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

# # #

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

#  #  #

 

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

#  #  #

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

#  #  #

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

100 Great Books?

Old open book

“100 Great Books” reads the headline, this time from PBS, one of my favorite institutions.

Of course I’m in favor of reading. Everyone should do it, constantly.

However, I generally try to avoid either reading or creating lists of “great books” or “best books” or whatever the latest terminology is.

My American Heritage Dictionary defines “great” this way:

adj. great·er, great·est

1.
a. Very large in size, extent, or intensity: a great pile of rubble; a great storm.
b. Of a larger size than other, similar forms: the great anteater.
c. Large in quantity or number: a great throng awaited us.
d. Extensive in time or distance: a great delay; a great way off.

2.
a. Remarkable or outstanding in magnitude, degree, or extent: a great crisis; great anticipation.
b. Of outstanding significance or importance: a great work of art.
c. Chief or principal: the great house on the estate.
d. Superior in quality or character; noble: a great man who dedicated himself to helping others.
e. Powerful; influential: one of the great nations of the West.
f. Eminent; distinguished: a great leader.

That’s enough of that, even though the dictionary goes on defining for several more lines. What a vague description– a pile of rubble! Are these the books that will live longest in the memory of readers? The most remarkable– for what reason? Are they superior in quality, and if so, how? Plot? Characterization? Truth?

Not only is “greatness” pretty difficult to describe, I distrust the lists for another reason. Might a lot of people be tempted to cheat?

What books, we might ask ourselves, will indicate what a brilliant person I am? What books will indicate my innate goodness? My love of nature? What books will convince (fill in the blank) [my pastor, my lover, my teacher, my book group] that I am worthy of their respect? That I am an intelligent and thoughtful person, worthy of great honor?

Besides the possibility that we think too highly of ourselves, consider how memory works. I recall lists containing the same titles of Great Books circulating when I was in high school, when I took them more seriously.

Did I read Crime and Punishment then? I’m not sure. Did I see the movie of The Da Vinci Code? Possibly; I know the story, but how do I know it? I suspect I read some books on the list and blotted out the memory because I disliked them and didn’t think they were among the 100 best. (Little Women?)

Perhaps a friend read it and told me about it so I think I read it. (The Color Purple?) Or someone I loathe read it and pronounced it the best book EVER, so I vowed never to read it. (Fifty Shades of Grey, The Clan of the Cave Bear, Siddhartha)

So: with all that preliminary, here are the ones I’m sure I read.

Great American Read book covers1984

a lot of Alex Cross mysteries

And Then There Were None

Another Country

Atlas Shrugged (in my Ayn Rand phase)

The Call of the Wild

Catch-22

Gone With the Wind (when my mother insisted, swooning over both book and movie)

The Grapes of Wrath (for a class)

Great Expectations (for a class)

The Great Gatsby (I have an MA in American Literature, and took a lot of English literature classes during my phase of thinking I might get a Ph.D., so I suspect I read more of the old classics than I am recalling)

Great American Read book covers 2Gulliver’s Travels

Invisible Man

Jane Eyre

The Little Prince (as a child)

Lonesome Dove (and Leaving Cheyenne, and that was the end of my McMurtry phase)

Moby-Dick

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Sun Also Rises (and everything else Hemingway wrote, during my Hemingway phase)

Pride and Prejudice (and several others before my Jane Austen phase ended)

To Kill a Mockingbird

Wuthering Heights

In 2011, I started writing down the titles of the books I read. Between January 1 and December 31 that year, I read 367 books. In 2012, I read only 345. Certainly they were not all great; but if I begin a book that doesn’t hold my interest, I stop reading and it doesn’t make the list. I don’t record those, and there are a fair number. I generally read mysteries for relaxation, so many of these books won’t make anyone’s list of “great books,” because those lists tend to be more general. Notice, though, that Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is on the list. Her books would be numerous on any Great Mysteries list. In 2013, I read 344 books, but only 261 in 2014, and 252 in 2015. I put a black spot on the page beside those books I don’t care for, and as I review the pages I see that several authors gained black spots. In 2016 and 2017 I was working hard on my own writing, so my totals were 118 books and 153, respectively, some of them repeats of particularly enthralling mysteries.

I do re-read books, particularly as I find it harder and harder to discover new writers whose work speaks to me. Some authors whose books I have read more than once include: Ngaio Marsh, Susan Witting Albert, Michael Innes, William Kent Krueger, Georgette Heyer, Louise Penny, Arthur Upfield, Jill Churchill, Ann B. Ross, Mollie Hardwick, Jacqueline Winspear, Aaron Elkins, Deborah Crombie, and Sue Grafton. Among the mystery writers those books I keep to re-read during long blizzards are Gwendoline Butler, Jo Bannister, John Creasey, P.D. James, Jane Langton, Lee Martin, Charlaine Harris, Sharyn McCrumb, Elizabeth Peters, Dorothy Sayers, Martha Grimes, Margery Allingham, Amanda Cross, and Elizabeth George.

