“Watershed, lit., fig.” is a free, interdisciplinary, online conference of environmental humanities and literary scholars, creative writers, and artists, organized by the Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada and hosted by the Department of English at the University of Saskatchewan. Several synchronous live events will take place on July 8, 9, 10, 11 and 13. These include a keynote address by acclaimed poet Rita Wong, winner of the 2011 Canada Reads Poetry for forage and, most recently, co-author of the map-length poem beholden: a poem as long as the river, with Fred Wah. There will also be readings and a moderated Q&A session with Saskatchewan writers Trevor Herriot (author of River in a Dry Land), Louise Halfe (author of Burning in this Midnight Dream), and Candace Savage (author of Prairie: A Natural History). Word Splash: A Celebration of Metis and First Nations Writing will be a live performance event taking place on Saturday, July 11th, organized by the Saskatchewan Aboriginal Writers Collective Inc (SAWCI). Conference papers will be available for viewing and commenting from July 8th through July 22nd.
The conference theme is inspired by prairie river valleys, in particular the Meewasin Valley in the South Saskatchewan River Basin, which was to have been the location of our conference before the pandemic moved us online. The title “watershed, lit. fig.” refers to the conference’s intertwining of literal and figurative understandings of physical environments and multispecies relations, denoted in dictionary abbreviations as “lit.” and “fig.” Watersheds refer to crucial periods or turning points–“watershed moments”–as well as to drainage basins for water.
Although the Oxford English Dictionary marks a distinction between the literal and figurative meanings of “watershed,” it also shows the cultural is not easily stripped away from the natural in indicating a particularly North American usage of the term as “the gathering ground of a river system; a catchment area or drainage basin.” The figurative definition is “a turning point (in history, affairs, a person’s life, etc.); a crucial time or occurrence.” The conference takes up the confluence of these meanings. It considers how watersheds are significant moments in history and cultural life with transformational ecological implications. It also considers how personal “watershed moments” figure prominently in activist life histories, LGBTQ+ coming out stories, lyric poetry, and nature writing.
Watersheds are also geographical areas where waters, minerals, histories, animals, plants, fish, and other communities move and “gather ground” quite literally. Rivers carve valleys. Rivers gather sediment. Rivers flood. Tile drainage and irrigation systems gather ground for agricultural crops by moving water out and in, settling fertile properties and unsettling Indigenous histories. Tailing ponds are built to slow the travel of toxic metals through watersheds while the mined resources enter global commodity flows. Dams capture national imaginations with visions of prosperity and power while refashioning watersheds into new hydraulic systems. Forests, deforestation, and urban developments, too, shape water currents and fish futures. These material histories and possibilities gain expression and traction through figurative language and other signifying forms, such as maps and prospectuses and land registries and ceremony and legislation and story. Yet their material agency is not reducible to discourse or language effects. The “gathering grounds” of ecological, material, and historical knowledge matter in crafting personal and collective responses and interventions in this “critical time” of climate, biodiversity, and political crisis.
“Watershed, lit., fig.” is a compelling opportunity to discuss physical watersheds in terms of the crucial period we are living through, marked by climate, extinction and migration emergencies, new political formations, and shifting forms of writing, media, mediation and data mobilization.
Please see the conference schedule for detailed dates and times. Register for free at Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/watershed-lit-fig-online-alecc-conference-tickets-104000412032.
We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada (SSHRC), the University of Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild, and Lakehead University.