Book Remarks: How to Cuss in Western

How to Cuss in Western (and other missives from the high desert).
Michael P. Branch. (Boulder: Roost Books, 2018)

book branch cuss in westernBecause I have always—well, since I was four years old—loved and respected my local library, I do not write in books unless I own them, and intend to keep them.

Therefore, when I own a book, the page on which I begin to underline or scribble comments becomes a gauge to my evaluation and respect.

I started underlining in How to Cuss in Western on page 2, where Michael P. Branch explained the system of “restrained communication” embodied by the way Westerners wave.

“You lift only your pointer finger off the wheel for a routine ‘howdy’ to a neighbor,” he notes. “. . . Under no circumstances do you ever allow your palm to leave the wheel, which would be a greeting so effusive and emotional—so perfectly hysterical—that anyone foolish enough to display such loss of self-control would never regain the respect of their neighbors.”

Laughing, I recalled that today I received a full-hand wave from a female resident of the neighborhood who is practically giddy with her desire to be my buddy. Yet in several years of residence here she has not grasped this simple rule, one of the most basic principles of country acceptance. By the time children learn to drive here—at age ten or so—they all know enough to keep their hands on the wheel while greeting friends. If one is truly enthusiastic about the friendship, one might nod an inch or two while raising the trigger finger, but that’s all that’s acceptable.

“Oh, you’re so lucky to live in the country,” coo some of the folks who read my books or know I’m a rancher.

And some of these folks buy little plots of land from my ranch neighbors whose kids have gone off to college and now live somewhere else, so the rancher is retiring and moving to town.

Some of these folks who move to the country build a monster mansion on top of a hill where they can see from the Black Hills to the Badlands. They may not realize how well the rest of us can see them. They get a couple of SUVs, and erect a shed to shelter the horse, or the goats, or a cow or two. Their dogs come to visit me and to chase the calves in my corral until I can draw a bead on them. Rather than ranting, I’d like to mention these things politely in the local store or church or Bingo parlor but that doesn’t work because they shop and worship in the larger town to the north.

So instead of ranting, maybe I’ll hand out copies of this book with a bookmark at “Shit Happens,” one of my favorite essays. Folks used to living in town are also used to systems that whisk their personal wastes away without much fuss. If you live in the country, you soon learn there is no away for any of your discarded trash.  Living in the country means someone in the family must be the Fecal Sludge Manager, and study Septic Tank 101, a lesson in rural living rarely mentioned in real estate brochures or ballads.

Profanity? Here are Branch’s comments on the dwindling ability of Americans to cuss effectively and colorfully: “If we cannot communicate through the use of profanity, I wondered, what the hell is left? Have we been reduced to sonnets and tweets?”

One essay, “Such Sweet Sorrow,” centers on a topic tackled by such writers as Aristophanes, Dante, Shakespeare, Twain, Joyce and Edward Abbey, a topic Branch suggests was first written about in 1900 B.C., and which still challenges writers. Branch’s approach is a writer’s challenge; The Urban Dictionary lists 261 synonyms for this topic, and Branch attempts to use all of them, from “breeches burners” to “wee fluffy.”

Michael Branch photo from his websiteThese aren’t perfect essays, in part because Mr. Branch is a real working writer; he writes to deadlines, so he doesn’t have the luxury enjoyed by some writers of tinkering with a piece until it satisfies every editorial quibble. He meets a deadline, and then goes back to cutting cords of wood to keep his family warm, teaching, helping raise his children, and walking a thousand miles a year; clearly he uses some of that time to think.

Besides humor, Branch provides information about a wide array of fascinating country topics, from the extinct American cheetah, to the reason ranchers’ fences are hazardous not only to pronghorn but to hawks and owls—a fact that was new to me. In one quick sentence, for example, he sums up the Bureau of Land Management’s horse problem in Nevada: “We do not have too many horses; we have too few lions.” He understands that the prairie as it should be is a wild place, despite the domestic animals and people who dwell here, and to be healthy, it must remain so.

As a graduate of the College of Fecal Sludge Management, I highly recommend that anyone contemplating a move to the country read this book.

Now excuse me; I have to go find another one of his books.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

At the website http://michaelbranchwriter.com/ you will find information about the author and his books, his upcoming public appearances, links to essays (some of which are chapters in his books), and a note about how to get podcasts of his essays which appeared in High Country News.

book branch raising wild and rants from hill

Advertisements

Flying into Oblivion: How to Keep Your Writing Spirits Up

Proulx books

Annie Proulx (that’s pronounced PROO according to my conversation with her some years ago) has been named winner of the 2018 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.  The honor recognizes a knowledgeable writer whose body of work has told the readers “something new about the American experience.”

Proulx is a wise woman who said, in a May 2, 2018 article in the Washington Post, “I feel sorrow and urgency about the state of the natural world. So many extinctions loom, so much plastic chokes the waters, so many stars are blotted out by light pollution, so many birds have flown into oblivion.”

She asked friends who are passionate about the natural world how they manage to stave off grief at the “visible decline of the world we took for granted only a few decades ago.” Their response? “The consensus is to keep working in personal ways to protect what we still have, through citizen science or private behavior.”

I absolutely agree. I don’t own a television, so it’s easier for me to avoid the news of devastation and idiocy that blares from its shiny and deceptive face. I can’t imagine how folks who stare at it all day long save their sanity or equilibrium. Still, some people do despair, and believe that all hope is lost. I suggest that people who are saddened by the state of the world turn off the noisy box and get out into their community. Look at the parks littered with trash, the pet shelters. Does the local library have enough volunteers to help children find books? Does the Meals on Wheels group need more volunteers to deliver food to the elderly or homebound? Can your elderly neighbor shovel her walk after a snowstorm?  Somewhere you will find a way to help.

