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Watersheds (who needs ’em?)

Posted on June 9, 2016


by Karin Murray-Bergquist

Placing ourselves on the map is a favourite activity for most people, even if they do not think of it that way. The satisfaction of moving into a new house, the pleasure of ‘checking in’ on social media, the novelty of having personalised address labels, all stem from the same desire to say, “Here I am!”

Our location tells us whether we are working or on holiday, how we should dress, and what we might eat -- in the long term, where we live can indicate wealth, the size of a family, physical mobility. The question of who we are is so often bound up in where we are, and the address that we most easily identify consists of numbers, street names, and postal codes.

Here, another address takes prominence -- that of the local watershed. As with a street address, the watershed contains precise divisions, narrowing down at last to the local creek. Each sub-watershed is at once an intricate world of its own and a miniature of the wider one. Tributaries become rivers, rivers flow to lakes, lakes in turn send rivers and channels to the seas -- and all eventually are mixed and swirled together in the vastness of the oceans that cover most of the planet’s surface. Nothing in the world is so uniting as the ocean, even to a place as far removed from it as the middle of Manitoba. The inland reach of the ocean matches its size; there is no water that does not connect to it in some way.

The Hudson Bay Watershed covers Manitoba in its entirety, extending westward through to a large swathe of Alberta, and eastward into northern Quebec. Just south of the Bay’s extent is that of the Gulf of Mexico, these disparate places connecting at the edge of Saskatchewan. To live within a watershed often means to have an affinity, conscious or otherwise, for an ocean that one may never see, just as citizens of a country may never visit their capital. To know one’s address within the watersheds and sub-watersheds is to redraw the personal map, and to see something more enduring than human borders. For all that this is the longitudinal centre of the continent, it was underwater a mere 80 million years ago -- the traces of it can still be felt. Look north, and there is the inland sea of Hudson Bay, the reduced, retreated remnant of the water in which swam creatures from Bruce the Mosasaur to the tiny brachiopods now scattered along the lakes’ beaches.

Boundaries of this nature are crucial to the understanding of life on Earth. We may dwell on the land, but our planet, dominated by water, is also shaped by it. Although dramatic change can affect the watershed in ways visible to human perception, the formation of watersheds occurs in increments of time different from those to which we can easily comprehend. Living things within the watershed may change, are indeed always changing, but the watershed itself is ancient.

This line of thinking requires not only a new conception of geography, but an alternate perspective on time. If we consider the watershed as the most fundamental part of our definition of place, what then becomes of the way we think of our history? Does rewriting our address bring us closer to the geological past, while putting human history out of focus? Or, if we trace the line through to our own times, does the watershed’s geography provide a quiet consistency, an underscore to the many ruptures and divides that have characterised our turbulent existence and drawn a thousand fleeting lines across the map?

As FortWhyte Alive's seasonal interpreter, Karin will share her observations and musings on the trail this summer.