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Poetry Moment: 'Watershed' by Julie Swarstad Johnson

Poet Julie Swarstad Johnson
Patri Hadad
Poet Julie Swarstad Johnson

Poetry Moment on WPSU is a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Host Todd Davis is a professor of English and Environmental Studies at Penn State Altoona.

This episode’s poem is “Watershed” by Julie Swarstad Johnson.

Julie Swarstad Johnson is the author of Pennsylvania Furnace, which is based on her time spent reading and researching historical records in library archives, as well as wandering and hiking the ridge and valley country of central Pennsylvania. She is the co-editor of the anthology Beyond Earth's Edge: The Poetry of Spaceflight, and in 2018, she served as Artist-in-Residence at Gettysburg National Park, leading to her chapbook of poems, Orchard Light. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Penn State University.

A watershed is a land area that channels rainfall and snowmelt to creeks, streams, and rivers, and eventually to outflow points such as reservoirs, bays, and, ultimately, the ocean. To the west of the Allegheny Front in Pennsylvania, rain and melting snow flows into the Mississippi River watershed. To the east of the Allegheny Front, including the Ridge and Valley region of Pennsylvania, water makes its way into the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which spans more than 64,000 square miles, encompassing parts of six states—Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia—and the entire District of Columbia.

Watersheds are the lifeblood of our ecosystems and must be cared for and protected. They also offer a record of human history and culture, of development over time. And for Johnson, in her poem, there’s also vital instruction offered by the water, a way of tracing our paths, even of choosing the right one.



Faith, I might say, is mostly a choice,
but what I really mean is that I know Elk Creek

flows into other creeks, which then flow into
the Susquehanna River, then the Chesapeake Bay,

which I’ve never seen, so I can’t describe
firsthand the dwindling oyster beds I’ve read about,

although I can imagine the murky water, the oysters’
filtering suck slowed from a week to a year.

I might try to tell you about the coldness of the water
where we swam under the old train bridge across Elk Creek,

or the perfect wide flatness of the stones upstream
where we basked in the middle, together or alone,

or about the mud that got on my shoes when we left
or the poison ivy I avoided as we inched up the bank

and stopped on the bridge to look at the light
touching the boulders on top of the ridgeline,

but what I mean is that a snake swam past us
there in the water, and only one person noticed.

I go back there, to the sun and the wooden trestles,
to the good poems we read aloud then or soon after,

and I don’t imagine there’s anything more
to the creek than that stretch near Coburn,

that there might be anything better than our unknowing
choice to follow the one who saw the snake.


That was “Watershed” by Julie Swarstad Johnson.
Hear more episodes of Poetry Moment at

Music by Eric Ian Farmer.

Todd Davis is the 2022-23 host of "Poetry Moment" on WPSU.