Planting Peas and Writing Poems

planting-peas-in-dakota-bones-grass-sky.jpg

This poem happened precisely as it says: in early spring, I decided to plant some peas in the rich earth of my biggest garden.

The month may have been as early as March; I was probably thirty-five years old. Bundled against a cold wind and shivering, I hoed a furrow down to black earth beneath the melting snow. Then I began dropping peas into the broken ground, enjoying the way the green shriveled shapes slithered into crevices. Each time I finished a row, I straightened up and used my hoe to draw the soil gently back over the peas and tamp it down lightly.

As I planted, I began the poem in my mind, then stopped and began to write it down on the scrap paper I always carry. I didn’t spend much time revising or reflecting on the poem, which is rare for me; it felt right from the beginning.

This plot of land has been subject to spring floods that bring in earth as well as manure from the pastures upstream. In addition, I’ve buried compost there for years, to aid the fertility. Harvests have often been terrific.

 

Planting Peas

It’s not spring yet, but I can’t

wait anymore. I get the hoe,

pull back the snow from the old

furrows, expose the rich dark earth.

I bare my hand and dole out shriveled peas,

one by one.

 

As I shuffled along the row, bent over, I looked at my firm young hand and recalled my grandmother’s bony one, dropping the peas every two or three inches as she showed me how to do it. The soil of her ranch deep in a Black Hills canyon is gray gumbo. When it is shiny with rain, it is slippery underfoot, clinging to our rubber boots. Later, we’d have to chop and hose it off our boots, and we’d laugh, finding it on our coats, even in our hair.

 

I see my grandmother’s hand,

doing just this, dropping peas

into gray gumbo that clings like clay.

This moist earth is rich and dark

as chocolate cake.

 

As I saw her hand planting the peas, I could see my nine-year-old self squatting beside her in my tiny jeans, my blonde hair held back by a barrette she had placed in it that morning. While my mother supported me by working in town, coming to visit on weekends, I lived seventy miles away with grandmother in her one-room house, that had once been a bunkhouse. She kept me busy all week, walking with me all over that place, showing me how to live in the country— though neither of us may have realized that. I was too small to climb the ladder to the barn loft, so she’d climb it in her lace-up black shoes, and hand a squealing kitten down to me. Remembering now, I can see her flowered dress, her strong legs in their thick cotton stockings.

 

Her hands cradle

baby chicks; she finds kittens in the loft

and hands them down to me, safe beside

the ladder leading up to darkness.

 

That memory, of course, led to others: the way she met me at the schoolhouse door in Rapid City, having left her beloved ranch to help my mother by taking care of me after school. How she piled her slowly-graying hair on top of her head in a bun that grew smaller every year as her hair thinned. Her “blue-eyed smile.” I’ve made gallons of biscuits and gravy, trying carefully to recall everything she did, but mine has never been as tasty.

 

I miss

her smile, her blue eyes, her biscuits and gravy,

but mostly her hands.

 

The final image, then, is one of pure joy that the experience of planting peas has recalled to me some memories of my grandmother that I had let slip away.

 

I push a pea into the earth,

feel her hands pushing me back. She’ll come in May,

she says, in long straight rows,

dancing in light green dresses.

 

I enjoyed choosing the word “light” to describe the green dress because it can mean either gauzy and see-through, or pale green. And “dresses”? All those pea plants, slender stalks filled with leaves, swaying in the wind made me think of multiple tiny grandmothers waltzing down the rows.

Of course, my grandmother never cavorted around the garden, and I never saw her dance, but I remember she mentioned how she loved dancing when she was young. The image made me laugh, and she would have enjoyed it; I could see again how her cheeks crinkled and her eyes sparkled.

Planting Peas - grandmother

Here’s a fine reason, if you need justification, for writing poems: to recapture memories that might have slid to the background of your busy mind. As you struggle to write what you remember to preserve your mental image, other memories will crowd in from your subconscious, memories you might have lost without the effort to write the poem. Like my images of grandmother, these memories will “come in May”: return to your mind.

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

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Additional information:

The poem has a long history of publication. I probably wrote it in one of the workshops that I was giving for high school students for the Black Hills Special Services Cooperative in 1983 or 1984. That teaching coop published it a couple of times before it appeared in my first book of poems, Roadkill, published by Spoon River Poetry Press in 1987. I didn’t publish it again until it appeared in Dakota Bones: The Collected Poetry of Linda Hasselstrom, also published by Spoon River, in 1994.

Doubtless I read from the book at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where my friend Teresa Jordan heard it, and picked it up for Graining the Mare: The Poetry of Ranch Women, published by Gibbs Smith the same year.

Ted Kooser, US Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006, writes a weekly poetry column, American Life in Poetry, sent to 3 million readers worldwide via newspapers and individual email subscriptions. In August, 2014 he shared my poem “Planting Peas” in his column #490. Find it here.

