Flesh-eating Bacteria and Snortable Chocolate: Summer Reflections

Hay bales 2017

I step outside the basement door into 97 degrees, but the evening is cooling down though it’s nearly two hours until sunset. Carefully, I climb into my canvas “sky chair,” hung from the deck by a single rope. I’m sweltering but invigorated after a hot bath infused with peppermint oil, eucalyptus, wintergreen, juniper, palm and clove oils.

In one hand I hold a gin and tonic, moisture beaded on the sides of the glass. The other hand clutches a pen and the slightly damp yellow pad covered with the ideas I scrawled while marinating in hot water and herbal oils. Not long ago, we bought an antique claw foot bathtub nearly as long as I am. Jerry installed it in a beautifully paneled alcove, which I curtained and furnished with a table for bath oils, wash cloths, and writing materials.

Linda testing the new clawfoot tub 2017This is my idea of pure bliss: to work hard all day, slip into a bath and have a writing idea that compels me to write while I soak. A good day’s work and hot bath would have been enough to make the day excellent. The writing is an unexpected dividend, the fruit of the day’s quiet reflection.

Jerry spent his day mowing the yard and tilling the garden; he leans back in a padded chair beside mine. Bubbles rise from his beer. The two Westies, Cosmo and Toby, lie panting on a rug beside my feet. I dampen them with a handful or two of water from their bowl and they relax, eyes closed. We tell ourselves we feel a breeze.

Summer. In years past, I would have been driving haying equipment, piling up the hay crop for winter cattle feed. After I sold my cattle, the man who rented the land took over responsibility for the harvest. He’s hired a neighbor’s swather, which rumbled around the field, cutting hay and sweeping it into lines that followed the field’s contours, then lumbered away. Dozens of round bales shining with green plastic wrap are lined up in even rows all over the field. The sinking sun makes some part of the baler twinkle.

Robin baby says Feed Me 2017A robin rushes past carrying something wiggly in its beak, then perches on the fence, looking around. We’ve watched the nest under the deck as three blue eggs hatched into the three chicks that cheep for supper. Sitting under the deck, we make the robin nervous, but it darts to the nest and then away.

 

In the deep grass of the field south of the house, meadowlarks are whistling. Red-winged blackbirds trill from the cattails along the pond. Tree swallows tweet as they zip past. The robin lands in the grass, leaps ahead to snatch up an insect, then looks toward the nest. Everything in our sight is preparing for winter. Two of the biggest stories on the Internet today were about flesh-eating bacteria and the new practice of snorting chocolate powder to get a thrill. The nature I’m watching is too busy to notice what humans fear or how they entertain themselves.

Tomatoes ripening 2017The tomato plants push against the wire of their cages. Compelled to grow, they divide and branch as they reach for water and sunshine. Every inch of branch that extends from the main stem makes nutrients travel farther before reaching a flower that will become a fruit. Green tomatoes the size of a hen’s egg are nearly hidden by leaves, and yellow blossoms reach for the sun.

I want tomatoes, not branches, so my thumb and nail are stained green from pruning secondary stems. Rabbits have been eating the bean and pepper leaves, so I’ve slipped a horizontal slice of a soft drink bottle over each plant to protect the stem and lower leaves until the plant is strong enough to resist the depredation. On a metal table Jerry made, too high for the rabbits to reach, herbs thrive in pots. Calendula blooms are vivid yellow-orange beside feathery parsley and the pale purple blooms of lavender. Inside, in our homemade dryer, parsley, basil and chives are withering, getting ready for me to store them in labeled jars for winter stews. I’ll stitch little bags of lavender to slip inside my pillows for easing into sleep.

Herbs in pots 2017Leaves shiver in a breeze as the black storm that rumbled past us heading east swings around to the south. White clouds boil over the ridge, shading to gray and black underneath. The storm may come back. We planted our little garden in raised beds and pots just south of the house and deck for maximum protection, but if this storm carries hail, it could devastate our plants. I’ve moved several potted tomatoes on rolling platforms under the deck, but even that might not save them.

Red Maltese Cross on blue sky 2017The limber stems of flax bend and wave, turning blue flowers back and forth like the faces of a crowd. Regal Maltese cross plants sway gently, blossoms startling red against the clouds. A pair of jets roar overhead, charging out of the clouds, aimed toward the nearby Air Force base after maneuvers that may have taken them anywhere in the world. Their business is being prepared to protect all of us below their roaring progress.

