Push, Whack, Shove, Wallop, Pound

Kneading, I could see my grandmother’s strong arms working the dough on the bread board by the wood stove. Bread dough, she’d say, is as independent as a 2-year-old. Both require hard work if they are to develop properly.

I fold outside to inside and push with the heels of my hands, rotate the globe a quarter turn, crease and push, again and again while my brain replays a conversation with a young friend about Western problems: subdivisions, zoning, water.

“But what can one person doooooo?” she wailed.

Kneading, I consider that universal question. When the warm mass sticks to my fingers, I dip a bit of home-ground wheat flour to scatter across the board. Turn, fold, PUSH; turn, fold, WHACK; turn, bend, SHOVE. My muscles hum in harmony as natural as the bread’s ingredients.

Linda with a freshly baked loaf, 2009.

Baking bread is cheaper and more consistent than other forms of therapy, and the results are edible. One can’t nibble a human therapist, any more than one can successfully treat tension with alcohol or drugs.

Up to my elbows in bread dough, I WALLOP an irrational argument, POUND my point home. Decisions I’ve avoided for weeks make themselves as I poke a finger into the shiny dome to check the tension. When I plop the dough into my grandmother’s green porcelain bowl to rise, we’re both bouncy and full of vitality.

Until lately, I’ve baked mostly for my own well-being, but my friend Marty taught me a better way.

What can one person doooooo?

In January, Marty baked and handed out 15 loaves: to the wife of the neighbor who has been accused of a crime. To the woman suffering from cancer. In February, 45 loaves.

At 81, Marty is active in church activities, busy with children, grandchildren and interests so varied I’m always discovering new ones despite a decade of correspondence. She travels, teaches morning and evening classes, takes part in a book club, writes letters.

In March, she gave away 53 loaves; April, 46. In her kitchen, young women learn the art of mixing, kneading, shaping the loaves they’ll take to their own kitchens to bake. Marty’s prayer ingredient is optional, but the smell of fresh-made bread blesses each home.

May, 40 loaves, including bread for a family mourning the death of their mother. “This somehow gives me a gift,” she explains, “and I guess the only thing I can name this gift is ‘peace.’” She maintains a large home, dozens of plants inside and around it; she sends me pictures of her cats. She’s kept baking bread throughout the ugly incidents life can provide, including cancer.

Marty Mather (1927-2020)

June, 55 loaves, and July — in Kansas! — 72. She sends me clippings about Kansas politics along with her opinions and obituaries of people who lived with good humor and good works.

August, 46 loaves. “When I was a child and my mother made bread she would cut off a slice when it came out of the oven hot, slather it with butter, cover it with brown sugar, fold it together and give us a “love” sandwich.” Her grandchildren, learning to knead dough at ages 2 and 4, gobbled love sandwiches.

September, 35; October, 47. Last year during Lent, instead of giving up coffee or chocolate, she gave bread to the workers in her church, and to others in the community. “This brings me joy,” she says, adding, “which in a sense is a selfish way of looking at it.”

The gift of bread carries with it history ancient beyond reckoning, symbolism that applies equally to every homeland, every religion. November, 60 loaves. Marty admits enjoying the fragrance of baking bread, “filling the house like a lovely incense.” And more: “Making homemade bread is not a talent or really a skill . . . It only takes planning, time, energy and love.”

In December, while headlines screamed about stress, Marty gave away 51 loaves. I bite into butter-slathered hot bread. The universe wobbles and then settles into an age-old throb of grace. Homemade bread. Homemade love.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2022, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Photo of Marty holding a loaf of bread used with permission of her family.

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In its original form, this essay was published in the “Writers on the Range” series in High Country News in 2008.

https://www.hcn.org/wotr/17634

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Read more about Marty Mather’s life works and legacy at her Church’s blog

https://foundation.blogs.cor.org/marty-mather/

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Evening Primrose

In the yard at 5:43 on a dark morning, the sky is covered with clouds behind which a glorious sunrise has just vanished. Yet the evening primrose are blooming vivid yellow, like tall candles.  

Ours is Oenothera biennis, Common evening primrose, a tall plant with large yellow blooms arranged most of the length of the stem. The “goblet-like” flowers in yellow, white or pink, each with four petals, are said to be lemon-scented, but they seem sweeter than that to me.

I’m not sure where mine originated, but they have scattered naturally. Night-blooming plants are said to attract moths for pollination, so we wonder if the gorgeous hummingbird moths we’ve been seeing are responsible for pollinating ours.