At age 83, Proulx has won numerous awards, but she’s especially delighted by the library award, which was formally presented September 1st at the National Book Festival in Washington. She says that the American experience that has “charged most of what I write has been place—the geography of North America and how different locales affected the way the inhabitants made a living, how they spoke, dressed, ate, thought.”

Proulx book brokeback-mountainThe West is my place, and Proulx is only one—but surely the most famous—of the writers who have focused on it.  Always curious about regional differences, Proulx began writing about rural places in her late 50s, focusing on the way people worked. She’s bounced from topic to topic, writing about forestry, shipping, and finally about cowboys—notoriously the short story “Brokeback Mountain” which drove western readers into frenzies of hatred or admiration. Her view of the West has become one of the best-known while many fine writers with a deeper understanding of the West continue to be ignored.

In 2017 she received and richly deserved the National Book Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, said at the time, “Proulx has given us monumental sagas and keen-eyed, skillfully-wrought stories” that capture the “wild, woolly heart of America from its screwball wit to its every last detail.” Hayden’s nomination was based on recommendations from previous winners, literary critics, and other writers.

I admire Proulx’s determination to begin a new life in late middle age, and her honest attempt to write what she sees, and she has seen a great deal. Because one of her topics resulted in the making of a successful movie, her view of the West has been widely accepted as the only view. This is not her fault, but it’s unfortunate.

Like all writers of an advanced age, Proulx is looking toward the end of her life, at flying into oblivion. We live in an era that seems to demand that everyone who accomplishes something deserving of attention immediately go “on the road”—or on talk shows—to engage in promotion. An inventor may have created a pill that saves lives, but unless she has discussed it with some late-night television personality whose primary claim to fame is white teeth, that achievement may be forgotten tomorrow.

Writers are particularly susceptible to the pitfalls of quick fame. Even many college professors these days pride themselves on teaching work from the hottest writing sensation rather than work that has been read for generations because it’s good. Perhaps, though, these awards will help Proulx achieve a more lasting recognition.

Most writers already know that the way to achieve instant stardom is to be chosen by a moviemaker. Few of us can make that happen, and the authors I have known whose work has been brought to the silver screen were universally horrified at the results.

We writers don’t get to choose what the public decides, but the alternatives are available to all of us: do you want fame? Or do you want to write what you believe as well as you can?

If you want to be famous, you need to pay attention to trends, be constantly alert to what interests the public—not necessarily the reading community—and make your work splashy enough to attract that fleeting and fickle attention.

I’ve had some amazing and startling experience with people who are Lakota, or gay, for example. Since I’m neither gay nor Lakota, I believe writing about them would be exploitive, or would smack of trying to create sensation. I stick to subjects I know more thoroughly, and encourage others to create their truths, whatever they are.

Computer hands - small copy for blog

I believe that if you want to write well, you must just keep writing. You may never achieve fame, but if you create the best writing of which you are capable, you are a success. As Proulx advises about the environment, “keep working in personal ways.”

Keep writing your own truth. Don’t look at extinctions; look for births. When writing seems especially difficult, don’t read about awards. Don’t subscribe to all the writing magazines. Instead, read your own old drafts and commend yourself for your improvement.

Or, in that journal you carry everywhere because you are a serious writer, try one of these suggestions:

The Daily Story
Try starting a story in a different style every day; set a mood of mystery, of horror, of humor; try to begin a romance novel like those in the supermarkets, whether that’s what you want to write or not. Test your limits and abilities as a writer; can you sound like Hemingway? Faulkner? All of this will be useful practice for writing, and any of those stories might turn into something you want to pursue further.

Field Notes on Your Culture
What cultures do you belong to? White? Hispanic? Single mother? Adults wearing braces? Women obsessed with their hair? Women who don’t give a darn about their hair? Middle-aged brides? People with 20-year-old cars? Sticklers for commas? List at least 20 cultures that you belong to. Get wild. Choose one from the list and begin writing, “I belong to the culture of . . .”

Sensory Impressions
Write as many sensory impressions as you can of one day, one year, one place; a room, a river; a neighborhood. Be sure to use all the senses: taste, smell, hearing, sight, touch.

Inventory
Inventory your check book stubs and credit card receipts; list what seem to be your priorities, based on this evidence. If these are not the priorities you believed you had, write about how they differ from what you are actually doing.

The primary point is this: if you want to be an 83-year-old writer someday, famous or not, looking back on your years of writing with a smile as you fly into oblivion or whatever follows this life, then keep writing.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

 

A Chicken in Every— House

Hen and chicks 2015--5-5

My favorite news story of the week and possibly the month comes from Pakistan, where the Prime Minister Imran Khan hopes to alleviate poverty by giving women chickens. The response to this plan has involved a lot of snickering and jokes at his expense.

But as Myrah Nerine Butt pointed out in Dawn, quoted in The Week magazine (12/21/18, p. 15), the people doing the jeering are far removed from the context and experience of real rural women.

This situation is strikingly similar to the way politicians in many countries, including this one, approach rural problems: from a safe distance that means they are ignorant of the issues.

Hen and chicks 2014--6-13In Pakistan, for example, chickens are better than cash because while money can be spent on anything, including gambling, a chicken can be primarily an investment or a saving. The man of the house may take cash for his own uses, but most of the men want nothing to do with chickens which are seen as “culturally inferior” to cows or goats. (Ranch women in this country, who know how tough cows can be, are laughing uproariously at this idea.)

Meanwhile, the chicken owned by a woman can produce eggs to sell. Some of those eggs can become more chickens, allowing a woman to increase her own business. This is no get-rich-quick scheme, but even a single chicken can produce a steady basic income for a woman who pays attention to detail, as well as helping to nourish her household.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Late Harvest

Harvest - Linda with green beans 2018--9-2Recently I’ve spent part of each warm afternoon harvesting from my tiny garden: two L-shaped beds about 12 feet long and three feet wide, plus three free-standing pots.