Nighthawks fly, their narrow wings slicing the sky, calling peent with long pauses between as the birds wheel and dart after insects, an aerial ballet both beautiful and deadly. Down by the water, the killdeer, likewise hunting, rise up from the marsh plants, calling killdee, killdee! I hear a flutter overhead, and a twig falls: the robin has darted to its nest again. A tree swallow zings west to east, then loops and loops and loops as another pirouettes beside it. Every living creature I can see is busy eating and harvesting, growing and thriving, too busy to snort chocolate or anything else for entertainment.

I sat down here to write, but now, with Jerry, I’m watching what there is to see, sweating gently and enjoying a light breeze.

The clouds behind the ridge have blackened, so the grass glows vividly green and gold in the sunset. We look for antelope on the skyline; they’ve been missing from our neighborhood for weeks. On our hillside, the grass crunches when I walk. Our fire danger is high in this year of drought, but relatives who visit from northern South Dakota say our landscape is greener than theirs.

Robin feeds baby 2017As the breeze rises, a tree swallow hangs almost stationary against it, flapping vigorously toward the bird house, but getting no nearer. The robin sits on the post with a worm in its mouth, turning its head to watch us, then leaps into the air and lands on the nest overhead. “Cluck.” The cheeping overhead pauses. In the distance a long-billed curlew wolf-whistles. We haven’t seen any of the big birds for months, but it’s good to know they are still living in the tall grass of our pastures. They don’t thrive in agricultural areas, so rangeland that is not overgrazed is perfect habitat for them.

We observed Litha, the Summer Solstice and the longest day of the year, more than a month ago. On that day the earth was balanced between light and dark, between summer and winter. Every day since has been a little shorter and brought us a little closer to winter.

Traditionally, this is the time of the first harvest, forecasting the business of late summer days as the pace of gathering increases. Everything we see is preparing, in its own way, for the days to come. The animals are better at this preparation than the humans; while we fret over national and international affairs, they quietly pursue their own business. They have endured countless generations of human agitation, yet they survive.

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

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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The Importance of the Pause

My wise retreat writer has headed home in her shiny red car. She has one more retreat promise to fulfill. During 14 hours’ driving time, she’ll analyze her usual schedule, and set a time to write every single day. She’ll do it, too, though she has a full-time job, a mother to care for, a husband and sundry other responsibilities that have a way of eating time. But she is determined to finish her writing project, and I have no doubt that I will at some point receive an autographed copy of her book.

I particularly enjoyed her retreat because she worked hard: reading the handouts I gave her and revising her writing. She’d place each day’s work on a flash drive which I would take to my own computer, and read while writing comments in the text before returning it to her for more work. Yet each day she made time for at least one walk, and she took photographs.

Tea at the Writing Retreat 2017--8-2

And twice she invited me for tea. Each day she served a delicious Grapefruit Rosemary Spritzer, as well as piping hot tea served from a lovely teapot in delicate china cups she had brought with her. In addition, she’d baked sweet bread or scones, presented with lemon curd and strawberry jam, clotted cream and butter. We spent an hour sipping and eating luxuriously, discussing her work in a relaxed manner.

I’m sure that she went back to work that late afternoon as refreshed as I did. She’d taken time, and made me take time, from our busybusybusybusy efforts at writing to simply enjoy the flavors of the food, the ritual of tea-making, the pleasure of talking with a like-minded soul.

She reminded me of the importance of the pause, the time that is not spent planning, accomplishing, doing, rushing, but simply in enjoying.

I may not have tea every day, and rarely will I have it with such delicious accompaniments, but I will remember how refreshing it is to pause every day to appreciate the luxury of pausing.

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

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Go to www.windbreakhouse.com and click on writing retreats to find the list of available dates and everything else you need to know about scheduling a writing retreat this year.

 

The Authors Guild: Helping Writers Make a Living.

BookSpinesLong

“Why Is It So Goddamned Hard to Make a Living as a Writer Today?” asks Douglas Preston in the summer issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin. Preston is a journalist and author of more than thirty works of fiction and nonfiction.

Every writer and aspiring writer ought to read his answer, given as a talk to the New Mexico Writers Dinner in Santa Fe on March 2, 2017.

As a nation, Preston says, we think we’re alert to censorship, but we’re missing some important points. A prevailing view is that information should be free. Hence, Google copied four million books without getting permission from the copyright owners.

