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THE FIRES OF DECEMBER

Paleohydrologists, pondering bull pine rings and the proxy history of pollen buried in lake silt, like to point out to us that when it comes to droughts, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. We have yet to experience the kind of droughts that were endured in the west hundreds of years before the coming of Europeans, droughts that lasted for a decade or more at a stretch. Day to day, a real factor contributing to the arid conditions in Alberta’s foothills and prairies is of course the Chinook Wind, which will not only vacuum up (sublimate) acres of snow in no time but pull moisture right out of the topsoil and also blow the topsoil away in periods of drought. The first European visitor to what is now southwest Alberta was Peter Fidler of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In December 1792, guided by a party of Piikani (Peigan) indians, he traveled several hundred miles on foot and horseback from the frozen purlieus of Buckingham House on the North Saskatchewan River to the Oldman River Gap of the Rockies. As he traveled south, he found the warm chinook wind was blowing, the snow was stripped from the plains and Fidler was astonished to record a temperature of 58 degrees F in winter. Everywhere he looked, in fact, the prairie was either burnt, or on fire. One night the wind turned his campfire into a wildfire, burned Fidler right out of his tipi, and then blew away what was left of that covering.

The Piikani are part of the Blackfoot nation. They have many names for the chinook wind, some of them sacred, some not. In southern Alberta, it’s thought to be bad luck to curse the wind, or even mention it when things get bad in case they should get worse. On December 14, l997, fire allied with wind struck the county where I reside near Pincher Creek, Alberta. It burnt up sixty square miles of range, 500 miles of fences and it destroyed barns, homes and livestock and killed an old time rancher.

Metis Flag

Did someone say the secret name of the Wind?
The one each rancher knows, though it’s only one
He gave it one noon, some verbal left hook
while watching his swathed hay take wing
For Saskatoon. When Johnny gets angry,
Johnny plays rough–Johnny Chinook

Our Sunday gale rolled into ripples,
Slid down a coulee to tipple
The sun’s weak wine
Only a wisp of smoke from a barrel
But it tease’s Johnny’s cavernacious nose
While he naps, digesting a million tons of snow

For it’s drought Johnny knows; he thought it up
Along with his pal El Nino, 70 million
Years ago when the Rocky Mountains whelped that pup
Taught him to rise up wet, west of the Great Divide
then roar down dry and hot with a thirsty desire
on the eastern side, right here;
That’s why, thinking of El Nino’s fame
And his own slandered name, Johnny roused
With a whoop and a boom–
wailed like a coyote choir, then strummed
A wild flamenco tune on the pasture wires

Whirled like a hurricane on a dime
And gave the burning barrel a friendly poke
It toppled–that’s the rumour
From those blackened neighbours
Who have watched their sense of humour
Go up in smoke

It seemed such a bitter practical joke
For Johnny turned a barrel’s throat
Into a volcano vent, when he hitched a
A hovering jet stream for a bellows fan
And away she went

The damn thing sang its fiery boomerang
Around the hills of Beaver Creek
The smoke went up 10,000 feet
And nobody asked for an encore
When the flames went crackling east

It ran right into the middle of next week
It’s out there still, smoking its own peace pipes
Up in the Douglas Fir–trying to conjure away
The snow for another dusty month or so
Like some gnarly old hunter dreaming of a kill

Well Johnny, I hope you’re satisfied
With your Christmas charivari
But if anyone gave you a name you liked
Even then you’d feign displeased

Did someone, in the pillow late at night
Curse that wailing in the chimney pipe
when sleep is broken and dreams must yield
Did someone take the name in vain
With the window open on the listening field?

Rest easy, friend. These hills will come back
lush and green. The house is scorched, but sound
You can’t ward off that fickle beast
that boxes the compass round

But its bitter scent, will pass. You’re not alone
Those neighbours riding to your relief
Will never ask “Why not build your house of stone?”
Knowing your world, like theirs, is built of grass

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