Birds of Spring

Slog, slog, slog. Step by step I plodded through the deep mud of the calving corral, pushing a stumbling newborn calf and his mother through the falling snow into the barn where the baby could get dry and nurse. I was wearing the same coveralls that I’d worn all week while wallowing in the manure-laden mud. My nose was not only dribbling but sticky where I’d swiped at it with a muddy glove. My hair itched, sticking to my skull under the two stocking caps. Snowflakes caked my glasses. That spring a few years ago, we were only a week into calving season. The forecast said snow would continue for several more days.

“Wheep-Wheeo!”

The wolf whistle was so loud I nearly sprained my neck looking around.

“Wheep-Wheeooo!”

The whistle sounded again, raucous and confident. The law school boys sounded the same when I walked past them on my way to class fifteen years and a dozen pounds before. I turned my head and spotted the whistler, a black bird with red and gold epaulets.

Red-winged Blackbird Suet 2014--4-2

Red-winged blackbird at a neighbor’s suet feeder, 2014.


My spine straightened and I smiled. Spring would come, and here was the proof: the first red-winged blackbird of the season.

Just as our patience with winter wears thin, we’ll see one of the birds for a day or two. Then it vanishes and a couple of days later the main flock arrives.

That early arrival and that wolf whistle are two reasons the red-winged blackbird is my favorite prairie bird. (I’m not counting the birds of prey like owls, hawks, and eagles. They are in a category of their own– but they don’t cheer me with whistles.)

For years, I’d be trudging through calving season on the ranch, and the first bird to herald spring would be the red-winged blackbird– with his raucous sound.

Within a day or two of that herald’s arrival, flocks of them gather in the tops of the cottonwood trees, singing gloriously. For several days, they seem to go everywhere together, like teenage girls, squawking, chirping, singing, and flapping. After a few minutes in one tree, the whole flock WHOOSHES up with incredible precision and lands in another tree in unison. At first, the flocks are mostly males, distinguishable from all other blackbirds by those red and gold shoulders, and by their tumbling, torrential song. They are always visible, perching as high as they can– on the chimney, on electric wires, on fence posts– singing a song that’s described as “conka-la-REEEE!” When they are hungry, they fly in a raucous flock to feast on grass seed, or the delicacies found among the cattails in the gully.

Red winged blackbird

Red-winged blackbird on cattails.
FreeRangeStock photo.


The bird’s scientific name is derived from the Greek Agelaius: “belonging to a flock” and phoeniceus, meaning “dark red,” for their habits. Bird experts say that winter congregations can be several million of these birds, including other blackbird species and starlings. Each morning the flocks fly away from their roosts, traveling as far as 50 miles to feed, then returning at night.

And all the while they chatter. Anthropomorphizing wildly, I assume they are catching up on the migration news, commenting on the qualities of the insects and seeds they’re foraging.

Each spring one would perch on the chimney at Windbreak House Retreats and the writer in residence would always conclude that we’d been adopted as his territory. If so, we female writers were not his only conquests. The red-winged blackbird is highly polygynous, meaning that each male may have several female mates nesting inside his territory; up to 15, according to experts.

The males defend their territory aggressively against intruders, including humans and other birds. I’ve seen these redwings rise to fly above a hawk, darting in to peck and claw at its head. As the hawk flew, more males would rise from their territories to attack the predator in succession, driving him from territory to territory.

Bird-watchers say the males may spend 90 percent of their time defending their space, but fierce as they are, one-quarter to one-half of their nestlings may have been sired by a bird other than the territorial male.  I could pretty easily create a story here about what modest-looking females might be up to while the males are strutting, preening and bellowing, but I’ll leave that to your imagination.

This year, we saw the first redwing on March 13. Now, a month and a half later, we don’t hear their songs so often because they have chosen territories and spread out around the homestead.

Females of the species are brown with white stripes on their backs and over each eye. They skulk in the deep grass, tending to the business of catching lunch and building nests. We are careful to leave bushes and tall grass undisturbed along the edges of fields and gullies.

To build each nest, the female selects long, stringy plants and winds them around several close, upright stems. Then she weaves plant material between the uprights to create a platform usually composed of coarse vegetation, leaves and sometimes decayed wood. She makes zillions of trips to the muddy pond to collect mud for plastering the inside of the nest. She lines this cup with slender, dry grasses. According to allaboutbirds.org, one nest picked apart by a naturalist in the 1930s had been made by weaving together 34 strips of willow bark and 142 cattail leaves, some 2 feet long. When finished the nest is 4 to 7 inches across and 3 to 7 inches deep, and may be tucked under leaves or branches in such a way as to be protected from rain. Each female lays two to four blue-green to gray eggs with black and brown markings which hatch in about two weeks.

We knew as we moved our mowers to the alfalfa fields in June that some of the birds were nesting among the tall plants. We found it almost impossible to see their nests in time to avoid them, and sometimes vultures stalked our mowers, presumably gobbling the dead baby birds.

Still, since the redwings usually raise two broods during a season, the nests may have been empty. The birds build a new nest for each brood, possibly to keep them from being infested by parasites. However when we hayed in a field where tall willow bushes allowed me to gain privacy to relieve myself, I would just be preparing to do so when a male blackbird would dart at my face, sometimes dragging his talons through my hair.

The redwinged blackbird appears to be thriving on the grasslands, along with meadowlarks, but I worry about some of the lesser-known birds. Listening to the changes in the morning chorus today, as the meadowlarks and blackbirds sing less and spend more time building nests, I suddenly remembered the long-billed curlew.

