Lucknow: The Topic is Not Guns

Downton Abbey DVDsWe were immersed in an episode of Downton Abbey when a slighting reference was made to one of the titled ladies of the neighborhood.

Granny–Violet, the Dowager Duchess of Grantham, was leaving the room when she turned her head and said with the significance of having the last word in an argument, “She loaded the guns at Lucknow.”

No other reference was made to Lucknow during the episode, but the line stuck in my mind, so I went looking for its meaning.

The Siege of Lucknow was part of the mutiny by Indian citizens against the exploitive British rule in 1857. Like most invaders, the British had been sacking the country for its wealth, insisting on establishing their own culture, and governing without regard for the citizens, who eventually fought back.

British troops and citizens, including men, women and children, took refuge from angry Indians in British governmental headquarters, which included a number of buildings which were vulnerable to sniper fire from many directions. From May 25 to November 27, 1857, with dwindling supplies and ammunition, the British fortunate enough to reach the site remained in the headquarters while the Indians massacred other Brits all over the country. About 5,000 Indians were thought to be in the initial attacking force, which eventually numbered 50,000, against about 1,729 British soldiers. About 7000 more English troops and their civilian charges were driven toward the location and joined the fight.

The story is complex and riveting, and at least a couple diaries written by women who were in the besieged force survive. In the reports I read, British losses were estimated at 2,500 killed, wounded and missing “while rebel losses are not known,” seeming to indicate that after the battles, the two sides didn’t even cooperate enough to count Indian losses. At this point in the Downton Abbey story, the British were just beginning to realize they were not going to be able to run the entire world.

Lucknow Books

Still, the point made by the Dowager Countess is significant: a woman who might not seem important or courageous in daily life showed fortitude in a situation that might have driven an ordinary woman to despair. Her heritage trained her to wear corsets, defer to men and be decorative, but she learned to stand with the fighters, to load guns while people were trying to kill her.

Imagine what it was like for women who had been raised to expect calm lives, their every need attended to be servants, to have almost nothing to eat or drink, to wear the same clothes day after day. And to stand near a window loading a rifle knowing that a sniper was ready to fire at any movement.

Lucknow Siege - steel engraving circa 1860 - unknown artistAnd loading those rifles wasn’t just a matter of slapping a bullet into the chamber. New cartridges had been issued for the Enfield rifle in February, 1857. To load his rifle, a soldier had to bite the cartridge open and pour the gunpowder it contained into the rifle’s muzzle, then stuff the paper cartridge into the musket as wadding. Then a ramrod was inserted in the rifle muzzle and driven downward to lodge the ball and powder against the firing mechanism. The paper cartridge was overlaid with a thin coating of beeswax and mutton tallow for waterproofing. Only then could the rifle be raised into firing position, cocked, and fired.

When the rumor spread that the cartridges were made from cow and pig fat, both Hindu and Muslim soldiers who were part of the British army were furious since Hindus consider cows holy while Muslims consider pigs unclean. Adding this rumor to the widespread dissatisfaction with the way the British treated India’s citizens was the final spark that ignited revolution.

I believe this will be one of those phrases that sticks in my mind and that I find myself applying often to those women who are the unsung heroines of our daily lives. I probably won’t use it aloud, since doing so would require this lengthy explanation.

These are the women who quietly do whatever is necessary for the common good, whether it’s cooking lunch or loading a rifle. Surely that is a worthy goal, to be a woman who is not acting for attention, fame, or money, but doing the job that most needs doing. Loading the guns at Lucknow.

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Here’s a modern muzzle-loading enthusiast demonstrating and explaining how to load a rifle of the type that was doubtless used by the British in the Seige of Lucknow. During years and years as a buckskinner– that is, a muzzle-loading enthusiast who camped with others portraying the early fur trade days in America– I loaded my rifle like this many times, and can testify that he accomplishes the task about as quickly as it could be done. In conditions where someone was shooting back, many folks firing muzzle-loaders omitted steps like the wadding around the cartridges, and might keep the balls in their mouths so they could be spit down the barrel instead of withdrawn from a bag.
(This YouTube video is just over one-minute long.)

