heart is.

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Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota



For More: To hear the jingle jangle of the jacket see my YouTube clip here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpHljiMjg50

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Writing: Where I've Been --- A New Series of Unpublished or Published-but-Uncollected Work.

March 5, 2015

Tags: Blog By Linda

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My current project is writing a diary of a year on this ranch nearly 30 years after my first book, which is a diary of a year on this ranch. In this new work, I've necessarily looked back at journals I kept, letters and journals from my relatives and others who lived in this area, and at writing I did during that time, when I was searching for my writing voice.

Much has changed. I've worked as a journalist and a college professor. I've been divorced and widowed. I've settled down in several places for several reasons.

But always, I was writing. Much of what I wrote during the past will remain private, though— following my own advice— I rarely discard a draft because I never know what insight or information it might contain that will be of value to me now.

But re-reading some of what I wrote in past years has been useful for me, not only in matters of insight, but in matters of writing style. I can see things I would write differently today, but I have also discovered writing I consider good that has had few or no other readers. Technically, these are either unpublished works, or published and uncollected, meaning they have not appeared in a book.

Who knows when, where, how or even if I might publish another book that will enable me to collect past writing? My book Between Grass and Sky was a wonderful gift of that nature from the University of Nevada Press but the world of publishing has changed as well; I may not get so lucky again. Besides, publishing a book means promoting a book and these days I enjoy making sales pitches less and less.

So I've decided to self-publish some writing via my blog. The writing that will appear in the category “Writing: Where I've Been” on my WordPress Blog is a mixture of styles, written as I was searching for the narrative voice that most nearly suited me and the material that has become most important to me. Each piece is annotated with background information. Some stories were intended to be read as fiction though they were substantially true; in those instances I have explained what is fact and what is fiction. Some of these pieces were published in slightly different forms; I have noted any previous publication.

Each of these writings was part of a thought process that resulted in other writing; readers may see the roots of ideas that appeared in later work.

I invite writers and aspiring writers to read these texts as part of your study of how writing develops. Remember, I think revision is the second most important part of writing (after thinking), so you might consider how you would revise and improve a particular story. Be inspired; be amazed; be annoyed! You might even comment, and I may— or may not— respond.

No matter what your response, I've posted these especially for writers in the hope they will help you to keep writing until you find the style and voice that particularly suits you. Then write your life with the variety and enthusiasm with which I continue to write my own.

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Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota


Note: Because of the length of these unpublished or published-but-uncollected pieces, they will only be posted on my WordPress Blogsite.

Notes from a Western Life at WindbreakHouse.WordPress.com.

You can sign up to receive the postings delivered directly to your email in-box, photos and all.

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Poet Laureate of South Dakota? Not Right Now, Thanks.

February 27, 2015

Tags: Poet Laureate, Poetry

In October of 2014, I was invited by the South Dakota State Poetry Society to apply for the position of Poet Laureate of South Dakota.

Because many people urged me to apply and questioned my decision not to do so, I felt the simplest response was to explain my reasoning in a letter to the president of the SD State Poetry Society. I hope this examination of the obligations of the post will spark discussions and lead to some responsible changes that will benefit anyone who assumes the post of Poet Laureate of South Dakota.

Here’s an excerpt from my letter:

I certainly believe that asking the legislature to establish a term limit for the poet laureateship, and particularly at four years, is a useful idea. I also commend your efforts and those of the board to clarify the duties and requirements of the position.

I have studied the mission statement and have found what I consider to be innate contradictions in the current definition of the Poet Laureate position. As I considered whether or not to apply for the position, I considered some of the positive and negative aspects of doing so. I offer this analysis hoping that it may help the SDSPS as you work toward selection of a new Poet Laureate.

You indicated that SDSPS wants an active Poet Laureate, willing to travel to the state’s colleges and universities, public schools, libraries, book clubs and other venues to present readings, talks, and workshops. You mentioned that several poets have decided to “run” for the position; that description seems to be particularly apt since the job would require so much energy.

I believe this unpaid poetry ambassador needs a job other than free-lance writing, i.e., a secure position that allows frequent absences, possibly with an employer who would contribute toward the expenses in return for the prestige.

Conversely, it seems to me, the post of Poet Laureate is intended to recognize a poet for a lifetime of achievement in writing and in supporting the state’s cultural growth. These requirements suggest the Poet Laureate should be an older, much-published resident writer with a deep and broad knowledge of literature and culture in the state and region, and a record of working to enhance citizen appreciation of poetry. Further, as a representative of South Dakota’s best writing, this poet should be known and respected widely throughout the region and nation.