You can find the poem used as an illustration of the value and richness of memories in the Beltane chapter of The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook, 2015, as well as in Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky: Collected and New Poems, Spoon River’s 2017 collection.

In 2018, I granted Educational Testing Service the non-exclusive right to use the poem in developing test questions for their K-12 Programs beginning in 2020. I’m especially thrilled to think of the poem being used in Braille recordings: imagine young fingers feeling my words tactilely!

Tiny Bouquets

April is National Poetry Month
This blog was originally published September 27, 2011 on my website.

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Tiny Boquet 1This has been a busy week; I read and commented on a 140-page manuscript, planned three retreats, made 6 pots of tomato sauce, worked on a home page message, and read six mystery books as well as the usual three meals a day, watering the garden, writing a few letters and no doubt a few chores I’ve forgotten. Sometimes it seems as though the world keeps spinning faster and faster.

When I feel that happening, I often stop and walk out to one of the gardens or on the hillside with the dogs, deliberately looking for the materials for a tiny bouquet. I select a few small blooms, thinking of nothing but their color, texture, size. I put these in one of several small vases that I place directly above the kitchen sink where I will see it often during the day.

Small boquet of peonies 2017In creating the bouquet, I create a little island of calm in the middle of hurry. And every time I look at it, I recall choosing it, and I also take a moment to enjoy its uniqueness. Each one lasts only a few days, but each provides considerable balm. Once the flowers have finished blooming, I often make a little bouquet from dried weeds and leaves, with the same effect.

In the same way, when I’m too busy to write– which seems to happen much more often than it should– I sometimes take time to deliberately create a paragraph or so of writing. Most often I do this when I wake in the morning, many times around 4 a.m. I switch on my reading light and pick up my journal from the bedside table. If I can keep the dogs from leaping up and running downstairs for their first morning outing, I have a little island of calm in which to write. Sometimes the highway Small sunflower boquetnoises are quiet; I can hear nothing but the wind through the grass, perhaps the light tinkle of a wind chime from the deck.

What I write may become part of a longer piece or it may be just a little morning reflection that remains in my journal. Either way, it helps me begin the day in peace.

Here’s a reflection I first wrote on an April morning in 2005, when I was living in Cheyenne, Wyoming and four a.m. was the quietest time on our busy street. Though I’ve worked on it a couple of times since, it has never satisfied me as an entire poem. But it makes me recall a quiet spot that gave me comfort.

Fog
makes the street
fantastical.
Red tulips lift
bowls of mist.
Gold daffodils offer
sacred liqueur to finches.

Someone says,
“The fog will burn off
by noon.”
No. The sun
sips the fog
like absinthe.

(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2011

Even tiny pieces– one image, one line– can refresh your writing spirit the way a little bouquet refreshes your eye and your kitchen.

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

© 2011 / 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Late Harvest

Harvest - Linda with green beans 2018--9-2Recently I’ve spent part of each warm afternoon harvesting from my tiny garden: two L-shaped beds about 12 feet long and three feet wide, plus three free-standing pots.

Oregano, culinary sage, basil, thyme and rosemary are all drying in the back of the basement on my homemade food dryer. The heat source is four 60 watt light bulbs, and the temperature this evening is 80 degrees. I also picked tomatoes, which I cooked into several pints of spaghetti sauce. I froze several Harvest - tomatoes 2018--9-2packages of green beans, and tucked dill leaves and sorrel into a plastic bag in the refrigerator for salads. I arranged a bouquet of marigolds on the dining table, and left a bucket of green tomatoes for a friend’s chickens by the back door. I gave a little water to the clematis and woodbine vines alongside the concrete wall, knowing they will soon brighten the gray expanse with twining red leaves.

Since my harvest is essentially over, I rolled up the plastic tarps I used to cover everything last night, but I tucked a couple of old blankets around the oregano and pepper plants, hoping they will survive the frost that’s predicted. Then I gathered seeds: marigold, gaillardia, cone flower. I rolled up the hoses left drying in the sun a few days ago, and hung them in the garage.

Harvest - Linda with onions and potatoes 2016--8-31Sometimes I recall nostalgically the great harvests I did in the old days, when I used the big garden that lies east of the ranch house, now a retreat house. I froze and canned pounds of tomatoes, beans, peas; dug potatoes and lugged them to the cellar with shelves full of onions. Picked and shucked and froze ears of corn by the dozens. Helped cut up the steer we butchered after he broke his leg trying to jump the fence. Cut and wrapped and labeled the meat and tucked it into the big freezer in the basement. And eventually had so much harvest that we had to buy a second, smaller freezer. I know ranch wives– younger than I am and with larger families– who have four or five freezers in their basements.

