Writing: Where I’ve Been — Dressing for Success in the Soggy West

Rain in the West is always an occasion for celebration, and this year we have a lot to celebrate.

People say, “How much rain have YOU had?” with their teeth gritted. To complain about moisture would be Against The Code of The West. Heck, the Code doesn’t let us complain about broken legs, either.

Several neighbors casually mentioned that they’d greased the haying machinery in May and by late June they hadn’t cut a blade of hay yet. No hay means no winter feed for the cows unless they go out and chew it off the hillside which might be difficult if we get the usual deep snows and brisk winds.

“I’m not complaining,” though, they all said heartily with a glance upward. “Maybe this will end that drought.”

Ranchers are always nervous about weather and we learn early not to count on anything. One day when the rain paused, two neighbors were trying to pull a truck out of thigh-deep mud. One observed, “This could be the first day of the next drought.”

When the rain stopped, everybody started chopping down hay with any machinery available. Tractors so rusty their original color is impossible to discern are chugging along the fields, hauling haying equipment made for hauling behind horses. One rusty rake I saw was towed by a sedan, with a passenger leaning out the window yanking on the rope that lifts the tines and dumps the hay in a windrow.

The foliage is so tall we can’t see the tractors, only hear the motors. A couple of guys started mowing our big hayfield three days ago and haven’t reappeared. We hope they didn’t run out of gas and try to walk out. The creeping jenny is so strong and lively that if you walk into a patch, it wraps around your ankles and drags you down.

Yesterday the dogs ran into the greenery and didn’t come when we called, though we could hear them yip. We hacked a path with a machete and found them so tangled up in creeper they couldn’t move. Of course, they’re small dogs; a Malamute might have gnawed his way clear.

And then there are the mosquitoes.

Mosquito veils also help protect the face and neck.

I dress in the morning as knights of old prepared for battle, laying out each piece of armor that may protect myself from West Nile virus. Only one case has been reported this year, but like most people, I don’t want to be second.

First I don long, heavy socks; then winter sweat pants too thick for the proboscis of most mosquitoes. Boots laced up over the pants. Two turtleneck shirts. Since commercial mosquito repellents make me break out in big red blotches, I mix natural oils with unscented hand lotion and smear the mixture over my hands, face and neck. (Equal parts eucalyptus, lemon and citronella in a base of unscented lotion.) I rub lotion on the shoulders of my shirt and on a big scarf tied under my chin. Sloshing more lotion on my floppy hat, I jam it down and step outside.

A breeze helps deflect the mosquitoes, but as soon I walk, I sweat, and mosquitoes rise from the grass in squadrons, regiments, phalanxes. Their low humming sounds like the Hells Angels, on their way to the Sturgis motorcycle rally starting the end of July.

With a garden to tend, I march to the pump house, turn the appropriate handle, and gallop to the garden. There I dive into the heaving, throbbing mass of creeping jenny, hoping I’m not stepping on a rattlesnake, and grope around until I find the end of a soaker hose. I snap the supply hose into it and stagger out to the tilled area. Behind me, a black swarm of mosquitoes rises, and my arms and legs are covered in a moving veil of wings as the critters probe for an opening.

A swarm of mosquitoes rises from the underbrush howling a war cry: ZZZzzzzzzZZZzzzzZZZ. I swat a mosquito that has sucked most of the blood from my right ear. When I feel a throbbing at my jugular vein, I mash it, spurting blood. I laugh like Margaret Hamilton, Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz. Imitating her banshee laugh was one of my first attempts at drama, and is today one of my few talents. Uttered at the back of a slow herd of cows, it moves them into a brisk trot. And it once got me out of a rather tricky situation in the dating game. But it has no effect on the local mosquitoes.

Economists are always urging Western ranchers to diversify. “Take in tourists who will pay to sleep in the bunkhouse! Make tourists pay to help fix fence!” So we have a diversification plan. As soon as we find the branding irons– we’re sure they’re inside the barn or under that tangle of weeds– we’ll brand a few of these monsters, and haul them to the sale ring: the new red meat.

*  *  *

© 2010, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Originally published in “Writers on the Range,” July, 2010

Afterword to “Dressing for Success in the Soggy West”:

High Country News, the fine Western magazine, published this short article in “Writers on the Range” (a syndicated opinion column about issues that affect Westerners) in July of 2010, when we had a soggy spring. Even then we were concerned about West Nile virus and the story is accurate: so far this unusually wet year only one case has been reported in South Dakota.

Writing: Where I’ve Been

The writing that appears in this category, “Writing: Where I’ve Been” is a mixture of styles, written as I was searching for the narrative voice that most nearly suited me and the material that has become most important to me. Each piece is annotated with background information. Some stories were intended to be read as fiction though they were substantially true; in those instances I have explained what is fact and what is fiction. Some of these pieces were published in slightly different forms; I have noted any previous publication.

Re-reading some of what I wrote in past years has been useful for me, not only in matters of insight, but in matters of writing style. I can see things I would write differently today, but I have also discovered writing I consider good that has had few or no other readers. Technically, these are either unpublished works, or published and uncollected, meaning they have not appeared in a book.

Each of these writings was part of a thought process that resulted in other writing; readers may see the roots of ideas that appeared in later work.

I invite writers and aspiring writers to read these texts as part of your study of how writing develops. Remember, I think revision is the second most important part of writing (after thinking), so you might consider how you would revise and improve a particular story. Be inspired; be amazed; be annoyed! You might even comment, and I may— or may not— respond.

No matter what your response, I’ve posted these especially for writers in the hope they will help you to keep writing until you find the style and voice that particularly suits you. Then write your life with the variety and enthusiasm with which I continue to write my own

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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