There are certain voices who sing the song of the land. Linda Hasselstrom is one of these voices. Hasselstrom writes the landscape and life of ranching on the Great Plains of western South Dakota. Her latest book Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal (High Plains Press) shares the journey of her reading her father’s, mother’s, and her own journals from previous years and the insights and continued questions of time around these three interwoven journeys. Both of her parents have passed and there was much of their final years that was far from easy. Hasselstrom’s embraces humanity, in all of its beauty and pain. Yet, what shines through the years within the written words are a fierce love. A love not always expressed with gentleness. Yet through the sharpness and silences, the connection between Hasselstrom and her parents pulses on every page. The honesty Hasselstrom brings to this journey often made me stop and stare, lost in the familial world she opens the door for us to share.
“April 6. Today I woke remembering the strong voice of Meridel LeSeuer saying to me, “I covered some terrible wounds with lyricism. (p.91)”
What resonates is the sheer authenticity of life, family dynamics and rhythms, love lost, love found—underlying all, love. Hasselstom’s love for the land, love for the ranch, love for her parents within the tangled web of history, memories, and emotion that comes with every family, love for a life she lost, and love for the shared life she created.
Hasselstrom’s writing and ranching life run deep within these pages, and the people who influenced her come to life.
“I think the view of women as incapable of owning land was similar to the view that women’s writing wasn’t worth reading, especially if it was about their daily lives. When a woman like my mother wrote about her ideas and work in her journey, she was actively claiming the right to be heard, even if she didn’t realize it….Those other women who taught me how to live mostly recorded their lives and loves in other ways: in quilts, in jars of vegetables in the cellar or freezer, in embroidery and gardening and taking care of other people in their communities. The work was their art, and their journals; their labor was the books they didn’t write.” (p. 131).
Hasselstrom has been a huge influence in my own reading and writing life. When my parents moved to the ranch nearly 25 years ago. On my first visit to the ranch, Mom gave me a stack of Linda’s books, “Here, if you want to understand the prairie, you must read Linda Hasselstrom.” So, I did, and I’ve never stopped. Linda’s ranch lies on our route between Santa Fe and the ranch. One of the highlights of the 14 hour drive is leaving and receiving “prairie mail” tied to the fence post at the top of the lane.
Like all of Linda’s books, I wanted to know more about the story of this book. I posed some questions to Linda, and she graciously shared her time to share more about the book, the people, and ranching:
DW: To read your parents’ and your own journals from the same time period is an inherently emotional experience—What was the inspiration?
LH: See p. 20: I started with a practical job to fill in while I was not writing a great deal: to record the temperatures from when my father began doing so, to address the questions about climate change. As I began to delve into the journals, I remarked “perhaps I am making the job seem important” by beginning to read his entries. Then I began to remember incidents that were happening while he was recording only the bare essentials, and of course at my age (74) I fear losing my memories, so I enjoyed being reminded of the past.
DW: What did you wrestle with in making the decision?
LH: On January 4 I asked myself if his journals are important, and the book is my answer: let those who fear or dislike ranching see who we really are. p. 25: future requires knowledge of the past. If we discard it entirely, we discard the lessons along with the mistakes. I hope the next owner of this land knows how we operated, even if s/he operates differently.
I’ve seen and participated in the sudden cleanup after deaths, and know how easy it is in the heat of “we have to get the house ready to rent/sell/burn” to throw out letters, diaries, other things that might be significant later. I have no child of my own, and my stepchildren are far removed from this ranch, so it seemed to be simply responsible to consider what might happen if I die before Jerry, who is 10 years younger than I. I don’t think it’s fair to make my partner responsible for my family decisions, especially whether to save or destroy journals that are part of my family’s history.
” Thousands of us hurl ourselves into cities like nuts into a hopper, and there by grinding and rubbing against one another we lose our natural form and acquire a superficial polish and a little more or less standardized appearance. In the country, the nuts are not subjected to the grinding process.” Archer B. Gilfillian, Sheep: Life on the South Dakota Range (Opening quote)
DW: What felt peaceful in making the decision?
LH: Hasselstrom collections were established—my aunt Josephine—so that suggested doing this again. I have no control over what people will think of me once I’m dead, so why try to control those thoughts by destroying any more of my journals, or those of my family? I’ve already regretted destroying my journals when my first husband read them, so I know the pain of losing those records of my entire childhood to a liar who had no sense of morals. I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. As I began to read through the journals and take notes, I was filled with admiration and respect for what my parents and others lived through and commented on.
DW: What aspect/s of the writing this particular book came most naturally?
LH: I feel a responsibility as one of the few (so far) writing ranchers, to explain how ranchers operate, to tell the vital stories. We need ranchers and others who understand the importance of grasslands to explain why all of us—whether we eat meat or live here or not—need to care passionately about grasslands.
“March 31. I started reading about Vipssana meditation, about gurus and yoga, but stopped when I realized that the prairie is both my path to enlightenment and enlightenment itself.
The prairie is suitably immense in age and serenity; its silence and depth provide a meditation room for everyone who pays attention. Sit in silence and open yourself, say the gurus, and you will see god or goddess in whatever manifestation most appeals to you.
Around me, I see nothing that is not holy. Goddess in the grass, the birds, the clouds, antelope, muddy pond. Goddess in the sunlight.” (p. 84)