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

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

 

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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

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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

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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.

 

Remembering Judge Davis

Today, August 14, 2018, I have been Linda Hasselstrom for sixty-five years. In celebration of what my family always called my “adoption birthday,” I am posting an essay I wrote in 2004.

Remembering Judge Davis 
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Written for the Custer County Historical Society, June, 2004.

I was nine years old. I don’t remember my birthday that year, but a month later, on August 14, I was adopted by my mother Mildred’s new husband. A photograph shows me on adoption day in a ruffled plaid dress in front of the old brick courthouse, clutching a little white purse with [my] white shoes perfectly aligned. I’m smiling stiffly. Adoption was a new experience.

After the ceremony my legal father, John [Hasselstrom], bought me a gold ring I still have, and we all had ice cream. I didn’t realize that by becoming the daughter of a rancher I had changed the direction of my life forever. I didn’t realize I had pledged my soul to a ranch, to acres of tawny grass and dry creeks that would absorb my blood and sweat, as they had my father’s, and still look parched. I was still dreaming of prancing black stallions; now my dreams are full of waddling cows. [1]

When I wrote that passage in one of my first books, I’d been studying the photograph I described, discovering in it not only memories but information I did not consciously recall. Later, I realized that photographs merely freeze particular moments in time. A photograph exists only as a flat surface, without the taste, texture, smells of a genuine recollection. Moreover, the instant of the photograph, captured and looked at many times, may actually replace the memory.

Mildred and Linda at Custer County Courthouse 1953

Looking more carefully at that photograph helps me remember vignettes about the way my mother and I arrived at that place and time, having our images recorded by my new father, my mother’s third husband. Before that day, I had been fatherless. After it, I had both a real father and a biological one: an important distinction. And I had a trusted friend, something I have failed to appreciate until recently, more than fifty years later.

One of my earliest memories is of crouching under the kitchen table while Mother screamed and smashed my biological father’s liquor bottles in the sink. [2] (Mother had a ferocious temper, but she played it like a violin. A practical woman, she knew that when she was through being angry she’d probably have to clean up the mess, and it would be easier if the liquor ran down the sink instead of splashing all over the kitchen.)

Linda in snow after 1949 Blizzard Rapid CityI remember, later, sitting on my mother’s lap on a train, looking out into darkness, at the windows of lighted railway cars behind us uncoiling like a golden snake. My mother was doing something very traditional for women whose husbands have betrayed them: she was going home to her mother. We moved to Rapid City just in time for the Blizzard of 1949. As my mother took pictures of me playing in a ten-foot snowdrift outside our door, I wonder if she reconsidered the wisdom of moving from Texas back to South Dakota!

For four years, my mother worked to rebuild our lives. Divorced from my biological father, she called on her mother, Cora Hey, to live with us for awhile in Rapid City to take care of me; mother worked full-time, first in a bank, and then for a law firm. [3]

I spent most of each summer living with my grandmother and my uncle, my mother’s brother George Hey and his wife. I think Grandmother lived with us in winter through the year I attended kindergarten, walking me to and from the school each day. But eventually, she moved back to her home and I had to walk home, let myself into the house, and wait for my mother. Those experiences taught me a lot about independence and patience. And I learned to be the only girl I knew without a father– a situation considerably more rare in the early 1950s than it is today. [4]

Looking at that photograph, I was so sure my memory of the day was accurate that I wrote about my parents’ marriage and my adoption without looking for the supporting documents. [5] I wrote that my parents were married on Memorial Day weekend in 1952, and that I was adopted that same year.

Prompted by my promise to write about these events for the Custer County Historical Society, I did what I should have done in the first instance: check my facts. I learned that, contrary to my memory, my parents were married in 1952, and I was adopted more than a year later, in 1953.

On May 29, 1952, my mother and John Hasselstrom dropped me off at the home of my Uncle Bud (Cleo Truman) and Aunt Fern Hey, in Fairburn, and drove to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to be married. They always told me that they got to the Clerk of Courts office just as it was closing for the holiday weekend, and talked the clerk into issuing the license anyway. The documentation proves this is correct; the receipt shows they paid cash– $2.25– for their marriage license at 5:05 p.m. [6] They walked about a block to the First Congregational Church, where they were married by a minister whose wife was one of the witnesses. [7]

old postcard Cheyenne City County Building

I don’t know where they spent the night, but I believe they may have visited the Wyoming Hereford Ranch outside Cheyenne before they came home. At that time my father was raising registered Hereford cattle, and we later visited WHR several times to buy bulls. Mother let me take photographs with her camera; I carefully annotated the pictures with the names of the bulls and the men who showed them to us.

