finding theory in unexpected places

The residents of Calgary know a lot about the power of water. In 2013, a combination of forces led to disastrous flooding as the Bow River breached its banks. The river took everything along in its path, and left silt, tree branches, garbage, rocks and all sorts of debris behind as it receded.

Prince’s Island Park, Calgary’s urban nature park, a quiet oasis just minutes’ walk from the high rises in the downtown core, disappeared in the flooding and when all was said and done, the landscape itself was completely different. Broken trees littered the park’s walkways and branches lay tangled in the wooded areas. The silt had reshaped the river’s route.


Prince’s Island Park


Prince’s Island Park

Walking through the park in 2016, I wouldn’t necessarily know what had happened three years ago; I have no long term history with this place. I noticed fallen trees, but I could have attributed them to any winter or summer storm.

But there are small hints of this past – a sign that tells people that a section of the park is closed due to flooding, for example. More obvious are the signs the city has placed around the park. Calgary, these signs say, is a resilient city. The floods had a profound impact, but the city has reconstructed this island, reshaped the silt deposits, and re-routed the water so that a future flood event might not have such a devastating impact.


The day I was there, I walked through poplar fluff dancing around me in the light breeze. On the ground, small snowstorms of fluff washing across the asphalt. By the river’s edge, two Canada geese with a row of tiny goslings. On a little concrete plaza, a gang of teenage geese eagerly awaiting treats.


The smell of lilacs, long forgotten, perfumed my senses. I stopped, surprised. The scent was unexpected, overwhelming, and so very familiar. We had three lilac trees in our backyard when I was growing up. My mom would pick them and then arrange them in a white milk jug vase and place them in the centre of the kitchen table at the heart of our house.

The river’s colour reminded me of the mountains, a glacial blue, that colour you might get when you mix the Caribbean Sea with mint-flavoured toothpaste.

It wasn’t a place where I’d expect to find theory, and indeed, I didn’t go to the park looking for it. I was just looking for fresh air and some green space.



But then I started seeing a series of cryptic signs.



The signs – 100 in total – are the work of an artist-research collaboration calling itself the Broken City Lab. “Subtext: River Signs” was made possible through the city of Calgary’s Watershed+ public art program:

“WATERSHED+ is a way of working that aims to develop awareness and pleasure in the environment, not by changing water management practice, nor developing a uniform visual language, but rather by creating a climate of opportunity for water initiatives to build an emotional connection between people and the watershed.”

“Subtext: River Signs” operates like a game. Playfully offering seemingly random thoughts along the water’s edge, it invites viewers and readers to join the adventure, and to look for more and more signs.

Each sign asked me to pause, think, and reflect… hints of theory placed into the urban land and waterscape.

Is the river blind?

Is the river purposeful?

Is the river defiant?


Is the river longing?

Is the river empty?

Is the river lonely?


Is the river a dream?

In their own words about this project,  Broken City Lab writes:

“Subtext: River Signs aims to engage the public to consider a number of questions about the rivers that have come to define the City of Calgary. Playfully asking a series of questions, Subtext: River Signs encourages thousands of residents and visitors to think about the ways in which we collectively and individually experience the rivers and how these questions might cue new relations, memories, and stories of the Bow and Elbow.”

How well do we know the river, these signs seem to ask. And who are we in relation to it? How do we talk about the river? How do we understand it? Does the river have agency? What happens when we forget about the river, when we take it for granted, when we don’t pay attention?

In her article, “Land as Pedagogy, Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation,”  writer and thinker Leanne Betasamosake Simpson shares the story of a girl (“Kwezens” means “little woman” in Anishnaabemowin) who learns about maple syrup from a tree and a squirrel and shares her knowledge wit her family. How different her learning is from Western ways of learning, Simpson writes:

“Kwezens learned a tremendous amount over a two-day period – self-led, driven by both her own curiosity and her own personal desire to learn. She learned to trust herself, her family and her community. She learned the sheer joy of discovery. She learned how to interact with the spirit of the maple. She learned both from the land and with the land. She learned what it felt like to be recognized, seen and appreciated by her community. She comes to know maple sugar with the support of her family and Elders. She comes to know maple sugar in the context of love.” (7)

Simpson describes a holistic understanding of knowledge production, one shaped through and with the natural world and informed not by “dominion over” but rather by deep respect for and engagement with the land and what it can teach us. This is particularly important to a politics of decolonization that seeks to support what Simpson terms “A resurgence of Indigenous political cultures, governances and nation-building” (1).  “To create a nation of Kwezens – to survive as Nishnaabeg – we shouldn’t be just striving for land-based pedagogies,” Simpson writes, “The land must once again become the pedagogy” (14).

What stories might a river tell and how might we be changed if we listen to them?

Does water have memory?
Does it leave bits and pieces of its DNA behind?
Can its silty shores tell stories of watery migrations?



Broken City Lab, “SubText: River Signs.”

City of Calgary, “Watershed+”

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, and Society 3.3 (2014): 1-25. Available here:


(c) Sonja Boon, 2016 (sboon @



3 thoughts on “finding theory in unexpected places

  1. Pingback: Julie Dash and the Mysteries of the Celluloid Ceiling – Saltwater Stories

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