CurlewWings Pixabay

Long-billed curlew.
From Pixabay.


They never appeared close to the buildings, but when I would ride into more distant pasture on a spring morning years ago, I’d see their distinctive landings. As soon as the bird’s feet touch ground, it raises long wings high, then slowly folds them down close to the body. These beautiful birds are aggressive about their nests as well. I seldom saw a nest before the bird zoomed up out of the grass flapping at my face. As I slowly backed the horses away, I’d see a hollow in the limestone on some rocky ridge with a little grass, twigs or rocks surrounding the eggs.

Where have they gone? Online information suggests that their habitat has been declining as the prairie becomes busier with subdivisions, four-wheelers and other human activities. Still, I was able to discover two sightings in my extended neighborhood– one on the grasslands along Highway 40 and another near Folsom School. So I hope that this incredible bird is finding a way to adapt and survive on the prairie that remains.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Creating a Cowboy Poem: How Buzzards Turned into Priests

vultures2010

Vultures on a neighbor’s barn.


In honor of National Cowboy Poetry Week, April 19 to 25, I’m looking at how I created one of my few rhyming poems, “Priests of the Prairie” (2004).

My first intention was to write a poem about vultures— or as we call them here, buzzards— in the style of Robinson Jeffers. Jeffers wrote free verse similar to that written by Walt Whitman, and narrative poems in traditional blank verse. Here, for example, is a segment of Jeffers’s poem “Vulture”

And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit narrowing,
I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward staring. I said, ‘My dear bird, we are wasting time here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you.’ But how beautiful
he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light
over the precipice.

Since Jeffers died in 1962, I should make clear that I was not imitating his poem; I had not read it until I went looking for examples of his verse to include in this essay. I like the central idea of Jeffers’ poem, however: the poet tells the buzzard he’s not available yet.

Often, as soon as I start writing about a subject, I realize I don’t know nearly enough. So I started this poem with research into vultures to supplement what I had learned in 60 years of observing them on this prairie.

Here are a few of my notes:

— nest in cliff overhangs, rocky cavities, badger holes!!
— Bank hollows, caves, tree cavities, abandoned buildings, among rocks; nest sites always dark and well concealed; no actual nest is constructed– eggs laid on substrate
— 2 eggs, rarely 1 or 3; dull to creamy white with various-sized spots and blotches of pale and lighter brown; incubation 38-41 days
— young birds will disgorge their food or bite when approached
— long wings allow them to soar
— groups often seen in high spots with wings spread wide in the sun

I love the idea that they may nest in badger holes, and will have to pursue that thought sometime.

Then I wrote “are vultures in the Bible?” showing that my mind had already decided on a religious connection with the poem.

The answer is yes; I found several references in my Cruden’s Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments, and looked them up in the Holy Bible Helen Painter gave me in 1953 when I joined the church. In Chapter 11 of Leviticus, for example, the Lord lays down The Law to Moses, telling him what the children of Israel may not do if they want to stay in His good graces. Among those rules is that they should not eat vultures— or ravens, owls, nighthawks, swans, pelicans, storks, herons or bats.

Since I had no intention of writing poetically about eating vultures, I went on to Job 28:7, a lovely and mysterious passage: “There is a path which no fowl knoweth, and which the vulture’s eye hath not seen.” This is a terrific metaphor for the search for knowledge, clearly written by someone who understands vultures. If a vulture can’t see the path from his vantage point, it’s hard to find. Ornithologists had wondered if, since a vulture’s sense of smell is so acute that it can track the odor of rotting flesh in only a few parts per billion of air, there might not be a corresponding decline in its eyesight; if you can smell your food, maybe you don’t need to see it. In a fascinating study in 2013, however, it was determined that the vulture’s eyesight is “very good.” The folks who created Job already knew that. I abandoned the Bible as a source of insight into vulture habits.

On my drive to Windbreak House from my home in Cheyenne, WY, on September 21, 2000, I thought for hours, following connections without any regard to their relevance. I jotted a few words on a yellow tablet in the passenger seat of my vehicle.

— enfold you in his black and feathered cloak
— sharp beak severs connections to the world, slices sinew
— words for priesthood he calls: father, clergy, ministry, cloth, eminence, reverence, confessor, pilgrim, holy orders, consecration, ordain,
— black cloaks spreading, blotting out the sun
— to settle in a circle, a choir
— warm flesh to cold, chill, snow, icy eyes?
— truth, soul
— rending of garments and gnashing of teeth
— CHECK REVELATIONS

I was narrowing my focus, strengthening the religious connotations for the poem.

Buzzard/priest images:
— his symbol: curve of beak and talon, curve of earth and eyeball, belly, cheek, nostril
— bald as a Pope
— whisper of rough cloth or smooth wings
— hands hidden in sleeve: claws in feathers?
— click of rosary: beak on bone
— play on HABITS

Once I reached the retreat house that day, I wrote more notes, this time focusing on what I know of buzzards from watching them clean up dead cattle in our pastures for years.

– Head turns to focus eye
– beak vivid yellow, know they’re dipped first in the eye of a dead calf
– soaring in spirals down the field, up over trees, past buildings, always with that steady regard of the ground, never flapping
– Wingtips splayed like fingers
– never flap in breeze too light to stir the fine hair on a baby’s head.
– They soar, bare, wrinkled necks hidden
– shoulders hunched.

Three days later, I began to carve some rough lines from my notes.