Oregano, culinary sage, basil, thyme and rosemary are all drying in the back of the basement on my homemade food dryer. The heat source is four 60 watt light bulbs, and the temperature this evening is 80 degrees. I also picked tomatoes, which I cooked into several pints of spaghetti sauce. I froze several Harvest - tomatoes 2018--9-2packages of green beans, and tucked dill leaves and sorrel into a plastic bag in the refrigerator for salads. I arranged a bouquet of marigolds on the dining table, and left a bucket of green tomatoes for a friend’s chickens by the back door. I gave a little water to the clematis and woodbine vines alongside the concrete wall, knowing they will soon brighten the gray expanse with twining red leaves.

Since my harvest is essentially over, I rolled up the plastic tarps I used to cover everything last night, but I tucked a couple of old blankets around the oregano and pepper plants, hoping they will survive the frost that’s predicted. Then I gathered seeds: marigold, gaillardia, cone flower. I rolled up the hoses left drying in the sun a few days ago, and hung them in the garage.

Harvest - Linda with onions and potatoes 2016--8-31Sometimes I recall nostalgically the great harvests I did in the old days, when I used the big garden that lies east of the ranch house, now a retreat house. I froze and canned pounds of tomatoes, beans, peas; dug potatoes and lugged them to the cellar with shelves full of onions. Picked and shucked and froze ears of corn by the dozens. Helped cut up the steer we butchered after he broke his leg trying to jump the fence. Cut and wrapped and labeled the meat and tucked it into the big freezer in the basement. And eventually had so much harvest that we had to buy a second, smaller freezer. I know ranch wives– younger than I am and with larger families– who have four or five freezers in their basements.

When I went to town for groceries in those days, I might buy sugar, flour, and a few other staples, but much of what we ate came from our own land. I loved living like that. But I’m 75 years old, and aware that even if I stay healthy, my remaining life span is probably fewer than 20 years. What do I want to accomplish with the time I have left?

Conscious of my waning life, I am a member of the local Cemetery Board, and recently spent a couple of days cleaning and tidying on that hillside for winter. I wasn’t able to set up any of the stones that have fallen from age and neglect, or been pushed over by vandals. But I swept grass and dirt off flat headstones, and scrubbed away layers of dirt from lettering in white marble, still visible after a hundred years. Deep in the unmown grass, even in late fall, I found a few roses and bluebells blooming.

cemetery rabbit pays respects 2017--5-28

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

If you are looking at snow outside your window as I am, you may be wondering how I was able to spend the day harvesting from my little garden in December.

I wasn’t. I wrote those words in late September and the printed copy has been standing beside my typewriter since then. Every single day I have intended to get back to this writing. Today is December 4; that ferocious intent just didn’t count for enough against the tide of other tasks that overwhelmed me. In many cases, rather than attending to my primary job of writing, I was responding to requests from people who shouldn’t have a strong enough hold on me to keep me from my work.

I am admitting this delay in part to encourage writers who may lament their inability to sustain their writing habit day after day after day. I can’t always do it, and I am experienced, determined, and have a supportive partner. So don’t waste time beating yourself up; get busy writing when you can.

Like many of you, I was raised to be “nice,” which means that when people write and ask me questions or send me something interesting, I try to respond, even if only by postcard. I’m always guiltily aware if I do not respond, and remember the series of vicious letters– more than 50– sent to me a few years ago by a fan whom I had displeased.

So here I am, with the December darkness filling my windows, writing about September’s harvest. The tomato vines I pulled and piled by my row of buffaloberry and chokecherry bushes are doing just what I wanted them to do: catch snow.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Harvest - Grouse by fencepost 2015--5-11And suddenly the room brightens with memory. Just this morning I wrote about how the moisture falling– sleet, not yet snow– was brightening the grasses to their September brilliance: redgrass was turning purple, dried alfalfa was glowing gold, and marigold heads seemed to be warm with fire; little bluestem looked magenta in the sunrise, and the splayed tawny heads of switch grass glittered. When we walked in our windbreak trees, we saw coyote scat and tufts of rabbit fur: those howls last night were celebrating a successful hunt.

As we walked out of the trees’ shelter, a rough-legged hawk we’ve been seeing often soared overhead, then dropped a few feet lower and made a circle over Cosmo, who was nosing among the taller grass beside the trail. The hawk turned its head, perhaps estimating weight, apparently concluded that the 28-pound dog was a little too much prey, and swooped off toward the pigeons fluttering at the barn.

Harvest - garden and greenhouse ecosystem 2018--7-29The prairie feeds our predators well. A few weeks ago we saw one of the resident kestrels or merlins– they fly so fast it’s hard to tell– zip past with a mouse in its talons. Two harrier hawks hung around the dam below the house for several days. One morning I looked out the bedroom window and one of them was perched on a broken bale of hay, with 11 antelope lying in a half-circle around it, like churchgoers listening to a sermon. The great-horned owl couple seems to have moved away from our trees toward a grove of cottonwoods and a shed that shelters more rabbits. We saw a flock of about 25 grouse often in September and October, but lately we are seeing only two or three at a time. Late one night, we heard geese honking, perhaps stopping by the pond for a rest as they headed south.

Our tiny garden doesn’t provide a great deal of nourishment, though I froze many pints of tomato sauce. But it adds flavor to our lives: all those herbs that were drying in September are now in labeled jars. Pots of basil, oregano, thyme and chives line a south window, jostled by the dogs that likes to sleep there too. We are nourished by the flavor and scent of these herbs all year long.

Harvest - Tree Swallow in yard 2018--7-29Our house stands on a windy hill, with a detached two-car garage a few feet south. The two buildings, plus the deck on the house’s south side, form a tiny ecosystem where we can grow herbs, tomatoes, peas, hot peppers, and a few other tasty treats in raised beds. Jerry built the beds of railroad ties we scavenged from the grass along the track where train crews tossed them when they were removed from the railroad bed. Heavily creosoted, they withstand the weather very well. We stacked them two high and filled the resulting rectangles with heavy earth from my former garden plot, enriched by the yearly floods and years of application of manure from the corrals.