A new discovery is Susan Elia MacNeal, who writes the Maggie Hope mysteries about World War II; in fact, I’ve been reading a lot about both world wars lately, both in mysteries and in nonfiction. And I’ve just found Sara Henry, whose work appeals to me because her main character is, as I was, a newspaper reporter.

 

But I digress, therefore I am a writer.

100 best books? My list would be entirely different and I’m not going to spend my good writing time creating it.  None of the books on the PBS list would appear, unless I was overcome by a desire to please the professors from whom I took English classes. Since they’re all likely dead, I can’t succumb.

Similarly, I would find it difficult to choose a “favorite” book from this list without some definition of terms–

Best plot? (almost any Alex Cross mystery)

Most elegant writing? (Probably Gone with the Wind)

Leanest, most succinct writing? (The Sun Also Rises)

Most educational? (Another Country, since I am not black)

Most enjoyable? (I don’t think I enjoyed any of the books on that list but the mysteries; the rest were read because someone expected me to, or was going to test me on them)

Books writing manuals

Now ask me what books I have always kept a copy of beside my desk since I discovered them.

Excluding essential writing reference books like The Chicago Manual of Style; The Elements of Style by Strunk and White; Roget’s Thesaurus; The Writer’s Legal Companion; How Does a Poem Mean by John Ciardi, and a good dictionary, they are as follows:

Silences, Tillie Olsen

The Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois League of Six Nations

Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss

The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work”, Kathleen Norris

Beyond Engineering, Henry Petroski

To Engineer is Human, Henry Petroski

The Evolution of Useful Things, Henry Petroski

Writing to Learn, William Zinsser

Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, Judith Barrington

Candy is Dandy: The Best of Ogden Nash

The Holy Bible

If you don’t have a good book to read, and no one with whom to have an intelligent conversation, and it’s snowing and you don’t want to go outside, you might want to make your own list.

 

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Click here to see the Great American Read list of 100 Great Books.

 

If I Were Going to the Festival of Books

The 2018 South Dakota Festival of Books will be held September 20 in Sioux Falls, and September 21-23 in Brookings.

I’m not able to go this year, but if I were going, I’d look for these presenters first.

Lee Ann RoripaughI’d hope to speak to Lee Ann Roripaugh as she ends her four-year term as our poet laureate. A new laureate will be inaugurated at the 2019 Festival of Books in Deadwood. The SD Poetry Society invites anyone who would like to be considered for the position to submit a letter of application and resume between Nov. and Dec. 1, 2018. For complete details, visit the SDSPS website at www.sdstatepoetrysociety.com.

Learn about Lee Ann Roripaugh

 

Informing the News by Thomas PattersonMaybe I’d get a chance to listen to Thomas Patterson, whose Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism was the 2018 One Book South Dakota. The book is on my “to buy” list, because I agree with him that we need to return to a solid base of information in journalism, rather than following the despicable trend to “infotainment” that is warping citizens’ judgments. Newsrooms are shrinking at newspapers and broadcast station alike, which means fewer journalists are out digging for the truth. The speed at which information is conveyed has also increased; speed is the enemy of accurate news from varied objective sources.

Thomas E. Patterson’s website

 

Prairie Fires by Caroline FraserI thought I would only skim Caroline Fraser’s monumental Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but instead I ended up reading carefully, and my admiration for the writer is immense. Rarely have I read a book with more footnotes, which means that when Fraser makes a statement, it’s likely not just her opinion but the result of careful research and deep digging into the life of this famous writer. Like many South Dakotans, I grew up with Laura’s stories, and while I’m somewhat surprised to know that she wasn’t being entirely truthful, I’m delighted to learn the truth behind her tales now.

Caroline Fraser’s “Prairie Fires” website

 

Elizabeth Cook-LynnI’d definitely make it a point to exchange a few words with Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, one of South Dakota’s most astute thinkers and a dynamic voice for the citizens with whom she most identifies: the Lakota. Though English is not Elizabeth’s first language, she is more articulate in it than most of us. And I’m behind on reading her work; I haven’t yet gotten In Defense of Loose Translations: An Indian Life in an Academic World. I will hope to remedy that lack soon, and I know I’ll learn something.

Read about Elizabeth Cook-Lynn

 

Because I won’t make it to Brookings for the Festival of Books, rather than speak with these writers, I will join them on the printed page.

 

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

You will find the schedule of events, a list of presenters, a map of Brookings with the venues marked, and more on the South Dakota Humanities website.

http://sdhumanities.org/festival-of-books/

If I were going to the Festival of Books I would have a hard time deciding which books to buy, what other events I would attend, and which presenters I would try to talk with– in addition to the four listed above.

