Book Remarks: Mystic Travelers by Gail Crane

With Mystic Travelers: Images from the Edge, the reader receives not only a book but an invitation to join these two Mystic travelers on adventures to the edge of the world we know through Facebook and their website.

When she married well-known South Dakota artist Jon Crane, Gail Crane was catapulted out of her previous existence and into an entirely different life. Geographically, socially, spiritually, Gail was transformed and began to trust and embrace the unknown. Gail writes in this book with a poetic vision, telling us of the history of that ongoing adventure; there is no end in sight.

For the 27 years of their marriage, this delightful couple have combined their talents. John paints brilliantly, and takes gorgeous photographs; Gail puts considerable energy into navigating the demands required by the business of supporting yourself by selling your art. Her account of their ongoing journey bursts with her personal vignettes and spiritual insights, and is beautifully illustrated by Jon’s  photographic artistry.

The back cover
features Cosme.

Read the book, then join the couple and Cosme, cat who adopted them, for exciting escapades in Mexico and the American West.

You will also see many photos that couldn’t fit into the book by going to the website, www.mystictravelers.us, or look for Jon Crane on Facebook.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Mystic Travelers: Images from the Edge
A Travelogue-Memoir by Gail Crane.

Hardbound: $29.95 plus tax and shipping.
ISBN print: 978-0-9915449-8-1;
ISBN e-book: 978-0-9915449-9-8.

Available from Gail Crane
PO Box 1100, Hill City, SD 57745
https://www.mystictravelers.us/gails-new-book.html

Poetry Is Everywhere: Homesteading in Dakota

The honor of being named South Dakota’s first living Poet of Merit, by the South Dakota State Poetry Society, astonishes me because this state is full of poets, as well as of people who have not yet begun to write. Part of this job, I believe, is to encourage people to write their ideas, thoughts, observations, no matter what form they choose.

Poetry is everywhere in the world; make it your pleasure to read it and record it.

Homesteading in Dakota log cabin

Homesteading in Dakota

A few years ago, I received an email from a lecturer in the Humanities in Arizona who was teaching an American West literature and film class. The first poem of mine she encountered was “Homesteading in Dakota,” which her class was reading among other authors detailing women’s experiences in the West. She had read that my poetry in Dakota Bones was inspired by local history, and wanted to know if the story in the poem was true.

Here’s part of my response:

Homesteading in Dakota stories told by John Hasselstrom 1968“That’s one of many stories inspired by local history, with the names changed to protect the — guilty. And yes, “Homesteading in Dakota” is taken straight from one of the stories my father told me, with tight lips and in terse sentences, once when we were moving cattle near where the homestead stood. I believe he immediately regretted telling me, but once a writer has a story in her head, it may lodge and grow there. 

I even used some of his phrases in the poem, though they’re not in quotes: “walked for a month like he had cactus in his feet,” “the kids grew up wild as coyotes,” and “not his fault the dark spoiled his aim the first time.”
 
I was perhaps thirteen years old when I heard the story, and thus learned a lesson about the concept of justice in our community, and also something about how women were regarded. And, because I’d visited a homestead site very near where this story happened, and lived only about three miles away, I could even picture how the woman would have worked to grow a garden, how isolated she must have felt.

Homesteading in Dakota view from old home site

And those little hand-dug wells are everywhere around here: we have to watch carefully and fill them when we find them. We filled one last fall in my parents’ ranch yard, and there’s another slowly caving not a mile away: rock walls built by hand probably a hundred years ago.

The professor responded, “I so enjoy the details you shared, and can certainly see how your poetry truly brings these people, events and experiences to life.  My students discussed your work today, and loved the finality of the moment when you write

He shot once out the window, missed;
shot her and didn’t.

First there were quizzical looks, and then the reality was clear, and poignant.”

Homesteading in Dakota three Wind anthologies for contemporary stories

I also noted that the professor might find more experiences from contemporary Western women in the three anthologies I helped Nancy Curtis and Gaydell Collier edit: Leaning into the Wind, Woven on the Wind, and Crazy Women Creek.

The West has always been a place of rough, sometimes harsh, justice, and I didn’t want the students to think those judgments were all in the past.


 
Homesteading in Dakota

It was a typical prairie homestead:
a hundred sixty dusty acres
with not one tree.
Mr. Fisher put up a soddy for his wife, five kids,
and dug a well by hand the first month.
The kids and the woman worked the winch
after the well got below ten feet.
                                                                He cut logs
in the hills ten miles away for a solid barn,
log-roofed. Once they were settled he went
to the mines in Deadwood, seventy miles away,
for winter cash.
                                She stayed in the soddy,
milked the cow, dug out a little garden,
struggling with the sod laced together by buffalo grass
roots. Now and then she’d stop for breath, shade
her eyes, look at the horizon line
drawn smooth against the sun.

Mr. Fisher—she called him that—
came home when he could,
once or twice a month all summer. Neighbors
helped her catch the cow, fight fire, sit up
when the youngest child died.
                                                                Once
he got a late start, rode in at midnight.
Fumbling at the low door, he heard struggle inside.
The kids were all awake, pale blank faces
hanging in the dark.
                                                When he pushed aside
the curtain to the double bunk
he saw the window open,
a white-legged form running in the moonlight,
his wife’s screaming face.
He shot once out the window, missed;
shot her and didn’t.

The neighbors said Black Douglas, on the next claim,
walked for a month like he had cactus in his feet.
The kids grew up wild as coyotes.
                                                            He never went to trial.
He’d done the best he could;
not his fault the dark
spoiled his aim the first time.

Linda M. Hasselstrom © 2017

 

Many early homesteaders did as this man did: established their first home in a sod house on the prairie east of the Black Hills. When they had the time, the equipment and the energy, they would go to the nearest spot in the hills where they could cut logs, and haul them home for sturdy farm buildings. Sometimes they built the house first, but often the soddy was considered good enough for the family until the farm or ranch buildings were complete, because the welfare of the stock was paramount.

And a great many of the homesteaders in our neighborhood also went to Deadwood to mine gold for a cash income. My uncle often spoke of his own father’s mining days, and particularly of the horse he rode, and how quickly the horse could make the seventy-mile trip. “That was a horse!” he’d say.

Naturally, anyone in the neighborhood soon visited any new home to get acquainted, and in most cases, those who had been there first were generous and helpful with newcomers.

So it is logical that:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Neighbors
helped her catch the cow, fight fire, sit up
when the youngest child died.