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Plowprint Report: Only half of the Great Plains grasslands remains intact.

Ranch stock dam in a wet year June 2015

This blog is more political than what I usually post, but I am horrified by what I read in the Plowprint Report. In the second half of my blog I list some positive steps being taken to reverse the decline of grasslands, and how you can help.


The Great Plains Native Plant Society newsletter for Spring 2018 contains a summary of the World Wildlife Fund’s 2017 Plowprint Report– a survey of what’s happening to grasslands in the world.

Temperate grassland ecosystems– like we have in western South Dakota– are among the world’s least protected biomes. Worldwide, this habitat is being lost at a terrifying rate because of the production of food and fuel for the growing human population. As grasslands decline we lose the services grasslands provide, from carbon sequestration to water infiltration.

Corn and soy have driven out the majority of the tallgrass prairie in the eastern Great Plains.

Since 2009, nearly 8% of the landscape in the Great Plains has been plowed for crops, leaving about 54% of the grassland intact.

In 2015-2016 alone, 2.5 MILLION acres of Great Plains grasslands were lost to crop production. Keeping these grasslands intact could have saved 1.7 TRILLION gallons of water, or about 4% of the total flow volume of the Missouri River Basin, or ¼ the volume of Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

Instead, this water– enough for 11.6 million 4-person homes’ annual use– washed the equivalent of the weight of 127 Empire State buildings, or 46 MILLION TONS of sediment and fertilizer into rivers, lakes, streams, and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.

Birds fly awayAs grasslands go, so go the birds. At least 6 songbird species that are ONLY found in the Great Plains are in serious danger of disappearing. Many bird populations in the plains have declined 65-94% since the 1960s.

Intact grasslands hold thousands of years’ worth of organic matter that gives the land its ability to store and filter water, stabilize soil, sequester carbon and support diverse life above and below ground. We cannot easily, if at all, recover the losses.

Visit the World Wildlife Fund’s website for more information and to read the entire Plowprint Report, with maps and photos.

Now for the good news.

You can help support the World Wildlife Fund and other conservation groups (such as The Nature Conservancy, and Quivira Coalition, and many others) that are trying to reverse the grasslands destruction by

— Encouraging sustainable agricultural for producers, and encouraging responsible sourcing for companies that buy agricultural products.

— Lobbying for conservation programs to be included in the 2018 Farm Bill, such as:

  • Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to help fund the retirement of marginal land to grassland for habitat and to build soils.
  • Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to encourage conservation partnerships that are coordinated, leveraged and well-funded.
  • Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to provide assistance to landowners seeking to improve conservation outcomes on working lands.
  • Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) to permanently protect grassland from development, subdivision and conversion.
  • A strong Sodsaver provision that eliminates insurance subsidies when native grasslands are plowed under to produce crops.
  • Enhanced Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS) Technical Assistance funding so that farmers and ranchers are afforded the technical expertise necessary to access farm programs and improve conservation outcomes.
  • Funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program to assist ranching families with transitions to the next generation and to assist with bringing new ranchers into opportunities for mentoring.

— And educating people about the importance of grassland conservation and encouraging them to share their commitment to this with family and friends, as well as with companies that sell food and other agricultural products.

dont plow the rangeThe current farm bill expires in September 2018. The House and Senate Committees on Agriculture are discussing the 2018 Farm Bill right now. See https://agriculture.house.gov/ and https://www.agriculture.senate.gov/ for updates.

You can also call or email your Members of Congress to demand that conservation and sustainable agriculture programs be included in the 2018 Farm Bill.

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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A Steamy Experience

And I Recommend It!

Evans Plunge old advertWe recently spent a half day at Evans Plunge in Hot Springs, and I’m ready to go again. I’ll wear my bathing suit under sweatpants and sweatshirt so as soon as we’re admitted, we can head to the Men’s and Women’s changing rooms.

