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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

sagging fences untidy woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re all connected and nobody is in charge.

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

 

Wittig Albert Extrordinary Year page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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