The plants reappear every year, but they don’t spread wildly as some do. I’ve recently learned that the plant takes 2 years to complete its life cycle, with basal leaves becoming established the first year, and flowering occurring the second. Ours have been blooming several years, in the same locations.

Experts say they do well in either sun or shade, and ours manage to survive even on the north and west sides of the house, which sometimes get punishingly hot in summer.

[Evening Primrose spreading in the yard by the bottle tree]

Once I started looking for information about Oenothera, I became fascinated by the details. It was apparently once cultivated for its “delectable roots,” which were said to have a light, peppery taste similar to salsify, and could be eaten raw or cooked like any other root vegetable. The one I tried, from a tiny plant, was so tough and fibrous as to be impossible to chew, and had no particular flavor. The plant is now often grown for its omega-6-containing seeds. I’ll try those later in the summer.

I was delighted to learn that Oenothera is native to North America but was taken to Europe in the 1600s, scientists surmise, where it has now naturalized. The plant has also traveled to many other parts of the world. I picture explorers delightedly tucking the plants into a tiny English garden, where its gold blooms lit a brick wall.

And it’s astonishingly adaptable. Depending on the variety, this plant – also known as coffee plant, golden candlestick, and a host of other nicknames – can be biennial, annual, or perennial.

Some of the dozens of varieties have an upright growth habit, reaching heights of 6 feet and a width of 24 inches, where others are used as ground cover or for container plantings, growing no higher than 6 inches. Various varieties, some of which are quite fragrant, do well in zones 3-11.

Native Americans used the whole plant for treating bruises and its roots for treating hemorrhoids. The leaves were made into medicines for minor wounds, gastrointestinal issues, and sore throats. Today, oil pressed from the plant’s seeds is marketed in capsule form to help a number of conditions including eczema, rheumatoid arthritis, premenstrual syndrome, and osteoporosis.

[Evening Primrose with Gaillardia (also known as blanket flower) and Blue Flax]

The gamma linolenic acid — a type of omega-6 fatty acid — contained within the oil is used by the body to regulate blood pressure and to keep the immune system functioning well.

Birds, perhaps seeking a little omega-6 of their own, enjoy eating the plant’s seeds, which is doubtless one way the plant spreads. Some folks use the seeds as one might use poppy seeds.

O. Berlandieri, or Mexican evening primrose, on the other hand, is a spreading perennial. It only grows to a height of about 18 inches. Native to Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Mexico, this plant will grow in infertile soil, with minimum water and full sun.

Evening primrose ‘showy’ (O. speciosa) also thrives in heat and is drought-tolerant. It grows 18 to 24 inches tall and displays pink, pale lavender, or white and pink flowers.

[Evening Primrose about to open at dusk]

O. pallida, or pale evening primrose, is a low-growing biennial native to the western United States. I’ve have spotted some of these in the Great Plains Botanic Garden, located on my ranch. (See their website at www.GPNPS.org or find them on Facebook at Great Plains Native Plant Society Group).

If you are walking in the plains at sunrise or dusk, look for this gorgeous inhabitant.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2022, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Saving South Dakota’s Birds of Prey: The Black Hills Raptor Center

Elise’s destiny was to hunt the prairie grasslands. Instead she helps Maggie Engler of the Black Hills Raptor Center teach people how important the lives of raptors — red-tailed hawks and other birds of prey — are to us.

Raptors prey on birds, voles, rabbits, amphibians, fish, carrion and even grasshoppers. For humans, though, the best news is a raptor’s appetite for mice.

Mice eat wheat, corn, oats, rye and other grains used in cereals, bread, pasta and beer. In one year, a pair of mice and their offspring can produce thousands of babies. Each pair of mice that lives a year eats 8 pounds of grain between them, and spreads their filth in another 22 pounds.

 Because they don’t see well, mice mark every step of a journey with urine and excrement so they can sniff their way home. If you’ve eaten grain in any form, you’ve eaten mouse waste.

 “So,” Engler says, “we should love anything that eats mice.”

~ ~ ~

As “perch and pounce” hunters, red-tailed hawks don’t waste much energy chasing things. They soar to settle on trees, telephone poles, fence posts or rocks to watch for prey.

Elise was 10 days old when she was taken from her nest, caged and fed hot dogs and hamburger. Once she learned to accept food from humans, she became dangerous. Believing humans are the source of food and mates, she became aggressive with handlers and could never resume her normal life.

Elise is a visible symbol of how little we know about the prairie that surrounds our highways and cities in the Great Plains.