Furnished with curtained booths for undressing, the rooms have long benches near the lockers for those who are less modest. Another room has individual showers so you can clean up before or after your soak in the pool. Don’t expect a hot shower, however; the water that comes from the faucet is the same temperature as that in the pools. Toilets are also private and numerous.

The Lockers:

The locker system can be confusing, so bring a handful of quarters and read the instructions on the wall. Once the locker is closed and locked, you’ll need either a key or a quarter to open it again. I undress quickly, down to my swim suit, and stuff my socks, shoes, pants and sweatshirt into the locker. I gave up wearing sandals in the pool; they aren’t necessary, and you only have to keep track of them. I keep my towel, but put my glasses safely away with my box of quarters before locking the door. I pin the key to my swim suit and within minutes I’ve hung my towel on a convenient hook and am strolling along the side of the huge pool. Chairs along the sides and at both ends allow places to sit and observe the swimmers, or to dry out or rest.

The water:

Evans Plunge is fed by five thousand gallons of water per minute flowing from a spring at the north end of the pool. Mineral-laden natural springs are found in a wide region around the town, and the nearby Fall River is about the same temperature as the pool: 87 degrees.

Before you leap into the pool, however, think about that figure. The advertising mentions “the warm mineral waters,” but the average temperature of the human body is 98.2 degrees. We’ve stepped inside from a 20-degree, snow-covered landscape, so the water feels warm.

Evans Plunge The Whale Slide

The Big Pool:

In one corner is a slide shaped like the head of a frog with an open mouth that dribbles water and small children down the tongue and into a shallow pool under the watchful gazes of lifeguards and mothers. Opposite them are the “jet slide,” reaching nearly to the lofty roof, and the “whale slide.” Water runs through both as they twist and circle and gyrate before spilling their riders into the pool. This is the noisy end of the pool: children shriek in glee, and teenagers bellow and whoop as they fling themselves into the slides and explode out the other end. But the building is so immense and filled with echoes that the noise seldom seems intrusive; it washes over you as gently as the water ripples down those slides.

We stroll past a set of concrete steps leading down into the shimmering aqua water, admiring the colorful natural pebbles that create a floor. Gradually the water deepens to five feet as we approach the end reserved for lap swimmers, though if they are not present that part of the pool is open to everyone.

Families dominate at the shallow end as fathers and mothers mind multiple children, younger ones wearing water wings or life preservers. Some folks swim earnestly from one side of the pool to the other, clearly exercising. An older woman stands in five-foot-deep water, lifting arm weights. Two men with enormous bellies hanging over their tiny trunks stride by, exercising by walking around and around the pool between swimming and steaming.

Overhead, metal struts support a massive roof and windows that admit light even on cloudy days. Supplementary floodlights make sure no shadows lurk. On the walls, brightly-colored murals depict some of the history and beauty of the area, showing rock formations sculpted by this mineral-laden water throughout the valley.

Evans Plunge rings and mural

The Swing Rings:

Hanging from the ceiling are five rings about the size of a man’s head, dangling on long ropes perhaps five feet above the water’s surface. These provide a test of strength, agility and—what many of those who attempt the crossing don’t realize—timing. From one side of the pool you can grab one ring, swing to the next, catch it, and swing to the next. If you are successful, you can cross the pool without getting wet.  I once saw a supremely confident young man kick off his shoes and cross fully clothed without getting a droplet of water on him. This is not what happens to most who try, however.

Arm strength is important, as is a firm grip. Once you’ve caught the first ring, likely slippery and wet from the last user, you need to swing vigorously to reach the next ring, and the next. Most of those who try SPLASH down below the second ring.

Timing is more important than strength. Once the rings are moving because someone has crossed, it’s possible to catch the first ring and swing out at the precise time that the second ring reaches the point closest to the first ring, so the swinger doesn’t have to reach as far. Most times, however, the potential swinger reaches the most distant point of the first ring just as just as the second ring swings away from them. SPLASH! Some of them get it immediately. They go back to the edge, catch the first ring, and take time to watch how the second one swings. If they choose correctly, they arrive at each successive ring just as it reaches its closest point to the desperately swinging figure.