I could never have verified the next part of the story, of course, but it, too, has a certain sad logic. And in the code of the west, the neighbors might talk about a man who walked as if his feet were sore, but since none of them had seen the incident, they could hardly be expected to testify. And legal authority was either nonexistent or distant. I can almost see the gossips shaking their heads over the rough justice.

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Homesteading in Dakota poetry books

“Homesteading in Dakota” publishing history:

A Journal of Contemporary Literature, Vol. 5 #1; 1964.

Black Hills Monthly, Nov. 1981.

Caught By One Wing, published by Julie D. Holcomb, San Francisco, CA; 1984.

Caught by One Wing, Spoon River Poetry Press, 1990.

Dakota Bones: Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom, Spoon River Poetry Press, 1993.

The Western Women’s Reader, ed. Lillian Schlissel & Catherine Lavender (NY: HarperCollins, 2000; HarperPerennial edition), p. 173-4.

Literature of the American West, Ed. Greg Lyons. Longman, 2003; pp. 348-9.

Reflections of the West: Cowboy Painters and Poets, Published by CJ Hadley, 2015.

Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky: Collected and New Poems, Spoon River Poetry Press, 2017.

 

 

Poetry Is Everywhere: Grandmother

The honor of being named South Dakota’s first living Poet of Merit, by the South Dakota State Poetry Society, astonishes me, because this state is full of poets, as well as of people who have not yet begun to write. Part of this job, I believe, is to encourage people to write their ideas, thoughts, observations, no matter what form they choose.

SD State Poetry Society website photo

I regard everything as possible material for writing: when I’m washing dishes, I may be thinking of the way silver shines through the suds, or how much I love the color of the plates. My pockets and purse always contain tiny notebooks so I can capture thoughts that might escape. No matter what I have done all morning, by noon I have a handful of ideas that might turn into finished poetry or prose.

So my advice to all who would be poets is always to have a means of recording your thoughts. I’m told that personal phones can accomplish this task these days, but that’s just a rumor to me since I have an ancient flip phone. But however you choose to do it, hang onto thoughts that might become poems, prose, or letters to your aged aunt by writing them down as soon as they arrive.

Poetry is everywhere in the world; make it your pleasure to read and record it.

Grandmother journal notes become ideas for poemsOne of the easiest ways to begin a poem is by describing an action or an event. This is another reason to keep a journal: many of my poems begin as notes in my journal, simply so I don’t forget a particular incident. Sometimes I immediately believe the notes might become a poem, and begin writing a draft right then, often on the computer. Just as often, however, I am simply recording the information, and only later do I begin to consider it as poetic material.

Remember, no poem is written down once and finished. No matter how wonderful you may think a poem is when you first commit the lines and images to paper, it is not finished.

William Wordsworth said, in Lyrical Ballads,

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.

The tranquility is essential, and in order to have time for the recollection to occur, time must pass.

Here is an example, using my poem “Grandmother.”

Grandmother

I always see her hands first, turning
the handle of the Foley food mill.
The veins are knotted over old bones;
spicy tomato steam rises around
her white hair. A worn gold ring turns on
her finger but never will slide off
over the knuckle. Solid as a
young woman, she grew thin, forgot our
names. Hands that fed four daughters lay still.
She left us little: brown unlabeled pictures,
a dozen crocheted afghans, piles of patched jeans.
In the cellar, crowded shelves bear jars of beans,
peas, corn, meat.
Labels like white silent mouths
open and close in the dark.

© 1993, 2017  Linda M. Hasselstrom

~ ~ ~

The facts of the poem are in the first eight lines:

I always see her hands first, turning
the handle of the Foley food mill.
The veins are knotted over old bones;
spicy tomato steam rises around
her white hair. A worn gold ring turns on
her finger but never will slide off
over the knuckle. Solid as a
young woman, she grew thin,

Grandmother Foley Food Mill with tomatoes

Each time I read them, I am rewarded by being able to see my grandmother as if I’d seen her yesterday. She stands in the tiny kitchen area of her one-room house on the ranch, turning the handle of the Foley food mill which is fastened over a bowl which captures the tomato pulp and juice after the mill removes the seeds. The kitchen is hot; a pot of tomatoes steams on the wood stove. Occasionally she uses a lace-edged handkerchief to wipe sweat from her forehead or replaces one of her hair combs, holding the hair farther from her face. She smiles at me as she wipes steam from her glasses.

Grandmother sewing box and pin-holder penguinAfter this point, though, the poem took over the writing, and it was no longer strictly fact. I no longer remember how long this process took, but no doubt several revisions as I considered the poem, both consciously and unconsciously.

Grandmother grew somewhat forgetful, but she never forgot our names. Her children were not four daughters, but three sons and one daughter– but “four daughters” kept the number correct and fit the rhythm of the poem more closely.

“She left us little.” I have no idea if my grandmother had much savings or not; she lived with my mother briefly before she died. I have a tin box she kept sewing materials in, and an odd cloth-covered piece of cardboard in the shape of a penguin into which she put straight pins.

. . . . forgot our
names. Hands that fed four daughters lay still.
She left us little: brown unlabeled pictures,
a dozen crocheted afghans,

While I worked on the poem, other memories intruded, so the next few lines aren’t really about my grandmother:

. . . . piles of patched jeans.
In the cellar, crowded shelves bear jars of beans,
peas, corn, meat.

Grandmother home-canned produce with white mouth labelsInstead, memories of several of my aunts intruded: they were always patching jeans. And an aunt who will remain nameless here had at least three freezers in her basement full of preserved garden produce. The same aunt once took me to the cellar where rough wood shelves held hundreds of canning jars, some of which were so ancient that the contents couldn’t really be identified. After she died, we hauled them all to the dump.

And somewhere, in the darkness of the night perhaps, I found the last lines, which symbolize, for me, all the untold stories of those women who canned those thousands of jars of food before even country folk could routinely buy “fast food” and food preserved by others.

Labels like white silent mouths
open and close in the dark.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

My poem “Grandmother” may be found on page 10 of  Dakota: Bones Grass, Sky, (2017: Spoon River Poetry Press); this poem is also found in Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom (1993: Spoon River Poetry Press).

The photos of the hands writing in a journal and the sewing box with the pin-penguin are mine. Other photos are borrowed from the internet.

 

Support Your Local Raptors

I don’t know when I saw my first raptor– surely a long time before I knew the word “raptor.” But I’m certain the occasion was at my Grandmother’s house in Red Canyon, and doubtless the raptor was a hawk– probably a red-tailed hawk– that sailed over her chickens, serenely eyeing them. I’m sure my grandmother wanted to swear, but did not, in front of the child of six at her side.

