The Truth About The Bogus Jim Burl Failure

Recently, Jerry and I drove into a bright fall day on a mission; only after our trip began did I realize he had a covert aim as well.

Jerry’s primary task was to gather interesting pieces of pine that he could use in furniture and other wood-working. He lured me into accompanying him in a clever move to take my mind off my frustration.

The day before, I’d been disappointed to receive the finished product for a project I’d been working on for a couple of years, and found it did not meet my specifications or my expectations. Angry and hurt, I’d talked– no doubt too much– about the betrayal of my confidence and my contract, berating myself for being so trusting.

Jerry’s paid permit allowed him to search particular piles of trees and brush chopped and stacked for burning by the U.S. Forest Service. The map of our permit area led us north and west into the Black Hills, into steep valleys echoing with running streams. High above us, grassy slopes tilted toward cliffs layered in broken rock. The sun shone, but the fall air was like cool silk on our skin. Birds flashed in the underbrush, busily gobbling seeds to fatten themselves for winter.

Names on the map always hint at stories we may never know: Wild Irishman Gulch, Loveland Canyon, Hat Mountain, Steamboat Rock, and Paradise Valley. According to South Dakota Geographic Names, Bogus Jim Creek, which rises just south of Buck Mountain in northern Pennington County, lets the explorer choose which history to believe. The rivulet may have been named for a prospector, Francis Calabogus, known as Bogus Jim, who located a claim on its banks. Alternatively, it may have been named by gold seekers who thought they had reached Jim Creek, farther northwest; discovering they were trying to mine gold on a dry creek, perhaps they named it Bogus Jim.

Bogus Jim LMH knothead 2015--9-6

Not a burl, just a knot-head.


The story of our day found us parking beside a huge slash pile with hundreds of dead pine trees waiting for winter’s torch; they’ll be burned by the Forest Service if enough deep snow accumulates around them.  If winter is dry, they’ll dehydrate and rot for another year or two, available to firewood seekers and artists. Jerry took a hand saw and went along the front of the pile, while I went around the back.

First I inhaled the tart smell of sun-warmed pine which always reminds me of my grandmother and her house in a southern Black Hills canyon. My second breath included a more pungent stink; at my feet was a low-growing plant that spreads into branches with yellow blooms: fetid marigold. Plant books describe its odor as “foul” and the genus name, Dyssodia papposa means “evil-scented.” I’d call it bitter but invigorating, somewhat like eucalyptus. Authorities say the Lakota used the powdered leaves to relieve difficult breathing and European settlers brewed tea from the leaves to settle the stomach, stop vomiting and to treat diarrhea. I wouldn’t make a bouquet of it, but I find the odor invites me to breathe deeply.

Sunlight lit up a few brownish-gold leaves on the oaks, reminding me summer is over. Lush green plants were growing up through the furrows and tracks left by the heavy machinery used to cut and pile the trees. White yarrow bloomed, and kochia thrived in the gouges. Purple asters shivered on slender stems, and patches of bee balm were going to seed. Along the edges of one slash pile raspberry bushes stood knee-deep.

Noting how many chunks of wood had been scattered down the hill by the machinery bringing gulps of trees to the pile, I kept angling upward. As I climbed the hill, reaching to pull myself up by protruding rocks and branches, the sun warmed my back. My leg muscles knotted and flexed and my feet felt as if they were digging into the soil for purchase. I’d find one or two nicely torqued branches and carry them back down the hill, stepping carefully so as not to fall. Then I’d start uphill again in a slightly different place, looking carefully at each piece of wood, tugging at buried limbs, pushing some aside to get at the deeper ones. As I worked my body, I began to feel the tension in my shoulders ease.  My vision narrowed; I focused on the purple flowers and the light slipping between the tree trunks, and how the pines stood against the sky.

