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Thursday, 8 September 2016

Linda Hasselstrom – writer, rancher, teacher and conservationist.

Looking out at the morning sky after a storm swept through the retreat at Windbreak House

With my desk clear of major projects for the next few weeks, I have finally found time to sit down and do some reading for pleasure. There was only one book on my mind. I first read Linda Hasselstrom’s Going Over East about a dozen years ago, and was charmed by its depictions of her relationship with the land she was then ranching in South Dakota, the place where she now hosts her writing retreats. I’ve been meaning to return to her ever since and, after staying there last summer (see my blog post of 15 June,, have had a couple of volumes here by my desk. Yesterday I picked up no place like home (the University of Nevada Press printed it that way, without caps) and by mid-morning today had finished it.

In some ways, reading a book like this in twenty-four hours is to do it a disservice. It’s the sort of work – a collection of 25 essays, or Notes from a Western Life (as the strapline has it) that deserves to be savoured piece by piece and absorbed the way you might absorb the Great Plains landscape – slowly, gradually, osmotically. There is such a lot to learn and understand. This, I would venture, is the writing of a very sage character, a true craftsman (woman? person? Ah, who cares – she writes, beautifully, thoughtfully!) It is also the work of the very best type of philosopher, one who studies people, considers their words and deeds very carefully, and delivers generous opinions, not judgements. She displays a very human sort of understanding of some pretty ornery folk – and animals, for that matter.

So what is the book about? Well, it deals with a lot of issues pertinent to a western life, but particularly to a life lived on land where space seems abundant, but where a delicate ecosystem and very limited water supply require us humans to tread carefully. Try telling that to the average visitor or newcomer. As well as treating the subtle complexities of cattle-raising, of range management, water conservation, fire prevention and so on, Hasselstrom weaves in a sketch-map of her own growth – as a writer, as a person and as a rancher-conservationist over forty-plus years.

In taking us through the many ways in which bad management or careless use can damage the fragile grassland ecology, she shows us how a person might accommodate herself to the demands of living out there where the nearest neighbour is generally out of sight, the nearest store twenty miles distant, the fire service run by scattered volunteers, the weather always a threat. People are shaped by that environment. In some cases scarred, deeply. Over the years they develop codes of behaviour, and a newcomer, she explains, needs to learn those codes and live by them.

As well as some beautifully formed passages on the landscape – all of them crammed with information on plants, animals and people (both settlers and indigenous)  - are an equal number of essays that deal with urban living. Like many a westerner, Hasselstrom had to live in town for many years in order to stay afloat. Her attempts to bring a little of Nature to the occasionally squalid back-alleys of Cheyenne, Wyoming offers a heroic model: you do what you can do, planting flowers along the edges and picking up the filth left by the careless, day after day. As to her neighbours, she treats them all – be they druggies, ne’er-do-wells, rap freaks or isolates - with kindness and understanding that bespeak an almost saintly regard for her fellow humans. (But let's not get carried away here: she does pack a pistol, just in case.)

Interspersed with these windows on an authentic, contemporary West, there are thoughtful and provocative essays on thrift. Hasselstrom is a great re-cycler of everything, a child of the days when there simply was no garbage route in ranch-land, when you used, conserved, buried or burned any excess goods or packaging that came your way. There are essays on the scourge of the sub-division, fuelled by the hard-pressed rancher’s need to balance the books (by selling off the odd parcel of land) and the unscrupulous realtor peddling a rustic fantasy to gullible city-folk, all of these linked predictably enough to local eco-disasters such as floods, pollution and damage to livestock.

So, as well as an education in the realities of a land that registers low on the average environmental campaigner’s radar (it just ain’t sexy enough compared with the Sierras, the Redwood forests and so on), we slowly get an idea of the shape of Hasselstrom’s development – personal, spiritual and professional. Towards the end of the collection we learn how the idea of her writing retreats was born and developed. When she writes of her relationship with her clients we see a profound understanding of her writers' many, varied needs. She takes that work every bit as seriously as she takes her stewardship of the land she loves, of her craft, and of her home place.

If you’ve not come across Linda’s work, take a look. You will come away wiser, more knowledgeable, and thoroughly enchanted.

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