Time usually drifts on Elbow Island, measured by the shifting of the seasons and the rise and fall of the Elbow River. As the hot Summer sun beats down on this remarkably wild inner-city park space, a collision of chronologies is unfolding: time, as measured by nature, meets time, as measured by humans. Construction equipment shifts land, reconfiguring trees, rocks, and dirt, guiding the flow of the river in an effort to mitigate flood risk and reclaim fish habitat lost in the 2013 floods.
From the outside, parts of this process look violent. And yet methods are carefully guided by City ecologists and strict environmental regulations. Every tree removed must be accounted for; a bird’s nest can pause construction for weeks; water contamination is attentively monitored; an orchid could halt the project outright.
The delicate interplay between nature and culture clashes with the pragmatic urgency of construction, the coordination of processes and equipment, and the imperative to “get the job done” and demobilise crews before the Fish Window closes in late September. The timescale of human toil is contrasted against buds, berries, bugs, foliage, and flowers flourishing throughout Elbow Island Park, marvelously ambivalent to construction unfolding all around.
Elbow Island is a geographic point of overlap between different perceptual chronologies. This “island time,” (to misappropriate a tropical phrase), offers a crack in human-centred measurements of time so commonly used in urban spaces. What is time to a bumble-bee, a wild rose, or the swiftly growing Caragana? What is time to a water-logged dragonfly, or a dirt trail worn by animals, or the dam-regulated waters of the Elbow River? These perceptions of time are measured differently, undoubtedly, than those of an urban camper, a neighbourhood dog walker, or a lazy Saturday afternoon rafter.
From our perceptual space as the Lead Artists guiding the project, The Wandering Island has embodied the time of 12 seasons and counting. Time elapses in fits and starts: blazing heat and glistening snowfalls, Microsoft Teams meetings and bottomless email chains, conversations with Indigenous Knowledge Keepers and dinner with my Aunt and Uncle, rock-skipping on the river and uncovering elaborate island forts. Our documentarians have created imprints of these moments, each a thin slice of time.
Our first year visiting the island for this project was a series of guided explorations and solo walks, beginning to understand the island and its many inhabitants. As the subsequent years unfolded and the first artists joined The Wandering Island, our perceptions of time have changed repeatedly.
Above wandering images by Caitlind Brown (2017-2020)
For me, time on the island is compounded further when I think about my Dad growing up on the Elbow River, 100 metres from the Island, in the same 1940s bungalow my Aunt & Uncle still occupy. I imagine him as a kid in an inner tube and goggles, floating with the current down the river, face down and snorkel up, looking for fish.
While there are those with a much deeper roots in this place, the Elbow River is a part of my home and my heritage… but human time is nothing compared to the time of the land. The land holds us, not the other way around. This island will remain long after my time (or yours) has ended.
Individually, each Wandering Island artist has had their own experience (physically or metaphysically) of time in this place – which has been complicated over the past 5 months by the global Coronavirus Pandemic.
Even before COVID-19, environmental conditions had delayed the project, requiring an adaptation of human schedules to the powerful flex of nature. Some artists have been involved in this project for years, others will begin their time in the near future.
This is all part of conceiving a site-specific collective artwork as part of a City of Calgary capital project in sensitive habitat. We are learning to slow down, to be patient, to try feeling time as the island feels time.
It has been a profound privilege to spend elastic time on Elbow Island. As we await the Island’s reopening and our opportunity to share the first artworks – stepping stones, benches, and stairs – we begin to consider another perspective on time. Soon, we will no longer be the conduits through which time is experienced. Objects in the landscape will encounter time in this place without us, offering an entirely new perspective on island time: “art-based time.”
~ Writing by Caitlind Brown. Unless otherwise noted, all photos captured by Mike Tan Photo.