 

Book Remarks: An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days — A conversation about writing and living on the land

The work of belonging to a place is never finished. There will always be more to know than any mind or lifetime can hold. But that is no argument against learning all one can.

—- Scott Russell Sanders, quoted in Susan Wittig Albert’s An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

 

Wittig Albert Extraordinary YearI have– finally!– read Susan Wittig Albert’s An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days, published in 2010.

Because Albert is one of my favorite writers of mysteries (China Bayles) and other intriguing books, I’m chagrined not to have discovered this one until I found it online in 2014.

On the other hand, I’m glad I didn’t read it when I bought it, or I might not have published my own most recent book, Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal.

I began reading Albert’s book June 6 of this year. I stopped almost at once because my own book was already in production; I knew I’d be receiving page proofs soon. I could tell that Susan Albert’s journal and mine would have enough in common as to make me afraid I might unconsciously adopt—steal—some of her ideas as I proofread my own work. When I had earlier asked Susan to write a back-cover comment for my book, I had no idea that its structure, a year’s diary, paralleled that of her book.

sagging fences untidy woods

Susan’s own words in her diary are always enlightening. “But there’s a blessing in inhabiting a place for a long time,” she writes, adding that her years as part of a tenant farming family in eastern Illinois “fed my life for country, for the everyday world of overworked fields and sagging fences, untidy woods, winter pastures. Nothing special, nothing extraordinary, not even (to most people, anyway) very beautiful. . . . Unkempt fields, tangled woods: my history. Home.”

This, to me, is the strongest statement of her book and of my own: that for most of us, wherever we are is home if we accept it as such, and consent to understand and enhance our relationship to the place.

No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it.

—- Wendell Berry, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

Writing of her relationship to home, Albert provides a reading list for the responsible writer. Each person in the United States, she learns, is responsible for around 21 tons of CO2 emissions per year, according to the United Nations Human Development Reports.

Global warming is one of those things, not like an earthquake where there’s a big bang and you say, “oh my God, this has hit us.” It creeps up on you. Half a degree temperature difference from one year to the next, a little bit of rise of the ocean, a little bit of melting of the glaciers, and then all of a sudden it is too late to do something about it.

—- Arnold Schwarzenegger, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

Shocked, she assesses the usage attributable to herself and her husband. They drive fuel-efficient vehicles fewer miles annually than most families, and wouldn’t consider replacing then until they’ve gone 200,000 miles. “We repair, repurpose, reuse, recycle,” take short showers, use compact fluorescents, noting that if everyone replaced just three regular lightbulbs, we could keep a trillion pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

We’re all connected and nobody is in charge.

—- Thomas Friedman, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

 

Wittig Albert Extrordinary Year page

Besides her own observations, Susan Albert has generously added to the outer third of each page quotations from other writers that address her theme of ordinary days. Thus not only does she provide the reader with a broad spectrum of observations, she brings attention to writers the reader may have missed. Some of the writers and comments were ones that appear in my own quotations files, but in my highlighting, underlining and copying, I added at least a dozen titles of books to my “must read” list.

A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking.

—- Jerry Seinfeld, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

Moreover, throughout the book, Albert weaves her own and others’ advice about writing, both directly and by inference. As she is writing this diary, uncertain whether or not it will become a book, she is proofreading another of her books I have not yet read, Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place. Her discipline and ability to focus provides a strong lesson for any aspiring writer, or, indeed, any writer who considers herself a professional with nothing more to learn about the craft.

Reading this book, slowly, with my highlighter close by and my journal handy for writing my own reactions, I felt as if I were engaging in a long and glorious conversation with the writer as we nestled in comfortable chairs in front of a glowing fireplace.  I was delighted but not surprised to realize that many of the writers I admire have come to the same conclusions as we reach similar ages.

It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home. Otherwise, who will be there to chart the changes? Who will be able to tell us if the long-billed curlews have returned to the grassy vales of Promontory, Utah? Who will be there to utter the cry of loss when the salmon of the McKenzie River in Oregon are nowhere to be seen?

—- Terry Tempest Williams, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

If I am not here, on this small western grasslands ranch, who will know that I have not seen a long-billed curlew since the neighboring subdivisions started erecting so-called “security lights” that blare into the darkness and make it difficult to see the stars?

There is strength, freedom, sustainability, and pride in being a practiced dweller in your own surroundings, knowing what you know.

—- Gary Snyder, quoted in An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days

Get this book and read it; you can purchase the hardback book from the publisher, University of Texas Press, or find used copies online.

Gathering from the Grassland outsideOh yes, and get my book too, and enjoy the conversation. And don’t be surprised if you keep right on buying more books whose authors could join all of us in this vital discussion about the future of our world.

Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal, is available in both paper and hardback– and though the book has only been out since September, used copies are available.

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

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #