Book Remarks: Mystic Travelers by Gail Crane

With Mystic Travelers: Images from the Edge, the reader receives not only a book but an invitation to join these two Mystic travelers on adventures to the edge of the world we know through Facebook and their website.

When she married well-known South Dakota artist Jon Crane, Gail Crane was catapulted out of her previous existence and into an entirely different life. Geographically, socially, spiritually, Gail was transformed and began to trust and embrace the unknown. Gail writes in this book with a poetic vision, telling us of the history of that ongoing adventure; there is no end in sight.

For the 27 years of their marriage, this delightful couple have combined their talents. John paints brilliantly, and takes gorgeous photographs; Gail puts considerable energy into navigating the demands required by the business of supporting yourself by selling your art. Her account of their ongoing journey bursts with her personal vignettes and spiritual insights, and is beautifully illustrated by Jon’s  photographic artistry.

The back cover
features Cosme.

Read the book, then join the couple and Cosme, cat who adopted them, for exciting escapades in Mexico and the American West.

You will also see many photos that couldn’t fit into the book by going to the website, www.mystictravelers.us, or look for Jon Crane on Facebook.

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Mystic Travelers: Images from the Edge
A Travelogue-Memoir by Gail Crane.

Hardbound: $29.95 plus tax and shipping.
ISBN print: 978-0-9915449-8-1;
ISBN e-book: 978-0-9915449-9-8.

Available from Gail Crane
PO Box 1100, Hill City, SD 57745
https://www.mystictravelers.us/gails-new-book.html

August 1: Lammas — Celebrate Your Harvest

Lammas basil harvest 2014--8-25

To celebrate Lammas, and the depths of summer, I’m deeply involved in gardening. Every day I say I’m going to work on poems, but it’s so very easy to be distracted by gardening chores that are pleasurable because they occur outside. I’ve been weeding more than usual. And when I have a pause in my work, I often peer at the tomato plants to see if I can spot any hornworms.

So this seemed an especially good time to think about all the things that keep even dedicated writers from writing. Here’s a chapter about this gorgeous and distracting time of year from my book The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook. 

*~*~*~*~*

August 1: Lammas

How to Write While Avoiding Writing

Wheel with flower and beeToday’s the day, I promised myself this morning, just as I did yesterday and the day before.

Yes, today’s the day I write an essay about Lammas for my business website Home Page. Lammas is often marked by rituals emphasizing endings, as well as with the collection and preservation of food. How could I connect this season with writing?

Yesterday while not coming up with any ideas for the Lammas message I ambled through the garden mumbling curses on the grasshoppers and admiring the orange blush on a few green pumpkins. I investigated a water stain in the house where I conduct retreats, and filed some papers there. Then, in a truly desperate avoidance maneuver, I moved my refrigerator out of its niche and cleaned under it before vacuuming its coils and washing spots of the door.

I was still trying to think of what to write for Lammas while I scrubbed the kitchen floor, vacuumed and dusted the house, and hung rugs and bedding on the deck railing to air. After lunch I finished up the plans for a workshop I’m giving tomorrow, including making a decision about what to wear. None of those activities produced an idea for my Lammas home page essay.

By 9 a.m. today, I’d read 50 pages of a mystery novel with my morning coffee after writing a few thoughts– not about Lammas– in my journal. After breakfast I tidied up the kitchen, played a game of Quiddler with my partner. We walked the dogs and then I planted some wildflower seeds, bathed the dogs while deciding what to fix for lunch and chopping vegetables to get started. I cleaned the washer, dryer and utility sink inside and out before I dusted and scrubbed the basement bathroom. I haven’t done either of those things for months.

Most of my housework gets done while I’m avoiding writing.

I love writing; it has provided some of my greatest joys– in that moment when I’ve finally shuffled the words enough to find the perfect phrase.

But it’s also provided hours of house-cleaning and staring into space, activities suited to trying to think what words need to come next. So my subconscious and sneaky brain can find all kinds of really good logical ways to avoid it.

Lammas LMH using 4-wheeler as a desk 2012Finally I sat down at the computer– and immediately decided I needed to change the location of the water on the garden. I rode the 4-wheeler down and sat on it with my garden plan, comparing that glorious vision I created while planting seeds this spring to the few plants that the voracious grasshoppers have not eaten. I had used a biological control to try to control their numbers, mixing it fresh daily and spraying everything. Perhaps it worked; I may have killed millions of hoppers– but billions and zillions more arrived.

We’ve had more grasshoppers here this year than I’ve ever seen. Neighbors who drive through have been shocked; I swear some rolled up their windows and sped out of the yard to avoid collecting any. By June the insects had eaten several successive plantings of radishes, lettuce, mesclun and carrots. They’d eaten the leaves from the rhubarb and were chomping down the stems. The kale and turnip leaves were lacy with holes and the hoppers were burrowing into the ground, eating the yellow onions. I replanted beans and peas three times and each time the hoppers ate them off as the seedlings emerged from the ground. They ate the potatoes down to the hay mulch and burrowed into it, still gnawing. By the millions they sliced the leaves from tomato plants, decimated the peonies and herbs– even the culinary sage. They even ate the perennial flowers I’d planted around the retreat house.

Lammas Grasshoppers on tomato cage 2012

A month ago, I moved herb plants like basil, feverfew, rosemary, lavender, oregano and rue into the greenhouse. Despite tight screens, the grasshoppers invaded and dined until I moved the surviving plants into the house. Inside the cold frames, the hoppers stripped the peppers of all their leaves in one night.

In the prairie closest to my house, I’ve studied which of the native plants and the invasive nasty ones have survived the hopper onslaught. Natives like buffalo grass, sideoats grama, mullein, and gumweeds haven’t been nibbled at all. The Non-Native Nasties– introduced plants like brome, alfalfa and clover–have been stripped of their leaves and then their stems, though of course not killed. Unfortunately, non-natives that I cultivate, like columbine, peony, chamomile, arugula, marjoram, thyme and dill were decimated as well, though the bergamot and spearmint survived. Apparently even grasshoppers don’t eat creeping jenny, definitely one of the Nasties.

While I looked over the garden, I kept thinking of Lammas. How could I write about harvest with no produce? My summer had already been seriously unpoetic, with a variety of activities and responsibilities disrupting my writing.

Today, walking among the plants, I noticed that only a few hoppers leapt away from me, instead of the moving blanket of three weeks ago. Pulling bristly foxtail from the leek row and stuffing it into the burn barrel, I saw that the tomatoes are strong and blooming.  The pumpkin vines sprawl and blossom, leaves shivering as entire rabbit families lounge in their shade. The kale and turnips are getting taller.

