The Writer: Watching Nature Operate

NOTE: I wrote this blog in 2015, four years ago, but the similar conditions this spring—unusual rains—prompted me to slip back into this memory, still relevant. So far in 2019, our heaviest rains were in May, though this essay speaks of heavy rains in June. And just as in 2015, thistles are everywhere. I must also note that we now only have one elderly Westie, Toby; Cosmo died in February. Toby, mostly deaf, no longer has any enthusiasm for catching voles, though he still trots a few steps after rabbits. And several times lately, when we see the redwing blackbirds chasing a bigger bird, it has been a vulture!


The Writer: Watching Nature Operate

All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t visible.

–Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

Walking the dogs, we noticed that a tall cedar tree planted in 1981 has been girdled, probably by voles chomping under the snow last winter, or rabbits in spring.

No, I didn’t mean “moles,” the mouse-like critters often blamed for damage they don’t do.

A mole’s diet is carnivorous; they eat worms, grubs and adult insects, not plants. The plant-killing culprits are voles, those mostly herbivorous rodents which feed on grasses, herbaceous plants, bulbs and tubers, as well as the bark and roots of trees. They also make extensive tunnels and pathways through tall grass—and the moles may run along them, causing part of this confusion.

Nature - Westies huntingI cursed and threatened revenge on the voles, but found no way acceptable to me. I don’t want to use poison, since it would kill more than the voles, so our best anti-vole devices are the two West Highland White Terriers. Unfortunately, they are more excitable than efficient, so they only catch one or two voles a week out of the thousands—or millions—living and tunneling under our feet.

A girdled tree is a dead tree. I said, “What can we do?”

Jerry said with a shrug, “Let Nature take her course.”

That phrase stuck in my mind, causing me to pay particular attention throughout spring and summer to the ways in which Nature takes her course around the ranch. An important part of a writer’s job is observation, so I often noted in my journals how Nature behaved in ways I might otherwise have overlooked.

One day, for example, Cosmo emerged from the windbreak walking carefully, with his mouth half-open. Concerned that he might be hurt, I rushed over to him. He looked up at me, and then lowered his chin and gently set a baby robin on the grass. The bird was unhurt, and not quite fully fledged. Probably it had been practicing flying and fell to earth. Overhead, a pair of robins screeched and fluttered, and the baby in my hands cheeped and struggled. We soon spotted a nest in the doomed tree that the voles or rabbits had girdled. Instead of putting the bird back on the ground, I climbed the tree and tucked it into the nest. I’d interfered with nature. The next day there was no sign of the parent pair or the young one, so we don’t know how the story ended. A lot of baby robins must land in the grass while they practice, and yet we seem to have plenty of the birds, so some must survive.  And we’ll leave the condemned tree standing as long as we can, to shelter more nests.

Nature - Red Winged Blackbird 2014June brought heavy rains and flooding along the usually dry gullies. The redwinged blackbirds nest in groups along watercourses, weaving grasses and moss into a tight bowl tied to the surrounding cattails or willow bushes. Each nest is lined with mud, and may be as high as 14 feet above the water—or as low as three inches. I worried that the nests and chicks had been drowned, but didn’t want to slog into the deep mud and piles of debris to search. After a few days, the redwings seemed as busy as ever, but I didn’t know if they were feeding survivors or building new nests.

After each rain, clumps of thistles began to sprout and bloom everywhere in the pastures and around the yards, from seeds brought in by the flood. We don’t want to poison unwanted weeds, but we don’t want thistles spreading, either, so Jerry hooked his mulching mower behind the tractor and started chopping. He was finishing a patch near the corrals when a duck flew out of the tangle of weeds almost in front of the tractor tire. He drove away and then cautiously explored on foot until he found the nest: eggs tucked deep among the stems of sturdy amaranth and thistles. He steered wide around that patch, leaving the weeds tall. My lessee turned cattle into the small pasture. Grazing the grass shorter now cuts down on the danger of fire from the weeds as they dry in the fall. Also, some of these weeds are only attractive forage for cattle when they are young and green; if they’re too dry the cows won’t eat them.

One day we got two inches of rain in about an hour, and the gully streams of water and debris swept through the nest area. For three days the muddy mess trickled through the corrals. We didn’t want to disturb the duck if she’d survived, but we were afraid the eggs had been washed away. From our dining room windows, we could watch the cows tromping and grazing close to the nest location, so we decided the duck must be gone.

“I’ll show you where the nest was,” Jerry said, as we drove past one day. He parked well away from it and we walked carefully but neither of us could find it.

“Gone,” we concluded. As I reached for the pickup’s door handle, the duck squawked and flapped up beside me, inches from a back tire. There was the nest, intact. Jerry backed the pickup away very carefully.

Nature - cattle did not trample duck nest

One day my lessee came on his four-wheeler and his son brought a pickup and 40-foot trailer. They unloaded twenty or thirty head of cattle and drove them through the duck’s neighborhood into an adjoining pasture. Then they rounded up the remaining cows and chased them through the gate beside the duck’s nest. Watching from our house, holding our breath, we both expected the duck to fly up out of the stampede, but saw nothing.

Surely this time she was gone.

The next day, we ventured into the area again. We tiptoed close, and saw the duck secure on her nest, bright eyes watching us. Nature’s choice was taking care of that duck.

What does the duck have to do with writing?

She had determination, for one thing. She did not quit when the equivalents of tsunami, earthquakes and floods roared over her.  She hunkered down and stayed with her job, hatching those eggs.

Nature - Duck Family 2014--7-28

Writers need to be just as determined—not necessarily to succeed, or to get rich, but to keep writing. My routine of observation was reminding to notice more about the nature around me than the familiar ranch scenes of calves, grass growing, and fences falling down. If I’d concentrated on the things I usually noticed, I’d have missed a great deal that I might write about. Few writers can predict in advance what scrutiny might be useful.

During the summer, several generations of baby rabbits discovered that the tires my father piled around the windbreak trees he planted in his yard make wonderful hiding places. About the time they get out on their own to forage, the bunnies discover that they can stroll into a tire as if it were a burrow to be sheltered from the snow, rain and wind. Knowing this, we try to keep our dogs away from the tires.

Our Westie Cosmo forgets many of the things we’ve tried to teach him, but he either remembers or rediscovers the bunnies’ hiding places every year. Inevitably, we’ll get absorbed in a conversation and then hear excited yips and discover the dogs have a rabbit caught inside the tire.

Nature - Rabbit on porch 2018Both dogs will shove their heads inside a tire, and then move toward each other, trapping the rabbit between them. Eventually one of them is able to bite the rabbit, which squeals and excites the other dog into biting whatever he can reach. By the time we hear the shrieks, the dogs are yanking on the rabbit from opposite directions and we’re too late to save it. Nature’s policy in this case is cruel, so one of us finishes killing the bunny.

Despite the dogs’ enthusiasm for rabbit hunting, rabbits regularly hop up one or two steps toward our deck, apparently to look over the surrounding territory. Similarly, by mid-summer, I was able to look over a list of a half-dozen examples of Nature’s strategies.

Several times we saw a familiar sight: a hawk flying up from a gully, pursued by a pair of red-winged blackbirds. When hawks prey on the nests, the redwing parents defend their territory by flying above the hawk and diving down to peck at its head as it dodges and screams. As the hawk moves down the valley, pair after pair of birds rise up from their neighborhoods and take over the defense, until the hawk is driven away.

