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

Balloon Races and General George Armstrong Custer

The Balloon Races in Custer, SD.
Taken in 1988.
. . .
Early in January, 2012, I attended a talk on the early balloon ascensions from the StratoBowl near Rapid City by Arley Fadness of Custer, who worked on balloon design with famous aeronaut Ed Yost. The ascension of 1935 was the beginning of the space age, but earlier experiments with balloons of various types had occurred all over the world.

I was surprised to learn that George Armstrong Custer, later a General, was involved in surveillance ballooning during the Civil War. The flamboyant Custer was said at the time to dress “like a circus performer gone mad.” His nickname was “Cinnamon” because he slicked back his long hair with a cinnamon-scented pomade. Assigned to balloon surveillance, he reportedly insisted on being accompanied by an experienced aeronaut and sat in the bottom of the gondola. Fadnes didn’t explain how he was able to spy out enemy movements from that position.

Custer’s connection with ballooning surprised and delighted me because a few years ago I wrote a poem about attending the balloon races in Custer, SD-- named for the General. When General Custer insisted on becoming part of the poem, I wasn’t especially happy but I did allow him to march onstage. The poem ended with evidence of my dislike of the General and his treatment of the Indians in the West. Now that I know more of the history of Custer’s experience with balloons, my poetic speculations about what Custer might have done with balloons in Western warfare seem less far fetched.


At the Balloon Races in Custer, South Dakota

In this green and granite canyon Horatio Ross found gold;
Yellow Hair wrote dispatches while the miners met.
In this green and granite canyon
we find sunrise and balloons.

Coffee steams as balloonists talk
to ranchers; breath explodes in still air;
three women in shorts jostle in a patch of sunlight.
Seven baskets lie beside seven fans,
chill air swells silk pockets bigger than the bank,
the blue and white one looms over the courthouse,
twice as high as the sheriff's office.

Patchwork colors shimmer, as if
christening dresses and ball gowns
were sacrificed and stitched
into flight.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspNo man can steer a balloon;
wind is its only master.

Seven balloons inhale flame;
Bags of air high as mountains
bob like boats on a bowl of air.
Like fat men in bright nightgowns
bumping bellies, the balloons quiver.
A burner blazes. There is no signal.
A balloon rises. No one cheers.
The man below the burner waves;
we all wave back.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspSeven balloons lift
over the broad green valley where the ghost
of Custer rides. Eight hundred spectral men
pick pale flowers to garland spirit horses.

Custer nods, waves, smiles to see
they sent balloons to meet him;
his worth is recognized; now
he can send the gold dispatches,
begin wresting this land
from the savages
who don't appreciate him either.

# # #

This poem appears in Land Circle, published 1991 by Fulcrum Publishing.

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Dandy Ice Cream

Grandmother Cora Baker Hey in the 1970s.
. . .
In my Home Page message recently I wrote that I’ve been trying to learn more about the lives of some of my ancestors as part of a new book project. I pointed out that the ordinary possessions from a life may be valuable aids to memory or even to factual research.

One of the items I mentioned was my grandmother’s recipe book:

Every blank page of her recipe book has been covered with recipes handwritten or clipped from newspapers, clues to the household’s prosperity and interests. Liver Sausage; canning beef by the cold method; chow chow and mince meat from green tomatoes. (Our short growing season probably meant they ate more tomatoes green than ripe.) Many kinds of cucumber pickles, beefsteak and oysters, venison mincemeat for pies, suet pudding, Bavarian cream, dandy ice cream, Jelly Roll, mustard and catsup, taffy, cracker jack, peanut brittle and cream puffs.

-- from “Looking for Grandmother”
Linda's Home Page Message for the Winter Solstice, 2011


Here is the recipe for that “dandy ice cream” mentioned in my Grandmother Cora’s recipe book.

Dandy Ice Cream --- Cora Baker Hey

1 quart milk

Let come to a boil

Mix 1 pint sugar and 1/2 Cup flour together

Add to boiling milk

Cook two minutes, stirring constantly.

As it’s taken from the stove, add beaten yolks of two eggs – keep the whites for later.

(I added a couple handfuls of chocolate chips while it was hot and made chocolate ice cream.)

When cold, add 1 quart cream, 2 stiffly beaten egg whites, and 1 tablespoon vanilla.

