Lugging my laptop toward the bus station, through the grey city with its lively hard-faced people, the thing that struck me most was how many more leaves there were than I would have expected. Downtown Montreal isn't exactly a parklike place: it's practical, hardnosed, cheerful, insouciant, and almost entirely paved and built over. It has its parks of course, and the ancient green bulk of Mount Royal in the center of the city. But mostly it's as no-nonsense urban as it gets.
But this is truly spring, and after such a long Mud Season I have an almost compulsive need to notice new greenery, and there it was, licit and il-: urban trees, a bit stunted, struggling in the tiny patches of dirt left them in the sidewalks; dull intentional shrubberies where architects thought good; and weeds. Not as many weeds as I'd like to see, but still, weeds. I saw whole weedless expanses of street and parking lot, but in many cracks and crevices, the horticultural bastards were doing their best. There was even one cheerful dandelion.
What would happen, I wonder, if you moved every living soul out of downtown Montreal, so that it was entirely depopulated? I'm not imagining a Stephen King-like pandemic or neutron bomb--I'd choose some peaceable means. But let's say you could clear this, or any city, for (say) fifty years, and come back to it. How long would it take the plants to take over?
It would take a while: early colonizing by the tough adventitious species, dandelions, plaintain, chamomile; then a succession of stuff we consider junk, like Manitoba maples or brambles--things that move in, seeded by bird droppings, and then sprout like crazy. Where there was ivy, it would crawl; ditto wild grape (again, bird droppings help to spread it around). And presumably you'd see tree saplings or young trees wherever the street trees had self-seeded. Not being a botanist, urban or otherwise, I don't know what the succession would be, only that there would be one.
Under all this buildup of concrete and asphalt, under the twining expressways and the grotty warehouses and the corporate headquarters, there is still good black dirt, the wherewithal for these adventurers to get their roots and tendrils into. We've done a fair job of covering that dirt up--of encasing it in hard stuff that does what we want and stays where we put it. But it's still there, that potential.
Same goes for us. We do a fair job of covering our selves up--of encasing ourselves in hard stuff that does what we want and stays where we put it. That hard stuff can vary: it can be the extravert shell of the painfully shy, or the false sweetness of passive aggression; or the piety that papers over judgmentalism; or the persona that the undeveloped self hides behind. It can be cynicism or old well-boiled anger. It can be the thick, strong, rigid casing of denial. Or it can be the tough independence of someone who's learned the hard way not to trust; or--anyone can think of some examples here; I needn't go on. It's whatever we put between ourselves and a world that we know we can't trust to love us as we want to be loved, or that may see us as we dread being seen.
But underneath all of our hard encasings, I think there is almost always some possibility of richness, some good black soil in which a seed of faith might root itself, although some people might have to go down a storey or two to find it. The weeds I saw in the sidewalk cracks in Montreal can't budge the cement itself: they're too small and soft, and it's too hard and thick. But faith, as it grows, may slowly undermine and tear apart our own hardness, as a tree's slow growth can force a sidewalk up, cracking it until it falls to bits. All it takes is a crack.
It may be a succession, for that's the natural progression of things. Some of us get bowled over by belief, but more often, it's a more gradual process: slow growth for a while, a long delay followed by a rapid burst, long periods of dormancy that drive us crazy, abrupt pain when life goes and shatters us. Maybe some people go through steady uneventful spiritual growth; it's just that I've never met any.
But all faith really needs is that first small crack: our permission, our "yes" said to God, and our willingness to let the shell be broken. And then in time we can indeed bear grain a hundredfold.