Roadside Wildflowers at Full Speed

Field Guide to Roadside Wildflowers_editedI’ve spent my writing life extolling the virtues of the gorgeous grasslands of the Great Plains, which furnish a considerable amount of the air we breathe. They also furnish grazing for grassfed beef, and thus are important to all of us for a variety of reasons, most of which I’ve explained at length in nonfiction and poetry in 17 published books.

Now there’s a guide to the wildflowers of the region that is organized for the way most visitors to this neighborhood see the grasslands: at 70 miles an hour from a moving car.

A Field Guide to Roadside Wildflowers At Full Speed by Chris Helzer, the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, is offered as a free pdf download at his blog — link here.

Written as a parody to point out how silly it is for us to fail to appreciate the treasure we have in the grasslands, the book is proving immensely popular.

On his blog, The Prairie Ecologist, Helzer recently wrote:

I’m hoping maybe all this craziness will at least lead to a few more people thinking about prairies, if just for a moment or two. If I’d known what kind of reaction it was going to get, I might have spent more time trying to make the guide into a better ambassador for grasslands and their beauty. Silly me, I thought I was just going through a lot of work to make myself laugh.

Download the book, learn about wildflowers from your speeding car, and maybe you’ll be inspired to slow down and get to know our unique grassland ecosystem.

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Driving in Darkness

Darkness headlights on gravel road

“They could be driving through the sky.” Elly Griffiths is writing in her mystery The Outcast Dead about a drive on the Norfolk coast, but the line struck me as descriptive of what driving home from town used to be like for me, the little girl in the back seat.

For a minute I stopped to think about the meaning of the line, and it came to me: that’s what the drive USED to be like. I remember the comfort of dozing in the back seat of the old 1954 Chevy, no doubt wrapped in a blanket, as my father drove home, talking quietly to my mother in the passenger seat. The murmur of their voices was comforting in the darkness as we drove down old Highway 79 and turned into our driveway. I usually sat up then, watching as the two headlights stabbed down the gravel road. Occasionally we’d see a coyote lope along ahead of us and duck under the fence, or an antelope dive under the bottom wire. Rabbits always scurried around the limestone outcropping at the top of the hill. Closer to the house, we’d often see the glowing eyes of a cat or two, hunting in the borrow ditches.

Darkness coyote crossing Nov 2015

In the ranch yard, we might pause while my father got out and shut the chicken house door, first flashing a light around inside to be sure no skunks or raccoons were lurking under the perches. Then he’d pull into the driveway and go inside to turn on the porch light before my mother got out of the car. He’d walk ahead of her into the dining room, turning on the overhead lights and perhaps turning the heat up if we had been gone most of the day.

When I got out of the car, I could stand behind it and look east and south and west and north into utter blackness– as if our house were the only one on the planet. Perhaps an owl would hoot, to add to the lonely atmosphere, or a coyote howl. Inside the circle of light, I knew I was safe. But I had slipped out my bedroom window and wandered the dark often enough to feel comfortable without light as well.

Darkness ranch house with lights on

Today, it’s hard to find true darkness even 20 miles from town, where I still live. As the countryside empties of ranchers– a subject on which I’ve ranted elsewhere– it is filling with folks who want to live in the country, which should be a wonderful thing. More people in the country means we share the taxes with more taxpayers, meet more people in church, and the like.

But one of the sad side effects is that although these folks like the country in the daylight, they apparently don’t like it at night. If I look to the west, I see half a dozen glows from yard lights that will burn all night long. To the north I see lights in what was recently my uncle’s pasture, as well as the eerie glow of Rapid City on the horizon. Only to the east and a little southeast can I look at real darkness. And I can appreciate it because I can stand on my deck in complete darkness if I choose to.

The key word is CHOOSE.

On the outside of the garage, and just above my back door, I have installed motion lights which come on when they detect movement. When I drive up to the garage, the light comes on. When I walk to my car parked in front of the garage, the light comes on. When I step out of the garage and walk to my door, the light above the door illuminates the lock.

Of course, the garage light also comes on when a rabbit hops across the driveway, but nothing is perfect.

M2E1L0-12R350B300Besides all these potential lights, I have lights on tall poles outside my house and my retreat house. These lights operate with a switch from inside the house, or with a device I can carry. I have to turn them on. When someone drives up, I can light their way to the door.

This means that I can CHOOSE to light the place like a supermarket parking lot if necessary, but it’s not lit that way every single minute of every single blessed night. In the darkness, the population of hawks and rabbits, skunks, coyotes, mice, pigeons, grouse, bullsnakes, and all the other useful wild inhabitants of the neighborhood can go about their business.

When I walk outside at night, I prefer to go in the dark. In a famous poem, Wendell Berry wrote, “To know the dark, go dark.” If you walk into the dark with a light, you know only the light– only the relatively tiny circle of glowing light. Anything outside that circle will be invisible. But if I step outside with the flashlight in my hand turned off, my eyes rapidly adjust until I can see remarkably well in the darkness– much better than I can see into the dark if I light my steps. I can carry the flashlight in case I need to light my way, or confront something in the darkness. But I can also walk quietly, using my sight, hearing, and touch to find my way, and learn that the dark, too “blooms and sings,” as Berry says, and “is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”

Walking in darkness, I have heard the whisper of a great-horned owl flying out of a cedar tree beside me, seen its great shadow cross the moon.