Brother Buzzard circles overhead, feathered cloak
shining in the sun, the air so sweet and clean
beneath his wings he rises over fluffy clouds and mountain peaks.
He drifts above the stink of diesel trucks, the SUVs,
the sporty jobs and family vans, above the asphalt deaths,
the stink of twisted ropes of flesh along the interstates.

His eyes see to eternity, and beyond.Until he spirals downward past the clouds,
calling others of the priesthood to worship at the feast.

This version had some interesting details, and I liked some of the rhythm, but it focused on what the buzzard saw, rather than the bird’s actions.

The poem soared around my head for days, while I considered the possibilities of making its rhythm iambic pentameter. This is the most familiar of the cowboy poetry rhythms, some say because it echoes the sounds of a horse walking.

One iambic foot is “ta DUM”, consisting of one unaccented and one accented syllable. As I aimed for a smooth tempo, another version of the poem landed on paper on July 4.  By this time I’d decided that I wanted to use iambic, but not iambic pentameter—5 iambic feet to each line—because it is the very most common cowboy poetry format. In my draft, each line had seven iambic feet—until I reached the last line.

BROther BUZZzard LEADS a CLOIStered LIFE when HE’S at HOME. (7 feet)
He pairs for life and builds a nest secluded in some hollow (7 feet)
deep within a rocky cliff. Mrs. Buzzard lays (7 feet)
two eggs, creamy white with blotches. Brother Buzzard shares (7 feet)
the incubation chores, but every afternoon he sits (7 feet)
in sunshine with the others of his kind to preen and spread (7 feet)
his mighty wings, his feathered cloak of black (5 feet)

I liked the rhythm, but noted on the draft that the poem was “less interesting.”

I printed the poem out, and kept it near my computer, sometimes moving it to the dining room table while I ate, or putting it beside my bed so I could read it first thing in the morning. Keeping the poem close to me meant my subconscious mind would work on the poem even as I conducted a retreat and ate and slept and conversed like a normal person.

Doing more research, I had discovered that “to meet in choir” meant “to settle in a circle.” It’s unlikely that many of my listeners or readers will know this fact, but the term “choir” adds to the religious mood, and is correct, which pleases me greatly.

More lines began to emerge. These, however were not in iambic pentameter but in dactyl: DUM da da DUM da da, a meter that resembles a horse cantering instead of walking.

WHISpering PRACtical PRAYERS for the DEAD,
the BROtherhood MEETs in CHOIR

That’s a long line, with seven dactylic feet, so I read the line aloud to be sure that in a performance I could complete it in one breath.

Girdled in righteousness, bony backs straight,
they gather at high noon to pray.

This line, too, has seven dactylic feet. But could I find a word that made sense and rhymed with “choir”?

In order to decide how to revise the line, I had to remind myself why the buzzards are gathering. I vividly recall when I found my favorite heifer dead, with a half-dozen vultures standing on her corpse feeding. Of course— the buzzard-priests are not just devouring the dead animal, but celebrating a funeral! So I changed the line.

Girdled in righteousness, bony backs straight,
circling the funeral pyre.

To be strictly accurate, funeral pyre means combustible material burned to celebrate a death, but the rhyme makes sense in context.

Their dusty black tunics hang flat on their bones
as shoulder to shoulder they stand

Whoops— rhythm and rhyme both fell apart in the next line:

from tonsured heads erect on scraggly necks
to bony ankles backs to the sun they

By now, I had begun to realize that I might be able to construct the poem with some respectable rhymes, and began thinking of it as an homage or thanks to The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where I’d been invited to perform several times. So I concentrated on making the rhythm perfect and the rhymes logical. If a poet intends to rhyme, the standard is very high. To remind myself of the best, I read the poetry of Wallace McRae. Writing poems is not a competition, but if you plan to write and recite the poem in exalted company, I think it’s smart to read the very best.

My work on the poem after this consisted of changes that would seem minute if I reproduced all the drafts. Over and over I read and recited the poem, beating out the rhythm on the steering wheel as I drove, or on my desk as I typed. I looked at my rhyming dictionary and wrote lists of words that might fit the meaning of the poem. As I worked, I also discovered some humor that seemed to fit the occasion.

I think the finished poem carries considerable poetic weight, portraying accurately how a group of buzzards looks gathered on the 80 pound body of a dead newborn calf, and the philosophical humor of a rancher who knows the sight represents loss of nine months of a cow’s life as well as the year’s profit from her at the sale ring.

Priests of the Prairie

Whispering practical prayers for the dead,
the brotherhood meets in choir.
Girdled in righteousness, bony backs straight,
circling the funeral pyre.

Their dusty black tunics hang flat on their bones,
shoulder to shoulder they stand.
Tonsured heads wobble on scraggly necks
as they pray in the pastureland.

From out of the West, the priesthood has come,
cloaks shining black in the sun,
to gather around this altar of flesh
until their communion is done.

Their eyes see forever– and somewhat beyond;
eternity, and a square meal.
The Brothers of Buzzard are worshipping lunch,
devouring the finest of veal.

(c) 2004, Linda M. Hasselstrom

The poem was first published in Cowboy Poetry: The Reunion, Gibbs-Smith, in 2004, and I have read it several times since then in Elko, home of The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. I enjoy beginning to read the poem in a deep voice with great solemnity. Almost immediately, I catch audience attention because the dactylic rhythm suggests humor rather than seriousness, and thus contrasts with my tone of voice and attitude. On the final stanza, I gesture to the sun from which the priesthood descends– and intone the final two lines with a smile.