No one laughs—except the hapless swinger’s friends if they are in a jolly mood—when someone hits the water. Some manage to drop in feet first, but a fair number land on their faces with a mighty WHOOSH! Still, when someone swings across with grace and finesse, many people applaud.

The Hot Tubs, Steam Room and Sauna:

At one end of the pool, behind a gate which can be fastened shut (probably to deter small children) are the main reasons I like to visit the Plunge: two hot tubs, a steam room, and a sauna.

The hot tubs sit on raised platforms. On the wall near each is a button that will turn on a whirlpool effect which lasts for the 15 minutes or so that one should spend in each of these hotter atmospheres. Each hot tub is about the size of those sold for home use, with contoured seats, so they will comfortably seat four or five people. Lighting in this area is bright, but the two remaining rooms are deliberately kept nearly dark, presumably for the relaxing effect.

Down the hall are the doors opening into the steam room and sauna. Both rooms are small. The sauna has two levels of slatted benches, the lower slightly cooler, as well as a shower in the corner so occupants can cool off right in the room.

The steam room has a single bench along three of its four walls, facing a vent from which steam issues constantly. The floor is crusted unevenly with the minerals in the water.

On our most recent visit, I entered the steam room and was nearly blinded by the rolling steam. Gingerly, I stepped forward until I could see a spot to sit on the bench beside two burly men. Both nodded and shifted a little to show me I had room to sit. Before long, three more men entered; none of them weighed less than three hundred pounds. We were packed in there like sardines, thigh to sweaty thigh, but I never felt threatened. The conversation was of football, with nothing that could offend the ears of a female of any age.

Evans Plunge seniors

Plunge Proprieties

And my experience, I think, demonstrates one of the most important elements of a visit to The Plunge: the atmosphere. Truly enjoying the experience requires more than a swimsuit. This is a family-oriented experience, and much of the enjoyable mood depends upon mutual respect for other visitors. Many of the customers are elderly, so large men with bellies hanging precariously over their tiny little trunks stroll the perimeter of the pool and gasp in the steam room. White-haired women with tightly curled hairdos tip-toe carefully down the concrete steps into the shallow end. The day we were there, most of the customers were long out of their teen years, and everyone behaved with respect and decorum. Perhaps the two lifeguards continually patrolling the pool’s edges suggest not only a safe place, but one that is comfortable for everyone.

Sometimes, however, folks who are new to the experience fail to understand the etiquette. Here’s an example: Once when Jerry and I were the only two people in the steam room, two teen-age girls came to the door, opened it, and stood there giggling and debating whether to go inside. The steam we had been enjoying rolled out the door, while they obliviously ruined our experience. We didn’t explain, and they didn’t understand how rude they were being. Eventually, they shut the door and went away. We sighed and waited for the steam to build up.

Then they came back: with a half-dozen giggling friends. They made quite a production out of peering into the dark, twittering, shrieking, and grabbing one another—again letting out most of the steam before they found places to sit. We knew they wouldn’t stay long, so we headed for the pool to cool off.

After we spend a quarter hour or so in the steam room or sauna, we head down the concrete steps into the big pool and gasp when the waves strike. Still, the point is to cool down so we can go back to the heat, so while Jerry swims from one side to the other, I lie back and immerse myself, enjoying the feel of the smooth stones under my feet. I learned to swim once, when I was about ten, but I’m not good at it, and fortunately at The Plunge, I don’t have to be.

Evans Plunge exterior in early days

History:

The Evans Plunge is probably the oldest tourist attraction in the Black Hills, originally built in 1890, but the modernized facility is sparkling with light, bright tiles, and smooth natural pebbles. According to ultimatewaterpark.com, it remains the world’s largest warm water indoor swimming pool and waterpark.