Composers and musicians make money from the use of their works through their professional organizations, ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), and BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.), which collect royalties on the work.

But Authors Guild, which represents many of the nation’s writers, spent ten years and a million hard-earned writers’ dollars suing Google and lost. Even though Google is making a profit by robbing authors, the judge ruled against writers.

And then there’s Amazon, which was launched as a bookseller not to sell books, but to acquire large numbers of customers to whom it can sell other stuff. In order to do that, Amazon sells books at a loss. Brick and mortar bookstores can’t compete, “because none of them could afford to sell books at a loss forever,” says Preston, so almost half the independent bookstores in the nation went out of business. And that was before Amazon launched the e-book, which devastated the hardcover market.

As a result, even the best publishers are trying to stay solvent by cutting authors’ income:

  • cutting advances
  • focusing on bestsellers and celebrities while dropping lesser-known writers
  • spending less on promotion unless it’s a “sure-fire bestseller”
  • publishing fewer risky books, i.e., those with minority voices, controversy, or that are argumentative
  • ending publication of first novels
  • dropping authors whose first books don’t sell

If information is free, says Preston, “and authors can’t make a living writing books, they’ll make a living doing something else. This is the censorship of the marketplace in a nutshell.”

Authors-guild-logoBut as Preston notes, writers are terrible at organizing. Our work depends on being alone. So we need to join the nine thousand other writers in the Authors Guild, the oldest writing association in the nation, which has been working for writers for more than a hundred years.

From the Guild website, www.AuthorsGuild.org:

Regular Membership: Traditionally published authors with at least 1 published book; self-published authors who have made at least $5,000 in the past 18 months from their writing; and freelance writers who have published 3+ pieces or made $5,000 in the past 18 months.

Associate Membership: Writers who have received a contract offer from a traditional publisher or an offer of representation from a literary agent; self-published authors or freelance writers who have made at least $500 in the past 18 months from their writing.

The Guild also offers three additional levels of membership:

Emerging Writer: Dedicated writers who are actively seeking to publish their work, but have not yet published a book and do not meet the income thresholds for professional membership.

Student: College and graduate students interested in pursuing writing professionally in the future.

Member-at-Large: Established literary agents and editors; heirs, executors or trustees of the estates of deceased authors; or attorneys and accountants representing authors; or publicists or other publishing professionals.

You may join online, or get a membership application from the website and mail it with the required dues. Learn about the many member benefits.

Give yourself a gift; join us in protecting the work we do.

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

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Book Remarks: Wilderness Fever

Wilderness Fever: A Family’s Adventures Homesteading in Early Jackson Hole, 1914-1924.
Linda Preston McKinstry with Harold Cole McKinstry
Foreword by Sherry L. Smith, Ph.D.
(Glendo, WY: High Plains Press, 2016)

WildernessFeverMcKinstryMost Americans think of homesteading as having occurred in the 1800s. We can all picture the wholesome farm families sitting on the seats of wagons pulled by oxen, the billowing white canvas covering all their possessions. Possibly a milk cow is tied to the back of the load beside a crate full of chickens. On the horizon— is that cowboys, or possibly Indians?

Some parts of the West, especially including western Wyoming, stayed wild longer than, for example, the Dakotas. And for Linda Preston McKinstry and her husband Harold Cole McKinstry, homesteading began in 1915 when they left bureaucratic jobs in Washington, D.C. and took advantage of the government’s offer of “free” land.

McKinstry, called “Mac” of course, grew up in North Dakota and had studied agriculture and Linda was a home economics teacher when they settled in Jackson Hole. In several ways, they were not typical homesteaders. For one thing, they were thirty years late for the peak of homesteading. Both were well-educated, and most importantly, they had money. If homesteading hadn’t worked out, they could have gone elsewhere and done something else. Having a ready supply of cash also allowed them to have luxuries such as Valentine’s Day cards and gifts for each other on special occasions.

Still, their lives were hard and demanding. This book is composed of letters they wrote to Linda’s mother, which retain the freshness of experiences just lived, and from memoirs they wrote years later. Besides the dangers of their chosen lifestyle, with no doctor, no telephone, and only rare mail service, they had to become adept at planning ahead. Once winter dumped several feet of snow on their remote home, they knew they wouldn’t be able to leave for months. They ordered groceries to be shipped to the nearest settlement, Victor, Idaho.