But there’s more. Re-reading these drafts and writing these comments, I’ve noticed some lines and ideas that didn’t make it into the final poem. I gave up on writing about the bird’s actual life, but those details are significant, since the bird forms an important role in prairie ecology, cleaning up carrion. I’m fascinated again by the phrases:

– warm flesh to cold
– bald as a Pope
– click of rosary: beak on bone

Since I look forward to the arrival of vultures every spring, I don’t doubt that I may write more about them. And now I’ve reminded myself that I have these unused notes, my subconscious mind has already begun working on what else I might say about vultures. This is surely another good reason to keep early drafts of poems. On a computer, it’s too easy to rewrite without saving those drafts, but it’s equally easy to date and save them. I’d forgotten those images, and have rediscovered them only because I looked up the poem’s early drafts to write this commentary.

That’s how poetry develops. I can’t show you every step I took, or create a set of rules that will lead you to your own rhyming poem, but remember it’s important to read the kind of poetry you want to write, and then set your standards high. Revise again and again and again. Save each draft, and carry the newest with you to read as you wait at stoplights or for meetings, so the lines will begin to reverberate in your subconscious mind where so much of the work of poetry occurs. I think of those depths as a deep mine where I occasionally hear the clink of a miner’s pick as my brain finds the gold of a new piece of writing.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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My Writings About Vultures:

“Priests of the Prairie” appears in the book Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet with Twyla M. Hansen (The Backwaters Press, 2011).

My previous writings about vultures include an essay simply titled “Vultures” appeared in Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, Inc., 1991) pp. 193-201, and was reprinted in that winter’s edition of a wonderful magazine I still miss, Northern Lights.

Another buzzard poem, “A Venue of Vultures,” was published in my poems with Twyla M. Hansen, Dirt Songs, 2011.  Listen to me read it in a recording made by Barry Wick in June, 2013: http://www.windbreakhouse.com/files/Venue_of_Vultures_by_Linda_Hasselstrom_EQ_Selection_2_Vol_up.mp3

National Cowboy Poetry Week:

April 19-25 is the fourteenth annual National Cowboy Poetry Week. The best history of the art form I know is “A Brief Introduction to Cowboy Poetry, or Who’s the Guy in the Big Hat and What is He Talking About?” by Rod Miller on http://www.cowboypoetry.com.

He exposes the myths and traces the truths of this mostly oral, lyrical, often-rhyming form, mentioning its earliest and best practitioners. He notes its rediscovery in 1985 by folklorists and its subsequent leap to prominence in modern-day America. On the same website, he asks, “What, exactly, is this cowboy poetry?” and answers:

“The simplest answer is probably to say it’s poetry that springs from the workaday world of the cowboy. (More on that later.) But that’s too simplistic an answer to encompass what cowboy poetry was, let alone what it is, never mind where it’s going.”

If you are a would-be cowboy poet, this should be just the beginning of your study of Rod Miller’s comments on the form.

If you are already a cowboy poet, you could probably still learn from reading Rod’s series of articles on the website.

If you are a scoffer who sneers at the galloping rhythms and sometimes hobbled rhymes, you should read the articles to understand that not everything you hear recited as cowboy poetry is the best the form has to offer. Look for the work of South Dakota’s first Poet Laureate, Badger Clark; read Wallace McRae. Look for others that measure up to the standards those writers set. And don’t miss the work of Paul Zarzyski; not all good cowboy poets use rhyme.

For a more complete discussion of rhythm as it relates to cowboy poetry, see Rod Miller’s essays “The Rhythm Method” and “Are You All Talk and No Trochaic Tetrameter?” at the cowboypoetry.com website. That will give you a start, but in order to write poems with smooth rhyme and rhythm, you need to practice. (Find all of Rod Miller’s essays mentioned here at www.cowboypoetry.com/rmwhatis.htm.)

If you’re interested in keeping track of where cowboy poetry is going, attend The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, always scheduled for the last week in January. In 2016, poets, artists, and musicians from the Northern Plains will be featured. You can learn more about the Gathering, hear recordings, and buy tickets at www.westernfolklife.org.

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Blacksmith or Wordsmith: Time, Patience, Skill, Artistry

Iron Wall DuoAt the basement entrance to our house stands our Iron Wall, a retaining barrier covered with old rusty tools.

The wall is a stack of railroad ties linked by rebar to hold the earth from the hillside back from the basement sidewalk. We salvaged the railroad ties from the railroad’s right of way that cuts through our pasture; they were free, sturdy, and heavily impregnated with tar so they will resist water. We also consider them a tiny payback for the trash we pick up that is discarded by track crews, and the fires occasionally started by the trains.

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Scavenging in the dump.


The wall decorations are rusty antique tools, mostly discarded by my father and hauled out to our personal dump in the pasture. Whenever we walk through the dump, my eye is drawn to some shape that I pick up and bring home. I chuckle every time, because I can see my father shaking his head in exasperation. He spent all that time and energy lugging that stuff out of his yard and buildings, only to have me drag it back in.

???????????????????????????????Visitors sometimes puzzle over the objects, their functions already a mystery to most. I have used several of these tools, and at least know the purpose of those older than I. After my generation of rural folks is gone, their stories may be a mystery. Another owner might haul them to the recycling center—or back to the pasture where my father dumped them.