Nature - Heron flying away 2014But one day, when I heard the familiar commotion of blackbird calls, I looked up to see that the bird fleeing from them was a Great Blue Heron! The bird’s ponderous wings scooped air and its neck was folded back, but its size didn’t seem to deter the little birds who darted at it again and again until it disappeared.

Both hawk and heron far outweigh red-winged blackbirds, and have killing beaks or talons, but nature gave the blackbirds courage and agility, so they can fight predation, or take revenge in driving the predators away. Thinking like a writer, I noted that the biggest and most powerful does not always win the contest—a lesson with broad implications.

Walking the dogs one day, I was reminded that some ranch work requires paying close enough attention to impede Nature’s actions. We try to bring the cattle home from summer pasture before the first blizzard; we move cattle out of a pasture if the water is getting so low they might become bogged down if they walk too far into a dam to cool their hides. So it was that I noticed again how my father had used rocks. Driving through the pastures, or watching cattle eat, he’d pry rocks out of the pasture trails and bring them home to put around the foundation of buildings in corrals and pastures. He did this because cattle like to rub their itchy pelts on buildings, and numerous cows scratching will chisel away the soil around the foundations with their hoofs. By placing the rocks, he made the footing hard and uneven, thus thwarting their intentions and averting the damage. They could still scratch on one of the thousand fence posts around the pasture; it’s unlikely that enough cows would scratch on the same post to wear the soil away around it.

Looking more closely at the arrangement of rocks, I realized that he had to spread them a considerable distance from the foundation, because the cows would stand outside the rocks and l-e-e-e-a-n forward to scratch. My father was determined, and eventually the rocks extended so far the cattle couldn’t reach the building.

On a summer day, we discovered the nest of a killdeer very close to a low-growing juniper bush where the rabbits regularly hide. Every day the dogs dive into the shrubbery, barking as they clamber under and over branches, until the rabbits burst out of hiding and gallop down the hill—usually while the dogs are looking somewhere else. Every day we’d see a killdeer cheeping and running away from the area. Finally we saw the shallow nest with four eggs close to these bushes, where we must nearly have stepped on it several times. We finally realized that each time one of the nesting birds saw us coming, it would skitter a few feet away. After we’d seen the nest, we carefully avoided it.

Nature - Kildeer nest in grass 2014

One afternoon of pounding rain and hail, I looked often out the kitchen window, sure that the bird on the nest could not possibly survive. When the sun came out and I tiptoed out to look, she was there, drenched but alive, furnishing another lesson about writing: persistence. Like the duck, the killdeer knew her job and she stuck with it.

And that’s what writers do. When we start taking notes, the rest of the job should be automatic: we are writers, we observe and therefore we write. A little experiences teaches us that writing things down helps our sometimes faulty memories.

A metaphor: when we set out on a journey, we may have a map that shows us our ultimate destination, but no map can show the deer that leaps onto the highway ahead of us. We take notes to remember the deer we didn’t predict.

Observation helps us create the habit of seeing more clearly; watching our world closely lets us see the material that supplies our writing.

We take notes so as to keep what we have seen available in our minds, to study what we have written, to think about it, relate it to other facts, and eventually to a conclusion that can be written about.

Kathleen Norris told me about a monk in North Dakota who said to her:

“When I don’t write, I quit looking,
I quit seeing. When I look and see,
then I have to write.”

Nature - Linda observing and recording

Linda, watching at Windbreak House.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Golden Coyote

Golden Coyote - US Army HH-60M Medevac helicopters training at West Camp Rapid

Last night after my bath, I was sitting outside cooling down when a couple of helicopters flew overhead. They were no doubt flying at some legal altitude, but in the prairie darkness, they seemed very low. Their choppy rumble shook the house and the deck. Even the concrete and the moon seemed to tremble a little.

I knew that what I was hearing was Golden Coyote in action. Every year, South Dakota’s National Guard hosts one of the largest and longest-running military exercises in the nation. The two-week exercise is held in the Black Hills National Forest and Custer State Park, and provides both reserve and active-duty military unites with training opportunities relevant to overseas “contingency” operations and homeland support missions.

In other words, everyone participating is training for the possibility that they might have to defend the United States on our own soil. Commanders focus their units on “warrior tasks and battle drills” that would be necessary in wartime. As a component of the U.S. Armed Forces, these people represent every state, the District of Columbia and the territories of Guam and the Virgin Islands.

Golden Coyote - Army National Guard logosThis is the 35th year of the Golden Coyote exercises, and more than 4,000 service members, both male and female of course, from 92 units representing 27 states and four foreign nations are participating.

Steaming and wearing only a bathrobe, I sat in my padded chair under the deck and looked up as the great dark birds swept overhead. Those men and women were practicing to defend my right to relax in my back yard, the rights of my neighbors to watch TV and complain about the racket, and the right of the drivers on the highway to blissfully speed along listening to the radio, unaware of the glory of the full moon or the importance of those helicopters.

The soldiers are participating in warrior training tasks and battle drills such as combat patrols, urban combat operations and land navigation. They are learning how to evacuate casualties and operate convoys, skills they would need if they were dropped into an unfamiliar country.

Golden Coyote - 842nd Engineer Company SD Army Natl Guard grading a road

Besides learning how to combat enemy action, the soldiers spending two weeks in the Black Hills work on various humanitarian missions, including designing and implementing projects to improve the forest, and the infrastructure of some many local communities. For example, some units are cutting timber from burned-over areas of the woods and transporting it to the local Lakota reservations to use as firewood. Others are building and upgrading existing structure in the park, resurfacing local roadways, or working to remove hazards in the wilderness areas.

Every day since they arrived, we have watched the jeeps and trucks of the Golden Coyote rumble up and down Highway 79 as they attend to their tasks. Despite being an Air Force widow, I’ve never learned to salute properly. But in my heart, I salute the men and women of Golden Coyote, and their respective units, every day.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

For those of you hoping to read about coyotes– the indispensable vermin-predators that also clean up dead animals, and are sometimes called the song-dog of the grasslands– I offer my apologies and this photo, taken by a game camera on a friend’s property a few miles from my ranch, where coyotes are welcomed.

Golden Coyote - the real thing - game camera photo January 2019

A real golden coyote.

Memorial Day, 2019

cemetery rabbit pays respects 2017--5-28

South Dakota, because it is so rural, has many small cemeteries in various parts of the state that may not receive the kind of attention provided at larger—and more costly—cemeteries. In some cases, there may be no group or individual who takes responsibility for cleaning trash out of the cemetery. Memorial Day is a good time to search for these cemeteries. You might provide a learning experience for your family by visiting a cemetery. Death is always with us, but often children are not exposed to it until it happens suddenly and much too personally.

Many people visit a cemetery on Memorial Day to decorate graves and recall ancestors. But in order for the cemetery to look its best, many of us will visit earlier in the week to spruce up the neighborhood. You, too, might benefit from the opportunity to remove garbage while walking among our ancestors. What can you learn by strolling among these peaceful aisles, looking at the graves?

What history was happening at the time of these folks lived and died? What can you learn of their travels or their skills from the tombstones above them? I know a grave, for example, where an anvil tells all we need to know about the master blacksmith beneath it. On other tombstones, symbols tell us about the church affiliation, or the social groups to which the person belonged. I’ve seen families eating picnic lunches, and visiting naturally with each other as they recalled the person whose life they were remembering that day.

