I’ve been away from my blogs for over a month and I’m sorry. In part, it’s because in the spare moments that I had, I was doing some writing at the request of someone else—a gratifying, if time-consuming opportunity. But mostly, it was because of a series of disruptive events.
The word cascade comes to mind and it works because it really feels as though I’ve been swept up by the forces of love and connection, including the aftermath of my mum’s recent flirtation with disaster; the coinciding timing of my younger sister’s move back to Montreal after three decades away, just as my other sister came to visit from afar accompanied by her daughter and new granddaughter; and the ending of a teaching contract, which invariably knocks some of the stuffing out of me.
It also works because everything about this spring has been about water: its wetness; the greyness it brought when sodden clouds hung overhead for weeks on end through late march and most of April and May, delivering more and more of it; and its impartial cruelty as it accumulated above the barely thawed ground and seeped into houses while riverbanks overflowed and storm drains backed up.
Montreal is a city and it’s also an island. For modern Montrealers, this has, of course, meant learning to put up with the frustration of crossing bridges that are always either under repair or choked by traffic. But our proximity to water has mostly been the loveliest of natural gifts.
If you draw a straight line southward from my front porch and walk along it, you’ll reach Lac St-Louis in twelve to fifteen minutes. From my street, I can see the lake, which I’m cut off from by the CN and CP railroad tracks. Fortunately, I can take the shortcut provided by one of several pedestrian tunnels for commuters that run beneath the tracks and the highway.
Lots of people near the southern or northern shores of the Island have this same luxury of proximity to moving water—all of it feeding into the St-Lawrence river.
Le fleuve Saint-Laurent. That’s its name in French, but not, of course, its original name. The Tuscarora and Mohawk had that honour. Still, it’s noteworthy that while the word river—rivière—exists in French, there’s no English equivalent to fleuve, which is such a resonant word in the province of Quebec.
Fleuve is used to describe a very large river that flows till it reaches the sea. And so it is that the shores of Montreal are swaddled by moving water—fed by a network of tributaries—that increases in speed as it rushes eastward in search of the Atlantic.
This is the geography of my home island, which I love and have always appreciated. Then came the flood.
In a matter of weeks, the West Island of Montreal, my home, was transformed in ways that I’d never before seen in all of my decades growing up and living here. In ways that seemed unimaginable. Impossible. Some of the worst hit areas were at least as far away from the water as my own house, but on lower ground.
Evidence of this appeared everywhere. It was almost the only story being covered (it took a deluge to wipe Donald Trump off everyone’s screens here for a while). Our concerns shrank in scale. My Facebook feed connected me daily with former students and friends I’ve made through my work, and I was able to live the flood by virtue of their posts; see the damage done by the mounting water with every photo they uploaded; and helplessly share the anguish of their messages.
One of the worst hit was my friend Karen. When the water finally crested, it had wiped out large parts of her neighbourhood and was on her doorstep. Her next-door neighbour, an elderly woman, had just been evacuated when I read her most anguished post.
Meanwhile, my former student Sharon, a native New Yorker, documented the slow invasion of her riverside paradise home. It was shocking. Up until then, her Facebook posts had featured images of her beautiful grown sons, of her home town, of jazz musicians and of photos of sunrises and sunsets taken on her back porch.
In early April, before any of this had happened, I listened to an episode of The Current on CBC radio that featured a segment on eco-anxiety—the distress more and more of us live with as we experience the mental stress of living with climate change. It’s early June now, and the skies are still relentlessly grey. It still rains three or four days a week.
Our anxiety is amplified by the sheer scale of the threats we face. We’re overwhelmed by a different sort of flood, a torrent of information from every part of the globe, warning us of dangers and looming threats. But this recent flood threw a lasso around our fears and tightened them.
For Karen, Sharon and thousands of other people, the threat was tangible. It was cold, invasive and destructive. It was visible. It glistened and pooled, staining everything in its wake. It smelled of bilge water, humidity and nascent mold.
Karen and Sharon and all of us were reminded of our powerlessness before nature and the problems we’ve created. Of the illusions of protection and safety that we cling to. Of how fragile a lifetime’s worth of work and planning and acquiring really is.
We are like the three little pigs, believing that we are as safe as the walls that surround us.
“Men build too many walls and not enough bridges.” -Joseph Fort Newton