Want to talk to me?

Phone is an old simple flip phone

Write me a letter, with a real stamp on a real envelope. Or even an email.

Don’t call. I won’t answer.

I used to have a listed telephone number in my retreat house, where people paid for solitude and silence to work on their writing. The message on that phone said that the phone was never answered by a human being, and asked that the caller leave a message, or reach me through my website or Facebook pages.

Yet year after year, that phone rang while some writer was trying to work.  I silenced the ringer, and the calls continued. Every caller ignored my outgoing message. Salesmen droned on about their products, or elderly voices said, “Hello? Hello? Why doesn’t she answer?” I was living elsewhere at the time, and finally had the phone removed.

My policy of requesting that you write to me developed after years of thought, much of it waiting, waiting, waiting with a telephone receiver pressed to my ear. When I worked for newspapers, I often took notes while my callers provided information. The phones were equipped with a handy apparatus that sat on my shoulder and held the receiver against my ear so I could type madly while keeping my neck muscles tense so the thing didn’t fall off.

Phone call during book signingNow, when most people have phones with screens on them and multiple functions, I have an itty bitty cell phone that can’t be clamped to my ear unless my hand is holding it. I can’t type that way, so I can’t take notes. Therefore I use the cell phone to make calls at my most convenient time. I have a list of people who have this number so when they call I can, at a glance, decide if I must interrupt whatever I am doing to respond.

Most of the people on that list know and respect how I use my cell phone, and know that if they leave a message, I will return their call as soon as possible. The people who don’t know I have their number don’t need to know. I call them back too, when I’m not in the middle of something more important.

Remember, I am a writer. If you want to talk to me, you have to write.

Writing takes a lot of thinking time, preferably without interruption. I may spend this time walking the grasslands that are my primary inspiration (when chigger season is over), or sitting at my desk, or pacing my office.

I may not look busy, but my brain is chugging and whirring and spinning and creating.

The folks who have lived with me have learned that when my office door is closed, or I am wandering around mumbling to myself, I am busy no matter how it might look. If I lose that line, that inspiration, I may never get it back, which will destroy the power of that poem or that sentence in an essay.

Walking and thinking

Look at the positive effects of writing to me:

If you write to me, I can read your request at a time of my choosing.

If you write your request, I will cheerfully read it and respond when doing so is convenient for me. For that reason, I will be more likely to do whatever it is you want me to do.

If you write, I can form an opinion about your literacy, which may be particularly useful if you are asking to interview me or come to Windbreak House for a retreat.

If you write, I don’t have to leap up in the middle of eating a good meal to listen to what you have to say because you have the time or the impulse to talk to me right now. I won’t  grow more annoyed while my meal gets cold and the conversation dwindles away.

If you write, the insistent ringing may not drive from my brain that line that I’ve been thinking about for 20 minutes as I revise a poem.

If you write your request, I can think about it, instead of having to give you an answer immediately.

If you write your request, I don’t have to call you back, and listen to your message, and leave a message, and listen to your message when you call me at an inconvenient time, and call you back and leave a message, and so on ad infinitum.

If you write, you might keep your message concise, instead of rambling on about why you couldn’t call yesterday because your dog threw up.

Primitive TechnologyAnd please

please

P L E A S E:

— do not send me photographs;

— do not send me attachments;

— do not text me;

— do not send me anything that requires my phone to dance the hula or contact Mars to respond.

Smart phones might be able to do these things.

My phone is an elderly flip phone. When you send me anything but a voice mail, the phone tends to smoke, gurgle, whimper, and stop working, which irritates me so much I might never return any call you make henceforth.

My old flip phone serves my purposes: I can dial a number and talk to someone on it.

I do not want or need a phone that sends photographs, plays tunes, stores games, or sings Happy Birthday or yodels the national anthem.

Please: don’t call. Write.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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The Writer: Watching Nature Operate

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


The Writer: Watching Nature Operate

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

–Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature - cattle did not trample duck nest

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

Surely this time she was gone.

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

What does the duck have to do with writing?

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

Nature - Duck Family 2014--7-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature - Kildeer nest in grass 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature - Linda observing and recording

Linda, watching at Windbreak House.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Golden Coyote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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

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

A real golden coyote.

