Twenty-Five Meditations on Grief

Retreat

On May 29, the day after Memorial Day, I wrote in my journal, I need a retreat.

As I considered the statement, I realized I meant that I’m never free of cooking, checking this, cleaning that. Always my priority is something other than myself or my writing. Lately I’ve taken a few minutes once in a while to read in the middle of the day, but that’s not thinking or writing. Still, it’s a step– taking some time for myself

Here’s the irony: I have a spare house where writers, artists and others come to enjoy their own retreats from their busy-ness. Moreover, I write and give speeches about how to find time for writing in a busy life. I have known for years that taking– making– time in a busy schedule is essential to creativity. I don’t believe real creativity can occur under pressure. If one gets a creative idea in a busy office, I think the meditation that led to it has happened at an earlier time.

Yet recently I am filled with tension that surely hampers creativity.

 LMH office - small copy for blog

Imagine

LMH with toby in sweater 2009 - small copy for blogI recently read Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works and was struck by his statement that many insights happen in warm showers or when we’re dozing off because we’re relaxed. Our brains are being creative because they have nothing else to do. He also quoted studies that demonstrate that happy people perform better, and he thinks daydreaming should be part of the daily routine because that’s when insights happen.

Daydream

When did I last daydream?

Probably in grade school when the teacher rapped on my desk and said, “Stop daydreaming!”

Is this why I am always doing something? Does always doing something actually block the creative thought that is so important to who I am? I read in bed, write in my journal, rush downstairs to answer emails and run upstairs to cook lunch, then gallop downstairs to finish that paragraph. I’m rarely without a book in my hand when I sit down, but I also usually have a pad and pencil so that if my reading sparks an idea, I can capture it.

linda toby deck manzanita 

Busyness

I’m always taking notes, not only in my handwritten personal journal, but in other ways– in my grocery list, in my garden guide, in my purse calendar and desk calendar and computer calendar, not to mention my computer journal. Does this busyness actually hamper thinking?

I start each day with coffee and my journal, where I record the time, temperature, my appointments for the day, and what I’ll make for lunch and dinner. I seldom simply sit still, letting the day wash over me.

Can creativity blossom while we “interact” on Facebook or chat on the phone or Twitter, however that’s done?

I doubt it.

Journal in grass 1990s - small copy for blog 

Relaxation

Does creative relaxation need solitude?

I’m not sure. I can visualize a woman quilting with friends as they discuss an idea that blooms between them as they each contribute ideas. Each person’s creativity may be encouraged by that of the others to generate a new whole.

Yet instead of being constantly busy, suggests Lehrer in Imagine, we need to create time to deliberately relax in whatever mode works best for each of us. This creative relaxation may take many forms: sitting on the deck, lying in a hot bath, or listening to music through headphones while walking, but it is necessary. Perhaps quilting with friends qualifies.

 women quilting - smallcopy for blog

Destruction

Why do I try to record everything? Because I once burned all the journals I’d kept until I was in my mid-twenties?

That act of destruction still takes my breath away when I remember it. And especially when I realize that I didn’t understand at the time I was hurting myself because my worthless husband at the time, who had cheated on our vows multiple times, had read my journals– because he thought I was unfaithful.

 burning journals - small copy for blog

Encouragement

Certainly I don’t believe everything I write down is important.

Perhaps I am looking ahead, to believe that someday another writer will find encouragement in what I’ve done.

“She was cooking and cleaning and taking care of dogs and she still wrote poems and books, so I can do those things. She survived that and that, so I can thrive as well. ”

 Computer hands - small copy for blog

Robins

I sit under the deck with my journal watching the robins feeding the chirping babies; at least 3 heads show above the rim of the nest. Both male and female robins have red breasts, but the male’s is larger and redder, while the female’s looks washed out. I need to pay closer attention.

One or the other feeds the babies at 3:28, 3:37, 3:41, 3:47, 3:49, 3:55, 4:04, 4:05, and on and on.

The next morning when I peer down through the deck at the robin nest, it is empty. But when I walk toward the greenhouse, three baby robins suddenly squawk and flutter up over the concrete wall and into the grass.

