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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!

# # #





Index of Blog Topics

e.g. Fiction, History, Magazine Articles, etc. goes here
Very brief description goes here

Quick Links

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



Fuligo septica: Dog Vomit Slime Mold

October 15, 2014

Tags: Gardening, Slime Mold

Dog vomit slime mold.
photo from all-free-download.com

. . .
I discovered this critter at the base of one of my potted tomato plants on a warm September day. A few days before, I’d dumped a full pot of spider plants in beside the tomato, as I repotted and rearranged house plants for winter. Now a foamy blob of bright yellow rose beside the tomato. I neglected to take a picture of it, but poked it with a finger. Despite the yellow color, I was sure it wasn't dog vomit, since mine are short dogs, and would have had to stand on their hind legs to vomit into the tall pot. Before I had a chance to look for information, the mold had collapsed into a dry brown mess.

The best source of information I've found is margaretsgarden.wordpress.com (see link below), which shows photos of a slime mold that’s not nearly as vivid as the one I saw, but clearly the same thing. As the writer says, the correct name is Fuligo septica but the common name is considerably more metaphorical and accurate.

Slime molds-- there are more than 700 species-- give no warning. They simply appear, usually in spring or summer in warm, wet locations on decaying plant matter, as a creeping mass called a plasmodium, a huge cell that moves slowly like an amoeba to feed itself on bacteria and fungi. The mold may range in size from 6 inches to two feet in diameter. Once it stops moving, it enters the spore-bearing stage. During one or two days, it hardens and dries to a dull orange. Disturbed, it emits dust: zillions of spares being released to grow in other locations.

While there is apparently no way to keep Dog Vomit Slime Mold out of your garden, it is completely harmless to plants, pets, and humans. Considered edible, it’s cooked and eaten in Mexico-- just like the scrambled eggs it resembles-- in a dish called Caca de Luna. (According to my memory of Spanish, that translates as “excrement of the moon,” which seems less than appetizing.) If you aren't planning to eat it, you can carry it away, or blast it with a hose-- though the latter method just spreads the spores. If you wait a few days, it will vanish by itself.

Leaving its spores behind. (Cue the creepy music.)

# # #


For more information:

Dog vomit slime mold blog at Margaret's Garden website.

Slime mold photos and botanical information at Wayne's Word, an online "Textbook of Natural History" by Professor W. P. Armstrong, Palomar College.


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Summer Basil, Winter Pesto

September 10, 2014

Tags: Gardening, Herbs, Recipe: Basil Pesto

The basil harvest done by hand.
I've had better success growing basil in a very large pot near the house rather than in the garden.

. . .
Near the end of August, when the gardening chores become lighter, I love harvesting basil-- though it can be harvested several times in a season.

I clip off individual leaves with my thumbnails-- giving them black tips for a month no matter now much I scrub-- and each leaf drops into my bowl. I try to pick clean, that is with no stems, no dried or yellow leaves.

Then all I have to do is wash the basil thoroughly in a big bowl and tip it into a strainer. To finish the drying I bundle the leaves in a dish towel, take it outside, and swing it around. Then I spread those leaves I’m not using for pesto in my homemade food dryer. (see website information below)

Once the leaves are crisp, I'll pack them into recycled jars for use in soups, stews and spaghetti sauces during the coming winter. Some go into decorative jars for gifts to friends who appreciate the scent.


Here’s my recipe for Basil Pesto:

INGREDIENTS:
1 Cup (firmly packed) snipped fresh basil
1/2 Cup snipped parsley May omit
1/2 Cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese (approximately 2 oz.) – don’t skimp; use more if you like it
1/4 Cup pine nuts, walnuts, or almonds
1 to 2 cloves garlic, quartered (may use 4-6 if you love garlic)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 Cup (or more) olive oil


FOOD PROCESSOR:
For each batch of basil pesto, put above ingredients, except olive oil, in the food processor. Turn it on and begin pouring in olive oil in a thin stream. Cover and process briefly a couple of times, then use the ON button until the paste is smooth; takes about a minute.

Possible additions: a few drops lemon juice when serving, or a few sprigs coriander.


GOOD EATING:
Serve over pasta, without any other sauce. Spread on sandwiches, or bread or crackers


STORING:
Pesto can be kept in refrigerator for weeks if covered with a layer of olive oil to keep it fresh and prevent discoloration.


FREEZING:
You can freeze pesto in muffin tins lined with paper cups; once it’s frozen, pop each “basil muffin” out of the tin, and package several in a double layer of plastic bags. Each “muffin” is enough for a single serving of pasta, and one batch of ingredients makes 6 pasta “muffins.” Or put one or two servings in small plastic bags, flatten them, and freeze. Then enjoy this summer green all winter long.


This year I'm not making pesto because I have an ample supply in the freezer left from last year. Still I can't resist nibbling some of the leaves as I pick, and will no doubt sprinkle some over the scallops and pasta I'll fix for lunch.


# # #
For more information:

Living Foods Dehydrators website: www.DryIt.com

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Hollyhocks

August 27, 2013

Tags: Hollyhocks, Pioneers, Gardening, Family: Grandmother, Childhood, Writing Suggestions

Hollyhock Dolls made by Linda, August 2013.

. . .
I've always thought of hollyhocks as a settlers' or pioneers' flower-- without any particular evidence except having seen hollyhocks, along with hardy roses, growing beside shallow holes that may indicate the cellar of an early-day home. I surmise they were popular because they grow easily but I've also read that the stems can be used as firewood.

To my utter delight, I've just learned that the hollyhock was one of the first plants brought to the new world. I intuited those pioneer women planting!

In deference to the women who planted hollyhocks on this prairie, I've tucked seeds into likely spots around the retreat house, Homestead House, and into the stony ground on all four sides of my Windbreak House since moving back to the ranch. Most years, they have done well on the north, east and south, but very few grew on the western side of Windbreak House, blasted by the afternoon sun. But this year the western seeds received extraordinary rain, so the older hollyhocks some on the west side have nearly reached the deck railing.

When I lived in Cheyenne, I spent fifteen years making our corner parkway a display spot for native species, growing as many varieties as I could of flowering plants adapted to the arid climate. I wanted to demonstrate to other residents that their yards could be beautiful without pouring expensive city water into the ground.

So I grew purple coneflower, gaillardia, bee balm, several cacti, columbine, evening primrose and Shasta daisies. I planted Jerusalem cross, chamomile, oxalis, currant, lamb’s ear, lupine, flax, rose mallow, delphinium, snapdragons, penstemon, sweet peas, Siberian iris, wild flags, hyacinths and crocus. I grew butter and eggs, salpiglossis, myrtle, Centaurea, buffalo gourd, plains coreopsis, common sunrose, low poppy mallow, rose mallow, larkspur, pyrethrum, statice and campanula. And more.

Finally, nostalgically, I transplanted my grandmother's pink peony to a spot beside the front gate. Behind the windbreak fence, a tall plank structure, I planted hollyhock seed gathered from my grandmother's and aunt Josephine's plants. Many of the other seeds I deposited in the ground there did not grow, but in the back alley, the hollyhocks reached rose to eight or nine feet, peering over fence, their sturdy stems providing shelter for the birds and stalking cover for the neighborhood cats.

When I've passed the house in recent years, I note the parkway is overgrown and untended. But the hollyhocks grow sturdily in the alley.

* * *

Hollyhocks, native to central Europe and China, are part of in the hard-working Mallow (Malvaceae) family, which numbers more than two hundred flowering plants including such unlikely cousins as cotton, cacao, marsh mallow (yes, it is the original source for the confection), okra, painted ladies, hibiscus and rose of Sharon. What these diverse specimens have in common is that their flowers all have a central column of joined stamens. The hollyhock genus (Alcea) includes about sixty specimens.

