tolt river artist residency for elizabeth conner

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Artist Elizabeth Conner has begun a six month residency on the Tolt River, working with staff in King County’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks, Water and Land Resources Division. She will be tracking the changes to the river in its flood season as it is monitored by ecologists, and look for ways to bring that research forward visually and conceptually to the surrounding community and visitors. This is the first of regular posts the artist plans to make during her residency.

The first time I crossed the Snoqualmie to reach Carnation by car, it was autumn, the windows were open, and I was delighted by the smell and sound of fresh running water. A resident of Vashon Island for almost 20 years, I had grown accustomed to the rhythms and smells of salt water. Entering Carnation provoked strong memories of swimming in the brook next to my childhood home, surrounded by dairy farms, in rural upstate New York. In mid-December, I began a “ride-along/think-along” residency with King County staff responsible for monitoring changes that take place at the confluence of the Tolt and Snoqualmie rivers, adjacent to the town of Carnation.

tolt_round2Monitoring change is an important component of a recent construction project, which involved removing a levee located at King County’s Tolt-McDonald Park. This project is intended to allow the floodplain of the Tolt River to re-establish itself, for the benefit of salmon and the surrounding forest. Fish and forest are related in little known and complex ways, which I am just beginning to understand. Josh Latterell, an environmental scientist with the county’s Watershed and Ecological Assessment Team told me, “The forest is fish habitat.” I scribbled this on a legal pad during a conversation that yielded eight pages of notes. The scientists and river stewards I have encountered speak very quickly, punctuating clearly-articulated science with unexpected poetry.

I was not completely surprised to find that art is already a component of river restoration; one of the articles Josh forwarded me to “read on the ferry” relates how the aesthetics of rivers are perceived differently across cultures, as well as within the United States. These perceptions of what is beautiful and “natural” may affect decisions relating to river restoration projects.

The next seven months, which coincide with “flood season,” will be my opportunity to learn about the process and the visual aspects of slow and (sometimes) fast change at this particular site and throughout the watershed. tolt_round1Floods play an important part in river restoration, but it is difficult to predict when they will occur and how each event will affect the river and its surroundings. These unknowns are part of what makes the process of monitoring change fascinating to me. I will share what I learn, along with questions that emerge: walks, wades, and conversations with King County staff, a dialogue that may wander between science and art and will help frame ways to communicate some of the complexities of the river’s change and restoration.

Photos by Elizabeth Conner