Paying Attention – Sixty Years of Experience

Roundup - Bull ignoring cow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roundup - Kubota has heavy grill on front

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I’m still grinning.

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Roundup - Kubota Linda grins

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

— LMH, 2018

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Walking into Writing

Morning Walk Jerry and Linda on road

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

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

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

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

Morning Walk autogate with bypass bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Morning Walk thistles in autogate

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

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

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

Morning Walk Great Plains Botanic Garden HQ

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

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

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

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

Morning Walk nighthawk photo from govt website

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

No bugs means no birds.

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

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

Morning Walk Dangerous Hwy Crossing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what Cindy says:

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

Verbena stricta, or hoary verbena or simply verbena.

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

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

Purple verbena with purple prairie coneflower - small version for blog

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

The variety will astonish you!

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Journal Entry, 7/4/2018

I woke up with the familiar words going through my head:

From the mountains
To the prairies
To the oceans
White with foam
God bless America
My home sweet home

When I let the dogs out, I went to the rain gauge to see the results of the wild thunderstorm that struck about nine-thirty last night. I had sat in bed reading with my back to an open window, watching the lightning blast the sky out windows on two other sides of the room. When one jagged streak of power smashed into the ground so close the flash blinded me, both dogs were happy to be covered with the quilt. I kept getting up, circling the house shutting whichever windows the rain was entering, opening others, as the storm moved from west to east over us. The thunder rolled and roared continually. Often, when such storms strike in June, we anxiously go from window to window watching for fires the lightning may start.

grass with flowers -small version for blog

Not last night. We’ve had almost five inches of rain in the past couple of weeks, so the grass is green and largely fire-resistant. Ah! The rain gauge holds another 9/10 inch of rain! Amazing.

After breakfast, Jerry and I decided to walk around our hillside this morning, to enjoy the effects of the rain on the grasses here. With the dogs tiptoeing behind, we walked toward our windbreak trees, startling a perfectly-camouflaged rabbit out from under a tuft of buffalo grass.

I smiled, knowing this is a rare event in the rabbit’s day, because Jerry and I usually walk down our graveled road. Today we wander the hillside, admiring the Echinacea in bloom, the salsify, the height of the grass we never mow or graze. And we listen for rattlesnakes, of course, because they are always possible here. Bluegrass, redgrass, a tall purple flower I can’t name. Delicate faces of blue flax that has escaped from my planted gardens, all blow gently in the breeze.

Hollyhocks by rr tie wall - small version for blogBeside the railroad tie wall that creates a boundary below our deck, deep red hollyhocks are blooming on stems six feet tall. Another cluster of hollyhocks is a bright fuchsia, and alfalfa that has moved into the grassland varies from pale lavender through purple into yellows. I can look south and east to pasture and fields packed with grasses where no one lives, keeping my back to the foothills where more huge houses seem to spring up every day.

“O beautiful for spacious skies,” sings my mind.

For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

Whenever we sang the song in my grade school, I sang “grass” instead of “grain,” since any grain requires plowing and I knew even then the native prairie grasses should not be plowed to plant fragile introduced species.

Now I stumble over a tuft of grass and catch myself, wincing at the pain in the knee that was injured decades ago. And I remember what Jane Kenyon said in her beautiful poem “Otherwise,”

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise.

The poem continues to detail the kinds of ordinary events that make up a day: the speaker ate cereal with a ripe peach, walked the dog, and spent all morning doing the work she loves with the one she loves. At night, she lay in bed and planned another day “just like this day.” But, she says,

one day, I know,
                    it will be otherwise.

This realization comes to most of us, I think as we age, though the precise point at which it descends on our shoulders no doubt varies with age, health and other circumstances. When we drive through the pastures I have leased to a neighbor, an excellent rancher, I am always comparing what I see to the map in my head. Sometimes I drive my Kubota confidently toward a gate, and only at the last moment remember that my lessee has moved it, or taken out the fence.

Jerry’s first act this morning was to set our big American flag in the flagpole he welded to the deck, so the stars and stripes have been waving in a cool breeze since 6 a.m.

America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,

I was careful this morning, when looking at the Internet, to avoid political news and commentary. The country in which I believe contains many divisions which frighten me. But I’ve been terrified before. I was in graduate school and then a teacher during the 1960s; I’ve seen divisions so deep it seemed they never would heal.

Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

I still believe in liberty, and in the rule of law, and in the fundamental values this country has always maintained.

Beside the pond below the hill, a redwing blackbird seems be singing from the top of every dry mullein stalk, swaying gently in the breeze. I turn toward the west fence, where there used to be a couple of holes. One was deep, and usually held rabbit tracks, a family mansion. The other was a shallow scrape, and we sometimes saw badger tracks there. We surmised that the wily beast used it as a resting place while waiting for the ducks on the pond below the hill to settle down after one of the badger’s killing raids. Late at night, we’d sometimes hear squawking and the next morning find duck feathers and blood as evidence of a successful hunt.

nighthawk-nest-2018-small-version-for-blog.jpg

Today the badger holes are overgrown, but as I turn back toward Jerry, he says, “Wait!” He has seen a nighthawk lift off from a rocky patch of ground directly in front of him. Stepping carefully, we both inch toward the spot and finally see a nighthawk nest.

The nighthawk isn’t far away, spiraling up the sky overhead, but we turn and trot away from the area, not wishing to disturb it. The nighthawk cruises past overhead as we top the hill and head toward our own house.

yellow evening primrose with gaillardia and blue flax - small version for blogWe’ve walked full circle on the hillside and arrived back at the gate of the small garden where our raised beds hold tomatoes, peppers, sage and some flowers. Marigolds explode in gold and red from pots along the concrete wall. The yellow silk blooms of evening primrose are still open because the day is cool.

America! America!
God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.

Greenhouse bottle tree and red Maltese Cross flowers - small version for blog

Our two old dogs turned back early from the walk and lie panting beside a bed of fire-engine-red Maltese cross. To our friends who have congratulated us on the recent rains that would allow us to light firecrackers without risking a prairie fire, we’ve gently explained that we don’t voluntarily frighten our canine companions these days.

Before lunch, Jerry will drive to the highway for the newspaper. Yes, we know we could get some news from the Internet, but I will continue to subscribe to as many local newspapers as I can for as long as they exist. I firmly believe, with Thomas Jefferson, that “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” I believe this even when I am reading some screed from someone ill-informed about the history and traditions of this country– though some days it’s harder than others.

At the greenhouse, topped with the hood ornament from a 1955 Chevrolet, blooms of yellow columbine shimmy in the breeze and the yellow prairie cone flowers lean. A robin scolds from the top of a nearby cedar tree, and the garden garter snake zips under the clematis as I walk by. Spiky gladiolus leaves are standing tall; I’m anxious to see the blooms. I harvested the thyme and basil a few days ago, and am drying it in the basement. I brush a little bird excrement off the bottle tree, and step over a hose.

 

“All shall be well,” wrote Julian of Norwich centuries ago.

All shall be well;
and all manner of things
shall be well.

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Independence Day, 2018
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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