Looking up any aspect of this history could send one wandering among in nomenclature highways and paths of origins. You might disappear for weeks. And I haven't even mentioned the hollyhock weevil and the medicinal uses.

Remains of the plant have been found in an archaeological dig in the grave of a Neanderthal man buried more than 50,000 years ago.

The common name "hollyhock" is very old and also has no clear history. One source says the word comes from "alkaia," the Greek word for mallow. Others say it originated with "holy" and "hoc," an Anglo-Saxon word for mallow.

Some say the "holy" was added because it was brought to Britain by the Crusaders in a salve for sore horses' hocks; in that regard, it was also known as Hockleaf. The Spaniards called it Joseph's Staff, and, to continue these religious references, it’s also known as Saint Cuthbert's Cowl, probably as a reference to the hooded shape of the flowers.

St. Cuthbert was an Anglo-Saxon monk and hermit who sounds like a fine fellow but I found no suggestion that he knew about or used hollyhocks.

* * *

Hollyhocks are easily grown from seeds and do well in poor soil and dry conditions. This time of year, and especially this year, you might stroll casually past your neighbor's tall hollyhock staffs and slip a seed pod or two into your pocket. I generally plant new seed in fall, water it generously for a week or two and then forget it until next spring when the plants pop up and surprise me.

Put the seed where you want the plants; they’re hard to transplant because of a long, tough taproot. I usually scrape a shallow trench, no more than an inch deep, sprinkle the seeds liberally, cover, stomp the earth down and then water. The plants will be tall, so I place them close to buildings for background. With our wind, they often lean and lean and lean until they nearly reach the ground, so I like to put them near fences for support. The big, showy blooms, some frilly and double, range in color from white through red and yellow, peach and almost black. The blooms open in succession starting at the bottom of the plant and moving upward, so you can collect seed at the bottom while blooms at the top are still opening: a good way to be stung or at least buzzed by the local bees.

The plants are short-lived. Some authorities say the plant is biennial; others consider it perennial, perhaps because it spreads its seeds so widely that new plants return year after year in the same area. Experts say they like hot, dry weather, which makes them ideal for this climate.

* * *

Medicinal uses may have made the plant popular with pioneers. One modern source suggests drinking an infusion made of flowers and leaves to aid in urinary tract infections, gastrointestinal and respiratory ailments. The same source recommends the leaves as a poultice for chapped or dry skin.

The thick mucilage, the gluey protein produced by nearly all plants, is said to be soothing to the throat and mucous membranes, thus good for coughs, colds. Cacti and flax seed are better-known sources of mucilage. And I recall the word being used for a particularly nasty glue when I was a child; much more stuck to my fingers than to anything I was trying to affix.

* * *

Testifying to its Asian origins, the hollyhock is part of the official seal of the Shogun of Japan and the name of a Japanese soccer team; Kyoto hosts a hollyhock festival yearly.

* * *

One day, as I drove down the street in Cheyenne toward the driveway, I saw an elderly woman and two little girls standing among the tall hollyhocks in the alley, where they would be hidden from the house by the privacy fence. Hmm, I thought.

When I strolled around the corner, there was the owner of the house next door with two little blonde girls. "Oh," she said, flushing red. "I hope you don’t mind. I’m showing my granddaughters how to make hollyhock dolls!"

"I absolutely do not mind," I said, "and thank you for reminding me."

* * *

Have you ever made a hollyhock doll?

Here’s a source of endless entertainment that requires almost nothing in supplies, does not employ technology and is guaranteed to keep participants away from the computer or TV screen.

Simply pluck a hollyhock blossom and turn it upside down. See? It’s a green-haired lady wearing a colorful dress, full skirt sweeping across the floor. When my mother wanted to make a little fancier doll, she tied ribbon or thread around just below the green sheath, making the doll’s waist.

I always thought these basic hollyhock dolls looked as though they had no heads. To remedy that, take a green seed pod or bud and fasten it with a toothpick above the skirt blossom.

Or pin in place above the first a second, smaller hollyhock or other flower blossom to create the look of a lady wearing a broad hat. You can stack several more blossoms below to make the skirt layered and more full. Or use a spent bloom to make a head with a tall headdress or long flowing hair.

The dolls don’t last long, but floating them in a broad bowl of water allows them to drift gracefully through your day.

* * *

Suddenly it occurs to me to do an internet search.

I was woefully wrong; these days, computers could figure into this entertainment. Not only are there photographs of hollyhock dolls, but step-by-step tutorials-- even a video!-- on how to make them. (Search "images for hollyhock dolls" for photos; see the Better Homes & Gardens website for instructions; or take a look at www.DesignMom.com . There’s even a site that sells fake ones but I’m not going to help anyone find it.)

Horrified, I picture little girls being lined up in front of a computer screen to learn the correct way to make a hollyhock doll.

However, several of the sites offer ideas new to me. For example, PremeditatedLeftovers.com suggests pulling off the sepal of the first blossom to expose "eyes" and breaking off the stem to create a mouth.

Still I hope that somewhere grandmothers are demonstrating for their grandchildren. I hope children are left alone in the garden to use their imaginations to create the dolls. I'm sure there was a time when most little girls knew how to make dolls from hollyhocks. I hope the numbers are growing as young mothers learn from their computer time.

* * *

The key to success with hollyhock dolls-- as it is with so many creative enterprises-- is imagination.

Here comes the writing connection I always try to slip into these blogs.

When I began this essay, I had no idea whether or not I would find a link to writing. In fact, this was to be a break from reading manuscripts, a simple reflection on the innocent fun of long hot afternoons I spent with hollyhock dolls after my grandmother and mother taught me how to make them.

I waltzed those dolls all over my grandmother’s screened-in porch on hot summer afternoons. I don’t recall imagining their escorts, but I suppose I did.

Imaginatively, the dolls have turned into writing coaches. They remind me of my maxim that spending time thinking about your writing is probably as valuable as the time you spend making black marks on paper or on a computer screen.

Don't even think. Just sit, look around you, see what happens.

And handwork of any kind is good because it detaches you from the writing implement of the day. While doing something creative besides writing, you can think about your writing project. You'll find you work out all kinds of problems that had defeated you while you sat at the computer, fuming.

Relax, Breathe deeply. Imagine those little pixies with green faces whirling around the garden at dusk.

* * *

One source says that hazel buds, wild thyme, marigolds and hollyhocks were part of a recipe made in 1660 AD that enabled anyone who ate it to see fairies.

Or perhaps what they saw were hollyhock dolls, dancing in the wind.


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Redding Up for Winter

November 13, 2011

Tags: Family: Grandmother, Gardening, Seed Collecting, Herbs, Journals, Writing Suggestions

Linda's seed box.
. . .
For the past few days I have been doing what my grandmother called “redding up,” tidying and organizing several compartments of my life.

First I gathered up my gardening journal and the muddy, crumpled pieces of paper I’d been stuffing into it all summer. I read through the summer’s gardening notes from the beginning-- “3/12: planted radishes in greenhouse” to the end --“11/5: ate last fresh tomatoes, picked 10/16 and ripened on the windowsill.”

On 5/1 we ate the first radishes from the greenhouse, though they may not have been those planted in March. On 4/27 we planted half the potatoes; the harvest is in the basement of the retreat house, at least a hundred pounds. We planted them on the surface of the ground and covered them deeply in old hay mulch.

But my intent wasn’t to reminisce, but to collect information from the journal that will help with next year’s garden. The peppers and tomatoes I started April 1st didn’t do well since my greenhouse is unheated; I’ve learned from that mistake-- just as I try to learn from my mistakes in writing. On 5/28 I planted Habanero pepper plants in my cold frame but the season simply wasn’t long enough; they set on blossoms about the time of the first freeze and the cold frame didn’t protect them enough. Planting basil in my garden hasn’t worked; too many hoppers, so I planted it in pots on the deck this year and still have one pot growing vigorously in the living room after harvesting all we can use for pesto and drying plenty for winter use. The Early Perfection peas were blooming on 6/10 while the Alaska peas were still short; I was eating reliable Cherry Belle radishes.

