Like many of us, author and rancher Linda Hasselstrom's relationship with place is complex, shaped by family and history and choices along the way. Unlike most of us, she knows exactly where the place that made her is: a small ranch in western South Dakota, a square mile of windswept blue grama grass prairie, rich with life and lives, from pronghorn antelope and prairie voles to red-winged blackbirds and wild roses.
A town girl who moved to the ranch at age nine when her mother married the man who became the only father she knew, the man who showed her how to ride and work cows, to read the prairie, to search the sky for clues to the Plains' famously violent weather, Hasselstrom happily became the son he never had, much to her mother's dismay.
Before I started reading my father's and mother's journals, and re-reading mine, I could look back at my childhood and see it as all one lovely day glowing in the sunlight of nostalgia. I worked cattle with my father while my mother fixed meals and cleaned house, trying to interest me in those activities. They went to dances on Saturday nights, took me to 4-H meetings, and visited friends in the community. We were a happy ranching family. ... It would be easy to be poetically positive about those days but I know some of my nostalgia is false. The world was fluid and shifting even then.
Fluid and shifting indeed. In the early 1990s, after her husband George's terrible illness and death, while Hasselstrom was managing both deep grief and the ranch, her father ordered her to chose between writing and ranching. When she refused, he forced her to leave her home and disinherited her. Much later, she learned that his irrational treatment and his rages at her were likely due to several strokes and the early stages of dementia. Still!
Hasselstrom stayed away from the ranch for decades, until finally, with both her father and mother dead, she returned with Jerry, her current life-partner. Gathering from the Grassland is thus a journal of re-discovery, the daily record of a year of fully embracing this land that was the gift that grounded her in childhood and gave her roots as an adult, before being wrenched from her in middle age.
It is also a reckoning of sorts, as Hasselstrom sets out to read her parents' journals and her own in an attempt to come to some kind of clearer—or at least more compassionate—understanding of the people who made her, and why the family that seemed so happy in her childhood memories went so awry.
Hasselstrom's journal is a rich record, not just of family and the ways we both nurture and betray each other, but also of the land that shaped her and continues to provide her inspiration, solace, and community. Woven through it are pithy and sometimes poignant observations of ranch life, an existence nourished by that same land.
October 2. Wasps and stinkbugs everywhere. I froze ten pints of peppers. I've done all this digging in my mother's past because I want to understand her so perhaps I can wholeheartedly forgive her, lay her to rest more completely than I did when the funeral home tucked her into her coffin.
This book is a real look at real life and a real place, at the pain we inflict on each other, and the healing grace of being in place, of knowing a piece of ground so intimately that its seasons become a part of flesh and bone. Hasselstrom's voice is as authentic as the harsh and wild prairie it springs from, by turns reflective, cranky, impatient, and lyrical.
Like the South Dakota ground, Gathering from the Grassland isn't always a comfortable read, but it is fascinating and full of insight into the nature of life, the messy and complex and breathtakingly beautiful relationships that weave this world.
Linda M. Hasselstrom owns a small family ranch in western South Dakota. Her seventeen published books of poetry and nonfiction include Windbreak, A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains, which the New York Times Book Review praised for "the fine, small beauties of her strenuous life," and Feels Like Far: A Rancher's Life on the Great Plains. With the Great Plains Native Plant Society, Linda dedicated the Claude A. Barr Memorial Great Plains Garden in 2001 to preserve native shortgrass prairie plants on 350 acres of her ranch and the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies established a riparian protection area on her land along Battle Creek. Visit her website.
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