Let your visit to the cemetery be a pause in your busy life, an occasion of learning, of remembering, and of continuing to love.

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I am reprinting this Memorial Day blog, which was posted in 2017.

Resting in Peace.

Or Not.

Several times this week I’ve walked on a high, windy hill a few miles north of my ranch, smiling and talking to people no one else could have seen, if anyone else had been there.

I was alone with our community’s dead.

Hello, Mary. I remember you so well. You would walk into the schoolyard, a tiny woman with a long black skirt, ankle-high black boots and wearing a black shawl wrapped around your head and shoulders. When the teachers shooed you away from us, you’d flutter a tiny hand in front of your lips and mumble.

Carrying a couple of trash bags, I went to Highland Park Cemetery near Hermosa to tidy the grounds for Memorial Day.

cemetery Highland Park sign 2017--5-28

You died in 1976; I hadn’t remembered that, but I wasn’t living here at the time. And here’s your family. I remember my father telling me that they died of the disease that deafened and deformed you. What was it? Measles? Diphtheria, maybe.

No one else appeared as I walked each quarter of the grounds, but I know that on Memorial Day the narrow gravel roads will be crowded with cars. Neighbors who haven’t been here for years will stroll the aisles, decorating the graves of their own dead. And they’ll notice, and comment, on graves that have not been spruced up.

A man’s name reminds me how his wife used to roll his wheeled bed between the displays in one of the buildings at the county fairgrounds. I never knew what put him into that bed, but I shuddered every time I saw his pale face propped on the pillows.

I stuffed into my bags battered Christmas wreaths, shredded plastic and cloth flowers, broken crosses and flags smeared with mud.

cemetery gumbo on shoe 2017--5-28A little square tombstone has fallen backward. Oh yes, they were neighbors on the east side of our ranch; we met them occasionally when we were all fixing fence. My dad would lean on a post talking while I wandered down the fence line reattaching staples. I try to set the stone upright, but it’s too heavy.

Blades of brome grass are woven through some fallen bouquets, indicating that whoever placed them on these graves hasn’t been back since last year. Recent rains have turned the yellow gumbo into glue that clings to my shoes, sucking me downward.

I once wrote in a poem that nothing but buffalo grass and graves thrive on this hill, “pulling some thin life from the thick clay soil.”

My folks always called it “Decoration Day.” Originally, relatives adorned the graves of armed services members with flags, wreaths and flowers. First widely observed on May 30, 1868, Decoration Day was created to honor both Union and Confederate Dead. As the custom of visiting the cemetery on the last Monday in May developed, so did the practice of decorating all the graves. In 1971, an Act of Congress declared Memorial Day to be a national holiday.

When my folks were alive, we visited the cemetery before Memorial Day every year. We didn’t clean up the whole cemetery, just worked on the graves of the folks related to us. My father always insisted on turning over the sod on each grave, and working the weeds out of the tangle. I thought it was gruesome to make each grave look fresh. Once I had to dig out six alfalfa plants from the grave of the grandfather I never knew. He worked so hard to grow hay for his cattle that I felt terrible destroying those plants. My poem continued:

I’ll leave the spade
against Martha’s rock, try the hoe, hack
at the stubborn roots worked deep in clay.
The shock moves up my arm, down the hoe,
drumming to bones I’ll never see, deep
in the earth, deep inside my flesh.

Though I never knew my father’s parents, nor am I their blood relation, I feel connected to them through our ties to the land.

Untangling a plastic vase holding blue fabric flowers from the mesh of grasses, I looked them over. These looked fairly fresh, and lay between two graves, so I propped them against a headstone belonging to someone who died long ago and who probably has no living relatives in the area.

“That’s Eddie; he was my half-brother, from my mother’s first marriage,” my dad would explain. “And over here is his brother Archie.”

cemetery Archie 2017--5-28Archie’s stone, beside his mother’s, holds no message but the years of his birth and death. A cedar tree with a trunk thick as my thigh grows out of the grave’s heart. His brother Eddie, a few paces uphill, is identified as William Edward Callahan, a Sgt. in the 335th Field Artillery, 87th Division. Their photographs in the local history tome show them as brawny young men who marched off to World War I and survived.

Not long ago I found a box of letters Eddie wrote to his mother when he was in boot camps preparing for his overseas service in 1917 and 1918.

“I’m sure glad you had a good year because you need it want to get an Auto this fall so I can have a few joy rides when I come home next year I’ve been gone nearly a year now, haven’t I seems like a long time. . . . I’m still drilling rookies we’ve sure got a tough bunch. . . . part of them are in the guard house and the other half are ready to hit you with a knife every time you look around.”

Eddie later wrote that he didn’t believe he could ever settle down in one place after being in the service, but would travel the world. Instead, he married a local girl and settled down on the ranch with his parents. On March 29, 1942, his horse fell with him in one of our pastures. No one has ever shown me where he died. I picture his handsome, square-jawed face as I tuck a stray bouquet against his small white headstone.

Sorry I never knew you, Eddie; my dad never stopped talking about you and Archie. He grew up skinny and tall, a shriveled arm from the scarlet fever; he must have wanted so much to be sturdy and as handsome as you two.

cemetery tall marble 2017--5-28I pick up a wad of crumpled newspaper, a plastic bag holding the remains of a French fry container, and a beer bottle from the grass beside a tall, elaborately carved headstone, and pause to read the name and dates. The stone has begun to sink into the gumbo on one side.

My father would gesture to this grave and say, “They used to be big wheels in this county. They used to BE somebody. Now the whole family is here. There’s no one left.”

I’m tucking a bouquet beside a square red stone when I realize it says “Bender.” Of course! My dad always called one of our pastures “the Bender place,” keeping these folks I never met alive in my mind and memory. Now I know that’s probably where some of the family originally homesteaded.

My bag is nearly full but I follow the trail of trash to the far west side of the cemetery. Here, overlooked by the dark slope of the distant Black Hills, are the joined graves of a young couple who had planned to marry before they were killed by a drunken driver. Marriage brings uncertainties, trials, but these two will truly be together forever.

Dragging my bag to my car, I pass the graves of several Civil War veterans, identified by standard military headstones. A.G. Fout served in Company F of the 40th Ohio Infantry, and a local historian has learned that Anderson C. Fout fought in Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee, as well as surviving the carnage at Shiloh. Harrison Adams, Company F of the 23rd Ohio Infantry, participated in the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain at Lynchburg, TN, and in Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, among others. He and then his widow received Civil War pensions. Official lists indicate at least 16 Civil War veterans are buried here, men who probably came west for the land promised by the Homestead Act. The simple white headstones bear only their names, with no indication of wives or children. Since only Union soldiers were considered veterans, we may never know if Confederate soldiers are entombed here.

AnnaLindsayBeside John and Anna Lindsay’s plot, I pause to recall their faces and the stories they told of struggling to make a living in blizzards, prairie fires, grasshoppers, beetles, dry weather, dust storms, hail storms and low prices. Anna said they went without sugar, gas and tires for years. Their only daughter was born during the famous Blizzard of 1949. During lean years, including two world wars and the Depression, both of them took turns working in town. Anna worked for the local telephone company for 25 years.