???????????????????????????????But for now, look at some of these tools rusting gently on the wall. Worn horse shoes testify to the miles walked by Bud and Beauty, the work team. Next to them are the ornate legs of stoves and washing machines that a woman may have noticed when they were new, but stopped noticing as she worked over them for years. Here are the hobbles we used to keep the wild range cows from kicking while we were milking them or persuading them to let their calves suck if they rejected their babies. Gears, hinges, pick heads, hand rakes and the teeth from the dump rake I hauled for miles behind my tractor picking up hay for my father to stack. Chains, pliers, and a couple of chain boomers, winches that we used for everything from fastening gates to hauling pickups out of the mud. Several pieces of iron are unidentifiable, swooping curves of metal with rings, probably part of a horse harness. Several wheels with broken teeth hang beside a couple of stirrups pulled apart when a rider long ago was caught in a disagreement with an unruly horse.

???????????????????????????????The outside Iron Wall isn’t my only collection of rusty antiques. In the basement bathroom is another: this one a repository of small iron objects, and I could argue that I collected them for their beauty as well as their utilitarian charm. Here are hand-forged hooks made for various gates and cupboards in the barn. I’ve saved a hand-forged screwdriver, its length bumpy with hammer marks from that long-ago blacksmith. Jerry built a wooden rack to collect all the horse-shoe nails and square nails we’ve picked up in the area around his shop, where a school once stood. Hanging high are a couple of vicious-looking hay hooks I kept handy when I was living here alone. On the wall are buckles and fastenings from horse harnesses that dried and stiffened into unusable piles of leather in the hay loft.

???????????????????????????????Suspended in a neat row are several hand-forged nipple picks used to clean black powder from the firing pins, or flash channels, of cap and ball weapons. Two calipers curve against the cream-colored wall. A small fork was part of my child-sized pitchfork for feeding my horse, one of my first chores. A blackened leather bull whip drapes over a nail next to a crude wrench used for wagon wheels. I saved one of the horn weights we used to make a Hereford bull’s horns grow into the gentle curve that was both attractive and safer for the cows and for us. Like the tools outside, many of these are ones I used.

Why have I brought all this stuff into to my home? Am I longing nostalgically for a return to the past?

???????????????????????????????Absolutely not. While I admire much of the tone of the past, particularly as I lived it on this ranch, I don’t believe everything was better then. My childhood had many fine aspects but it was not a purely idyllic time and place. For example, as the debate rages nationwide about whether or not to vaccinate children against measles, I remember the terror with which my parents discussed whether or not I should be protected against polio—until a friend contracted the disease and was crippled.

By writing about this collection of rusty stuff, I have come to understand that I collect these things because they remind me to respect time, both in my writing and in my life outside of writing.

To make the hand-forged gate hooks for our barn, for example, required that the blacksmith own and know how to operate a forge, collect the appropriate tools and supplies of metal. One didn’t fire up a forge to make one hook, so he probably had a number of forging jobs to do that day. He may have taught himself to work iron because he knew he’d need that skill to save money on the ranch. Or perhaps someone in this neighborhood was a blacksmith, and the others ordered what they needed from him, paying in cash or perhaps in beef.

???????????????????????????????The blacksmith had to select the steel, then build a small fire in his forge to ignite the coal. He used a bellows or a hand-cranked blower to add air to the fire until the coal is burning well. Then he thrust the steel into the coal while continuing to use the bellows or blower to add air.

My partner Jerry has worked at becoming more skilled as a blacksmith since he retired. He tells me that the blacksmith must heat the steel just enough, but not too much. “Reddish-orange to bright orange is good,” he says. If the steel becomes white hot, it will simply burn up.

When the steel is just orange enough, the blacksmith removes it from the fire and begins to shape it. To make a hook, he probably first formed the hook on one end and the loop on the other and then reheated the steel. When the center portion was hot enough, he put the hook in a vise and turned the steel with a turning fork or tongs to create the twist. The twist might add a little lateral strength, Jerry says, but likely it was purely for decoration. Perhaps the hook wasn’t originally made for the barn, but for a home. Still, no matter where it was originally placed, it was created by a man who had plenty of things to do, and still added a flourish to his work. Finally, he quenched the finished hook in a bucket of water, and probably started to make another.

Not only does the blacksmith need materials and skill, he needs time and patience. When Jerry spend a day blacksmithing, he’s already done the planning, thinking about the project off and on through days of doing other work, and evenings of eating good food, watching movies, talking as we play Scrabble or Rummykub. After he has chosen his next project, he collects the materials and waits for a day when the wood stove in the blacksmith shop will heat the place enough so he can work without freezing solid.

Then he must go through each step, slowly and patiently, heating and reheating and hammering until he has created what he visualized. I don’t know what he thinks about, but I know he thinks because hammering iron requires patience and allows time for considering other matters.

Iron Disc LMH 2014--8-16 (2)Suddenly the similarity between writing and blacksmithing is obvious. Writing, too, requires planning and the ability to imagine the finished product from the crude materials.

I collect the steel of the idea, heating it in the forge of my mind (with plenty of help from air whooshing through the coal!) until I can beat it into shape with my words. I write while the idea is red hot, watch it cool as I revise, all the while keeping the coal hot and ready. I print out a draft, read it, scribble on it as I rebuild the fire, to recapture the heat of composition. I pound and sweat and mumble until I’m satisfied.

Like the books that line my study, these hand-shaped tools symbolize the patience required by writing, or by any other hand-forged creation.

And let’s take the writing and blacksmithing resemblance one more step. Once you have patiently written about a particular issue, you might shape the result in many different ways: as an argumentative essay, as a poem, as a memoir, or as fiction.

