This essay was originally posted on the Windbreak House website on October 31, 2013.
I wrote “Home Page Messages” for most of the eight Celtic seasons of the year from December, 2009 to December, 2014.
I am reprinting this on the 5th anniversary of the Cattleman’s Blizzard (also called Storm Atlas), which took place October 3-5, 2013.
Samhain: Festival of Contradictions
October 31, 2013
The ancient holiday of Samhain (pronounced Sow-when) is, said one writer, “a festival of contradictions: silence and feasting, sacrifice and survival, fire and blood.”
By October 31, the day most folks celebrate as Halloween because Celtic and Christian traditions have become mixed through the centuries, harvests have been gathered and the fields lie fallow. Summer’s growth is finished.
And yet, as is always the case, this ending is a also beginning. As the gates of death and winter open, so too do the gates open to renewed life. People of many nations traditionally celebrate at this time, knowing that snow and cold will follow, and knowing too that the snow brought by plains blizzards (an onomatopoeic word that probably originated on the prairie) will melt eventually into the green of spring.
The month preceding Samhain is usually fairly benign in the Great Plains, with just enough snow to remind us that we need to be prepared for winter. The shorter days seem beautifully long as we pick the last tomatoes and set them on the windowsill to ripen. The sun feels good on our shoulders as we pull the tomato vines and till them into the raised beds; we pile the pumpkins in the pickup.
In late September, Jerry was working on a project that produced great bags of sawdust so I spent several afternoons dumping the sharply-scented fir shavings around the new berry bushes that grew so well in this wet summer. I enjoyed watering the golden heaps and stomping them so they’d hold solid against the autumn winds.
“Silence and Feasting”
Our senses sharpened, we took particular note of the bittersweet autumn life happening around us. A kestrel flew low over our heads when we were walking the dogs by the retreat house and we laughed, thinking it was eyeing the chubby Westies that outweighed it by twenty pounds.
A moment later my hat was blown off by the flailing wings of a low-flying grouse as it dived into a cedar tree nearby and we saw the little hawk veer off with a shriek of frustration.
Busy in my office, working on writing conversations by e-mail, preparing for fall retreats, I wondered several times where my Samhain home page message would take me this year. Though my writing is usually optimistic, Samhain demands that we face its contradictions; in the last bright warmth of autumn, we must acknowledge darkness. The beginning of winter is a time to reflect, to put all things in order for both contemplation and for physical life and comfort during the long cold. Mentally, I tick off the autumn jobs to be done. The Halloween or Samhain festival, though, was traditionally also a time of light-heartedness, when people played tricks, sang, enjoyed themselves before the cold sobriety and serious business of winter.
During the first week of October, weather forecasters predicted the usual mild October snowstorm: temperatures in the thirties with three or four inches of snow and little wind. Such storms usually leave a pretty frosting on the hills and melt within a few hours; they remind us to look at the colorful leaves before they fall and to check our winter supplies.
All around us, ranchers drove nervously out to look at cattle still in summer pastures, knowing that within a couple of weeks they’d wean and sell the calves, then move the cows into the shelters of winter pasture. Predictions of a storm this early in the season was worrisome, but the weather forecast was reassuring. Best not to disturb the cattle unnecessarily by moving them this close to weaning and sale time. The profits of a year’s hard work rested on those calves; once the sales were over, the ranch families would shop for necessities for their own winter survival.
On Thursday October 3, the high temperature was 41 degrees. Jerry tilled the garden and I made excuses to go outside, putting away pots, tidying up the greenhouse.
That evening, the storm arrived, blasting away all predictions.
All night, a freezing rain fell; our gauge held more than three inches of water the next morning. The wind screamed at 75 miles an hour, rattling the ice-covered window screens like hail on the roofs.
Lights shone late in ranch houses all over the region as ranchers worried about the cattle they could not reach. Thousands of head of livestock– cattle, horses, sheep– walked and walked and walked, trying to find shelter, to keep warm enough to resist the freezing temperatures. They walked on snowdrifts over the tops of fences; they stumbled into dams and drowned. They piled into low places, one on top of another on top of another until they suffocated or drowned.
“Sacrifice and Survival”
During the festival of Samhain, the dead walk.
I can see them, lines of cattle walking through the moonlight, lowing so softly their voices are only a whisper. Among them walk the other plains animals whose deaths will remain uncounted– coyotes, antelope, deer. Grouse, meadowlarks, blackbirds and robins flutter on their way to the dark lands, their whistles mingling with the wind’s rush. Did the grouse survive? The frustrated kestrel?