Evans Plunge around 1891

The park is owned and operated by the City, and open year round (with some specific exceptions) at 1145 N. River Street in Hot Springs, an hour south of Rapid City. General admission for a day is $14, but various rates apply for seniors, for long-term admission, and other possibilities allowing a cheaper experience.

Those exceptions: the Plunge is usually closed for a week or so in February for cleaning, and is not open on Tuesdays. Otherwise, the hours are generous, winter and summer. Call 605-745-5165 for details, or look at www.evansplunge.com.

Besides the pool, the building houses a weight room with every kind of exercise machine I’ve ever seen, and a few more, as well as a cardio room and a spinning room, with spinning classes on particular days. You can enjoy water basketball and volleyball, water aerobics, and “Boot Camp” water aerobics from September to May, as well as arthritic water aerobics. Besides all this, the website indicates Open Golf, with a net set up to catch the balls during cold weather. And there’s talk of introducing yoga classes!

Evans Plunge outside poolIn warm weather, the outdoor pool is also open, featuring another slide. Food and beverages are available, as is a gift shop, and no doubt the place bubbles with happy tourists.

We probably won’t be going to the Plunge much after the weather warms up. But while the temperature drops to the teens or twenties every night, I’ll keep my Plunge tote packed with towels, swim suit, and quarters for the lockers.

Oh yes: underwear, so I don’t have to wear the wet suit home.

With our day pass, we’ll likely spend several mornings steaming and enjoying the sauna, have lunch, and then debate whether to go again before we head home. Last time the desire for naps won out, but maybe we can stay awake longer next time.

Maybe I’ll see you there!

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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The Skunk Minuet

Skunks are always around on the prairie, but with luck we hardly know it because they pursue their diet of insects, worms rodents, lizards, frogs, snakes, birds, eggs, berries, roots, leaves and grasses without disturbing us.

Our current resident skunk is properly polite, as befits a wild denizen of the plains. We’ve seen signs of occupancy in disused badger holes on the outskirts of our hill but the Striped Stinker has never forced a confrontation with the dogs. Most importantly, the Odiferous One has not come into the dog pen, nor established a burrow under the porch or garage, as the breed likes to do.

At the New Year, however, we discarded a few crab legs in the compost bin, a tall plastic affair backed into the railroad tie fence near the house. That night, the Deft Digger burrowed under the plastic framework of the bin, into the compost, and straight through to the top, gobbling crab legs all the way. Rummaging for more, the skunk shoved most of the compost into scattered piles around the compost bin.

A few nights later we set the game camera and captured the Skunk Minuet. Sharp-eyed viewers may also spot a mouse that was benefitting from our discarded scraps as well (in the last photo). Scroll through the pictures quickly and the Smelly one appears to be dancing.

 

 

 

Meanwhile, Jerry put the compost back, filled in the hole, and piled rocks in front of the bin.

That night, Sir– or Mistress– Skunk dug in through the back of the bin, and scattered compost. Now our compost bin is solidly ringed and braced with rocks on all sides.

Will this stop the Furry Fury? We hope so. But we’re setting the camera to keep track of the next round in the dance.

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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O Holy Night on the Prairie

Winter grass and rocks

Folks who are used to bustling, fur-wrapped shoppers and greenery hung with lights would see the wide prairie that stretches in front of me as a bleak place to spend Christmas. The grass is a mountain lion pelt– not one color, but gold, fawn, red, brown, and colors for which no name exists– blended into each other over the rolling hills. A few limestone outcroppings studded with pale green lichen, and a scatter of white and granite-gray boulders decorate the scene; there are no trees, no green, cone-shaped evergreens that mean Christmas to many. In the deeper gullies, an occasional bare cottonwood shows a white, lightning-stripped trunk against the grass; buffalo berry and plum bushes stand naked in narrow crevices beside ground-hugging juniper bushes blending green and bronze.

In the eastern distance are the Badlands, pink, gray and blue spires a finger’s width above the horizon, made higher this morning by mirage which is rapidly spreading, to disappear as the sun comes up dull gold. To the west rise the Black Hills, a handsbreadth of tree-covered hills, rising in five distinct ranges and glowing blue in the morning light.