At home, I would have been seated at my computer, with notes on scraps of paper covering every inch of two desks, working on several jobs as I kept an eye on the clock so I’d remember to get lunch on the table at noon. I’d be re-running email arguments in my head and muttering to myself about perfidy and ignorance.

Now I reminded myself that all I had to do was peer into the tangled dead tree branches and brown needles, searching for twisty pieces of pine. That’s all. Tomorrow I might consider the best remedy for my dissatisfaction, but today I had no responsibilities to anyone or anything but the wish of this good man for wood that would inspire his creativity.

I leaned close to the slash pile and began to really see the way the branches wound among each other. When I carried a couple of twisted branches back to the pickup, Jerry happily pointed out a burl he’d found, a rounded knotty growth of wood. Handcrafters love these wood variations, polish them, and work them ingeniously into furniture, picture frames and other useful and beautiful objects. This one was no more than three inches across, but would make a fine addition to anything he built. A table beside his rocking chair in our bedroom features several burls among the braces for its legs.

At once I was galvanized! A quest! I’d find a burl! I dashed back around the slash pile.

Bogus Jim moss 2015--9-6

The twisted, mossy old root.


Again I was distracted: a gleam of gold was a cluster of the type of sunflower that thrives in sunny spots in the hills. Poison ivy grew abundantly around several stumps. For myself, I collected a beautifully twisted old root fragment with green moss growing on its top edge, and slender white stems in a little hollow. I put the piece on a stump so I could find it easily.

As if the old root had led me to treasure, I immediately started finding beautifully twisted, sturdy pine branches scattered down the hill, all in lengths I could carry. I piled them by my stump until it was surrounded. As I started downhill carrying an armload of pine branches that writhed over and under one another, my rear ankle caught between two branches. I could picture myself falling, twisting my damaged knee or breaking an ankle or arm. I lunged hard, jerked free and staggered until I regained my balance. Jerry helped me load my finds, generously praising the collection. Sweating and happy, we drove back to the gravel road to locate another couple of slash piles.

Even this fairly remote area was busy with four-wheelers, pickups hauling trailer loads of four-wheelers, pickups hauling campers, and the occasional jogger or bicyclist headed somewhere. Around us stood Crystal Mountain (with many crystal formations), the Lucky Strike Mine, Pilot Knob, and more. Dust hung in the air, sparkling in the sunlight. Marks on the map drew people along the trails and through the trees: Benchmark, Silver City, Thrall Mountain.

Bogus Jim pine collection 2015--9-6

The twisty pine branches we collected.


Some of the piles we searched were so tangled that even if we spotted a promising branch, I couldn’t dislodge it, though Jerry might be able to cut it loose with the hand saw. Sometimes he was in sight, and sometimes I seemed to be alone in the woods. We’d work our way around a hoard and then wander down the road to the next. Picking at the edges of the mounds, we muttered about the beautiful pieces of pine we just knew were hidden deep inside. As the sun grew warmer, we collected dozens of pine branches in fascinating shapes, tangled, entwined, twisted, tortured: all material for beautiful furniture or picture frames or something amazing Jerry will make during the winter to come, or in some future winter.

Though I stared among the branches until my eyeballs ached, I found no burl. But the burl hunt failure was a triumph in the most important way for me: I didn’t once think of incoherent emails, whining phone calls or broken promises.

Instead, searching for wood, I began to see the writing metaphor: a slash pile is a draft, logs, branches and discarded soft drink cans all piled in an untidy mess on the edge of the forest. A careful writer must tiptoe around it, peering close and reaching into the web for the ideas that will polish up nicely. Somewhere in that jumble is a burl, a beautiful knot of meaning but only patience will tease it out.

Bogus Jim LMH maze tunnel 2015--9-6

Rock Maze passage.