“Now remember,” my father cautioned as he handed me the telephone receiver. I was in high school, just beginning to get calls from boys. “Remember,” he repeated strongly, “Don’t say anything on the telephone that you don’t want the whole neighborhood to know.” I nodded, knowing what he meant.

Lindsays sold their place to the Hasselstroms about the time my father married my mother and we moved to the ranch. Whenever we sorted cattle in their corrals, I usually seized the chance to explore their empty house or the cellar where they’d left a few discarded canning jars. When we tore down the old house, we moved the kitchen to our place to serve as a bunkhouse; later it became my office and now it’s my garden shed. The last linoleum Anna bought is still on the floor, and their round wood stove is ready to provide heat. Anna also read widely and enjoyed reciting these often-published lines apparently written by E. C. Richardson:

I wish I were on yonder hill,
A’basking in the sun
With all the things I have to do
DONE.

She got her wish. The sun shines brightly on their plot, and their stones feel warm to the touch.

cemetery small black stone 2017--5-28A little lower on the hill, a headstone made of slate a half-inch thick is so difficult to read that I kneel in the grass and trace the delicately-carved letters. The baby who is buried here was nine months old, and died in 1892, not long after this cemetery was established. Surely the slate was collected in the nearby Hills. Several other markers, many of them dated to the harsh years of the 1930s, were probably made at home by relatives of concrete set with quartz and other decorative stones.

At one time, the people buried in a nearby plot were important enough to be memorialized with an elaborately carved marble cross taller than I am. Now the weeping angel draped over the cross presides over nothing but weeds.

I am admiring an immaculate grave covered in red lava with a white quartz cross in the center when I realize it is the resting place of Homer and Lillian Hansen. Some days when the school bus stopped at their store, I was able to spend a hoarded dime for a candy bar. I introduce myself to the woman working there, their granddaughter, Joann.

“I’m visiting my future,” my father said each Memorial Day as he walked among the graves.

In a double plot lies William, born in 1927, dead in 1998, and still waiting for Ruth, whose birth date is engraved on the stone beside him. Tulips that may have been planted on a grave dug in 1975 are still blooming in cheery tones of red and yellow beside the frilly white blossoms of native death camas in the buffalo grass. A few sturdy thistles are budding between graves.

A piece of sandstone no larger than a piece of typing paper is nearly buried in the grass. I can’t see or feel any engraved letters. A broken cross, weathered gray, leans against it.

Not far away is the gravestone of the folks for whom a county road south of my place is named. I remember only the last one alive, an elderly spinster who died while I was in high school.

cemetery carved stone 2017--5-28

“Hanson” announces a great gray stone, and I can hear my father talking about these neighbors, Swedes who had come west with his father.

“The last one, Christine, got so she’d hide in the cellar when people came to visit. If they drove up from the east, they’d see her running across the yard toward the entrance.”

On our way to our east pasture, we passed their disintegrating corrals and house, and the collapsed cellar. Once I’m home, I turn to Our Yesterdays, a magnificent 920 pages of local history, hoping to find out more information. Sadly, I find that the Hansons, like many of the people my father knew when he was a child, were apparently all gone from the community before Anna Lindsay and her crew started collecting information for the book.

Nearly buried in lilacs is a stone labeled “Pelter,” and I hear my father’s voice again.

“Finn Pelter and his wife were headed to town with their new baby when the team bolted. Finn didn’t hesitate for a second.” My father shakes his head, laughing. “He grabbed the baby from his wife, handed her the reins of the horses, and jumped off the wagon.”

I am likely to be the only living person who remembers that story and can see the logic of it. Finn knew that the horse would eventually stop. He must have believed he could protect the baby better by jumping off rather than risk injury if the wagon tipped over. Finn’s mother, LuVisa, after whom his daughter was named, is buried beside the couple. Her tombstone reads, “She hath done what she could.” Finn just did what he could to save his child.

The name Upham catches my eye, another family that figured in my father’s stories. I see by the tombstone that he was only 10 or 11 years old when the last one died. Was he reciting stories he’d heard his parents tell? I find the same contradiction when I look at several other stones: they died when my father was a child. But he was always a good listener, and he had a phenomenal memory, so he recalled details that he may have heard from his father. I doubt anyone else remembers those tales, and why didn’t I write them down? I was scribbling notes from the time I was nine years old.

cemetery double hearts 2017--5-28

Here’s the grave of the girl who was killed in a collision just below cemetery hill, at the crossroads I can see when I straighten up. The stone on her grave has three parts; her parents’ birth dates are engraved beside the dates of her short life.

Chiseled on the back of the three joined stones is a statement signed with her name: “Love is caring enough not to hold on tightly. 1981.”

Eventually, I come to the small plot that holds my husband, George. I’ve clipped away the grass so the iris plants will show, along with the memorial plaque identifying him as an Air Force veteran. Today I see a small plastic box tucked against the headstone. Inside is a note from someone whose name I don’t recognize: “I tied these flies for you, George.”  This little gift has given me back a vivid memory, in almost-living color, and I nestle it against the headstone again.

I can see you hooking these flies into your hatband, George, smiling that half smile that shows your gold tooth, stripping line and stepping into rippling water that gleams with sunshine.

cemetery iris grass 2017--5-28Beside George lie my parents’ low stones. I’ve clipped the invasive grass short enough so the iris I planted here might get enough sunshine to bloom in time for Memorial Day. Beside my mother’s stone, I’ve nurtured a lush collection of flax with deep blue blooms, just the color of her eyes when she was young.

In the newer part of the cemetery, where George is buried, many of the names are unfamiliar to me. Strangers. People for whom my mind supplies no memories. Yet this is their place too, and the people who were my neighbors are strangers to them.

Still, I continue to pick up litter and prop used bouquets close to the headstones. Behind me, I hear the roar of the riding mower operated by a man hired by the Cemetery Board to trim between the graves. He maneuvers his big machine carefully, bending over the side to be sure he doesn’t nick a stone.

Several rows of graves below me, a woman is wielding long clippers, lopping off branches from some of the huge lilac bushes that have grown over and around many graves. From a distance, these bushes look beautiful, bursts of green and purple on the pale prairie grass of the hillside. But on graves, they are a menace. Nothing hampers their growth; they cover entire graves and even topple large stones.

cemetery lilacs encroaching 2017--5-28

Taking a break, I walk down to where Terri is working and we lean against her pickup looking at the masses of lilac bushes left to cut back.

“I’m going to spend the summer doing this,” she says. “It has to be done, and no one else is doing it. Some of these people don’t have any living relatives.” Her grandson and niece drag lilac branches to her truck as we talk.

Guiltily, I look at the lilacs dominating the graves of my grandparents, Charley and Ida Hasselstrom. I know them only through my father’s memories and photographs. The first picture that comes to my mind is always the first one I saw of them, both seated on the weathered steps of the old house.  I wrote about them in my poem, “Rancher: 1864-1928:”

A broad-shouldered man with a mustache and serious eyes,
he poses beside his wife seated on the porch.

Their first pregnancy bulges
despite the bulky dress and the hot day.

Her first three children are seated
steplike at his left,

with a collection of nieces and nephews behind him,
as if the entire pyramid of flesh

rested
upon his shoulders.

Charley Hasselstrom married the widow Ida Sanders Callahan and indeed took responsibility for the whole tribe of her relatives. Now I’m responsible for the graves of those who stayed in this area and died here. Time to go get the big clippers from the garage and start hacking those bushes.