As I read the journal, I make notes that will help me in 2012: “Plant turnips in center of garden and then till under for fertilizer,” reads one. And “Plant early perfection peas on tomato cages.” Research is as much a part of gardening as it is of writing, so I’m reading The Seed-Starter’s Handbook by Nancy Bubel, a gift from Tam, noting her suggestions beside my own.

Once I’ve organized the notes, I draw a new garden plan, deciding where to move plants to fresh soil, deciding what to plant and what not to plant. I didn’t bother with sweet corn this year: we haven’t had a good crop in three years and it’s readily available in farmer’s markets so we support the local economy by buying it. I may give up on asparagus; it hasn’t thrived despite my best efforts-- a reminder that, just as in writing, I must sometimes decide that a project just isn’t working. I prefer to consider this an acknowledgment of limitations rather than failure.

I started eight varieties of tomatoes in my tiny unheated greenhouse and brought only about five varieties to maturity, so I wonder if my local nursery might start some of my favorite types. The Manitoba and Glacier did well and were especially tasty, perhaps even better than my favorite Early Girl.

Sorting the seeds I have left, I arrange them in my wooden seed box by the date I’ll plant them-- from a few weeks before our last average frost date of May 24-- and make notes on the seeds I need to buy, before tucking the seed box in my freezer. I’ve had good luck saving radish, pea and bean seed this way so I can buy bargain seed when I see it and count on a pretty good sprouting rate for several years.

Once that job is finished, I turn to the wire basket full of brown paper bags of seed I’ve been collecting since August, some domestic and some wild; gaillardia and goblin gaillardia; Echinacea and pot marigold; bread poppy. Wearing tough rubber gloves-- because Echinacea and gaillardia have prickly seeds and pods that can stay in your fingers a long time-- I crush the seed heads between my hands, separating the seeds. Gaillardia has a bittersweet, almost peppery scent that reminds me of the hint of frost at sunset on a September day.

I package some seeds to give the Great Plains Native Plant Society seed exchange and some for friends. Then I roll up the paper bags to hold the rest of the seeds and hang the basket in the basement, out of our way where the furnace will keep them dry. On cold winter days, as I prop my boots beside the furnace to dry, I’ll glance up and know they are waiting to be scattered.

Eyeing my spice cabinet while I wait for the pressure cooker at noon, I found a red bottle of ancient tarragon; I washed it thoroughly before refilling it with the freshly-dried herb. Juniper seeds! I brought them from Cheyenne where I didn’t have juniper trees. To add the savor of juniper to a venison or beef stew these days, I’ll just dash to the windbreak for fresh berries; the grouse and cedar waxwings won’t eat them all.

While doing these tasks, I often dash into my office to scribble a note on one of the two books I’m working on-- because “redding up” time is good thinking time, and thinking is writing. I can be quietly recalling how the tomato plants looked in July and suddenly slip into a thought that results in a paragraph. I keep the two binders holding the rough drafts of the books on my desk so I can make a note there or in the appropriate file on the computer.

Doing tasks that don’t require complex thought allows my mind freedom to consider the possibilities of both books, recalling relevant dreams or ideas I might not have written down thoroughly enough earlier.

Once I really start a writing project (or in this case admit that I had started thinking about a couple of different writing projects over the past three years), then in a sense I’m writing all the time. The key to collecting thoughts is to be ready for them. At home, I keep my larger journal at hand during the day and night for lengthier notes. When I’m in town, instead of juggling the bulky journal with my shopping lists, I reach for the tiny notebook I keep in a zip compartment in the back of my purse. When I come home, I enter those scribbled notes in the appropriate spot: “redding up” again.

Perhaps readers picture us writers sitting at our computers, writing long seamless sentences that flow smoothly onto the pages of printed books. Instead, writing alternates chaotic flurries of ideas with flat spaces featureless as bathroom tile, a stop-and-go business. We collect bits of memory and image and dialogue and story and imagination. We stitch this colorful jumble together, pricking our fingers often, into something that we hope resembles a quilt but which may turn out to be a rag rug.

* * *

“Redding up,” grandmother called it when she picked up our empty teacups (she made mine weak, with milk) and put them into the dishpan. Then she brushed the gingersnap crumbs off the old round oak table (I heard that the relative who took it painted it black) into her wrinkled hand and tossed them out the door. One of the hens pecking around the rock step would raise her head, murmur “Cluuuuuuck?” and dash over to tidy away the crumbs.

Grandmother would pour hot water from the teakettle always steaming on the wood stove over the dishes from lunch, add a little soap and a little cool water from a pitcher and wash while I dried them on a soft old dishtowel that’s likely still in my cupboard. Then she’d dry her hands, hang up her apron, nod with satisfaction and we’d sit down in our chairs to do a little reading before it was time to feed the chickens and gather the eggs. We’d read quietly together, the only sound the turning of pages, the shuuuuuush as the coals settled in the stove, the tick of cooling cast iron. Having done a little “redding up,” we felt comfortable, prepared for whatever came next.

I’ve never questioned the origin of the expression but I give in to the temptation to investigate online and find varied possibilities. Many people heard the term regularly somewhere in the south, though several Pennsylvanians quote their mothers as using it. One writer says it’s used in the Shetland islands and another quotes the Scots dictionary definition: “To clear (a space, or a passage) by removal of debris, undergrowth or other encumbrances.” Anyone who has listened to bluegrass music and musicians has some idea how deeply Scots immigrants have influenced Southern culture.

My grandmother was born Cora Belle Pearcey (or Pearcy) on October 9, 1891, daughter of Lafayette Pearcey and Jeannette Smith. At the age of 17 in 1906, she moved with her parents from Swann, Missouri where she was probably born, to Wheatland, Wyoming, by horse-drawn wagon. She was definitely a Southerner; when she spoke of black people, she used the Southern pronunciation “nigra,” which designated color while showing respect.

Smiling as I thought of the way her eyes twinkled behind her glasses as she “redded up” her little cabin, I’ve bustled around for several days feeling as if she just stepped into the other room to make us some tea to go with the gingersnaps she kept in her cookie jar. (And I wish I knew where that cookie jar went after her death.)

* * *

No doubt writers have had no trouble deciphering the metaphors. Redding up is part of writing as well as housekeeping. Going back over my gardening notes gave me an opportunity to organize the information I’d written down while I was busy gardening but had been too busy to fully absorb-- just as going back over a draft allows one to check for corrections as well as thinking about how the whole piece of writing is coming together.

We can check them off: learn from our mistakes; plan ahead; stay organized. A writer’s desk may look jumbled to someone else but if the writer isn’t organized she’ll waste valuable time when moments of pure inspiration strike. When I’m tired or feeling as if I’m doing too much, I may take a day to organize. Sorting through ideas may allow me to discard some and organize others in such a way that I can use them later if they don’t fit the project I’m working on now. And I may discover that an herb or an idea I’ve been hoarding can be replaced by something fresher and tastier.

Finally, of course, it’s easy to berate yourself for not writing when you spend the day looking at old notes or shuffling pieces of paper into files and drawers or sorting seeds or herbs and spices. But after I finished both those chores, I expanded the notes I’d made into this little essay, so I’m filled with the joy of having written. And I know that my garden, my spice cabinet and my writing files are neater and thus more ready for the serious work of growing and flavoring food-- and creating prose or poetry I can consider finished-- than they were this morning.

Thanks, Grandmother.