Darkness owl on power pole Oct 2017

 

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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The International Dark-Sky Association works to protect the night skies for present and future generations.

www.darksky.org

Keeping Winter Solstice: How Epiphanies Happen

The following is a chapter from my book The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook (2015, Red Dashboard). The book is structured with sixteen essays, one for each of the eight seasons of the year, covering two years. This essay is from Year One. Enjoy.

Yule - Wheel of the Year with snow sage rocks_edited

December 20-23: Winter Solstice (Yule)
Celebrating Yule: How Epiphanies Happen

Short gloomy days. Long cold nights. Living in the country, my retired partner and I find ourselves easily adapting to the season. As nights grow longer and days dwindle to brief stretches of gray, we read more, play more board games, and talk more than we did during the busy warm months when we often work outside at separate tasks.

Here on the prairie we welcome the Yule season surrounding the Winter Solstice as a bright break from winter chores, an opportunity to drive to town, enjoy the lights, and hear the special music. Though we deplore the season’s commercialization, we understand that modern practices of gifts, greetings and gaiety preserve ancient traditions designed to drive the gloom away and hasten the return of spring. We enter into the spirit of the season.

Yet in spite of the distractions, Yule is particularly appropriate as a time of meditation on writing. The ancients understood how completely both darkness and light are essential to life. Only from the night’s dark womb can light be reborn. Though we may be cold and exhausted from summer’s planting and harvest, winter’s slow periods of reflection, along with the indulgences of the yuletide season, can refill our reservoirs and produce a spring of writing.

Yule - writing

I have learned to serve my writing life by exploring the boundaries that separate it from the rest of my existence. Instead of allowing myself to be wrapped in the dark blanket of winter, I can build symbolic fires to lure the sun of my writing inspiration back.

The word “solstice” means “the time when the sun stands still,” because the ancients may have believed that the sun would cease moving and vanish if not cajoled to return its warmth to the earth. The scientific explanation for the sun’s apparent immobility is simple: because of the earth’s tilt, our hemisphere is leaning far away from the sun. Therefore the sun’s arc in the sky is short, making daylight brief, night long. No matter how we hustle, we may accomplish only the most basic requirements of our days before darkness signals our bodies that it’s time to rest.

Similarly, I might find it easy to let my writing congeal as my blood thickens unless I am firm with myself. How easy it would be to immerse myself in yuletide excesses! I could happily choose and wrap gifts, decorate the house, bake sweet treats and read thick books, allowing writing to sink to the bottom of a long list of chores.

home-retreat-cooking-2016-9-16So I try to outsmart myself, to insist on keeping writing central to my daylight schedule. Moving from household job to mundane task, I carry my journal. Jobs like peeling potatoes and wrapping gifts allow my mind to delve into ideas for next season’s writing, and my journal is right there on the kitchen counter where I can make notes. Yes, some pages are smeared with potato juice or tomato sauce; those decorations add specific memories when I return to the notes!

Looking around me in the early dark, I see my neighbors’ so-called “security lights” bathe the hillsides in lurid orange, reminding me how early humans must have feared the lengthening nights of winter. Apparently that fear is still with us. Most civilizations in the northern hemisphere appear to have created rituals intended to drive away winter’s dark cold and bring back light and warmth; in the southern hemisphere, of course, the year’s rituals are reversed and celebrations of summer’s heat are underway. Feasting and merrymaking at this time may also have offered an opportunity to evaluate the harvest and plan how to make it last until spring. After the festivities, families stayed close to the hearth, drawing inward, spending more time together.

If modern Americans could attend an ancient celebration of the Winter Solstice, we might be surprised by its familiar aspects: candles light the room around the hearth and twinkle on the branches of an evergreen tree; friends sing hymns; decorations are red, green and white. Despite differences in religion or ancestry, many customs and symbols that mean “Christmas” to us today originated with ancient pagan rituals in another part of the world.

In writing, I often focus on origins. When I was studying early Greek history as an undergraduate, I was stunned to learn that the hero or sage born from a virgin mother was a familiar legend in the Hellenistic world; Pythagorus, Plato, Alexander were all believed to be born of a woman touched by the power of a holy spirit. The union of a virgin with some supernatural force was intended to demonstrate that their offspring was special. Priests endeavoring to win converts to any new religion might have included the story in their dogma because its power was familiar.

Since then, when I am beginning new writing, I often research word histories, including origins and definitions. The information may not appear in what I eventually write but the knowledge deepens my thinking or extends my mind. For example, Joseph T. Shipley in his Dictionary of Word Origins suggests that the term “yule” may be related to “wheel,” as in the Wheel of the Year, and informs me that Queen Victoria’s husband Albert was the first to develop the practice of celebrating the season with a green tree instead of the burning yule log.

Yule - tree with red ornaments

One Yule season, I tried for weeks to write a winter solstice message for my correspondents and my website. I produced drafts of several ideas and wrote several blog messages but nothing suited.

What I needed, I told myself, was an epiphany; that is, a brilliant idea.

I turned first to my compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Handling the unwieldy books reminds me that I was living on beans and rice when I bought this compressed version of the famous dictionary in 1971. Besides working on my MA degree at the University of Missouri-Columbia, I was editor of the school’s literary magazine and was helping edit an alternative anti-war publication. My marriage was rapidly disintegrating. Owning the OED raised my spirits and made me, I believed, a real writer.

Lugging one of the ponderous tomes to my desk and placing the accompanying magnifying glass to its tiny print still gives me a huge satisfaction that can never be matched in joy or speed by searching for a word on the Internet—even if the Internet provided accurate information, which it frequently does not.

