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Windbreak A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains All About the Book

What's Here?

About the Book
Publication details, awards, how to purchase the book.

Q and A about Windbreak
Linda answers a few nosy questions in great and gory detail.

How Linda's Journal Was Turned into the Book Windbreak
An exclusive essay by Linda.

Some Readers' Comments about Windbreak
Read what's here then send us your own thoughts using the email link in the left-hand column of the website.

Excerpts from Windbreak
Get a taste of the journal.

A Word about the Glossary
Windbreak includes a glossary in the back of the book.
Here's why you shouldn't skip it.

Table of Contents
Includes a list of the poems in the book,
something the book's table of contents neglects.

For More . . .

For publication information, click here.

For purchasing information, click here.

For an index to Windbreak, click here.

For a study guide to Windbreak and other books by Linda, click here.

For other Questions and Answers on Linda's writing, ranch, and life, click here to be taken to the Ask Linda page.

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Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains

"Through her eyes, we too come to notice more, and to cherish with her all the fine small beauties of her strenuous life." [from New York Times Book Review]

A journal of a ranch year, following Linda and George on the John Hasselstrom ranch at the edge of the Black Hills in western South Dakota. Linda vividly details the daily work, worry, and wonder of one who lives on the land. With map and glossary.

Study Guide
A Windbreak study guide created by a college professor is available.
Click here for details.

Award Winner!
1988 Literary Guild alternate.

Click here for a webpage about Linda's awards and honors.

Nonfiction interspersed with poetry
Published 1987; reprinted
233 pages, size: 5.5 X 8.5

$14.95 – paperback
ISBN 0-9609626-3-8

Published by:
Barn Owl Books
Berkeley, California

Book sales handled by:
Linda M. Hasselstrom Books
PO Box 169
Hermosa SD 57744
(605) 255-4064

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Linda Answers Questions About Windbreak

QUESTION: The book is a journal of one year. Why did you start it in the fall instead of on January 1st?

We both, the editor and I, felt that it made more sense for a rancher's year to begin in fall: that's the preparation for winter time, the harvest, the more relaxed time when ranchers get ready. It's got positive connotations: harvest, lushness, time to relax a little bit. This also sets off the difference between a rancher's year and what we think of as a "normal" or "fiscal" year-- and one of my major intentions was to educate people about the way ranchers work.

This also gave us time to get in some general information about ranching before before dumping the reader into the hard winter work. And if we'd begun with spring, the reader would have been plunged into calving and all its difficulties without the chance to get used to the idea of the prairie's beauty. And then in summer, there's haying, and heat, and bugs and hard work. . . .

QUESTION: Does the book actually cover only one year's happenings? Or was it a compilation of the interesting things that happened during a few years?

Most of the events in the book happened in 1987. But part of my purpose in writing the book was to try to educate people about the work a rancher does, the way a responsible rancher cares for the land-- so it was important that every phase of a rancher's life be represented. It was important that the reader get a chance to see just how thick the ice on the water tanks could get, even if it didn't get quite that thick that particular year. In order to show this, I went back to the journals I'd been keeping since I was nine years old, and searched the particular time of year for events that needed to be in the book. If the March 20 Equinox storm was not severe enough in the first year's diary that I consulted, I went back a year until I found one that would show what such a blizzard could truly be like.

In that sense, the book might be considered to exaggerate some events, but each event happened and was recorded in my journal the way it is recorded in the book-- but not all those events happened in the same year.

For another example, we did have some years without devastating prairie fires-- but it was important to show what ranchers do in a prairie fire. So I was persuaded to make one additional change that I've regretted ever since. Once we knew which months would begin and end the book, the editor and I knew it would end with a fire. So she thought it would be unifying to begin with a fire as well-- perfectly logical, since it was fire season. I searched my journals and couldn't find a fire that occurred at the beginning of September-- so I MOVED a fire that actually occurred in December, shifting all my recorded diary entries that referred to the fire to September in Windbreak.