Memorial Day, 2019

cemetery rabbit pays respects 2017--5-28

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

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

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

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

# # #

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

Resting in Peace.

Or Not.

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

I was alone with our community’s dead.

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

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

cemetery Highland Park sign 2017--5-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cemetery carved stone 2017--5-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cemetery double hearts 2017--5-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cemetery lilacs encroaching 2017--5-28

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

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

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

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

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

Her first three children are seated
steplike at his left,

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

rested
upon his shoulders.

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

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

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

LMHcemetery09

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

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

work horses feeding hay to cattle

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 and 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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

*  *  *

I quoted from two of my poems in this essay—

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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What Shall I Wear?

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

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

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

clothes - high heeled shoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clothes - gardening hat and overalls 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia Woolf once said

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

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

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

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Neighborliness

Synchronicity! On the day I took notes for this commentary, Joan Bachman, who has been a writing guest at Windbreak House, wrote in her blog just what I was thinking:

Neighborliness doesn’t seem to hit the papers as often as hate-speech and noisy people demonstrating against something.

You might not get as much attention by being neighborly as you would by marching in the streets screaming, but you’ll feel better, and you’ll improve the lives of others. And you don’t have to make any signs.

For example, I have a friend-by-correspondence who knows that I have found a particular way to help save my writing time while responding to those who write asking for my help.

I can’t simply ignore people who write to me; I learned guilt at my mother’s knee– so politeness requires that I acknowledge those who write to admire my writing, or who ask how to get published. No matter how basic their questions are, or how easy it would be for them to find the information elsewhere, I feel guilty if I don’t respond.

Postcards and stampsSo instead of writing long letters, I often write postcards. This method saves some of my writing time and energy and requires me to compress my comments into the small space.

Knowing this, my correspondent friend often sends me 20 postcard stamps. And she even warned me that, beginning January 27, the new rate for postcards would be 37 cents, so I’d have to add some postage.

What a neighborly act this is, in the true sense of the word! I have never met this woman, though I know we share certain interests because of the clippings we exchange on news items that catch our attention. But we are neighbors in what I consider the best sense of the word: one who is generous, who shows kindliness or helpfulness toward his or her fellow humans.

As Joan Bachman says, neighborliness has to do with positive actions. Well, read her blog for yourself. (find a link below)

She says, “I hope that you appreciate this BLOG and will take action to demonstrate what you are FOR.  A ‘positive’ action is energizing.”

Overloaded ClosetJoan’s positive action for that day was “cleaning a closet.” She intended to “recycle some, but toss most of the stuff. (I have a tendency to use things until there’s not much worth left). This will be my ‘positive’ action for the day.”

So her definition was a positive action that didn’t affect her neighbors directly, showing that the definition need not be narrow. Any positive action will improve your own mood, which will in turn make you more likely to be kindly toward your neighbors, whether they are nearby or across an ocean.

As Mark Twain said,

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear, and the blind can see.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Read Joan Bachman’s February 5, 2019 blog post “The Way Things Are” here

http://optionsunlimitednd.com/blog

 

A Chicken in Every— House

Hen and chicks 2015--5-5

My favorite news story of the week and possibly the month comes from Pakistan, where the Prime Minister Imran Khan hopes to alleviate poverty by giving women chickens. The response to this plan has involved a lot of snickering and jokes at his expense.

But as Myrah Nerine Butt pointed out in Dawn, quoted in The Week magazine (12/21/18, p. 15), the people doing the jeering are far removed from the context and experience of real rural women.

This situation is strikingly similar to the way politicians in many countries, including this one, approach rural problems: from a safe distance that means they are ignorant of the issues.

Hen and chicks 2014--6-13In Pakistan, for example, chickens are better than cash because while money can be spent on anything, including gambling, a chicken can be primarily an investment or a saving. The man of the house may take cash for his own uses, but most of the men want nothing to do with chickens which are seen as “culturally inferior” to cows or goats. (Ranch women in this country, who know how tough cows can be, are laughing uproariously at this idea.)

Meanwhile, the chicken owned by a woman can produce eggs to sell. Some of those eggs can become more chickens, allowing a woman to increase her own business. This is no get-rich-quick scheme, but even a single chicken can produce a steady basic income for a woman who pays attention to detail, as well as helping to nourish her household.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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