Hasselstrom, Linda (Michele) 1943-
HASSELSTROM, Linda (Michele) 1943-
Born July 14, 1943, in Houston, TX; daughter of Robert Paul (in sales) and Florence Mildred (a secretary; maiden name, Baker; later surname, Hasselstrom) Bovard; stepdaughter of John Hasselstrom (a rancher); married Daniel G. Lusk, April 9, 1966 (divorced, June 27, 1973); married George R. Snell, March 10, 1979 (died, September 7, 1988). Ethnicity: "Caucasian." Education: University of South Dakota—Vermillion, B.A., 1965; University of Missouri—Columbia, M.A., 1969. Hobbies and other interests:Camping, travel, black powder rifles, horses, Scottish prehistory, Western history, and the environment of the West.
Home—Cheyenne, WY. Office— Windbreak House Retreat, P.O. Box 169, Hermosa, SD 57744. E-mail—[email protected].
Cattle rancher in South Dakota, 1953—. Sioux City Journal, Sioux City, IA, reporter, 1965-66; Christian College (now Columbia College), Columbia, MO, teacher of journalism and director of student publications, 1966-69; University of Missouri—Columbia, instructor in English, 1969-71; Lame Johnny Press, Hermosa, SD, owner and publisher, 1971-85; National College, Rapid City, SD, instructor in English, 1987-88; Black Hills State College, Ellsworth Air Force Base branch, Spearfish, SD, instructor in English, 1987-88; Oglala Lakota College, Rapid City, SD, teacher, 1989; South Dakota School of Mines, Rapid City, professor of English, 1989-90. Teacher at writing workshops and conferences, including Wildwood Writers' Conference, Harrisburg Area Community College, 1995, Big Wind Confluence, Central Wyoming College, Riverton, 1993, and Jackson Hole Writers' Conference, 1992; gives lectures and readings of her work at schools and colleges. Black Hills Energy Coalition, president; Technical Information Service, chair, 1985-94; Land Institute, member; South Dakota Grassland Coalition, member; Western Folklife Center, member.
Poets & Writers, Authors Guild, Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, Women Writing the West, Mari Sandoz Heritage Society, American Association of Retired Persons, Orion Society, R-Calf (United Stockgrowers of America), Great Plains Native Plant Society (life member), South Dakota Artists' Network, Hermosa Arts and History Association, Land Institute, South Dakota Grassland Coalition, Western Folklife Center.
South Dakota Press Woman of Achievement Award, 1979; fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, 1984, and South Dakota Arts Council, 1989; named author of the year, South Dakota Hall of Fame, 1989; South Dakota Governor's Award in Arts for distinction in creative achievement, 1989; Western American Writer Award (first woman recipient), Center for Western Studies, Augustana College (Sioux Falls, SD), 1990; Elkhorn Poetry Prize, Nebraska Territory, 1991; Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land was named one of four best books by Mountains and Plains Booksellers, 1992; named one of ten West River Notables by Rapid City Journal, 1992; citation for one of 100 best essays of the year, Best American Essays 1995, for "Buffalo Winter"; Distinguished Achievement Award, South Dakota Newspaper Association, 1996; named author of the year, South Dakota Council of Teachers of English, 1997; citation for best environmental and nature book of the year, Independent Publishers Association, 1999, for Bison: Monarch of the Plains; Wrangler Award, best poetry book, National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, and Fine Arts Award, poetry, Wyoming State Historical Society, both 2000, for Bitter Creek Junction; "Failure Is Impossible" award, Women's Equality Day, Rapid City, 2001.
The Book Book: A Publishing Handbook for Beginners and Others, Lame Johnny Press (Hermosa, SD), 1979.
Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains, Barn Owl Books (Berkeley, CA), 1987.
Going over East: Reflections of a Woman Rancher, Fulcrum (Golden, CO), 1987.
A Roadside History of South Dakota, Mountain Press (Missoula, MT), 1994.
Between Grass and Sky: Where I Live and Work, University of Nevada Press (Reno, NV), 2002.
Caught by One Wing: Poems, Holcomb (Hermosa, SD), 1984.
Roadkill, Spoon River Poetry Press (Peoria, IL), 1987.
Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom, Spoon River Poetry Press (Peoria, IL), 1992.
Bitter Creek Junction, High Plains Press (Glendo, WY), 2000.
Next-Year Country: One Woman's View, by Alma Phillip, Lame Johnny Press (Hermosa, SD), 1978.
A Bird Begins to Sing: Northwest Poetry and Prose, Lame Johnny Press (Hermosa, SD), 1979.
(With Nancy Iverson) Horizons: The South Dakota Writers' Anthology, Lame Johnny Press (Hermosa, SD), 1983.
(And author of introduction) Journal of a Mountain Man: James Clyman, Mountain Press (Missoula, MT), 1984.
(With Nancy Curtis and Gaydell Collier, and author of introduction) Leaning into the Wind: Women Write from the Heart of the West, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.
(With Nancy Curtis and Gaydell Collier) Woven on the Wind: Women Write about Friendship in the Sagebrush West, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2001.
(With Nancy Curtis and Gaydell Collier) Crazy Woman Creek: Women Rewrite the American West, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2004.
Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land (essays and poetry), Fulcrum (Golden, CO), 1991.
Contributor of nonfiction to books, including Best American Essays, edited by Jamaica Kincaid, 1995; Imagining Home: Writings from the Midwest, edited by Mark Vinz, Thom Tammaro, University of Minnesota Press, 1995; Words from the Land, University of Nevada Press, edited by Stephen Trimpble, 2nd edition, 1995; Where the Heart Is, Wildcat Canyon Press, 1995; The Stories That Shape Us: Contemporary Women Write about the West, edited by T. Jordan and J. Hepworth, W. W. Norton, 1995; Rooted in the Land: Essays on Community and Place, edited by William Vitek and Wes Jackson, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1996; The Sacred Space: Witnessing the Holy in the Physical World, edited by W. Scott Olsen and Scott Cairns, University of Utah, 1996; Bison: Monarch of the Plains, photographs by David Fitzgerald, Graphic Arts Center Publishing (Portland, OR), 1998; Writers on the Range: Western Writers Exploring the Changing Face of the American West, University Press of Colorado, 1998; American Agriculture and the Problem of Monopoly: The Political Economy of Grain Belt Farming, 1953-1980, edited by Jon Lauck, University of Nebraska Press, 2000; Living in the Runaway West: Partisan Views from Writers on the Range, Fulcrum, 2000; Such News of the Land: U.S. Women Nature Writers, edited by Thomas S. Edwards and Elizabeth A. DeWolfe, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 2001; A Road of Her Own: Women's Journeys in the West, edited by Marlene Blessing, Fulcrum (Golden, CO), 2002; Mother Earth: Through the Eyes of Women Photographers and Writers, edited by Judith Boice, Sierra Club Books (San Francisco, CA), 2002; Rogue Diamonds: The Rush for Northern Riches on Dene Land, by Ellen Bielawski, Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 2003; Heart Shots: Women Write about Hunting, edited by Mary Zeiss Stange, Stackpole Books (Mechanicsburg, PA), 2003; and Christmas on the Plains, edited by Kenneth and Dorothy Robbins, University of Iowa Press (Iowa City, IA), 2004.
Poetry represented in anthologies, including Graining the Mare: The Poetry of Ranch Women, Gibbs-Smith, 1994; Cowboy Poetry Matters: From Abilene to the Mainstream; Contemporary Cowboy Writing, edited by Robert McDowell, Story Line Press, 2000; A New Wind out of the West: The Poetry of Contemporary Ranch Women, edited by David Stanley and Elaine Thatcher, University of Illinois Press, 2000; Cowgirl Poetry, edited by Virginia Bennett, Gibbs Smith, 2001; and Cowboy Poetry, edited by Virginia Bennett, Gibbs Smith, 2004.