At nearly noon, Jerry declared we’d collected enough, and tied down our load. We drove to the Rock Maze, a geological marvel near Steamboat Rock. All morning, we had noticed giant slabs and boulders marching along the cliff edges high above the roads we traveled. At the Rock Maze, these great stones swoop low enough to lie near the road, accessible with an easy stroll. Most of the stones are at least ten feet high, cracked and tumbled so they offer places to squeeze between. Trails lead deeper into the maze, or out to the top of the rocks, or into a corner so small you cannot go on. We could look down into massive cracks and wave to people staring up at us, or leap small crevices leading to pockets of bushes growing from a fissure where we heard voices. The fractured rock led us around corners, into dead ends, up walls and into gaps we had to bend to slip through. Jumbled among the stones were massive charred stumps and lengths of pines that had fallen across gaps and dived into fissures. The sarsen stones reminded me of Stonehenge in their immensity and the way they lured people to walk among them. Several young men stood on the edge of one precipice, holding their cameras out on poles to take pictures of themselves in that precarious position.  We saw a man with a heavy back pack, watchfully leading a girl and boy no more than six years old. All three carried hiking sticks and the children chattered happily to each other. One couple disagreed gently over whether to leap over a gap between rocks; he did, and she went to a spot where the rocks were closer together.

My search for a burl was a failure in the sense of finding a gloriously snarled piece of wood for Jerry to turn into art.  Still, in going into the woods to avoid my anger, I worked my way through the tangled heaps of trash and the maze of choices to find not only relaxation but a writing idea. I failed to find a burl, but I found a tranquil day with a bonus writing inspiration. In so doing, I let go of my fury and turned my attention to how I might cope with the fact that my creation was not as good as I had planned.  My wise father used to ask me: “Will it matter in a year? In ten years?”

By the end of the day, I had realized that, while the work done by others didn’t satisfy me, I could still feel proud of my own accomplishment. Anger at something I can’t change is like the burl that might have become a branch. A burl could vanish into the burn pile, or become part of something beautiful. And the burl is not the tree’s whole story.

Bogus Jim peeled branch

A peeled branch.


A day or two later, Jerry had peeled one of the most convoluted branches, displaying the white inner core and the brown middle layer. Seeing what he had made of the discarded branch made me see more clearly the substance of the wood as well as my own situation.

I was the casualty of a born victim: an individual who is never responsible for his or her own actions. Unsatisfactory results are always the fault of someone else. Misunderstanding follows these folks everywhere.

But they are not evil. The only sensible response to these folks is pity for their perpetual confusion. If I refused to be drawn into an exchange of incivilities, I could go on to more important work.

I failed to find a burl, but I found something more valuable. I learned from my own errors in judgment. I have devised ways to handle the next creation differently so as to avoid the problems this one encountered. This is the precise process that should be followed by a writer in revising each succeeding draft.

Oh yes– Wild Irishman Gulch may have been named either for a single genial, boisterous Irishman who once lived there, or several Irish prospectors. Sadly, Loveland Canyon was not named for romance, but for a couple of ranchers who arrived in the late 1870s, Ed and Charles Loveland.

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

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(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015

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The Day After

Yesterday we were remembering.

Wage-Peace-buttonToday, after re-reading Judyth Hill’s poem “Wage Peace,” written on 9/11/2001 (www.judythhill.com), I am following her example, replacing thoughts of mayhem by finding grace everywhere.

Last night I participated in a community celebration of Patriot Day with other members of the Hermosa Arts and History Association (www.hermosahistory.org), and witnessed community in action. The American Legion Hall in Hermosa filled with folks from the surrounding area, both old-time residents and those who have arrived more recently. Many elements of the widely-spread out Custer County community support us with their free will donations. We also welcomed many couples from the SD State Square Dance Festival (www.blackhillsdosido.org) taking place this weekend in the Hermosa School gym. Soon everyone was visiting back and forth across the patriotically-decorated tables as HAHA volunteers served hamburgers from local grassfed beef with appropriate accompaniments. Amazing how we all moved into the chain of service, switching jobs smoothly as one person went to replenish the lemonade and another stepped in to serve burgers.

