Journal Entry, 7/4/2018

I woke up with the familiar words going through my head:

From the mountains
To the prairies
To the oceans
White with foam
God bless America
My home sweet home

When I let the dogs out, I went to the rain gauge to see the results of the wild thunderstorm that struck about nine-thirty last night. I had sat in bed reading with my back to an open window, watching the lightning blast the sky out windows on two other sides of the room. When one jagged streak of power smashed into the ground so close the flash blinded me, both dogs were happy to be covered with the quilt. I kept getting up, circling the house shutting whichever windows the rain was entering, opening others, as the storm moved from west to east over us. The thunder rolled and roared continually. Often, when such storms strike in June, we anxiously go from window to window watching for fires the lightning may start.

grass with flowers -small version for blog

Not last night. We’ve had almost five inches of rain in the past couple of weeks, so the grass is green and largely fire-resistant. Ah! The rain gauge holds another 9/10 inch of rain! Amazing.

After breakfast, Jerry and I decided to walk around our hillside this morning, to enjoy the effects of the rain on the grasses here. With the dogs tiptoeing behind, we walked toward our windbreak trees, startling a perfectly-camouflaged rabbit out from under a tuft of buffalo grass.

I smiled, knowing this is a rare event in the rabbit’s day, because Jerry and I usually walk down our graveled road. Today we wander the hillside, admiring the Echinacea in bloom, the salsify, the height of the grass we never mow or graze. And we listen for rattlesnakes, of course, because they are always possible here. Bluegrass, redgrass, a tall purple flower I can’t name. Delicate faces of blue flax that has escaped from my planted gardens, all blow gently in the breeze.

Hollyhocks by rr tie wall - small version for blogBeside the railroad tie wall that creates a boundary below our deck, deep red hollyhocks are blooming on stems six feet tall. Another cluster of hollyhocks is a bright fuchsia, and alfalfa that has moved into the grassland varies from pale lavender through purple into yellows. I can look south and east to pasture and fields packed with grasses where no one lives, keeping my back to the foothills where more huge houses seem to spring up every day.

“O beautiful for spacious skies,” sings my mind.

For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

Whenever we sang the song in my grade school, I sang “grass” instead of “grain,” since any grain requires plowing and I knew even then the native prairie grasses should not be plowed to plant fragile introduced species.

Now I stumble over a tuft of grass and catch myself, wincing at the pain in the knee that was injured decades ago. And I remember what Jane Kenyon said in her beautiful poem “Otherwise,”

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise.

The poem continues to detail the kinds of ordinary events that make up a day: the speaker ate cereal with a ripe peach, walked the dog, and spent all morning doing the work she loves with the one she loves. At night, she lay in bed and planned another day “just like this day.” But, she says,

one day, I know,
                    it will be otherwise.

This realization comes to most of us, I think as we age, though the precise point at which it descends on our shoulders no doubt varies with age, health and other circumstances. When we drive through the pastures I have leased to a neighbor, an excellent rancher, I am always comparing what I see to the map in my head. Sometimes I drive my Kubota confidently toward a gate, and only at the last moment remember that my lessee has moved it, or taken out the fence.

Jerry’s first act this morning was to set our big American flag in the flagpole he welded to the deck, so the stars and stripes have been waving in a cool breeze since 6 a.m.

America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,

I was careful this morning, when looking at the Internet, to avoid political news and commentary. The country in which I believe contains many divisions which frighten me. But I’ve been terrified before. I was in graduate school and then a teacher during the 1960s; I’ve seen divisions so deep it seemed they never would heal.

Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

I still believe in liberty, and in the rule of law, and in the fundamental values this country has always maintained.

Beside the pond below the hill, a redwing blackbird seems be singing from the top of every dry mullein stalk, swaying gently in the breeze. I turn toward the west fence, where there used to be a couple of holes. One was deep, and usually held rabbit tracks, a family mansion. The other was a shallow scrape, and we sometimes saw badger tracks there. We surmised that the wily beast used it as a resting place while waiting for the ducks on the pond below the hill to settle down after one of the badger’s killing raids. Late at night, we’d sometimes hear squawking and the next morning find duck feathers and blood as evidence of a successful hunt.

nighthawk-nest-2018-small-version-for-blog.jpg

Today the badger holes are overgrown, but as I turn back toward Jerry, he says, “Wait!” He has seen a nighthawk lift off from a rocky patch of ground directly in front of him. Stepping carefully, we both inch toward the spot and finally see a nighthawk nest.

The nighthawk isn’t far away, spiraling up the sky overhead, but we turn and trot away from the area, not wishing to disturb it. The nighthawk cruises past overhead as we top the hill and head toward our own house.

yellow evening primrose with gaillardia and blue flax - small version for blogWe’ve walked full circle on the hillside and arrived back at the gate of the small garden where our raised beds hold tomatoes, peppers, sage and some flowers. Marigolds explode in gold and red from pots along the concrete wall. The yellow silk blooms of evening primrose are still open because the day is cool.

America! America!
God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.

Greenhouse bottle tree and red Maltese Cross flowers - small version for blog

Our two old dogs turned back early from the walk and lie panting beside a bed of fire-engine-red Maltese cross. To our friends who have congratulated us on the recent rains that would allow us to light firecrackers without risking a prairie fire, we’ve gently explained that we don’t voluntarily frighten our canine companions these days.

Before lunch, Jerry will drive to the highway for the newspaper. Yes, we know we could get some news from the Internet, but I will continue to subscribe to as many local newspapers as I can for as long as they exist. I firmly believe, with Thomas Jefferson, that “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” I believe this even when I am reading some screed from someone ill-informed about the history and traditions of this country– though some days it’s harder than others.

At the greenhouse, topped with the hood ornament from a 1955 Chevrolet, blooms of yellow columbine shimmy in the breeze and the yellow prairie cone flowers lean. A robin scolds from the top of a nearby cedar tree, and the garden garter snake zips under the clematis as I walk by. Spiky gladiolus leaves are standing tall; I’m anxious to see the blooms. I harvested the thyme and basil a few days ago, and am drying it in the basement. I brush a little bird excrement off the bottle tree, and step over a hose.

 

“All shall be well,” wrote Julian of Norwich centuries ago.

All shall be well;
and all manner of things
shall be well.

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Independence Day, 2018
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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

Ranch stock dam in a wet year June 2015
This blog is more political than what I usually post, but I am horrified by what I read in the Plowprint Report. In the second half of my blog I list some positive steps being taken to reverse the decline of grasslands, and how you can help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now for the good news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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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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