The morning after that, two of them are sitting on the grass as an adult robin feeds them. A few days later, we still see adults feeding younger robins in various places around the house. They cheep incessantly while they wait to be fed: like teen-age humans.

At the tree swallow nest, two or maybe three indistinguishable swallows are zipping into the nest every few minutes, presumably also feeding chicks.

Meanwhile, two barn swallows perch on a deck support and chatter at one another. And blackbirds and sparrows zip back and forth across the yard, busy on their own errands. I’ve really noticed this lately: the birds are so busy hunting that they don’t bother to fly any higher than necessary. When we are in the yard, they zip past at waist or eye level, sometimes barely high enough to clear the ground. When I’m driving on the highway, I see they just clear the fences. They veer around obstacles with blinding speed, concentrating on getting where they are going.

Tonight, we watch several– it’s hard to tell how many– tree swallows flying high in the air, pirouetting, doing glissades, spinning, flying in formation– clearly just playing.

Robin baby wants to eat 2017--7-8 - small copy for blog 

Survival

I try to ignore the destruction being done to the environment and to every shred of decency in this country by greedy thugs who are dismantling laws that have protected the air, water, and resources belonging to all of us. We seem to be living under a dictatorship rather than a democracy. If I read too much of the news, I become depressed, so I try to concentrate on what I can accomplish. Fortunately, we have no television set, so I’m sure I’m spared considerable ballyhoo.

Like the birds, I keep busy feeding my interests, zipping around obstacles. Their job is survival, as is mine. We do what we can while we have life.

Like the robins and tree swallows, I’ll keep on with what I am doing because the work I can do is all I can claim to accomplish.

 Robin adult and fledging 2018--6-14 - small copy for blog

Lilacs

My dad planted lilacs every spring. He’d dig a few from where they thrived and take the shoots in front of the house to plant them where my mother could see them from the kitchen and living room. I can see him with a few branches in a bucket, carrying his shovel over his bony shoulder. He knew he wouldn’t live to see those lilacs bloom at their finest, but he planted them anyway.

Today, they grow in a massive row ten feet tall and four feet wide, and they are covered in bloom. Did he know that someday they would bloom like this, causing me to miss him so much?  I can picture him with my mother strolling down the avenues of lilac bloom, reveling in the rich scent and color.

In the cemetery, the lilacs he planted on his parents’ graves have overwhelmed the stones, nearly hiding them.  We have sometimes cut them back, but we can’t, or possibly we won’t, remove them. They mean too much, shedding their fragrance over the motley collection of memorials around them.

 Lilacs at HSH - small copy for blog

Cemetery

In the cemetery, bluebells are blooming in the buffalo grass and big bluestem. Sweet William is standing tall, almost ready to bloom. I see grape hyacinth three inches high on some graves, and budding roses on others.

Why do I take real flowers to the cemetery on Memorial Day every year? Every year I find peanut butter jars and olive oil jugs, weight them with rocks, and fill them with real flowers and the branches of flowering shrubs that grow around my parents’ house. I put these modest offerings on the graves of my husband, my father and mother, my grandmother and grandfather and the uncle I never knew, William Edward Callahan, my father’s half-brother, always called Eddie. His brother Archie, killed in a fall from a horse in our pastures, is buried beside his mother Ida and her second husband, Charles Hasselstrom.

All around us, graves are decorated lavishly with bright arrangements of artificial flowers. Some decorations consist of flowers in colors unknown to reality, but others are faithful reproductions of real, gorgeous blooms, backed by white Styrofoam crosses and wreaths. On some graves are small statues: the Virgin Mary, a horse, a tractor.

When I kneel over the grave of my father to place my offering, I can see his ironic smile when he made this trip every year. He’d walk to a particularly ostentatious stone of a once-powerful ranching family that had dwindled away into a few kids raised in town and say, “They used to BE somebody,” and walk away shaking his head.

Two days later I collect the wilted flowers and the containers and take them home to the garbage. The artificial flowers were still bright, though have already blown over in our ferocious winds. All summer, driving past the cemetery, I’ll glance up and see the flowers slowly disappearing as they disintegrate and are blown into the surrounding prairie.