Yule - Compact Oxford English Dictionary

The word “epiphany” appears to derive from a Greek word meaning “manifestation,” or “to appear,” and carries multiple meanings. In religion, Epiphany is “a Christian feast” observed on January 6 or “a revelatory manifestation of a divine being.”

The meaning I’m seeking, though, is “a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something” and “a comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization.”  That’s it: “A sudden intuitive realization.” The goal of a considerable amount of writing is to arrive at that sudden realization, that understanding of the essence or meaning. Sometimes we can only do it by blundering around in vagueness and imprecision, stumbling through the word-jungle without a path or a flashlight.

Those final meanings touch writers and other creative artists most closely, since they explain that moment when an idea catches fire in our minds, begins to burn with a light that can lead us through the darkness of multiple revisions. Few occasions in life can match that ebullience, that explosion of delight.

Finishing a poem or essay is a long hard grind for me, but after a blinding instant of understanding, I usually wade through the required hours of moving commas, looking up words and re-reading aloud with a smile as I work to convey to anonymous readers what I realized in that moment of dazzling light. This definition is not inherently religious, but suggestive; whoever labeled this divine feeling an “epiphany” must have been aware of the word’s religious connotations. Finding the puzzle piece that makes a poem work is a spiritual experience.

Here’s the important question for writers and other creators: Can epiphanies happen in front of a TV? With a cell phone in hand? While texting?

For me, the answer is no.  I have experienced epiphanies in a variety of situations but never in the presence of such distractions. I’m not entirely ruling out mechanical devices as agents of epiphany because one of my favorite times to think is while driving. With no interruptions but the need to pump gas into my vehicle, I’ve sorted out all kinds of problems.

A real epiphany, I believe, requires solitude and time to think, above all other needs. Driving, I’m often alone. I may play music but rarely the radio because its advertising racket destroys solitude. Or I might entertain an epiphany while treating my sinuses by lying in a hot bath infused with eucalyptus, peppermint, wintergreen and juniper. A writer friend says, “I’ve solved quite a few writing quandaries in the shower.” Another swears by walking his dog at night. Almost any kind of reading can allow the mind to wander down different pathways and lead to new ideas.

Some revelations arise from the peacefulness inherent in washing dishes and cooking. Since I set my own work hours, I’ve found homemaking chores can contribute greatly to my creativity. Sometimes I burn the rice when I run downstairs to the computer to record the revelation I’ve just had about that poem I started at 5 a.m., but the poetic satisfaction erases my annoyance at myself. (And vinegar and soda erase the burn marks from the pan.) Vacuuming floors and even cleaning toilets have led directly to poems. The mind cannot abide a vacuum. Deprived of advertising jingles, chatter, e-mail, and twittering, it may produce something original.

Yule - Writing with DogsWriting in the journal, too, can enlighten as well as discipline a writer. When the dogs wake me between four and five in the morning, I let them out, record the temperature, and let them back in. Then I sit against pillows in bed, the dogs beside me, and pick up my journal. At that moment, I may have no conscious idea of what to write beyond “12/2/10 4:35 a.m. 25 degrees.” Once I have recorded those traditional details, though, I have limbered my mind and pen and may write about a dream, or thoughts from wakeful moments in the night or the sunrise and the heron looking for frogs in the pond outside the window.

On that particular December 2, sitting at my computer, I wondered how I could create an epiphany that would lead me to a winter solstice message.

Yule - Greenhouse with curved but pointed roofOutside my study window stands my new greenhouse. With its curved, pointed roof, it reminds me of the tiny retreats used for meditation by Eastern monks. Half-laughing at myself, I dashed through falling snowflakes into the greenhouse and sat on an ancient stool my mother had painted blue so long ago the paint is cracked.

Taking deep breaths, I stared at the shells and peculiarly-marked rocks I’ve tucked into niches in a piece of driftwood, at wind chimes and a mobile of beads and driftwood made by a friend. I looked overhead at the tomato cages waiting in the rafters for spring; one had a few drying tendrils of creeping jenny vines still attached. Beside me stood a set of shelves filled with flower pots. Japanese fishing floats my partner’s family collected in the Pribilof Islands several decades ago hung from the ceiling. Despite the cold, the rich soil smelled as though something might be growing.

Yule - Greenhouse with blue stool

“I need an epiphany,” I announced, rubbing my thumb over one of the turtle figurines I collect to remind me to slow down. Mother turtle, in any form, whispers to me that I am part of the earth’s slow cycles.

I straightened my spine and breathed even more deeply.

Black cattle grazed across the tawny field below the hill; snow lay white over the ice on the pond. A rabbit nibbled grass under a juniper tree. A grouse stood on a top branch of another tree, craning its neck to watch for danger.

And in the silence, my epiphany arrived: I could write about epiphanies!

How do you find an epiphany?

Sit down, relax, close your eyes, and listen. Perhaps your revelation will come from your own mind, free at last to give you the thoughts it’s been incubating while you wrapped presents and baked cookies. Or perhaps an idea will manifest itself in touch, or in the breath of a concept. Footsteps may alert you to its approach. No matter its origin, your epiphany is your spark, the flame that will lead you to your springtime of writing.

Starhawk, a writer of many books on earth-based spirituality, has written a powerful chant to the goddess that could also describe an epiphany:

She changes everything she touches and
everything she touches changes
She changes everything she touches and
everything she touches changes

Let your epiphany change your writing.

