In the Eighties, when I was riding circuit among the UU’s in Montana, Linda Hasselstrom was keeping a journal of her fight to save the family ranch, which became “Windbreak House.” (1987) It was part of a cluster of books by rural women authors that included Mary Clearman Blew, Teresa Jordan, Judy Blunt, Sharon Butala, and others born just before or during WWII when the shortage of men made room for wives, daughters and sisters to be “cowboys.” I thought of myself as one of them, though I was not a rancher, but I found other paths. I no longer feel I am a Montana writer, but probably still a prairie writer.
Not long ago, as part of clearing out my bookshelves, I sent Linda two boxes of books about women writing, both advice and critiques. I’ve never been much of a feminist and didn’t really use them. As it turned out, I was more of a humanist, then more of a “living things” writer, and finally have become an “everythingist” which can be a “nothingist” except that I’ve gone to a head-trip approach that Linda doesn’t — probably some of her readers and client writers are grateful.
Since I’d jogged her memory, her publishers have sent me her most recent books to review: “Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal” from High Plains Press, and “Dakota Bones, Grass, Sky” from Spoon River Poetry Press. This is the way publishing is now: local books sponsored by small presses and dependent on far too few reviewers. I am not ordinarily a reviewer, but this is not just a service to a friend, but also to the local readers who prowl the library.
Linda had to leave the home ranch now and then to make a living or because of family dynamics, a familiar force, both for change and for tenacity. Generational sequences of marriages, divorces, deaths, and the occasional stretch of time so sweet that it’s a talisman through all the rest — these are the maps of our lives. Questions arise in the search for solutions. And then solutions are found. And decisions: both of us decided not to have children and don’t regret it.
Ways we are alike are that Linda’s mother tried desperately to make a ruffled pink lady out of her with no better luck than mine. Ways we are different is that Linda’s stepfather was her role model, her mentor, and — in the end — her betrayer when he lost his mind. My father was never a hero, losing his mind gradually due to an auto accident concussion in 1948. It was my first, only, and last husband whose relationship to me was like Linda’s dad’s. The family struggle across generations is made stark against the background of an unforgiving land. It’s never really solved.
Linda is far more of a “granola” than I am, putting off writing tasks by cooking, cleaning, gardening, walking her Westies, all of which improves her environment. I’m the other way around — the writing rises up in me and pushes everything else out while dust settles and dishes stack. I should be calling the plumber instead of writing this. Something very bad is going on and I don’t want to know.
Reward for both of us comes from living interwoven with the life of the land, both plants and animals, both wild and domestic. Work can be hard, but also fulfilling. Linda has been masterfully resourceful in finding ways to survive so that at an age when most people are retired, she runs “Windbreak House” as a writer’s retreat that comes with consulting informed by a lifetime of interaction as a writer, a speaker, a publisher, a poet, an organizer, a buckskinner — all ways of survival. She participates in the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and other functions on a part of the prairie a bit to the south and east of Montana, a bit north of Wyoming, not quite the Middle West. She’s on good terms of with indigenous people but doesn’t make a fetish of it.
I kept thinking that I’d read some of this before and maybe even reviewed it — I did:
4/3/17 on prairiemary.blogspot.com. But that’s okay. Much of what Linda is doing here is revisiting old letters, journals, photos. Her grandmother, mother and stepfather kept journals in the way that ag people do, keeping track of weather and crop cycles and in the process recording their human lives. One visits such records again and again, always finding them a little more revealing, a little more relevant. In the end she conveys them to historical societies, except for a couple of boxes of correspondence which she consigns to the dump, much to the exasperation of another snooper in the past.
Here’s a vid of Linda in her “habitat”.
Much of what attracts others and leavens the heavy thoughts is lyrical passages according to the seasons. Though her homestead backs up to open nature where coyotes and pronghorns trot past the cattle, the front of the house overlooks a highway and housing developments of urban people. The closest she comes to political indignation is outrage over those uncouth squatters. Luckily, her rancher neighbor who runs cattle on her land and her life-partner who has a workshop across the yard, look out for her and agree with her philosophy. They are a little younger.
Not that Linda is any kind of a wimp. One of her essays that had quite a long life was about why she carried a gun, horrifying the softie liberals. The one I still reread now and then is about her teaching the homestead feral cats about the mice out in the hay yard. The first time she loaded them into the front-end loader they boomeranged all over the cab, so she could hardly drive. As soon as she pulled down a bale and mice ran out, they got the idea. After that, they would follow the packed trail of the loader out to the haystack without urging.
www.windbreakhouse.com/ is the website that will give access to all the rest.