But the garden isn’t just for us alone. Besides feeding us, it feeds a busy population of tree swallows, a garter snake, a bull snake that gives us heart palpitations when we startle each other, rabbits. One morning we found a coyote inside the fence, but it leapt away; we may have interrupted its rabbit hunt.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Harvest - pronghorn and cattle 2018--8-22

There. I’ve talked myself out of my guilt at not finishing what I began so long ago. I remind myself that day after day, the cattle I watch outside the window go about their business, which is grazing the prairie grass and making meat while they raise their calves to be weaned shortly. No matter what the weather, no matter what distractions appear– prairie fire on this day last year, a private plane circling, combines making the air rumble– they keep right on doing their job.

Surely an experienced rancher like myself can do as well as the cows: keep on doing what needs to be done. My job is writing. Sometimes I will fail to do it well, or as well as I’d like. Sometimes I will waste time. But I can always come back to it, and do it as well as I am able.

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

100 Great Books?

Old open book

“100 Great Books” reads the headline, this time from PBS, one of my favorite institutions.

Of course I’m in favor of reading. Everyone should do it, constantly.

However, I generally try to avoid either reading or creating lists of “great books” or “best books” or whatever the latest terminology is.

My American Heritage Dictionary defines “great” this way:

adj. great·er, great·est

1.
a. Very large in size, extent, or intensity: a great pile of rubble; a great storm.
b. Of a larger size than other, similar forms: the great anteater.
c. Large in quantity or number: a great throng awaited us.
d. Extensive in time or distance: a great delay; a great way off.

2.
a. Remarkable or outstanding in magnitude, degree, or extent: a great crisis; great anticipation.
b. Of outstanding significance or importance: a great work of art.
c. Chief or principal: the great house on the estate.
d. Superior in quality or character; noble: a great man who dedicated himself to helping others.
e. Powerful; influential: one of the great nations of the West.
f. Eminent; distinguished: a great leader.

That’s enough of that, even though the dictionary goes on defining for several more lines. What a vague description– a pile of rubble! Are these the books that will live longest in the memory of readers? The most remarkable– for what reason? Are they superior in quality, and if so, how? Plot? Characterization? Truth?

Not only is “greatness” pretty difficult to describe, I distrust the lists for another reason. Might a lot of people be tempted to cheat?

What books, we might ask ourselves, will indicate what a brilliant person I am? What books will indicate my innate goodness? My love of nature? What books will convince (fill in the blank) [my pastor, my lover, my teacher, my book group] that I am worthy of their respect? That I am an intelligent and thoughtful person, worthy of great honor?

Besides the possibility that we think too highly of ourselves, consider how memory works. I recall lists containing the same titles of Great Books circulating when I was in high school, when I took them more seriously.

Did I read Crime and Punishment then? I’m not sure. Did I see the movie of The Da Vinci Code? Possibly; I know the story, but how do I know it? I suspect I read some books on the list and blotted out the memory because I disliked them and didn’t think they were among the 100 best. (Little Women?)

Perhaps a friend read it and told me about it so I think I read it. (The Color Purple?) Or someone I loathe read it and pronounced it the best book EVER, so I vowed never to read it. (Fifty Shades of Grey, The Clan of the Cave Bear, Siddhartha)

So: with all that preliminary, here are the ones I’m sure I read.

Great American Read book covers1984

a lot of Alex Cross mysteries

And Then There Were None

Another Country

Atlas Shrugged (in my Ayn Rand phase)

The Call of the Wild

Catch-22

Gone With the Wind (when my mother insisted, swooning over both book and movie)

The Grapes of Wrath (for a class)

Great Expectations (for a class)

The Great Gatsby (I have an MA in American Literature, and took a lot of English literature classes during my phase of thinking I might get a Ph.D., so I suspect I read more of the old classics than I am recalling)

Great American Read book covers 2Gulliver’s Travels

Invisible Man

Jane Eyre

The Little Prince (as a child)

Lonesome Dove (and Leaving Cheyenne, and that was the end of my McMurtry phase)

Moby-Dick

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Sun Also Rises (and everything else Hemingway wrote, during my Hemingway phase)

Pride and Prejudice (and several others before my Jane Austen phase ended)

To Kill a Mockingbird

Wuthering Heights

In 2011, I started writing down the titles of the books I read. Between January 1 and December 31 that year, I read 367 books. In 2012, I read only 345. Certainly they were not all great; but if I begin a book that doesn’t hold my interest, I stop reading and it doesn’t make the list. I don’t record those, and there are a fair number. I generally read mysteries for relaxation, so many of these books won’t make anyone’s list of “great books,” because those lists tend to be more general. Notice, though, that Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is on the list. Her books would be numerous on any Great Mysteries list. In 2013, I read 344 books, but only 261 in 2014, and 252 in 2015. I put a black spot on the page beside those books I don’t care for, and as I review the pages I see that several authors gained black spots. In 2016 and 2017 I was working hard on my own writing, so my totals were 118 books and 153, respectively, some of them repeats of particularly enthralling mysteries.

I do re-read books, particularly as I find it harder and harder to discover new writers whose work speaks to me. Some authors whose books I have read more than once include: Ngaio Marsh, Susan Witting Albert, Michael Innes, William Kent Krueger, Georgette Heyer, Louise Penny, Arthur Upfield, Jill Churchill, Ann B. Ross, Mollie Hardwick, Jacqueline Winspear, Aaron Elkins, Deborah Crombie, and Sue Grafton. Among the mystery writers those books I keep to re-read during long blizzards are Gwendoline Butler, Jo Bannister, John Creasey, P.D. James, Jane Langton, Lee Martin, Charlaine Harris, Sharyn McCrumb, Elizabeth Peters, Dorothy Sayers, Martha Grimes, Margery Allingham, Amanda Cross, and Elizabeth George.