Here, while Christmas songs play on the pickup radio, I see nothing at all to remind me of the season. The grass is short, because we graze these distant pastures in summer, and bring the cattle closer to home in winter. I am making a last survey, picking up salt blocks and fence panels, to be sure gates are closed against the neighbor’s buffalo. When I turn homeward today, I will be shutting the door on this part of the ranch until spring, when we’ll bring cows and young calves here to graze through the summer.

Winter antelopeA coyote slips down a draw, glancing back over his shoulder. Except for his quick movement, a flash of white at his throat and a nearly-black ridge on his spine and tail, he would be invisible against the grass. My eye catches movement again, and I turn to see thirty antelope run over a hill, white rump-patches flashing. One pauses, silhouetted against the sun.

The gray limestone of Silas Lester’s house has descended a little more toward the ground this year; the blank windows look like half-shut eyes. The house was never finished; dry years came, and Silas sold his land for two dollars an acre to my grandfather, who took the risk and stayed. The spring Silas found and enlarged still runs gently from the hillside, into a tank George and I dug into the hillside and covered with wood chips to keep the water from freezing. I open the gate to it, so the wild animals can safely drink, and leave a few chips of salt nearby; a really thrifty rancher would take them home to the calves, but I like to think of the antelope and smaller creatures– porcupines, skunks, mice– enjoying the rare treat of salt this winter.

Another year has passed. Some years George and I made this final trip in deep snow, laughing as the pickup plunged into a drift, apprehensive when it dropped too deep and the tires spun. We’ve shared picnics here under the talking leaves of the cottonwoods in summer, shoveled together when the pickup was stuck in winter. Feeling a little foolish, we shut off the motor and observed a worldwide moment of silence in honor of John Lennon a few years ago, then sang his songs on the way home, and didn’t feel foolish at all.

The chores we did together I now do alone. The Christmas songs on the radio mean the solstice is near, when the days will almost imperceptibly begin to lengthen. Now the sun has risen far south; it will make a shallow arc in the southern sky all day, and the moon will shine in the south windows of the bedroom tonight.

Winter Sunrise from Windbreak House 2014

We started a tradition a few years ago, when Michael came in a dry summer with a trunkload of fireworks; it was too dry to shoot them then, so we saved them for his winter visit, and fired them on New Year’s Eve. Last year, I did it alone; this year, I may invite friends to share the ritual. On Christmas Eve I will join my cousin and his wife and their children, one my godson, in church. I attended the same church when I was five years old, and my mother sang in the choir. It’s famous for its massive organ, and as the tones swell into the familiar “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful,” I– who have been anything but a faithful churchgoer– will find myself in tears. The organ tones express to me the largeness of the land, rising over the small minds and bodies of the people who live upon it.

Slowly, as Christmas passes, snow falls, grouse mate with bell-like calls in the winter night stillness, the days will grow warmer, and spring will come. If we get spring rains– which have not come for three years– the tawny grass will show a hint of green at the roots in April and by June the hills will be rich with new life.

“I believe in the Israelite,” sings a low voice on the radio, backed by the sound of bells, and I wonder. Surely no one who sees the seasons turn as I do, who observes the prairie’s stillness in this season of rest, and the inevitable coming of spring life, summer’s lushness, the harvests of fall, and the chill of winter again and again, can fail to believe that all is arranged as it should be. That no matter how great are our personal sorrows, the world is proceeding in an orderly fashion. That we are all part of a great cycle, and our job is to help the earth in its turning, to keep it pure and beautiful and clean for those who will surely come after us.

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

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land  was published in 1991 by Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado.

This essay, O Holy Night on the Prairie, appears on pages 171-173 in the original edition, and on pages 191-194 in the Anniversary edition of 2008.

LC2Boots

 

Gathering “Gathering from the Grassland”

gathering-stacks-to-sign-2017.jpg

Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal, is my most recent prose book. With publisher Nancy Curtis of High Plains Press in Glendo, WY, I’ve been working on it for several years.