Lammas leafless tomatoesBack home, I examined the raised beds of my kitchen garden where the leafless tomato plants are bringing forth yellow Taxi tomatoes and tasty Early Girls. A couple of pots of basil and parsley so big I couldn’t move them inside are putting out new leaves.

Rather than focusing on its losses, the garden is working hard to recover from the failures of the summer. Maybe I can give thanks for some growth; maybe I’ll have a subject for the harvest essay.

Sitting with my fingers on the keyboard, I glanced through the window in front of my desk and saw a bird I’d never seen before. I grabbed one of my bird books and tracked him down: a male orchard oriole. He landed in the raised tomato bed and then hopped to a tomato cage, tilting his head this way and that. He hopped. Hopped. Hopped again and snatched a grasshopper. Gobbled it and hopped some more– following and gulping hoppers as they tried to evade him.

Orchard OrioleSuddenly I understood. I’d been waiting for ideas for my Lammas essay to find me. But I know that writers sometimes have to chase ideas. We must be persistent; we must leap and snap and gobble– and sometimes fail to catch a tasty morsel.  The oriole, by appearing outside my window, reminded me just how active a writer may have to be in chasing her ideas.

Later, I stepped outside and into a maelstrom of clucking and fluttering: two grown grouse and eleven teenagers were all scrambling around the dogs’ small pen, eating grasshoppers and chattering to one another. I went back to the computer.

Lammas grouse flock

My friends kindly say that I accomplish a lot, but they don’t see how much of what I do is part of avoiding this writing job I both love and find frustrating. Two big writing projects have been simmering in my brain all summer, but I’ve been able to work on them only in short bursts.

Naturally, yesterday and today I have spent considerable time answering email both urgent and frivolous, fixing and cleaning up after meals, cleaning bathrooms– the usual housewifely stuff. Yesterday I hand-wrote several letters. None of this was the writing I urgently need to do.

The need to post a new website essay related to writing hovered behind my thoughts like the afternoon thunderstorms: black and threatening. Each storm rattles the windows, throws any loose furniture around on the deck, and sneezes a few drops of rain: none of these actions very useful either to a gardener or a writer.

Lammas garden dirtBecause the air felt nippy when I woke at sunrise, I decided to enjoy some of the last of summer’s heat by tilling the garden. As I turned over the rich brown earth, I reflected on the meaning of Lammas. Also called Lughnasad by the ancients, it was traditionally commemorated only by women as a time of regrets and farewell as well as harvest and preservation.

Reflect, said the ancients, on regret and farewell, but also celebrate what you have worked hard to harvest and what you have preserved for your continuing life.

As Autumn comes, many people enact the ancient rituals of Lammas, but may be unaware that these celebrations reflect a long ancestral history. We may remember plans we made for summer, regretting that we have not accomplished everything. Frantically, we rush to cram a little more summer into the days. A tingle of chill in the air, like this morning’s 57 degrees, reminds us that winter is coming, so instead of whining about the heat, we revel in it as we harvest and preserve the fruits of our labors.

During Lammas, our ancestors paused to take note of their regrets for the things undone in summer. They said farewell to the summer’s activities while welcoming their harvests. Writers can observe the season in the same way as gardeners.

The Celts made this a fire festival, in recognition both of summer’s warmth and in preparation for the coming winter when they might need to conserve fuel as they huddled together around small fires, sharing warmth. If you wish to celebrate like the ancients, consider writing your regrets on paper or corn husks and tossing them into a bonfire so they vanish from your life. To celebrate harvest, share your garden’s fruits, perhaps baking rhubarb crisp or stirring up rhubarb sauce, or baking freshly-dug potatoes in that bonfire.

In the spirit of Lammas, then, I faced my failures: I have not yet finished the draft of what I’m calling the Wheel book. I have written that failure, among others, on a piece of paper. With the grasshoppers has come drought so the prairie here is tinder dry. Rather than risk building a bonfire outside, on August 1, I will light a candle in my study and carefully burn the record of this and other failures.

Writing down my failures has allowed me to become fully aware of my regrets for this season, so I can more easily let them go, both in my mind and through the fire’s symbolism. Furthermore, I realize that if I spend time brooding on what I failed to accomplish, or if I attempt to figure out why I did not do all that I wanted to do, I will be wasting time during which I could be writing.

Lammas asks us to consider farewells to whatever is passing from our lives. As a writer and human being, I welcome this prompting to say a firm goodbye to the things that are really over. Perhaps you can find visual symbols of what you regret– photos of that boyfriend who betrayed you?– and throw them into a flame, or into moving water, or bury them in the ground.

Lammas planting bulbs

Some folks bid loss farewell by whispering the hurt into flower bulbs, which they then plant. Symbolically, the pain returns in the spring transformed, in the form of a new and blooming life. Most of my plants are natives without bulbs. Most require freezing to be viable, so on my walks I collect seeds, and mumble my regrets as I scuff them into the dry ground.

I’ve dug the potato crop, and we will eat all of it with our Lammas meal: five small potatoes. We will try not to think about last year’s crop, which supplied us with potatoes from September through May. This winter, we’ll have to peel the potatoes we eat since their skins harbor pesticides used by commercial farmers. But on Lammas, we will rejoice in what we have and give thanks that we are not wholly dependent on our potato crop for nourishment this winter.

Lammas corn dollyFor the Celts, the August harvest was a time of story-telling, as well as giving thanks to the grain gods and goddesses in gratitude for a good harvest.  Some folks find a visual way to represent their triumphs, perhaps creating a decoration like a corn dolly or wheat weaving like those made by ancient grain farmers, or creating an altar to represent the harvest. We reminisce about the garden’s toils and triumphs, and talk about what we might plant next year.

Inspired by the harvest aspect of Lammas, I list the things I have accomplished. In applying to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, NV, I spent a lot of time writing a proposal for a workshop as well as preparing a CD with recitations of new poems. I’m disappointed that my application was rejected but I’ve revised the workshop to use in another context. So while the application was a failure, I was able to recycle some of its materials, turning the whole experience into a positive one.

This year so far I’ve written four home page messages, one each for February’s Brigid, the Vernal Equinox of March, April’s Beltane and the June Summer Solstice, a total of almost 9,000 words.

I wrote the introduction to a book (by a writer who has worked at my Windbreak House retreat) to be published by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press. I wrote a cover comment and review of another book. Observations about meat, grouse, natural predators, rabbits, organ meats, snakes and other prairie critters all furnished subjects for blogs on my business website. A college class reading my book No Place Like Home sent questions about the book to which I responded at length.

