Saturday, September 26, 2009

NO PLACE LIKE HOME by Linda Hasselstrom

Linda Hasselstrom is a cranky old woman. If she moved next door to me, I would be very pleased because that would make two of us. Of course, this is a village of cranky old women who earned the right to be that way by providing service and shelter to everyone else for decades. I’m older than Linda by a few years, but have been married fewer times. She does workshops for women writers and I would rather stick pins in my eyes than either run or attend one, but we both write so much that everyone around us is a little baffled if not inconvenienced. We both like men. Very much and all kinds. For their minds. Linda might be armed. I am not.

In college Linda took English leaning to journalism while I took English leaning to theatre and that’s probably the most crucial difference between us. Before her own books were published, Linda had created a magazine, founded a press of her own, was editing for other publishers, had a book of poems published by elegant letterpress, and was teaching at the college level. She’s gone on from there. The first books were published in the Eighties, most auspiciously “Windbreak” drawn from her journals growing up on a South Dakota ranch. My opinion is that “Feels Like Far” is one of the ten best autobiography/memoirs of the West. Then there were those “grass and wind” anthologies of women’s writing about the West, co-edited with Gaydell Collier and Nancy Curtis. She’s a “do it” writer who can operate a cow-and-calf ranch, create bird or flower sanctuaries, build a house, and so on.

This book, “No Place Like Home: Notes from a Western Life,” collects essays written over a period of time and originally published in a variety of places. Some are the sort of lively environmental scolding beloved by High Country News where she is a “Writer on the Range.” Others are more reflective or poetic essays in an academic tone. One that rings true with me, now that I’m working with Tim Barrus, is about used clothing merchants in a van who showed up at a Buckskinners’ camp (Linda’s second husband was a buckskinner) with rude habits and a very skinny and hostile little boy who repaid every attempt to help him with violence. Buckskinners are a pretty tolerant bunch, but they do have rules and limits.

I read all the essays straight through, as though they were chapters, so had the reward of seeing how Linda’s life has twisted and doubled back like a grassy stream in a flat meadow, but the book would also be rewarding if picked up occasionally. Just enough unexpectedness between topics and just enough consistency of philosophy.

A favorite essay of mine was about dead herons, since we had a rather parallel event here in Valier. (A rookery invaded.) Linda was taking a friend out to see their local heron rookery only to find the nests deserted and the ground putrid with carcasses. Outraged and horrified, she and her companion thought of the usual suspects: violent humans. Her first assumption was that someone had shot the birds, but she could find no bullets. Then she thought of toxic substances, but that didn’t quite make sense. In the end the answer was simple and nonhuman. I won’t tell you, so as not to spoil the puzzle. (In Valier we had human culprits.)

Not every essay is about ranching, since Linda and her present husband, Jerry, lived at least part-time in Cheyenne until Jerry retired last year. The town stories are about trying to observe the Western rules of staying in your own territory, minding your own business, and yet protecting oneself against those who seem to have no boundaries at all, a tricky business that can’t always be solved by cops. But the most egregious theft, the loss of her second husband’s canoe, happened in the country and was resolved in a country way. Read and learn.

Linda has claimed a territory that is uniquely hers, though there are other writers who inhabit the same realm (Sharon Butala, Teresa Jordan, Kathleen Norris) but with other voices and priorities. She is willing to share what she has learned in hard ways, the hardest probably being the death of her second husband, but very close to that the senile dementia of her father, whose madness braced him against her. When one’s best friend and mentor turns on one, it’s nearly insupportable.

But like that gentle stream, when blocked in one direction, Linda found another way, and then another, until the meanders -- looking back -- have formed a pattern and watered much grass. She has worked in community, braided waters, so that her own force is matched with others. Water is a continuing theme, whether the dwindling aquifer supporting too much population or the roaring floods that strew housing built on floodplains across the fields, and she has not neglected sewers. What goes in must come out, what goes up must come down, what is born must die, and what is dead gives new life to something beginning again.

It’s all very well to say this sort of thing at conferences and write flowery poetry about it. It’s quite another to get out there with a shovel or a backhoe and do what needs to be done. One of my favorite Hasselstrom essays is missing here, the one about putting the barn cats into the tractor cab to take them through the snow to where mice had infested the hay yard. The cats didn’t appreciate the favor and bounced off the windows and ceiling the whole way, yowling and scratching, until she finally released them, moved a few bales and hordes of mice ran out. For the rest of the winter, if they saw the tractor heading towards the hay yard, they came in a line right behind, picking their way along the snowy double trail.

But there is one about the field cats getting trapped in a tree during a flood and how Linda went out on horseback to bring them back thrust inside her jacket, regardless of the ruckus and wounds. I mean, you just have to respect a rancher who herds cats.


Anonymous said...

Linda is one of the loveliest and most thoughtful women I have ever met.

Art Durkee said...

I'm a fan of of Hasselstrom, and have several of her books, mostly the poems. I look forward to reading this one of essays.

Thanks for the review.