And not long after the book came out, an amateur and excellent historian from Hermosa stepped up to me in the Post Office and said, "I sure don't remember a fire that big ever happening in September!" I explained to him what had happened.

But that incident alerted me to the fact that people like him who knew the facts might believe that if I'd move a fire's date, I might change something else. I want readers to trust me, so I have never changed anything again in one of my books. If there is a reason I can't tell what really happened, I say so, but I don't change things. I want readers to trust me when I say that it will harm the prairie to plow it-- but how can I expect them to believe that if I change something else?

QUESTION: Since you wrote Windbreak there have been some scandals involving autobiographies or so-called memoirs that turned out to be untrue. If you were to write the book now, would you do things differently than how you described in the previous question?

Yes. I'd make the fire a remembered event, and keep the facts of that fall as they were.

Front and back cover of Windbreak

QUESTION: Tell me about the cover photo. That's you on the horse, isn't it?

This photograph was taken by a professional photographer friend of mine for the book, though at the time I think I planned to use it as an author photograph and not the cover.

I'd tried several times to get usable photos. One man who volunteered kept me and the horse running back and forth along the hillside for awhile, then in the corral-- but the light was never QUITE right. So in order to make more light, he whipped out a shiny umbrella. I suggested that he open it SLOWLY, since the horse had never seen one before, but every time, he'd SNAP it open and every time the horse would bolt or buck or leap-- and the photographer never managed to snap pictures of my pretty spectacular riding to stay in the saddle! Now THOSE would have been exciting pictures.

So finally I called a professional, explained the situation and promised to pay him. He came and we went into the pasture south of the house where we were wintering some yearling calves, heifers and steers. I moved the cattle past him as slowly as I could, and he trotted backwards up the hill shooting pictures. A couple of days later he had a severe heart attack, and though he recovered, he retired not long after that. He always assured me that running backwards up the hill did not cause his heart attack, but I've always felt guilty.

The fact that the scene is winter is a shame; my publisher didn't care for the brown grass, and she put a pinkish cast over the grass to try to put more life into the picture. It's just hard to make western South Dakota look very photogenic in the winter.

The horse was Oliver, who never quite got over being just a teensy bit spooky if things he wasn't used to arrived in his neighborhood without enough warning. He kept me alert.

The cattle were all yearlings, some heifers and some steers, kept over the winter as a kind of cattle price hedge. We sold most of our calves in the fall of the year, fresh off the cow. But we always kept the replacement heifers, and since we were going to be feeding them anyway, we kept some steers with them, ones that were too small to sell in the fall, or otherwise odd-- like the strangely-marked one on the cover's far right. Auctioneers always try to separate any bovine that is different from the rest, so that one would be sold separately unless we ran him in with a bunch of yearlings of nearly identical weight. The second critter ahead of him looks like a pretty purely bred Herford heifer, so we probably kept her in the herd. I can see, almost at the far left edge of the photo, on the back cover, a brown one that was the offspring of the old Guernsey cow my father bought so I could learn to milk.

QUESTION: What were your parents' reaction to this book? What did your neighbors and friends say to you about it?

My father read to the 6th paragraph of the book and when he saw I referred to him as my "stepfather," which was factually correct, he stopped reading and never, so far as I know, read another word I wrote. My mother and I both explained to him that I later said he was the only real father I'd ever known, but he was unmovable. He often told me never to write about him again, and ultimately-- after several strokes which affected his mental balance-- ordered me to stop writing entirely or leave the ranch. I left the ranch in 1992, when I was 49 years old and a widow.

Other family members, friends, and neighbors said very little-- at least to me. Most of them have never admitted to reading my work. My uncle, whose opinion I cherished greatly, said it was, "Not too bad." From him, that was a great compliment.