Furthermore, I wrote two essays published in Orion magazine. Later, National Public Radio’s “Living on Earth” asked me to read them for on-air publication. A request for free writing advice turned into a lengthy blog on why I cannot and will not provide free advice to everyone who asks. On paper, I reflected on the fact that I am called a “nature writer”; I later submitted the essay to the International League of Conservation Writers, which published it online. Besides all this professional writing, I kept up lively correspondence with several friends, much of it in hand-written letters.

Compiling this list amazes me. Though I was determined not to regret what I have not written or done, I hadn’t fully realized how very much I have accomplished so far this year. Truly, my writing harvest has been generous. And I spent a lot of time in the garden, even though that harvest was less rich.

Besides writing, of course, I’ve prepared a couple of meals most days. Jerry cooks breakfast on weekends and we make our own breakfasts during the week, and when we go to town, we usually eat lunch there. Let’s see: 365 days in a year multiplied by 3 meals a day is 1,095 meals. Deducting for the meals we fix ourselves or eat out, I’ve prepared at least 400 meals, perhaps as many as 700. I’ve washed the sheets thirty times, vacuumed the house at least 45 times, and cleaned the toilets at least 300 times. On Lammas, I will pat myself on the back for all this work.

Because Lammas is an occasion to consider preservation, both literal and symbolic preserves are appropriate for the Lammas festival. You celebrate when you turn summer’s fruit into jams, jellies, and chutneys for winter. Consider, too, other kinds of fruits– memories and scraps of writing–you have gathered this year. How can you preserve the memories of the summer that is passing sweetly even as winter approaches?

Lammas photo album

Don’t just put your photographs online; print them so you can look at them even when the computer is off– or when the file has been lost or hijacked. I’ve been told that creating physical photo albums is outmoded, but while my mother was in the nursing home she found great pleasure in returning again and again to the albums, rediscovering memories each time. She would never have seen those photographs online. I framed a large collage of photographs of her at different phases of her life and we both enjoyed telling visitors about the times when the pictures were taken.

Lammas observances might include writing letters and postcards to friends instead of emails. I turn failed photos into postcards for short notes. Write memories in your journal. Capture the highlights: best meal of the summer, best sunrise, best day, best companion– you make the list.

Whatever you do– gardening, writing, or playing bridge– face your regrets and failures and then bid them goodbye. Consider how the earth recovers from winter into spring, taking heart for your own spring to come. Our planet is suffering in the current climate change crisis, but if hope exists, it rests on individuals like us. Take time to tally up your harvest, to revel in it, to appreciate your work. Then preserve it in your heart for the winter to come.

“Youth is like spring,” wrote Samuel Butler in The Way of All Flesh, “an over-praised season more remarkable for biting winds than genial breezes. Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits.” This is the message of Lammas.

 

Writing suggestions:

What do you regret about the summer just past? Can you discard those regrets by burning them symbolically or literally? Can you memorialize these regrets by writing about them, and diffusing their power over you?

What do you bid farewell to at summer’s end?

What have you harvested this year, either literally from the earth or from your work and your relationships?

What form of thanks seems appropriate for what you have received?

What ways can you find to preserve memories of your year’s harvest, and of memorable events from your year?

What was your best day during the summer? Your favorite event? Who is your favorite of the new people you met and why? This might be a good time to tell people how much you appreciate something they’ve done for you.

What have you accomplished in writing so far this year? What are your plans for writing during the rest of the year?

Collect the snippets you have written this year that have not progressed to a longer draft or a finished work. Read through them; take notes. What inspiration do you find?

.  .  .

Here’s a specific exercise for not writing: The Ball of Light

Stand outside where you will not be disturbed. Plant your feet a comfortable distance apart so you stand without swaying. Let your hands hang at your sides; shake them to loosen the muscles in your shoulders.

Close your eyes. Breathe deeply several times. Imagine yourself drawing air in from the entire universe, pulling it down into your lungs, fingertips, toes, into every molecule of your body.

Imagine a ball of light centered in your chest. Gather your senses into the ball of light. Imagine your hands inside your chest holding the light, firming it into a smooth round shape. When you have the ball of light pictured clearly in your mind, let it rise slowly up your neck into your head. Let it stand there, spinning, for a moment. Slowly move it up through the top of your skull and above your head. Take time to look down at your body standing relaxed, to breathe deeply again. Then concentrate your attention in your light again and let it rise up over the grass and the buildings. Pause every now and then to look around so you always know where you are.

Allow your light to rise over your immediate surroundings, up over the country, above the path of jet planes, out where the universe is blackness lit only by stars and where you might see other glowing balls of light. Become aware of what you see and sense there. Slowly bring the ball of light back down through all the layers of atmosphere to your chest and belly again. Breathe deeply.

Once you have done this a few times, you can do it anywhere, anytime, in less time than the initial experience will take. Use this as a relaxation and centering exercise anytime. You may find that you are more ready to write afterward.

.  .  .

Remember this: Graham Greene realized early in his writing career that if he wrote just 500 words a day, he would have written several million words in a few decades. So he developed a habit of writing only 500 words a day and stopping even if he was in the middle of a sentence. Writing two hours a day, he published 26 novels, as well as short stories, plays, screenplays, memoirs and travel books.

Kathleen Norris writes in Dakota that “the forced observation of little things can also lead to simple pleasures,” and illustrates this with the example of a young monk who was given an old, worn habit when he joined his order. He soon discovered that the worn wool was excellent for sliding down banisters.

Adapt this idea for sliding down the banisters in your life. Carefully observe and note down the little things you do every day: picking up the children’s socks, folding your husband’s clothes, petting the dog, and wiping up the drops of water around the sink after brushing your teeth. Then consider and write about the reason you do these things. If the reason is not because you care for the individuals and care for the home in which your love for them occurs, then perhaps you can stop doing them. Write about this choice.

*~*~*~*~*

The Wheel of the Year is structured with sixteen essays, one for each of the eight seasons through two years, with an intermission essay, “Respect Writing By Not Writing,” which discusses taking time off. Extensive writing suggestions are included, as well as additional resources. The workbook is intended as a guide and teacher as a writer sets up her own schedule of writing and develops a relationship with the natural and mundane worlds in which we live. If the reader came to a retreat at my Windbreak House Retreats, this might be a series of conversations we would have about writing.