A new discovery is Susan Elia MacNeal, who writes the Maggie Hope mysteries about World War II; in fact, I’ve been reading a lot about both world wars lately, both in mysteries and in nonfiction. And I’ve just found Sara Henry, whose work appeals to me because her main character is, as I was, a newspaper reporter.

 

But I digress, therefore I am a writer.

100 best books? My list would be entirely different and I’m not going to spend my good writing time creating it.  None of the books on the PBS list would appear, unless I was overcome by a desire to please the professors from whom I took English classes. Since they’re all likely dead, I can’t succumb.

Similarly, I would find it difficult to choose a “favorite” book from this list without some definition of terms–

Best plot? (almost any Alex Cross mystery)

Most elegant writing? (Probably Gone with the Wind)

Leanest, most succinct writing? (The Sun Also Rises)

Most educational? (Another Country, since I am not black)

Most enjoyable? (I don’t think I enjoyed any of the books on that list but the mysteries; the rest were read because someone expected me to, or was going to test me on them)

Books writing manuals

Now ask me what books I have always kept a copy of beside my desk since I discovered them.

Excluding essential writing reference books like The Chicago Manual of Style; The Elements of Style by Strunk and White; Roget’s Thesaurus; The Writer’s Legal Companion; How Does a Poem Mean by John Ciardi, and a good dictionary, they are as follows:

Silences, Tillie Olsen

The Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois League of Six Nations

Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss

The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work”, Kathleen Norris

Beyond Engineering, Henry Petroski

To Engineer is Human, Henry Petroski

The Evolution of Useful Things, Henry Petroski

Writing to Learn, William Zinsser

Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, Judith Barrington

Candy is Dandy: The Best of Ogden Nash

The Holy Bible

If you don’t have a good book to read, and no one with whom to have an intelligent conversation, and it’s snowing and you don’t want to go outside, you might want to make your own list.

 

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Click here to see the Great American Read list of 100 Great Books.

 

Remembering Samhain 2013: A Festival of Contradictions

This essay was originally posted on the Windbreak House website on October 31, 2013.

I wrote “Home Page Messages” for most of the eight Celtic seasons of the year from December, 2009 to December, 2014.

I am reprinting this on the 5th anniversary of the Cattleman’s Blizzard (also called Storm Atlas), which took place October 3-5, 2013.


Samhain: Festival of Contradictions
October 31, 2013

Linda with pumpkin harvest 2013--10-2The ancient holiday of Samhain (pronounced Sow-when) is, said one writer, “a festival of contradictions: silence and feasting, sacrifice and survival, fire and blood.”

By October 31, the day most folks celebrate as Halloween because Celtic and Christian traditions have become mixed through the centuries, harvests have been gathered and the fields lie fallow. Summer’s growth is finished.

And yet, as is always the case, this ending is a also beginning. As the gates of death and winter open, so too do the gates open to renewed life. People of many nations traditionally celebrate at this time, knowing that snow and cold will follow, and knowing too that the snow brought by plains blizzards (an onomatopoeic word that probably originated on the prairie) will melt eventually into the green of spring.

The month preceding Samhain is usually fairly benign in the Great Plains, with just enough snow to remind us that we need to be prepared for winter. The shorter days seem beautifully long as we pick the last tomatoes and set them on the windowsill to ripen. The sun feels good on our shoulders as we pull the tomato vines and till them into the raised beds; we pile the pumpkins in the pickup.

In late September, Jerry was working on a project that produced great bags of sawdust so I spent several afternoons dumping the sharply-scented fir shavings around the new berry bushes that grew so well in this wet summer. I enjoyed watering the golden heaps and stomping them so they’d hold solid against the autumn winds.

“Silence and Feasting”

Our senses sharpened, we took particular note of the bittersweet autumn life happening around us. A kestrel flew low over our heads when we were walking the dogs by the retreat house and we laughed, thinking it was eyeing the chubby Westies that outweighed it by twenty pounds.

A moment later my hat was blown off by the flailing wings of a low-flying grouse as it dived into a cedar tree nearby and we saw the little hawk veer off with a shriek of frustration.

Busy in my office, working on writing conversations by e-mail, preparing for fall retreats, I wondered several times where my Samhain home page message would take me this year. Though my writing is usually optimistic, Samhain demands that we face its contradictions; in the last bright warmth of autumn, we must acknowledge darkness. The beginning of winter is a time to reflect, to put all things in order for both contemplation and for physical life and comfort during the long cold. Mentally, I tick off the autumn jobs to be done. The Halloween or Samhain festival, though, was traditionally also a time of light-heartedness, when people played tricks, sang, enjoyed themselves before the cold sobriety and serious business of winter.

During the first week of October, weather forecasters predicted the usual mild October snowstorm: temperatures in the thirties with three or four inches of snow and little wind. Such storms usually leave a pretty frosting on the hills and melt within a few hours; they remind us to look at the colorful leaves before they fall and to check our winter supplies.

All around us, ranchers drove nervously out to look at cattle still in summer pastures, knowing that within a couple of weeks they’d wean and sell the calves, then move the cows into the shelters of winter pasture. Predictions of a storm this early in the season was worrisome, but the weather forecast was reassuring. Best not to disturb the cattle unnecessarily by moving them this close to weaning and sale time. The profits of a year’s hard work rested on those calves; once the sales were over, the ranch families would shop for necessities for their own winter survival.

On Thursday October 3, the high temperature was 41 degrees. Jerry tilled the garden and I made excuses to go outside, putting away pots, tidying up the greenhouse.

That evening, the storm arrived, blasting away all predictions.

All night, a freezing rain fell; our gauge held more than three inches of water the next morning. The wind screamed at 75 miles an hour, rattling the ice-covered window screens like hail on the roofs.