When I went to town for groceries in those days, I might buy sugar, flour, and a few other staples, but much of what we ate came from our own land. I loved living like that. But I’m 75 years old, and aware that even if I stay healthy, my remaining life span is probably fewer than 20 years. What do I want to accomplish with the time I have left?

Conscious of my waning life, I am a member of the local Cemetery Board, and recently spent a couple of days cleaning and tidying on that hillside for winter. I wasn’t able to set up any of the stones that have fallen from age and neglect, or been pushed over by vandals. But I swept grass and dirt off flat headstones, and scrubbed away layers of dirt from lettering in white marble, still visible after a hundred years. Deep in the unmown grass, even in late fall, I found a few roses and bluebells blooming.

cemetery rabbit pays respects 2017--5-28

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If you are looking at snow outside your window as I am, you may be wondering how I was able to spend the day harvesting from my little garden in December.

I wasn’t. I wrote those words in late September and the printed copy has been standing beside my typewriter since then. Every single day I have intended to get back to this writing. Today is December 4; that ferocious intent just didn’t count for enough against the tide of other tasks that overwhelmed me. In many cases, rather than attending to my primary job of writing, I was responding to requests from people who shouldn’t have a strong enough hold on me to keep me from my work.

I am admitting this delay in part to encourage writers who may lament their inability to sustain their writing habit day after day after day. I can’t always do it, and I am experienced, determined, and have a supportive partner. So don’t waste time beating yourself up; get busy writing when you can.

Like many of you, I was raised to be “nice,” which means that when people write and ask me questions or send me something interesting, I try to respond, even if only by postcard. I’m always guiltily aware if I do not respond, and remember the series of vicious letters– more than 50– sent to me a few years ago by a fan whom I had displeased.

So here I am, with the December darkness filling my windows, writing about September’s harvest. The tomato vines I pulled and piled by my row of buffaloberry and chokecherry bushes are doing just what I wanted them to do: catch snow.

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Harvest - Grouse by fencepost 2015--5-11And suddenly the room brightens with memory. Just this morning I wrote about how the moisture falling– sleet, not yet snow– was brightening the grasses to their September brilliance: redgrass was turning purple, dried alfalfa was glowing gold, and marigold heads seemed to be warm with fire; little bluestem looked magenta in the sunrise, and the splayed tawny heads of switch grass glittered. When we walked in our windbreak trees, we saw coyote scat and tufts of rabbit fur: those howls last night were celebrating a successful hunt.

As we walked out of the trees’ shelter, a rough-legged hawk we’ve been seeing often soared overhead, then dropped a few feet lower and made a circle over Cosmo, who was nosing among the taller grass beside the trail. The hawk turned its head, perhaps estimating weight, apparently concluded that the 28-pound dog was a little too much prey, and swooped off toward the pigeons fluttering at the barn.

Harvest - garden and greenhouse ecosystem 2018--7-29The prairie feeds our predators well. A few weeks ago we saw one of the resident kestrels or merlins– they fly so fast it’s hard to tell– zip past with a mouse in its talons. Two harrier hawks hung around the dam below the house for several days. One morning I looked out the bedroom window and one of them was perched on a broken bale of hay, with 11 antelope lying in a half-circle around it, like churchgoers listening to a sermon. The great-horned owl couple seems to have moved away from our trees toward a grove of cottonwoods and a shed that shelters more rabbits. We saw a flock of about 25 grouse often in September and October, but lately we are seeing only two or three at a time. Late one night, we heard geese honking, perhaps stopping by the pond for a rest as they headed south.

Our tiny garden doesn’t provide a great deal of nourishment, though I froze many pints of tomato sauce. But it adds flavor to our lives: all those herbs that were drying in September are now in labeled jars. Pots of basil, oregano, thyme and chives line a south window, jostled by the dogs that likes to sleep there too. We are nourished by the flavor and scent of these herbs all year long.

Harvest - Tree Swallow in yard 2018--7-29Our house stands on a windy hill, with a detached two-car garage a few feet south. The two buildings, plus the deck on the house’s south side, form a tiny ecosystem where we can grow herbs, tomatoes, peas, hot peppers, and a few other tasty treats in raised beds. Jerry built the beds of railroad ties we scavenged from the grass along the track where train crews tossed them when they were removed from the railroad bed. Heavily creosoted, they withstand the weather very well. We stacked them two high and filled the resulting rectangles with heavy earth from my former garden plot, enriched by the yearly floods and years of application of manure from the corrals.

But the garden isn’t just for us alone. Besides feeding us, it feeds a busy population of tree swallows, a garter snake, a bull snake that gives us heart palpitations when we startle each other, rabbits. One morning we found a coyote inside the fence, but it leapt away; we may have interrupted its rabbit hunt.