However, in this largely rural state, many writers who have achieved publishing success spent their early years as I did, traveling the state to promote writing while working for the SD Arts Council, a school system, or other entities. An older writer, conscious of his or her limited life span, may have specific projects in mind to complete. Thus, requiring that the Poet Laureate travel and teach extensively may exclude older writers regardless of their worthiness to hold the position.

Badger Clark survived on a limited income and the pittances paid for his graduation speeches, but he lived in the woods with few amenities. David Allen Evans had the financial support of a secure teaching position. I think it’s significant that, despite 60 years of involvement in South Dakota’s writing, I know almost nothing about the poets laureate Adeline Jenny, Mabel Frederick and Audrae Visser. I suspect this is in part because their employment precluded much travel, and their efforts to promote poetry were necessarily limited to chapbook production. The South Dakota Book Festival did not exist as an opportunity to showcase state writers.

Today, however, electronic venues such as email, Facebook, and websites would make the job of bringing poetry to citizens much easier. A Poet Laureate might, for example, provide examples of inspiring poetry and commentary to English teachers via email or Facebook, so the teachers could incorporate the poetry into their classroom at their convenience. This might offer a more efficient use of the poet’s time than driving for hours to reach a single venue where attendance might be sparse

I wonder if the solution might lie in acknowledging these differences in what a Poet Laureate might do, and changing the definition to fit modern circumstances.

Perhaps the governor could be encouraged to appoint a Poet Laureate who is honored for his or her lifetime achievement as a published poet. This position would not be applied for, but conferred. SDSPS would nominate candidates from the state’s best-known poets who have also worked to encourage the writing and appreciation of poetry by others. Since the intent would be to honor the poet, the Laureate would be invited to attend major events such as the South Dakota Book Festival, gatherings of state poets laureate, and other important events, but would not be obligated to do so. Instead, the poet might continue to do what he or she has done best: promote poetry by writing it, and supporting poetic literacy in whatever ways he or she has always done.

Second, the governor might also appoint, from a qualified body of applicants selected by SDSPS, a second poet who would actively promote poetry throughout the state. This poet, who might be called the State Poet (Nebraska) or Writer in Residence (Idaho), might be in the position of an apprentice, a “laureate in training,” and might advance to the post of Poet Laureate in later years. Perhaps the legislature, the poet’s employer, or the SDAC and SDHC could contribute compensation in some form to help this writer fulfill the duties of the post without financial hardship. A few four-year appointments of traveling poets would provide the state with a group of writers who were experienced in teaching and speaking. If they continued to write and publish their own work, a Poet Laureate might be chosen from among them.

These ideas have been as part of my thinking about whether or not to apply for the position of Poet Laureate. I offer them in the hope you will find them useful in your discussions.

Respectfully, for the reasons I have outlined, I decline to apply for the position.

My thanks for the hard work the SDSPS has always done in promoting the benefits of poetry in our state. Your work on these issues is incredibly important, offering the first chance in eighty-seven years to alter the original plan. I send my warmest wishes as you lead us into a new era in Writing South Dakota.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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While I rarely join organizations because I preserve my time for writing, and have not been a member for some years, I have always urged state writers to support the work of the SDSPS.

See their website:SDStatePoetrySociety.WordPress.com

Follow them on Facebook:www.facebook.com/pages/South-Dakota-State-Poetry-Society/212808486683

Pasque Petals, the official literary magazine of the South Dakota State Poetry Society, is published spring and fall. See their website for information on how to submit work or obtain a copy.

As of January 28, 2015, applications for the Poet Laureate position have been closed and a nominee has been forwarded to the Governor.

On March 12, 2015, Senate Bill 86, an amendment to South Dakota Codified Law 1-22-7, was signed into law by Governor Dennis Daugaard:

FOR AN ACT ENTITLED, An Act to place a term limit on the office of poet laureate.

BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA:

Section 1. That § 1-22-7 be amended to read as follows:

1-22-7. There is created the office of poet laureate of South Dakota. The Governor shall appoint the poet laureate to serve at the pleasure of the Governor. No person is eligible for the appointment unless the person is a resident of this state. No person may be appointed unless such person has been recommended to the Governor by the South Dakota State Poetry Society and has written and published poems of recognized merit prior to the appointment.

The term of the poet laureate is four years and begins the first Tuesday, after the first Monday, in January in years following a gubernatorial election. No poet laureate may serve for more than one term consecutively, however, this restriction does not apply to a partial term to which the poet laureate may have been appointed.

Poet laureates shall for life have the status of emeritus.


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