And I overheard another exchange that spoke to me of the way community should function: “Do you know anyone who would like a used washer/dryer?” asked one member.

“Why yes,” said another, “My assistant told me this morning that her daughter’s washer/dryer had broken down and her husband is in Afghanistan.”

“Tell her I’ll be happy to deliver it.”

That mutually beneficial transaction took thirty seconds.

A half hour before sunrise, while the light was still silvery over the dam, three Great Blue Herons lifted like smoke off the water and flew low to the narrower part before settling down to watch for frogs.

In the windbreak trees, fifty yards from our house, we found the largest coyote scat we’ve ever seen, which makes us nervous for our Westies. But the scat was filled with vole fur, a good sign.

Plants below the water on the dam are reasserting themselves as thousands of gallons of water evaporates each day: Western sloughgrass and Baltic rush and Dudley, fox sedge and fescue sedge, all reaching up and bursting through into the sunlight.

Thai pepper harvest 2015A day or two ago Jerry harvested what will probably be his entire crop of Thai peppers from the plant in the greenhouse. They are arranged on the lower screen of my homemade food dryer (www.dryit.com) to be prepared for winter storage. We collected some potatoes and onions from the basement of the retreat house.

I opened windows wide there to let in the fall air and sunshine, knowing that a retreat guest was waking up in a campground somewhere south of here, packing up while thinking about her retreat starting today. And now that I’ve prepared myself for a serious writing retreat by writing something, it’s time for me to turn again to making comments on her writing to make her trip worthwhile.

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

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(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015

Writing: Where I’ve Been — The Squirrel on the Fire Escape

I touch the brakes as a squirrel races across the highway. He flings his tail forward like an oar, propelling himself to safety in the rabbit brush well ahead of my tires.

My Westie, Frodo, lunges over the back seat and stands with his paws on the dashboard, barking. He’s never caught a squirrel, but in the city they taunt him from treetops, so he’s sure they are legitimate prey and therefore can be yapped at.

To distract him, I reach for his bag of treats but it’s empty. Without looking away from the highway, I find trail mix in my grocery sack and give him a peanut while I eat an almond. He eyes me suspiciously, surmising that what I’m eating is better than his snack. But if I gave him an almond, he might behave like a squirrel I once corrupted.

Columbia

A photo of me taken close to the time period of this story. Was I flirting with the photographer? I’ll never tell.

In my senior year of college, facing graduation, I knew I’d have to decide soon whether to go back to the ranch to marry a local boy or try to make a life for myself in the competitive world where most people live. I worked then as a reporter on the night staff of a daily newspaper, watching the news from Viet Nam and assessing my nerve to see if I had enough to be a war correspondent. I didn’t, but I entered a marriage that proved nearly as unpleasant in the long run.

Each morning I drove sixty miles from my upstairs apartment near the newspaper office to graduate classes. Each afternoon, I drove back to Sioux City, Iowa, the biggest city I’d ever seen, population one hundred thousand people. I lived in an old Victorian mansion that retained a few traces of its former elegance, like a beautiful old woman wearing a ragged velvet gown. From my apartment on the top floor, I looked out on a broad avenue where the city’s blue bloods first reigned. When the children of these aristocrats fled to the outskirts of town, a medley of humbler citizens moved in, including my Jewish landlady who rented the top floor after her husband died and her son moved out.

In my apartment’s one large room, faded wallpaper was embossed with red and gold roses. A couch and two worn chairs defined the living room by sitting with their backs to a bed tucked under a roof slope so steep the ceiling touched my head when I read in bed. When I lay down to sleep, the attic came alive with shuffles and squeaks. Though I knew from experience the sounds were squadrons of squirrels cavorting among the resident bats, I pictured a different scene. My landlady had said that during the Twenties, when a bootlegger owned the house, her beaus spoke softly of visiting these rooms to get illicit liquor. They whispered of lovely women who may have sold their favors on the side. As I drifted into sleep, the thumps and whispers in the attic became a dream of soft music and slim women in short fringed, the beads and the ice in their drinks clicking as they danced in the shadows. A secret back stair in the closet had been closed off years before, because it was too narrow for modern safety standards.