Engler and her co-founder John Halverson started the Black Hills Raptor Center in Rapid City to help birds of prey recover from human-caused damage. By federal law, the center may educate only with birds that can never be released into the wild. Unfortunately, Elise is one of them.

 The center is also home to Phoenix the ferruginous hawk, Freya the red-tailed hawk, Aldo, the great-horned owl, Hendrix and Joplin, the American kestrels, and two Eastern screech owls, Little Red Riding Hoot and the Big Bad Wolf, all species native to South Dakota. Recently, Izaak Walton the peregrine falcon joined the flock of ambassadors. In hundreds of miles of prairie grassland, Maggie is one of the few people offering hope of survival for injured raptors. 

“The birds don’t belong to us,” Halverson says. “They belong to the people of the United States. They are not pets. They are only caged because they are too seriously injured to be released. Their lives were damaged, usually by humans, so they are being recycled in educational programs, to help people understand the importance of these birds to the world.”

 Even on the prairies, many raptor species have sharply declined in locations where their habitats have been altered by subdivisions, plowing, highway construction, mining and other human activities. Raptor species are also damaged by rodenticides and other pesticides, organic chemicals such as PCBs and metals such as mercury and lead. Many die from secondary poisoning after eating contaminated prey, perhaps poisoned prairie dogs, rats or mice. Some die from eating lead if they feed on animals shot by hunters. Engler, an ardent big game hunter, has switched to non-toxic shot. 

 The picture isn’t completely bleak; species like the bald eagle and peregrine falcon have rebounded since use of the pesticide DDT was restricted in the 1970s.  

 As part of teaching the public to appreciate the birds, Engler and volunteers introduce the BHRC raptors to the public in 160-170 programs a year for preschool through college classes, community groups, visitors to national and state parks, conservation camps, outdoor expos and sports shows around western South Dakota. Engler estimates Elise has visited 2,500 classrooms.

 “I can teach any topic through birds,” Engler says, because “raptors capture the human heart like no other birds.”

 Trained as a naturalist, interpreter and environmental educator, Engler has done this work for 30 years in various capacities. She also teaches preschool and tutors people with dyslexia. In her “spare” time she cares for the birds, handles BHRC correspondence, communicates with volunteers and writes grants.

The mission of the nonprofit BHRC includes scientific research, education and rehabilitation and release, but achieving those goals is difficult without a building. Engler and volunteers haul the birds in their cars all over the state to present programs, then bring them home to the newly built facility east of Rapid City.   

 A building to temporarily house the BHRC ambassador birds has moved the group closer to being licensed to rehabilitate the injured. Eventually the ambassadors will be moved into their own permanent aviaries or mews. Then the building now in use will be dedicated to rehabilitating the injured. Providing a place for volunteer veterinarians to work on the birds would allow more of them to be returned to the wild to live out their lives in their necessary place in the food chain.

Science has not proven that rehabilitating common species like great horned owls or red-tailed hawks helps the local population. “But,” Engler says, “returning an injured bird to the wild enables us to bring people a step closer to nature and a world from which they are too far removed. I want people to be able to visit on special open house days, to see the raptors they might see in the skies over their own homes, take part in a program, to watch a release of a rehabilitated bird.”

The property will also enable the Black Hills Raptor Center to conduct and participate in understanding the role of raptors in the environment. Having the raptors available for public visits will draw more community support, volunteers and donations. South Dakota has an abundance of raptors that are rare in other areas. Daytime (diurnal) raptors include bald and golden eagles, turkey vultures, osprey and five kinds of hawks — red-tailed, ferruginous, Swainson’s, broad-winged and rough-legged. Five North American falcons live here — the American kestrel, merlin, prairie falcon, peregrine falcon and, in winter months, the gyrfalcon.

 Only three accipiters — hawks with short, broad wings and long tails particularly suited to fast flight in wooded areas — live in North America. South Dakota has all three: the northern goshawk, Cooper’s hawk and sharp-shinned hawk. In addition, nine species of nighttime (nocturnal) raptors float through our night skies: great horned, eastern screech, burrowing, long-eared, short-eared, northern saw-whet, flammulated, barn and snowy owls. This rich legacy of predatory birds offers an extraordinary opportunity to encourage strong breeding populations of wild raptors here.

After eleven years of gutting rats and mice for raptor food on her kitchen counter, Engler is overjoyed to have a food preparation space separate from her own kitchen. 

 The site will also allow volunteers to begin rehabilitating raptors locally. At least 100 people a year ask Engler for help with injured birds, but all she can do is assess each bird’s condition before taking it to a facility with the necessary permits to provide medical care. The nearest permitted facilities are several hundred miles away, in Wyoming and eastern South Dakota. Many injured birds don’t live long enough to reach help.