*~*~*~*

Writing suggestions:

Seek an epiphany. Sit quietly, breathe deeply, and clear your mind of distractions as fully as you can. When you think five minutes have passed, look at a clock and note how long has really passed. If you are surprised to discover that you spent only a minute or two at this task, do it again and try for five minutes. Repeat this practice every day until you can comfortably sit for five minutes without looking at your watch.

When the time is up, write down any thoughts that came to you, no matter how trivial they may seem. Look at them: are those epiphanies?

Have you ever had what you would term an epiphany? Write about it.

Nebraska State Poet and teacher Bill Kloefkorn used this writing suggestion, “Finding the Bull’s Eye Inside the Epiphany,” to begin each of his poetry classes.

Write down a word or phrase that reminds you of a painful experience; possibilities for pain are not necessarily physical.

If you can’t do that, then guess at it.   If you can’t do that, lie.

“If lying bothers your conscience, you will never be a writer,” says Bill Kloefkorn.

Then ask questions about the word you’ve written down:

  • What country were you in?
  • What cosmos?
  • How old were you?
  • What town were you near?
  • How far were you from (insert name of some nearby town)?
  • How far were you from (insert name of some distant town)?
  • Were there any lower animals with you?
  • Any people?
  • What were you wearing?
  • Was it too big?
  • If it wasn’t too big, where was it tight?
  • Were you outside or inside?
  • If you were inside, what color was the wallpaper?
  • What were you walking on‑‑pavement, or another human being?
  • Did it smell?
  • Does it smell now?

After answering these questions, free write on what you’ve come up with for 45 minutes or so. That is, put pencil to paper or fingers to the keyboard and don’t stop writing for 45 minutes.

Wait! Don’t turn the page. You can do this. If your brain goes blank at any point, keep writing the same phrase or word over and over until your brain begins to supply something else. Your brain cannot abide a vacuum; it will not leave you gaping like a beached fish.

It is, however, best to time this writing practice, because if you think you can estimate the time, you will be surprised how long it can be, and it’s best not to stop writing to look.

From this writing comes material from which you can write almost indefinitely. Kloefkorn said his students sometimes spend the entire semester writing about the material generated in this first session, continuing to follow the clues they had given themselves, to discover “the bull’s eye inside the epiphany.”

One goal of this writing exercise is to write enough on one topic to begin to dig down into subjects that are hard to write about, and that therefore matter.

One result is that the more specific sensory detail you include, the more the reader will identify with what you have written. This is an odd fact, but true: even if the dress you wore to your first day of school was long and blue while mine was red and short; if your hair was long and black and mine was short and blonde; if your father drove you, and my mother drove me, and my teacher was fat and hugged me with her massive breasts while yours was skinny and stood tall and pointed you toward a seat– your specific memories will bring mine back to me, and I will then identify with what you have written.

I was delighted to see confirmation of this idea from popular singer Roseann Cash, who said, “That’s the discovery I made on this record: The more specific you are about places and characters, the more universal the song becomes.”

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Yule - WHEEL winter saleThe Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook (2015, Red Dashboard) is structured with sixteen essays, one for each of the eight seasons through two years, with an intermission essay, “Respect Writing By Not Writing,” which discusses taking time off. Extensive writing suggestions are included, as well as additional resources. The workbook is intended as a guide and teacher as a writer sets up her own schedule of writing and develops a relationship with the natural and mundane worlds in which we live. If the reader came to a retreat at my Windbreak House Writing Retreats, this might be a series of conversations we would have about writing.

Winter Sale — $20 each copy while supplies last

Media mail shipping and sales tax are included. If you would like the book shipped to you priority mail, please include an additional $5 ($25 total)

Send check or money order to

Linda M. Hasselstrom
PO Box 169
Hermosa   SD   57744

Include the address of where you would like me to ship the book.

I will sign your book, but please let me know if you would like a personalized inscription. (example “To Aunty Em, there’s no place like home”)

The Relatives Who Live in My Head

Thanksgiving dinner

The Relatives Who Live in My Head

show up just as I slide into memories

of grandmother’s smile as she basted the turkey.

They crowd into the kitchen

without invitation. They say

it’s just not Thanksgiving without

Milly’s broccoli and cheese casserole.

The truth is, none of them ate any of it.

Milly, my mother, elaborately ate one spoonful

that day, and we ate the rest for a week.

 

The relatives who live in my head say

it’s just not Thanksgiving without

Hazel’s oyster dressing. We all took that,

you bet, because Hazel would say,

“You missed the oyster dressing,”

and slap it on our plates herself.

 

The relatives who live in my head

are just like real relatives.

I don’t see them for months.

They don’t call, or write, or visit.

But come Thanksgiving, Christmas,

or Easter, here they are again.

 

The relatives who live in my head murmur,

“Only one kind of cranberry sauce?”

“Where are the green beans with slivered almonds?”

And what was that stuff on them–

cream of chicken soup?

“Sorry,” I say,

but I’m not. They’re muttering,

“No home-baked rolls? No sweet potatoes

with marshmallows and brown sugar?”

 

The relatives who live

in my head mumble, “That pie crust

doesn’t look home-made.” I hum as I

make a pasta salad. “What’s that stuff?”

say the relatives who live in my head.

“Where’s the Jell-O and marshmallows?”

 

“I love you all,” I tell them,

“But buzz off,” pouring

a wee dram of Scotch to sip

as I baste the turkey. My life mate

mashes the potatoes to creamy paste

swimming in butter. We seat ourselves,

brimming with thankfulness.