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Tiny Bouquets

September 27, 2011

Tags: Creating Calm, Gardening, Writing Suggestions, Journals, My Poem: (unfinished) Fog, Poetry

One of Linda's tiny bouquets, 2011.
. . .
This has been a busy week; I read and commented on a 140-page manuscript, planned three retreats, made 6 pots of tomato sauce, worked on a home page message, and read six mystery books as well as the usual three meals a day, watering the garden, writing a few letters and no doubt a few chores I’ve forgotten. Sometimes it seems as though the world keeps spinning faster and faster.

When I feel that happening, I often stop and walk out to one of the gardens or on the hillside with the dogs, deliberately looking for the materials for a tiny bouquet. I select a few small blooms, thinking of nothing but their color, texture, size. I put these in one of several small vases that I place directly above the kitchen sink where I will see it often during the day.

In creating the bouquet, I create a little island of calm in the middle of hurry. And every time I look at it, I recall choosing it, and I also take a moment to enjoy its uniqueness. Each one lasts only a few days, but each provides considerable balm. Once the flowers have finished blooming, I often make a little bouquet from dried weeds and leaves, with the same effect.

In the same way, when I’m too busy to write-- which seems to happen much more often than it should-- I sometimes take time to deliberately create a paragraph or so of writing. Most often I do this when I wake in the morning, many times around 4 a.m. I switch on my reading light and pick up my journal from the bedside table. If I can keep the dogs from leaping up and running downstairs for their first morning outing, I have a little island of calm in which to write. Sometimes the highway noises are quiet; I can hear nothing but the wind through the grass, perhaps the light tinkle of a wind chime from the deck.

What I write may become part of a longer piece or it may be just a little morning reflection that remains in my journal. Either way, it helps me begin the day in peace.

Here’s a reflection I first wrote on an April morning in 2005, when I was living in Cheyenne, Wyoming and four a.m. was the quietest time on our busy street. Though I’ve worked on it a couple of times since, it has never satisfied me as an entire poem. But it makes me recall a quiet spot that gave me comfort.


Fog
makes the street
fantastical.
Red tulips lift
bowls of mist.
Gold daffodils offer
sacred liqueur to finches.

Someone says,
“The fog will burn off
by noon.”
No. The sun
sips the fog
like absinthe.

copyright Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2011


Even tiny pieces-- one image, one line-- can refresh your writing spirit the way a little bouquet refreshes your eye and your kitchen.

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Bill Kloefkorn and The Rapture

May 30, 2011

Tags: Poet: Bill Kloefkorn, Poetry, Memorial Day, Hermosa Cemetery, Family Graves, Family: Father, My Poem: Memorial Day, Gardening, Lilacs, Rapture, Children's Worm Poem, Childhood, Ranch: Description, Ranch: Wildlife

Linda at the Hasselstrom plot in the Highland Park Cemetery, looking east towards Hermosa.
. . .
Part I. Bill Kloefkorn, poet

Bill Kloefkorn, the poet laureate of Nebraska, died at age 78 on May 19, after struggling for two years against an immune-deficiency illness. Doctors could name no specific cause of his illness, and find no cure.

The day I heard the news, I drove to Hermosa for the mail, feeling gloomy under a sky curdled with gray clouds. We’d already had three days of rain, a fine thing in this arid climate, but the lack of sun had made everyone glum. Discovering Bill’s poems soon after I returned to South Dakota after escaping from the narrow poetic confines of graduate school gave me the courage to write my own poems. I learned, in part from Bill’s writing, to tell my own poetic stories in clear language; to tell some of the complicated, funny stories that characterize real life. So I was feeling down because Bill was no longer part of the world, no longer writing.

Then the sun came out, and Roy Orbison belted out “Pretty Woman” from my car radio, and I pounded my hand on the steering wheel and sang along as usual and I could almost see Bill smile. I was still considering going to his funeral and memorial, to be held in Lincoln, NE, where he lived. Somehow, though, a thousand-mile drive to a funeral thronged with people who have known him for years didn’t seem right. I come from a long line of people uncomfortable showing emotion in public, and though I’ve worked against that in many ways by writing and by reading my work to audiences, some of the reticence prevails. I’m more comfortable writing about what he meant to me.

Describing Bill’s poetry in a way that would convey its joys to someone who has never read it is beyond my skills. But I can quote him and perhaps give a hint.

“Connections: A Toast” begins with “Here’s to the bur oak” beyond his office window, and works its way through toasts to books, to saints, to fine individual moments in his life and a few mentions of baseball, to Rosa Parks and a quotation from ee cummings to Crazy Horse and his supposed last words and Bach and Louis Armstrong and the bird perched in the bur oak:

“trilling with its unsplit tongue, one
steady and diverse and universal song.”

You’ll have to read the poem to get the full effect: pages 96-97, Fielding Imaginary Grounders, Spoon River Poetry Press, 1994. The theme of how, as the Lakota say, “we are all related,” may be universal to poets. (I’ve been working on my own “connections” poem.)

I bought Bill’s Alvin Turner as Farmer in 1974 when it was published by Ted Kooser’s Windflower Press. I probably met Bill and heard him read several years later. The poems I marked in the book concern the difficulties of farming; I was just beginning to write about ranching.

In poem 9 from that book, Alvin Turner tells of shooting rabbits to make nourishing food for his sick baby. After the child dies, he keeps shooting:

“The chamber of my .12 gauge
Like a little throat, coughing.”

In poem 11, he writes that the granary is full, and “the baby is solid as a tractor lug.” In 58, “I snag the strutted leg/ Of the most unmindful chicken,” Bill wrote.

“Now the manure is in bloom,” Alvin says, and “I roam my acreage like a sweet spy.” In 36 he speaks of his wife with her masher, “humbling the potatoes.”

And then in 14, “I love the boys like they were fanbelts. . . And brand new.” These were images I could feel, touch, taste, because they were part of my world too.

In 21, “I watched my father die,
Said yes to his request, and in that single word
Sent all my sinews, like a measurement,’
Around this quarter section.”

My own father made no such request, refusing to leave the ranch to me. But, as Bill wrote in 24:

“I stand alone at the foot
Of my father’s grave,
Trembling to tell:
The door to the granary is open,
Sir, And someone lost the bucket
To the well.”

I’ve often stood at the foot of my own father’s grave and given him reports on the condition of the ranch.

Lately, I’ve appreciated Bill writing about aging as he recorded with brilliance and sensitivity what age feels like. Here’s one of the results:

It's a slow dance, all right,
this business of slipping
from the quick to the numb,
but to be honest with you
it isn't as slow
as I believed forty years ago
it was going to be. I'll confess
what I know of history
is somewhat less than
voluminous-- but I think it was
Jefferson who said that
God shows his mercy
by taking away, one by one,
those passions we stake
our own and others' lives on,
so that when the time comes
we'll not have so much to let
go of.

From We Don't Get Around Much Any More by Bill Kloefkorn, published in The Laurel Review, vol. 30, no. 2 (Summer, 1996).

In the week since Bill died, I’ve been conducting a private memorial, collecting from the retreat house all of his books that I own-- maybe half of the 31 books he wrote and published-- and reading and re-reading, discovering poems I hadn’t remembered, and greeting old friends.

Here’s a fact that may encourage writers who are beginning later in their lives: Bill didn’t start writing poetry until he was 37 years old.


Part II. Highland Park Cemetery

The Sunday after Bill died, Jerry came with me to the Hermosa cemetery to do the annual cleanup, traditionally done the week before Memorial Day. I’ve written about this annual labor for the dead in my poem “Memorial Day,” saying, “They’re just bones to me.” Hoeing at the stubborn alfalfa growing on my grandfather Charles’s grave mound, though, I felt the shock moving up my arm, down the hoe:

“drumming to bones I’ll never see, deep
in the earth, deep inside my flesh.”