And I’m not sure how long it was before I came to respect and love the raptors of the prairie. At first my sympathies were probably with the rabbits and chickens, but once I saw my first golden eagle sailing over the east pasture, I was hooked on these majestic birds. Not long after that I began to notice that great horned owls frequented the juniper trees around our house, and to admire the ghostly way they sailed out of view when we came near.

After that, I watched for them, watched the way the hawks and owls hunted quietly but surely throughout our pastures and even near the house–reducing the population of rabbits that gobbled my garden. I might briefly sympathize when a mouse flew past in the talons of a hawk, but my sympathy vanished when I found the feed sacks gnawed open in the barn.

The Black Hills Raptor Center has a three-fold mission:

  • Educate people about the natural world, using birds of prey as the “hook” to get them excited to learn more. This they do presently.
  • Rehabilitate injured raptors, returning them to live out their lives as wild animals and take their necessary place in the food chain. This is a future goal.
  • Participate in research endeavors that help to expand the scientific understanding of the role of raptors in the environment. This is a future goal.

The Black Hills Raptor Center made it possible for me to see these magnificent birds up close– to look into the eyes of Elise the Red-tailed Hawk, who is now an incredible 30 years old, an age she never would have achieved in the wild. To see that stance, to look at that curved beak, is to see perfection of the raptor sort.

And one day, as I walked under a dead tree in the yard of my retreat house, I looked up and saw the great horned owl I’d heard hooting in the darkness, and whose descendant was calling across the prairie as I drifted into sleep last night.

Gradually I came to recognize others in the raptor family, like the kestrels who ziiiing! across the highway to grab a mouse in the borrow pit. 

The Black Hills Raptor Center, a non-profit organization, has just issued its ten year anniversary annual report, showing that its small group of dedicated volunteers provided a thousand educational programs between 2010 and 2019. Volunteers take one or more raptors to visit preschool through college, to community groups, and to gatherings at Mt. Rushmore, other national parks, Custer State Park, conservation camps, outdoor expos, sports shows, and others.

To watch a small child gaze up at Elise for a first glimpse of the wild majesty of hawks is to see awe bloom.  

Through the dedicated work of volunteers, the organization has bought and paid for the property on which additional facilities will be built. Injured birds brought to the center now must be driven by volunteers to clinics with complete facilities. Donations are needed now for rehab pods and residences for the raptors, an office, vet clinic, ICU, aviaries, flight rooms, and a public education center.

Join me in helping to support these magnificent residents of our grasslands.

I love the names given to the divisions of support: Bald Eagles have given $75,000 to $125,000. More modest levels exist: for $100 to $499, you can become an American kestrel! Or contribute to become a Short-eared owl, a Red-tailed Hawk, a Snowy owl, or a Gyrfalcon.

Whatever you can contribute, do it: Black Hills Raptor Center, Box 9713, Rapid City, SD 57709.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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August 1: Lammas — Celebrate Your Harvest

Lammas basil harvest 2014--8-25

To celebrate Lammas, and the depths of summer, I’m deeply involved in gardening. Every day I say I’m going to work on poems, but it’s so very easy to be distracted by gardening chores that are pleasurable because they occur outside. I’ve been weeding more than usual. And when I have a pause in my work, I often peer at the tomato plants to see if I can spot any hornworms.

So this seemed an especially good time to think about all the things that keep even dedicated writers from writing. Here’s a chapter about this gorgeous and distracting time of year from my book The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook. 

*~*~*~*~*

August 1: Lammas

How to Write While Avoiding Writing

Wheel with flower and beeToday’s the day, I promised myself this morning, just as I did yesterday and the day before.

Yes, today’s the day I write an essay about Lammas for my business website Home Page. Lammas is often marked by rituals emphasizing endings, as well as with the collection and preservation of food. How could I connect this season with writing?

Yesterday while not coming up with any ideas for the Lammas message I ambled through the garden mumbling curses on the grasshoppers and admiring the orange blush on a few green pumpkins. I investigated a water stain in the house where I conduct retreats, and filed some papers there. Then, in a truly desperate avoidance maneuver, I moved my refrigerator out of its niche and cleaned under it before vacuuming its coils and washing spots of the door.

I was still trying to think of what to write for Lammas while I scrubbed the kitchen floor, vacuumed and dusted the house, and hung rugs and bedding on the deck railing to air. After lunch I finished up the plans for a workshop I’m giving tomorrow, including making a decision about what to wear. None of those activities produced an idea for my Lammas home page essay.

By 9 a.m. today, I’d read 50 pages of a mystery novel with my morning coffee after writing a few thoughts– not about Lammas– in my journal. After breakfast I tidied up the kitchen, played a game of Quiddler with my partner. We walked the dogs and then I planted some wildflower seeds, bathed the dogs while deciding what to fix for lunch and chopping vegetables to get started. I cleaned the washer, dryer and utility sink inside and out before I dusted and scrubbed the basement bathroom. I haven’t done either of those things for months.

Most of my housework gets done while I’m avoiding writing.

I love writing; it has provided some of my greatest joys– in that moment when I’ve finally shuffled the words enough to find the perfect phrase.

But it’s also provided hours of house-cleaning and staring into space, activities suited to trying to think what words need to come next. So my subconscious and sneaky brain can find all kinds of really good logical ways to avoid it.

Lammas LMH using 4-wheeler as a desk 2012Finally I sat down at the computer– and immediately decided I needed to change the location of the water on the garden. I rode the 4-wheeler down and sat on it with my garden plan, comparing that glorious vision I created while planting seeds this spring to the few plants that the voracious grasshoppers have not eaten. I had used a biological control to try to control their numbers, mixing it fresh daily and spraying everything. Perhaps it worked; I may have killed millions of hoppers– but billions and zillions more arrived.

We’ve had more grasshoppers here this year than I’ve ever seen. Neighbors who drive through have been shocked; I swear some rolled up their windows and sped out of the yard to avoid collecting any. By June the insects had eaten several successive plantings of radishes, lettuce, mesclun and carrots. They’d eaten the leaves from the rhubarb and were chomping down the stems. The kale and turnip leaves were lacy with holes and the hoppers were burrowing into the ground, eating the yellow onions. I replanted beans and peas three times and each time the hoppers ate them off as the seedlings emerged from the ground. They ate the potatoes down to the hay mulch and burrowed into it, still gnawing. By the millions they sliced the leaves from tomato plants, decimated the peonies and herbs– even the culinary sage. They even ate the perennial flowers I’d planted around the retreat house.