Sioux City Stately House

Though not the actual house I stayed in, this old house in Sioux City is representative of it.

The tiny kitchen created by walling off one corner of the room was efficiently fitted with oddly-shaped cupboards. One door opened into a dining room with polished oak floors, a battered but aristocratic buffet, and double doors opening onto a porch big enough for one chair. The porch topped an ugly fire escape required for apartment buildings by federal regulations, attached like an abscess to the house’s facade. One evening as I sat on the tiny porch above the wooden stairs, eating peanuts and tossing shells over the railing, the squirrel entered my life. She clung to a tree branch overhead and screeched while I whispered sweetly, trying to lure her closer. When I went to work, I left a few peanuts on the railing.

Each evening after that, I left a few nuts on the porch. And every day, while I stared into the refrigerator hoping to find better food, she scampered back and forth on the railing, chattering.

Timing her arrival to mine was harder than it sounds. I drove to graduate classes at the college sixty miles away every day. I came home each afternoon to rest or study before bicycling to the newspaper where I worked from five p.m. until one in the morning. The squirrel soon identified both my vehicles. I’d often see her a block away, scampering along a high branch toward the porch to wait on the railing until I got inside.

On my days off, I put peanuts out each afternoon, shut the door and watched as the squirrel approached, advancing one hop and retreating three, until she could snatch a peanut and leap to a branch. Success or winter made her bolder. By the third month, she’d grab her peanut while I stood inside the open door. By spring, she’d sit on the railing beside my chair, eating from my opened palm.

When summer arrived, with memories of mowing hay on the ranch, I grew homesick and feverish. Walking sleepless along the river late at night, I could picture snow melting on high mountains in the north, knowing the winter’s heavy snowpack would soon come roaring down the river. The Corps of Engineers had squeezed the river between artificial concrete banks. Looking north along the walkways was like looking at a big woman who insists on forcing her ample shanks into a maiden’s corset. A flood could burst the concrete stays, flooding the low streets in the valley. Heat magnified the existence of one of Sioux City great attractions, “the world’s largest pile of manure.” Scooped from the busy stockyards, the pile loomed beside the river, bubbling with heat and broadcasting its odors for miles. I imagined a flood dismantling the mound and scattering it over the fields while the smashed remnants of the river walls washed up in downtown New Orleans.

Squirrel 1983

In spite of having a job, I was still a penniless college student, barely paying expense from living off campus and driving back and forth with my night job. Unable to afford air conditioning, I ventilated my attic space with open doors and windows. One evening when I was scrambling eggs for a sandwich, I glanced up to see the squirrel in the dining room. Moving slowly, I placed a peanut on the polished floor. She gobbled it, then sat up and chirped at me. After that, she’d run along the porch railing to rattle the door knob until I let her in.

Keeping my old car running cost more than I’d reckoned. By January, I was eating oatmeal twice daily. With no peanuts in the budget, I rationed a can of mixed nuts from Christmas, doling out one peanut a day until they were gone. The next time the squirrel knocked, I picked out an almond. The squirrel put it down on the floor and looked up. She sniffed it, skittered to the door and back. Finally, she ate it. I fed her the rest of the nuts, mostly almonds because I’d eaten my favorite, the cashews, first.

The day my paycheck arrived, the squirrel pounded at door knob while I was climbing the stairs with my grocery bags. I grabbed the bag of peanuts off the top and knelt in the doorway holding one. She advanced, flipping her tail and looking over her shoulder to check the escape route. She sniffed the peanut on my hand and sat back on her haunches. Then she advanced jerkily to sniff again. I picked up three more peanuts. She marched forward and rummaged among the nuts with both paws.