I’m now the last of our family to wear the name Hasselstrom, so the upkeep of these graves is my responsibility. Besides the Hasselstrom graves where my grandmother and grandfather lie, I need to care for the graves of their ancestors, and my grandmother’s first husband. In another part of the cemetery lie my mother and father, John and Mildred Hasselstrom, and my husband George Snell. Then there are the graves of Harold and Josephine Hasselstrom, my dad’s childless brother and his wife, buried in Buffalo Gap. My uncle and cousins still care for the grave of my mother’s mother, Cora Belle Hey, in Edgemont, and several uncles and aunts on my mother’s side of the family.

But on Sunday, I focused on the Hermosa dead. At some time, one of the Hasselstrom survivors was moved by inspiration to plant hardy lilacs on the sizable plot; the resilient bushes might survive in the yellow gumbo soil. Now, nearly a hundred years later, the lilacs have inundated not only most of the Hasselstrom grave but also a couple of Kimballs. My father knew the Kimballs, but while we do the right thing, hacking the lilacs away to expose their graves, I don’t remember a single anecdote.

The Hasselstroms weren’t the only ones to underestimate the vigor and buoyancy of lilacs: everywhere in the cemetery the bushes are thriving, washing like a green wave over older graves. Just below the Hasselstroms and the Kimballs, lilac stumps surround a homemade tombstone decorated with chunks of native rock like quartz, bearing the single name DOWNIE, lost for a generation.

My father, when we came to do this work on what he always called Decoration Day, used to say he was “exploring his future.” I’m starting to think about the practicalities of cremation.


Part III. The Rapture

Someone predicted that Saturday, May 21, would be the end of man’s days on earth, the end of the world, the day of what was called “The Rapture.” Wondering what Bill might have written about it, I could see his eyes sparkling at the challenge, the beginnings of a grin. I made a few notes, but nothing that resolved itself into coherency.

Then my brain was flooded with lines from an irreverent chant I first learned on the playground at Hermosa grade school, probably about 1954.

“Did you ever think when a hearse goes by
That you might be the next to die?”

The jingle rattles in my brain for days, the way mindless doggerel always does when you don’t want to remember it at all.

“They wrap you up in a bloody sheet
and bury you about six feet deep.”

The harder I try not to think about the lines, the more of them return to my mind. I can hear the shrill voices of my classmates as we screamed the words at each other.

“You’re okay for about a week
and then your coffin springs a leak.”

I don’t want to remember but I can’t seem to stop myself.

“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.”

The chorus bubbles along in my brain when I’m visiting the cemetery with my inlaws, when we’re having lunch, when I’m trying to sleep.

“The worms play pinochle on your snout.”

When I wake up in the middle of the night, I can hear those ten-year-old voices warbling,

“They eat your eyes, they eat your nose.”

When I try to say something meaningful about the historic tombstones or the sunny, breezy day, my tongue tries to sabotage me.

“They eat the jelly between your toes.”

Why can’t I rid my brain of that silly rhyme? I sit up in the dark at 2 in the morning, thinking back over the past few days, searching for a reason that I can’t rid myself of the curse. Sometimes this works; once I figure out why I’m sleepless, I can decide on an action, and then sleep.

“A big green worm with rolling eyes
crawls in your stomach and out your eyes.”

The song gets worse. Much worse.

And finally I realize that Bill Kloefkorn is the master of the playground poem, the childhood memory turned into a story that can make the reader laugh or cry.

Though his memories of what he did as a boy in a small town in the middle of the nation differs considerably from what I did as a girl growing up in a rural community and going to school in a town of 100 residents, there are parallels. In his blasphemous, funny way, he memorialized the truth about playgrounds. I don’t recall ever encountering the worm song in any of his poems, but it wouldn’t surprise me to.

In the poem “Prove It” from his book Swallowing the Soap, Bill writes about seeing Bubba Barnes steal a comic book from the rack in the Rexall drugstore. The next day at recess, Bill confronts Bubba with the crime. When Bubba denies it, Bill clearly delighted in the opportunity to write these perfect playground lines:

I don’t have to
prove it, I say.
I know you did it
and you know you
did it. So, he
says, prove it, ass-
eyes. Just prove it.

What a poetic challenge recalling that little ditty has created for me as a writer! And making use of the rhythm of the worm song would add a lilt and a zip to any poem that began with its inspiration.


Part IV. And Rapture

I spent a few-- too few-- evenings with Bill and an assembled company of people interested in words, talking about writing, but I’ve heard him speak and read his poems enough so that I can call up his voice when I read his work. I doubt I will ever forget that voice, that ability to deliver a poem. If Bill Kloefkorn were here this Sunday morning, we might talk about the rapture that didn’t occur yesterday, explore the meaning of the word “rapture,” the ironies of that forecast and its result.

Thinking about rapture without Bill’s help, I turn to my American Heritage Dictionary.

“1. The state of being transported by a lofty emotion,” it says. “Ecstasy.”

And furthermore: “2. An expression of ecstatic feeling. Often used in the plural.”

And finally, “3. The transporting of a person from one place to another, especially to heaven.”

Rapture, 1: ecstacy:

Outside the window, rain falls lightly, and the prairie grass is as green as it ever gets. Twenty black cows graze below the hill, their heads staying down for long minutes as they fill themselves with the vibrant grass, driving winter’s cold out of their bodies. In my garden at Homestead House, the Alaska and Early Perfection peas are four inches tall. The leaves of the Yukon Gold potatoes are just breaking earth. My mouth waters, thinking how, in July or August, I will serve a bowl of new potatoes and peas with lunch.

Rapture, 2: expression of ecstatic feeling:

Star lilies are blooming, their white petals flaring out of the ground, tiny fountains of white silk. Yellow Nuttall’s violets-- my mother called them Johnny Jump-Ups-- wink among the curly buffalograss. Bluebells hang among the stems of the taller redtop, ringing gently with each breeze. Pale blue sky shimmers with sun and birdcalls.

Rapture, 3: transporting, especially to heaven

The air is filled with wings. Common snipes, redwing blackbirds, meadowlarks, sparrows, killdeer-- all are flying, zipping, diving, zooming, snatching bugs out of the air and whizzing back to their nests to feed the demanding nestlings. The bugs fly through the cool spring air, lifted up on gossamer wings to become part of the ecstacy and nourishment of spring surrounding us, raptured as life goes on.

# # #

For more information:
Linda's poem "Memorial Day" may be found in Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom,
Spoon River Poetry Press, 1993.

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Mother's Day

May 8, 2011

Tags: Mother's Day, Gardening, Family: Mother, Family: Grandmother, Family: George, Family: Jerry

Linda's grandmother, Cora Belle Hey and mother, Mildred Hasselstrom, in Hermosa, 1978.
. . .
I’ve spent this Mother’s Day very pleasantly. I did some laundry, made a huge pot of green chile, read a bit, and wrote a bit. And I planted nasturtium seeds among the radishes and lettuce in the herb garden. I also moved a few plants into my rock garden, decorating it with shells and rocks and other objects I’ve picked up here and there on my walks for years. A dozen bright aqua insulators from the old telephone poles wind like a stream through the sandstone, agate, quartz and other stones.

Seeing the sand dollars and other shells I picked up on beaches in Manzanita, in Maine and in Scotland, a spoon George carved from bone in a bowl Jerry carved from a pine burl, all brought back good memories that flowed through the warm spring air like the songs of the blackbirds and meadowlarks.

Wherever I was during the past few days, I have wished a “Happy Mother’s Day” to every women older than I am that I encountered. Several of them sounded surprised as they said “Thank you!”

Many women, on this day, have been presented with corsages and cards, taken to dinner, saluted with roses or carnations in church or in restaurants, and in various ways remembered and thanked for giving birth. I, too, have been remembering my mother, who died in 2001, my grandmother (the only one I ever met) Cora Belle Hey, and various women who treated me as well and taught me as much as any mother could have. Then, too, I’ve been remembering my four step-children, and the joys of sharing their lives.

