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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
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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"
To see Linda read her poem "Make a Hand"
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.
# # #
click here to send an e-mail message to Linda.
If this link does not work-- some web-browsers are incompatible or perhaps your computer is blocking pop-ups-- copy and paste this email address into your email system:
or send Linda a letter:
Linda M. Hasselstrom
PO Box 169
Hermosa SD 57744
May 6, 2015
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
Hermosa, South Dakota
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April 26, 2015
Red-winged blackbird in cattails.
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.
The wolf whistle was so loud I nearly sprained my neck looking around.
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
Hermosa, South Dakota
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October 11, 2013
Linda reading with her headlamp
With the electricity off, Linda made do with candles and a battery-powered headlamp. Note the ice-covered windows from the blizzard. Thanks for the hand-warmers, Maura!
. . .
All night Thursday, October 3, rain fell, with thunder and lightning crashing around overhead. The lights flickered. Mari Sandoz wrote about the blizzard of 1949 in her book, Winter Thunder
, so, forewarned, we made preparations: hauled jugs of drinking water from the retreat house, filled jugs here for flushing. Got out our long underwear, leg warmers, gloves, hats, boots, more comforters for the beds-- even dog coats.
Friday the wind was ripping at 75 miles an hour and more freezing rain fell; our total for the storm was about 3 inches. Every step outside was hazardous, with every surface slick from freezing rain. Our windows completely iced over so the light inside was dim and blue. Our vehicles, parked outside, were encased in ice. The deck, our walkways, everything was covered.
We knew that cattle out in the storm would be walking southeast, trying to escape the cold, walking to keep warm. But we had no idea what a horror for ranchers the weather was creating.
Our power went off Friday morning for a few minutes at a time and then went off finally at 2 p.m., meaning that our furnace would not work, nor our lights. More seriously our pump in the well would not work and therefore we had no water. Our refrigerator and freezer were off. I put a thermometer in both so we could keep track of temperatures. We could light our propane cookstove with matches and ate dinner by candlelight.
Jerry had come back up to the house at 9:30, unable to work in his shop because of the intermittent electricity. All day we worked together figuring out what actions to take.
When I lived in Cheyenne, I’d installed a small auxiliary propane heater in Windbreak House to keep the pipes from freezing while it was unoccupied, so we turned that up and heat rose naturally through the stairwell to help warm the upstairs. This meant, though, that the basement, with the freezer, would be warmer than we’d have preferred.
In late afternoon we got out our battery-powered headlamps and began reading with those, shuffling through the dark house in our slippers, scaring the dickens out of the dogs. I wore gloves and hand-warmers a friend had made. We seemed to have only two or three inches of snow, but the wind was still blowing ferociously so it was hard to tell how much. We hoped the state was advising no travel and closing roads so emergency personnel weren't out trying to rescue idiots.
Neither of us slept well because of the howling wind, but Jerry suffered most because his oxygen machine was also off. The screens, ice-covered, rattled all night as if someone was galloping around on the roof.
The dogs wanted out at 4 a.m. Saturday, but the door was frozen nearly shut, temperature 31 degrees. I had to kick and shovel to get it open. The house temperature was 58 degrees. No sign of letup in the storm and we couldn't tell if it was still snowing or just blowing. I sat up and wrote in my journal using my headlamp, and both the dogs dived under my covers.
Usually the bedroom and dining room have little golden lights from all the electronic gadgets-- computers, clocks, cell phone chargers-- but the rooms were muffled in black. I used the solar flashlight I keep by the bed to get around. Usually, even at 4 a.m., I hear truck traffic on the highway; this morning it was quiet except for the wind: clacking the window screens, thrumming around the metal roof, making the deck vibrate.
From the top pantry shelf, I took the old coffee pot I’ve kept for years and we made good boiled coffee to start our day. Jerry lit two candles and sat in the rocking chair by the bed, reading by headlamp.
Jerry tried to start his gasoline generator; no luck. It had sat idle for 5 years.
We spent Saturday melting snow to flush the toilets. We packed food into coolers full of snow to preserve it. We tried to eat leftovers. We put a few items in a big snowbank on the deck for quick access: a few leftovers, gin and beer, and the dogs' food. We played Rummykub, Boggle, Quiddler. We read books and threw balls for the dogs inside. We peered outside, watching the trees at the retreat house bend, wondering how long the storm would last. I got a ham bone and scraps out of the freezer and made cassoulet, which simmered all day.
We began to hear news by cell phone; there were near record accumulations of snowfall in the Black Hills; the blizzard warning would end that morning; roads were closed. Jerry walked to the highway mailbox but no paper was delivered. We learned later that none was printed because the electricity was off in parts of Rapid City; in fact, the Rapid City Journal
did not print for three days.