Author of introduction, The Christmas of the Phonograph Records, Mari Sandoz, University of Nebraska Press, 1996. Contributor to books, including American Nature Writing, Sierra Club Books, 1994 and 1996; and Home Territory, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1995. Contributor of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction to periodicals, including American Poetry Review, Christian Science Monitor, Dakota Arts Quarterly, Elkhorn Review, Mother Earth News, Northern Lights, Orion, Reader's Digest, and South Dakota Review. Editor, Sunday Clothes: Magazine of the Fine Arts, 1971-82.
A poet, essayist, and rancher, Linda Hasselstrom is known for work that celebrates life on the plains of South Dakota, despite the isolation and hardship that it often involves. Her poems and essays explore the personal, emotional, and political landscape as well as the physical one; she has written about the details of everyday life on the ranch, her grief over her husband's early death, her community of neighbors, the benefits of sustainable agriculture, and many other environmental and social issues. According to Western American Literature contributor William Kittredge, Hasselstrom's "is one of those voices folks who grew up in the outback country of the American West were likely to hear every so often—a decent, experienced woman announcing her thoughts in a direct, passionate way, speaking straight from the trials of her life."
Hasselstrom once told CA that "sense of place is the center of all good art, and William Faulkner is only one of the writers who have proved it in America's literary history. Intensely regional writing carries a conviction that makes it intensely universal.
"John Milton stated my belief well in the introduction to Horizons: The South Dakota Writers' Anthology, which I coedited and published: 'For literature to be effective, meaningful, and honest, it must be written by intimates of not only the subject but the place and people as well.' Merely traveling through a region does not create intimacy, as Midwesterners have seen eastern writers prove often in our history. To write truly, to speak with authority of this place, one must put down roots, become involved, be battered and tested by the terrain, the weather, and the people. Much of what I despise in contemporary writing comes from writers who have no sense of place, or even a sense that they need a place, but wander without convictions or connections over the scenery, seeing everything as if it were behind a television screen or car window. They are observers, not participators."
Hasselstrom's work has garnered several awards and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. The popularity of her 1987 poetry volume Roadkill prompted Spoon River Poetry Press to reprint her first book of poems, Caught by One Wing: Poems, in 1990. She has also received favorable critical attention for Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains, which chronicles a year of her life on her South Dakota ranch. From Hasselstrom's perspective, wrote Nancy Mairs in the New York Times Book Review, readers gain new insights and learn "to cherish with her all the fine small beauties of her strenuous life." According to a writer for Publishers Weekly, even the most ardent of urbanites will come to admire Hasselstrom's "abiding loyalty to her difficult but satisfying way of life."
In an interview with Lee Ann Roripaugh for the South Dakota Review, Hasselstrom discussed how her poetry often takes a back seat to her other writing: "I consider my self-created job to be writing prose about the ranching culture of my region, the arid High Plains. Poetry is what I do for relaxation and entertainment." She also strives to create accessible poetry devoid of academic pretensions; as she told Roripaugh, "the language I use … in poetry and essays is a conscious rebellion against the elevated discourse of the university." All this is with an eye toward her intended audience, which she said consists of "intelligent, well-read folks who really want to move to the country, and intelligent, well-read ranchers who really don't want anyone else moving into the country."
"Since I have always read voraciously," Hasselstrom once told CA, "I soon noticed (at the age of five, reading "Black Beauty" books) that much of what was written about my neighborhood of western South Dakota, my parents' occupation as ranchers, and my interests of riding horseback and raising cows, was controlled by myth. Many people had written about all these topics, but usually from the perspective of outsiders, immersed in various untrue versions of western life: novels, movies, fantasy stereotypes.
"After Windbreak was published and I toured to promote it, I discovered that in spite of my efforts to be truthful in what was essentially my diary, people still mingled the realities of my work with their own preconceived myths from a century of romanticism. They'd say, 'I thought you'd be bigger,' or 'I thought you'd have a bigger dog.'"
Hasselstrom also garnered praise with an essay and poetry collection, Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land, which was published in 1991. Each of the essays in Land Circle is accompanied by a poem, "a counterpoint that works well to bring out the ironies and unexpected subtleties of her material," noted Dianne Ganz Scheper in Belles Lettres. The pieces in Land Circle address subjects such as the importance of community, the moral issues involved in slaughtering cows for beef, the backbreaking work of the ranch, and her methods for coping with her husband's death. A Publishers Weekly critic reported that in Land Circle, Hasselstrom employs "vivid images" and "speaks eloquently" on issues of the environment. And in his review of the book, Kittredge noted that the author's "greatest wisdom lies in her utter emotional honesty."
Hasselstrom and her coeditors, Nancy Curtis and Gaydell Collier, followed Land Circle with a second volume of essays called Woven on the Wind: Women Write about Friendship in the Sagebrush West. As with their previous volume, Woven on the Wind contains works by women who are not primarily writers, in order to give readers the most authentic portrait of western life possible. The main theme of the book is that the harsh landscape of the West necessitates close ties with other women in order for their self-reliance to work most effectively. Critics applauded the collection for highlighting the ways in which women not only endure but thrive in such a climate. Margaret Flanagan of Booklist praised the volume's "hauntingly lyrical verse and forthright prose," and Stephanie Maher of Library Journal noted the "romantic air" and "uncomplicated prose" that unify the book's "themes of isolation, intimacy, and independence." A third anthology of essays, Crazy Woman Creek: Women Rewrite the American West, explores the diversity of women's lives in the West in works by 153 women who are variously Buddhists, Hutterites, rodeo moms, and activists—all contemporary women who refuse to be pigeonholed into a standard template.
In Between Grass and Sky: Where I Live and Work, Hasselstrom collects a series of her essays about life on the South Dakota plains that traces her arrival on the ranch as a girl, her decision to leave and become a teacher, and her return several years later, all while considering the effect the land has had on her values and relationships with others. Of central importance in this collection are her views on environmentalism; she is a proponent of ranching as a responsible way to maintain natural resources on agricultural land. The book garnered the same positive reviews as her other work. Joyce Sparrow, writing in Library Journal, said that Hasselstrom describes the "vastness and beauty" of South Dakota, "while reinforcing the personal dedication of the family" who chooses to live there. Carol Haggas of Booklist evaluated the book in terms of its political message. Hasselstrom writes with "impassioned eloquence," she said, "defending opposing philosophies in logical, sensible, rational terms." In Kirkus Reviews, a writer commented on Hasselstrom's ability to wring art from her formative years in a style that conveys "grit and determination, but also good humor."
Hasselstrom once revealed to CA: "I keep writing to understand my own life and express the truth as I see it around me: the problems, strengths, and shortcomings of the people who really live in the West. I've been forced to leave the ranch for now and live in a city—an educational experience at fifty!—but I hope to stay in the region, because I think not only research, learning facts, but drinking the water, eating the beef, smelling the sage, and bending against the wind are necessary for writing about a region well."
Hasselstrom is also author of A Roadside History of South Dakota and has begun "studying and writing about rural and ecological problems from my own experiences in the Great Plains," she told CA. "As my knowledge expanded, I encouraged ranchers and farmers in better practices to help keep more rural people employed in agriculture. I wanted to help inform the American public about the ruinous costs to all of us of the kind of development we've seen in agriculture over the last fifty years.
"This writing, I believe, is closely connected to more 'artistic' writing—fiction and poetry—on environmental problems, giving me an opportunity to educate others about important problems. I see the plains as the final frontier, and in danger of utter destruction if it serves more populous areas only as an energy reservoir, source of labor, and waste repository.
"I believe one's work should complement the rest of one's life and blend smoothly into a whole that keeps the physical body healthy while also working the mind. I worked to bring my life into a circle: writing things I can respect, publishing work I respect, laboring at riding, branding, gardening, taking care of the land, and doing it all with an awareness of how those things fit together. More and more, as I grow older, I feel that it is important to keep my roots in this arid soil, to learn from it all I can, in order to continue to grow as a writer and as a human being."