WHEEL flamingo Summer Sale

From Lammas through the Autumnal Equinox (August 1 through September 22) you can get an autographed copy of The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook, for $20 (shipping and sales tax included) from PO Box 169, Hermosa, SD 57744.

Make out your check payable to me. And I thank you.

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Library Secrets

Old library book stacks

The July/August issue of Poets & Writers, one of the best resources for writers I know, features an intriguing article, “Secrets Hidden in the Stacks” that is going to send me prowling through my local library.

The story concerns a University of Virginia professor who sent his class to the library to look at 19th century copies of work by a sentimental poet of the time, Felicia Hemans. What the students found was not just the books, but a wealth of information added to them by readers. Diary entries, quotes, pressed flowers and the readers’ attempts at poetry were scribbled in the margins or tucked inside the books.

Old library book poem
Written in a school geography book copyrighted 1898, 1907: “If this book goes astray, tie it up and feed it hay.” Hermosa Arts & History Association collection.


The professor, Andrew Stauffer, was so fascinated by the additional history furnished by these oddments that in 2014 he founded the Book Traces project (booktraces.org) to investigate what else might be hiding in the library. He invites anyone to submit photographs of the “traces” they find in library books published before 1923– meaning books that are in the public domain– in circulating collections.

With a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, he hired assistants to search thousands of books on the open shelves of UVA’s libraries and catalogue the information: “a collection within the collection.”

The project expanded, and today extends to schools from Arizona State University and Bryn Mawr College, and has documented more than 3000 such traces. One of his favorite finds was doll clothes pressed into an 1833 copy of a book by Sir Walter Scott. The photo furnishes the cover of the resulting book: Book Traces: Nineteenth Century Readers and the Future of the Library.

“We’re fighting against the idea that once you’ve digitized a single copy, then you don’t need others, says the professor.

Wally McRae 2016 from internetOn the day that I read this article, I received a call from poet Wally McRae, the reigning king of Cowboy Poetry. I’d sent him a copy of my collection Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky, published by Spoon River Poetry Press in 2017. I didn’t ask or expect a review from Wally. Still, I thought he might enjoy or be inspired by some of the poems, especially since Wally believes all poetry should rhyme, and most of mine do not.

And I thought that someday, when this virus is not the primary fact of daily life, we might have a conversation about poetry.

Wally called a couple of days ago, and I was delighted to learn that he has not only been reading Dakota, he’s been having a conversation with me in its pages: writing comments and questions as he reads!

“I am not a good judge of free verse,” he said. His favorite poem in the book is “Mulch”– a surprise to me. He liked the line “You will not find naked soil in the wilderness,” and he enjoyed knowing that when I mulched with magazines, “Robert Redford stared up/ between the rhubarb and the lettuce.”

His favorite poem in the bunch, though, was “Learning About Gates,” which led to him telling me about an alcoholic handyman who once worked for his father, and built gates that are still legendary throughout the county.

DBGS with grass and sky SMALLI could hear him turning pages as he spoke, and soon he mentioned more poems he liked: “Handbook to Ranching,” another poem dedicated to my father, beginning with one of his strongest rules: “Don’t spend any money.”

Another poem about fences, “Apologies to Frost’s Neighbor” likewise pleased him, and “Milliron Ranch” reminded him of a homesteading story from his own neighborhood.

Wally laughed at himself for admitting to me that he was scribbling in the book, but he wanted to remember things to say to me. He understood why “there are a lot of driving poems in the book,” since Westerners have to drive long distances to practically everywhere, and chuckled at “Speed Warning,” dedicated with gratitude to the Highway Patrolman who stopped me on one drive to the ranch from Cheyenne, and may have saved my life– or at least the life of an unwary antelope.

So that book of poetry has already fulfilled my highest hopes for it: As he read, Wally enjoyed, debated, questioned, and was stimulated by the words of another writer, recognizing the real voices of people he might have known in the words of the poet.

And on some future day, another reader may discover Wally’s notes and comments in the book and continue the conversation, and the inspiration, without ever having known either of us.

Look for secrets in book– in several ways.

(And please– write only in the books you OWN– some day they may make their way to a library; but please don’t write in library books.)

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Announcing . . .

I’m pleased to announce a new book, coming soon!

Write Now, Here’s How is a distillation of years of experience as a writer, writing teacher, and writing retreat guide. In 40 chapters, I’ll tell you a great deal about the process of writing.

WriteNow book held outside SMALL

In Write Now, Here’s How, a dedicated and experienced writer leads you through forty entertaining essays that define six decades of writing challenges. You’ll feel as if you are conversing with author Linda M. Hasselstrom about how her challenging life on a working cattle ranch in the shortgrass prairie of Western South Dakota became material for seventeen books. Reading this book is like joining Hasselstrom in the quiet privacy of the retreat house, where dozens of writers have found their voices.

As I’ve entered my seventh decade, I’ve looked back at journals I kept for decades, at my own writing, and at letters and journals from my relatives and others. Much has changed. But no matter how much my life changed, I was writing.

I’ve worked as a journalist and a college professor. I’ve been divorced and widowed. I’ve settled down in several places for several reasons. As my life changed, however, I was always writing, and I rarely discard a draft. I never know what insight or information an early attempt at a particular piece of writing might contain that will be of value to me in later writing.

What is the most efficient way to monitor your valuable writing time? You’ll find answers here. How can you most efficiently organize your writing space-no matter how small? How can you fit serious writing into a life filled with work, family, and entertainment? Hasselstrom presents a variety of possibilities to help you choose a schedule that best suits you.

The purpose of this book is to pass information from my writing life on to other writers. Rereading what I wrote in past years has been useful for me, not only in matters of insight, but in matters of writing style. I can see things I would write differently today, but I have also discovered writing I consider good that has had few or no other readers.

My primary self-appointed job is writing for the purpose of helping people to appreciate the treasure this nation has in the grasslands of the Great Plains, and the ranchers who have preserved it for us, full of clean air, uncorrupted soil, and pure water.

And Hasselstrom doesn’t just explain; she demonstrates with examples from her own work how writers can begin to see the invisible. She gently leads you into meditations that will help you create a writing retreat in any busy week. With this perceptive woman, you will explore methods of defining the memoir that will become an important part of your writing.

One 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.

With Hasselstrom’s guidance, your writing will grow like a tulip, and bloom like wild pink roses along a dusty gravel road. Winston Churchill will teach you about persistence. Walking will become a vital part of your writing practice.

As you read her discussion about how much truth belongs in your nonfiction, you’ll feel as though you were sharing coffee at the retreat house table, or strolling a trail filled with opportunity.

