Most of life’s suffering is inescapable, and some of it is downright random; but the needless suffering caused by the Great Flood of 2017 was neither. Springtime flooding isn’t new to the Montreal area. As the history books make clear, great floods, many of them considerably larger than the one that devastated our city earlier on this year, happen at least once or twice a generation (e.g., 1861, 1886, 1974, 1987).
Rare events have given rise to many of our city’s wisest zoning laws. For instance, after the Great Fire of 1721, Montreal lawmakers prohibited builders from building with wood within the city limits; after the Great Flood of 1886, they prohibited people from building too close to our rivers and floodplains. This is humanity at its best: analyzing what went wrong, learning from our mistakes, using our amazing capacity for foresight, preparing for the future.
By contrast, the irresponsible building that made the Great Flood of 2017 possible is an example of humanity at its most stupid and shortsighted. The houses that were destroyed shouldn’t have been built in the first place. They shouldn’t exist. If you’re planning a picnic, or pitching a tent by a river, you don’t need to take rare events into consideration. But if you’re planning a community, or building a house by a river, you do. This wasn’t an Act of God; it was an Act of Man.
In the summer of ’85, when I was ten, I found a blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale) under a log on Nun’s Island. I’d never seen one before. Not even in a book. He was, at that point, the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen (I’d yet to discover girls). I named him Jesus and took him home. This was, I soon discovered, a really bad idea. Poor little guy was miserable. Wouldn’t eat. Just dug himself deep into the dirt and stayed put. I found him there, dead, three months later. I’m sure I was sad, but mostly I remember how embarrassed I was. Because my mom had warned me, in no uncertain terms. She’d said it was a bad idea. So I kept the little dude’s death to myself.
I wanted to bury him down by the river with the rest of my deceased pets. But it was December and the ground was already frozen solid. So I put him in a little soil-filled box, hid the box under some old crap at the bottom of our freezer, and waited for the spring thaw. I’d love to tell you that I followed through on my noble intentions, but that’d be a lie. Truth is, I’d long forgotten about the salamander by the time spring rolled around. Little dude stayed in there for four years. Probably would’ve been there longer, way longer, if the fridge hadn’t died in the middle of that unseasonably hot June.
I recognized the little box right away, and felt a wave of shame wash over me (which I kept to myself). I slid that box into my pants pocket with the stealth of a practiced pickpocket. Said in my head: I’ll bury him with the others after school. And I remembered this time. Dug a nice hole too. Was just about to bury him in that soggy box when something really weird happened: he crawled out of it! He is risen, I thought; He is risen indeed! Of course Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead. He was always alive. I’d mistaken a hibernating salamander for a dead salamander. Didn’t take me but a moment or two to put that together. But it has taken me close to three decades to grasp this event’s deeper significance.
There’s a reason why certain forms of life, like salamanders, stand the test of time, whilst others go extinct. The salamander is one of evolution’s masterpieces. It’s not just ready for winter; it’s ready for catastrophic black swan events: like the little ice ages caused, from time to time, by massive volcanic eruptions, giant meteors, and the forgetfulness of flaky children. Are we ready for black swan events of this magnitude? God told dreamy Joseph to prepare Egypt for seven years of famine. Could we survive that long? I doubt it.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here: A Love Letter to Montréal (2017)