In order for me to get copies of the book as soon as it was printed, we agreed to meet in Lusk, Wyoming, between our two ranches. We’d have lunch at The Pizza Place, and catch up on our personal and professional news. She’d hand over my author copies– 5 clothbound and 5 paperbound– and we’d discuss how we will each encourage sales of the book in the coming months. Many publishers, large and small, don’t do much promotion. High Plains Press supports its authors in dozens of ways, including buying lunch in Lusk– the New York City of our neighborhood.

LMH car detail 2017So “One Misty, Moisty Morning,” as Schooner Fare puts it, I loaded a handful of CDs, jugs of water, a rain coat and coffee. With Bob Seger, I declared at the top of my lungs that I was headed for “Katmandu;” If there’s a good song about driving to Lusk, I haven’t found it, but I won’t be surprised if this post generates suggestions.

When Jerry and I lived in Wyoming, I drove five and one-half hours from my ranch to Cheyenne regularly, but since we moved to my ranch home, my trips have been rare.  So I was delighted to hum a “Prairie Lullaby” (Stephanie Davis) as I headed “Beyond the Horizon” (Bob Dylan.) Since I’ve made this drive hundreds, if not thousands, of times, I knew I’d see familiar scenes, but would also surely see the unusual.  And the Wyoming breezes– “Four Strong Winds” from all four directions– would keep me alert.

CDs in car 2017We’ve had some frequent, though small, rains around home, so our hills are fairly green for this late in the season, though not nearly as vivid as those “Green Rolling Hills” Emmylou Harris was singing about. “Under a Rolling Sky,” (Michael Martin Murphey) the sun blazed red, stained by the smoke of fires in Montana and other areas west of us. Thick gray smoke muffled the outlines of the Black Hills and cast a nasty yellow tinge over the grass. I hummed with the “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” (Bob Dylan) clouds as I turned west on SD 18, and zipped past Hot Springs. I soared up to Coffee Flats while Janis Joplin crooned about “Summertime.”

And there I got a surprise: two bicyclists! Each wore a helmet, and a skintight outfit striped in bright colors; their panniers bulged. Heads down, oblivious to the “Thunder on the Mountain,” (Dylan) they were headed west.

Just how much did they know about the arid country ahead of them? From Edgemont, it’s almost sixty miles to Newcastle, and almost seventy to Lusk, WY. There are no towns or settlements along the route, and most of the ranch houses are a considerable distance from the highway. At Mule Creek Junction, 21 miles west of Edgemont, a rest area offers water and “rest,” but little else.

Wyoming Highway near Lusk stock footage

As I accelerated past them– not in the “Mercedes Benz” Janis was warbling about– I tried to visualize what the bicyclists might be seeing. That “Peaceful Country” (Murphey) looks spectacular from that high plateau: down toward the tree-lined Cheyenne River and Beaver Creek drainages. Silver-blue sage sweeps up the hills, and many of the gullies are jagged and deep. With their heads down, would the riders see anything but their feet and the pavement?

When I drove this route nine years ago, I often thought of Murphey’s “Hardscrabble Creek” as my eyes followed ranch roads winding from the highway into the distance beyond the sagebrush. Often a beat-up car or pickup was parked beside the gate. I knew if I got into that vehicle, I’d find the keys under the floor mat or behind the visor, where ranchers always leave them. The transportation wasn’t abandoned, but meant the family had a child of school age who drove to the highway to be picked up by the school bus headed for Newcastle or Lusk. Is the ranching population aging? I saw few vehicles beside the ranch roads on this trip.

LMH autographs GATHERING 2017In Lusk, I parked on the wide street in front of The Pizza Place, and chose a booth that allowed me to see the front door while I wrote in my journal. When Nancy arrived, we enjoyed our visit and our pizza, noticing as the place filled with folks headed to a local funeral, or just having lunch in their work day. Then we explained to one of the waitresses that we’d like to keep using the booth awhile to sign books. “No problem,” she said, and we started lugging boxes of books in from the car. Once in a while after that, a waitress would peek around the corner, but they left us alone for more than an hour as I signed books, and smiled when we refilled our water and tea glasses.