When we got up, I wore: long underwear, compression socks, wool socks, tall boots, a cotton turtleneck, a wool sweater, hand-warmers, gloves and a hat inside.
About 8 a.m., Jerry started shoveling, walked the dogs a little. We had six foot drifts in our yard and around Homestead House. We started using paper plates to save doing dishes. Jerry brought up a bigger pot so we could melt more snow at a time. I got out big metal bowls I usually use for collecting vegetables from the garden.
The temperature outside rose to 45 degrees and we raised some shades to get some heat from the sun. We saw 13 grouse flying around our windbreak trees and a couple of dozen antelope on top of the high ridge south of our house.
Jerry used his tractor to dig a trail from the house to the lower ranch buildings, then broke trail to the highway. Again, no paper.
On Sunday the temperature around 4 a.m. was 38 degrees, so it hadn't frozen, which helped keep the house warm. The sun came out. As Jerry drove to the highway to help break the trail, he discovered that an electric line was broken along our private road. We continued to try to notify the electric cooperative since the line was now a hazard to any people or cattle in the area.
On Monday, October 7, we finally got to speak to a cooperative worker and a crew spliced the line temporarily; it's hanging below the barbed wire fence, still dangerous and vulnerable to wind. We walked the dogs, looked around: a total of maybe a foot of snow but huge drifts everywhere, trees and bushes entirely covered. The wind’s angle was from the northwest so the drifts were in slightly different spots than we’re used to. Snow began to melt; by Thursday, the dam below our house was more full than it’s been for three years.
We took showers and drove to Hermosa for the mail and to eat hamburgers at the local gas station. A lot of other people were doing the same and we began to hear stories about how severe the storm had been in this area: thousands of cattle missing, possibly dead; fences broken by snowdrifts, power out all over the Black Hills. Deadwood and places to the north got as much as four feet of snow.
We were amazed to learn how MUCH snow is required to be melted to make two gallons needed to flush the toilet. We had a snowcave on the north side of the house where we scooped bucket and bowl after bowl to bring inside to thaw. I think all teenagers should have to melt snow to flush for at least a day in their lives.
I realized that my family has been paying utility bills to this company for 60 years or so, but they bring power back to the subdivisions first. Naturally the cooperative must serve the greatest number first, but ironically it means that people who have been here the shortest time have the least understanding of how difficult life can be without electricity.
Friends who live in subdivisions couldn't understand why we talked of melting snow-- but they have communal water supplies and probably generators, so they never ran out of water.
Another discovery: a hardpacked snowball makes excellent ice for a gin and tonic.
We had a disoriented squirrel in our yard for a day but he seems to have disappeared; if he’s not used to the local coyotes he may have been a meal, though we had some nice cottonwoods with holes in them where he could hide. But where did he come from? We've never seen one here. And how did he get here? On the wind? A mystery.
Hawks have been very aggressive the past three days: one swooped within a foot of my study window-- outside, Toby lay under that window in the sun. Another was chasing a grouse and the grouse’s wings knocked my hat off my head.
As the week went on, we began to learn that thousands of cattle have been killed in northern South Dakota. One report says 10,000 cattle lie dead between Sturgis and Union Center, roughly 232 per mile or a dead cow every 20 feet. Many ranchers have lost 50%, 90% or all of their cattle. They are finding entire ravines full of dead cattle. State law requires they be burned or buried but the ground is so wet that normal ranch equipment is quickly bogged down. The governor has refused to call out the National Guard to help. Disposal sites have been established but we have no idea how some ranchers will reach them.
This is the kind of thing for which the word “disaster” exists-- but it has become overused. How can we describe what has happened?
One rancher went hunting for his cattle on horseback and had turn back after three hours because the horses were too worn out from slogging through the snow and mud. Another, using horses and 4-wheelers, found one of the 4-wheelers stuck. He hitched his horse to it and pulled it out.
Friday, October 11, and the storms go on: 60 mph winds today, a couple of inches of rain. Creeks are flooding in the Black Hills already, and much of the snow has not melted. Snowmelt is carrying the corpses of dead cattle into tributaries that will lead to the rivers.
* * *
Last Wednesday we went to town to run errands. One of them was to visit a company that sells generators that come on automatically with a power outage. As we visit with friends and relatives, we've discovered that many of them already have such a critter. Jerry and I had discussed it, of course, especially after last April’s blizzards when we were isolated for 9 days-- though we were never without electric power then. Now may be the time.
