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April 2005
May 2005

2005-04-24 »

Like Nature, Only Better

Today was an ideal spring day, and it reminded me why I like Montreal the way I do.

I had nothing better to do, so I went for a walk in Parc Mont Royal. The Sunday "Tam-Tams" session was in progress, which as usual made me think of self-organizing systems, but that's only tangentially relevant to my story. I found a little stream of water coming down the mountain - it's been raining a lot in the last few days - and decided, again, because there was nothing better to do, to find out where water comes from.

"Up" is the obvious answer. I traced the stream to a culvert and out (well, in) the other side. Then another, and finally to a hole where it seemed to disappear underground - well, appear from underground. Not to be stopped that easily, I followed the slope a surprisingly far distance uphill, and found at least two places where streams of about half the size as the original one went underground. There being only one of me, I decided to follow only one of them.

The slope was getting steeper as I got to the more "serious" parts of the mountain, and I noticed my stream - it was "my" stream by now - was shrinking. Looking back, I could see that a few little irrelevant trickles, feeding from every direction, joined my stream occasionally; as I passed each one, my stream, of course, reduced just a little bit each time.

Time passed, and I followed my stream to what eventually turned out to be its source - another tiny, irrelevant trickle, just like all the ones I had passed, coming from a small puddle in some wet grass. There was no big impressive lake draining, no mountain spring shooting water from a crack between two rocks... just another trickle, just like all the others.

I try not to post anything here unless it has a point. Perhaps you think my point will be something trite, like, "There's no ultimate source of power, and nobody is very strong all by himself; real power comes from a lot of little, irrelevant ones acting together." Yeesh. I hope you give me more credit than that.

I looked back down the hill toward where I had started. One thing I hadn't quite noticed on the way up struck me: that the walking path through the park seemed to stray back and forth rather near my little stream, without ever getting wet. In fact, the streambed wasn't entirely random; every so often, a culvert, or ditch, or cobblestone bed, or bridge, appeared, designed to keep the stream flowing smoothly out of the way of the path without allowing any flooding. Humans had been there before me, not just tracing the path of the stream, but adjusting it, controlling it, making it just slightly different so that it would work the way they want.

People are not the little, irrelevant trickles that combine together to become a mighty torrent; don't think of it that way. The irrelevant trickles and mighty torrents are just the forces of nature. People are the things that - with the right, tiny effort, applied in just the right places - make those torrents go just the way we want.

And this is why I like Montreal: other places I've been, like Toronto or Ottawa or New York or even Thunder Bay, give you the feeling of a great battle with nature that we won; to build New York, you can imagine that we gathered some trickles, created a big torrent, and blasted it at everything in sight until we built a monument to our power. There's nothing wrong with that - New York is very inspirational that way - but that's not how I feel in Montreal. What I feel here is that we handled things more like we handled that stream; we let nature run its course, and adjusted just a few things along the way. No excessive force; just a little tweak here, a little tweak there. The mentality here is different that way. I like it.

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