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Harvest - pronghorn and cattle 2018--8-22

There. I’ve talked myself out of my guilt at not finishing what I began so long ago. I remind myself that day after day, the cattle I watch outside the window go about their business, which is grazing the prairie grass and making meat while they raise their calves to be weaned shortly. No matter what the weather, no matter what distractions appear– prairie fire on this day last year, a private plane circling, combines making the air rumble– they keep right on doing their job.

Surely an experienced rancher like myself can do as well as the cows: keep on doing what needs to be done. My job is writing. Sometimes I will fail to do it well, or as well as I’d like. Sometimes I will waste time. But I can always come back to it, and do it as well as I am able.

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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Pruning Tomatoes and Unwise Growth

Pruning Tomatoes group

Marigolds bloom; wasps sip the dogs’ water; temperatures break records: Nature’s telling me it’s time to prune the tomatoes.

Fifty years as a gardener has taught me to respect nature’s demands. My mouth waters, anticipating the flavor of the tomato each blossom might become– but I am resolute. I whack off a stem carrying a dozen yellow star-shaped blossoms. Inhaling the peppery fragrance, I amputate branches with no green fruit larger than my thumb.

Branches are the plant’s energy transportation corridors. Distance makes the plant work harder to send nutrients to blossoms remote from the main stem. Every inch increases the energy required for the tomato to turn a flower into fruit. Removing the most flowers dangling at the end of spindly stems concentrates the plant’s energy, keeps it centered on ripening larger fruit.

Tomato Map DevelopmentI picture the tomato’s fattest stems as highways, leading to narrower tributary roads, dwindling to dirt and gravel trails where the signs say “Ranchettes for Sale.” Travel down an expressway is eased by the golden arches of commerce. Fast food, fast gas, fast expenses and speedy satisfactions distract us from traffic and noise. But you can’t grow tomatoes on asphalt.

Just as the tomato plant works harder to ripen distant fruit, each mile increases the expense of supporting a country community. We all pay those expenses. Every other citizen, no matter where we live, is taxed by groups living away from the center where energy is produced.

I’ve already eaten three tomatoes, cynically calculating their cost at about eight bucks each. Judicious pruning now will increase my delicious revenues, and may make my investment worthwhile. Gardening success is biting into the sun-warm flesh of an Early Girl as juice runs down my arm.

Planting those tomatoes makes me responsible for understanding the tomato’s natural behavior, and controlling its desire for growth wisely, so it will produce my food. Each cluster of blossoms is bright as a new subdivision, and each subdivision bears in every cell of its being the desire to grow, to become a city. The desire is logical: transportation costs are lower when they are shared; a city accumulates many needs which are cheaper to satisfy if everyone sticks together.

I empathize with the tomato plants, and with the inhabitants of the subdivisions. Yet each blossom uses resources that must support us all. And that is the business of everyone. If we are not all to lose clean air and water and space, we must set our priorities, and act on them.

The late-summer sun bakes my shoulders, but at sunset tendrils of cold air lick my ankles. Sweat runs down my face, but I feel winter massing and muttering beyond the northern horizon. Recalling ancient times, we celebrate the death of the sun king, and hover between hope and fear for the time of cold.

Argiope2Kneeling as the sharp-smelling branches pile up around me, I come nose to pedipalp with a warrior queen who guards my harvest: Argiope aruntia, the black and yellow orb-weaving spider. Big as my thumb, she creates broad webs with zig-zag bands in the center.

Can I compare the spiders’ prey– flies, grasshoppers, cutworms– to the developers and real estate agents who are unable to understand the negative impacts of growth? Following their own survival instincts, they head for the best forage, the purest country air, the biggest tomato, gobbling resources for their own purposes. Without control they will feed their offspring today by cutting a plant that might feed us all tomorrow. They chew and spit just as I do, but their dark juices can ruin the gardener’s work.

Following their nature, developers are motivated by the desire for expansion, often honestly believing that bigger is better. Ed Abbey called growth “the ideology of the cancer cell,” and meant that the rest of us must keep it in check. So the spider’s instinct to wrap her prey in silk and hang them from her web for future meals is natural, and necessary.

Working delicately around spider webs, I fantasize about a giant orb-weaver to patrol the plains, a Master Gardener to prune unwise growth.

If allowed to follow its instinct, each subdivision will require more resources than it can produce. Water from dwindling reservoirs evaporates on alien lawns and trees; taxpayers struggle to provide for widely-scattered citizens schools, police officers, garbage collection, and fire protection.

We need spiders– laws and lawmakers to be sure the garden feeds us all, not just a few. Nature tries– with wildfires, floods, blizzards, and other natural tools– to control poisonous growth, but She needs help if we are to have real communities. Each of us must be vigilant, wielding our pruning knives– our vigilance and our ability to vote– in our own back yards.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2010

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Afterword

I wrote this piece in 2010 and published it on the blog on my website (www.windbreakhouse.com), but it’s even more true today than it was then.

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