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February 2, 2012
Sharptailed Grouse in the windbreak at Homestead House. Photographed by A.J. during a writing retreat, 2009.
. . .
Since my earliest days on the ranch, I’ve regularly seen coveys of Sharptailed grouse, Tympanuchus phasianellus
though my folks and the neighbors usually referred to them as “prairie chickens.” The term probably dates from pioneer times because the chubby birds resemble chickens in size, habits and sounds. No doubt they were among the easiest game for settlers to hunt, providing a chicken for practically every empty pot.
And several types of chicken-like fowl native to the prairies made identification even more confusing. Sharptailed grouse are spotted brown and white and have short, pointed tails. Among their relatives are Spruce grouse, Blue, Ruffed, Gunnison Sage and Greater Sage Grouse; White-tailed, Willow and Rock ptarmigan and Lesser and Greater Prairie Chickens. All once thrived in North America. Ptarmigan live mostly in the north and northwest. Prairie Chickens prefer open prairie but the rest seem to like prairie cut with gullies where shrubs grow for cover and food sources. All are well adapted to the extremes of heat and cold the prairie offers but their numbers have been greatly reduced by humans and their accompanying guns and predatory pets (dogs and cats).
, I wrote about butchering and eating a grouse that we’d accidentally hit on the highway.
I asked George to stop, caught it–it was bleeding– wrung its neck and then realized I had just committed an illegal act beside a busy highway. We brought it home and Jim and Mavis were here so we added three game hens to the roasting pot and had the grouse for supper. I had to endure a lot of hilarity about eating roadkills but I told them that’s the only way we poor ranchers survive.
-- Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains, October 25, page 34
That brief reference fails to show my appreciation of the sharptails, either as residents of the prairie and part of the work force that conserves grasslands or as dinner. The mention does point to one of the dangers of life for the grouse, though I don’t see as many grouse dead on the highway as rabbits, skunks, coyotes and foxes.
Sharptailed grouse forage on the ground in spring and summer, eating mostly leaves, green shoots and flowers along with a few insects. Anyone familiar with the way chickens pursue grasshoppers and other bugs will be instantly charmed to see grouse leaping in the air to snatch flying bugs in the same way. In summer, more than 50 percent of the grouse diet may be grass, according to birdweb.org, though insects and especially grasshoppers are an important food. The diet of young grouse, say some sources, may be as much as 90% bugs. Experts indicate flower parts may make up 25 percent of the breeding-season diet, while in fall grouse eat seeds, leaves, berries, waste grain, buds, and flowers. In winter, sharptails often roost and graze in shelter under trees and bushes; significant winter foods include the dried fruit, seeds and buds of willow, cottonwood, chokecherry, plum, buffaloberry, juneberry, birch, aspen, rose and juniper.
Apparently open water is not essential to the grouse, which is good since many parts of our prairie don’t offer it. Instead the grouse satisfy their requirements from their food. Early in the season the birds cluster in groups of 5 to 10, perhaps families; later they join into larger coveys.
Like the better-known Greater prairie-chicken, sharptailed males dance and coo as the mating season begins; authorities say this causes the females to initiate the breeding cycle. Males return to the same dancing grounds, often located on open high ground each year, usually in March. There they rattle their tails, stomp their feet and display their feathers, beginning 45 minutes before sunrise and continuing for a couple of hours afterward. Females stroll through the furiously performing males, selecting one with which to mate. One source, landhelp.info, says females are “polygamous and probably promiscuous.”
Sharptailed grouse usually lay a five to seventeen eggs in a shallow depression in the earth under a shrub or thick clump of grass, often lining the nest with grass, leaves, or ferns. The young leave the nest shortly after hatching, but the hen continues to lead them to feeding areas.
Grouse look ungainly in flight, like balloons with wings, but hunters and other experts say that for a short distance they are able to escape hawks like the peregrine in horizontal flight. Often we spot the covey because one or more of them is perched in the top of the junipers, where the branches appear too slender to hold them, heads erect as they watch us. When one takes flight, they all do, chuckling and clucking in alarm. The flapping of their wings is miniature thunder in the sky as they head for the nearest cover, a bunch of trees or tall prairie grass.
Once, a covey landed on the power lines leading to our house. From the kitchen window I watched a routine that had me snorting with laughter as the birds tried desperately to balance themselves on the wire. Wings out, they leaned ahead and back as the wire swung madly. If one achieved balance, the one next to it flapped off-kilter and they staggered into one another. One by one they gave up and flew into the junipers until only one was left, still fluttering and unable to achieve balance.