Lights shone late in ranch houses all over the region as ranchers worried about the cattle they could not reach. Thousands of head of livestock– cattle, horses, sheep– walked and walked and walked, trying to find shelter, to keep warm enough to resist the freezing temperatures. They walked on snowdrifts over the tops of fences; they stumbled into dams and drowned. They piled into low places, one on top of another on top of another until they suffocated or drowned.

CattleLine

“Sacrifice and Survival”

During the festival of Samhain, the dead walk.

I can see them, lines of cattle walking through the moonlight, lowing so softly their voices are only a whisper. Among them walk the other plains animals whose deaths will remain uncounted– coyotes, antelope, deer. Grouse, meadowlarks, blackbirds and robins flutter on their way to the dark lands, their whistles mingling with the wind’s rush. Did the grouse survive? The frustrated kestrel?

Samhain is the festival of the descent into darkness, a time to reflect, to talk about the dead. The people who have lost the most from this storm cannot yet talk about it. Few will ever talk about the prairie wildlife lost.

“Sacrifice”

After the storm, one observer reported that 10,000 dead cattle lay between Sturgis and Union Center, South Dakota, a distance of 43 miles. That’s 232 cows per mile, or a dead cow every twenty feet. But most of the dead lay hidden in isolated gullies and ravines, not along a highway.

“Survival”

Jerry melting snow on stove 2013--10-5On Friday, October 4, we didn’t even attempt to go to the highway mailbox as snow fell and drifts piled up. We collected jugs of water to drink and flush the toilet. We got out the long underwear, boots, wool socks. Our power went out about 2 in the afternoon. We found our battery-powered headlamps. Our furnace won’t work without electric ignition and blowers so we lit the tiny auxiliary propane heater in the basement. We ate leftovers, minimizing opening the refrigerator and freezer. With no electricity, shut down like the government, we had no idea what was happening elsewhere.

We couldn’t turn on a faucet since the pump in our well is electric so we kept busy digging snow to pile around our coolers full of food, and to bring inside to melt on our propane cookstove. I made bean soup rich with chunks of ham. We played Rummykub and Quiddler and Boggle.

Local EMT’s and first responders later reported answering calls for oxygen and heat, finding people near hypothermia in their homes even though the temperatures were only in the 50s inside, 30s outside. “If it had been 30 below zero, we’d have lost people.”

“Silence and Feasting”

As the sun came out on Saturday, we saw 35 antelope basking on top of the ridge south of the house, blown clear of snow as usual. They grazed comfortably.

Greenhouse after blizzard 2013--10-5

We made no attempt to shift the giant, ice-hard drifts blocking our vehicles and buildings. Windbreak trees and bushes were completely covered by drifts 10, 15 feet high. A neighbor rode by on horseback, checking on his cattle in my pasture nearby; I could hear him talking on his cell phone. We read, worried about the effects of the storm on those who were less prepared.

As we melted snow to flush the toilet, I probably mentioned that I’d wanted to repair the outhouse, keeping it functional in case of a power outage. Jerry probably mentioned the outhouse is a half-mile away, an impossible hike through the drifts. Looking to the future, we found a spare toilet seat that can be perched on a 5-gallon bucket next time this happens.

On Sunday, October 6, Jerry used the tractor to dig a trail, discovering that our power line was broken between the highway and our house. Electric company lines were jammed. My cell phone battery died while I was on hold.

On Monday, someone from the power company patched our power line, though it still hung low enough to nearly reach the barbed wire fence. We took showers and went to town for the mail and a sandwich. The convenience store café was full of grim and grimy people with tired faces who had been working to move snow, repair electric lines, find cattle. Among our neighbors we began to hear bits of talk that hinted at the disaster’s extent. Feasting on food someone else had cooked, we basked in the warmth and loud talk. No silence, but feasting.

“Fire and Blood”

Early estimates said as many as 75,000 cattle, sheep, horses and other livestock may have died in the storm; every day the figure rose. At least 38,000 homes were without power and some, even in town, remained off the grid for days. In Lead, S.D., 55 inches of snow fell, with similar amounts in other areas.

All over the northern plains, animals that survived the storm were dying of pneumonia, or were scattered miles from home. Ranchers woke to find their corrals destroyed, yards filled with cattle wearing a dozen different brands. Dams and creeks were full of carcasses that would pollute the water if not removed; many of the watercourses lead to creeks and rivers that supply water to metropolitan areas downstream– though the city folks who eventually use that water may never realize their danger.

During the festival of Samhain, the dead walk.

Lines of animals walk eternally through the moonlight, whispering of death.

“Sacrifice, Fire, Blood”

At Samhain, animals were ritually slaughtered in thanksgiving for the harvest and in prayer for a benign winter.

I will never forget the look on my father’s face, the set of his mouth as he mentioned “the time the government shot the cattle.” The pain was still sharp in his voice and face after 60 years.

I later learned that “during the early years of the Depression, livestock prices dropped disastrously. Officials with the New Deal believed prices were down because farmers were still producing too many commodities like hogs and cotton. The solution proposed in the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 was to reduce the supply. So, in the late spring of 1933, the federal government carried out ’emergency livestock reductions.’ In Nebraska, the government bought about 470,000 cattle and 438,000 pigs. Nationwide, six million hogs were purchased from desperate farmers . . . The hogs and cattle were simply killed. In Nebraska, thousands were shot and buried in deep pits . . . The federal buy-out saved many farmers from bankruptcy . . . the basic governmental approach of supporting farm prices by reducing supplies continues to this day.”
(from LivingHistoryFarm.org)

Meanwhile, now in South Dakota, state ag officials were pompously reminding producers of the state law requiring the burial or burning of dead animals within 36 hours of their demise. Fields and pastures were so wet only horses could move through them without being stuck and they rapidly became exhausted. Pickups, trucks, heavy equipment was paralyzed. Many ranchers still hadn’t reported their losses a week later because they couldn’t get out of their isolated ranches, let alone begin to find and dispose of dead animals.