Lammas Grasshoppers on tomato cage 2012

A month ago, I moved herb plants like basil, feverfew, rosemary, lavender, oregano and rue into the greenhouse. Despite tight screens, the grasshoppers invaded and dined until I moved the surviving plants into the house. Inside the cold frames, the hoppers stripped the peppers of all their leaves in one night.

In the prairie closest to my house, I’ve studied which of the native plants and the invasive nasty ones have survived the hopper onslaught. Natives like buffalo grass, sideoats grama, mullein, and gumweeds haven’t been nibbled at all. The Non-Native Nasties– introduced plants like brome, alfalfa and clover–have been stripped of their leaves and then their stems, though of course not killed. Unfortunately, non-natives that I cultivate, like columbine, peony, chamomile, arugula, marjoram, thyme and dill were decimated as well, though the bergamot and spearmint survived. Apparently even grasshoppers don’t eat creeping jenny, definitely one of the Nasties.

While I looked over the garden, I kept thinking of Lammas. How could I write about harvest with no produce? My summer had already been seriously unpoetic, with a variety of activities and responsibilities disrupting my writing.

Today, walking among the plants, I noticed that only a few hoppers leapt away from me, instead of the moving blanket of three weeks ago. Pulling bristly foxtail from the leek row and stuffing it into the burn barrel, I saw that the tomatoes are strong and blooming.  The pumpkin vines sprawl and blossom, leaves shivering as entire rabbit families lounge in their shade. The kale and turnips are getting taller.

Lammas leafless tomatoesBack home, I examined the raised beds of my kitchen garden where the leafless tomato plants are bringing forth yellow Taxi tomatoes and tasty Early Girls. A couple of pots of basil and parsley so big I couldn’t move them inside are putting out new leaves.

Rather than focusing on its losses, the garden is working hard to recover from the failures of the summer. Maybe I can give thanks for some growth; maybe I’ll have a subject for the harvest essay.

Sitting with my fingers on the keyboard, I glanced through the window in front of my desk and saw a bird I’d never seen before. I grabbed one of my bird books and tracked him down: a male orchard oriole. He landed in the raised tomato bed and then hopped to a tomato cage, tilting his head this way and that. He hopped. Hopped. Hopped again and snatched a grasshopper. Gobbled it and hopped some more– following and gulping hoppers as they tried to evade him.

Orchard OrioleSuddenly I understood. I’d been waiting for ideas for my Lammas essay to find me. But I know that writers sometimes have to chase ideas. We must be persistent; we must leap and snap and gobble– and sometimes fail to catch a tasty morsel.  The oriole, by appearing outside my window, reminded me just how active a writer may have to be in chasing her ideas.

Later, I stepped outside and into a maelstrom of clucking and fluttering: two grown grouse and eleven teenagers were all scrambling around the dogs’ small pen, eating grasshoppers and chattering to one another. I went back to the computer.

Lammas grouse flock

My friends kindly say that I accomplish a lot, but they don’t see how much of what I do is part of avoiding this writing job I both love and find frustrating. Two big writing projects have been simmering in my brain all summer, but I’ve been able to work on them only in short bursts.

Naturally, yesterday and today I have spent considerable time answering email both urgent and frivolous, fixing and cleaning up after meals, cleaning bathrooms– the usual housewifely stuff. Yesterday I hand-wrote several letters. None of this was the writing I urgently need to do.

The need to post a new website essay related to writing hovered behind my thoughts like the afternoon thunderstorms: black and threatening. Each storm rattles the windows, throws any loose furniture around on the deck, and sneezes a few drops of rain: none of these actions very useful either to a gardener or a writer.

Lammas garden dirtBecause the air felt nippy when I woke at sunrise, I decided to enjoy some of the last of summer’s heat by tilling the garden. As I turned over the rich brown earth, I reflected on the meaning of Lammas. Also called Lughnasad by the ancients, it was traditionally commemorated only by women as a time of regrets and farewell as well as harvest and preservation.

Reflect, said the ancients, on regret and farewell, but also celebrate what you have worked hard to harvest and what you have preserved for your continuing life.

As Autumn comes, many people enact the ancient rituals of Lammas, but may be unaware that these celebrations reflect a long ancestral history. We may remember plans we made for summer, regretting that we have not accomplished everything. Frantically, we rush to cram a little more summer into the days. A tingle of chill in the air, like this morning’s 57 degrees, reminds us that winter is coming, so instead of whining about the heat, we revel in it as we harvest and preserve the fruits of our labors.

During Lammas, our ancestors paused to take note of their regrets for the things undone in summer. They said farewell to the summer’s activities while welcoming their harvests. Writers can observe the season in the same way as gardeners.

The Celts made this a fire festival, in recognition both of summer’s warmth and in preparation for the coming winter when they might need to conserve fuel as they huddled together around small fires, sharing warmth. If you wish to celebrate like the ancients, consider writing your regrets on paper or corn husks and tossing them into a bonfire so they vanish from your life. To celebrate harvest, share your garden’s fruits, perhaps baking rhubarb crisp or stirring up rhubarb sauce, or baking freshly-dug potatoes in that bonfire.

In the spirit of Lammas, then, I faced my failures: I have not yet finished the draft of what I’m calling the Wheel book. I have written that failure, among others, on a piece of paper. With the grasshoppers has come drought so the prairie here is tinder dry. Rather than risk building a bonfire outside, on August 1, I will light a candle in my study and carefully burn the record of this and other failures.

Writing down my failures has allowed me to become fully aware of my regrets for this season, so I can more easily let them go, both in my mind and through the fire’s symbolism. Furthermore, I realize that if I spend time brooding on what I failed to accomplish, or if I attempt to figure out why I did not do all that I wanted to do, I will be wasting time during which I could be writing.

Lammas asks us to consider farewells to whatever is passing from our lives. As a writer and human being, I welcome this prompting to say a firm goodbye to the things that are really over. Perhaps you can find visual symbols of what you regret– photos of that boyfriend who betrayed you?– and throw them into a flame, or into moving water, or bury them in the ground.

Lammas planting bulbs

Some folks bid loss farewell by whispering the hurt into flower bulbs, which they then plant. Symbolically, the pain returns in the spring transformed, in the form of a new and blooming life. Most of my plants are natives without bulbs. Most require freezing to be viable, so on my walks I collect seeds, and mumble my regrets as I scuff them into the dry ground.