My uncle and my father often exchanged reports of seeing the grouse, pleased to have them as part of their ranches’ wildlife. The prairie between the two ranches seemed to offer just what the grouse need in food, concealment and privacy. For winter shelter, they like groves of trees like the windbreaks around our houses, but in summer they range widely over the mostly treeless prairie. In winter they often roost in or under trees or deliberately allow themselves to be covered in snow. Often I have found round holes under our windbreak trees with wingmarks on each side. When they are ready to emerge, the grouse simply row upward with their wings and fly out the top of a drift.
Natural grouse predators are many; hawks, eagles, owls and coyotes all make a meal of the sharptails when they can. We often find flattened circles of grouse feathers near the windbreak trees, as killers no doubt creep close while the grouse are sleeping or eating.
Though natural predators take their toll, it’s humans who do the most damage to the sharptailed grouse, as they do to all other wildlife. Since two houses have been built between the ranches originally owned by the Hasselstrom brothers, I’ve been watching the animals’ habits. John and Harold used to compare notes on the herd of whitetail deer that would move east down our draw then circle through an area of small waterholes and trees and graze past my uncle’s place a few days later. “You should be seeing that old doe and her bunch today,” one of them would say. Now we rarely see the deer, because the new houses are directly in the path they used to travel. I often hear a dog barking at one of the homes but no stray dogs have shown up here, so perhaps it is not free to chase wildlife. My lessee, who lives on my uncle’s former ranch, often sees a covey of 35 of more grouse, as do we, so presumably they can still navigate the distance safely.
Once upon a time, I saw a flash outside my basement study window and heard a thud. I went outside and saw a grouse huddled under an outdoor table.
A week before, I’d been in the windbreak trees when a grouse shot past me at eyebrow level and dropped to the ground under the protective cover of the thick juniper branches. A northern harrier hawk veered up and away, its hunt foiled.
So I assumed this grouse had dived under the deck for sanctuary, though I couldn’t spot a hawk. For a half hour, I kept the dogs inside so the bird could rest and recover from its fear. But when it was still tucked under the table an hour later I crept close and touched it: dead. In escaping from the hawk, it must have been unable to slow down and hit the side of the house.
I skinned the grouse and soaked it in salt water overnight to get the blood from its traumatic death out of the flesh. Dismantling the grouse the next morning, I studied its architecture: the legs were small and thin and the wings had very little flesh. The breasts were huge–musculature for that swift flight. The flesh was dark red, much darker than turkey.
Years ago, after a successful grouse hunt, we had a half dozen of the birds. We’d found them in the juniper trees in a pasture and their crops were stuffed with juniper berries. I emptied the crops and, after gutting the birds, stuffed them with the berries, adding a tart flavor to the flesh.
Since only one grouse had been killed this time, I cut it up, splitting the breast and leaving the back in one piece and the legs connected to the thighs. I rolled each piece in a mixture of egg, milk and spices and then in flour and seared it quickly in a hot fry pan. Then I placed them in a casserole, mixed milk with a can of cream of mushroom soup and baked the dish at 300 degrees for an hour and a half, until a thermometer in the breast registered 170 degrees.
Grouse does not taste like chicken. I’d compare its rich flavor to tender venison or antelope harvested correctly, without time to be afraid. The meat was so rich and tasty that I didn’t need to eat much of it to feel satisfied. I mentally apologized to the hawk who probably missed its dinner but was grateful for the opportunity to make this bird’s death into an experience.
# # #
For more information:
For photographs, search “sharptailed grouse photos” on the internet.
www.lauraerickson.com provides videos of the grouse in their mating dance.
Several sites including www.junglewalk.com have recorded grouse sounds.
landhelp.info provides considerable information on managing resources so as to encourage wildlife on farms and ranches.
For specific information to help you identify one of the group, see www.allaboutbirds.org
Or look in a bird identification book such as The Sibley Guide to Birds
, David Allen Sibley (Knopf).
I received a copy of this wonderful book for Christmas, thanks to neighbor and friend Tamara. It’s slightly possible she was tired of me calling to say, “I just saw a bird I can’t identify. It has a yellow breast and is kinda gray on top and . . .”
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May 30, 2011
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
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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December 8, 2010
. . .
Driving to town today to have the stitches removed from another operation for squamous cell skin cancer, I was reflecting on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor day on December 7. And then the announcer noted that December 8 is the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, and I remembered observing a moment of silence for him on the first anniversary of the shooting. Thirty years: George and I had been married a year and were happily settling into our lives on the ranch.
Here is an excerpt from my book Land Circle
mentioning that first anniversary, 29 years ago.