Just as I realized that she was looking for almonds where none existed, she fastened her teeth in the most almond-like object she saw and ran. Her teeth were locked in my finger. Her running paws scrabbled and slipped on the waxed floor. She dangled from my hand, eyes rolling.

Calmly, I mentioned her error. As her teeth broke through my skin and she tasted blood, I spoke less calmly. She executed a midair somersault, and zipped into her tree. For an hour she sat on the railing beside a pile of peanuts, chattering.

I sat on the couch thinking, feeling every hot pulse in my finger and wondering if I needed a rabies shot. I’d tantalized the squirrel with treats beyond my budget and beyond her ability to fend for herself, taught the squirrel upward mobility. She grabbed an almond and ran on air, confused by the shower of blood. Just like a human.

In the years since, I have applied what the squirrel taught me to my own life. I refuse to covet or buy gadgets without considering the costs and the consequences. Will the item, I ask myself, fit not only my financial budget, but my environmental account?

© Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015

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Afterword to “The Squirrel on the Fire Escape”

When did I write this, asked my assistant Tam, as we discussed putting it on the WordPress site.

Hmm. Since I am, like many writers, something of a packrat and descended from several generations of people who hold onto things, I was able to find the metal file box in which I tracked my nonfiction submissions until about 2001– before computers.

While flipping through it looking for the squirrel story, I spotted the category labeled “Old Manuscripts: not quite dead but on life support.” Behind that divider I find a piece titled “A chocolate éclair with spiders in it,” a 5000-word essay written in 1969 and submitted once. I can’t recall what that was about, but wish I had a copy so I could find out. Another piece was “Overdue Inventions,” written in 1985 and rejected by the Saturday Evening Post and Christian Science Monitor but now lost. I dismantled “The Consequences of Fame,” and used part of it in another piece. I suspect that “Down But Not Out in the Fine Arts Capitol of the World,” written in 1974, might have been about my literary magazine and press. “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy: the best food in the West,” was rejected by both High Country News and Northern Lights, magazines which regularly accepted work from me.

But my writing wasn’t all failure; the “published fiction” section of the box includes notes on several pieces I called fiction but which were actually written from my experiences. I incorporated several of them into later nonfiction work.

See how easily a writer is distracted?

In the S section of the Nonfiction Submissions, I find that “The Squirrel on the Fire Escape,” at 1100 words, was rejected by High Country News in 1994, by South Dakota Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, and Reader’s Digest in 1995, then revised and submitted to High Country News again in 1999– and then I apparently stopped submitting it.

The history of this little piece probably demonstrates how I learned about publication success and failure. I suggest to the writers with whom I work that they not submit always to the most popular magazines– like Christian Science Monitor and Reader’s Digest; while the rate of pay is good, those magazines get thousands of submissions and their readers must always be overworked. Instead, look for good publications in your region, where you might build a relationship with an editor and gradually become a respected contributor to the pages.

Persistence did pay off with Christian Science Monitor, which accepted several of my essays. I worked with an editor there I liked, and doubtless the publications helped when I submitted to book publishers. But I developed a closer and longer (still going) relationship with High Country News. One of its editors, Betsy Marston, often wrote concise and useful comments on my work, helping me to revise pieces that she later accepted.

I’ve never been back to Sioux City to drive by the house where I lived, though now I realize that it must have been a four-square, like our house in Cheyenne. I remember my landlady very well; she was an elegant woman with a clear understanding of how hard it was to be young and poor; she was very intelligent and very considerate of me. So when I dropped the glass shelf from my refrigerator and slashed open my wrist, I wrapped towels around it until I realized that I couldn’t stop the gushing blood. I also knew I couldn’t drive, so I called an ambulance– but asked them not to use the siren so as not to alarm her. After I got home with my stitches, she came upstairs several times to be sure I was OK.

I’ve never tried to feed a wild animal again.

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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

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© Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015