Think about this list: 500 pounds of white flour, 100 pounds of cornmeal, and 75 pounds of whole wheat flour. There’s your bread and pancakes for the season. Several hundred pounds of potatoes. 25 pounds of navy beans, 10 pounds of macaroni, and 25 pounds each of prunes, dried pears, figs, and dried apples. One 24-can case of tomatoes. 12 cans each of corn, string beans and salmon. 10 pounds each of lima, red kidney and chili beans. 14 pounds of noodles. Add in 50 pounds of brown sugar, 300 pounds of white sugar, 10 pounds of coffee and a little tea, and you’ve got your menu for the winter.

On this diet, the McKinstrys cut ice, skied and snowshoed, and drove starving horses through drifts twice as high as the horses. In November one year, they ordered 500 pounds of potatoes. Two ranchers drove to Victor to collect a supply of potatoes for themselves and neighbors. Because of the extreme cold, the potatoes had to be unloaded and kept close to a fire each night to keep them from freezing.

They supplemented their diet with elk shot near their home. In order to eat meat in the summer, Susan had to can it, which required packing it into quart jars that had to be kept covered with boiling water on the wood-fueled stove for several hours.

Because few fences existed in the country where they lived, Mac was constantly searching for their strayed horses and cattle, sometimes in extremely cold weather conditions. Travel required hardships and risks most of us can’t even imagine today. This meant that when anyone was traveling through the neighborhood, they’d stop for a visit— and every visitor had to be fed, and sometimes bedded down in the tiny, poorly-insulated log cabins that served as their homes. Linda writes often of expecting only Mac for lunch only to have as many as 10 people show up expecting to be fed.

Yet their youngest daughter reported that the couple loved the lifestyle, and only left it when they had three children who needed schooling. In addition, they believed it was likely that Yellowstone National Park would absorb their ranch, making it impractical to continue improving it.

One of the fascinating aspects of the book is the comparison and contrast between Linda’s and Mac’s accounts of the same events, allowing us to see how the life affected both of them. The book designer helped the readability immensely by reserving the outer third of each page for the notes that might have been turned into annoying footnotes, providing additional information on the text, as well as information describing the photographs in the book.

For me, the hardest part of the reading was that the authors wrote often in passive voice— but that was the style of the times, and probably also because they were writing about their past, looking back at their adventures. “Thanksgiving Day was spent at the ranch,” they write, rather than “We spent Thanksgiving Day at the ranch.” But these are small matters.

Read this book for a clearer understanding of homesteading, and to enjoy the astonishing steadfastness and adaptability of these two heroic explorers. Their adventure was reality for most of our pioneering western ancestors.

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

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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The Internet: Connecting to the World from Rural South Dakota

Linda with the unreliable satellite dish 2017--6-4When we moved back to South Dakota years ago, we contacted a satellite dish company in Rapid City called Wirefree USA, now known as Rapid Choice, and entered into a contract to provide satellite access to our house with Wildblue as the internet provider.

With this system we experienced recurring problems with internet connectivity and slow speeds. After a couple of years, we switched to Hughes Net and after experiencing similar problems ultimately ended up with Exede for our internet provider, based each time on the recommendation of Wirefree USA. At first Exede seemed to work fine, but before long we began experiencing problems with over-running our allotted gigabytes of usage. For an additional monthly cost, we upgraded from our 10 gigabyte plan to 15 gigabytes. Again this seemed to address the problem for only a short period of time. We are now on a 25 gigabyte program with a total monthly cost of over $150.

We do not stream movies; we barely even know what NetFlix does. We live more than a mile from the nearest neighbors, so piracy is unlikely. We turn off our internet connections each time we leave our computers. Still, we’re told, the usage keeps going up. As do the costs.

Even at the inflated cost mentioned above, our service is dismal. Several times in the past few years we have been without internet connectivity for up to a week or more. Wirefree USA cannot send out a repair person without receiving a work order from the internet provider. This then requires us to contact the provider and try to work through a fix over the phone. Sometimes this is successful and other times not.

Wirefree USA satellite dish 2017--6-4The last time we contacted Exede with a connectivity issue, we went through the usual routine of unplugging the modem and plugging it back in, as well as rebooting the entire computer system. When these efforts proved unsuccessful, we were told that there was some kind of disturbance in our area and they had people currently working on the problem. We were told to wait a couple of hours and internet service would probably be re-established. We did this and after a couple of hours still had no internet service. We called the provider again and again they had us go through the routine described above. This, of course, was no more successful than before. When I explained that we had been told that our problems were the result of a disturbance in the area, the representative checked and determined that there was no disturbance shown in our area. Clearly this was an effort by the first representative to simply blow off our problem with a false story. The entire effort took most of a working day.