I’ve dug the potato crop, and we will eat all of it with our Lammas meal: five small potatoes. We will try not to think about last year’s crop, which supplied us with potatoes from September through May. This winter, we’ll have to peel the potatoes we eat since their skins harbor pesticides used by commercial farmers. But on Lammas, we will rejoice in what we have and give thanks that we are not wholly dependent on our potato crop for nourishment this winter.

Lammas corn dollyFor the Celts, the August harvest was a time of story-telling, as well as giving thanks to the grain gods and goddesses in gratitude for a good harvest.  Some folks find a visual way to represent their triumphs, perhaps creating a decoration like a corn dolly or wheat weaving like those made by ancient grain farmers, or creating an altar to represent the harvest. We reminisce about the garden’s toils and triumphs, and talk about what we might plant next year.

Inspired by the harvest aspect of Lammas, I list the things I have accomplished. In applying to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, NV, I spent a lot of time writing a proposal for a workshop as well as preparing a CD with recitations of new poems. I’m disappointed that my application was rejected but I’ve revised the workshop to use in another context. So while the application was a failure, I was able to recycle some of its materials, turning the whole experience into a positive one.

This year so far I’ve written four home page messages, one each for February’s Brigid, the Vernal Equinox of March, April’s Beltane and the June Summer Solstice, a total of almost 9,000 words.

I wrote the introduction to a book (by a writer who has worked at my Windbreak House retreat) to be published by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press. I wrote a cover comment and review of another book. Observations about meat, grouse, natural predators, rabbits, organ meats, snakes and other prairie critters all furnished subjects for blogs on my business website. A college class reading my book No Place Like Home sent questions about the book to which I responded at length.

Furthermore, I wrote two essays published in Orion magazine. Later, National Public Radio’s “Living on Earth” asked me to read them for on-air publication. A request for free writing advice turned into a lengthy blog on why I cannot and will not provide free advice to everyone who asks. On paper, I reflected on the fact that I am called a “nature writer”; I later submitted the essay to the International League of Conservation Writers, which published it online. Besides all this professional writing, I kept up lively correspondence with several friends, much of it in hand-written letters.

Compiling this list amazes me. Though I was determined not to regret what I have not written or done, I hadn’t fully realized how very much I have accomplished so far this year. Truly, my writing harvest has been generous. And I spent a lot of time in the garden, even though that harvest was less rich.

Besides writing, of course, I’ve prepared a couple of meals most days. Jerry cooks breakfast on weekends and we make our own breakfasts during the week, and when we go to town, we usually eat lunch there. Let’s see: 365 days in a year multiplied by 3 meals a day is 1,095 meals. Deducting for the meals we fix ourselves or eat out, I’ve prepared at least 400 meals, perhaps as many as 700. I’ve washed the sheets thirty times, vacuumed the house at least 45 times, and cleaned the toilets at least 300 times. On Lammas, I will pat myself on the back for all this work.

Because Lammas is an occasion to consider preservation, both literal and symbolic preserves are appropriate for the Lammas festival. You celebrate when you turn summer’s fruit into jams, jellies, and chutneys for winter. Consider, too, other kinds of fruits– memories and scraps of writing–you have gathered this year. How can you preserve the memories of the summer that is passing sweetly even as winter approaches?

Lammas photo album

Don’t just put your photographs online; print them so you can look at them even when the computer is off– or when the file has been lost or hijacked. I’ve been told that creating physical photo albums is outmoded, but while my mother was in the nursing home she found great pleasure in returning again and again to the albums, rediscovering memories each time. She would never have seen those photographs online. I framed a large collage of photographs of her at different phases of her life and we both enjoyed telling visitors about the times when the pictures were taken.

Lammas observances might include writing letters and postcards to friends instead of emails. I turn failed photos into postcards for short notes. Write memories in your journal. Capture the highlights: best meal of the summer, best sunrise, best day, best companion– you make the list.

Whatever you do– gardening, writing, or playing bridge– face your regrets and failures and then bid them goodbye. Consider how the earth recovers from winter into spring, taking heart for your own spring to come. Our planet is suffering in the current climate change crisis, but if hope exists, it rests on individuals like us. Take time to tally up your harvest, to revel in it, to appreciate your work. Then preserve it in your heart for the winter to come.

“Youth is like spring,” wrote Samuel Butler in The Way of All Flesh, “an over-praised season more remarkable for biting winds than genial breezes. Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits.” This is the message of Lammas.

 

Writing suggestions:

What do you regret about the summer just past? Can you discard those regrets by burning them symbolically or literally? Can you memorialize these regrets by writing about them, and diffusing their power over you?

What do you bid farewell to at summer’s end?

What have you harvested this year, either literally from the earth or from your work and your relationships?

What form of thanks seems appropriate for what you have received?

What ways can you find to preserve memories of your year’s harvest, and of memorable events from your year?

What was your best day during the summer? Your favorite event? Who is your favorite of the new people you met and why? This might be a good time to tell people how much you appreciate something they’ve done for you.

What have you accomplished in writing so far this year? What are your plans for writing during the rest of the year?

Collect the snippets you have written this year that have not progressed to a longer draft or a finished work. Read through them; take notes. What inspiration do you find?

.  .  .

Here’s a specific exercise for not writing: The Ball of Light

Stand outside where you will not be disturbed. Plant your feet a comfortable distance apart so you stand without swaying. Let your hands hang at your sides; shake them to loosen the muscles in your shoulders.

Close your eyes. Breathe deeply several times. Imagine yourself drawing air in from the entire universe, pulling it down into your lungs, fingertips, toes, into every molecule of your body.

Imagine a ball of light centered in your chest. Gather your senses into the ball of light. Imagine your hands inside your chest holding the light, firming it into a smooth round shape. When you have the ball of light pictured clearly in your mind, let it rise slowly up your neck into your head. Let it stand there, spinning, for a moment. Slowly move it up through the top of your skull and above your head. Take time to look down at your body standing relaxed, to breathe deeply again. Then concentrate your attention in your light again and let it rise up over the grass and the buildings. Pause every now and then to look around so you always know where you are.

Allow your light to rise over your immediate surroundings, up over the country, above the path of jet planes, out where the universe is blackness lit only by stars and where you might see other glowing balls of light. Become aware of what you see and sense there. Slowly bring the ball of light back down through all the layers of atmosphere to your chest and belly again. Breathe deeply.

Once you have done this a few times, you can do it anywhere, anytime, in less time than the initial experience will take. Use this as a relaxation and centering exercise anytime. You may find that you are more ready to write afterward.

