Watershed leans in the environmental direction, at least in this issue. Given that it’s a journal celebrating the Susquehanna Watershed, this makes sense. The issue includes poetry, narrative nonfiction, and an oral history focused on contemporary Native Americans living in Pennsylvania, a state that doesn’t currently recognize any existing Indian tribes within its borders (yes, there’s some bitterness there, as expected). Black and white photos dress up the text of this slim volume.
Barbara Crooker’s poetry was among my favorite in this issue. Her poems address nature, in particular the seasonal changes. The first is called “Tu Wi’s: The Winter Diaries.” Crooker notes that Tu Wi’s is an imaginary poet of the S’ung Dynasty. The diary stretches from January to March, covering the deep winter (“Even the shadows / are freezing.”) to the ambiguity of early spring (“One day, warm sun, / crocus open their throats / of gold; the next, an icy / wind from Canada / snaps them shut—”). Crooker’s second poem touches on the effects of Hurricane Hugo:
something out there,
huge, an animal force,
the wind turned feral;
grey clouds collide and coil,
timber wolves tearing ruffs and fur.
Her third poem, “Late October,” heralds the end of the warmer seasons while also marking the coming winter months: “Soon, water / in the bird bath will freeze solid as rocks, / and the trees will have stripped off their coats / of many colors down to their elemental bones.” Her final poem “Paradelle for October” covers similar chronological ground but focuses less on the practical matters of the season. Utilizing Billy Collins’s paradelle form, Crooker finds the right words to repeat, leaving an indelible visual impression of October in our minds:
O October! Leaves fall, mustard and caramel.
The loss of the sun, the dark blind stars
stitch and tuck, row on row, the long sky.
Now, zero blankets you
across the too early parting.
There is something about the seasons that stirs the deep unconscious river inside us all. Dana JS Washington’s two poems also speak of the seasons. Her first one, “Outside My Window,” is essentially a vivid portrait of what the narrator sees outside a window:
Morning light slants
down across the lake.
Brightness and shadow,
warm water, cool air: autumn mist
Steam rises from my coffee.
I’m a little envious of the narrator’s view, although I can’t complain too much about the blooming crape myrtle outside my own window. In the poem “Wood Heat,” Washington’s narrator describes in a visceral way the hard work of stockpiling firewood for a long winter ahead:
Three across, three down, and repeat; we complete each others’
patterns, years of stored sunlight against a single season
When the snow flies, we will unstack and carry them again,
across brown ground, through the door, to the stove
Taking up the mantle of narrative nonfiction, Mark Sturges uses the framework of a solo five-day back-country hiking trip with his dog Manny to expound at length on his medical condition and the profound effect it’s had on his life. Bolstering his prose with literary and philosophical references, Sturges delivers strong descriptions of both the environment he is traveling through and the cold facts of his disease. Along the way, he dispenses some advice: “But one thing I’ve learned, you never manage a disease by necessity alone, for necessity arises only at the doorstep of death. Instead, you have to make conscious choices in your daily life.”
Finally, there is the oral history. As stated above, Pennsylvania does not recognize any Indian tribes within its modern borders. Many of the original Native Americans left this region and eventually settled in Oklahoma. Those that remained assimilated into the new European society. Over the last few decades, though, they’ve begun to reclaim their Native heritage, despite the state’s lack of official recognition. This section of the issue consists of interviewees discussing a number of topics: assimilation pressures, tension between Oklahoma and Pennsylvania Lenapes, the significance of eagles, the environmental caretaker role, Native spirituality and Christianity, powwows, and a final message from one Pennsylvania Lenape man to the people of his state. It’s an enlightening read and underscores the importance of identity to us all.
Watershed is a relatively short read, but the content has clearly been chosen with care, and the journal as a whole eloquently fulfills its mission. Readers should come away with a strong sense of the history, culture, and natural beauty found along the Susquehanna River.