Parable in the snow
Somewhere on the 401, February 2016
The bus that is taking me from Toronto to Montreal on a snowy February Tuesday is going nowhere. Night has fallen and snow continues to come down, as it has since morning, over the 401. The bus stands in the fast lane, its lights on but its wheels stopped. Out the window I see only the silhouettes of a truck and a car and the sludge that has been gathering over the lines that no one can cross. The truck to our right has its blinker on; its intermittent orange flashes strike me as the markers of a fair, if by now superfluous, civility.
We’re a civil bunch inside the bus, too. The lady who sat to my left and read over my shoulder from Toronto to Kingston has now moved to a seat two rows ahead, where she reads “The Canadian’s Guide to Cooking.” The man in the seat directly in front of mine, and over whose shoulder I myself have been reading (he is writing science-fiction stories, by hand, on the bus!), is dozing off, his grey-streaked hair brushing against the frosted dark window. The Sikh family who reserved the four-seater corner at the front of the bus drifts in and out of quiet conversation. We have not yet reached the point of aggravation where our common plight will unite us in tired and tousled solidarity.
As I’ve been meaning to for a week, I start reading Rebecca Solnit’s account of post-2011 Fukushima: an essay on disaster, its cruel aftermath of death, debris and depression as well as its terrible antecedents – vicious social engineering, climate change and carelessness in its face. It’s an essay that also touches, thoughtfully, and with equal measures objectivity and care, precisely on those funny forms of solidarity that emerge out of disaster’s ashes, the ones that bind people and change them.
Sitting still in snowy silence and spurred on by Solnit’s words, I realize now’s the time to jot down some thoughts that have been swirling through my head for the past few days – the days since I finished Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. The book is the story of a young woman’s epic odyssey across a devastated future California. It’s science fiction about an alarmingly close future – the story begins in a hideous 2025 and ends in a 2030 that is all the fouler: famine is rampant, water no longer flows, fire routinely sweeps across swathes of land and kills all in its stead. Animals have gone rogue (dogs kill and eat one another, and people, too), while most humans have gone animal, or far worse. Cities are reducible to crime and the backcountry is a wasteland of barren earth raked by desperate souls who have lost it all. Slavery is back, and Black people are once more the ones forced into it. The United States is a Third World Country.
The culprits are obvious to anyone who's been following the trends that have shaped the world to 2016 – gaping inequality, climate change, racism, the unregulated growth of big business. Religion still has a grip – Lauren, the protagonist, grows up in a Baptist family – but reality is undermining the gospel’s principles and promises. In a world that has already gone to Hell, it seems no one can be good, and there’s no hope for salvation to be had.
An hour, at least, has passed. The truck in front of us has turned off its blinkers, but conversation now overlays the hum of the bus’ pointlessly running engine. The cook and the writer in the seats in front of mine have struck up a conversation. I find out that her son is waiting for her at the bus stop, and that his books blend history, religion, ancient Middle Eastern art and fiction. Both live in Montreal but are unlikely to meet again. He lives in Verdun; she, in Ahuntsic. He works from home; she, at a dental office down her street. Right now, however, they are conversing, even as the very-jovial-given-the-circumstances bus driver tries, in his thickly accented English, to get the father of the Sikh family to see the humour in our ordeal.
I think back to Solnit. Disasters in the West are often compounded by the belief that human beings instantly revert to savagery in a calamity, with the result that the focus shifts from rescue to law enforcement and the protection of property, as it did recently in Haiti and New Orleans, and in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. In Japan, the greater problem seems to be conformity. I look at the passengers around me. Is this who we've become?
Two hours – or more? I’ve stopped counting – after it stopped, the bus gets going again. The writer has picked up his pen; the woman, her book. The family is silent. The father has gone back to his seat; his wife stares out of the window; his children sleep. The night we had all envisaged is resuming, albeit two hours behind schedule. We’ll all be home soon. We're all tired and slightly sore. The ordeal was short-lived and its intensity was virtually nil – we're very far from Fukushima, and we are not in 2025 California.
But how far are we, really? I can’t help but draw lines between the lessons I learned in the Parable, the insights I found in Solnit, and the time I just spent on the bus stopped in the snow. We’re all at the mercy of the weather, even as we shape it, mercilessly, always. And yet it’s only in isolated moments that we truly talk about it – about anything – when really we could, and probably should, be talking about everything.