So when the handy table by our basement door collapsed from age, I asked Jerry if he could use some of my rusty antiques to make another.

???????????????????????????????The result is a triumph of recycling, including a couple of steel posts, some hoof clippers, a car jack, a hand drill, some rebar and part of a horse-drawn wagon. Topped with some redwood recycled from the deck we just replaced, the table stands sturdily by the basement door, ready for anything we may stack on it.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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How to Write A Poem: The Snake Within

When I’m having trouble writing, one of my favorite methods to start the process is to write a “How To” poem. This is probably why there are zillions of the things floating around, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write your own. Working on a how-to poem can serve several purposes.

First, writing a poem (or prose) about how to do something can clarify your thinking beautifully. One of my assignments to a new high school writing class was always for students to write instructions for something they knew how to do very well. The exercise provided them with practice in thinking, and writing, more clearly than usual. The students were always amazed at the steps they omitted in the first draft simply because the act they were describing was so familiar to them. I’ll never forget the frustration of one young man writing about how to ride a bull in a rodeo, and a young woman writing about how to make a bed. But they did it.

Another attraction of the “How To” poem is that you can use it to review something you haven’t done for a while, recalling memories from childhood. One of these days I need to do a poem on how to milk a cow, to refresh my memory of what started out as a chore and became a joyful duty that taught me a lot more than the direct act of milking.

So here’s an example of a poem written during an August when I was spending more time gardening than writing, and wanted to get back to writing. The file of drafts of this poem contains 9 pages, which is unusually short for my revisions.

Here’s the entire first draft:

How to Pick Green Beans

Kneel
in the garden’s deep soil.
Reach
to lift the bottom leaves.
Watch
for rattlesnakes that may
lie
in shade to wait for rabbits
coming
at dusk to feed.

That’s not a bad poem; it has strong verbs (kneel, reach, watch), some nature observation that includes the rabbits as prey of the rattlesnakes, as well as the ending twist with the rabbits coming to the beans as predators.

But I felt it was incomplete, so I put the draft aside. Once begun, a poem often surfaces in my subconscious, and my mind continued to nibble at the edges of it. This scattered method seems to work for me, though I can’t recommend it unless your mind works as mine does. Just now, for example, I stopped working on this essay to run upstairs to finish washing a sink full of dishes. They’d been soaking in hot water and suds because just after I started this essay, I needed to get away from the computer and think for a few moments. I wandered upstairs and started doing dishes– but I don’t hesitate to drop a domestic job if I get a sudden inspiration in something I’m writing.

For the second draft, two days later, I delved into my memory of my grandmother, and began to alternate my memories of her gardening with my own experience picking beans. Somehow kneeling in the garden reaching into the sunlight-braided leaves made me see her hands doing the same, brought me close to her, though she’s been gone from my immediate world for many years.  The memories this exercise evoked were worth the struggle, even if the poem had never been finished.

How to Pick Green Beans

Kneel
in the garden’s deep soil.
Reach
to lift the bottom leaves.
Watch
for rattlesnakes.

Grandmother kept her hoe handy, wore gloves,
tilted her bifocals until she was sure of the snake’s
skin among the mottled shade cast by the leaves.
She rose, steadied herself in the dirt and chopped.
Once, twice, until the head was loose. Hooked
the hoe to lift the limp body, carry it to the fence
She threw and the snake struck against the sky.

No snakes this morning, only gold
sliding among fat green leaves
beans slender as sunlight. I pinch
each one free, gently, trying not to knock
off the blossoms that will make  next week’s
beans. A grasshopper lands on my wrist, feet
prickly. Redwing blackbirds sing
from the cottonwoods, and I commend the soul
of the grasshopper to them. I crawl along the row,
and start back down the other side, finding beans
I should have been able to see. Tomorrow I will
find more I can’t believe I missed.
And I will
kneel
again.

Remembering my grandmother and her deft manner of killing rattlesnakes added a deeper aspect to the references in the first draft; the snakes are a threat not just to the rabbits but to the life of the gardener, adding value to the beans. I retained the idea of kneeling, suggesting a worshipful aspect to the harvest.

Now the poem needed to be tightened, refined. In the third draft, ten days later, I focused on the fourth and final stanza, emphasizing the aspect of gratitude.

I flinch from a prickle on my wrist, but
it’s a grasshopper. Redwing blackbirds sing
from the cottonwoods. On my knees,
I shuffle down the row. Grandmother used
even the scabby ones, hopper-gnawed.
Later the beans will sway in the sink
full of water like green snakes.
Tomorrow I will find more beans
I can’t believe I missed.
And I will kneel again, my hands
singing praises for this harvest.

My mental picture accompanying the last line was of praying hands, but the idea of hands “singing” praises jarred my logical mind. Over the next several weeks, I worked on the poem every few days, mostly paring it down, whittling away unnecessary adjectives, trying to make the sensory impressions more vivid.  In the sixth draft, late in August, I shifted one stanza from the middle of the poem to the beginning to put the reader into the center of the sensory experience before getting into the complications I’d introduced.

This morning’s gold breeze slides
among beans slender as sunlight
making snake patterns. Gently, I brush
the leaves aside, careful not to knock off blooms
that will make next week’s beans.

Late in September, I was still tinkering with the poem, but I had decided against making the final stanza a hymn of praise, believing that the reference to kneeling carried that idea sufficiently. I was concentrating on the ending, groping for the right combination.