At this point, the Exede representative set up a work order allowing Wirefree USA to send a maintenance person to fix our problem. The next day we contacted Wirefree USA and were told it would take more time to schedule the work order visit. Shortly after this call, we were contacted by Wirefree USA to upgrade to a new, faster system with a two year contract term. Given the poor performance of upgrades from the various iterations in the past, we declined the offer. The next day, a maintenance visit was scheduled for the following Tuesday– more than a week after we lost internet connectivity.

The issue detailed above is just one of many problems we have experienced with our current system and although the problems always get resolved, it requires a great deal of effort on our part and the results are only temporary.

Now that the system is “fixed,” for example, we have lost internet connectivity for periods lasting from a few minutes to several hours. This happens 4 to 8 times each day at unpredictable hours.

The excessive cost and poor performance of our current system, as well as the less than adequate customer service provided by both Wirefree USA and Exede, have resulted in our exploring other options for obtaining internet service.

What can you learn from these experiences? Ask your neighbors and friends who provide their internet service, and explore every option available to you. And good luck.

Linda at her computer desk 2017--6-4

UPDATE: Before I could post this blog our internet service went out again. The local representative said he could come to do a repair in ONLY (!) 4 days.

So we followed our own advice and consulted a few more neighbors and friends. On the recommendation of a friend on a Wyoming ranch, we visited Verizon, our cell phone company, and in 30 minutes left with a Verizon Jet Pack. We turned it on when we got home and immediately got internet access that will cost us considerably less than what we have been paying.

Another advantage is that when we want to travel, we can simply take the Jet Pack along, so we will have internet wherever we go. Down side: we can’t stream movies– but we don’t do that anyway. After 24 hours, we have explored all the things we normally do on the internet and the Verizon system does them perfectly.

Happy, we called Excede and WireFree USA and told them to come get their equipment, and then spent several minutes convincing them that we didn’t need or want their terrible services any more. Well guess what? They trotted right out here to install our service, but they don’t come back to get their equipment. They will send us a box with instructions on what to return and how to return it, and we must do that within a specified length of time– or they will charge us $300.

Just what we might have expected. Someday soon, with great delight, we will package up their equipment and return it to them. And we’ll be smiling– and emailing our friends through Verizon to tell them all about the experience.

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

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Resting in Peace. Or Not.

cemetery rabbit pays respects 2017--5-28

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.

A 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.

cemetery gumbo on shoe 2017--5-28Blades 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--5-28

Archie’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 Sergeant 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 camp 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 G. 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:

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 rock 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 horses 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.

work horses feeding hay to cattle“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.”

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, 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.

My intent was to post this blog in advance of Memorial Day. However, my Internet service, which has always been less than satisfactory, has failed again. I’m not sure what the company is calling itself this week; it seems to change business names frequently and one must wonder why. Most recently, our service has been Exede which used to be Hughesnet which became WireFree USA and which I’m told is now called Rapid Choice. I have been waiting a week for my Internet service to be resumed and I’m told I may not be able to connect for several more days.

*  *  *

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: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom (Spoon River Poetry Press, 1993)

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.

*  *  *

Through the magic of some internet searching I learned that the poem Anna Lindsay often quoted, which was once thought to be her own composition, is apparently the work of another.

“Ambition” by E.C. Richardson was published in The Saturday Evening Post on November 19, 1932.

Ambition

I would I were beneath a tree
A-sleeping in the shade,
With all the bills I’ve got to pay
PAID

I would I were on yonder hill
A-basking in the sun,
With all the work I’ve got to do
DONE.

I would I were beside the sea
Or sailing in a boat,
With all the things I’ve got to write
WROTE.

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Windbreak House Writing Retreats 20th Anniversary: Part 5 — The Writing

All that apprehension—for what? I ride in the palm of an unseen hand that gently deposits me in places like this—a waystation for my soul—a soft place to land at a turning point.

keyboardIf a writer asks me to decide whether to continue writing or give up, I always refuse; no one can judge how much help the act of writing might provide to an individual, even if no single word ever appears in print. I will help a writer improve her work, and suggest possibilities for publishing, but no one can guarantee publication or declare that it is impossible. I remind them that my opinion may not be correct, but I’ve been able to appreciate something in the work of every writer with whom I’ve worked.