Terri’s grandson crawls out from under a lilac bush shouting, “I found a dead guy in there!”

Bending down, I see the tunnel carved into a tangle of lilacs, and at the end, a crude concrete cross studded with fist-sized chunks of rose quartz. I’ve read that in ancient times pink quartz was believed to symbolize love. Did the survivors of this man know that symbolism, or only choose the most beautiful rocks they could find?

LMHcemetery09

Perched on the concrete border around the graves below the stone marked HASSELSTROM, I look south, to the hayfields where Charley Hasselstrom drove his teams of horses collecting hay for his cattle for the winter: “Fannie and Queen and Betts and Beauty.” He wrote their names in his journal. “Katy, Martha and Ester and Mary and May and Dolly.” He made his sons dig graves for the horses.

“I don’t want them to just lie there and rot and be eaten by coyotes, boys. They did a lot of work for us.”

work horses feeding hay to cattle

I could find those graves in the hayfield. I’m the last one who knows.

To the southeast, past the town of Hermosa where subdivisions are beginning to crawl up the hills and ooze into those rich hayfields, I can see the high plateau where Charley and Ida homesteaded and raised their family.

I look north, where I own five burial plots surrounding George and my parents. I’ve provided room enough for me, for Jerry, and for anyone else we might invite to join us. There we’ll rest, and gradually those who knew us will cease to be.

Who will care for the family graves then? “Mitakuye oyasin” say the Lakota, “We are all related.” May some of our relatives take responsibility for all who lie in Highland Park.

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

© 2017 and 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Cemetery rabbit resident 2017--5-28Author’s note: Some of the names have been changed to protect individual privacy.

*  *  *

I quoted from two of my poems in this essay—

The first poem, with the lines “pulling some thin life from the thick clay soil” as well as “drumming to bones I’ll never see” is “Memorial Day” from Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky — Collected and New Poems  (Spoon River Poetry Press, 2017)

The second poem, beginning “A broad-shouldered man,” is “Rancher: 1864-1928” from Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land (Fulcrum Publishing, 1991; new edition 2008)

*  *  *

All of the cemetery photos were taken at Highland Park Cemetery, Hermosa, South Dakota. The stones pictured– other than Archie Callahan’s, the Hasselstrom family marker, and the iris blooming on my mother’s grave– do not necessarily correspond with the stories in the essay.

The photo of Anna Lindsay at her telephone switchboard is from the local history book Our Yesterdays.

# # #

Book Remarks — Cowboy Life: the Letters of George Philip, by Cathie Draine

Draine Book coverCowboy Life: the Letters of George Philip, edited and with an introduction by Cathie Draine; afterword by Richard W. Slatta; illustrations by Mick B. Harrison. South Dakota State Historical Society Press, (Pierre, S.D.) 2007.

George Philip was a cowhand, and as my uncle Harold might have said, clearly a “helluva hand.” But he was also a lawyer whose writing is strikingly literate and well organized, making this book a rare treasure of Western lore. During the 1930s, Philip wrote to his grandchildren, explaining thoroughly and with sly humor the arduous labor required by a big ranch in western South Dakota as the century turned at the end of the open range era.

He records the facts clearly and with vivid details, and no romanticism at all, destroying fantasies that have shaped many perceptions of cowboys in literature and the movies. No, cowhands did not usually carry six-shooters, and most were lousy shots; and yes, most of them loved gambling, tobacco and alcohol.

Draine book cowboy photo with textDeftly, Philip shoots down every myth about cowboys, insisting on a realistic view of the work done. “Although it now seems to be part of the blood lust of the spectators in their demands on the performers at the rodeos,” he writes on August 16, 1940, “it was no part of a cowhand’s business to ride cattle of any sort.” Cattle are supposed to make money for their owner, and riding them wears off fat and makes them wild. Philip’s point about care for the cattle made, he proceeds to recall an occasion when a collection of wild range steers tossed on their ears cowboys who later became respectable citizens, all of whom he names.

Anyone who wants to write an authentic western novel should include this book as research material. The deceptively simple title really tells the story: you’ll find here everything you might want to know about the real life of a cowboy. Unnerving as it is, I’d be delighted to read a novel that includes Philip’s explanation of how to take care of a saddle sore, or boil.

Clearly, the cowhands he describes respected the dozens of horses that they rode in the course of their work, but “Some one had to be boss and it better not be the horse,” declares Philip. A cowhand’s horse was a tool, part of his working outfit and many of those he rode remained in his memory. Shorty, he says, “like some horses and most humans, had some unreasoning idiosyncrasies and was disposed to indulge them.” He mentions that Cub, “in addition to whirling, sunfishing, and all the other things that a broke horse like him should not do, began turning himself inside out twice each jump. At that my poise left, and so did I.” Of Dave, he says, “He never hurt me, and no other L-7 man ever rode him. It was small loss when he left.” And then there was Mouse, the horse that “threw me splashing into the edge of the stream.” You’ll especially appreciate the chapters on horses if you, like Cathie Draine and I, know the pleasure of a good horse’s nicker of greeting and the way they rub their velvet noses against you.

What he said to horses that were being uncooperative, Philip explains, “must be considered in the nature of a privileged communication, although it could hardly be said to be confidential, for anyone within four miles could have heard it if sulphur and brimstone did not affect his hearing.” Laughing, I remembered the first time I swore at a bunch of cattle that were giving me trouble on a winter’s day. When I caught up with my father, he mentioned quietly how well sound carried on the prairie.

Though a modest man, Philip was clearly proud of his prowess as a cowhand as he outlines the distinction between a cowhand and a ranch hand, making clear what cowhands did, and did not, do:

The cowhand was one hired to work on the roundups. . . and to do any work that related to the handling of cattle and horses. A ranch hand was one hired to work around the ranch. He would put up some hay, feed any poor cattle taken into the ranch, do whatever riding was needed. . . build and maintain a fence. . . and do any of the thousand and one things that might show up to be done around the ranch.

Again and again, Philip tells how cowhands were sent on horseback, perhaps with only a bedroll, maybe a slicker, and little or no food, into the rolling prairie to find a particular ranch or roundup. Without hesitation, these men found work on isolated ranches in mile after mile of grassland between the Cheyenne and White rivers, a landscape that is now Stanley and Lyman counties. He and men like him regularly rode from eastern Pennington County to the Missouri River, a distance of more than a hundred fifty miles.

Draine book photo of George PhilipCathie Draine, who edited this book so brilliantly, is the granddaughter of the letters’ author, George Philip; her astonishing grandfather would be proud of her. A retired teacher and freelance writer, she often writes for the Rapid City Journal. She provided the staff of the South Dakota Historical Society Press with notes from her voluminous research that helped them create almost fifty pages of chapter notes that are among the most useful I’ve ever seen, defining terms, providing further resources, and furnishing explanations.

Here’s an example: Concluding her introduction, she notes that the Rapid City Daily Journal eulogized George Philip as “Scottish immigrant, western cowboy, forthright citizen, an eminent lawyer [and] a friend of man. . . . Whether on the range or in the court room or by the fireside, here was a man to tie to.” The phrase “a man to tie to,” explains the chapter note, was first uttered during World War I by Captain Charles E. Stanton at Lafayette’s gravesite in the cemetery at Picpus in Paris, France, on 4 July 1917.