.  .  .

Remember this: Graham Greene realized early in his writing career that if he wrote just 500 words a day, he would have written several million words in a few decades. So he developed a habit of writing only 500 words a day and stopping even if he was in the middle of a sentence. Writing two hours a day, he published 26 novels, as well as short stories, plays, screenplays, memoirs and travel books.

Kathleen Norris writes in Dakota that “the forced observation of little things can also lead to simple pleasures,” and illustrates this with the example of a young monk who was given an old, worn habit when he joined his order. He soon discovered that the worn wool was excellent for sliding down banisters.

Adapt this idea for sliding down the banisters in your life. Carefully observe and note down the little things you do every day: picking up the children’s socks, folding your husband’s clothes, petting the dog, and wiping up the drops of water around the sink after brushing your teeth. Then consider and write about the reason you do these things. If the reason is not because you care for the individuals and care for the home in which your love for them occurs, then perhaps you can stop doing them. Write about this choice.

*~*~*~*~*

The Wheel of the Year is structured with sixteen essays, one for each of the eight seasons through two years, with an intermission essay, “Respect Writing By Not Writing,” which discusses taking time off. Extensive writing suggestions are included, as well as additional resources. The workbook is intended as a guide and teacher as a writer sets up her own schedule of writing and develops a relationship with the natural and mundane worlds in which we live. If the reader came to a retreat at my Windbreak House Retreats, this might be a series of conversations we would have about writing.

WHEEL flamingo Summer Sale

From Lammas through the Autumnal Equinox (August 1 through September 22) you can get an autographed copy of The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook, for $20 (shipping and sales tax included) from PO Box 169, Hermosa, SD 57744.

Make out your check payable to me. And I thank you.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Library Secrets

Old library book stacks

The July/August issue of Poets & Writers, one of the best resources for writers I know, features an intriguing article, “Secrets Hidden in the Stacks” that is going to send me prowling through my local library.

The story concerns a University of Virginia professor who sent his class to the library to look at 19th century copies of work by a sentimental poet of the time, Felicia Hemans. What the students found was not just the books, but a wealth of information added to them by readers. Diary entries, quotes, pressed flowers and the readers’ attempts at poetry were scribbled in the margins or tucked inside the books.

Old library book poem
Written in a school geography book copyrighted 1898, 1907: “If this book goes astray, tie it up and feed it hay.” Hermosa Arts & History Association collection.


The professor, Andrew Stauffer, was so fascinated by the additional history furnished by these oddments that in 2014 he founded the Book Traces project (booktraces.org) to investigate what else might be hiding in the library. He invites anyone to submit photographs of the “traces” they find in library books published before 1923– meaning books that are in the public domain– in circulating collections.

With a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, he hired assistants to search thousands of books on the open shelves of UVA’s libraries and catalogue the information: “a collection within the collection.”

The project expanded, and today extends to schools from Arizona State University and Bryn Mawr College, and has documented more than 3000 such traces. One of his favorite finds was doll clothes pressed into an 1833 copy of a book by Sir Walter Scott. The photo furnishes the cover of the resulting book: Book Traces: Nineteenth Century Readers and the Future of the Library.

“We’re fighting against the idea that once you’ve digitized a single copy, then you don’t need others, says the professor.

Wally McRae 2016 from internetOn the day that I read this article, I received a call from poet Wally McRae, the reigning king of Cowboy Poetry. I’d sent him a copy of my collection Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky, published by Spoon River Poetry Press in 2017. I didn’t ask or expect a review from Wally. Still, I thought he might enjoy or be inspired by some of the poems, especially since Wally believes all poetry should rhyme, and most of mine do not.

And I thought that someday, when this virus is not the primary fact of daily life, we might have a conversation about poetry.

Wally called a couple of days ago, and I was delighted to learn that he has not only been reading Dakota, he’s been having a conversation with me in its pages: writing comments and questions as he reads!

“I am not a good judge of free verse,” he said. His favorite poem in the book is “Mulch”– a surprise to me. He liked the line “You will not find naked soil in the wilderness,” and he enjoyed knowing that when I mulched with magazines, “Robert Redford stared up/ between the rhubarb and the lettuce.”

His favorite poem in the bunch, though, was “Learning About Gates,” which led to him telling me about an alcoholic handyman who once worked for his father, and built gates that are still legendary throughout the county.

DBGS with grass and sky SMALLI could hear him turning pages as he spoke, and soon he mentioned more poems he liked: “Handbook to Ranching,” another poem dedicated to my father, beginning with one of his strongest rules: “Don’t spend any money.”

Another poem about fences, “Apologies to Frost’s Neighbor” likewise pleased him, and “Milliron Ranch” reminded him of a homesteading story from his own neighborhood.

Wally laughed at himself for admitting to me that he was scribbling in the book, but he wanted to remember things to say to me. He understood why “there are a lot of driving poems in the book,” since Westerners have to drive long distances to practically everywhere, and chuckled at “Speed Warning,” dedicated with gratitude to the Highway Patrolman who stopped me on one drive to the ranch from Cheyenne, and may have saved my life– or at least the life of an unwary antelope.

So that book of poetry has already fulfilled my highest hopes for it: As he read, Wally enjoyed, debated, questioned, and was stimulated by the words of another writer, recognizing the real voices of people he might have known in the words of the poet.

And on some future day, another reader may discover Wally’s notes and comments in the book and continue the conversation, and the inspiration, without ever having known either of us.

Look for secrets in book– in several ways.

(And please– write only in the books you OWN– some day they may make their way to a library; but please don’t write in library books.)

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Announcing . . .

I’m pleased to announce a new book, coming soon!

Write Now, Here’s How is a distillation of years of experience as a writer, writing teacher, and writing retreat guide. In 40 chapters, I’ll tell you a great deal about the process of writing.

WriteNow book held outside SMALL

In Write Now, Here’s How, a dedicated and experienced writer leads you through forty entertaining essays that define six decades of writing challenges. You’ll feel as if you are conversing with author Linda M. Hasselstrom about how her challenging life on a working cattle ranch in the shortgrass prairie of Western South Dakota became material for seventeen books. Reading this book is like joining Hasselstrom in the quiet privacy of the retreat house, where dozens of writers have found their voices.

As I’ve entered my seventh decade, I’ve looked back at journals I kept for decades, at my own writing, and at letters and journals from my relatives and others. Much has changed. But no matter how much my life changed, I was writing.