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Linda signing one of her first copies of Windbreak.
This photo was taken in September 1987, at the book launch in California, where the publisher's office was located.

How Linda's Journal Was Turned into the Book Windbreak

Here is a story by Linda about writing and publishing her book Windbreak. This story has been used in classes Linda teaches about keeping and using journals.

* * *

Even though I don’t believe you should begin writing in a journal with the idea of publishing it, my own first published book was a journal. The story of how it came to be written and published may be useful for other writers.

During the late 1980s, when I was nearing the age of forty, I had not yet published a book, though I’d considered myself a writer for years. I was considering giving up writing, something I regularly considered up to that time. Nothing I had written or was writing satisfied me. Besides that, I was an active environmentalist, and the magazines I was reading predicted that the one-family ranch was becoming a relic of the past, that “agri-business,” huge factory farms, would replace the traditional ranching methods and families. (This was the beginning of what I see as a phase of public speech where familiar words are hyphenated and misspelled into stylish fad words and become almost incomprehensible in the process: Agri-business seems pretty tame these days.)

I decided I might be able to publish a book showing how one-family ranches operated. If ranches disappeared from the landscape, the book would be a history of their existence. And it might serve as a guide to bringing them back after “agri-business” succeeded in destroying our economy and our landscape. I also thought such a book would show that the methods my family and neighbors used are environmentally more sound than the public perception of ranching, and much healthier for the economy and the land than methods used by big business.

[Twenty years later, it appears more and more certain that the family ranching I knew, which worked with the landscape and wildlife to produce healthy food without harming the environment, is destined to be replaced. Ranchettes and subdivisions are doing as much damage to the environment as big business, and people who call themselves “green” without quotations marks often have no idea where their food originates.]

Trying to organize all that I knew about ranching, I had the idea of using a year’s diary of life on the ranch to show the work we did in each season, and thus how the ranch operated. A year’s journal would allow me to show the kind of work we did at each season, how we survived winter physically and mentally.

Even at the beginning, I was skeptical that such a book would ever be published, but in my darker moments I thought that if it was nothing more than a record of a ranching family in the late 1980s, it might be a valuable historical document. I was also doing the project as a way of justifying my way of life to myself, and to the college professors who had told me I’d be “throwing my life away” if I returned to the ranch and to physical labor instead of remaining in college teaching. Doing something for yourself is one of the best recommendations I can make anyone’s writing, and oddly enough it often leads to success, that is to publication.

I sat down with journals from the past twenty years and began to copy out passages that I thought represented the typical way we worked and organized our lives. Along the way I enjoyed the memories, and remembered other events that I’d failed to record and took time to write them as well. Slowly, I built a picture of a fairly typical ranch year. It's a busy twelve months, because I included the worst prairie fire we ever had, the worst blizzard since 1887. I also happened to be injured pretty badly by a horse, but the year was still reasonably typical.

Once I had created a coherent three months, I prepared a formal book proposal with an outline of the idea. I studied The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses and picked 24 publishers who expressed some interest in books about agriculture in their descriptions of the books they published. I started at the top of the list and sent the proposal to each publisher. I also sent it to an agent who had read several of my novels.

The agent said that my work and life on the ranch was so hard and so brutal that no one could possibly want to read it. One by one, the 24 publishers rejected it.

Depressed, I thought again about giving up writing. Then I went to the documentary movie “Heartland,” made in Montana and Wyoming about the life of letter- and journal-writer Elinore Pruitt Stewart, a real woman who lived a life similar to mine. When I came out of that movie, I no longer cared if anyone ever read anything I’d written-- but I knew I had to keep writing about my life on the ranch because it was the truth of my life, as well as the truth of a lot of other people’s lives.