Linda Hasselstrom contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA in 2004:
I wasn't born on the land; I was reborn here when I moved from a small city to a ranch at the age of nine. I was adopted by the land, and began developing a personal land ethic the first time I looked out on the empty, rolling prairie around my home.
—Land Circle, "Land Circle: Lessons," p. 240
My writing material has been my life, seemingly haphazard events emerging from my plans. I write, first, in order to understand. Aldo Leopold attributes to Cicero a more elegant statement of this belief: "It is doubtful whether a man ever brings his faculties to bear with their full force on a subject until he writes upon it." I began writing for this reason instinctively, long before I'd heard of Cicero.
I began writing as soon as my mother married John Hasselstrom and we moved to a cattle ranch in the arid grasslands of the Great Plains, in western South Dakota. Since I write primarily nonfiction and poetry, much of my work is autobiographical and concerns the environment. In itself, this is a large topic, concerning as it does the water, air, and earth, of the region.
As I grew up, attended college, taught at various levels, and married twice, my viewpoints changed. Similarly, these essays spiral outward from the ranch in both locale and time.
—Between Grass and Sky, p. 15
As I've grown older, and traveled beyond my world, my interests have broadened, so I have indulged myself also in writing about other interests: my experiences as a stepmother; why I am not a church-goer; and various aspects of the rights and responsibilities of the individual citizen in the modern world, with particular attention to the way women are treated in the West. So this autobiographical essay is a tapestry, woven as I reflect on how the facts of my life have became writing material, and how my writing has, in turn, inspired my life.
My mother made "scratch paper" by tearing up advertising circulars, keeping the pieces in a kitchen drawer with pencils that were sometimes only an inch long. At age nine, I began putting a pencil stub and a few pieces of paper in my pocket whenever I left the house. With these most basic of writing materials, I began to record my thoughts and observations.
Fifty years later, I still make "scratch paper" as my mother did, and my pockets, purse, and desk are often full of scribbled notes. I also carry a journal, but I tried using a battery-operated organizer and hated it. With hindsight, I can call my mother's habit recycling, and recall my grandmother's advice, "Waste not, want not." But I also see a metaphor in the similarity of our habits. Just as mother reused unsolicited mail, I recycle, in my writing, events over which I had no control. I did not set out to be a writer, training myself for years to achieve a particular goal. I began to write to understand my world, and trained myself by reading more.
My memories of the people and country I have known form a narrative in the same way they shaped my life. Sometimes I can pinpoint the day and hour an event occurred, can be sure who said what. Other times I'm uncertain, and even while I struggle to be precise, I wonder if the details matter. The people and places I know will last only as long as my life. When I die, those stories will not be buried beneath the soil of this cemetery to decompose with my flesh. Like all stories, human and otherwise, they will begin to spiral up and down, earth to sky, coyote to owl, to grass and rain.
—Feels Like Far, p. 227
On the ranch, I learned many of the skills and attitudes which became part of my training as a writer. My new father introduced me to hard work so early I thought it was fun. My first chores were routine and repetitious: weeding and hoeing the garden, taking out the garbage, feeding the chickens and gathering the eggs.
Nowadays, when I teach writing, some students want rules, or formulas, or tricks that will guarantee success. Some are shocked at my advice that repetition is as essential to writing as hoeing is to weeding the carrots. The ability to create a schedule and stick to it, to rewrite, to practice, practice, practice the craft, is more likely to make a writer succeed than "talent." When I say that, I can hear my father laugh because I sound just like him: "Hard work never killed anybody."
In our admirable desire to educate ourselves, we have begun to believe that an education should keep you from having to work.… Many non-ranchers, such as urban professionals, politicians, and academics, also imply that anyone who enjoys physical labor must be too dumb to get an education, or appreciate it.… Most Americans regard work and play as completely separate activities, the former an unpleasant thing you do to get money so you can afford to play in style.… ranching … blends physical exercise with mental, and allows me some variety in choosing what to do each day. The drawback is that sometimes the ranch work takes twelve hours out of my day, and I'm too tired or sore to write.
—Land Circle, "Addicted to Work," pp. 63-64
I even learned from our cows. Their moods taught me respect for their instincts and intelligence; I could tell the old whiteface whose teats got sore when she calved from the one who licked my ear when I milked her. Sometimes, eyeball to nostril with a furious bovine, I understood which way to jump by her facial expression. I learned to like cattle, to notice what they were seeing in the pasture, where they chose to graze. Working with the cattle made me strong and healthy, taught me to move with confidence, encouraged development of my sense of humor. And a few years later, I could practice those skills in a room full of beginning college students in an English class. I saw the same inarticulate yearning in their faces as I observed in a bunch of yearling heifers. Teaching anything to either group required infinite patience.
For most writers, success, if any, comes only after years of solitary labor. I learned to love working alone when my father sent me out on my horse with a few staples and a fencing tool to check and repair our barbed wire fences. I was comfortable alone in the emptiness of the prairie, confident of my ability to handle the horse and the work, and proud to be able to complete a job without his help. My father rarely praised me, so I learned to evaluate my own work, and be confident of its quality even without applause. And riding was pure pleasure; on horseback, with tools jingling in my saddlebags, I evaluated the condition of water holes and cattle. Growing up a rancher's daughter, then, taught me to observe and to remember, to be self-reliant and content in isolation, to derive satisfaction from doing my best work.
In the city I was never alone.… On the ranch, I rode my horse everywhere, and became absorbed in all the details of the prairie. I raced antelope, but I also sat down and let them approach me, stamping and whistling.… Country children didn't visit other children just to play. Our families got together to share work, and enjoyed it if we could.… We didn't get many toys; our status symbols were work implements: a horse, a saddle, a tractor, a gun, a pickup. We acquired these things when we were adult enough, responsible enough, to use them wisely. We were proud of them; we knew how much they cost, and we knew what they meant: adulthood. Admission to the life of labor our mothers and fathers knew.
—Land Circle, "Land Circle: Lessons," pp. 243-244
In my notebooks, I recorded what I saw, and later took my questions to old-timers and to books. I started a novel. I hadn't yet learned that reality would be essential to my writing, so I'll admit that the heroine was an Indian maiden riding an untamed stallion. As I learned poise and confidence in my horsemanship, I naturally spent less time cleaning my room, filing my fingernails and combing my hair.
As soon as I had a horse, I was free to wander alone through an immense open space of prairie.… Riding alone, I knew my horse could fall and break my leg or her own. I was alert and careful, … In many of our pastures, I could observe the prairie for four or five miles in all directions, and as far as I could see, I was the only human. I can imagine few joys greater than being alone with a good horse in such country. Perhaps this liberty created the need for solitude that made me a writer.
—Feels Like Far, pp. 34-35
My father taught me that work and enjoyment were indistinguishable—a habit that serves me well now that I am a busy writer who is never "off duty."
The work I loved created conflict, though; I saw my mother's work of cooking and housecleaning, mending and gardening, as boring and unattractive. The minute I finished tidying my room, if no one was watching, I rode my horse over the nearest skyline, free to go wherever I could open—and shut—the gates as my father insisted. In that single rule, he laid the foundation for my belief in finishing what I start, in being responsible for my actions. I still turn out lights when I leave a room, and examine in my writing the consequences of my actions.
My mother and her mother both considered it improper for girls to work outside, either on the tractor or with cattle. A lady, they both declared, learned domestic skills to prepare for her traditional jobs of staying in a marriage and raising children. I found their unity puzzling since my grandmother had worked outside—in her garden and the chicken house—all her life; she could chop a rattlesnake into fifteen pieces before you could holler, "Snake!" Mother bequeathed me her fragile skin, and nagged me to wear hats to protect it. But a broad-brimmed hat blew off unless I tied it under my chin with strings that choked me; usually I chucked it into the pickup as I rode out of the yard. She'd shake her head and say, "You'll look like an old boot by the time you're thirty. It's a good thing you're smart, because with those looks, you'll be lucky to get a man."
