When I wrote my previous post to this blog on a whimsical piece by James Boswell and Samuel Johnson, I mentioned it made me remember a similar piece overflowing in a sense of place.
Here ’tis. It’s by a North Dakota writer, Linda Hasselstrom, who writes and runs a writer’s retreat at her home, Windbreak House, not too far from Rapid City in western South Dakota.
I ran across it quoted in The Sierra Club Nature Writing Handbook (1995), by John A. Murray.
The piece, like Boswell’s “Meditation on a Pudding,” finds an exultant sense of place in an item of food . . . for Linda Hasselstrom, in a jar of buffalo berry jelly.
This is an exquisite piece of writing, one that has stuck with me and that I often have shared in writer workshops as an example of flat-out great writing.
The jelly is a tawny peach color, and the flavor is hard to describe. I might compare it to apple pie with lemon: sweet, extra tangy. But another element lurks in the flavor that I can’t compare to anything else. I think it’s the essence of wildness, clean prairie air made solid. It contains the deer that nibbled the leaves in winter, the brush of a grouse’s wing as it picked berries from the ground, the blundering invulnerability of a porcupine living under the ledge. It’s the taste of blinding white drifts slowly being built and smoothed into glittering sculpture outside the house as you make morning toast, slathering it with butter and buffalo berry jelly. The jelly brings the flavor of summer heat to your tongue, a sheen of sweat to your shoulders; even as you watch the blizzard, it reminds you of spring fragrance and the cool nights of fall.
That paragraph (from “Finding Buffalo Berries” in her book Land Circle) never fails to bring a shiver of awe to me when I read it. The tongue of a poet, the eyes of a writer that sees the place around her . . . and knows how to write so that, like the jelly, “clean prairie air is made solid.”
In this article about her creation of Windbreak House as a writers’ retreat, Hasselstrom writes: “Edith Wharton once observed, ‘There are two ways of spreading light, to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.'” That was the inspiration for the writing retreats she hosts at Windbreak House.
She ends that article with:
Start with the closest spot of earth. . . . 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. . . . You can only benefit.
Great advice for writers. Take the time to look closely, inhale, exhale, and keep doing it until you’ve breathed in it. Then, you write.