 LMH PHOTO cemetery fake flowers - small copy for blog

Labor Day

Since burials began, people have probably left gifts at the graves of their loved ones. Sometimes the gifts were food, clothing, or weapons. Sometimes captured enemies were symbolically killed to mark a death, or a favorite dog or horse was slaughtered to join its master. Man doesn’t seem to want our loved ones to go into the darkness of death without comforts.

Since I am a member of the local Cemetery Board, I will drive to the cemetery the day after Labor Day, in early September. I will drive between the great stone gates, over the cattle guard and between the cannons.

Cannons. They guarded the grave of some Confederate prisoner in the Dry Tortugas, and through someone’s influence were brought proudly to this remote outpost in the West. Is there something ironic about these great weapons of war pointing at every visitor who comes to this cemetery?

With other members of the Cemetery Board, I will walk the cemetery collecting pieces of Styrofoam and torn flowers, putting all these symbolic gifts from the spring in black plastic bags to be piled into dumpsters and hauled away. People who care enough to decorate the graves for Memorial Day apparently find it inconvenient to take the offerings away before they become trash.

What do cannons in the cemetery mean?

Why do I take flowers to the cemetery every Memorial Day? Because my mother did.

 LMH PHOTO cemetery cannons - small copy for blog

Scraps

All I have left of my grandmother are a few photographs. She smiles love at me from above my computer every day.

All I have left that I can touch are a few fragile compositions in thread.

All I leave behind me will be scraps of paper threaded with words.

 Cora Belle picture in hand - small copy for blog

Graves

When we are finished with our lives, we sink into the ground, like the graves on the cemetery hill. Humans’ resting places are marked. The graves of the birds are anonymous. Yet they have just done their duty, done all they could.

 LMH PHOTO cemetery old stones and view - small copy for blog

Tombstones

LMH PHOTO Wm E Callahan grave - small copy for blog

I stop to read William Edward Callahan’s white marble tombstone, with his birth and death dates and the symbol of his military service cleanly carved into stone. 1895 to 1942. I’ve read his letters from Camp Funston where he was sent when he was improperly drafted at the age of 46. He wanted to come home to his horses.

My father always felt guilty that he wasn’t able to serve in the military; the rheumatic fever he had as a child left him with a withered arm. He wouldn’t have been good at taking orders.

Instead

When I think about a day when I haven’t gotten any writing done, I can list the things I’ve done that no one else will do, but that seem necessary for a well-ordered and pleasant home. I find it easier to do the jobs than to nag about getting them done. Take the hair out of the bathroom sink drain. Put the garbage in the can outside the basement door. Empty wastebaskets. Check the dogs’ water. Empty the humidifier. Clean the toilet and sinks. Spray the dogs with homemade tick repellent before they go outside. Close cupboard doors. Lock the doors at night. Put everything away.

 Garbage cans - small copy for blog

Crocheting

In the corner of my bedroom hang several crochet hoops and picture frames containing “piecework” my grandmother crocheted during her life. These fragile cloths are all I was able to salvage after various relatives claimed her dishes, her silver, her watch. But these are most precious to me. She sat before her television set, watching events unfold while she created beauty with her arthritic hands. Sometimes she mistook the TV dramas for real life, but she kept on crocheting.

My hands now look a great deal like hers and I can’t crochet despite her efforts to teach me. But her example is still teaching me. I can do nothing better than to watch events unfold while stitching together my writing, my meditations on events. Perhaps my writing serves no more purpose than my grandmother’s crocheting did. Perhaps I do them only because I can, or in an effort to create beauty. But like the robins and the tree swallows, I’ll keep on with my work because it is mine.

 Cora Hey crochet work - small copy for blog

Spirit

I’ve read somewhere, “land is not insensate; it is possessed of spirit.” Every inch of the earth is sacred, some believe. When I think of the land I sold to my neighbor, I feel fiercely protective. I want to get on a horse and ride over there to see that the antelope are still there, perhaps spot the cougar fleeing down that draw again, to see if anyone has disturbed the pile of rocks that I believe to be a grave.