Her efforts, of course, backfired. Convinced my looks were hopeless, I never experimented with makeup, saving myself hours of fussing over my appearance. And though my interests in men were normal, I eventually learned that I could be satisfied with a life that did not include a man.
My mother periodically screamed and raged at me, and at my father for letting me "get away with" working outside, but never understood my desires and interests were different than hers. She spoke often of her sacrifice in giving up the life she preferred for me, but neither her wishes nor her anger made me conform to her portrait of the ideal daughter. No matter how hard we might try to understand one another, we were entirely different women. When she was more than ninety years old, her mind failing, she stopped saying, "Where in the world did you get those shoes?" and "Why don't you get that hair cut?" and "You're not going out like that !" Our conversations immediately lost their zip; visiting her became easy, like visiting a friend's mother. I missed the tension. I began to reconsider her life, to read old family records, and to write poems and snatches of prose in an effort to understand why she and I were so incompatible.
I didn't realize that by becoming the daughter of a rancher I had changed the direction of my life forever. I didn't realize I had pledged my soul to a ranch, to acres of tawny grass and dry creeks that would absorb my blood and sweat, as they had my father's, and still look parched.
—Going over East, "Introduction," p. 3
My father tried hard to conform to my mother's ideas of what was proper, but marriage increased his need for income and his work load. Wives and daughters who worked outside were proof, he thought, that their men could neither support them adequately, nor afford hired help. For awhile, he hired men who often disappeared on the first payday. But I grew stronger and knew more about our work and machinery every day, and began to understand that my labor and my knowledge had value. Eventually, my father put me to work, paying me in cash and cows. I registered my own brand when most of my girlfriends were buying their first pair of nylons.
One of the best conversations I ever had with my father was when I was about twelve and we were haying. We were lying down after lunch, under the trees in the field. He said he wondered if trees were really conscious beings, and aware of us, only living at a slower tempo than ours so we never grasp their consciousness. I've never looked at a tree in the same way since.
—Windbreak, October 21, p. 33
Much later, I realized that if my parents had produced a son, I might have been confined indoors, doing housework.
When I was fourteen, my father retired his old team of work horses and bought a new John Deere tractor he said was my birthday present. Thereafter I spent long, hot days in the hayfield, mowing and raking. I knew it was work, and I was proud of doing it, but I also managed to watch buzzards and study coyotes. I wondered if the people in speeding cars on the highway knew I was sweating on my tractor to provide their beef steaks.
I once overheard my father say to a neighbor, "She can mow as much hay as a man." I was proud. My father had already taught me that I could "do anything you put your mind to," and he'd also said from the day he adopted me that I would go to college. It never occurred to me to doubt that I would run the ranch in time, if that was my choice.
I loved ranch work. Everything he taught me seemed to make my world more complete. I rode hard and learned about cattle at the same time I saved money for college, seeing no contradiction. Whenever I talked about coming back to the ranch after college, however, my father shrugged, an omen I should have taken more seriously. My parents, true to their own upbringing, reacted to tough questions and pain in the same manner, and unwittingly trained me for various crises I encountered later in life. If I got kicked shoving a cow through a gate, my father said, "Don't think about it and it won't hurt." When I doubled up with headaches after a day sorting cattle in dusty corrals, mother gave me an aspirin, saying, "Think of something else. Go to sleep and it will stop."
A month on a ranch during calving season would probably prevent a lot of teenage pregnancies … exposes one to every conceivable aspect of life and most of the moral dilemmas.
—Windbreak, April 24, p. 128
I enjoyed my high school classes, but hated the hallway crowds and the city streets. Nothing I studied had any relevance to ranching, but I was mostly unconscious of the lack. Once I was called to the principal's office to explain the results of an aptitude test: despite my high grades, the test concluded that I would be happiest as a laborer digging ditches. While the principal lectured me for playing games with a serious matter, I pointed out that whenever I'd been given the option of choosing physical labor, or any work outside, I had done so. The test made no allowance for smart women who liked working outside.
I enrolled for creative writing one semester, but dropped it after a week. I persisted in speech class because my parents insisted; I am grateful for the training each time I give a reading or workshop.
Dating was a nightmare. My parents wouldn't let me shave my legs or wear makeup until I was sixteen, but few boys wanted to date a country girl. A movie meant a fifty-mile drive to collect me and return to town, and another fifty to take me home and return. My mother argued for a later curfew, and encouraged me to date the sons of town businessmen. Of course, she was hoping I wouldn't marry a rancher.
I've never settled in my mind whether "Early to bed, early to rise" is law or religion in my neighborhood.
—Feels Like Far, p. 116
And always, I scribbled in my notebooks. At different times, I worked at South Dakota's two major newspapers, and for the night staff of the Sioux City (Iowa) Journal. The editor wouldn't let me leave the office to chase stories. "Too dangerous for a woman," he said. Fired with journalistic zeal and the energy common to twenty-three, I considered going to Viet Nam as a war correspondent. Instead, I married another newspaper reporter. Our union lasted seven years largely because I had learned so well on the ranch how to endure. Our divorce reminded me that simple survival is not always the best solution.
I still remember so vividly the pain when my first husband read some of the journals I had kept since childhood. In angry petulance, I burned them all. I was in my twenties then. I destroyed years of work and material out of misguided fury. I should have recognized instead the meaning of that invasion of privacy and gotten rid of the man sooner.
—Windbreak, February 22, p. 93
Skedaddling back to the ranch, I worked all day for my father, and applied for teaching jobs at night, since my father's wages barely covered subsistence. I wrote whenever I had a moment alone; only a few poems and stories had been published in the twelve years since I finished high school.
The neighbors opined that I'd wasted time and money getting an education since I'd come back to the ranch anyway. Everyone applauded when I took part-time jobs, and was puzzled when I turned down full-time teaching. But I'd rediscovered my need to write, and could arrange my writing to fit into the spaces in my ranch work.
Everywhere I looked, I saw subjects that no one was writing about. The environment was a major topic of interest, yet most of the people writing about it held jobs that did not require them to be involved with animals or the land they lived on. Many people visited the wilderness, but didn't know how to live there. Their information about conditions, including the native animals and plants, came from books someone else—also not an inhabitant of the land—had written. Coming back to the ranch had altered my perspective on environmental problems; I realized that my neighbors were concerned about the land because it was essential to their survival; for my city friends, land was a form of entertainment. Behind my learning stood my father's deep and practical knowledge of our ranch. In retrospect, I see that I was ready to begin my real writing work.
Being of sound body and mind,
I speak to you who will inherit,
though you were never part of me.
—"My Last Will and Testament," Land Circle, p. 238
My parents, exploring the idea of retirement, started going to Texas each fall, leaving me alone to take care of the cattle. I fit my writing around cattle-feeding chores in the winter, spring calving, and summer haying. Slowly, my father began to notice that I could lift more than he could. My mother conceded that writing must be important to me, since I had stuck with it so long, but she still wished I would clean house more often, and reminded me that it wasn't too late to marry a doctor or a lawyer.
Caring for the land must certainly be a godly act, however one conceives of God, and caring for the people on the land, as well as the people who eat its products, can be no less rewarding. As we are coming to realize, we are all in this together.
—Land Circle, pp. 271-272
My dreams of riding a prancing stallion and of having children were fading; I'd never married a cowboy, and didn't know anyone who owned a white hat. But I found pure joy riding my elderly grey gelding beside my second husband, George R. Snell. Optimistically, I settled down with a man who accepted both my need to write and my compulsion to stay on the land where I grew up. We built a house adaptable to the needs we anticipated as we aged. George was learning about ranch work, listening patiently even to my father's most unreasonable orders. At last, I thought, I knew where my life was headed.
I studied my strengths and weakness, and created a comprehensive plan for—oh, the next fifty years or so. As a published writer, I finally understood how to organize my time. An accomplished rancher, I was learning more every day about how to maintain the health of the land that fed my cattle, as well as its native flora and fauna. As an only child, I expected to inherit my father's ranch, work it happily with George, and write in my spare time.