O Holy Night on the Prairie
Folks who are used to bustling, fur-wrapped shoppers and greenery hung with lights would see the wide prairie that stretches in front of me as a bleak place to spend Christmas. The grass is a mountain lion pelt-- not one color, but gold, fawn, red, brown, and colors for which no name exists-- blended into each other over the rolling hills. A few limestone outcroppings studded with pale green lichen, and a scatter of white and granite-gray boulders decorate the scene; there are no trees, no green, cone-shaped evergreens that mean Christmas to many. In the deeper gullies, an occasional bare cottonwood shows a white, lightning-stripped trunk against the grass; buffalo berry and plum bushes stand naked in narrow crevices beside ground-hugging juniper bushes blending green and bronze.
In the eastern distance are the Badlands, pink, gray and blue spires a finger's width above the horizon, made higher this morning by mirage which is rapidly spreading, to disappear as the sun comes up dull gold. To the west rise the Black Hills, a handsbreadth of tree-covered hills, rising in five distinct ranges and glowing blue in the morning light.
Here, while Christmas songs play on the pickup radio, I see nothing at all to remind me of the season. The grass is short, because we graze these distant pastures in summer, and bring the cattle closer to home in winter. I am making a last survey, picking up salt blocks and fence panels, to be sure gates are closed against the neighbor's buffalo. When I turn homeward today, I will be shutting the door on this part of the ranch until spring, when we'll bring cows and young calves here to graze through the summer.
A coyote slips down a draw, glancing back over his shoulder. Except for his quick movement, a flash of white at his throat and a nearly-black ridge on his spine and tail, he would be invisible against the grass. My eye catches movement again, and I turn to see thirty antelope run over a hill, white rump-patches flashing. One pauses, silhouetted against the sun.
The gray limestone of Silas Lester's house has descended a little more toward the ground this year; the blank windows look like half-shut eyes. The house was never finished; dry years came, and Silas sold his land for two dollars an acre to my grandfather, who took the risk and stayed. The spring Silas found and enlarged still runs gently from the hillside, into a tank George and I dug into the hillside and covered with wood chips to keep the water from freezing. I open the gate to it, so the wild animals can safely drink, and leave a few chips of salt nearby; a really thrifty rancher would take them home to the calves, but I like to think of the antelope and smaller creatures-- porcupines, skunks, mice-- enjoying the rare treat of salt this winter.
Another year has passed. Some years George and I made this final trip in deep snow, laughing as the pickup plunged into a drift, apprehensive when it dropped too deep and the tires spun. We've shared picnics here under the talking leaves of the cottonwoods in summer, shoveled together when the pickup was stuck in winter. Feeling a little foolish, we shut off the motor and observed a worldwide moment of silence in honor of John Lennon a few years ago, then sang his songs on the way home, and didn't feel foolish at all.
The chores we did together I now do alone. The Christmas songs on the radio mean the solstice is near, when the days will almost imperceptibly begin to lengthen. Now the sun has risen far south; it will make a shallow arc in the southern sky all day, and the moon will shine in the south windows of the bedroom tonight.
We started a tradition a few years ago, when Michael came in a dry summer with a trunkload of fireworks; it was too dry to shoot them then, so we saved them for his winter visit, and fired them on New Year's Eve. Last year, I did it alone; this year, I may invite friends to share the ritual. On Christmas Eve I will join my cousin and his wife and their children, one my godson, in church. I attended the same church when I was five years old, and my mother sang in the choir. It's famous for its massive organ, and as the tones swell into the familiar "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful," I-- who have been anything but a faithful churchgoer-- will find myself in tears. The organ tones express to me the largeness of the land, rising over the small minds and bodies of the people who live upon it.
Slowly, as Christmas passes, snow falls, grouse mate with bell-like calls in the winter night stillness, the days will grow warmer, and spring will come. If we get spring rains-- which have not come for three years-- the tawny grass will show a hint of green at the roots in April and by June the hills will be rich with new life.
"I believe in the Israelite," sings a low voice on the radio, backed by the sound of bells, and I wonder. Surely no one who sees the seasons turn as I do, who observes the prairie's stillness in this season of rest, and the inevitable coming of spring life, summer's lushness, the harvests of fall, and the chill of winter again and again, can fail to believe that all is arranged as it should be. That no matter how great are our personal sorrows, the world is proceeding in an orderly fashion. That we are all part of a great cycle, and our job is to help the earth in its turning, to keep it pure and beautiful and clean for those who will surely come after us.
# # #
Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land
was published in 1991 by Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado.
This essay appears on pages 171-173 in the original edition, and on pages 191-194 in the Anniversary edition of 2008.
For more information:
Read all about my book Land Circle
on this website page.
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