 

Poem © 2011, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Find this poem in my book Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, co-written with Twyla M. Hansen– 50 poems by each of us. (2011, The Backwaters Press, Omaha, NE)

 

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Want to talk to me?

Phone is an old simple flip phone

Write me a letter, with a real stamp on a real envelope. Or even an email.

Don’t call. I won’t answer.

I used to have a listed telephone number in my retreat house, where people paid for solitude and silence to work on their writing. The message on that phone said that the phone was never answered by a human being, and asked that the caller leave a message, or reach me through my website or Facebook pages.

Yet year after year, that phone rang while some writer was trying to work.  I silenced the ringer, and the calls continued. Every caller ignored my outgoing message. Salesmen droned on about their products, or elderly voices said, “Hello? Hello? Why doesn’t she answer?” I was living elsewhere at the time, and finally had the phone removed.

My policy of requesting that you write to me developed after years of thought, much of it waiting, waiting, waiting with a telephone receiver pressed to my ear. When I worked for newspapers, I often took notes while my callers provided information. The phones were equipped with a handy apparatus that sat on my shoulder and held the receiver against my ear so I could type madly while keeping my neck muscles tense so the thing didn’t fall off.

Phone call during book signingNow, when most people have phones with screens on them and multiple functions, I have an itty bitty cell phone that can’t be clamped to my ear unless my hand is holding it. I can’t type that way, so I can’t take notes. Therefore I use the cell phone to make calls at my most convenient time. I have a list of people who have this number so when they call I can, at a glance, decide if I must interrupt whatever I am doing to respond.

Most of the people on that list know and respect how I use my cell phone, and know that if they leave a message, I will return their call as soon as possible. The people who don’t know I have their number don’t need to know. I call them back too, when I’m not in the middle of something more important.

Remember, I am a writer. If you want to talk to me, you have to write.

Writing takes a lot of thinking time, preferably without interruption. I may spend this time walking the grasslands that are my primary inspiration (when chigger season is over), or sitting at my desk, or pacing my office.

I may not look busy, but my brain is chugging and whirring and spinning and creating.

The folks who have lived with me have learned that when my office door is closed, or I am wandering around mumbling to myself, I am busy no matter how it might look. If I lose that line, that inspiration, I may never get it back, which will destroy the power of that poem or that sentence in an essay.

Walking and thinking

Look at the positive effects of writing to me:

If you write to me, I can read your request at a time of my choosing.

If you write your request, I will cheerfully read it and respond when doing so is convenient for me. For that reason, I will be more likely to do whatever it is you want me to do.

If you write, I can form an opinion about your literacy, which may be particularly useful if you are asking to interview me or come to Windbreak House for a retreat.

If you write, I don’t have to leap up in the middle of eating a good meal to listen to what you have to say because you have the time or the impulse to talk to me right now. I won’t  grow more annoyed while my meal gets cold and the conversation dwindles away.

If you write, the insistent ringing may not drive from my brain that line that I’ve been thinking about for 20 minutes as I revise a poem.

If you write your request, I can think about it, instead of having to give you an answer immediately.

If you write your request, I don’t have to call you back, and listen to your message, and leave a message, and listen to your message when you call me at an inconvenient time, and call you back and leave a message, and so on ad infinitum.

If you write, you might keep your message concise, instead of rambling on about why you couldn’t call yesterday because your dog threw up.

Primitive TechnologyAnd please

please

P L E A S E:

— do not send me photographs;

— do not send me attachments;

— do not text me;

— do not send me anything that requires my phone to dance the hula or contact Mars to respond.

Smart phones might be able to do these things.

My phone is an elderly flip phone. When you send me anything but a voice mail, the phone tends to smoke, gurgle, whimper, and stop working, which irritates me so much I might never return any call you make henceforth.

My old flip phone serves my purposes: I can dial a number and talk to someone on it.

I do not want or need a phone that sends photographs, plays tunes, stores games, or sings Happy Birthday or yodels the national anthem.

Please: don’t call. Write.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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What Is a Blurb? And Why You Should Care.

I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one . . .

(Stay tuned for what this has to do with blurbs)

Blurb Walking the Twilight

A blurb is a short description of a book, movie, or other product, written for promotional purposes. The blurb is usually presented as if it were written by a colleague of the author, or another professional in the same field, lauding the book without expecting any compensation.

In reality, the book’s author or an employee in the marketing department of the publisher may actually write the blurb. In the marketing department case, the blurb-writer has often failed to read the whole book– and sometimes the author doesn’t even get to approve it. If the writer is especially lazy, the blurb may be a synopsis of the plot.

Remember that a blurb, like everything about the outside of the book, is a selling mechanism, another in a series of advertisements designed to make the book appealing to buyers.

The cover is intended to draw the reader in, piquing interest. Most readers then flip the book over to read what’s written on the back cover, or the inside flaps. At this point, the reader may decide to buy the book– or put it down. The blurb can make the difference in that decision.

blurb-poker-alice-tubbs-1.jpg

If you are asked to write a blurb, ask yourself:

— Do you sincerely like the book? Writing a blurb just to impress the author so that person may return the favor is risky; consider your conscience.

— Do you respect the writer and the work enough to have your name associated with it?

— Do you want this person to owe you the favor of writing a blurb for your book? Would you want this person’s name on your book?

Blurb a Slow Trot Home

If you choose to write the blurb, consider these suggestions:

— Study the content, word count, premise of the book, the flavor of the writing. Take notes on what gets your attention. If you start losing interest, ask yourself why.