I think of our lives as circular: our work is dedicated not just to profit-making but literally to feeding ourselves. We are sometimes able to choose work that sustains us mentally … and to plan our own days rather than working to a schedule set up by someone else. But the steady rhythm of night turning to day, spring to summer, birth to death, the progress of the moon and sun, the sweep of wind and rain—those natural cycles determine how we arrange our lives. What does not fit into the smooth circle of our days, into the repeating cycle of the seasons, does not belong here.
—Going over East, p. 36
We started our marriage crammed into an apartment in my parents' house, and spent the winter planning our ideal home to accommodate George's camping and shooting gear, my writing and books; his woodworking tools and my sewing. We balanced desire against practicality, doing some work ourselves, and accepting help from friends skilled at carpentry, plumbing, and electricity.
Each choice we made was appropriate for the climate, and for conservation of energy. We decorated with natural colors and materials, installed a wood furnace with propane ignition. We fitted the house as naturally as possible into the landscape and conditions, planting native trees and shrubs to shelter the house and wildlife. Instead of planting a lawn, we transplanted plugs of short native grass to the scarred ground around the house. While our neighbors installed lights that automatically come on at dusk, we used spotlights on individual switches, aiming them down to minimize light pollution. I was practicing my environmental beliefs, as well as observing and writing about the results. When we left the ranch on vacation, we went deep into the wilderness with our canvas tipi, and lived as trappers did in the west in 1840; since we didn't have to protect our scalps or trap beaver, we found the life incredibly relaxing: no modern gadgets.
At the dining room table, we could look down over my father's house, barn, and corrals, and see our future. I was content to fit writing into the snatches of time: before and after ranch work, and during blizzards. George was determined to learn to be a rancher, to be happy and successful in the life we had built together. We were partners. We both did ranch work, and house work. Like other ranch women, I could smile and wash potatoes real fast when six unexpected guests appeared at mealtime.
For nearly ten years, my writing improved, and my professionalism and commitment grew. I read environmental journals and my father's agricultural papers to supplement my specific, practical knowledge. Many academics during this period, living mostly in college towns in farming regions, urged ranchers to study world markets, and modernize their operations with machinery. The family ranch, they said, would be replaced by efficient corporate ranches. At the same time, environmental publications scolded ranchers for overgrazing to produce nasty beef, for killing consumers by plugging arteries and giving them cancer. At environmental meetings, I listened politely while animal rights activists yelped about ranchers torturing calves for entertainment, and vocal vegetarians proclaimed beef to be damnably incorrect in a starving world. Most of the news of ranch culture seemed to be written by people who had spent three days in North Dakota, or—worse yet—on a hobby ranch in Montana, and considered themselves experts. The people who actually owned the ranches, did the work, preserved the land and the wildlife, were too busy to write.
Nature is to me both home and office. Nature is my boss, manager of the branch office—or ranch office—where I toil to convert native grass into meat, neatly packaged in leather for sale to increasingly finicky consumers.
—Between Grass and Sky, p. 2
My father grumbled as he folded each paper and headed for the garage to clean and rearrange the old spark plugs in his 1950 John Deere tractor. He grew angrier each year, insisting that the only way to do things was his way. George's patience gave out after a few years; my father was treating us both like slave labor, he said. He began to study for a degree in counseling; when he was ready, I promised, we'd leave the ranch together.
My first book of poems, Caught by One Wing, was published in 1987 in a small letterpress edition. Meanwhile, the fiction I wrote, most of it centered on ranching, was quickly rejected. When a Florida magazine editor said a story set in our branding corral was "unbelievable," I was perplexed; the experience was my own, nothing changed but the names. I began to doubt my ranch realities would ever appear in print. On good days, I imagined my journals providing clues to subsistence on the plains after "agri-business" destroyed our economy and the health of the plains grasslands.
But I inherited a stubborn streak, possibly from my grandmother Cora, who took such direct action against rattlesnakes—and the occasional skunk—with her hoe. From my diaries, I put together a year's journal of our daily lives and began submitting it as a book proposal. Even if it was only a quaint historical record, it would provide testimony to the way our ranching civilization functioned on the plains. Eventually, I sent part of my journal to an agent in New York who'd shown interest in my fiction; she wrote:
… the sense that I have from the entries of the sample month is that life on the ranch is so relentlessly hard and tied to the routine of the daily chores involved in the struggle for survival that it would be difficult to sustain a reader's interest for the duration of a book.
Disheartened, I considered giving up writing. Later that week, I saw Heartland, a documentary about pioneer homesteader Elinore Pruitt Stewart. I walked out of the film determined to keep writing, whether a single word was ever printed or not.
I sent sample months from the journal to any publisher with an interest in rural life, and got back twenty-six rejection letters. Eventually, Gina Covina, publisher of Barn Owl Books, accepted the manuscript, and published Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains in early 1987. After a favorable review in the New York Times Book Review, I wrote the New York agent to sympathize, saying that she, like me, must be used to making mistakes.
Soon, letters from readers filled my mailbox. Ranchers, men and women, young and old, scrawled their thanks to me for chronicling their lives. A hunting-camp cook thanked me for helping her get through long nights when male hunters bragged and drank. Widows told me of their loneliness on the ranch as their children moved on and their husbands died; I'd expressed clearly, they said, why they chose to stay. Teenagers who yearned to raise goats on a little acreage in the country sent me their photos and phone numbers; while some thanked me for showing them stark reality, others were headed West to become my apprentices, and several men ignored my marriage and proposed. City-bound vegetarians scribbled of how they worried about my cows when local weathermen described Great Plains blizzards.
Some country women allowed as how this writing business wasn't so hard; they'd kept diaries all their lives and now I could help them publish, so they could be rich and famous too. Old friends who'd always wondered what happened to me when I quit studying for my Ph.D. and headed back to the ranch wrote to congratulate me on becoming rich and famous, and ask if they could vacation on the ranch.
I answered every letter (at this writing in 2003 I have received more than eight hundred). I replied to questions and encouraged diarists to give copies of their histories to their children and to historical archives. I began to glimpse differing points of view, and to relish the friendship of people I'd never meet.
Going over East: Reflections of a Woman Rancher, my second nonfiction book, was published late that same year. Colleges began to pay me to speak about writing and the environment. Suddenly, I was a visible representative of a breed many people didn't know existed: the Western ranch woman. Hesitant about speaking for my cantankerous neighbors and relatives, I still believed our voices needed to be recognized as part of the West, and of the environmental movement.
My father, however, was furious that I'd referred to him as my stepfather in the book's introduction, and never read another word of my writing. He'd taught me his beliefs as our horses trotted side by side: Show no pain. Our business is no one else's. Introspection is a luxury, self-analysis a sign of weakness or dementia. He thought I'd forgotten or defied them by writing about the ranch.
Late in 1987, I learned from a reader that she recognized parts of Windbreak, barely altered, in a romance novel. My publisher sued the romance publisher and won a settlement of roughly half what the romance author received for her book. But halfway through the lawsuit, George died of a malignant spinal tumor caused by the radiation that helped cure his Hodgkin's disease. Ten days elapsed between our discovery that the pain in his shrunken shoulder was a malignancy and the day he was buried in the little cemetery on a bare hillside a few miles from home. He was forty-two years old. Many people who had written to me about Windbreak wrote again to remind me that I could survive. That was, I decided, the real message of our traditions, older than wagon tracks on the plains.
For the sake of brevity, I'll simply list the next few events of my real, and my writing life:
- George died.
- My father, his mind damaged by strokes he wouldn't acknowledge, ordered me to stop writing or leave the ranch.
- Knocked off my bearings, I moved in with a friend in a city five hours' drive away from the ranch I love.
- With no income, I rented my ranch home to strangers.
- My father died, leaving exclusively to my mother everything on the ranch where I'd worked for forty years.
