The Invitations of Helen Humphreys’ Beautiful and Troubling Book “The River”

It’s a beautiful book. Designed, by the looks of it, to be sold as a gift shop memento, Victorian perhaps. Note the trompe d’oeil of the bug on the cover, which takes us back to the Enlightenment and the beginning of science in exquisite tea parlours. I do not denigrate. My grandmother was a part of that culture, a culture in which women who gathered on Sundays would paint elaborate calling cards in journals that recorded the day. It might take an hour for one woman to make hers, while everyone else sipped tea and the roses spilled down to the river. It was a German river then, but soon to be Polish.

I write about this tradition with honour in my book The Wolves at Evelyn,  but Humphreys’ book is not such a thing. It is, as she points out, a portrait of a river, using all of her craft as a novelist, and ultimately leaving the question of her success or failure up to her readers. That’s a quote. For those of us looking to speak of the water flowing through our country, Cascadia, such as here where two great rivers, the Snake and the Salmon (left) meet in a canyon deeper than the Grand Canyon, at a fish camp with 16,000 years of obliterated history, leaving, ostensibly, only water and stone and invasive grass…

… her sincere and beautiful experiment is illustrative of the problems that lie before us. “The fact of the river,” she says, “makes it impossible to define.” But don’t take it from me. Have a look.


Did you spot the problem we are dealing with, who have our water to speak of? Here is the Columbia from The Dalles, Oregon, after it has gathered up the Snake and the Umatilla. If the “fact” of “the river” is that it moves, what of The Dalles Dam in the background, that stops its water? And what of the Lone Pine Replacement Fishery in the foregrounds at which Native Americans are, today, attempting to fulfill their treaty rights to salmon, their old fishing holes, and their ancestors. Well, simply, it’s beyond the scope of Humphreys’ book.

How it is beyond her book’s scope is, however, illustrative. She wants, she says, to know a river “on its own terms.”

What she finds is a little bit of the water, a lot of her passion for the water and the experiences she has had with it (which are wondrous, and exquisitely written), and a lot of human social history. She speaks (below) of the river’s margins. She speaks of it changing shape. She speaks of how “only in the spring and fall … is the river unencumbered by what it supports and promotes within its boundaries.”

Well, like this?

Grand Coulee Dam

More powerful than The Dalles Dam, Grand Coulee Dam does effectively kill one of the world’s great rivers. It simply stops. What flows on is a different river, call it what you like. This is, again, not Humphreys’ concern, but for those of us who live in Cascadia, the greatest watershed in North America, her book is our concern. The reason is that it’s great art has been put to work, at the very pinnacle of Western tradition, to create a dazzling portrait of the word “river”, as embodied in a physical landscape and experienced through its social, physical and historic setting, all of which are considered as that which the river has created or drawn to itself.  This is how words work in 20th Century English-language literary tradition, as psychological palimpsests of all experience that has ever been encompassed by the term “river”, sparked to life by reading either a book or Nature, and lifted into either a symbolic or aesthetic experience by the order brought to the release of this material. The order comes either from the subconscious or the conscious mind, depending on the craft of the writer. Humphreys’ craft is at the highest.

There is a price to be paid for this method, however, even though Humphreys certainly didn’t invent it, and even though I, for one, was also trained in this tradition, by a poet attempting to modernize the ancient spiritual craft of poetry by uniting it with Jungian psychology to explain a craft of symbols. Humphreys is more down-to-Earth than that, yet look at how she has had to separate the deer from the river in order to achieve it. In many parts of the world, such as Iceland, the world of my ancestors in Northern Europe, Cascadia and Siberia, a river is a force squeezed out of rock, which carries water along with itself, as well as trees, deers, and so on. That Humphreys is speaking of “river” as a “word” or a “concept” is a way of taking it to be a flow of water. That’s how contemporary English works, but in Cascadia, where English is a colonial language, that’s a problem, because as this image of the Pik’dunin (The Snake) across from Looking Glass’s camp at Asotin shows, the river is actively being made by stone even today. To call that relationship “river” and “bank” is disruptive of their relationship.