— Read the whole book rather than risk it taking a turn you don’t anticipate and therefore didn’t mention. Study each of the following elements:

Audience: consider who will read the book, and the kind of language that will catch the attention of those readers. If the book is for the general public, your language may be informal; use specific terms for professionals, and simpler words for children and young adults.

Theme: what is the book’s central idea?

Characters: briefly describe the central figures, such as “sassy beauty Delilah O’Neill,” and the setting in which they live.

Plot or narrative: write a sentence or two that summarizes and explains the book, touching on content, ideas and organization. Be clear about the kind of book you are reviewing. Romance readers will not thank you for enticing them into reading scholarly nonfiction. And please don’t tell the entire plot of the book, or give away the surprise ending.

Blurb Daughters of the Grasslands

To write a blurb for your own book:

Don’t pretend to be some scholar in your field; deception will out. You need not sign the blurb; simply use it on the back cover of the book.

Consider how to draw the reader in, to set the scene. Do you need to make the location and time period clear? Introduce the main character?

Think about your audience: who is your book written for? Is it appropriate to place a character in context? You might write: Jane Farmington is a rancher in Nebraska who grew up in a family where education was not respected. Now she is an English professor working for a university in a nearby town, watching the third and fourth generation on the farm grow more isolated.

Think of writing the blurb as having four steps:

  1. Introduce the main character or characters.
  1. Provide just enough of the story to show how the primary conflict unfolds.
  1. In hinting at the conflict, show what the consequences of the book’s action are likely to be. The reader needs to know that the main character has something to lose.
  1. Personalize: show readers why they need to read this book. Subtly make comparisons between comparable books, and show what makes your book unique.

Further research: If this information isn’t enough to inspire you to commit blurbs, check online. Dozens of people have posted their opinions, though some are of limited value.

Blurb Grassland Genealogy

Soliciting blurbs.

If possible, ask reviewers who are professionals in your field, and who have the respect of the reading public, to comment on your book. A reviewer with a conscience will refuse to blurb the book rather than write a lukewarm response, but not all reviewers are so honest.

Before you ask, consider whether you wish to be obligated to this person.

Do not promise to use the blurb! You might be amazed at the subtle ways a blurb from someone who dislikes the book can denigrate it.

Explore respected reviewing journals, like Kirkus, to see if you can get reviews. Look for possible outlets in magazines like Poets & Writers.

Blurb Conservation for a New Generation

Where did the term blurb originate?

According to my American Heritage dictionary, the term was coined by Gelet Burgess, an American humorist who lived from 1866 until 1951.

In 1907, Gelet Burgess coined the term “blurb”– meaning “a flamboyant advertisement, an inspired testimonial”– in attributing the cover copy of his book, Are You a Bromide? to a Miss Belinda Blurb.

Gelet’s book is still available, but he was best known for his verse, including “The Purple Cow,” published on May Day, May 1, 1895. My mother recited the verse to me when I was four years old, but I knew nothing about its history until recently. No doubt this started me on the path to poetry, but thank goodness I eventually learned NOT to rhyme.

I never saw a purple cow;
I never hope to see one.
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one.

The full title– Burgess loved long titles– was “The Purple Cow: Reflections on a Mythic Beast Who’s Quite Remarkable, at Least.” The illustrated verse, which appeared in the first issue of The Lark, remained the ultimate in nonsense verse, but Burgess spent his life trying to write funnier poems.

By 1897 he had become so sick of the poem that he wrote, “Confession: and a Portrait Too, upon a Background that I Rue,” also published in The Lark (Number 24, April 1, 1897).

Ah, yes, I wrote the “Purple Cow”—
I’m sorry, now, I wrote it;
But I can tell you Anyhow
I’ll kill you if you Quote it.

One more comment about blurbs:

Blur – bon – ic plague. n (blurb + bubonic plague): A disease of literature characterized by the appearance of suppurating blurbs on the skin of a book, feverish half-quotes, and regurgitation, leading to rapid film adaptation and hallucinations of grandeur, thought to be transmitted from author to author via their shared agents. “Tom Wolfe’s THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES contracted blurbonic plague, and, in its final tragic stages, the book suffered even more than did its author.”

— Brian McCormick, writer; from IN A WORD, a Harper’s Magazine dictionary of words that don’t exist but ought to, edited by Jack Hitt, Laurel, 1992.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom


Blurbs written by Linda M. Hasselstrom used in this blog come from the back covers of the following books, in order:
Book Walking the Twilight - Editor Kathryn Wilder

Walking the Twilight: Women Writers of the Southwest
Edited by Kathryn Wilder
(1994, Northland Publishing)

Book Poker Alice Tubbs - Liz Duckworth

Poker Alice Tubbs: The Straight Story. A Lady Gambler in the Wild West
By Liz Morton Duckworth
(2018, Filter Press)

Book A Slow Trot Home - Lisa Sharp

A Slow Trot Home
By Lisa G. Sharp
(2014, Wheatmark)

Book Daughters of the Grasslands - Mary Haug

Daughters of the Grasslands: A Memoir
By Mary Woster Haug
(2014, Bottom Dog Press)

Book Grassland Genealogy - Pat Frolander

Grassland Genealogy
By Patricia Frolander
(2009, Finishing Line Press)

Book Conservation for a New Generation - editors Knight and White

Conservation for a New Generation: Redefining Natural Resources Management
Edited by Richard L. Knight and Courtney White
(2008, Island Press)

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The Writer: Watching Nature Operate

NOTE: I wrote this blog in 2015, four years ago, but the similar conditions this spring—unusual rains—prompted me to slip back into this memory, still relevant. So far in 2019, our heaviest rains were in May, though this essay speaks of heavy rains in June. And just as in 2015, thistles are everywhere. I must also note that we now only have one elderly Westie, Toby; Cosmo died in February. Toby, mostly deaf, no longer has any enthusiasm for catching voles, though he still trots a few steps after rabbits. And several times lately, when we see the redwing blackbirds chasing a bigger bird, it has been a vulture!