- Connections between my mother's body and brain parted; she entered a nursing home.
- My best friend, a ranch woman with whom I talked every day, died of AIDS.
- The job of settling my father's estate fell to me, taking all my time for two years.
- I sold my father's cattle to pay his expenses.
- I sold my own cattle and borrowed money to acquire the ranch.
- With no cows and no home on the ranch, I leased the land to a neighbor.
When I glanced up and saw my fiftieth birthday on the horizon, I was living with an old friend in a new condition of romance, staggering from the effects of change. A week before, I'd packed up or discarded the forty-year accumulation of my packrat parents in three days so my land renter's hired man and his wife could move into my childhood home. I was ready for a break from the routines of loss, but unsure which ritual would be appropriate. I considered adopting the old Viking custom of loading the deceased's possessions on his ship and burning it.
—Between Grass and Sky, pp. 143-144
Shortly after George died, I read from my work at an agricultural college in the eastern farming region of South Dakota. One teacher sent students' comments to me. "She seemed," wrote one young man, "to be like the boots she had on, worn and broken-in to hardship but, because of that, soft, supple, and beautiful." Of all the reviews I've read about my work, that farm boy's remark shows the most compassion, the most understanding.
In May of 1992, after my father's ultimatum, I had driven away from the ranch with no clear plan except escape from my deteriorating family. Frodo, my West Highland white terrier, napped on blankets stacked on my emergency survival gear; my journals were on the front seat. I took refuge with Jerry because he was a good friend, and wouldn't ask any questions. Five hours away from home, I was close enough to return quickly in the emergency I expected as my father's mind and health failed. Every week, I raced back to the ranch to do the work my father had neglected, and tried to persuade him to hire help. He sold my pickup; he started selling my cattle. He loaned my horse and saddle to a neighbor. In mid-summer, short of money, I rented to strangers the house George and I had built. They wanted to paint the living room walls black; they ripped up the hoses that fed the windbreak. After years of fastening my roots in prairie sod, I'd become a nomad.
… my father dropped dead, [in August, 1992] leaving everything to my mother in a will that barely acknowledged my existence. But he'd taught me well; I knew that no matter what the legal language said, no matter how angry I was, making sense of the mess he left was my job. He hadn't explained the ranching business, but he trained me to work, and once told me I could do anything I put my mind to. Some days, I encouraged myself by thinking he knew I'd take charge, that I'd do the right thing. During the next four years, as my mother declined mentally and physically, I struggled through my father's papers. Eventually, though I'd purchased the ranch a couple of times with my labor, I had to pay for it in hard, and borrowed, cash. My mother, now cared for by nursing home attendants, owns the ranch homestead and buildings, though I supervise the tenants. By the time my own renters moved out, I'd set up a trust fund to support my mother, sold my father's cows to pay his debts, sold mine to help finance the repairs he'd been unable to do for nearly a decade, and leased grazing rights to a couple of neighbors.
I have not lived on the ranch since 1992.
—Going over East, 2nd edition, pp. 210-211
In the city, Jerry and I bought an old house. When friends wrote to ask when I was moving back home, I answered evasively. Jerry and I were moving toward a comfortable companionship. I was enjoying my experiment with city life—I couldn't be reached by telephone, and I wasn't responsible for the ranch. I wrote furiously, however, plunging every day into the book that became Feels Like Far, trying to understand how I might survive losing the ranch that had become so central to my life.
One day the renters of my ranch house told me about friends who'd stayed overnight with a sick son. The child awakened in the morning feeling better, and said with a smile, "This is a healing house." Eventually, the renters left. During the next two years, when I went home to negotiate with lawyers and accountants, I camped overnight in my house, overflowing with the renters' filth, unpaid bills, and discarded possessions.
In Cheyenne, I'd joined a writers' group, but failed to find a like-minded community. I'd planted a garden and native wildflowers, perhaps trying to recreate the prairie on a city corner. Then in June, 1995, two women who'd read my first book, and wanted to see its setting, accompanied me on a visit to the ranch. They helped me clean, giggled at photographs in my high school yearbooks, and photographed me smashing the TV antenna the renters had tied to a tipi pole.
We were having coffee on the deck, watching ducks on the pond below, when Diane said, "You should make this a writing retreat for women."
Knowing that the moment was important, we took a photograph. "A healing house," the boy had said. Perhaps the house could heal me—and other women. Windbreak House Retreats opened in 1996.
In my travels, I'd met dozens of women who wanted to write but had been discouraged by officious teachers in high school or college. I could sympathize, having been told by a professor in graduate school I should go back to the ranch, get married, and have babies, because I wasn't smart enough for advanced education.
Women who read my published work sometimes thanked me for telling their stories, for showing, as one said, "that ranch women aren't just big dumb cows." At the retreat, I encourage contemporary women to write about their lives, demonstrate that their stories have value. Our culture and history needs their viewpoints. In turn, some of them might become my allies in showing the urban world that the prairie has value and importance beyond furnishing resources to cities and storing our waste.
From the first, my motive was partly selfish. For years, my "writing" income came primarily from honoraria as a visiting writer. But I hate long absences from home, unfamiliar surroundings where I cannot write, and classrooms filled with indifferent students. I also wanted to spend more time at Windbreak House writing, since I still find city life exasperating. Conducting retreats might allow me to return to my prairie, nourish my writing, manage the ranch, and maybe even make a living.
And, since I couldn't use my ranching experience on the ranch, I would use it as material for my writing. Without intending to, I had become a voice for ranchers, especially women, so I owed them my best efforts. Our world has become mechanized so fast its citizens are in danger of forgetting where food originates. I can explain how ranching works to people who mistakenly believe any grazing destroys a natural environment. Conversely, I can clarify environmentalists' ideas to ranchers who feel threatened by change. A considerable amount of friction between these groups is based on ignorance, a correctable condition. If two opposing groups can begin by discussing shared ideas instead of hurling rhetoric at one another, they may be able to work toward a common goal. Perhaps this work would become my contribution to society.
The ancient Greeks believed each citizen's duty—the tax he paid in return for services provided by his government—was to remain informed about and active in the politics of his neighborhood. Of course, the Greeks had women and slaves to take care of the work while they debated current issues, but the principle remains sound: we are our government, and we must be responsible about its policies.
—Going over East, p. 87
Yet even my parents, neighbors and friends had never accepted the idea that writing is work. My ninety-year-old mother often asked if I'd "gotten a job yet." How could I encourage Western women to express their opinions and ideas, and at the same time earn my own keep?
Besides convincing prospective students, I had to establish the idea of the retreat as a business in my community. Each time I returned to my house, my neighbors called to tell me about vacant teaching jobs, or ask me to bake cookies for school functions.
The rancher who rented my land, uncomfortable discussing business on the telephone, usually drove to my house to discuss the ranch work. One morning when three writers were in residence, I saw him and his wife in the corral sorting cattle, and walked down to see them, determined to explain why they should not interrupt retreats.
"You know," I began after we'd caught up on local news, "those women pay a lot of money to come here to work with me."
The ranch couple blurted in unison, "They pay to come here?"
Of course! People who don't consider writing a profession would hardly imagine its study to be a business. Since these folks are my most important link to the community, I explained how the retreat worked—with special emphasis on the profit motive—and sent them copies of my books, along with fliers advertising the retreat. These days, my neighbors have learned to talk to my voice messaging service, but when they ask how my retreats are going, they still grin and chuckle, shaking their heads.
In 2003, at sixty, I can reflect on, if not wholly explain, the influences that made me a writer. When I first moved to the ranch, I'd never had a father, and I loved outside work, so I became the classic tomboy: wearing jeans and carrying a pocket knife. I had always credited my father for teaching me to be independent, for insisting I attend college, and thus for starting me on my life's work. After my mother's death in 2001, I looked more closely at her influence as well, and at the other women who were part of my life while I was growing up.