Engler now lives on site, in a residence mostly built by volunteers. The next buildings on the property will be the Rehabilitation and Research Hub.  The largest of the 6 planned buildings in the complex, it will include exam rooms, labs, radiology, an ICU and surgical suites will allow BHRC to treat injured birds. A separate isolation and quarantine area will allow treatment of cases of avian pox and other highly contagious illnesses, without endangering other raptors in for treatment. 

“Mouse school” will enable the birds to learn to hunt so they can survive in the wild. In these mews — individual apartments for each bird — lower walls will be encased in sheet metal so that live mice released into the rooms cannot escape. Birds will learn to kill their own food, never seeing the humans who deliver it. Thus they will not associate food with people and won’t suffer the imprinting that ruined Elise for life in the wild.

Little Red Riding Hoot and Big Bad Wolf represent the Eastern Screech owl in Engler’s programs, tiny raptors that nest wherever trees are available. They hide in dark nooks during the day, hunting primarily at night, so your best chance of knowing they are around may come from hearing them at night. Despite their name, they do not screech; their eerie call is more like a horse whinnying.

 As the smallest of Engler’s educational raptors, the screech owls have the smallest appetites. Little Red Riding Hoot, who weighs about 5 ounces, can eat up to three mice a day, at one ounce each, or 60 percent of her body weight. Unfortunately, wild mice are not an option since they might carry disease that would sicken a volunteer, or poison that would kill the educational birds. One domestic mouse costs 95 cents, making Hoot’s per diem $3.00 during cold weather, or $190 for the coldest 60 days. If she eats two mice a day for the rest of the year (305 days) her total year’s food bill is $750.50 for 790 mice. Feeding all six of the raptors the Center now cares for costs almost $6,000 per year.   

Sponsors have included interested local citizens as well as Rapid City’s Reptile Gardens, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the local chapter of the Izaak Walton League. Federal officers have helped BHRC receive contributions from cash fines levied on people who are caught poaching raptors.

In the wild, Elise’s life span would have been 10 or 12 years. She’s 34 years old, and she and Engler have been together since 2008. “She was the first red-tailed hawk I ever had on a glove,” Engler says. “There are very few red-tailed hawks in captivity that have her years on them. We retired Elise a few years ago and now the younger red-tailed Freya takes on the program duties. Elise is living a luxurious life in a new mews with a great view and all the care she needs.”

 Her eyes are shadowed with understanding of the inevitable, but she can smile, knowing that the Black Hills Raptor Center will not die.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2022, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Want to Help?

The Black Hills Raptor Center welcomes contributions. Send to BHRC, PO Box 48, Caputa, SD 57725; phone 605-391-2511; info@BlackHillsRaptorCenter.org

 Money isn’t the only way to help. The website (www.blackhillsraptorcenter.org) provides a wish list of items needed, including hand tools, garden hose, postage stamps, bleach, detergent, and boxes of sandwich baggies used when processing meat for bird food.

Maggie Engler with Elise in 2014

Photo credits:

From the internet: mouse in the grain.

From the Black Hills Raptor Center website: photos of the building and mews under construction and the photo of the two screech owls Little Red Riding Hoot and the Big Bad Wolf.

Photos by my assistant, Tam Rogers: Elise the red-tailed hawk with blue sky behind her taken in 2014; Hendrix the kestrel showing his under-wings at an educational talk to a Road Scholar class in 2016; the hawk on the bird feeding platform, the barn owl standing on one leg, and the great-horned owl in the barn window taken at Tam’s place about 7 miles from Windbreak House; the photo of Maggie Engler with Elise taken at an educational program in 2014.

Wrap Yourself in Darkness and Banish Fear

This essay was originally posted on my website for the Winter Solstice, December 21, 2012.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

I believe that Wendell Berry’s poem “To Know the Dark,” which I did not discover until middle age, perfectly describes how I rid myself of my fear of darkness. And it symbolizes a way to tackle other fears.

My mother, knowing I was terrified of the monsters under the bed, always left a night light in my room. One night soon after I moved to the ranch when I was nine years old, my parents left me alone at home to go to a dance. I decided to cure myself before these tough sons and daughters of ranchers found out I was a “chicken.” So I went out into the darkness, alone, without a flashlight. I wandered into the barn loft; I climbed fences; as my eyes adjusted, I ventured out into the hayfield.

