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Snow Deconstruction Reflection

Montreal takes snow removal seriously. For large snow events, like the foot and a half that fell from one storm and was topped off by several inches more last month, the city rolls out a slow parade of heavy vehicles down every street, a show of force that has caught many a visitor's eye as YouTube-worthy footage.


First, some vehicle blares a godawful screeching siren to alert any fool who left their car parked in the cozy parking-stall they carved into the street-side snowbank during the time designated for plowing. Then, a construction vehicle with plow & grader and the little zippy tank-treaded plows that careen down sidewalks with alarming speed scrape everything into a line in the street about one car-length away from the curb. It looks like blow lined up for a 1980s rave hosted by giants. Later, an employee walks ahead of a grader sucking the snow pile and blowing it up and over into the dump truck inching alongside it. Once the dump truck is full, it takes off, and the empty one idling just behind rolls forward to take its place.

Reading at the BANQ, Bibliotheque et Archives Nationales Quebec, I watched truck after truck roll south full of snow and then north, empty. Where do they dump it? Into the St. Lawrence? Into suburban parking lot mountains the scale of which only ever before existed in my wildest Minnesotan childhood dreams? It turns out, in 2018 Montreal did create some gigantic mountains of snow, but a good chunk of it gets dumped into the sewer system, to be treated before moving into waterways, which is where they indeed once dumped it directly.


Part of me thinks, finally, thank god I live a city where side streets aren’t plagued by disastrous ruts for months after the first layer of snow or ice falls to be followed by months of frogger-style driving to avoid wicked potholes and the city’s whack-a-mole-hole quick “fixes.” Another part of me, though, feels saddened by the massive amounts of machinery and effort mustered to remove snow. It calls to mind the extreme actions we take in the delusion that we can or should control “nature.”


And it gets me wondering what if we allowed this kind of event to really stop or pause us for longer than just one work/school day. How might our communities and patterns of daily life be re-imagined if individuals and institutions assumed work and errands to be interruptible? How might there be woven into society ways for us to shift down to a slower pace (or even pause) until the whatever-massive-disruption-out-there-we’re-now-facing recedes?


Preparation for the unexpected usually translates to so much frantic getting and doing, but what if we prepared by giving people space to slow down? And, as a necessary condition of doing so, protected workers and families most vulnerable, those who absorb the most devastating direct hits from disruptive events. After last month’s snow here and the tornadoes that flashed their airy teeth to tear up so much of Nashville last week and now that the COVID-19’s sticky crown is wrapped around the entire globe, it seems a radical transformation worth imagining.


Montreal shows one glimmer of what this slow preparation might look like for individuals, though don’t get me wrong, individual choices aren’t going to be the only change required to support a humane quality of life in the face of extreme weather events and similar disruptions—revolutions to systems of labor, commerce, and healthcare are certainly necessary. But what's remarkable is even despite Montreal's massive snow removal apparatus, there are far more options to get around before snow is removed here than back home. The buses and metros still run reliably, and Montreal cyclists don’t seem to wait for anything. That is, those whose bikes aren’t fossilized handlebar-high in a snowbank.

Montreal is well-known as a bike-friendly city (more on this to come), but even though my firsthand observations in summer and fall confirmed that reputation, I wasn’t prepared to see so many Montrealers still kick the pedals around in winter. I’ve seen cyclists on snowy sidewalks towing their kids to daycare in sleds. I’ve seen cyclists somehow manage to stay upright through inches of slush at intersections. I’ve seen be-ski-goggled cyclists heading home while fat flakes rush down the dusk.


It’s a beautiful, strange sight. One that makes me think there is so much more good to do and joy to make with the bodily mobility I am lucky to have. One that makes me think, with the support of local governments and communities, there is a way forward that might plant us joyful in the middle of snowbanks rather than send heavy machinery to deconstruct them out from under us.


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