Samhain is the festival of the descent into darkness, a time to reflect, to talk about the dead. The people who have lost the most from this storm cannot yet talk about it. Few will ever talk about the prairie wildlife lost.
After the storm, one observer reported that 10,000 dead cattle lay between Sturgis and Union Center, South Dakota, a distance of 43 miles. That’s 232 cows per mile, or a dead cow every twenty feet. But most of the dead lay hidden in isolated gullies and ravines, not along a highway.
On Friday, October 4, we didn’t even attempt to go to the highway mailbox as snow fell and drifts piled up. We collected jugs of water to drink and flush the toilet. We got out the long underwear, boots, wool socks. Our power went out about 2 in the afternoon. We found our battery-powered headlamps. Our furnace won’t work without electric ignition and blowers so we lit the tiny auxiliary propane heater in the basement. We ate leftovers, minimizing opening the refrigerator and freezer. With no electricity, shut down like the government, we had no idea what was happening elsewhere.
We couldn’t turn on a faucet since the pump in our well is electric so we kept busy digging snow to pile around our coolers full of food, and to bring inside to melt on our propane cookstove. I made bean soup rich with chunks of ham. We played Rummykub and Quiddler and Boggle.
Local EMT’s and first responders later reported answering calls for oxygen and heat, finding people near hypothermia in their homes even though the temperatures were only in the 50s inside, 30s outside. “If it had been 30 below zero, we’d have lost people.”
“Silence and Feasting”
As the sun came out on Saturday, we saw 35 antelope basking on top of the ridge south of the house, blown clear of snow as usual. They grazed comfortably.
We made no attempt to shift the giant, ice-hard drifts blocking our vehicles and buildings. Windbreak trees and bushes were completely covered by drifts 10, 15 feet high. A neighbor rode by on horseback, checking on his cattle in my pasture nearby; I could hear him talking on his cell phone. We read, worried about the effects of the storm on those who were less prepared.
As we melted snow to flush the toilet, I probably mentioned that I’d wanted to repair the outhouse, keeping it functional in case of a power outage. Jerry probably mentioned the outhouse is a half-mile away, an impossible hike through the drifts. Looking to the future, we found a spare toilet seat that can be perched on a 5-gallon bucket next time this happens.
On Sunday, October 6, Jerry used the tractor to dig a trail, discovering that our power line was broken between the highway and our house. Electric company lines were jammed. My cell phone battery died while I was on hold.
On Monday, someone from the power company patched our power line, though it still hung low enough to nearly reach the barbed wire fence. We took showers and went to town for the mail and a sandwich. The convenience store café was full of grim and grimy people with tired faces who had been working to move snow, repair electric lines, find cattle. Among our neighbors we began to hear bits of talk that hinted at the disaster’s extent. Feasting on food someone else had cooked, we basked in the warmth and loud talk. No silence, but feasting.
“Fire and Blood”
Early estimates said as many as 75,000 cattle, sheep, horses and other livestock may have died in the storm; every day the figure rose. At least 38,000 homes were without power and some, even in town, remained off the grid for days. In Lead, S.D., 55 inches of snow fell, with similar amounts in other areas.
All over the northern plains, animals that survived the storm were dying of pneumonia, or were scattered miles from home. Ranchers woke to find their corrals destroyed, yards filled with cattle wearing a dozen different brands. Dams and creeks were full of carcasses that would pollute the water if not removed; many of the watercourses lead to creeks and rivers that supply water to metropolitan areas downstream– though the city folks who eventually use that water may never realize their danger.
During the festival of Samhain, the dead walk.
Lines of animals walk eternally through the moonlight, whispering of death.
“Sacrifice, Fire, Blood”
At Samhain, animals were ritually slaughtered in thanksgiving for the harvest and in prayer for a benign winter.
I will never forget the look on my father’s face, the set of his mouth as he mentioned “the time the government shot the cattle.” The pain was still sharp in his voice and face after 60 years.
I later learned that “during the early years of the Depression, livestock prices dropped disastrously. Officials with the New Deal believed prices were down because farmers were still producing too many commodities like hogs and cotton. The solution proposed in the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 was to reduce the supply. So, in the late spring of 1933, the federal government carried out ’emergency livestock reductions.’ In Nebraska, the government bought about 470,000 cattle and 438,000 pigs. Nationwide, six million hogs were purchased from desperate farmers . . . The hogs and cattle were simply killed. In Nebraska, thousands were shot and buried in deep pits . . . The federal buy-out saved many farmers from bankruptcy . . . the basic governmental approach of supporting farm prices by reducing supplies continues to this day.”