Part of the time I was terrified, but a couple of hours wandering around the ranch buildings and nearby pastures cured me and coincidentally made me love owls. (For the whole story, see Feels Like Far, p. 20.)

Once I’d confronted the fear– though perhaps not entirely rid myself of it– I found darkness to be important in keeping hold of my mental health. For example, by the time I wrote Windbreak, I’d discovered that checking the pregnant heifers anytime between midnight and two a.m. allowed me to really taste the darkness. (Windbreak, pp. 117-118; Land Circle, “Spring Weather,” pp. 9-11.) Once, I’m fairly sure a mountain lion shared the dark with me; the yearling steers got so spooked they knocked down a plank fence. And once I lay in a sleeping bag with my dog and watched the Perseid meteor shower and felt as if I were riding a clear glass ship through the stars. The memory can still make me dizzy when I look up at night.

And once, I had the potent experience of riding my horse home after dark, trusting in her to find our way. (Going Over East, p. 99. Also “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from My Horse,” which is posted on the Horse and Cow Stories Page of my website with a photograph of the horse.)

My ultimate experience of darkness, the event that transformed my attitude about it from acceptance to exultant love, involved a herd of buffalo. I urge you most strongly not to try it; I was desperate and lucky. (Feels Like Far, “Buffalo Winter,” pp. 72-85).

When I moved to town, I felt entirely disoriented in the light-filled city but as I wandered the stairs and rooms of the old house where I lived, I sensed its former inhabitants as friendly presences and found my senses expanding. (Feels Like Far, pp. 87-88.)

Since that first experience, I’ve tried to confront anything that scares me. I’ve managed to get over my fear of flying, for example, though I’m still not fond of heights.

Darkness, I believe, embodies humanity’s greatest fears. We appear to be growing more afraid of it every day because we are spending money we can’t afford to drive it away, to the detriment of every facet of our lives.

This literal darkness seems to be an enemy to Americans, though several states, including Connecticut, Arizona, Maine, New Mexico and Texas, many municipalities and several other nations have adopted legislation designed to limit light pollution from streetlights and other fixtures. Among the rationales for such measures have been energy conservation, the reduction of glare and its resulting traffic hazards, and a desire to allow people a better view of the night sky. Several states have state organizations devoted to reducing light pollution, though South Dakota does not. Several websites provide information about “dark skies” initiatives, including www.darksky.org.

Subdivision dwellers surround their houses with lights that come on when anything moves in the area, guaranteed to drive away the wildlife. Towns pay extravagantly for lamps that blast light in all directions, not just down to the ground where it might be useful. We sleep in rooms with lighted clocks so we can tell the time at any moment of the night; sometimes we even project the time in garish orange letters on the ceiling. All night the little lights of our computers, telephones and other electronic devices wink steadily. Numerous studies suggest that constant light can damage our productivity and increase stress levels, injuring both mental and physical health.

So I propose that the best way to celebrate the solstice is to embrace the dark, both literal and figurative.

First, tackle the literal darkness. Even if you have never feared the dark, you likely have not spent much time in it lately. So celebrate the solstice by finding a place as dark as possible. I prefer to go outside, to sit quietly on a rock on my hillside or even on a chair on my deck. Take a flashlight if you wish but leave it off. Don’t take a watch. Breathe deeply until you lose track of the number of times you have done so. Close your eyes. Listen for the dark feet, the dark wings. Inhale the darkness until you can sense how it is a part of you: inside your heart, your skull.

If you can’t find darkness or don’t feel safe outside, create it inside. Take a blanket into a closet, or under the stairs; or banish electronics and draw the shades. Create as much dark as you can and make yourself a comfortable nest within it. Then simply breathe. Listen: first to the sounds outside yourself and then to the sound of your own heartbeat, your own blood in your veins. If you sleep, that’s fine. But give yourself time to absorb whatever may happen.

Another good practice you might initiate at this solstice season has practical aspects as well. Carrying an unlit flashlight in case of accident, learn to negotiate your house, any outbuildings, and your yard in darkness. The ability to move quickly without artificial light might save you in a fire or home invasion. You might even turn this into a challenging and useful game for the whole family. How quickly and quietly can you escape from your house?

There are two ways of spreading light;
to be the candle
or the mirror that reflects it.

Edith Wharton, Vesalius in Zante

I’ve always collected quotations; it’s easier to find them about light than about darkness. Everyone from parents to teachers to priests to gurus both real and faux urge us to embrace the light. If we can’t light our own candle, some of these folks encourage us to take a happy pill. Very few mention that darkness can be a benefit.