(If you toss in chocolate chips at this point, they don’t melt-- but they do sink to the bottom of the bowl.)

You need not have an ice cream freezer; just place ice cream in the freezing compartment of your refrigerator for six hours or so. Because the ice cream sets up very hard, consider freezing it in small containers so it will warm more quickly to be extracted from the container. We usually get it out of the freezer a half hour or more before serving.

I hadn’t seen flour as an ingredient in ice cream before, but an online search and our own experience proves that the ice cream has a smooth, custard-like consistency.

# # #

For more information:

"Looking for Grandmother" the Home Page Message for Winter, 2011
may be found in the Home Page Message Archives if it is no longer on the Home Page.

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Friendliness Is Catching

Linda at the Hermosa Town Office, next door to the Library and the Post Office.
. . .
When I complain to Stacy, the Postmaster, that I need a notary public and the town office is closed today, she says, “Oh, the librarian is one, and Tasha, at the real estate office-- and I know she’s working today because she came for her mail.”

So because of the small town habit of keeping track of such things, Stacy saved me a 50-mile trip to Rapid City for a notary.

Later, when I went to the library, Bert the librarian had little boxes of fudge waiting to give as gifts to her library customers that day.

I could say smugly that this is one of the benefits of living in a small town but these incidents illustrate more than that. Both these women do their jobs extremely well but they also pay particular attention to the people with whom they interact. They respond firmly, gently and politely to people so furious they are literally spitting. They listen to laments, complaints, bad jokes and whining and they do it with a smile.

Sure, this is a small town and these two are uniquely placed to know a great deal about many of us who live in the area. But the way they do their jobs, the way they handle what they learn about us, could be done anywhere. They pay attention in a world where too many folks see nothing but what’s directly in front of them. They smile when they probably don’t feel anymore like it than the grumblers on the other side of the desk. Because of their patience, they send many of these grumblers into their day smiling and happier than when they entered the Post Office or the Library.

We can all do that. Try smiling at the next grump you meet; you might be surprised what you learn.

# # #

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The Eco Prayer Park at Trinity Lutheran Church, Rapid City

Plans for the Trinity Eco Prayer Park.
. . .
Some retreat writers might recognize Ken Steinken's name from seeing it in the house journal. During the years when I didn't live on the ranch, Ken came often to Homestead House, at least once riding his bicycle twenty-some miles from Rapid City, to write in the retreat solitude. He signed the house journal, saying he'd tried to erase all testosterone from the premises before a women's writing retreat started.

Ken's new project is to help establish an Eco Prayer Park on one fourth of a city block now vacant on the corner of Fourth and Saint Joseph Streets, beside Trinity Lutheran Church in Rapid City.

"Our goal is to create a peaceful, natural place downtown that will preserve open space and enhance the vitality of the downtown experience," Ken says.

The park will contain a circular path leading visitors past four zones representing different biomes: Black Hills, midgrass prairie, shortgrass prairie and wetlands. The park will be practical as well, with swales that will conserve stormwater runoff from surrounding asphalt parking lots, allowing it to seep slowly into the ground instead of entering the city's storm-sewer system. Designed to contain water from a 100-year flood event, the park will have no standing water elements. It will provide examples of native species that local property owners can use in their own water-conserving landscaping.

Here's how Ken Steinken explains the name of the park:

The Name: Trinity Eco Prayer Park
* Trinity -- connects the park to the Trinity Lutheran Church
* Eco Park -- a park that uses and encourages others to use sustainable landscaping
* Prayer Park -- a peaceful place downtown to pray and reflect
* Eco Prayer -- a prayer for the care of the planet; a plea to work with nature instead of against it

I was a little concerned that the word "Eco" might be a little too political; it's a goofy, trendy word but it allows us to avoid "Sustainable" which is clunky; and "Natural" is just too vanilla. The word "Prayer" has been overused and abused, and may unsettle folks on both ends of the political spectrum, so it sets up a creative tension that I like. The official name collects all the elements, but perhaps the park will be best-known simply as Trinity Park, a place to reflect on how we relate to God, one another, and the planet.


The project is planned for completion by 2014, in time for the church's 100th anniversary celebration. Ken hopes most costs will be covered by in-kind donations from church and community members and volunteer labor. "We need every kind of help imaginable," he says.