The Writer: Watching Nature Operate

All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t visible.

–Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

Walking the dogs, we noticed that a tall cedar tree planted in 1981 has been girdled, probably by voles chomping under the snow last winter, or rabbits in spring.

No, I didn’t mean “moles,” the mouse-like critters often blamed for damage they don’t do.

A mole’s diet is carnivorous; they eat worms, grubs and adult insects, not plants. The plant-killing culprits are voles, those mostly herbivorous rodents which feed on grasses, herbaceous plants, bulbs and tubers, as well as the bark and roots of trees. They also make extensive tunnels and pathways through tall grass—and the moles may run along them, causing part of this confusion.

Nature - Westies huntingI cursed and threatened revenge on the voles, but found no way acceptable to me. I don’t want to use poison, since it would kill more than the voles, so our best anti-vole devices are the two West Highland White Terriers. Unfortunately, they are more excitable than efficient, so they only catch one or two voles a week out of the thousands—or millions—living and tunneling under our feet.

A girdled tree is a dead tree. I said, “What can we do?”

Jerry said with a shrug, “Let Nature take her course.”

That phrase stuck in my mind, causing me to pay particular attention throughout spring and summer to the ways in which Nature takes her course around the ranch. An important part of a writer’s job is observation, so I often noted in my journals how Nature behaved in ways I might otherwise have overlooked.

One day, for example, Cosmo emerged from the windbreak walking carefully, with his mouth half-open. Concerned that he might be hurt, I rushed over to him. He looked up at me, and then lowered his chin and gently set a baby robin on the grass. The bird was unhurt, and not quite fully fledged. Probably it had been practicing flying and fell to earth. Overhead, a pair of robins screeched and fluttered, and the baby in my hands cheeped and struggled. We soon spotted a nest in the doomed tree that the voles or rabbits had girdled. Instead of putting the bird back on the ground, I climbed the tree and tucked it into the nest. I’d interfered with nature. The next day there was no sign of the parent pair or the young one, so we don’t know how the story ended. A lot of baby robins must land in the grass while they practice, and yet we seem to have plenty of the birds, so some must survive.  And we’ll leave the condemned tree standing as long as we can, to shelter more nests.

Nature - Red Winged Blackbird 2014June brought heavy rains and flooding along the usually dry gullies. The redwinged blackbirds nest in groups along watercourses, weaving grasses and moss into a tight bowl tied to the surrounding cattails or willow bushes. Each nest is lined with mud, and may be as high as 14 feet above the water—or as low as three inches. I worried that the nests and chicks had been drowned, but didn’t want to slog into the deep mud and piles of debris to search. After a few days, the redwings seemed as busy as ever, but I didn’t know if they were feeding survivors or building new nests.

After each rain, clumps of thistles began to sprout and bloom everywhere in the pastures and around the yards, from seeds brought in by the flood. We don’t want to poison unwanted weeds, but we don’t want thistles spreading, either, so Jerry hooked his mulching mower behind the tractor and started chopping. He was finishing a patch near the corrals when a duck flew out of the tangle of weeds almost in front of the tractor tire. He drove away and then cautiously explored on foot until he found the nest: eggs tucked deep among the stems of sturdy amaranth and thistles. He steered wide around that patch, leaving the weeds tall. My lessee turned cattle into the small pasture. Grazing the grass shorter now cuts down on the danger of fire from the weeds as they dry in the fall. Also, some of these weeds are only attractive forage for cattle when they are young and green; if they’re too dry the cows won’t eat them.

One day we got two inches of rain in about an hour, and the gully streams of water and debris swept through the nest area. For three days the muddy mess trickled through the corrals. We didn’t want to disturb the duck if she’d survived, but we were afraid the eggs had been washed away. From our dining room windows, we could watch the cows tromping and grazing close to the nest location, so we decided the duck must be gone.

“I’ll show you where the nest was,” Jerry said, as we drove past one day. He parked well away from it and we walked carefully but neither of us could find it.

“Gone,” we concluded. As I reached for the pickup’s door handle, the duck squawked and flapped up beside me, inches from a back tire. There was the nest, intact. Jerry backed the pickup away very carefully.

Nature - cattle did not trample duck nest

One day my lessee came on his four-wheeler and his son brought a pickup and 40-foot trailer. They unloaded twenty or thirty head of cattle and drove them through the duck’s neighborhood into an adjoining pasture. Then they rounded up the remaining cows and chased them through the gate beside the duck’s nest. Watching from our house, holding our breath, we both expected the duck to fly up out of the stampede, but saw nothing.

Surely this time she was gone.

The next day, we ventured into the area again. We tiptoed close, and saw the duck secure on her nest, bright eyes watching us. Nature’s choice was taking care of that duck.

What does the duck have to do with writing?