I don’t want to suggest that such therapies are useless; sometimes they save lives. But in the glare of constant light we may temporarily forget things that will ambush us when our defenses are down, our eyes are closed, the pills wear off.

Deliberately confronting the figurative darkness, the shadowy places in our own hearts and minds, may seem more difficult than flipping on light switches, but I believe solstice is a good time to do it. Now the universe forces us to realize that darkness is inevitable as the earth turns away from the sun. Embrace the dark now, so that it doesn’t sneak up and wallop you on the head some cold February night. Remember that sleep brings its own darkness, always beneficial; we might consider winter a refreshing nap.

Here’s my example. For the book I’m writing now [Gathering from the Grassland, 2017, High Plains Press], I have spent considerable time the past four years reading journals and letters left me by family members: my father, mother, mother’s mother and others. Deciphering their handwriting, turning wrinkled pages, I’ve spent months watching them disintegrate, seeing truths in their writing that I did not see when they were alive. Busy with my own life, I knew they were failing, but I was enmeshed in the hard labor and bickering of that time, watching my husband slowly sicken and die. Reading those documents has helped me understand actions that seemed incomprehensible then.

Reading my own journals has been even harder. Like most people, I did things in my 20s and 30s I wouldn’t have done if I’d known then what I know now.

Worse yet, I took notes, so I can go back and read about my confusion. Sometimes I’m surprised that the facts I wrote down at the time don’t match the golden light of memory I’ve reflected over particular incidents. My writing and record-keeping habits will not allow me to simply burn these journals and rewrite history. Instead I’ve pursued myself in my own history throughout the past couple of years and spent considerable time reflecting on the past. Yes, it was painful, but the enlightenment and release I’ve experienced has been worth it. I’m going to acknowledge all of this confrontation when I celebrate the winter solstice this year.

I can’t promise you that your confrontation will drive away the pain of loss and foolishness, but I believe anguish will decrease, and understanding will fill the gaps.

After crawling into my own dark places, I spent some time berating myself for failing to see then what I see more clearly now. Upon reflection, though, I’ve concluded that I didn’t do too badly with my knowledge at the time. I was loyal to those I loved–- though sometimes I was mistaken or lied to. Where it’s possible, I’ve atoned for the mistakes I made; in some cases I make amends daily.

In the cold darkness of this solstice season, look at your mistakes. Study them until you see where you went wrong or until you understand as much as possible about how they were made. Then lock them into a heavy chest; drag it to the center of the stone cellar under the house of your soul. Lock the door; set the dragons on watch. Leave the past mistakes behind. Go upstairs into the light and repair any error you can. Apologize. Pay the fines. Then do better next time.

Leonard Cohen found the perfect metaphor in his song “Anthem:”

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.

The winter solstice– occurring at 6:12 a.m. eastern standard time on December 21 [2012]– is the longest night of the year, when darkness covers the land. That moment also marks the beginning of the return of the light.

Dive into darkness knowing that the light will come. Ring your own bells; offer your cracked self to the universe and wait in the warm darkness for the light.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This Solstice I am wrapped in a particularly deep darkness because my partner of nearly 30 years, Jerry Ellerman, died on September 18, 2020 from injuries received in an automobile accident. I face this long cold winter with only my Westie, Hattie, for company.

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Support Your Local Raptors

I don’t know when I saw my first raptor– surely a long time before I knew the word “raptor.” But I’m certain the occasion was at my Grandmother’s house in Red Canyon, and doubtless the raptor was a hawk– probably a red-tailed hawk– that sailed over her chickens, serenely eyeing them. I’m sure my grandmother wanted to swear, but did not, in front of the child of six at her side.

And I’m not sure how long it was before I came to respect and love the raptors of the prairie. At first my sympathies were probably with the rabbits and chickens, but once I saw my first golden eagle sailing over the east pasture, I was hooked on these majestic birds. Not long after that I began to notice that great horned owls frequented the juniper trees around our house, and to admire the ghostly way they sailed out of view when we came near.

After that, I watched for them, watched the way the hawks and owls hunted quietly but surely throughout our pastures and even near the house–reducing the population of rabbits that gobbled my garden. I might briefly sympathize when a mouse flew past in the talons of a hawk, but my sympathy vanished when I found the feed sacks gnawed open in the barn.

The Black Hills Raptor Center has a three-fold mission:

  • Educate people about the natural world, using birds of prey as the “hook” to get them excited to learn more. This they do presently.
  • Rehabilitate injured raptors, returning them to live out their lives as wild animals and take their necessary place in the food chain. This is a future goal.
  • Participate in research endeavors that help to expand the scientific understanding of the role of raptors in the environment. This is a future goal.

