The sea that shaped Montreal: the story behind the story

Marian Scott

Marian ScottOne cold day in January 2008, I was interviewing Martin Lechowicz, a professor of biology at McGill University, for a story about trees on Mount Royal. He mentioned in passing that Sherbrooke St. was once a beach.  Lechowicz explained that long ago, a saltwater sea covered most of the Montreal area. He said the vast body of water, which retreated about 10,000 years ago, shaped the city’s natural setting.

The idea of waves lapping on what is now a major urban artery immediately piqued my interest. The image of whales and porpoises frolicking at the corner of Peel and Ste. Catherine Streets seemed so incongruous that I wanted to know more. But the story had to wait until summer because in winter, traces of the former sea are hidden under the snow.

I always get a kick out of stories exploring Montreal’s past because I have a huge passion for the city. The way it constantly changes, yet retains its unique sense of place, is a marvel to me. But I had never given much thought to geology or written about “deep time,” which is how geologists describe the vast span of geologic history. We’re talking about millions of years during which continents formed and broke apart, climates changed from tropical to glacial and species were born and became extinct.

The challenge in telling such a story is to simplify the material so the reader doesn’t get bogged down in scientific details. I wanted the tone to be fun and breezy rather than dry and technical. I think having a main character helps the reader relate to a story like this. In this story, I used two primary characters: Pierre Bédard, the geologist, and Monique Hénault, the chicken farmer who found a whale fossil the size of a small SUV on her land.

Interviewing people who have a passion for their subjects, like Bédard and Pierre Richard, a professor of geography at the Université de Montréal, is always a pleasure. Their readiness to help me decipher this complex subject made it possible for me to describe Montreal’s geological past in plain language. Doing the research for this article opened my eyes to the distant past and gave me a glimpse of how wondrous this world of ours is.

I got a lot of positive reaction to the piece. I think it appealed to people’s natural curiosity about their everyday environment. You can drive past a certain landmark every day and never know how it got there. Readers told me the story changed the way they looked at the city.

Read “The sea that shaped Montreal

Veteran journalist Marian Scott doesn’t have a background in science, but she enjoys making scientific topics accessible to even the casual reader.  Scott recently won the Yves O. Fortier Earth Science Award from the Geological Association of Canada, for several pieces about geology and organic farming. The award is is presented for excellence in journalistic treatment of earth science in the newspapers.