I’ve worked as a journalist and a college professor. I’ve been divorced and widowed. I’ve settled down in several places for several reasons. As my life changed, however, I was always writing, and I rarely discard a draft. I never know what insight or information an early attempt at a particular piece of writing might contain that will be of value to me in later writing.

What is the most efficient way to monitor your valuable writing time? You’ll find answers here. How can you most efficiently organize your writing space-no matter how small? How can you fit serious writing into a life filled with work, family, and entertainment? Hasselstrom presents a variety of possibilities to help you choose a schedule that best suits you.

The purpose of this book is to pass information from my writing life on to other writers. Rereading what I wrote in past years has been useful for me, not only in matters of insight, but in matters of writing style. I can see things I would write differently today, but I have also discovered writing I consider good that has had few or no other readers.

My primary self-appointed job is writing for the purpose of helping people to appreciate the treasure this nation has in the grasslands of the Great Plains, and the ranchers who have preserved it for us, full of clean air, uncorrupted soil, and pure water.

And Hasselstrom doesn’t just explain; she demonstrates with examples from her own work how writers can begin to see the invisible. She gently leads you into meditations that will help you create a writing retreat in any busy week. With this perceptive woman, you will explore methods of defining the memoir that will become an important part of your writing.

One of my most useful writing tools has been my journal, and I believe strongly in the power of journaling to aid self-discovery. Write fiercely in your journal, I say, write recklessly. Do not let your inner editor slow you down. Do not channel that English teacher in high school who always found an error. Don’t think about spelling or grammar or how this will look in print. Emote. Stomp through the words. Fling handfuls of syllables in the air and let them land on your paper. Often the heat of the anger or the pain of the loss or the joy of the new love will inspire the perfectly correct words that will never emerge if you think “someone is going to read this.” Journals must be private; no one should read your journal any more than a stranger can pry open your brain and look inside. Your journal is your freedom, your inspiration, your guide, and ultimately your resource.

With Hasselstrom’s guidance, your writing will grow like a tulip, and bloom like wild pink roses along a dusty gravel road. Winston Churchill will teach you about persistence. Walking will become a vital part of your writing practice.

As you read her discussion about how much truth belongs in your nonfiction, you’ll feel as though you were sharing coffee at the retreat house table, or strolling a trail filled with opportunity.

Write Now, Here’s How will be published August 1st, but is available to pre-order on Amazon right now.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Write Now, Here’s How: Insights from Six Decades of Writing
by Linda M. Hasselstrom
Lame Johnny Press, August 1, 2020
Paperback, 312 pages, 6 x 9 inches
ISBN: 978-0917624018
$19.95

Book Remarks: Healing the Divide

Book Healing the Divide anthology of poemsMy comp copy of Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness & Connection arrived yesterday, and I’ve gotten behind on the news (thank goodness!) because I keep picking it up to read another fine poem.

As Ted Kooser says in his Preface, “Unabashed enthusiasm is the glue that holds good anthologies together,” and this book overflows with enthusiasm, kindness, tenderness and beauty.

Here are the words of well-known poets like W. S. Merwin, William Stafford,  Naomi Shihab Nye and Jane Kenyon, but the book is also well-stocked with words from poets I’ve never heard of, and might never have encountered without this collection.

Ellery Akers in “The Word That is a Prayer,” reminds us of the power of “Please.” Connie Wanek shows us a Grandpa asking the sky “What’s next?” with a laugh. Carrie Shipers shows us a mother talking back to the monster under the bed. Molly Fisk celebrates “Winter Sun.”

But you need to get the book yourself, and find your own treasures within it. The world around us seems to be filled with hatred, greed, and antagonisms, and we must fight this idea in every way at our disposal, for our own health and survival.  One way to do it is to read this book, again and again and again. And please– buy it from your local bookstore, and help them stay in business during these difficult economic times.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness & Connection
Edited by James Crews
Green Writers Press, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-7327434-5-8
$19.95

My poem “Planting Peas” is included in this anthology. You can read more about this poem than you would think possible, on my website.

Spring in the Time of Coronavirus

Coronavirus Spring clouds and blue sky (2)
Cattle graze, moving slowly over grass
that’s bronze and gold, with green just beginning
to show below like the skin of the earth.
. . .
Higher, the sky is heartbreakingly blue
forever.  . . .


During the first weeks of the nation’s slow awakening to the fact that Coronavirus is going to dominate our lives for an unpredictable length of time, I was not writing. Like most people, I was too stunned at the abrupt changes being demanded by this pernicious disease. I spent too much time on the Internet, looking for explanations and hope.

Meanwhile, the leaders of not only my nation but my own state declared that they were “not responsible” and declared they could do little to protect their citizens.

But anger is no more useful in a situation like this than reading the Internet babble. My response to every other crisis in my life– divorce, the death of my husband, and other deaths– has been to write. Writing helps me discover what I feel as well as what I believe. Moreover, concentrating on making the writing coherent— so that another reader could understand it— helps me quiet my own fear and panic as I slide into the habits of a lifetime of improving my skill at making my ideas clear in a creative way.

Computer hands - small copy for blog

Besides, this is National Poetry Month; as someone who has declared herself a poet, it’s my job to write poetry.

I set up a pattern, because choosing a pattern before I begin helps me structure my thoughts. And I hope it will keep me from blurting undisciplined lines all over the page as so many writers do when they write what they fondly believe is “free verse.” Any pattern can be instantly changed when you discover a better pattern.

I’d write four lines of ten syllables each, I decided. I like the rhythm: da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum, and rhythm helps give structure to lines that are not intended to rhyme.

Coronavirus Spring writing in notebookTo improve the experience, I took my notebook outside to write each day’s verse. So when I wrote on Sunday about the sun feeling hot on my face, I was sitting in a green plastic chair against the wall of the garage, facing west as the sun dropped toward the Black Hills. Three red-winged blackbirds were singing from three cedar trees in the shelterbelt on my left, south of the house.