The Black Hills Raptor Center made it possible for me to see these magnificent birds up close– to look into the eyes of Elise the Red-tailed Hawk, who is now an incredible 30 years old, an age she never would have achieved in the wild. To see that stance, to look at that curved beak, is to see perfection of the raptor sort.

And one day, as I walked under a dead tree in the yard of my retreat house, I looked up and saw the great horned owl I’d heard hooting in the darkness, and whose descendant was calling across the prairie as I drifted into sleep last night.

Gradually I came to recognize others in the raptor family, like the kestrels who ziiiing! across the highway to grab a mouse in the borrow pit. 

The Black Hills Raptor Center, a non-profit organization, has just issued its ten year anniversary annual report, showing that its small group of dedicated volunteers provided a thousand educational programs between 2010 and 2019. Volunteers take one or more raptors to visit preschool through college, to community groups, and to gatherings at Mt. Rushmore, other national parks, Custer State Park, conservation camps, outdoor expos, sports shows, and others.

To watch a small child gaze up at Elise for a first glimpse of the wild majesty of hawks is to see awe bloom.  

Through the dedicated work of volunteers, the organization has bought and paid for the property on which additional facilities will be built. Injured birds brought to the center now must be driven by volunteers to clinics with complete facilities. Donations are needed now for rehab pods and residences for the raptors, an office, vet clinic, ICU, aviaries, flight rooms, and a public education center.

Join me in helping to support these magnificent residents of our grasslands.

I love the names given to the divisions of support: Bald Eagles have given $75,000 to $125,000. More modest levels exist: for $100 to $499, you can become an American kestrel! Or contribute to become a Short-eared owl, a Red-tailed Hawk, a Snowy owl, or a Gyrfalcon.

Whatever you can contribute, do it: Black Hills Raptor Center, Box 9713, Rapid City, SD 57709.

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Can’t Find Any Toilet Paper?

Toilet paper rolls

I’ve been amused by the reports that people are buying up all the toilet paper because of coronavirus fears. What?? Surely toilet paper cannot be at the top of the list of what anyone really NEEDS in a health crisis. The trend seems to indicate we’ve gotten sadly out of touch with reality.

What can you use for toilet paper if you– and the store– are out of toilet paper?

— Cut newspaper to handy sizes.

— What other relatively soft paper is available? Grocery store receipts? Other waste paper? Dispose of used papers in a sealed container and then burn.

— Clean rags. Some folks dampen them to clean, then throw away or launder. Use a different color for each family member, and for each purpose. Put dirty rags in a sealed container next to the toilet; add water with vinegar, baking soda, or a few drops of bleach to the container so they can soak before they are washed. [This is not much different from old fashioned cloth diapers.]

— Cotton balls. [Nowadays they are synthetic, not real cotton, so they cannot be flushed or composted.]

— Snow. Wipe and flush.

— Do you live on the prairie? In fact, if you live in North America, Africa, Asia, Europe or Australia, you are likely to be within walking distance of mullein. I can personally affirm that mullein leaves are soft, absorbent, and abundant. Look up the plant, find a local source, and try it yourself.

Toilet paper substitute mullein in winter
Mullein in winter.

— If you don’t live where mullein grows, take a walk and look for other suitable leaves, or for moss. Be sure you know how to avoid poison ivy, poison oak and others of their nature.

— Corn cobs. Our ancestors reportedly used them, but almost anything you can find will be more comfortable!

— Your hand. In many countries– India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Morocco– people eat only with their right hand. That’s because it’s standard practice to wipe with the left hand. Of course they wash the left hand when they can, but they observe the right-hand ritual in politeness.

— Some folks who want to save trees and thus never use toilet paper recommend this method: pour a small amount of water into your hand from a pitcher or cup kept handy. Or use a water bottle with a small opening to create a pressurized cleansing stream. Splash and repeat if necessary. Then dry with a towel kept for that purpose.

If none of these appeal to you, and you have time, look up “toilet paper alternatives” on the internet.

— Wet wipes work on babies, why not adults? After all, toilet paper doesn’t clean or sanitize, it only wipes.

— Coffee filters are better than paper towels, and less likely to clog the plumbing. Sanitary pads will work, but should not be flushed.

— Toilet paper tubes, but don’t flush them.

— Toilet paper spray. Users point out that it contains cleansers, that moisture can prevent chafing, that it does not clog pipes, damage sewers or machinery, or require disposition in a landfill. It’s more easily portable than toilet paper, and doubles as an air freshener.

