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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Gathering from the Grassland with Linda Hasselstrom



I am contemplating the November 30th entry in Linda Hasselstrom’s new book, Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal. I am also contemplating what I see as the three-dimensional structure of the book. It is more than linear entries which invite the reader, day by day, into a year of Linda’s life on the plains of South Dakota. 

This book stands as humbly and remarkably steady as a three-legged stool. One might say this about all of Linda’s admirable body of work. She is a gifted wordsmith, but it is not her well-wrought language that she wants us to notice, but the earth upon which that body of work rests—steady as a three-legged stool on a patch of shortgrass prairie. (I hope you're smiling, Linda.)

Let’s talk about those three legs. First, deep mapping. The idea of “deep-mapping first occurred to me several years ago when I was reading an interview with Robert Lawlor in Parabola: Myth and Tradition. In the interview, Lawlor speaks of the Aboriginal belief that there is a kinship system that connects all people born to the same piece of earth, even those separated by generations. Each carries the stories and songs tied to that land, and thus their bond of kinship is formed not by blood, but by their common connection to Place. And so began my desire to deep-map Colorado, the land of my birth.

Linda, because of her generational connection to her family’s small South Dakota ranch, is able to go layers deep into the history of the ranch. She does so through her own experience, and through what she learns when reading the letters and journals of family members, primarily her mother and father.

Linda on her ranch in South Dakota, photo South Dakota Humanities
Linda gathers from the grassland not only stories about family, but stories about the animals with whom she shares the ranch land. These scattered stories, when collected, reveal the rich landscape of her life. John Price also touches on the idea of deep mapping in his foreword for Gathering from the Grasslands.

The second leg of this literary stool has to do with the concept of the Tibetan word “shul.” I first encountered the word in a poem by Julie Fowler. In 1397, the philosopher Tsongkhapa used the word shul to describe a track or “the impression that remains” after that which made it has passed, like the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood. This brings me back to the November 30th entry in Linda’s journal. She writes:

I look down at the ranch yard and am still startled when I see the gap where an old shed stood… it was over a hundred years old… for sixty odd years I have seen that shed in that place.

Throughout the book, January through December, we encounter this idea of shul as Linda reveals more and more about her life and its connections to the past, not just her familial past, but to the history of the soil that grows her gardens, and the plains that grow the grass that feeds the cattle that have always been a part of her life.

Open up any page, fix your gaze on any day, and you will sense the tactile impression of the past in her words.

The third leg is the Mary Oliver leg, built from the same simple yet utterly astounding tree of mindfulness. In Oliver’s poem “Mindful,” she speaks of the beauty of the ordinary. I think she had Linda in mind when she wrote of “the prayers that are made out of grass.”

On March 23rd, Linda wrote of sitting in her reading chair with her father’s journals. She was able to “look down the hill and see the steps where he cried and where he collapsed into death, dying instantly, just as he’d hoped.”

Reading our own journals, let alone the journal of a father who caused as much pain as joy in our lives, takes courage because we know we might be deep-diving into unpleasant waters. This is why it is so important for writers, who often find ourselves immersed in darkness, to remember that we must rise to the surface (away from all those heavy thoughts), and be mindful of life’s simple beauty – like the blades of grass that speak to us, like a prayer, of life’s renewal.

Linda, too, had to pull herself away darkness while gathering these stories. She was studying her life and its meaning. Not all of us are so courageous, but the writing demands its toll.

Everyday I have gone out and thrown myself into noticing the red-winged blackbirds, the greening grass, and the signs of returning hope.

On March 26th, she writes: 

At sunrise, every blade of grass stands outlined in light, a glorious morning.

Why else do we write about our lives, and read about the lives of others, if not to hasten the return of hope? If not to be reminded that we must look for the glory in each day, the simple honest glory.