Write Now, Here’s How will be published August 1st, but is available to pre-order on Amazon right now.

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Write Now, Here’s How: Insights from Six Decades of Writing
by Linda M. Hasselstrom
Lame Johnny Press, August 1, 2020
Paperback, 312 pages, 6 x 9 inches
ISBN: 978-0917624018
$19.95

Book Remarks: Healing the Divide

Book Healing the Divide anthology of poemsMy comp copy of Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness & Connection arrived yesterday, and I’ve gotten behind on the news (thank goodness!) because I keep picking it up to read another fine poem.

As Ted Kooser says in his Preface, “Unabashed enthusiasm is the glue that holds good anthologies together,” and this book overflows with enthusiasm, kindness, tenderness and beauty.

Here are the words of well-known poets like W. S. Merwin, William Stafford,  Naomi Shihab Nye and Jane Kenyon, but the book is also well-stocked with words from poets I’ve never heard of, and might never have encountered without this collection.

Ellery Akers in “The Word That is a Prayer,” reminds us of the power of “Please.” Connie Wanek shows us a Grandpa asking the sky “What’s next?” with a laugh. Carrie Shipers shows us a mother talking back to the monster under the bed. Molly Fisk celebrates “Winter Sun.”

But you need to get the book yourself, and find your own treasures within it. The world around us seems to be filled with hatred, greed, and antagonisms, and we must fight this idea in every way at our disposal, for our own health and survival.  One way to do it is to read this book, again and again and again. And please– buy it from your local bookstore, and help them stay in business during these difficult economic times.

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness & Connection
Edited by James Crews
Green Writers Press, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-7327434-5-8
$19.95

My poem “Planting Peas” is included in this anthology. You can read more about this poem than you would think possible, on my website.

Roadside Wildflowers at Full Speed

Field Guide to Roadside Wildflowers_editedI’ve spent my writing life extolling the virtues of the gorgeous grasslands of the Great Plains, which furnish a considerable amount of the air we breathe. They also furnish grazing for grassfed beef, and thus are important to all of us for a variety of reasons, most of which I’ve explained at length in nonfiction and poetry in 17 published books.

Now there’s a guide to the wildflowers of the region that is organized for the way most visitors to this neighborhood see the grasslands: at 70 miles an hour from a moving car.

A Field Guide to Roadside Wildflowers At Full Speed by Chris Helzer, the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, is offered as a free pdf download at his blog — link here.

Written as a parody to point out how silly it is for us to fail to appreciate the treasure we have in the grasslands, the book is proving immensely popular.

On his blog, The Prairie Ecologist, Helzer recently wrote:

I’m hoping maybe all this craziness will at least lead to a few more people thinking about prairies, if just for a moment or two. If I’d known what kind of reaction it was going to get, I might have spent more time trying to make the guide into a better ambassador for grasslands and their beauty. Silly me, I thought I was just going through a lot of work to make myself laugh.

Download the book, learn about wildflowers from your speeding car, and maybe you’ll be inspired to slow down and get to know our unique grassland ecosystem.

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Keeping Winter Solstice: How Epiphanies Happen

The following is a chapter from my book The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook (2015, Red Dashboard). The book is structured with sixteen essays, one for each of the eight seasons of the year, covering two years. This essay is from Year One. Enjoy.

Yule - Wheel of the Year with snow sage rocks_edited

December 20-23: Winter Solstice (Yule)
Celebrating Yule: How Epiphanies Happen

Short gloomy days. Long cold nights. Living in the country, my retired partner and I find ourselves easily adapting to the season. As nights grow longer and days dwindle to brief stretches of gray, we read more, play more board games, and talk more than we did during the busy warm months when we often work outside at separate tasks.

Here on the prairie we welcome the Yule season surrounding the Winter Solstice as a bright break from winter chores, an opportunity to drive to town, enjoy the lights, and hear the special music. Though we deplore the season’s commercialization, we understand that modern practices of gifts, greetings and gaiety preserve ancient traditions designed to drive the gloom away and hasten the return of spring. We enter into the spirit of the season.

Yet in spite of the distractions, Yule is particularly appropriate as a time of meditation on writing. The ancients understood how completely both darkness and light are essential to life. Only from the night’s dark womb can light be reborn. Though we may be cold and exhausted from summer’s planting and harvest, winter’s slow periods of reflection, along with the indulgences of the yuletide season, can refill our reservoirs and produce a spring of writing.

Yule - writing

I have learned to serve my writing life by exploring the boundaries that separate it from the rest of my existence. Instead of allowing myself to be wrapped in the dark blanket of winter, I can build symbolic fires to lure the sun of my writing inspiration back.

The word “solstice” means “the time when the sun stands still,” because the ancients may have believed that the sun would cease moving and vanish if not cajoled to return its warmth to the earth. The scientific explanation for the sun’s apparent immobility is simple: because of the earth’s tilt, our hemisphere is leaning far away from the sun. Therefore the sun’s arc in the sky is short, making daylight brief, night long. No matter how we hustle, we may accomplish only the most basic requirements of our days before darkness signals our bodies that it’s time to rest.

Similarly, I might find it easy to let my writing congeal as my blood thickens unless I am firm with myself. How easy it would be to immerse myself in yuletide excesses! I could happily choose and wrap gifts, decorate the house, bake sweet treats and read thick books, allowing writing to sink to the bottom of a long list of chores.

home-retreat-cooking-2016-9-16So I try to outsmart myself, to insist on keeping writing central to my daylight schedule. Moving from household job to mundane task, I carry my journal. Jobs like peeling potatoes and wrapping gifts allow my mind to delve into ideas for next season’s writing, and my journal is right there on the kitchen counter where I can make notes. Yes, some pages are smeared with potato juice or tomato sauce; those decorations add specific memories when I return to the notes!

Looking around me in the early dark, I see my neighbors’ so-called “security lights” bathe the hillsides in lurid orange, reminding me how early humans must have feared the lengthening nights of winter. Apparently that fear is still with us. Most civilizations in the northern hemisphere appear to have created rituals intended to drive away winter’s dark cold and bring back light and warmth; in the southern hemisphere, of course, the year’s rituals are reversed and celebrations of summer’s heat are underway. Feasting and merrymaking at this time may also have offered an opportunity to evaluate the harvest and plan how to make it last until spring. After the festivities, families stayed close to the hearth, drawing inward, spending more time together.

If modern Americans could attend an ancient celebration of the Winter Solstice, we might be surprised by its familiar aspects: candles light the room around the hearth and twinkle on the branches of an evergreen tree; friends sing hymns; decorations are red, green and white. Despite differences in religion or ancestry, many customs and symbols that mean “Christmas” to us today originated with ancient pagan rituals in another part of the world.

