Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Soul of Forrester West

The unrelenting wind slapped the prairie grass against his legs and whipped the blue chambray of his shirt which earlier had been tucked neatly into the worn, bibbed denim overalls. Forrester West broke his gaze from Sheep Mountain cast in the pale remnants of gold and peach of the rising sun. He turned to his left and, via the jagged edge of the Slim Buttes to the north, continued his tour of the prairie toward the far away horizon to the west. This survey of Forrester's world, a world extending little beyond Govert Township, reminded him of why he resisted leaving the remote corners of the prairie ... why he remained here with his family long after other prairie homesteaders surrendered to the siren call of urban centers beyond the borders of Harding County, places like Belle Fourche or Rapid City, or those who quitted entirely the state of South Dakota.

Forester's business was cattle and sheep - and family. We can't overlook Forrester's wife, Louise Cornella, because he wouldn't. Louise was both fragile and gutsy. Forrester respected his wife's determination and character, and treated her with warm concern for her fragile heart. We can't forget Forrester's children, because he couldn't - Herman and Richard, his wife's sons whom he embraced as his own, and their daughters, Evaline, Alice Mae, and Shirley Jean, who brought Forrester a gentle joy he never knew would be his. Forrester's livestock was a means, and his family the end. This wild, unfettered land was the how and the where he wanted his children to be formed into strong, independent adults. Forrester wasn't much of a stockman, his daughter Evaline remembered, the land held him, not the nature of the work ... Evaline's father had far too much empathy for the cattle and the sheep in his care. Forrester was a shepherd in rancher's clothing.

Little about Forrester appeared ordinary. He was taller than most, and his dark hair was thicker than any man had the right. The forehead beneath that bounty of hair was broad, giving the impression of deep thought, or an artistic temperament. Your eyes would be drawn to his - a prescient grey - and by the prominent cheekbones supporting them. Forrester watched the world around him through these grey eyes, half-closed. Maybe his eyes were light-shy from all the days of his life lived outside on the prairie ... from the hot, gritty wind half the year and ice barbs carried on the wind the remaining months, and from the near eternal prairie sun. Or maybe watching the world through half-closed eyes was instinctive, a tool of observation.

[Louise Cornella West and Forrester West in 1925]

Was it the half-closed eyes under the broad forehead that made you wonder "What is that man thinking about?" Was it because Forrester had little to say when you leaned on the counter beside him in the Govert store, or claimed the empty seat on the bench beside him at a P.T.A. meeting in the Govert schoolhouse, or stopped on the side of the rutted dirt road interrupting his work to talk about the weather? Forrester must have thought in loops of consciousness that most of us could never hope to understand. Forrester observed the world like an artist, and he painted the world he saw with words. For us he translated his thoughts into poetry.

Forester worked his poems while he worked the cattle, while he worked the sheep, while he mended the fences. Then at night, by the muted light of the kerosene lamp, he transferred the words swirling behind his ever observant eyes to a lined yellow legal tablet. You might wonder how poetry can flow from a man who works more hours in the day than you knew existed, outside, in the hot sun and blowing dirt.

Forrester appreciated hard work, honesty, integrity. He appreciated the beauty and strength of nature, and the strength and weakness of mankind. He appreciated the cycles of life. Most of all he appreciated the openness of the prairie, the beauty of the rustling grasses, the buttes, the breaks, the sunrise, the sunset, and the absence of all that was urban - the sort of silence that forgets man and allows men to forget.

Forrester West was a man you would want to know. Here on Thru Prairie Grass you will read Forrester's "A Message to Youth" published in the Govert Advance on November 28, 1940. Herm was 26, Rich was 24; Evaline was 12, Alice Mae was 10, almost 11, Shirley Jean was about 3 years old.

Forrester became the messenger when he wrote "A Message to Youth". Published after Forrester passed his 54th birthday, wisdom had replaced the brightness of opportunity, and the peace of acceptance was still to come. Forrester must have been talking to his sons, young men full of life's promise. Forrester had no way of knowing that in five months his son, Richard, would be dead.

by Forrester F. West

The return of spring with its sunshine and showers,
Its new life and budding flowers,
Always reminds us of youth and the springtime of life.

In memory we go back thru the years to our own youth,
With its joys and pleasures, its disappointments and sorrows,
Yes, and its dreams and ideals.

But for us the day is far spent.
Now our greatest ambition is to realize in our children
What we wanted to be,
And the accomplishment of what we wanted to do.