Meanwhile, now in South Dakota, state ag officials were pompously reminding producers of the state law requiring the burial or burning of dead animals within 36 hours of their demise. Fields and pastures were so wet only horses could move through them without being stuck and they rapidly became exhausted. Pickups, trucks, heavy equipment was paralyzed. Many ranchers still hadn’t reported their losses a week later because they couldn’t get out of their isolated ranches, let alone begin to find and dispose of dead animals.
Silence and Survival
This message for this Samhain began in light and descended into darkness. For days, I could not find the light. I dreamed of those dead animals, the silence of the snow.
Years ago, feeding in haste so we could get to a Christmas dinner, we lost cattle in a similar way. We usually fed the cattle, then cut holes in the ice-covered dam, then stayed until they had all drunk to be sure they didn’t crowd onto the ice and break through. My mother had been insistent: we must be home by a certain time. After we left, they broke through the ice and many drowned. When we drove up the next day, the bodies were dark shapes, moving gently as if the water was breathing. Taking turns, my father and I waded into the icy water, looped a lariat around a cow’s ankles, pulled each one out with the pickup. We were frozen, blue, hypothermic, but we said not a word to my mother. Our suffering was our punishment; we were responsible for their deaths.
The ranchers who lost cattle this month could not have foreseen this storm, but I know they feel that guilt. They are the caretakers of the animals and the land; they will feel these deaths as their responsibility.
Darkness is the symbol of this season. This is as it should be; the intent of the festival has, through the centuries, been for us to face the darkness, to understand that it will come, to accept it. We cannot pretend it doesn’t exist. Either we let the darkness overwhelm us, or we face it, try to understand how to survive in it.
Throughout history, pagan and Christian beliefs have intertwined around this autumn holiday in what one [web]site calls a “glorious gallimaufry.” We each face darkness in our own ways. Differences will always occur. We need not submit to either annual or unusual death. But how do we rise above it?
Sacrifice as Prayer
As power was restored, a ranch woman from North Dakota wrote to me, telling me of some of the losses in her area, lamenting the ignorance of comments on social media sites.
Why didn’t the ranchers put their cattle in barns, some asked? Why didn’t they prepare for the storm by getting the cattle into winter pastures? Oh it doesn’t matter, said others; ranchers are rich. The government will pay for their losses.
How can we combat this ignorance, she asked? Writing from my computer at 5 in the morning, two hours before sunrise, I encouraged her, offering suggestions.
Still, I felt that darkness of ignorance hovering around my shoulders– even though her writing to me indicated someone has heard my words. I have been writing about ranching all my life, trying to explain it, to show how essential well-managed ranches can be to the welfare of the great plains ecosystem, all of it: grasses, trees, deer, coyotes, cattle, mountain lions, lambs, thistles.
My nights are haunted by the pictures of dead cattle that began to appear after the storm. I spent years getting to know my own cows, walking among them, talking, listening to their stomachs rumble and watching the frost melt from their eyelashes. When my father died, I had to sell my cattle to pay his debts– but I can picture those ranchers as they look at those dead cows. They were not just walking cash; they were friends, co-workers, colleagues.
Samhain: The Gates Between Life and Death Open
Two weeks after the storm, I follow a neighbor’s pickup into a local gas station; he’s towing a flatbed hauling a big backhoe.
“Been busy?” I say.
He shakes his head. “Buried two hundred of the neighbor’s cows yesterday,” he says.
He doesn’t tell me if he lost any; he was just helping out, like neighbors do. We talk about the lack of national news coverage. “It’s like Katrina for us,” he says, “only up here the neighbors are helping each other instead of looting. And there’s no news media.”
Another neighbor tells me that the man she’d paid to fix her driveway finally arrived, a couple of weeks later than he’d promised. They talk as they wait for a load of gravel. Normally, he’d have plowed snow for himself and neighbors but he was too busy trying to find his cattle and then burying 400 head, about 20% of his and those he ran with other ranchers. He couldn’t find his shovel, he said; somebody had borrowed it from his pickup because they were using it as an oar while they tried to get dead cattle out of a stock pond. Sad smile.
Every Ending is a Beginning
I can’t change the weather, but I can mention that scientists say the signs of climate change– whether man-caused or not– involve violent weather. Without argument, we could all take steps to be more prepared to help ourselves and others. Jerry and I are pricing generators. We will continue to have warm clothing, a well-stocked pantry, adequate medications, plenty of reading material. We’ll keep checking on our neighbors.
Can we fix what causes these storms? Whether we are responsible for this climate change or not, we can reduce our demands for power. Millions of people are doing just that.