An Appendix includes the plan for the 1901 spring roundup, including instructions for two months of gathering livestock for West River cowhands. No. 16, for example, reads “Box Elder Roundup. Will commence May 15th, at head of Box Elder, working down the creek to the mouth; thence up the Little Missouri to the Holben ranch, including Willow and Thompson creeks. Al. Taddiken, Foreman.”

One sure measure of a book’s usefulness as research material is always the index; many a fine book has been dishonored with a skimpy, inexact index. The 15-page index of Cowboy Life is detailed, and includes chapter and note information as well.

Richard W. Slatta, professor of history at North Carolina State University, provides a useful Afterword to the book. He is author of numerous books and articles on cowboys and the American West, including Cowboy: The Illustrated History, and Cowboys of America. He puts in perspective George Philip’s experience as a young cowhand during the nation’s last open-range cattle boom in the West River country of South Dakota by reviewing the history of ranching in Dakota Territory, with particular attention to the opening of Indian lands.

Draine book illustration

Mick B. Harrison, professional artist and painter, was raised on the South Dakota prairie and often illustrates western and prairie subjects using his own experiences as background. His lively pen and ink drawings add vividly to the experience of this book. The cowboys he portrays don’t look like movie stars, with nicely-shaped hats and leather vests, but like real cowhands, with shapeless chapeaus and rolled-up pants as they struggle to brand a bawling calf. He is a member of the Artists of the Black Hills and paints from his studio in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. MickHarrison.com

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

 

What Shall I Wear?

Clothes mean nothing until someone lives in them.
— Marc Jacobs

The last time Jerry and I went to town, we did our usual town chores: got groceries, picked up some lumber for his building project, exchanged my library books.

When we got home, we both changed clothes before we went out to walk the dog. The clothes we wear to town are a bit nicer, more coordinated, and cleaner than those we don at home.

clothes - high heeled shoes

Later in the afternoon I visited a ranch woman from this community who lives with her daughter in another state, but comes back to her ranch once a month or so. Throughout my childhood, she was the style icon in our church, always perfectly dressed in suits and high heels, her long hair neatly wrapped and decorated, and wearing perfectly applied makeup. Even in church, I heard murmurs of envy and caught sidelong glances from other women.

On this day, I was interviewing her for a local history, collecting her memories of the county inhabitants. She had dressed for our interview in a stylish suit, nylons, high heels and earrings. I was, of course, wearing sweat pants and a loose t-shirt because I had changed when we got home from town. As I was putting on my coat to leave, another question occurred to me.

When she lived on the ranch, I asked, did she differentiate between “town clothes” and work clothes? And how does she dress now that her home is an assisted living unit in a town?

Oh yes! “I still won’t wear jeans to town,” she said. “Or shorts.”

She’s not ignoring the fact that she has left her ranch and lives in a metropolis, but her terminology remains the same: when she leaves home, she is going “to town”; she doesn’t consider jeans or shorts appropriate to her age and social status.

As we talked, it became clear that she had two additional categories of clothing: church duds, and tattered old rags for particularly messy ranch jobs.

Now in her nineties, she’s developed these habits through the years, and she’s unlikely to change. I’m twenty years younger, and raised by a woman of her generation, but I’ve made compromises. I often wear jeans or sweatpants to town, but I’d never wear shorts in public– at least not in this state. I’ve rarely worn shorts on vacations a long way away from home.

She wears her clothes, as if they were thrown on her with a pitchfork.
— Jonathan Swift, Polite Conversation, 1738?

My mother was raised in the country, so she trained me in this general concept when I was five years old and we still lived in town. She required me to get into “after-school clothes” before I was allowed to play cowboys and Indians in the alley with the neighbor boy. Lacy dresses and uncomfortable patent leather dress shoes were only for church. I wonder if my avoidance of church stems from that discomfort.

Clothes - after school cowboy 1950While she thought I was too young to make my own clothing choices, Mother saw me dressed and then sent me out to play while she got ready. My father would be wearing his suit, sitting in the car, waiting. I was– and am– utterly unable to go outside without pulling a weed, picking up a rock, kneeling to look at a bug or a plant. When I did so in my dress clothes, my mother’s fury was loud, colorful, and usually painful.

Clothes - patent leather shoes and fancy dress 1951As soon as I was old enough to get a horse, Mother discovered more clothing nuances. When I rode horseback, I must wear a broad-brimmed hat to protect the complexion she was sure would help me attract boys, since, she said, I wasn’t particularly beautiful.

She insisted I wear riding boots because ordinary shoes might get caught in a stirrup so I could be injured or killed if the horse bolted. I needed overshoes to cover either work or school shoes when it was muddy. I never wore sandals; rattlesnakes could be anywhere outside.

Like many country kids, I grew up, went to school, and learned a profession. As a college teacher, I dressed in suits, though I never wore high heels. Eventually, I moved back to the ranch, where I am now able to work in my own office, on my own time, and in clothing that I choose.

Naturally, with my partner Jerry, a retired highway department engineer, I have simplified my clothes stratification. Jerry was required to wear a jacket, dress pants, and a tie to work every day for thirty-five years. On “casual Fridays,” he could skip the tie. His only rebellion during his work years was to cut his hair only when one of his bosses insisted he do so. As a joke, he once directed his barber to leave a long, slender tail of hair hanging down his back, and got away with it for days before one of his superiors happened to notice his back view and laughed, but threatened to get the scissors. I cut the rattail off to the tune of considerable cussing.

So when he retired, Jerry got rid of most of his ties. He keeps his dress jacket in a bag in the basement and wears it only for funerals. When he’s in his wood or blacksmith shop, his work clothes are clearly identifiable by sawdust, grease stains, threadbare spots, and sometimes patches or rips. When he heads for town, he usually puts on a clean tee-shirt and jeans unless we are hauling the garbage in the pickup.

My work is mostly gardening or writing in my office, so the first requirement for my daily work clothes is comfort. For ordinary trips to town, I may wear pants or an ankle-length denim skirt. For an evening out or a speech, I wear a long skirt. I don’t wear short-sleeved shirts; I’m over 70.

Time and circumstance dictate my gardening wardrobe. I prefer loose-fitting denim coveralls with long-sleeved shirts (against thorns, mosquitoes and flies), tall boots (against rattlesnakes) and a broad-brimmed hat (skin cancer.)

Clothes - gardening hat and overalls 2013

Visitors who arrive in sandals or flip-flops give me nightmares. Not only are they ignoring or uninformed about rattlesnakes and stickers, they haven’t given much thought to strolling through pastures frequented by cows.

I don’t attend church regularly, but for funerals, I wear a skirt. Even with my loose dress code, I have been astonished to see women at funerals wearing pants, and even jeans or shorts. Men appear in everything from shorts to coveralls.

What about church, I asked my retired rancher friend; what does she wear to church?

“It’s a matter of respect,” she retorted. “I dress up when we go to church. That means I wear a dress. My son-in-law, on the other hand . . .”

Well, I’ll skip that part of our conversation. Let it suffice to say that apparently many people younger than I view these matters differently, and “respect” isn’t part of their criteria for choosing clothes.

I believe I’ll stick with Thoreau’s advice.

Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.
— Thoreau, Walden.