Silence and Survival

This message for this Samhain began in light and descended into darkness. For days, I could not find the light. I dreamed of those dead animals, the silence of the snow.

Years ago, feeding in haste so we could get to a Christmas dinner, we lost cattle in a similar way. We usually fed the cattle, then cut holes in the ice-covered dam, then stayed until they had all drunk to be sure they didn’t crowd onto the ice and break through. My mother had been insistent: we must be home by a certain time. After we left, they broke through the ice and many drowned. When we drove up the next day, the bodies were dark shapes, moving gently as if the water was breathing. Taking turns, my father and I waded into the icy water, looped a lariat around a cow’s ankles, pulled each one out with the pickup. We were frozen, blue, hypothermic, but we said not a word to my mother. Our suffering was our punishment; we were responsible for their deaths.

The ranchers who lost cattle this month could not have foreseen this storm, but I know they feel that guilt. They are the caretakers of the animals and the land; they will feel these deaths as their responsibility.

Darkness is the symbol of this season. This is as it should be; the intent of the festival has, through the centuries, been for us to face the darkness, to understand that it will come, to accept it. We cannot pretend it doesn’t exist. Either we let the darkness overwhelm us, or we face it, try to understand how to survive in it.

Throughout history, pagan and Christian beliefs have intertwined around this autumn holiday in what one [web]site calls a “glorious gallimaufry.” We each face darkness in our own ways. Differences will always occur. We need not submit to either annual or unusual death. But how do we rise above it?

Sacrifice as Prayer

As power was restored, a ranch woman from North Dakota wrote to me, telling me of some of the losses in her area, lamenting the ignorance of comments on social media sites.

Linda after blizzard big drift 2013--10-6Why didn’t the ranchers put their cattle in barns, some asked? Why didn’t they prepare for the storm by getting the cattle into winter pastures? Oh it doesn’t matter, said others; ranchers are rich. The government will pay for their losses.

How can we combat this ignorance, she asked? Writing from my computer at 5 in the morning, two hours before sunrise, I encouraged her, offering suggestions.

Still, I felt that darkness of ignorance hovering around my shoulders– even though her writing to me indicated someone has heard my words. I have been writing about ranching all my life, trying to explain it, to show how essential well-managed ranches can be to the welfare of the great plains ecosystem, all of it: grasses, trees, deer, coyotes, cattle, mountain lions, lambs, thistles.

My nights are haunted by the pictures of dead cattle that began to appear after the storm. I spent years getting to know my own cows, walking among them, talking, listening to their stomachs rumble and watching the frost melt from their eyelashes. When my father died, I had to sell my cattle to pay his debts– but I can picture those ranchers as they look at those dead cows. They were not just walking cash; they were friends, co-workers, colleagues.

Samhain: The Gates Between Life and Death Open

Two weeks after the storm, I follow a neighbor’s pickup into a local gas station; he’s towing a flatbed hauling a big backhoe.

“Been busy?” I say.

He shakes his head. “Buried two hundred of the neighbor’s cows yesterday,” he says.

He doesn’t tell me if he lost any; he was just helping out, like neighbors do. We talk about the lack of national news coverage. “It’s like Katrina for us,” he says, “only up here the neighbors are helping each other instead of looting. And there’s no news media.”

Another neighbor tells me that the man she’d paid to fix her driveway finally arrived, a couple of weeks later than he’d promised. They talk as they wait for a load of gravel. Normally, he’d have plowed snow for himself and neighbors but he was too busy trying to find his cattle and then burying 400 head, about 20% of his and those he ran with other ranchers. He couldn’t find his shovel, he said; somebody had borrowed it from his pickup because they were using it as an oar while they tried to get dead cattle out of a stock pond. Sad smile.

Cattle by outhouse 2017--11-24

Every Ending is a Beginning

I can’t change the weather, but I can mention that scientists say the signs of climate change– whether man-caused or not– involve violent weather. Without argument, we could all take steps to be more prepared to help ourselves and others. Jerry and I are pricing generators. We will continue to have warm clothing, a well-stocked pantry, adequate medications, plenty of reading material. We’ll keep checking on our neighbors.

Can we fix what causes these storms? Whether we are responsible for this climate change or not, we can reduce our demands for power. Millions of people are doing just that.

Three weeks after the storm, the local paper quotes people who disbelieve in the ranchers’ losses, or think they are deserved. The government begins to function again but even if a Farm Bill is passed, many of these ranchers will resist admitting their losses out of pain, embarrassment, horror. Many wouldn’t even consider a “government handout.” Can we repair ignorance? We must try.

Many of the cattle, horses, and sheep that survived are sick and ranchers are working night and day to save them. Thousands of miles of fences were pulled down by the storm; repairing them will require huge expenditures of time and money. Besides losing their income for an entire year, some ranchers have lost herds built up through generations of careful breeding.

Much of our society exists on credit. If a rancher followed the urging of the credit-based society, he may have borrowed money to fund his operation. Some ranchers, like the rest of the world, live from paycheck to paycheck, i.e., from that one yearly sale of their products to the next. They may have been borrowing money for living expenses against this year’s cattle sales. Cattle are not usually insured; premiums are too high.

During 2012, the Dakotas experienced a monumental drought so the price of feed was especially high last winter. Some ranchers borrowed money to feed their cattle; the other choices were to sell them or to let them starve. Now they have lost both the cattle and the money that might have paid those debts. With no paycheck for the entire year’s work, they may be in dire financial straits and facing another harsh winter.

Some may have lost all their assets; they may have to leave ranching. In such cases, the land may not sell to other ranchers who are part of the community but to absentee owners, part-timers who do not contribute to the economy. Towns that serve the ranchers will suffer, as will ranch-related businesses. In the Dakotas, many businesses are ranch-related: grocery stores, equipment manufacturers, restaurants, car dealers, sale rings, county and state fairs: the list can go on and on. Seasonal help will not be hired.

