If you got in a time machine, a flying time machine, and flew over the Montreal area 12,000 years ago, you’d see nothing but the tip of Mount Royal, because this whole region was submerged beneath an ancient sea: the Champlain Sea. So the next time you’re at the lookout on the top of Mount Royal, imagine that you’re standing on a beautiful little island looking out upon an ancient sea: an ancient sea filled with whales.
The Champlain Sea was created by the weight of the glaciers that blanketed this area during the last ice age. Think about what the weight of a two-meter-thick layer of snow and ice has done to buildings in places like Canada, Germany, and Poland. Now imagine what the immense weight of a two-KILOMETER-thick layer of ice can do to a landscape! The massive glaciers that covered eastern North America during the last ice age squashed the land beneath them severely—so much so, in fact, that when the glaciers receded about 13,000 years ago, the newly-exposed land was far below sea level. The salt waters of the Atlantic Ocean rushed in and flooded the region, creating a vast inland sea, which we anachronistically refer to as the Champlain Sea.
Land that’s been squashed by glaciers bounces back eventually. Geologists call this process isostatic rebound. It took this land we call home about 3000 years to bounce back (11,000 BCE—8,000 BCE). During this period, Montreal was home to sharks and killer whales, belugas and bowheads, and the mighty fin whale (second only to the blue whale in size); Mount Royal was a little island covered in puffins, seals, and nesting seabirds.
Although Montreal poets have always referred to Mount Royal as their city’s ancient volcano, it’s actually an ancient volcanic tube, an igneous intrusion. What’s the difference? Well, like the difference between a mountain and a hill, the distinction is to some extent arbitrary. Still, for what it’s worth, your typical volcano forms when molten lava comes up through a crack in the Earth’s crust with great force. By contrast, volcanic tubes form when the molten lava oozes out of a bunch of different cracks at once, with less force, for hundreds of millions of years.
Volcanic activity of precisely this kind is what created the chain of mountains that begins with Mount Royal and the Oka Hills, and continues south through the Eastern Townships with the following mountains: St. Bruno, St. Hilaire, St. Grégoire, Rougemont, Yamaska, Shefford, and Brome; the chain ends in southern Quebec, about 15 kilometers north of the American border, with its tallest remaining peak: Mount Mégantic. The fact that we refer to these mountains collectively as the Monteregian Hills is a testament to how incredibly old they are. They’ve been worn down by the sands of time into the rounded hills we now see. It blows my mind to think of what they’ve seen. Our moment in the sun really is just a moment. We know practically nothing about the history of this place.
As you may or may not already know, kiwifruit exports are a central feature of the New Zealand economy (worth about NZ$1.5 billion), and these kiwis are dying at an alarming rate. Researchers initially suspected that the plant pathogen attacking the fuzzy kiwi (Actinidia deliciosa) were domestic in origin, but they soon realized that the answers they were looking for couldn’t be found in New Zealand. They were going to have to go to China. Why? Because kiwifruit are relatively new to New Zealand: they were only introduced in the early twentieth century. The ancestors of the domesticated kiwifruit are native to the mountainous regions of north-central and eastern China. And it seems that the pathogen killing the kiwis is a domesticated version of a rather ancient foe.
I can’t help but think about the study of history when I contemplate this fascinating case. Although human beings have been walking the Earth in our present form for about 200,000 years, human history imperfectly chronicles the last few thousand years. Due to a paucity of sources (especially written sources), human history doesn’t really know very much about human history. The best historians are, in my experience, aware of this problem, but they deal with it the way most of us deal with death: namely, by studiously avoiding the subject. I used to be able to do this too. But I find myself less and less able to do so these days. I can’t help but suspect that the vast majority of what passes for historical truth is in fact bullshit.
When we’re trying to recreate an intellectual milieu, even one that’s relatively recent, we invariably discover that the vast majority of the sources we need to do such a thing have been swallowed up by oblivion and lost forever. Sometimes those that remain—e.g., Plato’s dialogues—remain because they were the best of the best, works of great importance. But this isn’t always (or even usually) the case. Sources often survive for largely accidental reasons. Regardless, the temptation to exaggerate the significance of what we have has proven irresistible for generations of historians.
I came across a giggling bachelorette party on my way home from my sister Felicity’s house last night. The drunken bride-to-be was scantily clad in a hilarious outfit that included penis goggles, a stripper-chic spoof of a wedding dress, and a sign that read “TOUCH THEM, THEY’RE REAL”. The bachelorette party made me smile. And I’m sure they all had a fun night. But if you were to draw conclusions about this young bride-to-be based on observations derived from last night’s events, you would in all likelihood be dead wrong about her. Last night was a strange and atypical night. The judgments historians formulate about us are probably little better than the judgments someone might formulate about that bride-to-be based upon last night’s events. Historians regularly come to conclusions about who we are based on a ridiculously small slice of our evolutionary past. “So-called world history is,” as Nietzsche rightly observes in Daybreak (1881), “at bottom merely much ado about the latest news.”
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here: A Love Letter to Montréal (2017)