My mother's mother, Cora Belle, born in 1891, never finished grade school. She helped her mother raise her siblings, married at sixteen and was first widowed at twenty-three. "I wanted to die," she told me, "but I had to live for the babies." She married again and reared two more sons. Widowed again, she settled into the ranch with one son—but she moved to California to keep house for a young relative widowed with two children. When the children entered school, she came home to her South Dakota ranch.
My mother grew up in that Black Hills canyon, the oldest child and only girl. Teen photographs show her wearing a flapper dress, her hair bobbed and a devilish glint in her eye. She graduated from high school in 1927, went to business college in Nebraska, and moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There, she told me, she met and married my biological father, Paul Bovard, whose job as a salesman took him to Houston, Texas, where I was born. Within four years, she and I fled north. I remember crying under the kitchen table while my parents yelled, and she smashed liquor bottles in the sink. Mother left him, she said, because he drank constantly, and was having an affair with their neighbor. After she became a secretary in Rapid City, South Dakota, Cora lived with us until I was in old enough to walk home alone—first or second grade—then went back to her ranch. I spent summers there with her and my mother's half-brother, learning to love cattle, horses, and solitude.
When mother married my stepfather, John Hasselstrom, she must have missed the city and her salary; she often made bitter remarks about marriage and men, but she tried to become the perfect housewife and to persuade me that domesticity was a woman's proper role. We spent most of the rest of her life in conflict, even when we tried to get along. She was five foot two, a bird-boned, blue-eyed belle who always made me feel huge and awkward; my boyfriends invariably whispered, "Your mother's beautiful!" When I began conducting writing retreats, I discovered that many women experienced the same kinds of conflicts with their mothers, felt the same frustrations.
When we moved to the ranch, I also noticed the strong women in our rural neighborhood, discovering that not every woman lived the life my mother recommended. Some, like mother, changed their lives to fit the men they married; others appeared to conform, but found considerable freedom within those limits. Some followed no rules at all. When I returned to the ranch with George, after nearly thirty years of experiences in life, I began to appreciate these women and what they had taught me.
One of the most visible—and audible—was my Aunt Josephine, married to my father's brother, Harold. She sneered at my mother's citified ways, and encouraged my horsemanship. Later, she argued against the Equal Rights Amendment, but she'd always had her own checking account, her own brand, cattle, and sheep. Josephine never went to college, but she took art lessons so she could paint watercolor scenes of the ranch, and organized the OAO (Our Afternoon Off) club; taking an afternoon off was unheard of in our neighborhood. Anyone needing a potluck dish or money for a worthy cause called Jo. When neighbors were sick, she rallied women to clean their homes; many an ailing woman miraculously recovered after considering what Jo might find—and talk about—in her refrigerator. Jo worked constantly, planting hundreds of windbreak trees, filling three freezers with garden produce every year. She served visitors coffee and offered two kinds of pie and three varieties of cake. Heaven help the hired man who didn't check the heifers every two hours all night during calving season; Jo got up and slipped out in the dark to be sure the job was getting done.
My closest neighbor, Margaret, ten years younger than I, worked as hard as Jo, and became my closest friend. We attended environmental meetings together, and talked about our lives. My Aunt Jo's gossip drove us wild, but we admired her generosity. Contradiction, we agreed, was part of human life. During long public gatherings, we scribbled notes to each other, and on the ride home disagreed cheerfully about religion and politics. We lived less than a mile apart, talked on the telephone almost daily, and visited each other's homes every week or so.
After Margaret broke her back in a car accident, she planted five hundred windbreak trees, and later wrote a book about tree-planting on the prairie. Josephine died hard and slow from a brain tumor, and Margaret planted a tree in her memory, fencing it so the cows wouldn't break it down. By the time Margaret died of the HIV virus she'd received in blood transfusions, she'd educated our isolated community and many other folks about AIDS, as well as about courage. Margaret wasn't in favor of the ERA, either, but her daughter Bonnie is an independent young woman who makes up her own mind.
Jo and Margaret, representing generations older and younger than mine, epitomized the qualities and contradictions of Western women to me. Independent, they worked with men who habitually belittled or ignored women, but refused to label themselves "liberated." Margaret slyly noted that I did not mention the Equal Rights Amendment when her brother was digging my four-wheel-drive truck out of a snowdrift. I believe I learned a lot about cooperation from these two women; partners accomplish more than competitors.
We could laugh about our [ERA] debate, but we never agreed, just as we compromised with our fathers and mothers to keep peace.
—Feels Like Far, p. 92
Were these women, I wondered in my journals, actually different from the city women I'd met in college? Or were they simply responding to different circumstances? Either way, their voices were not often heard on the national scene.
Certainly part of their power was physical and mental toughness. A ranch child sees birth and death before she is six years old; most of us understand the connection between sex and birth before our own bodies prompt us to ask our mothers, who lie anyway. We learn responsibility by doing chores tailored to our size and strength. We appreciate our value in our families as an appendage of the work we do, even when city schoolmates laugh at the manure on our boots. Copying our parents, we shrug when spring blizzards kill so many calves we have to wear last year's school shoes and buy used clothes. We learn self-reliance by riding up to a tight gate with no man in sight and figuring out how to loosen it. We find solitude one warm afternoon, watching from horseback a hawk wheel in a sky far from highways. After mastering the arts of cooking and cleaning in obedience to our mothers, we do outside chores at dusk, and consider our alternatives.
We have choices our mothers may not have had; we can stay on the ranch and be connected to the world—if we can keep the ranch. How peculiar, I thought. The qualities a cowboy developed on the frontier made him a popular culture hero, but the woman beside him was ignored. She rode West, worked and fought with a man; she cooked his meals and bore his children, and still does. But whereas most little boys spend part of their youth wanting to be cowboys, most little girls don't want to grow up to be cowgirls.
Western women have been silent, and sometimes silenced. We learned stoicism early, watching our parents hide their sorrows. And perhaps we have always kept more secrets than we can bear. What dreams, I wondered, had my mother and grandmother given up as they took responsibility for their actions? Generations of women lived and worked and died on the Great Plains without recording their lives, without notice from historians. What have we lost that they might have taught us? By dedicating Windbreak House to the writing of women, I could create a memorial to them, as well as to help break the silence for later generations.
All of these thoughts have became part of my writing, editing, and teaching. Rather than joining national efforts to enhance women's rights, I've represented the issues to students in hundreds of Great Plains classrooms. "Yes, I am Ms. Hasselstrom, pronounced 'Miz.' Yes, I'm married. No, there is no law saying you must take your husband's last name when you marry."
Similarly, my books apparently inspire other Great Plains women who write. Women who read my work or meet me quickly realize I'm pretty ordinary, and if I can accomplish my goals, so can they.
In the late 1990s, I traveled the Great Plains to present readings and workshops, meeting many like-minded folks, and having fascinating discussions about issues of interest to all of us, including the environment and women's rights. Often, we joked about the West's allure for folks from other areas, and the irony that many of them saw only the West of myth, not the reality.
After I moved to Wyoming, I worked with two other Wyoming women to edit three anthologies of writing by real Western women. Planning our first book, with no publisher, no contract, and no cash advance, we made our editing even more difficult by encouraging rural women with no writing experience to tell us about their lives. We accepted poetry and nonfiction in any form, but no fiction. Our primary editing criteria was authenticity, i.e., the writer's personal experience. We were especially determined to include writers whose views differed from ours, recognizing ourselves as white middle-class ranching women, and knowing the value of other voices for the West.
Leaning into the Wind: Women Write from the Heart of the West was published in 1997 by Houghton Mifflin, and reprinted three times in cloth covers before the paperback appeared. We had discovered the headwaters of a river of women's voices. As Montana writer Gwen Petersen, said, speaking for all Western women, "No one has ever heard us before. No one has ever listened if we tried to speak. We've always just kept on."