First I wrote this: “I will taste the green possibility/of snakes within this harvest.”

A month later, I decided to make the reference more direct:

All winter, eating beans with bacon,
I will taste the green flesh,
know the snakes
within this harvest.

At the side of this I scribbled, “Taste the snake?” That was the final touch: making the snake’s presence more vivid and sensory by suggesting something that seemed outlandish, that the flavor of the snake remains within the bean harvest. I knew the poem was close to finished, so I put it aside to rest. In November, I revised the poem for the final time.

How to Pick Green Beans

This morning’s gold breeze slides
among beans slender as sunlight,
making snake patterns in the earth.
I brush leaves aside, careful
not to knock off blooms
that will make next week’s beans.

Kneel
in the garden’s deep soil.
Reach
to lift the bottom leaves.
Watch
for rattlesnakes.

Picking what she called a mess of beans,
my grandmother kept her hoe handy,
tilted her bifocals to see the snake,
steadied herself and chopped
until the hissing ceased.
Hooked him with her hoe, swung her arm.
The snake whirled and struck the sky.

Hold
each stem with the left hand
Pluck
each pair of beans with the right.
One hand
should always know
the other’s whereabouts in rattler country.

Redwing blackbirds sing from the cottonwoods
as I shuffle on my knees down the row.
Later, in the sinkful of water,
the beans sway like green snakes.
Grandmother used even the scabby ones,
hopper-gnawed. All winter, eating beans with bacon,
I will taste the green flesh,
taste the snake
within the harvest.

*  *  *

“How to Pick Green Beans” (c) 2011 by Linda M. Hasselstrom

This poem was published in Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla M. Hansen, now the State Poet of Nebraska. (The Backwaters Press, 2011).

Twyla tells me that she’s celebrating National Poetry Month by writing a poem a day. I’m not going to be able to manage that, but I urge others to try it. And you might want to start with a poem on How To Do Something.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Writing: Where I’ve Been — A Writer’s Best Friend: The Faithful Editor

Writers complain about editors as reliably as the sun also rises.

Here’s my secret: how I learned to be happy in a world full of editors.

After all, I’ve been writing for fifty years. I could do workshops on How to Be Happy In Spite of Writing. Can’t you just see the promotion? I’d favor banner headlines in red:

Learn How to Be HAPPY  —  In Spite of Writing
ONLY $289.95 or a MERE $29.95 a month for fifteen months
Instead, this secret is yours, FREE
No obligation. No guarantee, 90-day or otherwise.
If you are overcome with gratitude, I will accept gifts.

Once upon a time, I’d write an essay and revise it ten times, thirty times, maybe forty. Then I’d send it off to a magazine. And wait. And wait.

Months or years later, I’d receive comments that the editor had jotted down in five minutes, including reading time and making herself a martini.

I’d pore over the scribble for days. Even doctors write more legibly than editors, most of whom are too young to have learned penmanship by drawing millions of OOOs on a Big Chief tablet as I did.

Once I knew what the editor had said, I’d smack myself with The Compact Oxford English Dictionary until the ideas began to make sense.

Chicago Manual of StyleThen I would revise the essay exactly as the editor suggested, and send it back to her.

Invariably, her next set of observations would contradict the first.

I’d swear and throw The Chicago Manual of Style, narrowly missing my faithful dog. To express slight annoyance, toss a thesaurus; reserve the forty-pound Manual for expressing serious fury.

Still, following the editor’s suggestions, I’d revise again.

Thus for many years I humbly followed the advice of every single editor who deigned to supply it in my Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope, returning the revised piece until the editor rejected it. When–and if–the essay was accepted elsewhere, I noticed that the accepted version often resembled my first submitted draft written years before.

Meanwhile, I noticed that I was getting older, and editors were getting younger. If we talked, many would burble, “Oooh, I just graduated from The State University of South Iowindialabama.” Several had never heard of the Chicago Manual.

Gradually, I stopped believing that editors are giants in the earth, though I understand that, like most writers, I learn something every day from a writer or editor.

?????????????????????????But these days, when an editor rejects my latest masterpiece, I don’t snarl and howl. I remember that not all editors are equal.

The minute I spot that rejected manuscript in the mailbox, I start my deep breathing exercises. Whistling to my West Highland White Terriers, I head for my reading chair.

Short dogs with thick necks and skulls, Westies are endowed with almost as much self-esteem as the average teenager, and with considerable more justification. They gallop into the room and sit, tails straight out behind them, heads tilted, gazing at me with big brown eyes, pink tongues dribbling. Closing my eyes, I inhale and visualize the editor sitting beside them, pink tongue lolling. I remind myself that I love the dogs in part because they think I am a better person than I know myself to be. I open the envelope.

Few editors can leave a line of manuscript unmarked.

FrodoPee94

Frodo the Westie marking his territory the way some editors mark up a manuscript.


Reminds me of the way The Bad Breath Boys behave on our rambles in the park. They lurch from side to side, sniff, yark, pee, yipe, pee, snort. Hmm, better sniff that again, yep, needs more; another squirt. Intent on making their mark on every foot of territory, they are one with the trees and rocks, one with the Great Leveling Moment of Peedom, unconscious of anything else in the universe. They don’t know their lives are short, don’t remember doing the same thing in the same place yesterday. Or maybe they think it needs doing again.

Just like an editor invading the brave new world of a manuscript.

No use telling the dogs they are minor characters, that their comments on tree trunks will be covered by the memoirs of the next leashed canine. Like many editors, they have no concept of the forest, because they are too busy demonstrating that this tree is theirs. And this tree. And that bush.