After I’d signed books Nancy will have on hand for customers who ask, we transferred the boxes of books I’d bought at my author discount to my car, so I could head home and begin selling them. One of the most pleasant features of Lusk is those wide streets: two women with boxes of books could move safely from one car to the one behind it without being run over by a semi-load of hay.

Periwinkle Patent Leather Clogs“I love your purple Crocs!” I said to Nancy. “I had to give mine up for tougher shoes.”

“Everyone says that,” she said firmly, “but I am not wearing Crocs. I am wearing Periwinkle Patent Leather clogs.” Publishers have to be precise.

Independent authors and publishers need to “Try Just a Little Bit Harder,” and I promised to do so as I sang along with Joplin’s throaty vocals, accelerating out of town.

Rumblestrips stock footageWyoming highway officials, among whom Jerry used to be numbered, know the hazards of this two-lane highway that winds through the sagebrush. They’ve thoughtfully placed rumble strips—corrugated asphalt that make a terrible racket when your tires hit it–on both edges of the highway, AND in the middle. The purpose is to wake up dozing drivers, or perhaps alert those who are texting.

I noticed them first when they were applied to Highway 79 that goes past my house. Before sunrise, when I’m still trying to sleep, a truck hitting the rumble strips sounds like a helicopter landing on my bed.

Rumble strips and cattle or sheep that climb through fences to graze the right-of-way aren’t all that keeps a person alert on this highway. I heard a Whoosh! as another “Greenie”—Wyoming slang for speeding Colorado cars with green license plates–raced past in a no-passing zone.

I slammed on the brakes to let the idiot pull in front of me seconds before he would have been obliterated by an oncoming truck. I was angry, but I put on my “Secret Smile,” (Murphey) satisfied with being a life-saver. In the past, I may have exceeded speed limits occasionally, but no longer. I’d rather “Give A Little Bit Back” (Davis), relax, enjoy the scenery, and arrive safe and alive at home.

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

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Gathering Windbreak JournalMy first published book, in 1987, was a diary of a year on my plains ranch. Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains was published by a small publisher, Barn Owl Books, and featured my observations of the work and life I was leading then. Over the years hundreds of readers wrote to me with thanks for letting them see ranch life.

Now, thirty years later I’ve published another book in journal form: Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal (High Plains Press, September 2017). Much has changed in the intervening decades, especially because I am no longer involved in the daily chores of raising cattle. A central part of this journal is my research into the diaries and records left by my ancestors on this ranch on the plains. ​I learned things about my relatives, their history, and this land that I never knew.

I’m more convinced than ever that it’s essential for us to tell our stories, not only for our blood descendants, but for those who will come after us in this world. Write for your children and grandchildren so they will know how you survived this life, and write for yourself.

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High Plains Press is offering a special limited-time discount for early orders. If you order directly from High Plains Press by September 20th, you’ll get a $5 discount on the limited edition hardcover.

trade paper — $19.95 plus $4 shipping
limited edition hardcover — $29.95 — Your price = $24.95 plus $4 shipping

Go to the High Plains Press webpage for my book Gathering from the Grassland

Special Offer Gathering from the GrasslandClick on the “order now” button for the limited edition hardcover.

Select how many copies you want. (Volume discount on shipping.)

Be sure to use the comment box if you would like a personalized inscription beyond my signature (for instance, “Happy Thanksgiving, Aunt Nellie”) in any of the copies you purchase.

Enter the voucher/coupon code LINDA.

Click on the “recalculate” button to update the amount due, then proceed with your payment.

(Sorry, there is no discount on the paperback edition at this time.)

Thank you and enjoy the read!

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Flesh-eating Bacteria and Snortable Chocolate: Summer Reflections

Hay bales 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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