Inspired, we worked together to publish Woven on the Wind: Women Write about Friendship in the Sagebrush West in 2001. Our third anthology, Crazy Woman Creek: Women Rewrite the American West, appeared in 2004. The books have provided opportunities for women left out of discussions on the future of the West to express opinions that will be available for years. By challenging false stereotypes, the books establish a realistic foundation for political action, as well as for discussions of the literature, environment, and history of the West.
My interest in these projects grew naturally from my life on the ranch, my experiences as a divorcee and widow. They are another part of my tribute to women like Margaret and Josephine, and my mother and grandmother.
The photos in her album don't always match Mother's stories.
—Feels Like Far, p. 11
To my regret, I was able to understand some of the difficulties of my mother's life only after her death, when she was beyond answering questions that might have revealed that we had more in common than either of us ever knew. When I was writing Mother's obituary, I learned that she'd been married first in 1931; I found no record of the divorce. She married my father in 1938, but I was not born until 1943, when she was thirty-four. When I cleaned her house after moving her to a nursing home, I found a cache of envelopes addressed to her by her first husband; she'd kept them, she said, in case the stamps became valuable, but she threw away the letters. Now only the photographs are left to hint at the things she never said, the photographs and the speculations of a daughter who has written her way to a greater understanding.
Considering this new information while studying my mother's face and the attitude of her body in photographs of her holding me, I became convinced that she didn't want to be a mother. For the first time, I could empathize with her. I, too, had created a professional life and then was subjected to intense pressure—from her, among others—to have a child.
My own life has included one rape, two marriages—but no birth children. I am comfortable, and sometimes delighted, that I had no children of my own, though I enjoyed two sets of stepchildren. Exploring and exposing the secrets families keep, in order to heal the wounds made by concealment, is another part of my motivation to write.
Instead of being the damn good rancher I thought I'd be, I am a writer with more knowledge about cattle, ranching, and grasslands habitat than I can ever convey in mere words. I work hard at my writing, hoping to help other ranching daughters and sons keep their own commitment to the land.
—Going over East, 2nd edition, p. 211
In my writing, I have always combined philosophical ideas with practical methods for accomplishing a goal, probably because my childhood was devoted to hard work. Both my nonfiction and my poetry often emphasize my belief that we must all take responsibility for our actions. So I teach environmental efficiency, as well as writing methods, by example at Windbreak House. A metaphor for the way my writing life is organized, the house is orderly but not immaculate. I discuss how my observation of ranching's effect on local native plants and animals influences my writing. Each writer, I suggest, should be as intimate with her own homeland as I am with mine.
To find ourselves in the land, we don't need to buy a farm.… We are all creatures born to soil and wilderness; the outdoors, not an air-conditioned office or schoolroom with windows that can't be opened, is our natural habitat. Night or day, walk out into the grass or woods alone, sit down, and listen. Dig in the earth; plant something. Walk and watch any living thing except another human.
—Land Circle, "Land Circle: Lessons," p. 241
The women who write with me at Windbreak House have helped my healing, and provided reincarnation for the ranch home I imagined might shelter my husband and me in our old age. Each group of women creates particular moments of intimacy, friendships that will link us all, forever. And each leaves me inspired to do my own writing, renewing my belief in the importance of staying close to the land where my writing began.
At the retreats, I am a writer, sharing an inspiring place with other writers. Windbreak House is no longer my private home. Like the earth, the house changes to express the growth of my ideas about writing.
Occasionally friends ask when I'm going to start ranching again; one rancher who liked my books offered to stock my ranch with a good herd if I'd go back and take care of it. I'd like that, but I believe it's more important for me to continue writing and working with other writers. At Windbreak House, I can demonstrate the lessons of becoming a writer: the importance of making do, of practice, solitude, patience, and finishing what you start. And show how a sense of humor can help a writer survive.
Whoever occupies this land after I die will understand little of its history.… Living with integrity on this land will require more than a new name on the deeds. Land is the basis of community. Successful stewardship means learning all one can from previous inhabitants, including the animals. By the time I learned the lineage of all our cows, they were more than walking legal tender … the cows became my family, recognizing me as surely as I knew them. Our relationship was more like a civilized exchange than an ownership of one by the other. Working with the cows in pastures filled with native animals helped me assimilate ways of living responsibly and with enjoyment in the country. When I ran to head one off at a gate, I judged her intention with the same measure I use to determine what a person will do: by her expression, by the look in her eye. I can't determine the future of the ranch the same way.
—Feels Like Far, pp. 216-217
In 2001, I helped establish, with the Great Plains Native Plant Society, the Claude A. Barr Memorial Great Plains Garden. The garden will preserve the native plants on 350 acres of my ranch—white penstemon, red globe mallow, lanceleaf bluebells, golden pincushion cactus and dozens of others. Eventually, the group hopes to label native plants, install pathways, and open the site to the public. Many of my ranching neighbors are fearful that "the government" will come to control the land as a result of this agreement, or that it will become part of a subdivision. The venture is an experiment in preserving a ranch without willing it to descendants.
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.
—Land Circle, "O Holy Night on the Prairie," p. 173
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Edwards, Thomas S., and Elizabeth A. De Wolfe, editors, Such News of the Land: U.S. Women Nature Writers, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 2001.
Elder, John, editor, American Nature Writers, Volume 1, Scribner (New York, NY), 1997, pp. 337-348.
Greasley, Philip A., Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, Volume 1: The Authors, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 2001.
Vinz, Tammaro, editor, Imagining Home: Writing from the Midwest, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1995, pp. 145-162.
Belles Lettres, spring, 1995, Dianne Ganz Scheper, review of Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land, pp. 32-34.
Bloomsbury Review, July-August, 1992; September, 1997, review of Leaning into the Wind: Women Write from the Heart of the West, p. 13.
Booklist, June 1, 1997, Donna Seaman, review of Leaning into the Wind, p. 1646; May 1, 2001, Margaret Flanagan, review of Woven on the Wind: Women Write about Friendship in the Sagebrush West, p. 1657; September 15, 2002, Carol Haggas, a review of Between Grass and Sky: Where I Live and Work, p. 194.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1997, review of Leaning into the Wind, p. 610; September 15, 1999, review of Feels Like Far: A Rancher's Life on the Great Plains, p. 1476; July 1, 2002, a review of Between Grass and Sky: Where I Live and Work, p. 932.
Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide, September, 1998, review of Leaning into the Wind, p. 35.
Library Journal, June 1, 1997, Gwen Gregory, review of Leaning into the Wind, p. 98; November 1, 1999, Joyce Sparrow, review of Feels Like Far, p. 81; March 15, 2001, Stephanie Maher, review of Woven on the Wind, p. 83.
Life, July, 1989.
Michigan Quarterly Review, winter, 2001, "Reimagining Windbreak House," pp. 74-90.
New York Times Book Review, August 9, 1987, Nancy Mairs, review of Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains, p. 21.
Prairie Winds, fall, 1995, pp. 2-4.
Public Historian, winter, 1996, review of A Roadside History of South Dakota, p. 106.
Publishers Weekly, July 3, 1987, review of Windbreak, p. 57; October 4, 1991, review of Land Circle, p. 74; April 28, 1997, review of Leaning into the Wind, p. 57; October 18, 1999, review of Feels Like Far, p. 61; May 7, 2001, review of Woven on the Wind, p. 238.
Roundup, February, 1996, p. 39; August, 1997, review of Leaning into the Wind, p. 24.
Small Press Review, February, 1980, p. 9; April, 1995, p. 6.
South Dakota, September-October, 1992, pp. 23-26.
South Dakota Review, autumn, 1992, Lee Ann Roripaugh, "Poet of the Wind: An Interview with Linda Hasselstrom," pp. 130-155.
Western American Literature, February, 1995, William Kittredge, review of Land Circle, pp. 376-377; summer, 1998, review of Leaning into the Wind, p. 211.
Writing!, September, 1988.
Windbreak House Web site,http://www.windbreakhouse.com/ (April 22, 2004), author Web site.