And I’ve been thinking about all we women who, for one reason or another, are not mothers. The reasons vary. Some of us chose not to have children for a variety of reasons: because there are too many people on the planet; because we believed we might have important work to do; because we believed we would not be good mothers. Some of us tried and failed. Some of us have lost children at various stages of their lives, from conception to adulthood.

I’m not suggesting that we declare a Step-Mother’s Day, or Bereaved Mother’s Day. Just don’t forget that we’re here too, and we have made contributions to the world in other ways.

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Tulips and Your Writing

March 30, 2011

Tags: Tulips, Gardening, Writing Suggestions, Family: Jerry, Friend: Margaret, Friend: Bill

Linda's flower beds in Cheyenne.
The tulips are in there somewhere.
. . .
One spring day I was behind the first house Jerry and I had in Cheyenne, looking in despair at the yard, which was pure gumbo. Right against the foundation, he’d thrown some boards-- and I suddenly realized that tulip leaves were coming up between them. I took the boards off, and the yellowed leaves stood up straight and produced several old-fashioned, small tulips in several colors. When we moved, I transplanted them to the front of the new house, and they are growing there yet.

Which reminds me of a story my friend Margaret told me. Every year, her husband planted a field that they knew had been a homestead. They’d picked up a few souvenirs in the first years they worked it, but it had been plowed and planted many times, so no trace of the house and outbuildings was left.

One spring when her husband Bill was in the field, he noticed tulip leaves sticking up through the soil. He dug down carefully, and brought up the bulbs, and took them home to Margaret, who planted them immediately. And they are probably still flourishing right where she planted them.

Most of us do a little writing in grade school, and more in high school or college-- even if it’s only mushy poems and love notes. Usually, we’re in classes that require some writing: essays for English, perhaps, or essay answers to history questions. And many of us begin to write a little on our own, with no grades involved. Maybe we start a short story, or a diary.

Then we get busy, get a job, get married, and the impulse vanishes. Once in awhile we may think, “I ought to write that down.”

Do. Your ability to write is just like those tulip bulbs; a little warm sun will encourage them. You might need to get a shovel and lift the bulbs out from under the trash or weeds, but with a little gentleness, those tulips and that writing can bloom. Start now: what have you seen today? Don’t be poetic or metaphorical, just write down what you’ve seen.

There. You’ve begun.

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Never Discard a Written Draft, or Finding Metaphor in Harvest

September 29, 2010

Tags: My Book: Roadkill, My Book: Bitter Creek Junction, My Poem: Clara in the Post Office, My Book: Dakota Bones, Poetry, Writer's Almanac, Writing Suggestions, Draft of Writing, Journals, Gardening, Herbs, Food Dehydrator, Family: George, Zucchini, Tomatoes

Tomatoes on the food dryer.
. . .
Several people have just written emails to tell me that this morning, September 29, Garrison Keillor read an old poem of mine, “Clara: In the Post Office,” on Writer’s Almanac. I got to hear him the first time he read the poem, not long after my book of poems Roadkill was published; I believe this may be the third time he’s read it, so it’s good to know he likes it. I’m sorry that the “buy now” link on his website leads only to Amazon.com, but at least readers will see the titles of many of my books. And I was inspired this time to send him a copy of a newer book of poetry, Bitter Creek Junction, hoping that he might like something a bit more recent.

All this fits in with what I was thinking this morning about the value of saving drafts of everything you write. While Keillor was reading an old poem of mine that still inspires him, I was crumbling some oregano I dried in 2007, putting it into a jar to put in my kitchen spice rack. The oregano smells strong and fresh, much better than anything I might purchase-- and probably was harvested more recently.

In the spring of 2008, we moved back to the ranch, so my oregano was newly started. I harvested some in 2009, but not much, allowing the plants to grow and become more vigorous. Now they are not only strong in their first location, but I’ve moved them to an herb garden, so I should be able to harvest a lot next year-- but I still have a jar or two of the 2007 left, so I won’t have to buy any.

I planned ahead for this hiatus of herb harvest: my herbs in Cheyenne were vigorous, and I knew we were moving, so I spent a lot of the fall of 2007 cutting stems and hanging the plants from the curtain rods in my sewing room in the old house, where they received considerable heat during the long fall days. I planned ahead, and am reaping the rewards.

Writing doesn’t always allow me to plan ahead, but it has taught me to save, so I can see a metaphor here. My journal goes with me everywhere, and I am constantly taking notes. I don’t always know what those notes will become in my writing. Maybe they will be nothing, just notes taken about something I was doing or thinking. But sometimes, I find that a thought leads me back to notes taken on a particular day, and I draw details out that become a poem, or a paragraph in an essay.

In the same way, I dried that oregano in 2007 not knowing what it would become, but knowing I’d use it. This morning I added some to tomato sauce I am making from some tomatoes that have been ripening in the basement since I thought we were going to have a frost a week or so ago. (Meanwhile, on the plants, more tomatoes are ripening; the thermometer has dropped to 38 degrees, but no lower.) The food dryer was built by my husband George using plans purchased from Living Foods Dehydrators (he built the food dryer long before they had their DryIt.com website!). Made of plywood and plastic screen suitable for food preparation, it is heated by 4 lightbulbs wired so they can be switched on individually to adjust the heat.

Today I’m also drying zucchini; a friend gave me more than we can use fresh. I sliced them evenly, arranged them on several wire trays in the dryer, and switched on all 4 light bulbs. The temperature outside is a cool 62 degrees, so I moved the sliding top of the dryer almost closed, and keep checking the thermometer on the top shelf. I like to keep the temperature between 90 and 110 degrees for most-efficient drying. The dried chips will be great for winter snacking, or I can add them to soups and stews.

Besides making several gallons of tomato sauce, I’ve dried pounds and pounds of tomatoes, though they are a little trickier than many vegetables because of their high moisture content. I slice them as thin as I can, laying the slices on an old oven grill over a bowl in the sink, so some juice drips out of the slices. I catch the juice in a bowl and drink it or use it in soup.

Then I spray the screened trays with oil, or lay sheets of Teflon paper (available from Living Foods Dehydrators) on the trays, alternating sides to improve air circulation. I’ve found that the tomatoes don’t darken if I don’t put them on the bottom two trays. I keep the temperature high for a day or two, sometimes three. Some folks season the tomatoes with spices or salt. (The book Dry It You’ll Like It, also available at DryIt.com, offers good information on drying practically anything.)

Our dry climate certainly helps the dehydration process, though since the food dryer is close to my washing machine, I usually avoid hanging wet clothes on the indoor clothesline while I’m using the food dryer. The finished slices taste intensely of tomato, and look like stained glass.

I’ll confess to not liking any incarnation of green tomatoes I’ve ever tried, and I do believe I’ve tried them all. Instead, I ripen tomatoes on the vine or in newspaper-lined boxes in the basement. When I find tomatoes too grasshopper-gnawed or damaged to use, I toss them into the compost. So not a tomato is wasted.

Similarly-- back to that metaphor I’m working on-- I often look into my poem draft binder and find a fragment of a poem that didn’t work. But because I haven’t thrown it away, I can look at it again. Sometimes my attitude has changed, or I’ve gotten more information; I can often resume work on an idea that may be years old, and nurture it into completion.

# # #

For more information:

Website for The Writer's Almanac to read my poem "Clara: In the Post Office."

Although my book Roadkill is now out of print, "Clara" may be found in my book
Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom

Living Foods Dehydrators website www.DryIt.com

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Pruning Tomatoes and Unwise Growth

August 2, 2010

Tags: Gardening, Tomatoes, Spiders, Community, Subdivisions

. . .
Marigolds bloom; wasps sip the dogs’ water; temperatures break records: Nature’s telling me it’s time to prune the tomatoes.