In writing, I often focus on origins. When I was studying early Greek history as an undergraduate, I was stunned to learn that the hero or sage born from a virgin mother was a familiar legend in the Hellenistic world; Pythagorus, Plato, Alexander were all believed to be born of a woman touched by the power of a holy spirit. The union of a virgin with some supernatural force was intended to demonstrate that their offspring was special. Priests endeavoring to win converts to any new religion might have included the story in their dogma because its power was familiar.

Since then, when I am beginning new writing, I often research word histories, including origins and definitions. The information may not appear in what I eventually write but the knowledge deepens my thinking or extends my mind. For example, Joseph T. Shipley in his Dictionary of Word Origins suggests that the term “yule” may be related to “wheel,” as in the Wheel of the Year, and informs me that Queen Victoria’s husband Albert was the first to develop the practice of celebrating the season with a green tree instead of the burning yule log.

Yule - tree with red ornaments

One Yule season, I tried for weeks to write a winter solstice message for my correspondents and my website. I produced drafts of several ideas and wrote several blog messages but nothing suited.

What I needed, I told myself, was an epiphany; that is, a brilliant idea.

I turned first to my compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Handling the unwieldy books reminds me that I was living on beans and rice when I bought this compressed version of the famous dictionary in 1971. Besides working on my MA degree at the University of Missouri-Columbia, I was editor of the school’s literary magazine and was helping edit an alternative anti-war publication. My marriage was rapidly disintegrating. Owning the OED raised my spirits and made me, I believed, a real writer.

Lugging one of the ponderous tomes to my desk and placing the accompanying magnifying glass to its tiny print still gives me a huge satisfaction that can never be matched in joy or speed by searching for a word on the Internet—even if the Internet provided accurate information, which it frequently does not.

Yule - Compact Oxford English Dictionary

The word “epiphany” appears to derive from a Greek word meaning “manifestation,” or “to appear,” and carries multiple meanings. In religion, Epiphany is “a Christian feast” observed on January 6 or “a revelatory manifestation of a divine being.”

The meaning I’m seeking, though, is “a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something” and “a comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization.”  That’s it: “A sudden intuitive realization.” The goal of a considerable amount of writing is to arrive at that sudden realization, that understanding of the essence or meaning. Sometimes we can only do it by blundering around in vagueness and imprecision, stumbling through the word-jungle without a path or a flashlight.

Those final meanings touch writers and other creative artists most closely, since they explain that moment when an idea catches fire in our minds, begins to burn with a light that can lead us through the darkness of multiple revisions. Few occasions in life can match that ebullience, that explosion of delight.

Finishing a poem or essay is a long hard grind for me, but after a blinding instant of understanding, I usually wade through the required hours of moving commas, looking up words and re-reading aloud with a smile as I work to convey to anonymous readers what I realized in that moment of dazzling light. This definition is not inherently religious, but suggestive; whoever labeled this divine feeling an “epiphany” must have been aware of the word’s religious connotations. Finding the puzzle piece that makes a poem work is a spiritual experience.

Here’s the important question for writers and other creators: Can epiphanies happen in front of a TV? With a cell phone in hand? While texting?

For me, the answer is no.  I have experienced epiphanies in a variety of situations but never in the presence of such distractions. I’m not entirely ruling out mechanical devices as agents of epiphany because one of my favorite times to think is while driving. With no interruptions but the need to pump gas into my vehicle, I’ve sorted out all kinds of problems.

A real epiphany, I believe, requires solitude and time to think, above all other needs. Driving, I’m often alone. I may play music but rarely the radio because its advertising racket destroys solitude. Or I might entertain an epiphany while treating my sinuses by lying in a hot bath infused with eucalyptus, peppermint, wintergreen and juniper. A writer friend says, “I’ve solved quite a few writing quandaries in the shower.” Another swears by walking his dog at night. Almost any kind of reading can allow the mind to wander down different pathways and lead to new ideas.

Some revelations arise from the peacefulness inherent in washing dishes and cooking. Since I set my own work hours, I’ve found homemaking chores can contribute greatly to my creativity. Sometimes I burn the rice when I run downstairs to the computer to record the revelation I’ve just had about that poem I started at 5 a.m., but the poetic satisfaction erases my annoyance at myself. (And vinegar and soda erase the burn marks from the pan.) Vacuuming floors and even cleaning toilets have led directly to poems. The mind cannot abide a vacuum. Deprived of advertising jingles, chatter, e-mail, and twittering, it may produce something original.

Yule - Writing with DogsWriting in the journal, too, can enlighten as well as discipline a writer. When the dogs wake me between four and five in the morning, I let them out, record the temperature, and let them back in. Then I sit against pillows in bed, the dogs beside me, and pick up my journal. At that moment, I may have no conscious idea of what to write beyond “12/2/10 4:35 a.m. 25 degrees.” Once I have recorded those traditional details, though, I have limbered my mind and pen and may write about a dream, or thoughts from wakeful moments in the night or the sunrise and the heron looking for frogs in the pond outside the window.

On that particular December 2, sitting at my computer, I wondered how I could create an epiphany that would lead me to a winter solstice message.

Yule - Greenhouse with curved but pointed roofOutside my study window stands my new greenhouse. With its curved, pointed roof, it reminds me of the tiny retreats used for meditation by Eastern monks. Half-laughing at myself, I dashed through falling snowflakes into the greenhouse and sat on an ancient stool my mother had painted blue so long ago the paint is cracked.

Taking deep breaths, I stared at the shells and peculiarly-marked rocks I’ve tucked into niches in a piece of driftwood, at wind chimes and a mobile of beads and driftwood made by a friend. I looked overhead at the tomato cages waiting in the rafters for spring; one had a few drying tendrils of creeping jenny vines still attached. Beside me stood a set of shelves filled with flower pots. Japanese fishing floats my partner’s family collected in the Pribilof Islands several decades ago hung from the ceiling. Despite the cold, the rich soil smelled as though something might be growing.

Yule - Greenhouse with blue stool

“I need an epiphany,” I announced, rubbing my thumb over one of the turtle figurines I collect to remind me to slow down. Mother turtle, in any form, whispers to me that I am part of the earth’s slow cycles.

I straightened my spine and breathed even more deeply.

Black cattle grazed across the tawny field below the hill; snow lay white over the ice on the pond. A rabbit nibbled grass under a juniper tree. A grouse stood on a top branch of another tree, craning its neck to watch for danger.