Three weeks after the storm, the local paper quotes people who disbelieve in the ranchers’ losses, or think they are deserved. The government begins to function again but even if a Farm Bill is passed, many of these ranchers will resist admitting their losses out of pain, embarrassment, horror. Many wouldn’t even consider a “government handout.” Can we repair ignorance? We must try.
Many of the cattle, horses, and sheep that survived are sick and ranchers are working night and day to save them. Thousands of miles of fences were pulled down by the storm; repairing them will require huge expenditures of time and money. Besides losing their income for an entire year, some ranchers have lost herds built up through generations of careful breeding.
Much of our society exists on credit. If a rancher followed the urging of the credit-based society, he may have borrowed money to fund his operation. Some ranchers, like the rest of the world, live from paycheck to paycheck, i.e., from that one yearly sale of their products to the next. They may have been borrowing money for living expenses against this year’s cattle sales. Cattle are not usually insured; premiums are too high.
During 2012, the Dakotas experienced a monumental drought so the price of feed was especially high last winter. Some ranchers borrowed money to feed their cattle; the other choices were to sell them or to let them starve. Now they have lost both the cattle and the money that might have paid those debts. With no paycheck for the entire year’s work, they may be in dire financial straits and facing another harsh winter.
Some may have lost all their assets; they may have to leave ranching. In such cases, the land may not sell to other ranchers who are part of the community but to absentee owners, part-timers who do not contribute to the economy. Towns that serve the ranchers will suffer, as will ranch-related businesses. In the Dakotas, many businesses are ranch-related: grocery stores, equipment manufacturers, restaurants, car dealers, sale rings, county and state fairs: the list can go on and on. Seasonal help will not be hired.
Losses will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Some rendering trucks were in the area right away; normally these businessmen pick up scraps of meat and bones from butchering facilities as well as dead cattle and animals killed on highways. This waste is ground for use as fertilizer or sometimes for pet foods. Unfortunately, the snow was so deep, the ground so muddy that trucks couldn’t get to the dead cattle. By the time they could reach the carcasses, they were too spoiled to use. The buried cattle will not even feed predators, which may also be starving from loss of the wildlife on which they normally feed.
For generations, ranchers will gesture to the pits where their cattle were buried, telling their sons and daughters about the storm. The effects of these deaths, economic and emotional, will remain part of our history. Generations will resent the fact that this immense loss has been almost invisible to the national news reporters and thus to millions of citizens. Perhaps the breach between rural and urban will grow.
Gifts of Thanksgiving
Is it ridiculous to ask if there is good news in this darkness?
The storm officially ended the worst drought South Dakota has faced in decades. Stock dams are full of water. Moisture has soaked into the ground, bringing the promise of water and grass to feed any cattle left alive by spring.
And more: not only have ranchers been helping each other, but dozens of small communities and organizations have leapt to help in a variety of ways. Businessmen in one town sponsored a free dinner for ranchers. Others have established funds to provide ranchers with payments for their losses, and for needed food and supplies. Residents from other areas have written to or called rancher friends to ask about the losses, to commiserate, drawing their ties closer. The neighborliness occurred in towns as well: residents of adjoining households that may never have spoken to one another swapped shovels, pushed each other’s cars, shared fireplaces and food.
How can I make something positive of this loss? I will keep writing, though today it seems impossible to write of anything but this horror. I must believe my words help educate people. I often hear from people who say they didn’t know ranching could be good, as well as from ranchers who are pleased that I help tell their story.
Darkness is a familiar friend. Every day the sun slides beyond the blue hills and pulls the dark blanket over us.
And every morning, as the coyotes slip through the grass, light rises in the east. No matter how dark and ferocious the night has been, no matter who has died, these things happen. Our job is to find hope in the negative, to use the fury and anguish of the losses to create connections between one another, to create hope for a more intelligent world.
“Darkness,” said Martin Luther King, “cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
Switch on the light. Drive out ignorance with education, blindness with vision. We can all contribute, for the good of all. Whatever you write during this Samhain season, whatever you do in your daily life, remember the dead. But look to the light.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2013, 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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Author’s note: The opening quotation, calling Samhain “a festival of contradictions: silence and feasting, sacrifice and survival, fire and blood,” is from Rebecca Tope’s Death in the Cotswolds.
Read all of my Home Page Messages (2009 – 2014) here:
To learn more about the October, 2013 blizzard and its effect on ranchers:<
South Dakota Magazine published a story in their January/February 2014 issue
NorthernAg.net published a one-year follow-up and thank you from ranchers