How might we grasp the natural history of a river in a way that transcends mere data and description? How might we chronicle the way in which a living consortium of geology, weather, plants, animals and people has impacted, and been impacted by, the existence of a particular watercourse over the passage of time? In her new book, philosopher and poet Karen Houle employs the wiliest tool she knows—poetry—to contemplate the complexities of the Grand River watershed in southern Ontario, stretching our notions of what can be known about a river.
Houle’s writing is inspired by, and borrows from, various kinds of scientific inquiry and documentation, integrating strands of thought from across the fields of archeology, entomology, molecular ecology, cultural anthropology and geography. But these established sources aren’t presented as the sole custodians of all that’s worth knowing. With often jarring juxtapositions and a prosody that sometimes flirts with chaos, Houle’s poems make a virtue of straining against the settled rules, agitating for a more complex, robust portrayal of the Grand River watershed by fusing apparently disparate narratives and methodologies—the scientific and the anecdotal, the personal and the collective, the emotion and the information, and the organic and the manufactured.
Like the river itself, Houle’s The Grand River Watershed suggests how seemingly jumbled, separate parts in fact exist in a web of relationships. For Houle, the best hope we have of comprehending the complexities of a phenomenon like the Grand River is rooted in our accumulated encounters with, and our collective articulation of, the river’s countless aspects over time, not in any one measurable part or moment of it.
Houle’s creative pairing of literary and ecological modes presents the Grand River as a complex living system that is full of interconnection and meaning, reinvigorating poetry’s possibilities as a tool for engaging with and speaking of the natural world.