The adoption day photograph shows me a particular moment in time from a particular day, and any story I tell about that day will be true to be best of my recollection research. But, now that I have done a little research, I realize that for nearly fifty years I have believed I was adopted only a few months after my parents’ marriage.

Knowing that I was adopted more than a year after my mother’s third marriage, I guess that John Hasselstrom was unable to adopt me right away because my parents needed to convince my biological father to give up his parental rights. [8]

Digging deeper among the facts, I find the final judgment in my parents’ divorce. [9] The document awards “care, custody and control” of Linda M. Bovard to Florence M. Bovard, [10] but acknowledges the right of R. Paul Bovard to “visit with said child at all reasonable hours, provided such visitation does not interfere with the welfare of said child.” The decree further required R. Paul Bovard to contribute to my welfare in the amount of $75.00 per month until I was sixteen, or until the court ordered payment to stop. According to my mother, these payments were never made. I remember receiving letters from my biological father, and I know that I answered them– some of those letters were returned to me upon his death, when I was notified as his next of kin. [11]

A careful look at that adoption day photograph requires me not only to do research, but to reflect on my memories. My mother usually dressed me in ruffled, lacy pink dresses. Even at ten years of age, I hated pink, hated “fuss and feathers,” as my grandmother called it. Maybe we compromised on the plaid dress as being more practical for school. Our hopeful smiles on that adoption day hid the fact that we would disagree about almost everything for another fifty years. For the rest of her life, her gifts to me were usually pink and fragile; I immediately discarded them, or traded them for something plain, solid, and hard-wearing in earth tones. She never stopped trying to make me into a delicate little lady and I never stopped rebelling against her efforts. I once wrote, “Mother wanted a daughter who would be a lady swathed in silk, but I was born to love denim.” [12]

As soon as we moved to my father’s ranch, a year before my adoption, I had an excuse for being a tomboy instead of a lady: horses. From the moment of my adoption until I was nearly fifty years old, I was my father’s shadow, recreating myself in his image. [13] Boots, jeans, hats– those were my work clothes, not pink ruffles. And my mother’s constant refrains were, “You’re not going out like THAT!” and “My God, when are you going to cut that HAIR!” After his death, when her memory failed and she stopped repeating these old songs, I missed them.

In the adoption photograph, my mother’s hair is still dark brown, smoothly curled. She is smiling at my father, who is taking the picture. The street was so quiet that day– August 14, 1953– that he could stand in the middle of it while he fumbled with the camera’s focus. [14] Nowadays, Custer’s citizens seem happy when the street is considerably busier.

Until my father’s death in 1992 and my mother’s in 2001, my family always celebrated the day I was adopted as my second birthday of the year. The photograph shows what we were wearing, and has led me down these twisted paths of memory, but it doesn’t show the most important thing that happened to me that day.

The document of my adoption states that the County Judge, having “examined all persons appearing separately and being satisfied from such examination and the report of such investigation that the child is suitable for adoption and the petitioning foster parent is morally fit and financially able to have the care and training of such child,” decreed that I should be adopted.

Oddly, those dry official words bring back a memory that is filled with movement and texture. I remember climbing the stairs to the third floor courtroom with my parents; I’m sure my father made a wry comment about being breathless. I only dimly remember what happened in the courtroom. Probably Judge D. Webster Davis sat in his judicial robes behind a high desk, while my parents and I stood below him. I’m sure Judge Davis took my parents aside and satisfied himself about those moral and financial requirements.

But what I remember most vividly about that day is what happened next.

Courtroom Judges chamber to right of the bench

 

Courtroom door to Judges chamberThe Judge instructed my mother and father to wait, and probably ushered them to a bench like a church pew in the hallway outside the courtroom. Then he walked away with me. I remember the sound of his robes brushing the floor, and I think he took my hand. I now know, because I have visited the courtroom, that we walked through it to his private chamber. I hardly noticed where we were going; I was caught up in astonishment, seeing my parents sitting, left behind. My father was leaning forward impatiently, his mouth pursed as if he’d like to object, while my mother stared after me. But they sat meekly on that bench because the Judge told them to. I was amazed that anyone had the power to make my mother and father do anything they didn’t want to do.