And in the silence, my epiphany arrived: I could write about epiphanies!

How do you find an epiphany?

Sit down, relax, close your eyes, and listen. Perhaps your revelation will come from your own mind, free at last to give you the thoughts it’s been incubating while you wrapped presents and baked cookies. Or perhaps an idea will manifest itself in touch, or in the breath of a concept. Footsteps may alert you to its approach. No matter its origin, your epiphany is your spark, the flame that will lead you to your springtime of writing.

Starhawk, a writer of many books on earth-based spirituality, has written a powerful chant to the goddess that could also describe an epiphany:

She changes everything she touches and
everything she touches changes
She changes everything she touches and
everything she touches changes

Let your epiphany change your writing.

*~*~*~*

Writing suggestions:

Seek an epiphany. Sit quietly, breathe deeply, and clear your mind of distractions as fully as you can. When you think five minutes have passed, look at a clock and note how long has really passed. If you are surprised to discover that you spent only a minute or two at this task, do it again and try for five minutes. Repeat this practice every day until you can comfortably sit for five minutes without looking at your watch.

When the time is up, write down any thoughts that came to you, no matter how trivial they may seem. Look at them: are those epiphanies?

Have you ever had what you would term an epiphany? Write about it.

Nebraska State Poet and teacher Bill Kloefkorn used this writing suggestion, “Finding the Bull’s Eye Inside the Epiphany,” to begin each of his poetry classes.

Write down a word or phrase that reminds you of a painful experience; possibilities for pain are not necessarily physical.

If you can’t do that, then guess at it.   If you can’t do that, lie.

“If lying bothers your conscience, you will never be a writer,” says Bill Kloefkorn.

Then ask questions about the word you’ve written down:

  • What country were you in?
  • What cosmos?
  • How old were you?
  • What town were you near?
  • How far were you from (insert name of some nearby town)?
  • How far were you from (insert name of some distant town)?
  • Were there any lower animals with you?
  • Any people?
  • What were you wearing?
  • Was it too big?
  • If it wasn’t too big, where was it tight?
  • Were you outside or inside?
  • If you were inside, what color was the wallpaper?
  • What were you walking on‑‑pavement, or another human being?
  • Did it smell?
  • Does it smell now?

After answering these questions, free write on what you’ve come up with for 45 minutes or so. That is, put pencil to paper or fingers to the keyboard and don’t stop writing for 45 minutes.

Wait! Don’t turn the page. You can do this. If your brain goes blank at any point, keep writing the same phrase or word over and over until your brain begins to supply something else. Your brain cannot abide a vacuum; it will not leave you gaping like a beached fish.

It is, however, best to time this writing practice, because if you think you can estimate the time, you will be surprised how long it can be, and it’s best not to stop writing to look.

From this writing comes material from which you can write almost indefinitely. Kloefkorn said his students sometimes spend the entire semester writing about the material generated in this first session, continuing to follow the clues they had given themselves, to discover “the bull’s eye inside the epiphany.”

One goal of this writing exercise is to write enough on one topic to begin to dig down into subjects that are hard to write about, and that therefore matter.

One result is that the more specific sensory detail you include, the more the reader will identify with what you have written. This is an odd fact, but true: even if the dress you wore to your first day of school was long and blue while mine was red and short; if your hair was long and black and mine was short and blonde; if your father drove you, and my mother drove me, and my teacher was fat and hugged me with her massive breasts while yours was skinny and stood tall and pointed you toward a seat– your specific memories will bring mine back to me, and I will then identify with what you have written.

I was delighted to see confirmation of this idea from popular singer Roseann Cash, who said, “That’s the discovery I made on this record: The more specific you are about places and characters, the more universal the song becomes.”

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Yule - WHEEL winter saleThe Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook (2015, Red Dashboard) is structured with sixteen essays, one for each of the eight seasons through two years, with an intermission essay, “Respect Writing By Not Writing,” which discusses taking time off. Extensive writing suggestions are included, as well as additional resources. The workbook is intended as a guide and teacher as a writer sets up her own schedule of writing and develops a relationship with the natural and mundane worlds in which we live. If the reader came to a retreat at my Windbreak House Writing Retreats, this might be a series of conversations we would have about writing.

Winter Sale — $20 each copy while supplies last

Media mail shipping and sales tax are included. If you would like the book shipped to you priority mail, please include an additional $5 ($25 total)

Send check or money order to

Linda M. Hasselstrom
PO Box 169
Hermosa   SD   57744

Include the address of where you would like me to ship the book.

I will sign your book, but please let me know if you would like a personalized inscription. (example “To Aunty Em, there’s no place like home”)

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

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Book Remarks: Prairie Fires

George Catlin prairie meadows burning 1832 - Smithsonian American Art Museum

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Caroline Fraser. (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Co., 2017).

From the ironic epigraph to the 626th page, this monumental work held my attention. I’d hoped to skim a few pages, since I’ve read all of Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” books and know a great deal about her. Caroline Fraser’s work provides not only a deep study of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life, but a fuller understanding of the entire prairie pioneer experience in details supported by 2,074 footnotes.

The ironic epigraph?

“The prairie burning form some of the most beautiful scenes that are to be witnessed in this country,” said George Catlin.

Just as the destruction of a prairie is a beautiful sight to some, the book sweeps back and forth between the splendor of the prairie and its harshness, between Laura’s writing and the realities of the life she disguised.

book Prairie Fires Caroline Fraser from author websiteBecause Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books were so widely read, as well as the subject of a TV series, we may think we know her. But as Fraser says, “Her story, spanning ninety years, is broader, stranger, and darker than her books, containing whole chapters she could scarcely bear to examine.” Fraser shows us the pioneer woman and writer as part of a deeper history which includes the Homestead Act, the spread of railroads and the closing of the frontier.

Fraser notes that, “Across every inhabited continent, just as on the Great Plains, mass land clearing and wheat farming has led to significant drying, exhausting the soils and throwing fragile ecosystems out of whack. Combined with the market forces controlling distribution, human-caused climate change joined with natural weather patterns to wreak absolute havoc.”

During the 1930’s, the Great Plains were known as the Dust Bowl because of severe dust storms as a result of the foolish plowing of two and a half million acres of native grassland, destroying an ecosystem that had flourished for millennia. This horrendous phenomenon was no act of a god or freak natural accident. “It was one of the worst man-made ecological disasters of all time,” Fraser says. “Farmers had done this, and they had done it to themselves.” We’ve known for centuries that plowing native grassland is destructive, but then and now, plowing is misguidedly encouraged by the government.