Toilet paper substitute mullein in summer
Mullein in summer.

Use your imagination– you may find more substitutes. And be grateful for what you have. The Romans used a sponge on a stick, and sailors often used rope. Both were probably shared, and neither was very clean.

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Driving in Darkness

Darkness headlights on gravel road

“They could be driving through the sky.” Elly Griffiths is writing in her mystery The Outcast Dead about a drive on the Norfolk coast, but the line struck me as descriptive of what driving home from town used to be like for me, the little girl in the back seat.

For a minute I stopped to think about the meaning of the line, and it came to me: that’s what the drive USED to be like. I remember the comfort of dozing in the back seat of the old 1954 Chevy, no doubt wrapped in a blanket, as my father drove home, talking quietly to my mother in the passenger seat. The murmur of their voices was comforting in the darkness as we drove down old Highway 79 and turned into our driveway. I usually sat up then, watching as the two headlights stabbed down the gravel road. Occasionally we’d see a coyote lope along ahead of us and duck under the fence, or an antelope dive under the bottom wire. Rabbits always scurried around the limestone outcropping at the top of the hill. Closer to the house, we’d often see the glowing eyes of a cat or two, hunting in the borrow ditches.

Darkness coyote crossing Nov 2015

In the ranch yard, we might pause while my father got out and shut the chicken house door, first flashing a light around inside to be sure no skunks or raccoons were lurking under the perches. Then he’d pull into the driveway and go inside to turn on the porch light before my mother got out of the car. He’d walk ahead of her into the dining room, turning on the overhead lights and perhaps turning the heat up if we had been gone most of the day.

When I got out of the car, I could stand behind it and look east and south and west and north into utter blackness– as if our house were the only one on the planet. Perhaps an owl would hoot, to add to the lonely atmosphere, or a coyote howl. Inside the circle of light, I knew I was safe. But I had slipped out my bedroom window and wandered the dark often enough to feel comfortable without light as well.

Darkness ranch house with lights on

Today, it’s hard to find true darkness even 20 miles from town, where I still live. As the countryside empties of ranchers– a subject on which I’ve ranted elsewhere– it is filling with folks who want to live in the country, which should be a wonderful thing. More people in the country means we share the taxes with more taxpayers, meet more people in church, and the like.

But one of the sad side effects is that although these folks like the country in the daylight, they apparently don’t like it at night. If I look to the west, I see half a dozen glows from yard lights that will burn all night long. To the north I see lights in what was recently my uncle’s pasture, as well as the eerie glow of Rapid City on the horizon. Only to the east and a little southeast can I look at real darkness. And I can appreciate it because I can stand on my deck in complete darkness if I choose to.

The key word is CHOOSE.

On the outside of the garage, and just above my back door, I have installed motion lights which come on when they detect movement. When I drive up to the garage, the light comes on. When I walk to my car parked in front of the garage, the light comes on. When I step out of the garage and walk to my door, the light above the door illuminates the lock.

Of course, the garage light also comes on when a rabbit hops across the driveway, but nothing is perfect.

M2E1L0-12R350B300Besides all these potential lights, I have lights on tall poles outside my house and my retreat house. These lights operate with a switch from inside the house, or with a device I can carry. I have to turn them on. When someone drives up, I can light their way to the door.

This means that I can CHOOSE to light the place like a supermarket parking lot if necessary, but it’s not lit that way every single minute of every single blessed night. In the darkness, the population of hawks and rabbits, skunks, coyotes, mice, pigeons, grouse, bullsnakes, and all the other useful wild inhabitants of the neighborhood can go about their business.

When I walk outside at night, I prefer to go in the dark. In a famous poem, Wendell Berry wrote, “To know the dark, go dark.” If you walk into the dark with a light, you know only the light– only the relatively tiny circle of glowing light. Anything outside that circle will be invisible. But if I step outside with the flashlight in my hand turned off, my eyes rapidly adjust until I can see remarkably well in the darkness– much better than I can see into the dark if I light my steps. I can carry the flashlight in case I need to light my way, or confront something in the darkness. But I can also walk quietly, using my sight, hearing, and touch to find my way, and learn that the dark, too “blooms and sings,” as Berry says, and “is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”

Walking in darkness, I have heard the whisper of a great-horned owl flying out of a cedar tree beside me, seen its great shadow cross the moon.

Darkness owl on power pole Oct 2017

 

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

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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The International Dark-Sky Association works to protect the night skies for present and future generations.

www.darksky.org

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.