Judges private chamber

The Judge ushered me into a room that seemed dim, filled with dark oak furniture and perhaps dark drapes. We both sat, and he leaned forward so his face was level with me. I recall his voice as warm, comforting. [15] I believe he asked me to tell him about my life, about moving from Texas to South Dakota, and then from the city to the ranch. I think he asked how my mother treated me, and what I remembered about my biological father. I probably told him that though I wrote my dad a lot of letters, my mother said he never sent us money.

He asked me if I wanted John Hasselstrom to be my father. I imagine I told him what I’d told my teacher: that I was happy to be getting a horse and a daddy– in that order.

And then he explained that if I didn’t want to be adopted, that I could stop the whole process simply by telling him so right then. He said that, although my parents had a right to decide to marry one another, and change my mother’s name from Bovard to Hasselstrom, that I didn’t need to change my name, or be adopted if I didn’t want to. I’m sure he told me that I was old enough to make this decision myself, and that he would wait while I thought about it.

I remember him turning away, to give me privacy to think, perhaps moving papers on his desk. And I’m sure, because he was so serious and so gentle, that I gave the matter all the thought I could manage, and told him that I did want John Hasselstrom to be my father. [16] I wouldn’t be surprised if I mentioned that horse I’d been promised, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t have one yet. But other photographs show that, besides the new house my father had built for us, we had a dog, and I had spent considerable time climbing trees: pleasures I’d been denied living in town with my mother. So I am sure that I was pretty convinced John Hasselstrom would be a good father– as he turned out to be.

When Judge Davis was satisfied that I knew what adoption meant, he turned back to me with a slip of paper in his hand. “This is my name, and my telephone number,” he said, putting the paper in my hand. “Now, if you ever change your mind about this, you can call me and tell me so, and we’ll do something about it. If that man ever mistreats you, or if your mother hurts you, or you even have a question about how they are treating you, you call me. Anytime, day or night. I will help you if you just tell me.”

And he looked at me, and smiled. I can’t picture his face as I write these words, but I can feel the comfort of his words, and that smile.

Try to imagine the effect of these words on a ten-year-old girl who, for more than half her life, had been without a father. My mother worked hard and only in retrospect have I learned to admire how she managed to keep her dignity and respect as a working single mother in a time when such women were rare.

John and Mildred at Mt Rushmore 1970sMother had made serious efforts to find me a father while we lived in Rapid City; I have dim memories of several of the men she saw at that time. One of the partners in the law firm where she worked [17] took an interest in me, giving me a beautiful doll each Christmas. My mother put the dolls on a high shelf in her closet, and told me she was keeping them for my children. They became remote, unreal, as if they did not belong to me. [18]

A father seemed similarly unattainable. I had already learned from my mother– probably in spite of her best intentions– that men were not to be trusted, that they were the enemy, dangerous and dark and distant.

But when Judge Davis spoke to me, I trusted him. I knew nothing at all about him; I had forgotten his name until this promise to write my memories of him for the Historical Society sent me back to search for the relevant documents.

Still, I recall putting that scrap of paper carefully into the little white purse in the photograph, and cherishing it for years. I remember stepping back into that hallway with my head up, feeling the power of the robed man behind me, the confidence he’d given me.

Reflecting on what his gesture meant to me, I think Judge Davis must have been the first person, except for my mother, that I trusted after our terrifying midnight flight away from my father’s insanity. I never called Judge Davis for help. I wish now I had written or called him to thank him for his promise. If my mother had known about the piece of paper, she’d have made me write one of my labored thank-you notes.

I kept the conversation secret from my parents, and somewhere I lost the piece of paper, but I have never forgotten. I now believe that each time I have trusted someone without any particular evidence, relying on my instincts alone, it is because I saw in that person’s eyes the same promise Judge Davis conveyed to me: that his word could be trusted.

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] Going Over East, p. 3.

[2] Feels Like Far, p. 14.

[3] Feels Like Far, pp. 14-15. Mother worked for the firm of Whiting, Wilson and Lynn, which is currently Bangs, McCullen, Butler, Foye & Simmons, in Rapid City, South Dakota.

[4] Feels Like Far, pp. 14-16.

[5] Feels Like Far, p. 16.

[6] Laramie County Clerk of Courts receipt number 598586 for marriage license number 25127, May 29, 1953.

