No Western woman writer has shared more of her life as a rancher and environmentalist than Linda Hasselstrom, whose books about living and working on her South Dakota ranch have been an important part of my library since the early 1990s. This collection of essays, written between 1985-1999 and revised for this publication, is a splendid sampling of her prose, by turns brash, provocative, passionate, chilling, and funny. If you haven't yet read Hasselstrom's work, Between Grass and Sky is a fine introduction.
The twenty essays in this book are divided into three sections: Learning to See, Hunter and Hunted, and Who Cares for the Land? The first section takes us deeply into Hasselstrom's homeplace—a landscape of birds, cows, grass, sky, and eternal enigmas. But whether she is writing about stacking hay with an antique tractor on the hottest day in July or tracing the tunnels of mice under the snow or finding snakes in the pressure cooker, Hasselstrom sees all with a fine, practiced eye. "What a busy and engrossing place the prairie is," she writes, and her readers must agree. The second section focuses on the predator-prey relationship and the part that humans play. It includes essays about hunting buffalo, sleeping with grizzlies, and living with loss. Section Three takes a hard look at the consequences of thoughtless land development and the promise of new relationships between communities of people and communities of the land.
This book proves what Hasselstrom has been saying for years: that there is no contradiction between being an environmentalist and a rancher. It is an eloquent testimony to the rancher's daily work on the land, with domestic and wild animals, in all sorts of weather, amid every sort of calamity. It is an appreciation of the strong bonds that unite the communities of those who love the land and use it wisely, as many ranchers do, and a warning of the consequences of reckless, exploitative development.
Once I picked up the book, I couldn't stop until I'd read all the essays, but for me, two stand out. "Sleeping with the Grizzly" is about (at least in part) the challenge of being a menstruating woman on a wilderness trek—it's full of Hasselstrom's characteristic perceptive humor. (No male nature writer could ever have written this!) "The Cow is My Totem" includes the hilarious story of what happened when a coyote blundered into a calf nursery. Savor this comic hyperbole: "From every direction, cows were running toward the nursery. Bags swinging, heads raised, they all bellowed in outrage, assuring their calves that rescue was on the way . . . Rumbling threats, [three bulls] galloped up the slope, persuaded some magnificent stranger was seducing their harem. I estimate that at that moment, fifty thousand pounds of fury was stampeding toward one forty-pound coyote."
Linda Hasselstrom writes with a naturalist's perceptive eye, an environmentalist's concern, and a rancher's long and practical experience of working and living on the land. Between Grass and Sky belongs on the bookselves of all who care about our American prairies.
Linda Hasselstrom is the author or editor of numerous books of memoir and poetry, including Woven on the Wind, Feels like Far, and Leaning into the Wind. She has received a number of honors for her work. She divides her time between Wyoming and South Dakota, where she offers writing workshops for women on her ranch. Visit her websites for workshop information and for information about women's anthologies she has co-edited.
Check out our interview with the author of Between Grass and Sky.
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