Fifty years as a gardener has taught me to respect nature’s demands. My mouth waters, anticipating the flavor of tomato each blossom might become-- but I am resolute. I whack off a stem carrying a dozen yellow star-shaped blossoms. Inhaling the peppery fragrance, I amputate branches with no green fruit larger than my thumb.

Branches are the plant’s energy transportation corridors. Distance makes the plant work harder to send nutrients to blossoms remote from the main stem. Every inch increases the energy required for the tomato to turn a flower into fruit. Removing the most flowers dangling at the end of spindly stems concentrates the plant’s energy, keeps it centered on ripening larger fruit.

I picture the tomato’s fattest stems as highways, leading to narrower tributary roads, dwindling to dirt and gravel trails where the signs say “Ranchettes for Sale.” Travel down an expressway is eased by the golden arches of commerce. Fast food, fast gas, fast expenses and speedy satisfactions distract us from traffic and noise. You can’t grow tomatoes on asphalt.

Just as the tomato plant works harder to ripen distant fruit, each mile increases the expense of supporting a country community. We all pay those expenses. Every other citizen, no matter where we live, is taxed by groups living away from the center where energy is produced.

I've already eaten three tomatoes, cynically calculating their cost at about eight bucks each. Judicious pruning now will increase my delicious revenues, and may make my investment worthwhile. Gardening success is biting into the sun-warm flesh of an Early Girl as juice runs down my arm.

Planting those tomatoes makes me responsible for understanding the tomato’s natural behavior, and controlling its desire for growth wisely, so it will produce my food. Each cluster of blossoms is bright as a new subdivision, and each subdivision bears in every cell of its being the desire to grow, to become a city. The desire is logical: transportation costs are lower when they are shared; a city accumulates many needs which are cheaper to satisfy if everyone sticks together.

I empathize with the tomato plants, and with the inhabitants of the subdivisions. Yet each blossom uses resources that must support us all. And that is the business of everyone. If we are not all to lose clean air and water and space, we must set our priorities, and act on them.

The late-summer sun bakes my shoulders, but at sunset tendrils of cold air lick my ankles. Sweat runs down my face, but I feel winter massing and muttering beyond the northern horizon. Recalling ancient times, we celebrate the death of the sun king, and hover between hope and fear for the time of cold.

Kneeling as the sharp-smelling branches pile up around me, I come nose to pedipalp with a warrior queen who guards my harvest: Argiope aruntia, the black and yellow orb-weaving spider. Big as my thumb, she create broad webs with zig-zag bands in the center.

Can I compare the spiders’ prey-- flies, grasshoppers, cutworms-- to developers and real estate agents? Following their own survival instincts, they head for the best forage, the purest country air, the biggest tomato, gobbling resources for their own purposes. Without control they will feed their offspring today by cutting a plant that might feed us all tomorrow. They chew and spit just as I do, but their dark juices can ruin the gardener’s work.

Following their nature, developers are motivated by the desire for growth. Ed Abbey called growth “the ideology of the cancer cell,” and meant that the rest of us must keep it in check. So the spider’s instinct to wrap her prey in silk and hang them from her web for future meals is natural, and necessary.

Working delicately around spider webs, I fantasize about a giant orb-weaver to patrol the plains, a Master Gardener to prune unwise growth.

If allowed to follow its instinct, each subdivision will require more resources than it can produce. Water from dwindling reservoirs evaporates on alien lawns and trees; taxpayers struggle to provide for widely-scattered citizens schools, police officers, garbage collection, fire protection.

We need spiders-- laws and lawmakers to be sure the garden feeds us all, not just a few. Nature tries-- with wildfires, floods, blizzards, and other natural tools-- to control poisonous growth, but She needs help if we are to have real communities. Each of us must be vigilant, wielding our pruning knives in our own back yards.

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Birthday Week (Complete with footnotes!)

July 18, 2010

Tags: Birthday, Family: Jerry, Family: George, Black Hills, Waterfalls, Cattle, Gardening, My Book: No Place Like Home, Friend: Suzan

. . .
I was not feeling well on my actual birthday. (1)

But Jerry and I went for a lovely drive: up to Roughlock Falls, where we enjoyed a picnic, and then walked the fenced sidewalks to look, with hordes of other tourists, down at the falls. As is my habit when visiting the Falls, I explained to Jerry (quietly, so no one else could hear) how George had showed me how to walk behind the falls the first and every time we visited there. (2)

We sat on the benches at the top of the falls, feeling the spray on our faces, while Jerry smoked a cigar. I watched people arrive, peer over the edge for 30 seconds, and leave. Some took pictures. The longest anyone spent looking at the falls was less than a minute.

Back in the car, we drove for several more hours on well-maintained gravel roads, looking at the cows grazing on the national forest, mostly alone with our thoughts and the scenery. Sometime during the drive, I began to explain to Jerry my concept of the Birthday Week.

I believe this to be a unique idea (3), based on the fact that age encourages us to a deliberation in our actions. We are not merely slow because we can’t move faster; no, we are often contemplating the feeling of every move, what it will mean to our bodies. Perhaps we are remembering past experiences. Hmm. That leap hurt. I wonder if it will hurt that much if I do it again. I used to be able to jump that far a hundred times a day.

In order to properly celebrate an important milestone such as a birthday, particularly after more than six decades of birthdays. one cannot be limited to a mere 24 hours, or the much shorter span of twelve hours during which most of us are awake. Even the twelve hours is frequently interrupted by a nap or two, so our time to celebrate our natal day becomes even more brief.

In addition, of course, few of us in our sixties are willing to celebrate quite as vigorously as we did at younger ages. I like to do something special, see friends, call more friends, dine well, open gifts-- far too much excitement and activity for a single day.

For that reason, then, I’ve begun to introduce the concept of a Birthday Week. You will notice that the week of my birthday was tentatively blocked on the list of "Available Retreat Dates," so we would schedule no retreats during that time. We’d planned a more extensive trip, but when that didn’t work out, I chose to celebrate in smaller increments.

The drive on my actual birthday was terrific, a restful day of enjoying the Black Hills at its most beautiful and serene, since it was a week day. I wasn’t feeling well enough for much dinner, but managed to scrape up the energy to open a lovely collection of presents. (Among other things, Tamara gave me potting soil, walls of water, and mystery books; Jerry gave me tomato cages and 8 pounds of salt water taffy. Jerry’s folks gave me a gift certificate to a gardening catalog: do you see a theme?) I spent the day after my birthday quietly but the sense of relaxation allowed me to search some storage and finally find the letters Badger Clark wrote to me in 1957; more on that in a later blog.

Then on the third day of birthday week, I called a friend my age and we chatted for an hour about our lives, including recalling our friend Winston. Her father raised Winston, a beautiful Hereford bull, on his ranch near Newcastle, WY, and his children rode the bull the whole time he was growing up. By the time my father bought Winston, he was a massive breeding machine, with the white curly face and immense circle of horns that mark a true Hereford. I loved taking my friends to the corral to see him, and then casually climbing on and riding him around. Naturally, like the self-centered little monster I was, I allowed my playmates to think I was responsible for the bull’s kindness, but his innate Hereford gentleness kept him calm.

That afternoon, Jerry and I continued our policy of getting acquainted with the near neighborhood and I took him to see the Norbeck Information Center in Custer State Park, an incredible building created by the Civilian Conservation Corps out of native rock and ponderosa pine. We dropped into Coolidge Inn, and I signed copies of my books for sale there, though the clerk was not at all sure I should. Then we dined at the Game Lodge. Sadly, the kitchen couldn’t manage to cook my buffalo steak the way I wanted it, so Jerry ate most of it.