To my delight, the expansion of “social media” during the past twenty years allows me to tell many of these writers they probably can find an audience online, if nowhere else.

And, especially, Linda gave me the courage to think these words and now to state them publicly and in writing, “I am a writer.” Whew!

More importantly, though, I want writers to understand that writing isn’t just about publishing. This is a difficult concept to teach, especially since I have been published; a writer may think I’m being dishonest. I tell them about many occasions when the writing itself satisfied my need to tell the story, particularly if there are compelling reasons why it should not be published: it would embarrass me with someone still living, or it is too personal to reveal. The writing is the important part.

I came here feeling stressed, angry and depressed, ready to quit writing. I leave here renewed, centered and excited about new writing projects. Thank you from my heart and spirit dear sister friend.

At some retreats elsewhere, a famous visiting writer is the lure for customers. The visitor may lecture on various aspects of the writing business, or conduct a workshop by providing a list of writing prompts. The writing students may come without any particular plan and write for a few minutes at someone else’s direction. While these practices may inspire serious writing, I find the structure too much like a flashback to English class. The visiting writer cannot, and usually is not asked to, comment extensively on the drafts produced, and will likely never encounter the writing students again. The writers may take the topic seriously and write as well as possible in an hour or two, but fail to find the incentive to continue working on the draft after the class is over.

The vastness, the openness of the landscape requires the same in me. I saw a limb on the west side of a juniper bent around the trunk to become a limb on the east side of the tree, and why not? If the prevailing winds beat the crap out of you, try another way. A cow farted during the meditation just to keep me down to earth.

On July 19-22, 1996 I referred to the first retreat in the house journal as a “workshop.” I soon dropped that term because it led writers to assume they would be given a series of writing assignments, as is the case at some retreats. Instead, I wanted writers to select what they wanted to learn, and work with me to learn it rather than me lecturing as if I am an expert.

I came to this place seeking a stronger sense of myself. I told myself that if I learned more about writing it would be a bonus. Knowing that I left home very tired, mentally scattered and unsure of what role I wanted to make foremost in my life, I wanted this to be special. It was.

LMH desk 2014--4-24My method is simple. I ask each writer to send to me in advance the writing that they want to work on during the retreat. Now that it’s possible, I prefer this writing be sent electronically, so that I can download it to a flash drive. Then I carefully read each submission several times, writing my comments right in the manuscript.

Thanks for offering me a chance I’ve never had: to be critiqued.

As I read, I think of various ways to reinforce my message. For example, if I read this line, “While wondering about this phenomenon, the sun sank from view. . . .”

I will write to the author that this is an example of a dangling modifier. The effect of the dangling phrase is to make the noun following it the subject of the opening phrase, so the author has really written that the sun is wondering about a phenomenon while it sinks from view. Correction means providing a subject: “While I was wondering . . . , the sun retreat-handoutssank from view.” Then I attach to the writer’s manuscript my handout on dangling modifiers, already prepared with examples of the error and how to correct it. By providing this additional information, I’m offering the writer an opportunity to learn enough about the error to avoid it in future writing: as if we’d had a full class on dangling modifiers.

While I was on vacation this summer, I read all of the handouts you gave me, and felt as though I’d returned to retreat for a little while.

I think Windbreak House is unique because I am here as a full-time resident writer. I ask writers to come with a plan for what they want to accomplish during the retreat, and my primary purpose is to help each writer reach her goals. We work one-on-one, though if other writers are in residence, they may decide to work together.

Gushing thanks for the most valuable, in-depth critique of my writing thus far in this life.

If I’m asked, I’ll provide suggestions for writing topics, but I prefer to let each writer choose her own direction. Often our work together means we remain in contact for months or years, as I continue to offer advice and encouragement.

From you, I learned that writing poetry is not simply coming up with inspirational words on the page. Almost immediately, you led me back to the practice of research which, ironically, is where I started my career years ago. I have discovered again the love of looking up facts, questing for the details that make writing enjoyable to read.

