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

Bess Streeter Aldrich

Cover of "A White Bird Flying"
. . .
My mother grew up on her family ranch with an interest in books that lasted her whole life; she read to me, quoted writers to me, and turned me into a reader-- though she’d rather not have turned me into a writer.

Once we moved to the ranch, both my parents encouraged my reading habits; I was always allowed to open one gift before they got up on Christmas morning and it was always a book and I always read quietly until they arose. Sometimes, though, if I was reading in the middle of the day they encouraged me to stop reading and go hoe the garden.

Mother preferred romantic poets-- she’d kept poetry books from her college days, some inscribed as gifts from suitors, and quoted the Brownings often. She loved the books of Bess Streeter Aldrich. No doubt I considered my tastes superior to my mother’s because I never read Aldrich. But recently my faithful correspondents (Hobie and Lois Morris), modern homesteaders in upstate New York, mentioned how much they enjoy her work. They also compared my writing to hers, praising us both for bringing the prairie to life.

So I decided it was time. Yesterday I finished A White Bird Flying, originally published in 1931 and kept in print by the University of Nebraska Press. The story of Laura, the writer, bears some close resemblances to Aldrich’s own biography and to mine as well.

I could identify with Laura when she pictured herself as a writer, standing outside her own emotions sometimes until she almost missed the important part of human interactions. Laura was a hick when she went to college, just as I was, and stumbled over some of the same problems with sororities, studying, and her friendships with both men and women. Somehow, she grew to believe that she could not be a writer in Nebraska, just as I at one time concluded that great writers had to live in New York, if not California. I suspect that Bess Streeter Aldrich may have thought similarly, but she spent her life in small towns and wrote nine novels and numerous other works about the life she lived.

Since I encourage you to read this book, and others by Aldrich, I won’t tell you how Laura solved her dilemma. Aldrich’s descriptions of life in a small town in Nebraska are filled with details that made me laugh and cry over their resemblance to the places I’ve known and loved.

And writers, especially those from small towns in the Great Plains, if you read nothing else of hers, please go to Aldrich's website and read “Why I Live in a Small Town,” published in Ladies Home Journal in 1933.

# # #

For more information:
Bess Streeter Aldrich’s website

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O Holy Night on the Prairie: Remembering John Lennon and Others

. . .
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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