I can’t do these things. I haven’t owned a horse in years, and dislike borrowing strange horses to ride. My neighbor would consider my visit to what is now his land an intrusion, though he wouldn’t say so, even if I met him in the pasture. He’d ask politely how I am doing, and how much rain we got, and we’d both observe how good the cows are looking.

Would he understand what I’m doing over there? Maybe. Probably.

 Horses Over East 1984 - small copy for blog

Light

10:25 p.m. with full moon, slightly lopsided. I’m collapsed in a cool breeze after a hot bath. Chorus frogs sing on the dam below the house. Straight up are stars. I avoid looking to the north to the glow of Hermosa’s streetlights. To the west, the neighbors’ glaring yard lights announce their presence. Someone recently broke into several garages and houses under those lights when the families were away. No one would have known about their houses without the lights to guide them. But I don’t want to think those negative thoughts now. I look east and south into blessed darkness where I own enough land to keep lights away. At least for now.

A bird chirps as though half asleep. Maybe the robins under the deck sense my presence and are nervous. Cars speed past on the highway like blind beetles. Do their drivers have any idea what is out here?

Moonrise 2017--10-3 - small copy for blog 

Sunrise

I go to the greenhouse to check the mouse traps, hoping to capture the rodents who have been eating the sage and thyme and basil that are just emerging from the pampered soil.

A baby rabbit is eating a cabbage leaf I threw off the deck yesterday. Since I closed down my compost bins because they were being raided by a skunk with no respect for our dogs, we haul some of our garbage to town. I throw from the deck anything the rabbits might eat. This contradicts the fact that I will hate it when baby rabbits start feasting on my radishes and tomatoes.

 Rabbit eating at HSH - small copy for blog

The Land

I’ve begun to loosen my hold on my father’s land, now mine.

I will soon be 75 years old, and have no siblings, no children. My cousins are all in other places and professions and my nieces and nephews uninterested in ranching. The land “over east” that I sold to my neighbor was about half of my ranch, so that I no longer have enough to make a living raising cattle. I sometimes dream about riding my horses there. But I won’t ride again, and certainly not over the prairie. There’s no horse I could trust, since there are no horses I raised myself. I know intimately the pastures over east—no doubt better than their current owners, who visit there in their mechanized vehicles. I’ve walked every step of the way to get there, tramped all over the pastures, ridden a horse or hiked into every niche in the prairie inside those fences. I’ve climbed most of the cliffs. I have sat in hidden alcoves that few people will ever see, sniffing the air of the prairie, watching the hawks soar above. So I tell myself that I am there, in every piece of ground where I’ve spent time.

I’m there, and I will always be there, in the pinnacle of rock where the previous inhabitants, the natives, watched for interlopers coming from the Badlands to the east. From that spire of rock, my spirit will float silently over the plains as long as air moves.

To me, the land is life. To anyone I can think of whom I might make my heir, it would be cash to be spent on a bigger house and newer car.

I remember my uncle Harold saying, “I didn’t work on this ranch my whole life for it to be somebody’s in-VEST-ment.” I had not imagined the non-metaphorical word “investment” could sound so much like the hiss of a dragon.

LMH rocks 2002 - small copy for blog 

Burial

This morning we went to Belle Fourche to bury the ashes of my cousin Charlie. A few family members from Charlie’s generation gathered among the headstones of quartz and marble and concrete. Most of us were cousins, sons of my father’s sisters and brothers. Some friends of Charlie’s sister came, and the pastor of her church with his Bible.  As our voices united in the Lord’s Prayer, we could hear the idling of an engine as the cemetery worker waited for us to leave so he could cover the hole. We left the urn under an oak tree and walked away. The next time we come here, we’ll see his name engraved on a flat stone beside that of his brother and his parents. At a nearby park, we ate a picnic lunch of fried chicken, potato salad, baked beans, and sweet desserts. I didn’t hear Charlie’s name mentioned.

burial food - small copy for blog

We stopped in town on the way home and bought tomato plants. I was happily digging holes for them before I took a breath and tasted ice.

Clouds

When I looked up, I could see the ragged white edges of a hail cloud and smell the jagged ice that was falling north of us. I hustled the rest of my plants inside, and put buckets over the two I’d already planted. Jerry called from town to say that he was parked under a bridge watching the hail. I could hardly hear him for the pounding storm.