Journals 2016--1-22One of my most useful writing tools has been my journal, and I believe strongly in the power of journaling to aid self-discovery. Write fiercely in your journal, I say, write recklessly. Do not let your inner editor slow you down. Do not channel that English teacher in high school who always found an error. Don’t think about spelling or grammar or how this will look in print. Emote. Stomp through the words. Fling handfuls of syllables in the air and let them land on your paper. Often the heat of the anger or the pain of the loss or the joy of the new love will inspire the perfectly correct words that will never emerge if you think “someone is going to read this.” Journals must be private; no one should read your journal any more than a stranger can pry open your brain and look inside. Your journal is your freedom, your inspiration, your guide, and ultimately your resource.

So besides the work they show to me, I hope that writers will keep their own private journals and write in them daily. Each writer may write as often as she likes in the house journal.

You inspire me, teach me and give me the tools I need to be a better writer. I suppose if I looked back over this journal entry I could knock out at least 20 wordy words, correct my commas and do some rearranging.

Writers come here engrossed in their own stories, so my job is to ask the questions about what they are doing that will help them accomplish their goals. How did they arrive at their conclusions? My aim is to help them articulate ideas they may have accepted without debate, thus benefiting both of us and leading to absorbing discussions about all kinds of topics.

writing-on-badger-ridgeMy family would have me committed if they knew that I drove 6 hours from my mother’s to sit on a hill and write. . . . what they don’t understand is that I needed Linda and [another writer at the retreat] to reinforce and to encourage me. I needed to be away from the noise of my family. . . . On the hill, for the first time ever, I wrote about what used to be a taboo topic.

Lively writing discussions may begin in a one-on-one discussion as I comment on the writer’s work, continue to the kitchen as we fix lunch, progress through our meal and move to the living room, or to chairs scattered around the house. We often hike in the surrounding pastures, crawling under or through barbed wire fences, watching for rattlesnakes and wildlife as we discuss writing and I explain our ranching practices.

Thanks for showing us how to braid words.

Writers are often fearful of the consequences of writing about ugly events like abuse or divorce or drunkenness in their families. My advice is to write it down, every bit of it that they remember or believe, and then decide what to do with it. Perhaps writing it down will allow you to banish the worst memories from your mind. Some writers burn the resulting manuscript, symbolically destroying the memory. Others change the names of the people involved and work toward publishing in order to help others who confront the same problems. Those decisions can’t be made until you see what you have written, and how you feel once it’s on paper.

retreat-consultation

One bulletin board holds buttons: “Hatred is not a family value,” and “If you settle for what they’re giving you, you deserve what you get.”

Yesterday I wore the button, “What part of YES are you afraid of.” Wrote in my journal, “All of it!” Tomorrow I hope to leave with “Not all who wander are lost” imprinted on my soul.

Many writers, perhaps remembering those red ink remarks from English teachers, worry about writing everything correctly, with perfect grammar and spelling. Some fear appearing sentimental or not emotional enough, or being too stiff and objective. Some subjects and publishing opportunities do require detachment, but before you can begin editing for factual content, you need a draft to work with. To them I quote William Stafford who said, “Lower your standards and keep writing!”

Our final conversation re: emotion was equally as valuable. After stewing over my bent for objectivity and feeling the failure for not emoting on paper, I realize my reserve is not wrong, not “bad.” Too many today haven’t learned that restraint is a virtue—when used appropriately.

Most of the writers want to establish regular writing schedules but families and jobs and the business of life interfere with their writing. At the end of each retreat, we discuss what will happen when the writer gets home. How can she carve writing time from her normal agenda? I gently suggest that it may not be realistic to decide to get up at 5 a.m. every Saturday and write for two hours before making pancakes for the kiddies. We discuss how setting unrealistic goals can lead to failure.

I’ve never committed myself to such an intense time of writing because I’ve never considered myself a “real” writer—just a writing teacher. This experience made me feel like I am one, even if I may never be published.

Of course I, too, still have trouble setting priorities. What do I really need to do today, and what is a job I’m doing simply to avoid tough writing? I remind them that while it’s important to maintain a steady writing practice, it’s equally important not to waste time berating yourself when you fail. Just keep working at it. If you punish yourself for failing to write, you will begin to associate writing with the punishment.

Within the house I can also see, feel and learn from all of the other people who have visited here in the past.

To be continued . . .

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

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Author’s note: I wanted Windbreak House writers to speak for themselves in this review of twenty years. Unless they are otherwise identified, all comments in italics are from the Windbreak House journals, written by writers at the conclusion of their retreats.