Yes, you who are young,
We have an interest in you,
And for you we have a message.

We are taking a great deal of liberty in speaking to you
For we are not speaking for ourselves alone,
But for our generation.

Perhaps you ask, what right have you to speak to us?
You who are Ignorant.
No marble halls of learning have ever been yours.

No, but we are wise,
In wisdom often gained through bitter experience.
Yes, wisdom sometimes hot with the yearnings of a heart,
And sometimes with the anguish of a soul.

We who have crossed the half century line
Know that we have reached the afternoon of life.
Yes, we are nearing the land of the setting sun.

But you, who are young,
For you we hope life, real life,
Has scarce begun.

Memory carries us back nearly fifty years,
But it seems only yesterday
That mother wiped away our childhood tears.

In looking back we realize how short is life,
Even tho we might be spared
The three score years and ten,
Or four score or even more.

But rather than go back, if we could,
And live it over again with its failures and mistakes,
We would stumble on down to the end of the trail.
Hoping that a wise and kind Heavenly Father
Might give to us a few more years.

That we in some way might finish the work he gave us to do,
That the burden to be laid on your young shoulders
Might not be so hard to bear.

But why lament over the shortness of life?
For it matters not so much how long we live, but how we live.
Yes, one short second may decide the destiny of a soul.
One minute might decide the destiny of a nation.

We believe that time and life
Are two of the most precious things in this world.
Time may be cruel,
For it carries us toward old age and the grave.

But then again it is kind,
For with the passing of the years,
Many of the bitter struggles and hardships of our youth are forgotten,
And in their place linger memories we cherish dearly,

But enough of the bitterness remains
To remind us that your troubles and your problems are real.
Yes, if we had it to do over again
We would be more kind to the young,
Giving a word of kindness along with a word of reproof,

For we have some idea of the disappointment
And heartache that might be yours.
Of the two, life is far more precious than time,
Yes, precious Human Life.

Human life consists of three elements,
The body, the mind and the soul.
Sometime every young person asks,
Which of these is the most important?

Certainly, it is not the human body,
For of it has been said from dust thou came,
To dust thou shall return.

It is not the mind,
For that mind, tho it may be brilliant,
Before the dawn of another day,
It may reel and topple from its throne.

Then it must be the Soul,
That spark from the Divine,
That for good or evil
Shall live thruout Eternity.

Today Forrester's daughters are in their 70s and 80s. They have taken their turn as messenger, and have progressed beyond wisdom to the peace of acceptance. They are exactly where their father would want them to be.

Thank you, Forrester West, for choosing to pass your life on the prairie near Govert, South Dakota, for sharing your poetry with the Govert community, for sharing your soul.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Written with gratitude to Forrester Frank West and the three daughters he raised to be such wonderful women, Evaline, Alice Mae, and Shirley Jean, who now are sharing their father's poetry with us. Photo and poem used with the permission of the West sisters.]


  1. Sweetheart,

    Thank you for another wonderful blog entry. It is a joy and pleasure to read your latest blog it is each time you write for us.

    You say, “Forrester observed the world like an artist, and he painted the world he saw with words.” Well, you too are an artist with your words. You have painted for us a rich and vivid word portrait of Forrester West. He seems to have been a truly remarkable man, a sort of “renaissance man” Govert-style…a supportive husband, a loving father, a dedicated if somewhat reluctant rancher, a creative thinker, an articulate writer, a profound and introspective philosopher, a thoughtful poet, and a God-fearing and ethical believer.

    Through you, and the lovely word picture you give us of who Forrester was, we are reminded that “it matters not so much how long we live, but how we live”...that it is not the body and not the mind, but “the [s]oul, [t]hat spark from the Divine, [t]hat for good or evil [s]hall live thruout Eternity.” Surely, that is appropriate and weighty “food for thought” for all of us as we approach our days on earth.

    So, thanks to you for the superb writing…and to Evaline, Alice Mae, and Shirley Jean for sharing their memories and their father’s poetry with us.

  2. Well, this was unexpected and different. Thank you for a peek in the life of an extraordinary man, worker and poet.

  3. Arie Patnoe SparkmanMarch 6, 2015 at 10:01 PM

    I really enjoyed reading this. I am one of Herman West's granddaughters. It was interesting to learn more about the man who raised him.

    1. I'm glad you found Thru Prairie Grass, Arie. Maybe one day you will help me write a story about your grandfather.



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