Losses will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Some rendering trucks were in the area right away; normally these businessmen pick up scraps of meat and bones from butchering facilities as well as dead cattle and animals killed on highways. This waste is ground for use as fertilizer or sometimes for pet foods. Unfortunately, the snow was so deep, the ground so muddy that trucks couldn’t get to the dead cattle. By the time they could reach the carcasses, they were too spoiled to use. The buried cattle will not even feed predators, which may also be starving from loss of the wildlife on which they normally feed.

For generations, ranchers will gesture to the pits where their cattle were buried, telling their sons and daughters about the storm. The effects of these deaths, economic and emotional, will remain part of our history. Generations will resent the fact that this immense loss has been almost invisible to the national news reporters and thus to millions of citizens. Perhaps the breach between rural and urban will grow.

Gifts of Thanksgiving

Is it ridiculous to ask if there is good news in this darkness?

The storm officially ended the worst drought South Dakota has faced in decades. Stock dams are full of water. Moisture has soaked into the ground, bringing the promise of water and grass to feed any cattle left alive by spring.

Ranch stock dam filled after storms 2015--6-19

And more: not only have ranchers been helping each other, but dozens of small communities and organizations have leapt to help in a variety of ways. Businessmen in one town sponsored a free dinner for ranchers. Others have established funds to provide ranchers with payments for their losses, and for needed food and supplies. Residents from other areas have written to or called rancher friends to ask about the losses, to commiserate, drawing their ties closer. The neighborliness occurred in towns as well: residents of adjoining households that may never have spoken to one another swapped shovels, pushed each other’s cars, shared fireplaces and food.

How can I make something positive of this loss? I will keep writing, though today it seems impossible to write of anything but this horror. I must believe my words help educate people. I often hear from people who say they didn’t know ranching could be good, as well as from ranchers who are pleased that I help tell their story.

Darkness is a familiar friend. Every day the sun slides beyond the blue hills and pulls the dark blanket over us.

And every morning, as the coyotes slip through the grass, light rises in the east. No matter how dark and ferocious the night has been, no matter who has died, these things happen. Our job is to find hope in the negative, to use the fury and anguish of the losses to create connections between one another, to create hope for a more intelligent world.

“Darkness,” said Martin Luther King, “cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

Switch on the light. Drive out ignorance with education, blindness with vision. We can all contribute, for the good of all. Whatever you write during this Samhain season, whatever you do in your daily life, remember the dead. But look to the light.

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

© 2013, 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Author’s note: The opening quotation, calling Samhain “a festival of contradictions: silence and feasting, sacrifice and survival, fire and blood,” is from Rebecca Tope’s Death in the Cotswolds.

 

Read all of my Home Page Messages (2009 – 2014) here:

http://www.windbreakhouse.com/home_page_essay_archives_56956.htm

 

To learn more about the October, 2013 blizzard and its effect on ranchers:<

South Dakota Magazine published a story in their January/February 2014 issue
https://www.southdakotamagazine.com/cattlemans-blizzard

NorthernAg.net published a one-year follow-up and thank you from ranchers
http://www.northernag.net/AGNews/AgNewsStories/TabId/657/ArtMID/2927/ArticleID/3485/Out-of-the-Snowdrifts-Atlas-One-Year-Later.aspx

If I Were Going to the Festival of Books

The 2018 South Dakota Festival of Books will be held September 20 in Sioux Falls, and September 21-23 in Brookings.

I’m not able to go this year, but if I were going, I’d look for these presenters first.

Lee Ann RoripaughI’d hope to speak to Lee Ann Roripaugh as she ends her four-year term as our poet laureate. A new laureate will be inaugurated at the 2019 Festival of Books in Deadwood. The SD Poetry Society invites anyone who would like to be considered for the position to submit a letter of application and resume between Nov. and Dec. 1, 2018. For complete details, visit the SDSPS website at www.sdstatepoetrysociety.com.

Learn about Lee Ann Roripaugh

 

Informing the News by Thomas PattersonMaybe I’d get a chance to listen to Thomas Patterson, whose Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism was the 2018 One Book South Dakota. The book is on my “to buy” list, because I agree with him that we need to return to a solid base of information in journalism, rather than following the despicable trend to “infotainment” that is warping citizens’ judgments. Newsrooms are shrinking at newspapers and broadcast station alike, which means fewer journalists are out digging for the truth. The speed at which information is conveyed has also increased; speed is the enemy of accurate news from varied objective sources.

Thomas E. Patterson’s website

 

Prairie Fires by Caroline FraserI thought I would only skim Caroline Fraser’s monumental Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but instead I ended up reading carefully, and my admiration for the writer is immense. Rarely have I read a book with more footnotes, which means that when Fraser makes a statement, it’s likely not just her opinion but the result of careful research and deep digging into the life of this famous writer. Like many South Dakotans, I grew up with Laura’s stories, and while I’m somewhat surprised to know that she wasn’t being entirely truthful, I’m delighted to learn the truth behind her tales now.

Caroline Fraser’s “Prairie Fires” website

 

Elizabeth Cook-LynnI’d definitely make it a point to exchange a few words with Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, one of South Dakota’s most astute thinkers and a dynamic voice for the citizens with whom she most identifies: the Lakota. Though English is not Elizabeth’s first language, she is more articulate in it than most of us. And I’m behind on reading her work; I haven’t yet gotten In Defense of Loose Translations: An Indian Life in an Academic World. I will hope to remedy that lack soon, and I know I’ll learn something.

Read about Elizabeth Cook-Lynn

 

Because I won’t make it to Brookings for the Festival of Books, rather than speak with these writers, I will join them on the printed page.

 

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

You will find the schedule of events, a list of presenters, a map of Brookings with the venues marked, and more on the South Dakota Humanities website.

http://sdhumanities.org/festival-of-books/

If I were going to the Festival of Books I would have a hard time deciding which books to buy, what other events I would attend, and which presenters I would try to talk with– in addition to the four listed above.