On my fourth day of birthday week, I went to 4 garage sales and an auction/estate sale, spent $1.36 and acquired enough pots and peat pots to fill my greenhouse needs, possibly forever. Then I had lunch with good friends and lots of laughter, and sat in on a private showing of the recent paintings of my good friend Tom Thorson.

As the sun was casting long shadows, a UPS truck roared up the driveway bringing the complimentary copies of the newly-issued paperback edition of No Place Like Home. The cover has been made darker and more dramatic, the spine is a prairie-sky blue that makes the title stand out, and the back cover features my photograph plus the usual collection of great things said about the book. In this case the quotations are from Judy Blunt (whose book Breaking Clean is great writing about ranching) and Booklist.

To top off the day, we got a cooling trace of rain. Now, on the fifth day of my birthday week, I’m going to till the garden; celebrating my birth also means proving I can still do some of the work I love. I plan to call another old friend today for a long chat, and have lunch with a high school classmate next week, just before my birthday week officially ends.

I might note that one’s endurance also builds as one ages, so a week of celebrating a birthday becomes possible. One does not, however, celebrate with the excessive consumption we might have achieved in our younger days.

Calm, quiet delight in living is the theme. May you all experience the same, aging happily.

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Footnotes to Birthday Week:

(1) I have reluctantly concluded that the reason for the illness might be because I ate a large quantity of raw red onion in a tuna salad sandwich the day before. The discovery that eating something in particular causes heartburn and a sleepless night is one of those things about aging that nobody ever mentions when we are young. I now know why some of my relatives wore those twisted smiles when I chomped onto a hamburger with raw onions when I was about nine.

(2) I won’t detail the technique of going behind the falls here, lest I encourage some reading daredevil to do it and draw down some official wrath on their heads. A few people walking under the falls didn’t seem to hurt the falls much, but if one person were seen to do it, others would surely follow and someone might get hurt. George and I were doing this before Political Correctness started trying to make it illegal to do dangerous things. And it wasn’t really very dangerous. Standing under the falls, out of sight of all but the most alert observers above, was incredible. Leaning back against the damp walls, I could feel the thunder of the water pouring over the edge above us, feel the chill of centuries in the wet sand under my feet. I know I started a poem about it, but don’t believe I’ve ever finished it. I'm glad to have had the experience and perhaps enjoy the fact that few others will.

(3) I thought I’d invented the birthday week until I received my annual birthday call from my friend Suzan, who has been my friend for about 50 years. "Humph!" she said. "I’ve been doing that for years. Birthday Eve, Birthday Week. Lately I’m plugging for a Birthday Month!"

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Frost-Proofing to Avoid Tomato Folly

June 16, 2010

Tags: Gardening, Tomatoes, Wild Flowers, Living in Town

. . .
Here is piece about growing tomatoes. I wrote it in 2002 when I lived in Cheyenne, WY. I read it in public once, but it’s never been in print. Today, the sun hot on my back as I pruned tomatoes in my raised bed in South Dakota, I remembered its relevance.

* * *

On a stony-cold March day when the sky is the color of concrete, I am hunched into my coat, getting into the car, when the first evidence of spring catches my eye. Pale purple buds bubble up from the bare sand beside the driveway.

I drive away humming. The lavender pasqueflower blossoms also shock me into longing for my home in South Dakota, where they are the state flower, but they are also a pledge.

Fragile as silk, the blooms rise repeatedly out of March snowstorms. Their deeply serrated leaves appear only as the blooms crumple and turn to wisps called “prairie smoke,” just as I spot johnny jump-ups and violas glowing under heart-shaped leaves. Each day brings another omen. I can practically taste tomatoes by the time leaves push up from the perennial native plants lining the parkways of the streets cornering on my house. A few birds flicker at the corner of my eye: sparrows or finches with rosy heads feeding on leftover seeds.

Every morning I take my first cup of coffee on a tour of the wildflowers, marking time by the first daffodil, then a blue blossom on the myrtle vines, succeeded by a royal purple grape hyacinth. Throughout April, the days pass slowly: a Shasta daisy, one columbine and then dozens. Each evening, I tour the gardens again with a beer to see if the clematis on the arbor has opened while I worked inside, watching for the sign, the omen.

At last, usually after June 1, the first iris blooms. Much as I enjoy the purple and bronze and copper blossoms, I do not celebrate the iris only for themselves. No; the iris incarnate a particular time: the wise, or experienced, gardener may plant her tomatoes.

During my first few years in Cheyenne, I was tempted to tomato folly several times. My post office stands next to a gardening center; each May day, I had to park a half-block farther away and hike past crowds of buyers choosing from the dwindling supply of tomato plants arranged along the curb.

Growing up on the northern plains taught me not to set tomatoes out before the first of June. But a couple of times I succumbed anyway, reasoning that the heat amassed and reflected by the acres of asphalt and concrete surrounding my house in the center of town might act like a greenhouse, creating a mini-climate. Those strong Early Girl plants looked lovely on the day I dug them into the rich black soil: the pointed leaves showed deeper green where they met the stem, and a blossom or two was already open, gathering sun.

Tamping earth, I chuckled at the inexperienced gardeners who were misled by the pictures of giant Beefmaster tomatoes; they probably own the biggest SUV available, I sneered, and live in a house with too many rooms and too many windows in one of the ugly subdivisions ringing the city.

Carefully, I fitted a tomato cage around each hefty plant, picturing those branches thick as my thumbs and heavy with fruit come August. To protect against cutworms, I raided my recycling bin for yogurt cartons to trim into collars for each stem.

The sun was sinking by that time, and I was sunburned and tired. I’d stand up, massaging my back, and survey the sky. Surely it wouldn’t frost before I had time for the next step: the walls of water that might keep the plants alive even if we had a late frost.

The next day my back and legs ached, and I only smiled at the plants on my way to the post office. The day after that, I laid the drip hoses to each plant, mulching with grass clippings to preserve water.

And then one night when I was hunched over my computer finishing some writing job, the sky cleared and the temperature dropped. In 1993 I managed to kill two sets of tomato plants. After the first frost, about June 6, I tossed the black carcasses into the mulch pile and set out six new plants.

The next week, while I was tending to ranch business in South Dakota, another frost killed the top half of every one. I lopped off the blackened branches, and crowded a few new plants into the fenced garden plot.

Each year since, I wait to plant tomatoes until after the iris bloom, and I always finish the job by adding another layer of frost-proofing. That first year of my reawakening, I collected glass bottles from the recycling barrel, placing them in a ring around each tomato plant, and filling the bottles with water to form a protective, heat-holding barrier. Besides protection, each plant gained an identity: the Single Malt Scotch plant, the Coors plant, the Club Soda plant. I believe the Jack Daniels plant produced the most fruit. Since I found walls of water at a yard sale, I use those, but I miss the eccentric originals.

That evening, I told myself the work was wasted, that surely frost wouldn’t strike in southern Wyoming in the third week of June. When the final frost of the year struck a week later, none of the plants were harmed. I was a little smug, buying herb plants at the nursery. Even little blue-haired ladies who had known better since before I was born were lining up with wagon loads of replacement tomato plants.

A month later, when many gardeners were lamenting the cool and rainy weather, my plants were growing, blooming, setting on tomatoes, aided by the greenhouse effect of the bottles. I looked on them with justifiable pride, knowing I’d provided for their needs, given them everything they required for reasonable growth.

In mid-July, several guests at my fiftieth birthday party, held in our backyard around the garden full of tomato plants, remarked that I'd never get ripe tomatoes this year. I thanked them for their optimism, wondering to myself if they always assume a project will fail when it is half finished. And wondering if they were simply unobservant, or were denying the evidence in the garden.

And yes, we got all the tomatoes we could eat.

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