I'll be donating plugs of buffalo grass and other native grasses as well as any wildflower seeds the project needs and can find on my land.

# # #

For more information:

Website for the Trinity Eco Prayer Park. This is a bare-bones Google Group website that has newsletter-type updates on the park and links for further information.

Read an article about the park in the Rapid City Journal. Includes a photo of the existing bare lot and depictions of what the park will look like.

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The Abbey of Saint Walburga

. . .
Thanks to Sister Hildegard Dubnick, a Benedictine nun of the Abbey of Saint Walburga in Virginia Dale, CO, I receive the Abbey newsletter, Auris cordis, “ear of the heart.”

Sr. Hildegard wrote in Crazy Woman Creek of one if her first experiences in the Abbey, the touching and humorous, “A Couple of Nights Before Christmas.”

In the latest issue, Sr. Hildegard has written about the abbey’s efforts to produce as much of its own food as possible in “All is safely gathered in,/ ere the winter storms begin.” This article, too, shows her characteristic gentle humor.

The Abbey raises beef, consumed regularly. “Each cow or steer,” she writes, “has, of course, a liver, and a pretty big one at that. We can only eat so much beef liver, since nuns, like everyone else, can be divided into two classes: those who will eat it, and those who truly cannot choke it down.”

So: “if life gives you liver, make liverwurst. Experiments in the kitchen have produced a most excellent liverwurst that now appears at supper regularly.”

The Abbey also keeps chickens, bees, apples, tomatoes, and makes use of herbs such as stinging nettle, yarrow, horsetail and other herbs. Sr. Hildegard remarks that although the Abbey gave away hundreds of canning jars before relocating, “canning jars seldom die; they just keep moving from one attic or basement to another.”

Finally, she encourages everyone to grow a little food of their own, even if it’s just some basil or parsley seeds in a pot on the windowsill.

I’ll be sending the newsletter to my co-editors of the Wind Anthologies because we’ve never met Sr. Hildegard and the newsletter includes a photograph of her canning produce.


# # #


For more information:

The Abbey Wish List includes these items: ground coffee (regular), cereal, powdered milk, canned tomatoes and fish, honey, bathroom tissue, fragrance-free laundry detergent, potting soil, 16%-protein layer pellets for the chickens, battery powered wall clocks and vintage (not plastic) jewelry and rosaries. Contact the Abbey to contribute these or other items. You can read about the life of a nun, or learn more about the Abbey’s schedule of group and individual retreats on their website.

Abbey of St. Walburga
Benedictine Nuns
1029 Benedictine Way
Virginia Dale, CO 80536-7633

visit the Abbey of St. Walburga website

Read about the western women’s books co-edited by Linda, including Crazy Woman Creek which includes the story by Sister Hildegard Dubnick, on the Wind Anthologies Page of this website.

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Thoughts While Driving: ID Highway 30, The “Scenic” Route

1962 Chevy Pickup.
Linda's own piece of "vehicular history" before it was sold to the local antique auto dealer.
. . .
Note: I used to jot notes on a clipboard with numbered pages on the seat beside me so I could write without looking and then yank each one off when it was finished and put them in order later. Now, with all the publicity about the dangers of texting and driving, I wait until I've pulled over for some reason and write. And I made some of these notes while Jerry was driving.

* * *

In many rural areas, you can trace each family’s vehicular history from the cars scattered around the farmstead: the 1930s autos, the 1940s, 50s and so on. In some cases you can see the original homestead of log, followed by a stick-built house and then the first, second, and third generation of trailer homes-- and all appear to be occupied. Idaho residents don’t seem to be much interested in zoning. Stunted or miniature ponies and goats graze among the old cars in the back yards. Behind one house is a steep bluff leading down to a creek, covered in orange. Peering closely, I realize the orange covering is thousands of miles of tangled baling twine.

Yet in the front yards of many rural homes-- many of which are trailers-- are bushes that have been trimmed into fantastic shapes: animals, geometric forms. Some trees have been obviously clipped into perfect tree form: the perfect A shape, for example.

This area reminds me of our drive up the Mississippi to Baton Rouge on the back roads: it’s a working landscape, and would not be considered beautiful by the arbiters of “scenic,” and yet it produces food, which should be beautiful to us.

