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A Yankee Notebook

January 16, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – Living here in northern New England – at the business end of the meteorological bowling alley of the United States – we generally have plenty of time to anticipate approaching weather systems. Our reactions can vary from delighted (a cool break on the way in mid-July) to anxious (a blizzard predicted for the day of our flight out of Manchester). Either way, the best advice for coping comes from Zoroaster: Accept with a good grace what you can’t avoid.

Last week, as Mother and I planned a run to Montreal to visit the Vermont Bar Association “Midwinter Thaw,” the weather map depicted a massive, mixed mess of snow, ice, freezing rain, and sleet falling directly athwart our path. Boy! I thought. This ain’t gonna be fun! I considered our options. We could take the bus; but I have a deep fear of letting somebody I don’t know drive me through dodgy conditions. We could take the little four-wheel-drive pickup with its winter tires; but pickups are like hogs on ice. Then there was the Prius. It has studded tires all around; but the headlights, wipers, and defroster are all barely minimal. I decided on the Prius, and made sure we’d be driving only by daylight. My inspiration is A.J. Foyt, who quit racing at night at the age of 50.

Mother, who’s spent most of her life pushing various envelopes, had scheduled an appointment in the Upper Valley during the morning of our departure in the opposite direction. I kissed her goodbye after breakfast as if it might be the last time I’d see her. If she survived and got home by noon, as she promised, we might make it to Montreal all right by dark.

She was back just before one, which wasn’t bad, considering, and off we went. The usual skiers from New Jersey and Massachusetts flew past us as we tiptoed up the interstate, but we saw only two cars off the road all the way to Colchester. After that, as I’d hoped, the traffic thinned out, and we had fewer other people to worry about. The Prius – to give it its due – felt pretty solid in the slush and rain, so I could begin to appreciate the changing country through which we were passing.

This is not meant to sound condescending, because each of us has a different point of view that’s been shaped by nature, family, education, and experience. But I often think how much some people miss when they believe that the land forms around them are little more than 6000 years old, or (the progressive version) were created that way by a designer whose intelligence so far surpasses our own that we can only marvel at what he’s (it’s always a male) done, and let it go at that.

It’s more productive to marvel at the results of billions of years of natural processes that are still operating to change the world as we experience it: earthquakes, volcanoes, plate movements, glaciers, erosion. During the trip from central Vermont to Montreal we’re surrounded by them.

A few miles southeast of Montpelier, where we started, are the Barre granite quarries, operating in a Devonian pluton, an upwelling of magma that penetrated an existing overlying formation of rock about 400 million years ago. Leaving Montpelier and merging onto Interstate 89, we cross the border between that bedrock and a fairly narrow band of even older, Ordovician bedrock laid down and lithified about 460 million years BCE. The Fair Haven High School’s athletic teams, the Slaters, celebrate the impact of that era’s geology on Vermont history.

Interstate 89 follows the Winooski River all the way to Richmond. Probably very few folks from away, headed for Stowe or Bolton, appreciate the convenience of the water-level gap through the Green Mountains created by the Winooski, which existed before the mountain uplift began, and eroded its valley downward as fast as the mountains rose beneath it.

After the band of Ordovician bedrock, I-89 runs on top of still more ancient Cambrian formations up to and older than 500 million years. The Cambrian rocks record the first flowering of life on the earth. Splitting layers of Cambrian sediments in my youth about 60 years ago, I experienced the beginning of a romance with the earth and the tiny fossils, inexpressibly old, that I was exposing to the light of day after half a billion years of waiting.

The hills of Vermont slowly fall away on both sides north of Burlington as our route follows the former eastern shore of a postglacial sea. After the border station at Highgate, the highway, like a river’s mouth, debouches onto the St. Lawrence River plain. Glacial till and outwash as flat and featureless as North Dakota, the land is covered with French-Canadian fermes and studded with villages named after saints who died heroically. Google Earth reveals a 17th-century European roture pattern: long, narrow fields laid out long ago, probably, by French seigneurs. Automatically, I begin to convert speed-limit signs to miles-per-hour by multiplying by six.

A few miles before Montreal, anomalous steep-sided, rounded monoliths begin to pop up from the otherwise flat plain. These are the Monteregian Hills, named after Mont Real, which rises up behind the city and gives it its name. They were formed about 125 million years ago, when a “hot spot,” like the one under Yellowstone, intruded magma into softer overlying rocks. That still-active hot spot is now out in the North Atlantic, but millions of years of erosion of the surrounding rock in Quebec have left its monuments protruding from the flat plain. One of them, Mont-St-Hilaire, is reputed to be the site of UFO sightings and visitations by extraterrestrial beings.

Shortly afterward, the plain rises up to the ramp of the Pont Champlain, and we’re in the maze of Montreal, praising any evidence we find of intelligent design – but by human engineers.

Photo by Willem lange