Searching the International Directory again, I found a publisher in Berkeley, California named “Barn Owl Books.” The entry said nothing about an interest in agriculture, but because of the name, I sent the proposal. The publisher accepted it, but told me that she’d only published one book before-- her own novel about what might happen to a lesbian community in San Francisco when The Big Earthquake hits. She was trying, I think now, to find out if I would reject her because of her sexual orientation, and to warn me that she didn’t have much experience in publishing. But she loved my book! Her editorial suggestions taught me a lot about writing as she asked me to smooth out awkward passages copied directly from my journals.

I wrote in my journal while working on the manuscript, “I will find it exquisitely ironic if, after working hard as a writer for 35 years, I become best known for a journal that describes the other things I've been doing.”

That’s exactly what happened. That book has become something of a classic. When I met the vice president of Women Writing the West in 1997, she stared at me and said, “I thought you’d be older-- you-- you founded the whole genre of women writing about their lives in the West!”

I stammered and stuttered. The truth is, I was just writing in my journal, trying to make sense of my life.

So my final advice is: write in your journal. Write the truth.

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Some Readers' Comments about Windbreak

"Just discovered you ~ Windbreak ~ was mesmerizing . . . My family homesteaded in 1885 near Aberdeen, SD from Spydeburg, Norway. . . I have my great-grandmother's journal that one uncle translated from the Norwegian. . . she came here with no English at 18 / lived in sod house originally / had 6 children. . . I must say that I believe it is your candidness that most gripped me. . . LOVE, LOVE your work."
-- Connie E. Mabry, Ed. S.
author of Saving Your Life ~ One Day at a Time: A Daily Guide to Easy, Fundamental Coping Skills for Depression

"Oh my, the nostalgia. Ranching is a way of life no one really understands unless they have lived it. What a marvelous job [Linda] did describing the deep dark realities, the heart aches and the joys. And most of all the antidotes around the medicine of all, the smells, the sun, the rain and the feelings."
-- Penny Porter

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Snow at the ranch in 1999.
The big red barn is by the corrals and other outbuildings near Linda's parents' house. On the right (on the horizon) is Linda's house, now called Windbreak House.

Excerpts from Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains

By Linda M. Hasselstrom
Published 1987 by Barn Owl Books

Clear, bell-like notes of grouse in the icy darkness. The orange moon rises late - the Wolf moon. The cows on the south hillside didn't want to come to feed so we drove up on top to collect them. The white bull snorted and pawed when he saw Mike. I got between them and told Mike to start backing up the hill. Once the bull saw me he seemed to calm down. He probably just didn't recognize Mike, but we'll have to watch him, as it's not the first time he's acted snuffy. While we waited for the cattle to gather we had a wonderful snowball fight. I seldom hit anyone I throw at, but both George and Mike throw well, so I'm always soaked when it's over, but I love to see the two of them playing - they have so few chances.

The calves are beginning to catch on to eating their alfalfa cubes and creep feed from feed bunks on the ground, but they still have to be brought into the corral on foot morning and evening. . . I stand at the corral gate and call "C'calf! C'calf!" ("Come calf") while George circles around and heads them in. Soon they'll be trained to come at the call alone. Just before dark we noticed a cow calving on the hillside. George went to check and found the calf ice-covered and shivering, so we brought him in and put him in a bathtub full of hot water to warm up. We dried him off and before we'd finished supper he was lurching around the kitchen, bawling for his mother. I kept him in an hour or so, and had several phone calls. We'd be talking, and then the calf would bawl right beside me and there'd be a long silence on the other end. About 9:00 he was getting so rambunctious George took him to the barn and brought the cow down off the hill so he could get some supper.

Had a good talk with Margaret on the phone this evening, ranging over our usual variety of topics. We agreed it was unusual to be able to talk to someone for two hours and enjoy it. One part of the conversation would puzzle anyone not familiar with this area. Margaret: "Did you notice the cottonwood tree in the pasture north of us, the one that burned last summer?" Linda: "No. What about it?" Margaret: "There's a new one beside it, so maybe it's not lost after all." Linda: "Well, have you noticed how large the pine tree in David's pasture is getting?" Here, trees are a rare and precious resource, but even so, it seems strange to know she and I could go on like this, discussing individual trees along the roads we normally travel, for quite some time.