[7] The First Congregational church was then located at 208 W. 19th Street; the site is now a parking lot for a bank. The Minister was Lincoln B. Wirt, witnesses Florence Wirt and Josephine E. Simmons, possibly church secretary. From 1991 until 2008, I  lived in Cheyenne, most of that time about 8 blocks from where my parents were married.

[8] If my biological father, R. Paul Bovard, objected to my adoption, his objections were probably set aside because he had contributed nothing to my support. A letter from Walter G. Miser, lawyer, of Rapid City South Dakota dated July 3, 1953, confirms that the District Clerk of Hidalgo County, Texas, confirmed my mother’s statement that he had paid nothing into the registry of that court since September 27, 1947– four months after their divorce. The official adoption document states that my biological father had been notified of the pending adoption and failed to comment, that John Hasselstrom agreed to treat me “in all respects as his own lawful child should be treated.” That requirement created some interesting implications about fifty years later. See “Badger’s Daughter,” Feels Like Far, pp. 212-216.

[9] No. 15,602, in the District Court of Hidalgo County, Texas, 93rd Judicial District, dated May 23, 1947. My parents were married April 16, 1938 in the First Presbyterian Church of Morgantown, West Virginia.

[10] I’ve never known my mother as Florence, only as Mildred, which I understood to be her middle name. However most of the early documents show her given name as Florence. Her birth certificate, showing her name as Mildred Florence– which is how she signed documents most of her life– was not filed until December 4, 1940, when she was 31 years old.

[11] According to my journal, R. Paul Bovard was dead on arrival at Oceanside City hospital in San Diego, CA, Sunday afternoon, May 11, 1969. I received a telegram announcing his death the next day, along with a request to call the county coroner’s office. When I did so, I was told that as next of kin I needed to give permission for an autopsy. I was 26 years old and had not seem my father in twenty years. What if I don’t? I asked. His remains will be retained here until an autopsy is done, reported a dry voice. Indefinitely? I asked. Yes, he answered. I gave permission. A letter from the County of San Diego to R. P. Bovard’s brother Ike in Pittsburgh, PA, says his estate consisted of a “few items of clothing” which were “of no value and were abandoned,” a joint bank account with his brother “showing a balance of $6.77,” and cash in the amount of $14.17 “which will be absorbed for mileage charges, etc.” I did not receive a copy of the autopsy report or the death certificate, but his brother informed me that the cause of his death was heavy drinking combined with heavy medication. He was 61 years old. His body was cremated and the ashes were buried at the foot of his sister Ruth’s grave in a country cemetery in McVille, PA, beside his parents. I once visited the grave.

[12] Feels Like Far, p. 12. Actually, what I wrote was “Mother wanted a daughter swathed in silk, but I was born to denim,” and an editor altered the line without my permission.

[13] While I never thought of John Hasselstrom as my stepfather, I once referred to him in print by that description, and infuriated him. Feels Like Far, pp. 195-6. He was so angry, that later on, his memory damaged by undiagnosed strokes, that he left me nothing in his will.

[14] Among the adoption documents is my revised birth certificate, According to the Texas Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, State File No. 78951, I was born legitimate in the county of Harris, city of Houston, at 1911 University Blvd., though no hospital is mentioned. My mother was Florence Mildred Baker of Wheatland, Wyoming, and my father was John (no middle initial) Hasselstrom of Hermosa, South Dakota. My mother’s marriage to my biological father isn’t mentioned, nor is the fact that she was living in Houston with him at the time of my birth. A researcher without other information might wonder how a woman from Wheatland, Wyoming, and a man from Hermosa, South Dakota, managed to have a legitimate child in Houston, Texas. One clue exists: the birth certificate was filed August 28, 1953, more than ten years after my birth. Perhaps it’s a good thing I don’t have children, since my bloodlines have vanished in the paperwork. And this information only raises more questions: Why did my mother give her residence as Wheatland, WY, (where she was born) when she had been living for several years in Rapid City, South Dakota?

[15] Recollecting now, it seems to me his voice was like that of James Earl Jones, the black actor– but I wonder if I am merely substituting the sound of his beautiful voice for one I don’t really remember.

[16] Until the end of his life, I called John Hasselstrom “father,” never “dad,” and he called me “child,” which sometimes annoyed me in later years.

[17] Mr. Lynn, whose first name I should also research, though I knew him always as Mr. Lynn because that’s how my mother referred to him.