Spring in the Time of Coronavirus

Sunday:
Clouds coalesce under blue sky.        Sun lies
hot on my face. Three red-winged blackbirds sing
from three cedar trees, a liquid ripple:
a dozen tiny waterfalls chiming.

~~~

Every day for a week, I sat in the same chair late in the afternoon and wrote four lines with ten syllables per line. Knowing that, no matter how hectic my day was, I would take my pen and tablet and sit outside at 5:30 or 6 every afternoon helped me muddle through every day.

When I first sat down, I relished the fact that I had turned off my cell phone, and that my computer was inside the house, so no one demanding my attention could distract me. I faced the sinking sun and breathed deeply, enjoying the fresh air. First I’d notice that the highway traffic seemed diminished from its usual roar, since it didn’t feature carloads of people rushing from work home to the subdivision.

I might spend a few minutes digging dandelions out of my raised beds, and noticing that the sorrel I planted there last year was growing vigorously— except where a rabbit had trimmed it severely.

Sitting down, I’d begin to hear: the ducks splashing as they dived after insects or frogs on the dam, the robin on the gate flipping its wings in annoyance because I was sitting between it and its nest.

Each day I wrote a stanza. And some days, of course, I thought of ideas for the next day’s verse and jotted them down. On Friday, I recalled that morning’s walk on the hillside, and the discovery that a coyote had been hunting there the night before. When we let our dogs out in the dark, one or both of us goes with them, and they stay close to the house— but the knowledge that the wily hunter had dined twenty feet from the house made the hair rise on the back of my neck.

At some point in my week, I sent a few stanzas to several friends, who sent them to other friends. And this comment trickled back to me from a painter:

Oh, that takes my breath away. I do see Linda’s Facebook posts and love her photographs, of birds, grasses, flowers, a golden eagle breakfasting on a dead calf.  And then she goes and writes like this. And it’s everything. It has composition, color, touch, sound, soft rabbit fur and solid rock, up and down. “Clouds … bulging with rain.” Yes, they do bulge! And I can understand now that she was seeing words form as she framed those photos, seeing whatever strikes her being, like I see shapes in stark composition when I am really seeing. I am astounded that both birds I saw today on my walk in the woods appear to me again through her words. I can still hear the echo that remains after the red-winged blackbirds sing from cattails. So I find this poem to be a revelation into what one poet sees.  But more importantly, it moves me deeply.

And that is how writers can inspire one another, and work together, even when we are isolated.

You don’t have to be a writer to enjoy and benefit from this experience. Try it: write a few words about what you are thinking and feeling during this contradictory time, when spring is bursting with life, and the news is tolling with death.

Send your words out in some way— to friends on Facebook, on postcards, to strangers. And wait for what happens.

Here’s the complete poem that happened to me as I found inspiration in each day.

Spring in the Time of Coronavirus
4/13/2020

Sunday:
Clouds coalesce under blue sky.        Sun lies
hot on my face. Three red-winged blackbirds sing
from three cedar trees, a liquid ripple:
a dozen tiny waterfalls chiming.

Monday:
Sorrel sprouts inch upward in sunshine; trucks
roar past on the highway, transporting all
we need to survive. Killdeer call, contend
over nesting space beside the stock dam.

Tuesday:
Cattle graze, moving slowly over grass
that’s bronze and gold, with green just beginning
to show below like the skin of the earth.
Trees grow, birds pull worms from the ground, wind blows.

Wednesday:
Overhead gray clouds rise into white fluff.
Higher, the sky is heartbreakingly blue
forever. Northeast, clouds are purple, black
and folding, piling up, bulging with rain.

Thursday:
The sweet high crane call draws our eyes upward,
up to long white fingers of cloud, china
blue sky: there, circling, whirling, spinning north.
Yesterday they left the Platte heading home

Friday:
Beside the hillside cairn we built of stone—
granite, schist, rose quartz and white, gneiss, mica
feldspar— lie puffs of rabbit fur gray white
where coyote caught her prey and dined last night.

Saturday:
The cow that lost her calf last night lies still
beside him. She hasn’t been to water.
The coyotes will be back, but she can wait.
The red-winged blackbird flips his tail and trills.

Sunday:
The earth is living normally for spring.
Going about the business of full life.
Only humans are confused, floundering.
Nature may never miss us, if we go.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Can’t Find Any Toilet Paper?

Toilet paper rolls

I’ve been amused by the reports that people are buying up all the toilet paper because of coronavirus fears. What?? Surely toilet paper cannot be at the top of the list of what anyone really NEEDS in a health crisis. The trend seems to indicate we’ve gotten sadly out of touch with reality.

What can you use for toilet paper if you– and the store– are out of toilet paper?

— Cut newspaper to handy sizes.

— What other relatively soft paper is available? Grocery store receipts? Other waste paper? Dispose of used papers in a sealed container and then burn.

— Clean rags. Some folks dampen them to clean, then throw away or launder. Use a different color for each family member, and for each purpose. Put dirty rags in a sealed container next to the toilet; add water with vinegar, baking soda, or a few drops of bleach to the container so they can soak before they are washed. [This is not much different from old fashioned cloth diapers.]

— Cotton balls. [Nowadays they are synthetic, not real cotton, so they cannot be flushed or composted.]

— Snow. Wipe and flush.

— Do you live on the prairie? In fact, if you live in North America, Africa, Asia, Europe or Australia, you are likely to be within walking distance of mullein. I can personally affirm that mullein leaves are soft, absorbent, and abundant. Look up the plant, find a local source, and try it yourself.

Toilet paper substitute mullein in winter
Mullein in winter.

— If you don’t live where mullein grows, take a walk and look for other suitable leaves, or for moss. Be sure you know how to avoid poison ivy, poison oak and others of their nature.

— Corn cobs. Our ancestors reportedly used them, but almost anything you can find will be more comfortable!

— Your hand. In many countries– India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Morocco– people eat only with their right hand. That’s because it’s standard practice to wipe with the left hand. Of course they wash the left hand when they can, but they observe the right-hand ritual in politeness.

— Some folks who want to save trees and thus never use toilet paper recommend this method: pour a small amount of water into your hand from a pitcher or cup kept handy. Or use a water bottle with a small opening to create a pressurized cleansing stream. Splash and repeat if necessary. Then dry with a towel kept for that purpose.

If none of these appeal to you, and you have time, look up “toilet paper alternatives” on the internet.

— Wet wipes work on babies, why not adults? After all, toilet paper doesn’t clean or sanitize, it only wipes.

— Coffee filters are better than paper towels, and less likely to clog the plumbing. Sanitary pads will work, but should not be flushed.

— Toilet paper tubes, but don’t flush them.

— Toilet paper spray. Users point out that it contains cleansers, that moisture can prevent chafing, that it does not clog pipes, damage sewers or machinery, or require disposition in a landfill. It’s more easily portable than toilet paper, and doubles as an air freshener.

Toilet paper substitute mullein in summer
Mullein in summer.

Use your imagination– you may find more substitutes. And be grateful for what you have. The Romans used a sponge on a stick, and sailors often used rope. Both were probably shared, and neither was very clean.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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