Linda Hasselstrom’s curiosity about the plants and wildlife that inhabited the South Dakota ranch, which became her home when she was nine years old, began a lifelong habit of note-taking. From that early beginning, Linda went on to write seven books about the ranch and her life, of which the most recent, Gathering from the Grassland, won Story Circle Network’s Sarton Award for Memoir.
“I wanted to remember the way an antelope stamped its feet and snorted, or how a hawk flew over us,” said the author about her efforts at note-taking. “The writing evolved as I did, changing as my view of the ranch, and its relation to the rest of the world, changed — through high school, college, graduate school, and eventually returning to the ranch.”
Linda’s passion for nature, protecting the environment, educating the public about grasslands and ranching, and encouraging women to tell their own stories, come across as strong themes in her books. A poet, essayist, writing motivator, and anthology editor, she has a bachelor’s degree in English and journalism, a master’s degree in American literature, and has been teaching writing in one form or another for 45 years.
One of her books, The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook, contains much of what the years have taught her about writing, and has been praised as “one of the best sources of encouragement and practical advice.” For the past 22 years, much of Linda’s teaching has taken place at Windbreak House, a writing retreat she created using a former home, located a half-mile from the ranch house where she now lives.
In 1991, in Land Circle, Linda wrote: “The outdoors is our natural habitat… Sit outside at midnight and close your eyes; feel the grass, the air, the space. Listen to birds for ten minutes at dawn. Memorize a flower.” That she follows her own advice is clearly evident in her latest book.
Gathering from the Grassland is written in journal form, as was her first book, Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains. This sequel revisits that same landscape 30 years later. For it, Linda says, she spent a year observing the changing of the seasons and the daily life of her feathered and furred neighbors.
“At the same time, I studied the personal journals of my parents and other relatives, trying to understand their lives from an older and wiser perspective; hoping that making sense of the past would allow me to see my way into the future… I just kept on taking notes in my journals, as I do every day, and eventually began to think about the subjects that have occupied my interest during the past few years.
“I am 74 years old, childless, unmarried, and have no siblings, not even any cousins who are in ranching.” Linda realized other ranchers face similar questions about what will happen to their lands, and she began to think the story of an aging rancher/writer, one who was enjoying this latter phrase of life, might be a worthwhile subject to explore.
Linda’s advice to writers is simple. “The best way to overcome all failure in writing is to write. Every day. No matter what you write, if you write every day you will be a better writer at the end of the year than at the beginning. The best way to improve your writing is to read excellent examples of what you want to write.”
Taking her own advice, Linda says one of her favorite books is Andy Goldsworthy’s A Collaboration with Nature. In it, Goldsworthy writes: “For me, looking, touching, material, place and form are all inseparable from the resulting work. It is difficult to say where one stops and another begins. Place is found by walking, direction determined by weather and season.”
Linda says much of her own writing is also affected by weather and season, and what she encounters when rambling. “I am a rancher, whose purpose is to raise cattle while preserving the grassland that nourishes them, but many specific days in ranch work are affected by whether it is snowing or the sun is shining… I’m free to let the environment create the writing I do, along with the physical work of creating my life here.”
As a writing motivator, Linda often quotes Winston Churchill: “Never give up. Never never never never never give up,” then adds that she may have thrown in a couple of extra nevers to reflect her own view. As an example of that philosophy, Linda notes that her first book, Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains, was rejected by 26 publishers before it was finally published. That book, she points out, places on record a great deal of information about the lives of family ranchers.
“Many environmentalists — and I count myself one — were uninformed or misinformed about the role cattle ranching plays in preserving the great grasslands that provide so much of our breathable air and so much of our American food — without pesticides, herbicides or machinery. I wanted to tell that story.”
Linda believes, however, that her participation in the Wind anthologies, the three collections of the writings of rural women that she helped edit with two other plains women, Gaydell Collier and Nancy Curtis, may be even more significant. “Those books may last longer in the world… because they are the writings of ordinary rural women who might never have seen their words in print. We three editors helped these women speak directly to generations of readers about the realities of rural life.”
The three anthologies are: Leaning into the Wind: Women Write from the Heart of the West; Woven on the Wind: Women Write about Friendship in the Sagebrush West; and Crazy Woman Creek: Women Rewrite the American West.
While Linda approaches her job of writing with professionalism and seriousness, she doesn’t spend all her time pounding a computer. “A writer needs to have other employment, preferably beloved work that demands concentration.” For example, she notes, “On August 18 I wrote: Last year on this date I froze fourteen pints of green beans and started a poem about picking beans. This supports my theory that it’s good for a writer to be doing something else besides writing. Doing nothing but writing may make us guilty of too much introspection, or navelgazing as a friend calls it. Picking beans resulted almost immediately in the beginning of a poem, but of course the writing business doesn’t always work that way…
“Sometimes I am too busy with my daily chores to write, but those chores inevitably lead to writing because the writing is always in my mind, so that when an idea is ready, I can capture it. I am constantly alert for islands of writing calm in every day, and because I am watching for the calm of writing, I find it.”
In winning the Sarton Award, Linda hopes other women will see her as an example of someone who has survived many failures and setbacks, and yet kept on writing.
That keeping on is what Linda believes to be the key to happiness for a writer.