[18] When I got the dolls back after my mother’s death, I gave them to the Salvation Army without a pang.

# # #

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

For more information:

The Custer Courthouse of this story is now a museum in the city of Custer, South Dakota. You can climb the creaking wooden stairs, enter the court room, and peer in the door to the judge’s chambers.

www.1881courthousemuseum.com

1881 Custer County Courthouse now a museum

Paying Attention – Sixty Years of Experience

Roundup - Bull ignoring cow

I just spent a couple of hours having the most fun I’ve had since I gave up my horses– using my Kubota to herd a neighbor’s Angus bull into the corral.

When Jerry and I started our usual walk to the mailbox, we noticed the cows were excited and jumpy, and realized they were gathered around a couple of black bulls. Our lessee had apparently decided this was the time to turn his bulls out; service in July will result in calves in April.

Roundup - Bull bellowingWe noticed the bulls seemed to be sparring a little, but that’s normal when two bulls are competing for the favors of a group of cows. They soon settle down to their jobs– impregnation– and realize they don’t need to squabble.

Soon, though, we saw our neighbor coming down the road, and realized that one of the bulls belonged to him. His cows were disconsolately standing along the fence, missing their bull. He’d have to go home and get a horse and a trailer to collect the bull.

Let’s see if we can get the bull into the corral to make it easier, we decided: and so the fun began. The bull did not want to leave his new-found friends. Jerry and our neighbor grabbed long sticks and strolled toward the cows, hoping to be able to ease around the bull and get him into the neighbor’s pasture without much fuss.

Skeptical, I went and got the Kubota ATV. When I got back, the bull and all the cows in our pasture were galloping happily around the pasture, with the men panting in their wake. I eased into the group, hoping I might be able to separate the bull, since he was with strangers, and encourage him to go toward the men. We’d either get him into the neighbor’s pasture, or shut him in one of our corrals so the neighbor could collect him with a truck and trailer.

Roundup - Kubota has heavy grill on front

I grew up maneuvering a little Arab mare around bulls as big as this Angus, a sleek-headed black collection of muscle that weighed a ton or more. My little mare was nimble-footed and entirely without fear of critters that were probably double her weight. And I have always had the instincts that my dad called “cow sense,” so we made a good team. I’ve missed her every day since she died.

Roundup - Bull with sleek head and massive shouldersThis bull seemed to think that all he had to do to get past my orange steed was to roll his massive shoulders and shake his head threateningly, throwing snot over his shoulders and my windshield.  Another of my dad’s maxims was, “It helps to be smarter than the cow,” so I drove slowly, watching the bull’s eyes and the way he carried himself: with the confidence of a prize fighter.

I’d already learned the Kubota could, as we used to say, turn on a dime and give you nine cents change, so I knew exactly how close I could come to a post without slamming on the brakes. And the big bumpers on the front are pretty solid.

Roundup - Kubota corneringOnly someone who has handled cattle from horseback will understand how I used cow sense to know just what to do and whether that bull would climb in my window. I can’t describe the twisting, turning, galloping contest, but I wish someone had been able to make a movie of it.

I watched that bull’s head constantly. An experienced rider who has moved a lot of unwilling cattle would understand how I knew when he was going to turn and when he was going to come straight at me. That knowledge is part of paying attention to cattle for sixty years.

When he dived into the mud hole, I went around it and met him on the other side. He ran and jumped and dodged, but I know every rock and hole in that pasture. Afoot, on horseback and in a truck, I’ve been paying attention to that pasture for six decades, so maneuvering around its pitfalls with the agile Kubota was a challenge I enjoyed. The knowledge from that close observation is buried way deep in the cerebral cortex, but it expressed itself through my hands on the steering wheel and my foot on the gas.

The bull and I soon left Jerry and the owner behind, but eventually we collected ourselves behind the cows and herded them all into the corral. With a little more deft maneuvering, we cut out the bull with a few companions and shut him in a corral with steel gates and high fences, where he stayed, panting, until the owner went home and got his pickup and trailer.

The bull is back in his home corral now, having spent all the time he’s going to get with his cows this season. My Kubota is resting quietly in the garage.

And I’m still grinning.

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Roundup - Kubota Linda grins

All writing begins with observation, which may lead to quick notes in a journal or on a scrap of paper. These notes expand in the mind and on paper into something with more detail– the notes or journal entry becomes a draft which becomes a poem or essay or simply the basis for deeper thought. The important thing is to notice, to be constantly prepared for the unexpected, to Pay Attention.

