Dust, Grass, and Writing

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Green grass sheltered by limestone.


I’m on the deck trying to convince myself the weak March sunshine is warmer than it is when I notice the pickup in the field, hauling hay to the cattle. Dust rises behind the tires, swooping up and then spreading out, reminding me how very dry the weather has been for the past three winter months. We are three-quarters of an inch behind our normal one and a quarter inch of moisture for the year. During this month of March, now slightly more than half over, we have had only a trace of moisture.

Yet when I look at the hillside close to my house, I see green grass several inches tall. How can the grass be growing when the ground is so dry?

The answer lies in the native grasses surrounding my house: buffalo grass, blue grama, big bluestem, redtop, and others that have been adapting to this area for millennia. These grasses can tolerate heat, drought, and soils that would be inadequate for more tender plants. These grasses have probably even evolved to fit this particular slope, rich with limestone rock, and to the way the wind blows snow across the ripples in the ground.

The thin roots of buffalo grass, for example, go deep, reaching down as much as five feet for buried moisture. The roots of blue grama are in a dense mass in the top two or three feet of soil, compact to provide efficient use of moisture. Up to 80% of the roots of redtop are found in the top two inches of soil. So these grasses complement each other, utilizing all the moisture that falls, whether it’s scant or abundant.

Immediately I can see the writing simile or metaphor. Some who looked out over this prairie today would find it uninspiring, covered with the gold of dried grasses except where vehicles have left dusty tracks. This morning my mind felt the same: covered by the dried debris of ideas I haven’t pursued, failed possibilities grimy with too much handling. Without inspiration.

Similarly, if I only scan the prairie and turn away on this early spring day, I will miss its subtler beauties. Sitting at my writing desk, if I concentrate on the dust and desiccation and immediately give up, I may miss possibilities.

Standing on the deck, thinking, I hear a cry and see the resident kestrel drop out of sight below the hill, pursuing a blackbird or sparrow as relentlessly as I sometimes follow an idea.

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Tough prairie grass splitting open a rock.


Like the native grasses, the roots of writing go deep and reach out in many directions. These roots may be so thin they appear delicate, but they have strength to draw life-giving moisture from the soil. I’ve learned that I need to be patient. I may begin writing with no clear idea of where I am going, simply describing something I’ve seen, or responding to a news item. I may write and write and write—and suddenly the subject will present itself, will draw the sustaining moisture out of soil that may seem dry and unforgiving.

Here’s the tricky part. No matter how dry your personal prairie looks, you must start writing. You must start following those roots down. If you think, “I’m writing SOMETHING VERY IMPORTANT” you may choke yourself, and become unable to go on: surely your thoughts are too trivial to be worth recording.

Don’t be afraid to be trivial. You have to start somewhere, and every root may reach down to necessary moisture, and up to a strong blade of grass.

Grass is green 2015--3-20

Green life hidden beneath the dry debris.


This essay began with two simple observations: dust rising behind a pickup, and grass growing green, two pictures that contradicted one another. Those two sights led me to one of my main themes and interests, native grass and its ability to withstand drought and abuse. I’ve written about this subject often in attempts to persuade readers to save native prairie grasses, but this time my thoughts turned to writing and the comparison emerged.

Each of us contains “native grasses,” possibilities rooted deeply in childhood or our pasts, events that are the foundation of everything we are. From those deep roots we can write endlessly, following their twisting course down into the rich soil fertilized by our years of experience. Or we can follow the roots up to the stalk that is our present and our future, reach into the clear air of tomorrow. Either way, taking time to look at the landscape around us, whether it’s literal or imaginative, can start the writing we need to do.

Flannery O’Connor, in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

Ignore the dust. Follow the roots.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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