The province of Quebec, with Montreal at lower center; image from Google Earth. James Bay and Hudson Bay at top left, Gulf of St Lawrence at far right, center.
A storm is coming.
I walked to work today, knowing it may be the last chance for a few days to walk quickly and easily on bare sidewalks. The sky is grey, low; the temperature just below freezing; the air slightly damp and still. Even without a weather report, northerners like me would be likely to say, "feels like it's going to snow."
Along Avenue Mont-Royal, I passed the jewelry shop where the bare fingers of a white mannequin waited for their ten o'clock adornment; past the bakery, always closed on Mondays, the librairie with its window display of mandala coloring books and blank notebooks covered in Italian papers, and stopped in at the Intermarché to buy a can of tuna for lunch. At the light I turned left and walked up Papineau, a wide boulevard full of commuter traffic, past the earnest early-morning exercisers on their treadmills at EnergieCardio, and through a zone of abandoned buildings, boarded up and pasted with film posters. There was an empty lot filled with snow and faced by a chain-link fence and a tangle of city barricades, the sort that get put up when there's a street closure for a march or a race, each bearing a vertical sign with the city's name and logo. Suddenly - was it that unexpected expanse of snow? the slight but insistent wind that I'd begun to feel after turning north? -- I felt the city not as a self-contained zone of urban activity, but as a vulnerable fortress set in a wild, raw landscape surrounding it on all sides. I immediately thought of the early French settlers, building a literal fortress near the river, the walls of which still remain: while it may have protected them from angry Hurons it certainly didn't do much against the harsh winters, except to give the colonists a place to huddle together with some protection from the wind.
I thought of other cities I love: Reykjavik, with no defense but evacuation, should Katla erupt; Mexico City, surrounded by volcanoes and devastated by the huge earthquake in 1985; New York, deluged by hurricane Sandy and vulnerable to rising ocean levels. Human beings have tried so valiantly to protect themselves from outside threats, all through history, whether it's by making walls or vaccines. Here, in the big cities, there is an illusion, maintained by concrete and glass and steel -- the mountains and valleys of our own construction that we populate and animate by artificial light and constant movement -- that we are in control, that this, not nature, is the true reality. Perhaps it's an illusion easier to perpetuate in more populated areas with gentler climates, where an entire life can be lived without venturing into life-threatening wildness, or even driving through it. Are far-northern cities and societies different, I wondered? Why have Canada and the Scandinavian countries committed themselves to such a high level of social welfare for their citizens? Is it merely wealth, or does something else, perhaps more elemental, contribute to a collectivist mentality? An awareness, chilled into our bones, that beyond this outpost are the vast forest and frozen tundra, the bears and the wolves, the unchecked arctic wind, the iceberg sea?