Considering Thoreau’s wisdom, I realize that there is a connection between writing and the clothes we choose to wear. Picture your at-home clothes as the rough draft of your writing. Like clothing, the rough draft needs to be roomy, loose-fitting enough to be comfortable. If you set out to Write A Poem, your language may be as stilted as high heels or a tight necktie. Naturally, if I am reading my poems to an audience, I dress in my best clothes that are still comfortable. But for writing, comfort comes first.

Just as your relaxing clothes need to be worn soft from use, so your language needs to be familiar, to slide easily to tongue or pen– not fancy words plucked from a thesaurus or rhyming dictionary. When you begin to write, tell the story as though you were speaking to a friend over lunch, not as though you are an English professor in front of a freshman class.

Similarly, the rhythm of your writing needs to begin, at least, with the familiar cadence of conversation rather than the footnoted formality of a Ph.D. thesis. Don’t begin by selecting a poetic form and trying to squeeze your words into it; let what you have to say dictate the form.

Virginia Woolf once said

Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have . . . more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.

Just so does your poetry have more to do than merely to fill white space on a page. Carefully selected words can change our view of the world– and the world’s view of us. Take time to break in your words in multiple drafts of whatever you write.

Because poems, like clothes, mean nothing until someone lives in them.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Planting Peas and Writing Poems

planting-peas-in-dakota-bones-grass-sky.jpg

This poem happened precisely as it says: in early spring, I decided to plant some peas in the rich earth of my biggest garden.

The month may have been as early as March; I was probably thirty-five years old. Bundled against a cold wind and shivering, I hoed a furrow down to black earth beneath the melting snow. Then I began dropping peas into the broken ground, enjoying the way the green shriveled shapes slithered into crevices. Each time I finished a row, I straightened up and used my hoe to draw the soil gently back over the peas and tamp it down lightly.

As I planted, I began the poem in my mind, then stopped and began to write it down on the scrap paper I always carry. I didn’t spend much time revising or reflecting on the poem, which is rare for me; it felt right from the beginning.

This plot of land has been subject to spring floods that bring in earth as well as manure from the pastures upstream. In addition, I’ve buried compost there for years, to aid the fertility. Harvests have often been terrific.

 

Planting Peas

It’s not spring yet, but I can’t

wait anymore. I get the hoe,

pull back the snow from the old

furrows, expose the rich dark earth.

I bare my hand and dole out shriveled peas,

one by one.

 

As I shuffled along the row, bent over, I looked at my firm young hand and recalled my grandmother’s bony one, dropping the peas every two or three inches as she showed me how to do it. The soil of her ranch deep in a Black Hills canyon is gray gumbo. When it is shiny with rain, it is slippery underfoot, clinging to our rubber boots. Later, we’d have to chop and hose it off our boots, and we’d laugh, finding it on our coats, even in our hair.

 

I see my grandmother’s hand,

doing just this, dropping peas

into gray gumbo that clings like clay.

This moist earth is rich and dark

as chocolate cake.

 

As I saw her hand planting the peas, I could see my nine-year-old self squatting beside her in my tiny jeans, my blonde hair held back by a barrette she had placed in it that morning. While my mother supported me by working in town, coming to visit on weekends, I lived seventy miles away with grandmother in her one-room house, that had once been a bunkhouse. She kept me busy all week, walking with me all over that place, showing me how to live in the country— though neither of us may have realized that. I was too small to climb the ladder to the barn loft, so she’d climb it in her lace-up black shoes, and hand a squealing kitten down to me. Remembering now, I can see her flowered dress, her strong legs in their thick cotton stockings.

 

Her hands cradle

baby chicks; she finds kittens in the loft

and hands them down to me, safe beside

the ladder leading up to darkness.

 

That memory, of course, led to others: the way she met me at the schoolhouse door in Rapid City, having left her beloved ranch to help my mother by taking care of me after school. How she piled her slowly-graying hair on top of her head in a bun that grew smaller every year as her hair thinned. Her “blue-eyed smile.” I’ve made gallons of biscuits and gravy, trying carefully to recall everything she did, but mine has never been as tasty.

 

I miss

her smile, her blue eyes, her biscuits and gravy,

but mostly her hands.

 

The final image, then, is one of pure joy that the experience of planting peas has recalled to me some memories of my grandmother that I had let slip away.

 

I push a pea into the earth,

feel her hands pushing me back. She’ll come in May,

she says, in long straight rows,

dancing in light green dresses.

 

I enjoyed choosing the word “light” to describe the green dress because it can mean either gauzy and see-through, or pale green. And “dresses”? All those pea plants, slender stalks filled with leaves, swaying in the wind made me think of multiple tiny grandmothers waltzing down the rows.

Of course, my grandmother never cavorted around the garden, and I never saw her dance, but I remember she mentioned how she loved dancing when she was young. The image made me laugh, and she would have enjoyed it; I could see again how her cheeks crinkled and her eyes sparkled.

Planting Peas - grandmother

Here’s a fine reason, if you need justification, for writing poems: to recapture memories that might have slid to the background of your busy mind. As you struggle to write what you remember to preserve your mental image, other memories will crowd in from your subconscious, memories you might have lost without the effort to write the poem. Like my images of grandmother, these memories will “come in May”: return to your mind.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Additional information:

The poem has a long history of publication. I probably wrote it in one of the workshops that I was giving for high school students for the Black Hills Special Services Cooperative in 1983 or 1984. That teaching coop published it a couple of times before it appeared in my first book of poems, Roadkill, published by Spoon River Poetry Press in 1987. I didn’t publish it again until it appeared in Dakota Bones: The Collected Poetry of Linda Hasselstrom, also published by Spoon River, in 1994.

Doubtless I read from the book at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where my friend Teresa Jordan heard it, and picked it up for Graining the Mare: The Poetry of Ranch Women, published by Gibbs Smith the same year.

Ted Kooser, US Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006, writes a weekly poetry column, American Life in Poetry, sent to 3 million readers worldwide via newspapers and individual email subscriptions. In August, 2014 he shared my poem “Planting Peas” in his column #490. Find it here.

You can find the poem used as an illustration of the value and richness of memories in the Beltane chapter of The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook, 2015, as well as in Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky: Collected and New Poems, Spoon River’s 2017 collection.

In 2018, I granted Educational Testing Service the non-exclusive right to use the poem in developing test questions for their K-12 Programs beginning in 2020. I’m especially thrilled to think of the poem being used in Braille recordings: imagine young fingers feeling my words tactilely!

Cowboy Poetry vs Free Verse

Cowboy Poetry Week text from poster

In honor of National Cowboy Poetry Week (April 21-27, 2019), I am reprinting this blog, which was originally published July 30, 2012 on my website’s blog page.

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Recently [July, 2012] I presented a workshop at the combined annual meeting of the Dakota Cowboy Poets Association and the Western Writers Group, held at Slim McNaught’s house in New Underwood, South Dakota.

My workshop was With the Net Down: Do You Dare to Write Without Rhyme? Briefly, I discussed the differences between rhymed, metered poetry and free verse. Poets like myself, who don’t generally use rhyme, often hear Robert Frost’s statement that writing poetry without rhyme is like playing tennis with the net down. Many rhyming poets think that free verse just means the poetry doesn’t rhyme.

In fact, rhyme or the lack of it has nothing to do with defining free verse.

Free verse can be rhymed or unrhymed but its primary characteristic is that it has no set meter.

No set meter. That’s not the same as having no meter at all.

Here’s a fine and familiar free verse poem:

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
For ever and ever. Amen.