And, yes, the day before I scared up a white-tailed deer behind those trees, and a woman called out to me from a boat, “Aren’t you afraid of snakes?” Why on Earth would I be afraid of snakes? Again, not Humphreys’ issue, as she is not even writing about the West, yet she is writing about the English language and how it reads land and water that would otherwise be seen as story, family responsibility and illahie, the complex assemblage of kinship rules, inherited rights, environmental stewardship and fish weirs that ruled this country before English simplified it down to natural, physical concepts and the assemblage of European histories along them that, in their place, are called history. The basalt columns above are unglaciated. They are a fish weir. It would be wise to consider what kind of fish they are catching, or in what way. Important? Yes. The concept of illahie stretches back at least 13,000 years in Cascadia, and is linked to an ancient gambling game called s’lahal, which determined, before time began, who among the people got to eat and who got to be eaten. It was played with sticks, like in a fish weir. That is no accident. The game is won or lost by spirits and the ability (or not) of humans to call them forth, an ability which includes people’s environmental connections. Now, one could say, yes, but it’s all the same thing, Humphreys’ river and this Indigenous one; only the specifics of the histories differ.

Fair enough. It’s a sign of the strength of Humphreys’ writing that she casts romanticism aside and refuses to give the river a Victorian character, despite the efforts of her book designer and marketing team. Nonetheless, these are not Indigenous sentiments — not for indigenous peoples of North America or of Europe, or anywhere else. It’s a kind of Terra Nullis, Nature, or No Man’s Land, free to explore, name or claim. What we have is a clear colonial statement, because if Humphreys were indigenous, if she were truly of the river, she would be unable to write “The river is not welcoming or accepting of us,” or “It doesn’t care for us at all.” She would be the river. Those words would be about herself. Instead, even when she gets incredibly close to the river and speaks of it evocatively and with all the power the traditions of European art can bring to it at its highest level, even when she achieves beauty like this…

… the separation built into Canadian English dominates. Notice that in this intimate portrait of the river, the subject is personal: “swimming in the river.” The point of view of the first sentence is “you” and of the second is “me,” a trick from Baroque Europe, invented to provide a portable point of relativity, to provide the measure of all things in a world that would be otherwise universal and without form or intention. This was the work of the German philosopher Gottlieb Fichte, at the University of Jena in 1793. It was powerful and allowed for the triumph of European colonialism, but it was also the tool that suppressed universality wherever it was found, such as here:

Looking South, Up the Pik’dunin


The Pik’dunin is the expression of deep, terrestrial forces and the atmospheric forces they call to themselves. It is an active energy. For this complex relationship, Humphreys’ gives us what English can best do: make sentences > that > flow > from > one > word > to > the > next, and what writers, the technicians of this relationship with language, know more than most people, how to read the world as that language and that flow. “The river just keeps flowing in its channel,” she says, prophetically speaking about the language, but diminishing rivers so that they fit that language.

I can’t comment on how this exquisite book may or may not be a triumph in its native Ontario or elsewhere in New England, but I can say that I love this book for the beauty it brings to this intersection of Western civilization and the Earth, and am frustrated with it, for how deeply it confounds the vital conversation that needs to have our full engagement now, in this time when Native peoples are resurgent and it is the work of the rest of us to shed our colonialism and walk with them as keepers of the Earth. That we have the English language to do this work in is a true bind, but it’s really not hard to set aside its weaknesses and treat it as an indigenous language. We will, however, have to stop thinking of writing as art or psychology, of words being ascendent, and of book images and book language being representations of the world. It is our job to put some strength back into English. Humphreys does, in wondrous moments in her book. Those places where she fails to do so are the places where we are, and where we can begin.


Tomorrow, let’s look at different ways of writing about rivers.



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