Spent the morning on the telephone calling local people about some bad bills in the legislature. While lunch was cooking I ventured out for a brief hobble around our hillside. I found coyote sign less than thirty feet from the house. How lovely if our house simply becomes a part of the natural ecology up here, so that the animals go about their business without noticing us.

I helped George feed, and then we brought in a huge pile of cottonwood logs and piled them beside the furnace-- a golden treasure. The ground has warmed up enough so we could dig some parsnips out from under the mulch. The fresh earthy taste is the promise of gardens to come.

Scrubbing Parsnips in January

There's a modern sink just inside the door,
but I always scrub parsnips the old way:
with the hose, outside.
The sun shines, and it's forty degrees.

Icy water fans over my hands.
I scrub the clinging earth from white,
stalky roots, their legs splayed
like a man's.
My mother washes them
outside to keep the dirt
out of the plumbing.

But there's another reason--
the strong earth smell,
the weak winter sun on my back,
chill wind and cold water, those white
limbs open, a thin trail of blood
where my topping knife slipped
and cut my finger.
The rich blood threads
between two roots and blends with the clear
water, follows it down into the earth
for next year's crop.

# # #

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A Word about the Glossary

Don’t skip the glossary thinking it holds only dictionary definitions.

Here’s an excerpt:

CALVING: producing calves. Calves are normally born front feet first, with the head lying neatly on and between the feet. In that position they come naturally from the birth canal or, if the calf’s head is too large to pass naturally, the calf puller is attached to the front feet to provide extra power. Any variation of the normal position causes trouble. Sometimes one front leg is pushed down and back– a breech birth– and the cow can’t push the calf out. Someone has to reach in and pull the other leg into position before the calf can be born. Often this requires pushing the head and one front foot back inside first. Then you must grope inside for the other foot while the cow strains to push your arm out. The pressure a cow exerts can temporarily paralyze an arm.

During calving season, we watch as cows’ bags slowly fill with milk, and the vulva swells, another indicator of coming birth. Some ranchers seem to be able to always predict when a cow will calve, but almost no one claims to be right all the time. George insists he can only tell if a cow is calving if he sees feet sticking out. Most ranchers calve in early spring, between February and May, but some risk December weather for calving in order to have larger calves to sell the next fall.

See also entries for BACKWARD CALF, BAG, CALF PULLER

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Windbreak Table of Contents


Author Thanks, vi

Table of Contents, vii

Preface, ix-xi

Introduction, xiii-xv

Map, xvi-xvii


Poem: “Rankin Ridge,” 2

September Journal Entries, 3-23

Poem: “Digging Potatoes,” 23

October Journal Entries, 24-36

Poem: “Deer,” 36

November Journal Entries, 37-48

Poem: “Seasons in South Dakota,” 48-49


Poem: “Staying In One Place,” 52

December Journal Entries, 53-69

Poem: “Bone,” 69

January Journal Entries, 70-84

Poem: “Scrubbing Parsnips in January,” 85

February Journal Entries, 86-95

Poem: “Drying Onions,” 96


Poem: “Mulch,” 100-101

March Journal Entries, 102-113

Poem: “Late March Blizzard,” 114

April Journal Entries, 115-135

Poem: “Calving Time,” 135-136

May Journal Entries, 137-152

Poem: “Memorial Day,” 152


Poem: “Haying: A Four-Part Definition,” 156-157

June Journal Entries, 158-171

Poem: “Tapestry,” 171-172

July Journal Entries, 173-192

Poem: “This Is,” 176-177

Poem: “When My Father Waters His Trees,” 192

August Journal Entries, 193-213

Poem: “Hands,” 214-215

Glossary, 217-233

Author bio and photo, 235

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