Free verse. And when one person or a congregation is repeating those words, you can hear the rhythm.

I don’t want to repeat here everything I had to say at my workshop, let alone everything there is to say, about meter. The set acoustic pattern of a line of poetry is its meter or rhythm and may be measured in syllables, accented syllables, or both. Thus meter is often defined by the number of syllables in the line.

Most of us speak in iambic: collections of one unaccented followed by one accented syllable:

I’m GO-ing TO the GROcery STORE to-DAY.

That’s iambic pentameter: five iambic (da-DUM) feet.

Because we speak in iambics, we appreciate poetry that uses them. Blank verse is usually unrhymed iambic pentameter: five pairs of iambs. William Shakespeare and John Milton both favored this form.

Cowboy Poetry - Iambic Pentameter boots with label

But other kinds of feet exist: Pyrrhic is two unaccented syllables: da-da; Spondee two accented syllables: DUM-DUM; Trochee an accented and an unaccented (DUM-da) and so forth. Free verse has meter but not usually meter as regular as the conventional rhymed iambic pentameter pattern of cowboy poetry.

My favorite articles about cowboy poetry, including information about unrhymed poetry, appear at www.CowboyPoetry.com, written by cowboy poet Rod Miller. If you write poetry, rhymed or otherwise, you ought to read these. [link posted below]

As Rod Miller says, any good free verse poem uses the kinds of literary tools and techniques that elevate all good poetry to a level above ordinary writing:

“. . . tonal quality, word choice, allusion, onomatopoeia, metaphor, layered meanings, imagery, and such like. The lack of discipline offered by the absence of meter and the opportunity to cast aside rhyme do not give a poet free rein to be less than poetic, any more than strict adherence to rhyme and meter allow a poet to use otherwise ordinary language in creating verse.”

Most of us don’t live up to the high standards set by the best writers. I’ve never heard a rhyming cowboy poet better than Wally McRae or a free verse cowboy poet better than Paul Zarzyski. And plenty of bad poetry of every type finds its way into print.

We all want the same thing: to tell our stories and have people listen to and enjoy them.

In my workshop, I challenged the assembled cowboy poets and their spouses to write about a subject without trying to rhyme. Several people produced drafts that could turn into good poems of one kind or another.

The question and answer session turned into the most fascinating discussion I’ve had on the subject of poetry in years.

During the workshop, I’d read a couple of Paul Zarzyski poems as illustrations of fine free verse poetry.

Cowboy Poetry microphone -- pexels-photo-164829Cowboy Poet Robert Dennis of Red Owl, South Dakota, asked if all free verse poetry is meant to be read aloud.

“Because,” he said, “listening to what you just read, my brain just can’t keep up. I realize those are interesting words and lines, but there’s so much happening in the poem that I lose the meaning.”

I could see instantly what he meant.

Here’s a bit of Paul Zarzyski’s poem “On my Birthday, The Serpent–” that I read during the workshop. (I’m reproducing it here without his specific permission because it appears on his website and I think he’d approve of my using it in a teaching context and Paul refuses to use email so gaining his permission by mailing a letter to ask him could take weeks.)

disturbed from his moist coiled sleep in the cool
humus beneath the horse trough
triveted an inch off the ground
by mildewed boards–glides
between my feet. It has been
startled by water
hose thrashing the roof
over its head, brass nozzle
striking side-to-side
wildly under the sudden thrust–spigot
handle yanked up full.

Though I’d practiced reading those first lines many times, I still muffed “moist coiled.” The rest of the words are so filled with imagery, tone, alliteration and layered meanings that I had to read the poem several times to try to get the full meaning into my reading. The vivid, complex language had grown more fascinating with each reading.

But could someone hearing the poem for the first time understand it? Only after I’d read it several times did I really appreciate many of the nuances.

Cowboy Poetry reading a poem -- free-use-photo-unsplash-by-Cassidy-Kelley“So can it be,” Robert persisted, “that some free verse poetry should be read on the page and not performed?”

That idea had never occurred to me but I think he’s right. Some poetry that I’d call excellent would be extremely hard to understand if you only heard it once. Only after many readings and thoughtful pondering can the reader grasp the meaning.

Should such poetry be read aloud? Probably not if the poet’s primary aim is to be understood. Audiences who listen to Zarzyski, though they may not understand the entire meaning of a poem, are thoroughly entertained by the explosive, dynamic presentation.

Poetry is far older than writing. No one can be sure precisely where the art began but it probably arose as spells spoken or chanted in early societies to promote harmony and good harvests. Ancient societies such as those in Greece and Rome made poetry part of religious rites. Later it became the way to transmit and recall the stories of a civilization’s struggles and victories. Traveling troubadours in later societies were often singing or reciting news events; rhyme and meter helped everyone remember the stories.

So the cowboy poet who recites stories of his daily life is considerably closer to the true origins of this ancient art than the academician who lards his lines with italicized words and loads on footnotes to explain all the references.

Cowboy Poetry man at mic -- pexels-photo-2114760-by-Kevin-Bidwell

When I mentioned my discussion with Robert to publisher Nancy Curtis [High Plains Press, Glendo, Wyoming], she added another element.

Some poetry that sounds terrific when read or recited aloud is not well written; the images may be cliched or the rhythm rough. Part of the magic lies in the poet’s performance. Poets who regularly entertain audiences may be more interested in making the story entertaining than in making it conform to any “rules” of poetry.

Meanwhile, some poetry that is technically excellent isn’t enjoyable to listen to or is too complex to reveal its meaning when read or recited aloud. A solitary reader might appreciate the meaning but an audience just doesn’t have time during one hearing.

Logically, then, the poetry that has the best chance of resounding in the minds of audience members is that with strong rhythm and rhyme: those familiar elements that allow the audience to become part of the story. This is one reason cowboy poetry has become so popular.

Conversely, free verse poets who plan to recite their work before audiences should consider whether or not their work can be understood when recited. Rather than simply distributing gorgeous language and long lines across the page, we free verse poets need to spend more time studying those many methods of using meter in order to create poetry rhythmic enough to satisfy the audience’s love of regularity and make memorable lines.

Robert said in a later conversation, “I do enjoy the good stuff,” just as he enjoys the best rhymed poetry. And sometimes as he works on a poem, he added, he gets “caught up in the rush to share it before it’s at its best. Kind of like showing off your new baby instead of your college graduate!”

And perhaps we need to relax and allow poetry created to be performed to be judged by a different standard than poetry created for deeper study. I am not ready to trade flamboyant cowboy performers for fellows in three-piece suits reading footnoted masterpieces of obfuscation.

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

© 2012 and 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Cowboy Poetry Week poster by Shawn Cameron for www.CowboyPoetry.com

If you are at all interested in Cowboy Poetry, the website to visit is www.CowboyPoetry.com where you will find poems, blogs, history, stories, cds to purchase, and current events all relating to western poetry, new and old, rhymed and not– including webpages about the poetry of Slim McNaught, Paul Zarzyski, Robert Dennis, Rod Miller, Wally McRae, and Linda M. Hasselstrom (and many more).

This poster from CowboyPoetry.com celebrating Cowboy Poetry Week, features art by Shawn Cameron. Find more of her western art at her website www.ShawnCameron.com

The essays by Rod Miller about Cowboy Poetry, mentioned in my blog, may be found on the CowboyPoetry.com website by clicking here.