 

Oddly, while discussing grassland destruction by farming in depth, Fraser never distinguishes between the tallgrass prairie where Laura’s families lived, and the shortgrass prairie farther west.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s farming families, memorialized in the Little House books, were part of what Fraser terms a “game of chance,” with the prairie as the casino. While the published version of Laura’s story has been popular in many cultures, Fraser tells us how she really lived. Laura wrote that “The commonplace, home work of women is the very foundation upon which every rests,” and her own writings reflected that view. Though she often acted courageously, and supported the education and independence of women, she was discouraging on the subject of woman suffrage.

book Laura Wilder Little House series

I was surprised to learn in this book how thoroughly Laura’s daughter Rose dominated the creation of the Little House books. Rose’s dishonesty and distortion of the writer’s life were aided by a profit-seeking shyster. History conspired in helping make the books popular: the tales of rural steadfastness were a heart-warming antidote to the Vietnam era. The TV show inspired by the books was even more misleading and simplistic, but audiences loved them. Teachers in South Dakota even read the books in classrooms, ironically at the same time as we began to come to terms with our treatment of our Lakota population.

In spite of all that is wrong about the books, and in spite of the profiteering that warped the way they were published, they endure because they show us over and over Laura Ingalls Wilder’s belief in the value of honesty, endurance, and of making the best of what we have.

If I decide to keep one of the hundreds of books I buy a year, I write in the back the page on which I made that decision. I chose this book because Fraser quotes Wilder in a speech as saying, “All I have told is true, but it is not the whole truth.” She acknowledged what every writer knows, and every reader should realize: that no matter how hard we may try, and how strenuously we may declare we have succeeded, we can never tell the whole truth.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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This book review was first published by Story Circle Network book reviews in September, 2018. See: http://www.storycirclebookreviews.org/

Caroline Fraser’s website may be found here
https://prairiefiresbook.com/

The photo of her book with flowers was borrowed from her website.

Learn about American artist and author George Catlin (1796-1872)
https://www.georgecatlin.org/

Catlin’s painting, “Prairie Meadows Burning” (1832, Smithsonian American Art Museum), is used at the top of this blog.

Book Remarks: How to Cuss in Western

How to Cuss in Western (and other missives from the high desert).
Michael P. Branch. (Boulder: Roost Books, 2018)

book branch cuss in westernBecause I have always—well, since I was four years old—loved and respected my local library, I do not write in books unless I own them, and intend to keep them.

Therefore, when I own a book, the page on which I begin to underline or scribble comments becomes a gauge to my evaluation and respect.

I started underlining in How to Cuss in Western on page 2, where Michael P. Branch explained the system of “restrained communication” embodied by the way Westerners wave.

“You lift only your pointer finger off the wheel for a routine ‘howdy’ to a neighbor,” he notes. “. . . Under no circumstances do you ever allow your palm to leave the wheel, which would be a greeting so effusive and emotional—so perfectly hysterical—that anyone foolish enough to display such loss of self-control would never regain the respect of their neighbors.”

Laughing, I recalled that today I received a full-hand wave from a female resident of the neighborhood who is practically giddy with her desire to be my buddy. Yet in several years of residence here she has not grasped this simple rule, one of the most basic principles of country acceptance. By the time children learn to drive here—at age ten or so—they all know enough to keep their hands on the wheel while greeting friends. If one is truly enthusiastic about the friendship, one might nod an inch or two while raising the trigger finger, but that’s all that’s acceptable.

“Oh, you’re so lucky to live in the country,” coo some of the folks who read my books or know I’m a rancher.

And some of these folks buy little plots of land from my ranch neighbors whose kids have gone off to college and now live somewhere else, so the rancher is retiring and moving to town.

Some of these folks who move to the country build a monster mansion on top of a hill where they can see from the Black Hills to the Badlands. They may not realize how well the rest of us can see them. They get a couple of SUVs, and erect a shed to shelter the horse, or the goats, or a cow or two. Their dogs come to visit me and to chase the calves in my corral until I can draw a bead on them. Rather than ranting, I’d like to mention these things politely in the local store or church or Bingo parlor but that doesn’t work because they shop and worship in the larger town to the north.

So instead of ranting, maybe I’ll hand out copies of this book with a bookmark at “Shit Happens,” one of my favorite essays. Folks used to living in town are also used to systems that whisk their personal wastes away without much fuss. If you live in the country, you soon learn there is no away for any of your discarded trash.  Living in the country means someone in the family must be the Fecal Sludge Manager, and study Septic Tank 101, a lesson in rural living rarely mentioned in real estate brochures or ballads.

Profanity? Here are Branch’s comments on the dwindling ability of Americans to cuss effectively and colorfully: “If we cannot communicate through the use of profanity, I wondered, what the hell is left? Have we been reduced to sonnets and tweets?”

One essay, “Such Sweet Sorrow,” centers on a topic tackled by such writers as Aristophanes, Dante, Shakespeare, Twain, Joyce and Edward Abbey, a topic Branch suggests was first written about in 1900 B.C., and which still challenges writers. Branch’s approach is a writer’s challenge; The Urban Dictionary lists 261 synonyms for this topic, and Branch attempts to use all of them, from “breeches burners” to “wee fluffy.”

Michael Branch photo from his websiteThese aren’t perfect essays, in part because Mr. Branch is a real working writer; he writes to deadlines, so he doesn’t have the luxury enjoyed by some writers of tinkering with a piece until it satisfies every editorial quibble. He meets a deadline, and then goes back to cutting cords of wood to keep his family warm, teaching, helping raise his children, and walking a thousand miles a year; clearly he uses some of that time to think.

Besides humor, Branch provides information about a wide array of fascinating country topics, from the extinct American cheetah, to the reason ranchers’ fences are hazardous not only to pronghorn but to hawks and owls—a fact that was new to me. In one quick sentence, for example, he sums up the Bureau of Land Management’s horse problem in Nevada: “We do not have too many horses; we have too few lions.” He understands that the prairie as it should be is a wild place, despite the domestic animals and people who dwell here, and to be healthy, it must remain so.

As a graduate of the College of Fecal Sludge Management, I highly recommend that anyone contemplating a move to the country read this book.

Now excuse me; I have to go find another one of his books.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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At the website http://michaelbranchwriter.com/ you will find information about the author and his books, his upcoming public appearances, links to essays (some of which are chapters in his books), and a note about how to get podcasts of his essays which appeared in High Country News.

book branch raising wild and rants from hill