And it makes economic sense to have feedlots-- “confinement facilities”-- for pigs, chickens, and cattle here because they are eating the byproducts of the sugar beet production. But it ain’t pretty. “Andersonville for cows,” says Jerry. And of course it’s no more the nature of cows to stand in filth than it was for the Union prisoners; they are drugged by their misery.

Lots of American flags. Almost all the business buildings used to be something else.

Huge piles of sugar beets outside towns, and trucks go by hauling them. We see quite a few along the road. Finally we picked one up and took a picture.

Jerry’s expertise for the Wyoming highway department was bridge construction; his travelogue contains remarks like, “That bridge is just exactly like the one that failed over Lake Ponchartrain.”

Why does “scenic” mean “no buildings indicating labor takes place on this land are in sight”? We definitely do not associate human habitation with scenic-- which may be one reason working people don’t identify very well with environmental concerns.

Lots of just junk lying along the highway-- bedsprings, pieces of cars, the usual trash-- as if people have been tossing it out their car windows for 60 years. Are these people too busy to clean up these messes? Or do they simply not care how ugly their surroundings are? Or not see it?

Along the highway are the standard signs declaring this stretch of highway cleaned up by several religious groups: a Mennonite youth group, and young men and women of a particular Latter Day Saints Ward. Trying to set a good example?

The tidiest places are the huge farms, with several houses, each bigger and higher up the hill than the last, many barns and long metal sheds big enough for 18-wheelers. Lots of irrigation pipe along roads and in fields. I think people who are working hard keep things tidy because it’s easier to get your work done if you know where your tools and equipment are.

# # #

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Redding Up for Winter

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

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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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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Benefits of the Bread Machine

. . .
Note: this blog is a follow-up to the one below about making hand-kneaded bread.

During my teens and twenties, I was a healthy, rational person who lived in harmony with the universe. My neighbors declare going off to college was my undoing, but I trace the decline to being too busy to bake bread. When I took time for the slow process of concocting a loaf of bread with my own hands, I benefitted mentally and physically; in a few hours, I gain both calisthenics and psychological help.

Nearly everyone knows by now that bread made with whole meal flours is more nourishing than a pale loaf mass-produced for supermarket sale. Eating the cheapest white loaf is like eating cotton candy: your stomach feels a little queasy, and you're hungry ten minutes later.

Several friends fed me homemade bread. I'm not complaining; it's delicious, bearing no resemblance to the stuff labeled "bread" in the average supermarket.

But they are all busy women: several run their own business, have a husband and at least one child to entertain, feed, and clothe; a house to clean; cats, dogs, and cars to fuel. After the third friendly meal where guests cut thick slices of bread from a loaf enshrined in the center of the table, I behaved like a writer and investigated. Shrewdly, I asked questions like, "Did you make this bread?" I watched my hostess alertly, expecting her to blush and admit she bought it. After prying the location out of her, I planned to buy some myself and tell guests I made it, assuming she'd done the same.

The truth was a greater bombshell. These workaholic super-mothers all own a machine that makes bread. They seemed anxious to talk about it; to "share" it with me, as they put it.

It's simple, they announced blithely. Dump in the ingredients and hit a few buttons; the machine mixes the dough and forms a loaf, then bakes it. Several hours later, the smiling hostess explained, while I listened in horror, she opens the marvelous machine just in time for the arrival of whoever she wants to impress. One woman reported gleefully, "It even kneads it for you."

"That explains it," I said sagely, rolling a piece of bread into a bullet in my fingers and firing it into the air. Super Mom heard the thump when it hit her spotless floor and scrambled to pick it up.

I now live with a man who got a bread machine for Christmas one year. I use it every week; each time I reach for my Grandmother's mixing bowl to make bread the old-fashioned way, my mind reminds me of a dozen jobs I should do and I take the machine off the shelf instead. But I mourn what I am losing.

Bread machines might be a boon to anyone deficient in upper arm strength, such as mothers and grandmothers who have baked bread for years. But anyone who uses a bread machine is missing half the reason for homemade bread. Modern homemakers of either sex have time-consuming obligations; machine-made bread is tasty.

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written 1994; published on the Windbreak House website 2011.

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