— LMH, 2018

Walking into Writing

Morning Walk Jerry and Linda on road

Jerry and I step lively when we begin our after-breakfast walk to the mailbox on the highway, smiling as we march along, even when our feet slide on the roughly graveled road. Whenever our road through the pasture gets too muddy, we haul pickup loads of gravel from one of the small quarries in the neighborhood, so the gravel varies in size and shape. Several times during the summer, Jerry mows the tallest grass at the edge of this two-track trail, so we are in less danger from lurking rattlesnakes, but we always wear heavy shoes and long pants as protection against snakes, wasps, and other critters that might bite or sting.

Morning Walk writing while walkingI tuck a small notebook in my pocket with a pen, but it doesn’t stay there long. I soon discover that I can take notes while walking. No one else could read them, but if I take the notebook back to the computer as soon as our walk is over, I have an abundance of writing material as I start the day.

Jerry, probably wisely, just walks and enjoys our conversation and the things we see as we stroll. Sometimes we talk political news, because we’ve both looked at our computers before breakfast. Or we might exchange comments on our plans for the day. We notice the traffic, and marvel at how many people are probably headed to jobs in Rapid City at 7:30 in the morning.

Our first challenge is an autogate, also called a cattle guard: a gate with round metal pipes across a 4-foot deep hole. Cattle don’t like the void they can see between the bars, so we can keep them out without having a gate we have to get out of a vehicle to open and shut. But the gates can be tricky to navigate, especially if the pipes are slick with water or snow.

Morning Walk autogate with bypass bridge

As we tiptoe across the first set of pipes, a killdeer runs ahead of us shrieking what sounds like KILLDEER! KILLDEER! The bird runs along on its thin legs for a few feet and then begins to stagger, dragging one wing in the gravel and crying piteously. This is a well-known broken-wing act created by nature to fool predators into chasing the supposedly injured bird. The parent bird stays just out of reach, feigning injury, until some distance from the nest.

Morning Walk KilldeerThen with a strident cry– mocking? triumphant?– she flies off, having successfully lured the pursuers away from her eggs or babies.  Every morning she does the same thing, never believing we will not harm her.

And all the while, we hear a nighthawk or two calling overhead. We lean back, looking up, and Jerry has to listen to me recite what I’ve learned about these wonderful birds. Two of them make great looping circles overhead, alternating flapping with long glides and dives. When they plummet, they make a roaring sound authorities liken to “a truck rushing past.” Some say the sound is produced by their wings; others aren’t sure, and the dive that produces the sound is difficult or impossible to study in a laboratory.

This Common Nighthawk is strangely misnamed, since it is not a hawk, and it usually hunts at dawn and dusk, but never at night. Its method of hunting accounts for the second part of the name: catching flying insects on the wing is called “hawking.” Though it has a tiny beak, its mouth is huge, perhaps one of the reasons it was nicknamed “goatsucker.” (The mouth is definitely not large enough to milk goats, though the superstition persists in some areas.) The bird eats by flying into clouds of insects, opening its mouth, and swallowing flying ants, wasps, crickets, flies, grasshoppers, mosquitoes or anything else that lands inside.

Researchers say that the parent birds feed their chicks regurgitated insects until the babies are able to hunt for themselves. The nighthawk seems poorly designed for survival: its feet are small and weak, and the sides of its mouth are flexible. The bird can only swallow prey whole in flight, so if a bird is confined to the ground by injury, it is unable to feed itself, because it has an ineffectual beak and claws.

Yet when it flies at dawn and dusk, it seems to be master of the skies.

Just ahead, another killdeer begins to limp along the edge of the road, crying and dragging a wing. Even when we have this sure sign that we are close to a nest, we don’t look for it. Killdeer nests, like those of the nighthawk, are barely respectable, usually a little divot in the gravel, with the eggs laid among similar-looking stones, and devilishly hard to see. We have spent hours tiptoeing around on the hillside watching killdeer or nighthawks fly up, going directly to the spot– and still not being able to see the eggs.