When I let the dogs inside in wet weather, they ignore my pleas to wait on the rug and gallop across the kitchen, scattering blobs of mud.

Just so, an editor’s remarks may obliterate the clean lines of the prose beneath, showing a blissful disregard for the meaning of a sentence or an essay.

When the dogs dig up my flowers, I remind myself that they are creatures of ancient instinct, unlikely to change their ways. I could yell at them and call my anger “training,” or put up more fences to make their world even smaller. But a Westie’s nature includes stubborn persistence; their ancestors dragged Scottish badgers out of their dens.

The same persistence serves a writer, or an editor, well in the long, long life that writing requires.

I also remember my father saying, when we couldn’t corral a difficult bovine, “It pays to be smarter than the cow.” If I cannot bear to lose the flowers, I move them to a part of the yard where the dogs do not go.

Similarly, when an editor misses a point, I no longer attempt to explain. I rephrase the idea, tucking it in somewhere else. Like the dogs, the editor may be so busy admiring or dozing in the hole he’s dug, he’ll never notice.

The dogs snap at each other when they disagree over who sits on my lap, whose treat is larger, and for a dozen other reasons, but they sleep piled together.

Similarly, editors display jealousy and distrust until a writer gets famous; then all of them use the same phrases to sell the next three or a dozen books by that author or a half dozen others.

The Westies are pretty ferocious when a Rottweiler strolls past, as long as they are safe behind their chain link fence.

Editors talking to writers from their own offices make a lot of racket and a lot of promises. When a writer is inside that office, the noise level drops precipitously.

So living with the Westies has taught me to lower my expectations about editors. The dogs, for example, aren’t wise enough to be afraid of cars, so I keep my instructions simple. “No!” I bellow at street corners.

When an editor told me to take the women out of one of my books, I used the same word at roughly the same volume. I hear he is now editing something on the Internet, not books.

If I speak harshly to the dogs after they have misbehaved, their ears droop. But their attention spans are short.

When an editor demanded changes I couldn’t stomach, I gritted my teeth and inserted them. Then I deleted them when I read the galley proofs. So far, he’s never noticed.

Watching my dogs lick each other’s ears makes me wonder if the shortage of well-bred editors is coupled with the way male dogs attempt to establish dominance over one another.

While I have not spent enough time in the company of editors to be an authority, I have noted that they seem to spend a lot of time whispering together at public gatherings. Their reasoning, I suppose, is that there’s no sense talking to writers, because fresh, naive ones are always available.

When my dogs sniff each other’s private parts, I realize that they can’t help it. Their inbred behavior requires deportment completely alien to humans. Well, almost.

Dogs Pursue Idea  Like Editors

A good editor will dig into your manuscript, uncover errors, and improve your writing.


Still, all writers need good editors to polish their written words, so it’s important that we understand how we can help create the editors we need. As all owners should understand, a dog’s most annoying behavior is likely to have been caused by the way humans have treated him. Editors, too, are abused not only by writers who should know better, but by the reading public.

Just as a canine’s feelings are easily hurt, and an apology may not restore its confidence, so it is with editors.

I’ve seen no obedience school inviting writers to bring editors, properly leashed, for remedial training, but let me carry this comparison one more step. Dogs learn best when they are handled with patience and rewarded with affection. A beloved and respected canine is capable of a loyalty we humans rarely find elsewhere.

So pay attention to editors. Take time to thank them for catching the errors you missed. Remember, a good editor’s labor improves your writing– and therefore your income, and your joy in life. The satisfaction you’ll derive when a good editor understands and improves the point you were trying to make is nearly as good as snuggling with your favorite Westie during a blizzard.

(c) 2015 by Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Afterword to “A Writer’s Best Friend: The Faithful Editor”

This previously unpublished essay emerged in the late 1990s after a particularly frustrating round of revisions and rejections. As I recall, I had submitted an early draft of Feels Like Far to a publisher who shall be unidentified but with whom I had a working relationship based on other books on which we’d worked. After the submission, I was able to meet with the editor, who said I was a good writer but — and here she patted my knee– “We’ve heard enough about your dead husband, dear.”

ReadingDogsI have no idea what I answered, or how the interview ended, but I revised the manuscript as she suggested, taking out elements she suggested omitting. After several months she rejected it again, and this time she suggested adding some of the material she had suggested I take out, making clear she had no recollection of her original suggestions.

At that point I resolved to stop submitting manuscripts to New York editors, and turned to regional publishers who might be more familiar with the ideas and attitudes of the West, as well as with my writing. That book was subsequently published by the University of Nevada Press in 1999, but not without more rejections, revisions, and discussions.

Besides feeling vindictive as I worked on this essay, I was feeling clever, so it’s full of plays on words referring to writing– “as reliably as the sun also rises,” and “giants in the earth.”

And I was cynical about the get-rich-quick writing schemes that were beginning to flood the market: How to Write a Best-Seller from someone who never had done so, for example.

But because I am a teacher at heart, the essay is not just cynicism; it’s full of suggestions about useful references, and includes good advice about dealing with editors. Far too many writers get angry at editorial advice and resolve never to send that editor another word. In so doing, they may lose the help of someone who could have helped them become a far better writer.

I enjoyed sly digs like my reference to being smarter than the cow, but once I hit on the dog comparison– no doubt because my then-Westies Mac and Duggan were staring at me from beside my desk– I felt I’d found the perfect vehicle for humor.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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