She had determination, for one thing. She did not quit when the equivalents of tsunami, earthquakes and floods roared over her.  She hunkered down and stayed with her job, hatching those eggs.

Nature - Duck Family 2014--7-28

Writers need to be just as determined—not necessarily to succeed, or to get rich, but to keep writing. My routine of observation was reminding to notice more about the nature around me than the familiar ranch scenes of calves, grass growing, and fences falling down. If I’d concentrated on the things I usually noticed, I’d have missed a great deal that I might write about. Few writers can predict in advance what scrutiny might be useful.

During the summer, several generations of baby rabbits discovered that the tires my father piled around the windbreak trees he planted in his yard make wonderful hiding places. About the time they get out on their own to forage, the bunnies discover that they can stroll into a tire as if it were a burrow to be sheltered from the snow, rain and wind. Knowing this, we try to keep our dogs away from the tires.

Our Westie Cosmo forgets many of the things we’ve tried to teach him, but he either remembers or rediscovers the bunnies’ hiding places every year. Inevitably, we’ll get absorbed in a conversation and then hear excited yips and discover the dogs have a rabbit caught inside the tire.

Nature - Rabbit on porch 2018Both dogs will shove their heads inside a tire, and then move toward each other, trapping the rabbit between them. Eventually one of them is able to bite the rabbit, which squeals and excites the other dog into biting whatever he can reach. By the time we hear the shrieks, the dogs are yanking on the rabbit from opposite directions and we’re too late to save it. Nature’s policy in this case is cruel, so one of us finishes killing the bunny.

Despite the dogs’ enthusiasm for rabbit hunting, rabbits regularly hop up one or two steps toward our deck, apparently to look over the surrounding territory. Similarly, by mid-summer, I was able to look over a list of a half-dozen examples of Nature’s strategies.

Several times we saw a familiar sight: a hawk flying up from a gully, pursued by a pair of red-winged blackbirds. When hawks prey on the nests, the redwing parents defend their territory by flying above the hawk and diving down to peck at its head as it dodges and screams. As the hawk moves down the valley, pair after pair of birds rise up from their neighborhoods and take over the defense, until the hawk is driven away.

Nature - Heron flying away 2014But one day, when I heard the familiar commotion of blackbird calls, I looked up to see that the bird fleeing from them was a Great Blue Heron! The bird’s ponderous wings scooped air and its neck was folded back, but its size didn’t seem to deter the little birds who darted at it again and again until it disappeared.

Both hawk and heron far outweigh red-winged blackbirds, and have killing beaks or talons, but nature gave the blackbirds courage and agility, so they can fight predation, or take revenge in driving the predators away. Thinking like a writer, I noted that the biggest and most powerful does not always win the contest—a lesson with broad implications.

Walking the dogs one day, I was reminded that some ranch work requires paying close enough attention to impede Nature’s actions. We try to bring the cattle home from summer pasture before the first blizzard; we move cattle out of a pasture if the water is getting so low they might become bogged down if they walk too far into a dam to cool their hides. So it was that I noticed again how my father had used rocks. Driving through the pastures, or watching cattle eat, he’d pry rocks out of the pasture trails and bring them home to put around the foundation of buildings in corrals and pastures. He did this because cattle like to rub their itchy pelts on buildings, and numerous cows scratching will chisel away the soil around the foundations with their hoofs. By placing the rocks, he made the footing hard and uneven, thus thwarting their intentions and averting the damage. They could still scratch on one of the thousand fence posts around the pasture; it’s unlikely that enough cows would scratch on the same post to wear the soil away around it.

Looking more closely at the arrangement of rocks, I realized that he had to spread them a considerable distance from the foundation, because the cows would stand outside the rocks and l-e-e-e-a-n forward to scratch. My father was determined, and eventually the rocks extended so far the cattle couldn’t reach the building.

On a summer day, we discovered the nest of a killdeer very close to a low-growing juniper bush where the rabbits regularly hide. Every day the dogs dive into the shrubbery, barking as they clamber under and over branches, until the rabbits burst out of hiding and gallop down the hill—usually while the dogs are looking somewhere else. Every day we’d see a killdeer cheeping and running away from the area. Finally we saw the shallow nest with four eggs close to these bushes, where we must nearly have stepped on it several times. We finally realized that each time one of the nesting birds saw us coming, it would skitter a few feet away. After we’d seen the nest, we carefully avoided it.

Nature - Kildeer nest in grass 2014

One afternoon of pounding rain and hail, I looked often out the kitchen window, sure that the bird on the nest could not possibly survive. When the sun came out and I tiptoed out to look, she was there, drenched but alive, furnishing another lesson about writing: persistence. Like the duck, the killdeer knew her job and she stuck with it.

And that’s what writers do. When we start taking notes, the rest of the job should be automatic: we are writers, we observe and therefore we write. A little experiences teaches us that writing things down helps our sometimes faulty memories.

A metaphor: when we set out on a journey, we may have a map that shows us our ultimate destination, but no map can show the deer that leaps onto the highway ahead of us. We take notes to remember the deer we didn’t predict.

Observation helps us create the habit of seeing more clearly; watching our world closely lets us see the material that supplies our writing.

We take notes so as to keep what we have seen available in our minds, to study what we have written, to think about it, relate it to other facts, and eventually to a conclusion that can be written about.

Kathleen Norris told me about a monk in North Dakota who said to her:

“When I don’t write, I quit looking,
I quit seeing. When I look and see,
then I have to write.”

Nature - Linda observing and recording

Linda, watching at Windbreak House.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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