Morning Walk Russian thistle photo from govt websiteBeside the trail we begin to notice something that looks like broad snowflakes, sparkling as they melt. Looking closer, we see they are puffs of cottonwood down, damp with dew. Taller weeds are thick this year: not only alfalfa that has escaped from the hayfield, but poverty weed, brome grass, kochia and Russian thistle. I abruptly remember that my uncle Harold always called it “Rooshan thistle,” laughing at his own pronunciation, and reminded me to mow it before it could go to seed. For years we never saw it here, but suddenly it’s back, and it’s everywhere.

The second cattle guard is choked with thistles that grow from the bottom through the bars. Since the gate is set solidly on railroad ties and is extremely heavy, we can’t move it to mow the weeds, but we always hope that the cars zipping over it will destroy the seed heads before they can spread their menace.

 

Morning Walk thistles in autogate

A bird I’ve been trying to identify for days trills from deep in the grass: chirpchirpchirpchirpchirp CHEEP CHEEP CHEEP! I keep the bird identification book on the dining room table, and have also searched for the bird call online, but the closest I can some to identifying this winsome singer is “some kind of sparrow.” The song pattern seems to follow those of sparrows that are likely to be here, though I haven’t found the exact song.  I haven’t been able to get a good look at it through the binoculars since it stays low in the grass. (Please—if anyone knows what it is, tell me!)

Morning Walk three colors of alfalfaA redwing blackbird alights on a dried mullein and trills like a tiny waterfall. A mourning dove coos and darts away. A robin chirps raucously and meadowlarks gargle melodiously from fence posts. Minuscule yellow butterflies drift among the brome grass heads and sweet clover blooms in the borrow ditch. The trumpet-shaped pink and white blooms of creeping jenny wind around alfalfa stalks carrying yellow, purple and lilac blossoms.

On our left as we top the last rise before the highway is the headquarters of the Great Plains Native Plant Society’s Botanic Garden, a nonprofit organization that has established a collection of native plants on property I’ve loaned to the group. The garden will soon be open to the public, so that we can educate visitors on the excellent qualities of native plants and grasses. Members put out pink flags to mark particular plants for a recent tour; they still flutter in the pale green prairie grass. A huge prickly pear cactus holds four lush yellow blooms big as a dinner plate. Dew sparkles in the hairy leaves of a mullein. Headed downhill, we walk a little faster, a quarter finished with our walk.

Morning Walk Great Plains Botanic Garden HQ

Then a nighthawk sweeps low over us and then up, where it meets another and the two spiral around and around until we are dizzy. Playing follow the leader? Disagreeing over territory? Sources say the bird can fly at least 500 feet high; I don’t doubt the figure because a few nights ago I watched one fly higher and higher until it went into a storm cloud.

Nighthawk nests are even cruder than those of the killdeer, with two eggs about an inch long laid directly on gravel, sand, rock or occasionally vegetation like the rosette of a dandelion. I’ve seen eggs that were ivory or pale gray, and speckled with gray, brown or black. Nighthawks nest not only in prairie but on buildings in urban areas; they love flat roofs covered with tarpaper held in place by rocks.

morning-walk-nighthawk-nest-at-ranch-2018.jpg

The chicks are similarly nearly invisible in their chosen habitat, with darker gray feathers that seem to mimic their background. Their partly open eyes are just tiny slits. I’ve found nests once or twice, and the chicks are nearly invisible when you are staring directly at them, completely still except for a breeze fluttering their downy feathers. Like the parents, the defenseless chick relies mostly on its coloration for protection from predators.

Morning Walk nighthawk photo from govt website

The Cornell Lab All About Birds website says nighthawks have declined more than sixty percent since the 1960s. Further, recent studies show dramatic declines in many insects, especially in Europe and the U.S.

No bugs means no birds.

But that’s not all the disappearance of bugs means. The Guardian newspaper reported that many entomologists say “an insect Armageddon” is underway, the result of multiple environmental causes: pollution, habitat changes, overuse of pesticides, and global warming. These changes will no doubt have crucial consequences. The distinguished Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson once observed that “If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”

I’m willing to put up with a lot of mosquitoes and flies to keep nighthawks. We never spray to kill bugs, but rely on repellent, with long sleeves and net masks if the critters are really bad. My hand is still my favorite weapon against flying insects.

Morning Walk Dangerous Hwy Crossing

We hike up the steep slope to the highway and take a long look to our left, uphill. If a car has started down, we don’t try to cross until it passes. The speed limit is 70 miles per hour, which means most cars are traveling at least 75. Often two cars are traveling abreast; none slow down at the sight of two people standing at the roadside.

