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Writing the Watershed:
Karen Houle's The Grand River Watershed: A Folk Ecology

Karen Houle's Grand River Watershed: A Folk Ecology
Karen Houle, The Grand River Watershed: A Folk Ecology
Kentville: Gaspereau Press, 2019.

In The Grand River Watershed: A Folk Ecology, Karen Houle rubs together several epistemological registers in order to enact what she describes as “different qualities of truth.”

The book most obviously operates in a poetic register, but its subtitle, “A Folk Ecology,” signals as early as the front cover that it will also engage in other modes of knowing, in folk wisdom laid next to ecological science in a way that Houle describes as “inserting low-fi knowings and dubious facts and imaginings into the fabric of scientized ecological discourse.”

These ways of knowing are further complicated as soon as the book comes to its epigraph (from Aristotle) and to the epigraphs that preface many of the poems (from Gilles Deleuze, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Emmanuel Levinas, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty). Drawn from philosophy, these epigraphs operate as points of instigation, as conceptual “church keys,” in Houle’s words, that “sort of invite the world in, or invite my mind to go take a walk out… and find out who or what is out there in the region of that idea.”

And once the region of the poem has been opened, the insertions of one epistemological discourse into another only become more complex. Quotations from scientific and historical sources are included as right-justified or italicized sections in the poems. Tables and figures are occasionally inserted as well. The biological Latin names for plants and animals are included as marginalia, as are geographical coordinates in longitude and latitude. There are footnotes too, with references to everything from history to botany, wildlife conservation to hydrology, tourism brochures to ancient Greek philosophy.

These varied and often incongruous discourses, all occupying the page in different ways, create a kind of unruly, anarchic energy that the textual apparatus seems barely able to hold in check, a sensibility that Houle says she was intentionally cultivating. “I wanted the work itself to express the energy, density, and saturations of an ecological vitality.” she says, where the textual apparatus acts almost as weirs, “formal constraints (but not blockages, not dams) to slow and tumble and thus oxygenate the waters at key locations and crucial moments in the seasons… in the tumble of ideas and words and principles.”

The effect is a poetry that is almost impossible to quote with any sense of authenticity. Taking one section on its own, apart from the philosophical epigram that introduces it, the scientific quotation within it, the marginal note beside it, and the footnote at the bottom of the page, feels like a kind of injustice to the whole, something like trying to capture an impression of a river by taking a bit of it home in a bucket. The Grand River Watershed, the book as much as the natural space, simply wouldn’t be what it is if cut into its component parts.

Which is the point, of course—that The Grand River Watershed needs all its many ways of knowing in order to figure the intricacy, the energy, and the complexity of the watershed itself.

Jeremy Luke Hill