I settled in a chair on the deck to watch the drama and wait for the hail to reach me. At first the clouds were deep gray with frothy white tops that looked like foam or ripe cotton bolls. As the wind aloft caught them, some began to shred like snow blown across the highway in a blizzard. Clouds that were flat and black on the bottom bubbled into gray or blue on top. Blowing east and south, they piled up, losing their definition as they formed a solid gray wall beyond the green shield of the south ridge. Mordor!

WBH storm clouds 2014--7-11 small copy for blog 

Nighthawks

Again and again the barn swallows flew above me, beating hard into the wind for a few seconds and then letting the wind take them, as if they were going down a slide. Then the nighthawks appeared, recognizable because they fly high and follow a pattern: flap-flap-flap-soar, flap-flap-flap-soar. While the barn swallows and tree swallows flirted with the wind, the nighthawks flew high, calling in their peculiar tone. The Lakota called them thunderbirds for their habit of flying in storms.

Nighthawk flying in clouds - small copy for blog

One nighthawk flew south, and began spiraling up and up and up until it disappeared behind a cloud.  I thought of Charlie as I had last seen him, lying in a hospital bed with a tube in his arm. His suntanned, bony face looked so much like that of my father I could hardly stand to kiss him goodbye.

Tube in arm -smallcopy for blog

The nighthawks are invisible in the darkness now, calling high above me. Time to go inside. I breathe deeply.

++–++–++–++

I have not had a retreat in the ordinary sense. Yet in the middle of a busy life, I have made the time to write a line or a paragraph that became twenty-five brief meditations this week. Writing time doesn’t have to be long to be effective.

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Antelope Antics

A doe antelope— correctly called pronghorn, or, if you want to get technical, Antilocapra Americana— has been strolling around the field and hillside south of our house for several days. She probably separated herself from the little band of 6 or 7 that has been roaming through this area all spring.

Yesterday morning, we saw her standing still, and realized that a fawn was nursing. After a few minutes, the little one zipped up the hill, running and pirouetting, bowing his head to kick his hind feet in the air, then spinning back to her side and making playful butting motions. For a half hour, he alternated nursing with exercising. Then the doe moved down into the field where the alfalfa and grasses are tall, and the fawn lay down, becoming instantly invisible. The doe grazed on up the hill, past the fence, and out of sight.

Pronghorn kid 2016--7-30 small version for blog

Last evening, as we sat on the deck, we spotted the fawn’s head raised above the grass like an exotic flower, no doubt breaking protocol to look for its mother. According to experts, females nurse their fawns two or three times a day during the three to four weeks the little ones spend in hiding under vegetation from predators. The females also bed fawns down in safe spots. After the babies are weaned, the does lead them to food and water, interacting with them only 20 to 25 minutes a day.

I do love looking things up, but of course one hazard of research is that the reader may wander off down byways that are not where one was heading, but are an interesting destination anyway. On one dusty side trail, I discovered this tidbit: that the pronghorn is as fast at mating as he is at sprinting over the prairie: conception is usually accomplished, said the source, with one short thrust.

Before you feel too sorry for the females, though, consider that they use several strategies to choose a mate. Since the males gather harems of females during the September breeding season, a female may visit several such groups until she decides which male she wants. When she goes into estrus, she returns to the chosen one.

Pronghorn buck and does 2015--10-11 small version for blog

And if she wants to escape, she often can: the pronghorn is the fastest land mammal of North America and the Western Hemisphere (the only animal faster is a cheetah, which antelope don’t have to escape in South Dakota).

Pronghorn mother and kid 2016--7-30 small version for blogI also have learned that, in order to escape detection, the young have almost no odor. We’ve also seen the doe wander seemingly at random around the area where she stashed the young one in the morning; maybe she’s trying to be sure she’s not followed by a coyote, but perhaps she is having trouble finding the kid.

Last night we spotted seven antelope silhouetted on top of our hill, and watched them scatter down the hillside toward the greener grass in the bottom. And among them, skittering and frolicking, was one that was clearly smaller than the rest.

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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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.)

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.

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