We cross the first two lanes, and then pause in the median, looking north, to the right, where the approaching cars travel only a half mile before reaching us. They’ve just come up a hill, but that hasn’t slowed them down, and they, too, go screaming past at 75 miles an hour. We cross the two lanes safely, and Jerry tucks the newspaper under his arm before we turn to cross all four lanes back to the safety of our gravel road. I wonder how many of those folks have seen what can happen when something goes wrong with the car– a blowout, say– at that speed.

Morning Walk gravelAs we cross the first gully on our road back, we see something we missed the first time: the tracks of deer or antelope in the damp gravel. We saw three deer on our hillside while drinking our first cups of coffee this morning, so these are undoubtedly their tracks, all headed toward the big ridge south of our house.

A few steps farther, though, we see the tracks of a deer or antelope going north; perhaps one of them turned back at the fence. On other occasions we’ve seen them cross these fences; deer tend to jump over them, dangerous if they catch a leg or don’t jump high enough. Antelope look for a place where the bottom wire is a little higher than usual and duck under. My theory is that they use their horns to raise the wire a little while their bodies scurry under it, all at warp speed.

Morning Walk poison ivy at rocksAs we top the second hill on our walk back, we notice that the outcropping of limestone in the pasture beside the fence is nearly buried in this year’s lush grasses. Generations of rabbits have lived under these tumbled rocks, which are covered with lime green lichen and surrounded by poison ivy. Apparently the rabbits are immune to the poison that keeps me from exploring the cavities in the limestone more thoroughly. I pick a leaf of silver sage, growing among the greener plants along the road, to inhale its sharp scent.

Morning Walk Jerry and LindaI’ve filled several pages in my tiny notebook, so I stick it in my back pocket and settle into the rhythm of our return walk, inhaling the scents of the prairie, listening to birdsong, and thinking about what I’ll fix for lunch. Fifteen minutes of paying attention and taking notes has given me inspiration for writing, and motivated me to do further research. Jerry’s ready for his day, too, so he often turns off the trail and heads for his shop, anxious to get back to whatever he is building.

Inspiration, writing, research, more writing: that’s how it’s done. Every day.

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Some of the information here was provided by: birdwatchingdaily.com, The Cornell Lab www.allaboutbirds.org and www.birds.cornell.edu.

 

In the U.S., Common Nighthawk populations declined by almost 2% per year between 1966 and 2014, amounting to a cumulative decline of 61%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Canadian populations experienced declines of over 4% and recent data suggest the species’ numbers may have dropped more than half in Canada since the mid-1960s.

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Nighthawk/lifehistory

 

“An insect Armageddon is under way, say many entomologists, the result of a multiple whammy of environmental impacts: pollution, habitat changes, overuse of pesticides, and global warming. And it is a decline that could have crucial consequences. . . .

“The best illustration of the ecological importance of insects is provided by our birdlife. Without insects, hundreds of species face starvation and some ornithologists believe this lack of food is already causing serious declines in bird numbers . . .”

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jun/17/where-have-insects-gone-climate-change-population-decline

The Tall Purple Flower: a follow-up to my Journal Entry, 7/4/2018 blog

purple flower -maybe verbena - small version for blogIn my previous blog I wrote:

“Today we wander the hillside, admiring the Echinacea in bloom, the salsify, the height of the grass we never mow or graze. . . . Bluegrass, redgrass, a tall purple flower I can’t name. Delicate faces of blue flax that has escaped from my planted gardens, all blow gently in the breeze.”

Thanks to Cindy Reed, president of the Great Plains Native Plant Society which has its Great Plains Garden headquarters on my ranch, I’ve discovered the identity of the “tall purple flower” I see on my walk.

Here’s what Cindy says:

That’s a verbena, native throughout the Great Plains, and much of the remainder of the U.S. It is not uncommon at all, but not considered an invasive problem either.

Verbena stricta, or hoary verbena or simply verbena.

It is in full bloom right now, making purple drifts you can see from the highway.

Occasionally, this species produces individuals that have white flowers, and I dug a few of these here and there years ago, and now have white ones volunteering in our yard.

Purple verbena with purple prairie coneflower - small version for blog

Take a look at the Great Plains Native Plant Society website and Facebook page to learn when the Great Plains Garden will hold an open house, and plan to visit the garden this summer while plants are in bloom.

The variety will astonish you!

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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