Waiting for a Chinook

Recently I came across the Charlie Russell painting in which a starving steer caught in the snow is surrounded  by wolves. Head drooping, Waiting for a chinookknees about to cave in, the animal is without resources. In a moment, the wolves will be upon it, ripping it apart, feasting on the entrails. Blood on the snow.  Or maybe they won’t wait for it to collapse. Maybe they’ll bring it down… same result.  Obviously, the chinook didn’t arrive in time for that steer.

The painting is about survival, and while Russell didn’t survive as a cowhand (the firm he was working for lost the entire herd that winter), he changed careers and became a noted successful western artist who, as such, documented the old American West.

One of the things that strikes me about this painting is the way it captures the inevitable conclusion to the story. Those wolves are programmed to survive. They have been through a hard winter (the one of 1886-87 is legendary) and are likely as starved as the steer. But they are better at survival. They have tactics bred into them by centuries of brutal conditions. They instinctively know how to confront a diminished food source and intense cold. And, unlike the steer who stands defenceless and alone, they are a pack. They have each other.

To relate this to the human condition in our part of the world: by this time of year, late winter, many of us, like that steer in the snow, are depleted, if not physically, spiritually. Our energy is at a low ebb and what little we have left we can feel leaking on a daily basis. We can’t get motivated to act in any way to save ourselves. The thought process is frozen. Not one idea is worth preserving. Nothing makes its way to enactment on the page. Writers have run out of words.

Have all the words and ideas been used up? What happened to that inexhaustible supply we were able to count on. That huge vat bubbling inside seems to have turned into turgid goo. Is silence all that is left?

The irony is that we’ve come through the worst. The dark days of January are behind us. We are on the verge of leaping into spring*. We are so near and yet it seems so far. Today’s forecast warns of 10 cm of blowing snow.

We must wait. But not without a strategy. With this intent, I’ve come up with a list of suggestions:

  1. Don’t read books about Nazi death camps. Ditto your daily newspaper with its litany of disasters.
  2. Do order another glass of wine, even if you find yourself talking nonsense after the first one.
  3. Believe that chocolate is one of the elemental food groups.
  4. Immerse yourself in spring garden catalogues.
  5. You might even buy seeds. I saw a rack of them today at Safeway.
  6. Get out and talk to people. Be part of a pack.
  7. Hit the steam room and share in the gossip.
  8. Or the hot tub. The idea here is to get warm.
  9. Start writing that novel you’ve been promising yourself. But that’s the problem, you say. I don’t FEEL like writing a novel, or anything else for that matter. That’s where number ten comes in.
  10. Take a trip to a friendlier clime.

Which is why I’m writing this from Victoria, where things, including the protesters hanging out at the legislative buildings are more friendly. Where the grass is green, the flowers blooming, the cherry trees in blossom. The coffee houses and wine bars have set out tables and chairs on their patios, happy hour starts at two in the afternoon. Where, believe it, people on the street have conversations about poetry. Where I feel that, yes, maybe I do have another novel in me.

*Don’t forget to turn your clocks ahead tonight.

*Don’t forget to turn your clocks ahead tonight.

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