Helen Humphreys’s The River pays homage to a Canadian preoccupation with how landscape sculpts the country’s imagination. Canada’s rivers perform as arteries and veins in this country’s body, a conceit that Humphreys uses to fine effect in her meditation on the Napanee River, a river that she lives beside, swims in and observes. The more subtle aspect of this intense and deliberated work is the intelligent distillation that this river is as indifferent to her scrutiny as she is scrupulous in her observation.
Humphreys’s observation that “Nature was a proper noun, with a capital N” establishes her careful distance and yet respect for nature. She does not say overtly that we now approach nature as a body we have the right to autopsy, our surveillance akin to that we give to an animal we have accidentally run over, our sorrow at its dying and a mea culpa–esque regard rotating around our own reactions and sensibilities. We are the dangerous animal, our anthropocentrism the death warrant that we issue to all in our way.
In that light, the many sanctimonious books that seek to encapsulate and to profit from our newly focused interest in “nature” have become an irritating glut. Armchair naturalists, we gobble up books about nature from Walden to The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History as avidly as we have gobbled nature itself.
Thankfully, The River does not adopt a missionary position. Its form contributes to its beguilement and its aesthetic exploration is as intrinsic to the result as its observational bent. Unfettered by genre, the book juxtaposes fiction, history, potamology, memoir, observation, lists, maps and photographs. It is a visual feast, and the images and sketches almost overshadow the text. The effect is deeply satisfying: its untarnished eloquence smites the reader on a level of intimate innocence so beautiful that at times it leaves the reader breathless.
Humphreys has taken as her subject the part of the Napanee called Depot Creek, an almost-backwater that ebbs and flows with the season, and that evokes a complex history, geological, biological and human. Her metaphorical unfolding of the moods and spaces of the river matches her desire to know the river on its own terms, “not as a surface on which to project my own struggles and desires.” Her “research” into the river becomes a document of discovery without evaluation, recording without intervention. Intelligent artifice plays throughout, in Humphreys’s movement between observation and investigation, and in the sudden bloom of a fictional fragment only tangentially connected to Depot Creek, but that deepens and enriches the run of the river through the pages of the book.
I cannot help but think of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and Mole’s first experience of the river: “So—this—is—a—river!” he says, with wonderment, and Rat corrects him. “THE River,” then goes on to amplify: “It’s brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It’s my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing.”
Immersion is the means by which Humphreys follows her desire to know. She swims in the river, canoes on the river and explores the river, following its drift as it follows the fault line from Depot Lakes to Lake Ontario. She works with the factual river, the living river, the geological river, but it is “the deepening green song of the river” that threads her words, and she is always aware of the impossibility of her task. “The fact of the river is that it moves. It moves itself and all its cargo constantly downstream. Because it moves, it can’t be contained, and this means too that it can’t be contained with words.”
And so The River, a container that fights containment, refuses to contain, and in that rupturing consummates a collection, an assemblage, a miscellany, which in the course of its unfolding enchants the reader. We discover how humans have employed rivers, as livelihood and as roads, although now they have become obstructions to the roads we use. We see the river polishing the bones of dead animals and dead humans, eroding the edges of broken plates and bottles, lost articles. We watch how humans try to make rivers do their bidding, harness their force for energy or movement. We hear the river, its pitch and cadence, how it sounds when it is high in the spring, and how it sounds in the fall when it is low: “It feels and sounds like an argument, whereas the high and silent river seems like a decision.”
The fictional fragments that intersperse the memoir are tangential to the river’s story, but relevant in their exploration of how different humans meet Nature (with a capital N). They include a botanist and a captain, an apothecary and an immigrant and a plume hunter. Some are quintessentially Canadian, but they roam beyond the “settler” mode of Roughing It in the Bush to show how the trees and water of Canada have travelled the world.
The book offers as well fascinating details: that “a leaf moves downstream at .3 miles per hour,” and how “ballast waifs” (seeds that migrated in the ballast sand) took root here, and that waterfalls produce a high concentration of “negative ions” that have been found to contribute to positive feelings. Most powerfully, for all that the book appears to chronicle an incipient peacefulness, it aligns water and darkness, an awareness that what is below its plainsong can also be sinister.
One of Humphreys’s most interesting strands relates to how humans use rivers to dispose of what is not wanted. “The water feels like a sort of moving darkness, capable of hiding and taking everything away without consequence.” I am reminded of the inexorable force and character of water, how humans may believe they can predict what it will do, but can never be assured of its behaviour. My city, Calgary, learned that in the flood of 2013.
Despite her many awards, Helen Humphreys is an under-appreciated writer who runs as quiet and subterranean as water. She has authored four books of poetry, six novels and two works of creative non-fiction, most especially The Frozen Thames, a brilliant exposition that gathers together short fictional vignettes detailing the 40 times that the river Thames has frozen. That work serves as a bookend to this book, about a Canadian river, which manages, despite our climate, never to freeze.
The River evokes as well Margaret Laurence’s river in The Diviners, and how it seems to flow both ways, the “seiche” effect. Despite Canada’s great rivers, books about them, such as Hugh MacLennan’s The Rivers of Canada, Lawrence J. Burpee’s By Canadian Streams and Myrna Kostash’s Reading the River: A Traveller’s Companion to the North Saskatchewan River, are rare. Kevin Van Tighem’s Heart Waters: Sources of the Bow River has just appeared. But these are too few traces of those arteries that connect our watersheds and our dreams, our diving and our thirst.
Aritha van Herk is a novelist and non-fiction writer. Her latest work, Prairie Gothic (with George Webber; Rocky Mountain Books, 2013) explores the convergence of place and imagination. She lives in Calgary.