Creek College: Planting Seeds on the Columbia Slough

“How do we get people to return to a place over time to develop a relationship to the place and community?"


“It is our birthright to listen, quietly and undisturbed, to the natural environment and take away whatever meanings we may from it.” — From One Square Inch of Silence by Gordon Hempton

It had been a long day. Fortunately, the weather was on our side this Saturday, supporting our time in nature: Gray skies were interspersed with the warmth of the sun that shone through at intervals. Most of our group had spent the day learning and working along the Columbia Slough, and it was time for a break. According to our itinerary, our next venture would take shape as a silent canoe ride along the Columbia River.

Paddling silently on Whitaker Ponds/Photo by Kristina Dutton

About 30 adults and a couple children met at the dock, where Jennifer Starkey (Education Director of the Columbia Slough Watershed Council) gave instructions on how to canoe safely down the river in silence. We boarded our vessels with utmost quietness and congregated together on the water for a brief reading with our leaders, Anke Schuttler and Shoshana Gugenheim. In addition to an excerpt from One Square Inch of Silence by Gordon Hempton, they offered a poem by Fasika Ayalew called Silence of Silence:

Mystic beauty
Endless pleasure
Filled with eternity
Cascade like a fall
Pour its waters
Into a valley of calmness
\when listening to the silence of silence

Once the reading came to a close, we all looked at one another across the water and affirmed the start of our journey. Many thoughts passed through my head. I had not canoed in about a decade, and I had never canoed in silence. I felt like I was paddling in sync with those in front of me, but occasionally my paddle knocked that of the person behind me. Was I the weak link in this canoe? Were we paddling too fast? Were we missing out on quiet observation of the nature around us? Eventually my mind drifted to consider what we had done all day, and what brought us to this point.

The metaphor of “planting” is pervasive and frequently used to describe how an idea or concept enters someone’s consciousness. In my own work as an educator of young children, I ask on our regular trips to the community garden, “What do seeds need to grow?” Water, sunlight, air, and healthy soil seem like an easy enough recipe, if not for the all the variables that can wipe out seedlings in their most fragile stage of growth. So, when it comes to cultivating seeds of social equity, community resilience, or environmentalism in the hearts and minds of human beings, some might suggest a secret fertilizer to increase the yield—art, or rather, art-making.

Creek College—which brought me to the Columbia Slough this particular Saturday—employs this approach in a series of experimental “schools” that bridge art and environmental conservation. Creek College was founded in 2015 and has been hosting events in Portland since 2016. According to Co-Founder and Director Kristina Dutton, the project was founded around the question, “How do we get people to return to a place over time to develop a relationship to the place and community?” With the support of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Precipice Fund, along with that of several other partners and sponsors including the Columbia Slough Watershed Council and New Seasons Market, Creek College began exploring and experimenting with the answer to this question using the format of community symposiums along the Columbia Slough.

By the end of 2017, Creek College will have held two symposiums along the slough, a site identified by Kimberly Sutherland, the Portland-based member of the Creek College team. (Dutton is based in California and Co-Director Adam Carlin works out of North Carolina; Sutherland is completing her Master of Fine Arts at the School of Art and Social Practice at Portland State University.) As the hyperlocal connection to Portland’s landscape and community, Sutherland brought her long-distance collaborators together with her cohort at PSU for the first Creek College symposium of the year, which was produced as part of the PSU Art and Social Practice Program’s Assembly. I attended this event on Saturday, May 20, and found myself paddling in silence down the Columbia River.

The first symposium was set to take place at the Native American Youth and Family Center on Northeast Columbia Boulevard. I arrived at NAYA on this overcast spring morning, not quite sure what to expect. The Creek College organizers brought all participants together for an opening ritual, lead by J.R. Lilly, a member of the Dine (Navajo) Nation and Development Manager at NAYA. Lilly lead the group in a prayer and smudging ceremony—a cleansing ritual that involves burning dried sage. Lilly spoke of NAYA’s work to serve the native population in Portland, which numbers around 40,000 people. In so doing, he also placed Creek College in the historical context of the region, noting that this NAYA location is built where there was once a village of Multnomah Chinook people. “We have permission to be here, and so do you,” he said, explaining that NAYA had requested and been given express permission from the Chinook community to build its facility at this location.

Learning about the environment at Whitaker Ponds Nature Park/Drawing by Hannah Krafcik

After the Opening Ceremony, the attendees ventured out to Whitaker Ponds Nature Park, for “Whispering Soil,” a site-specific sculpture workshop with Anupam Singh. Singh gave us an orientation in the serenity of the Whitaker Pond wharf, explaining that, during this workshop, we were to build sculptures out of natural and found materials. The catch, however, was that we were to resist any impulse to photograph, draw, or otherwise document these creations. Essentially, the work could not exist if we were not there to witness it.

Each of us followed our own path around Whitaker Pond to find a site beckoning us for a sculpture. I decided to create something I had made with found materials in the past: a “mini-museum” of objects arranged from smallest to largest. I went on a hunt for natural and found objects that struck my fancy (which ended up including an animal pellet, a piece of lichen, a strand of English ivy, and a bottle cap). I cleared a space on one of the paths to arrange them, and then set off for a walk around the pond to look at other sculptures.

Someone had arranged fallen petals on the ground in the outline of the overhanging plant. Another person picked up twigs along the side of a bridge, placing them on a bridge railing in accordance with where they had fallen. Someone else arranged little stones into a legible phrase, something to the effect of “THIS IS A PIECE OF ART.” I was struck by the human compulsion to categorize, organize, and delineate in a way that seemed truly unnatural to the chaos and biological order of the environment surrounding the pond. There was certainly a temptation (at least, on my part) to snap a few photos of all the sculptures, but I resisted.

The day went on to include several other workshops, all predicated on a sort of sharing—whether it was a collective experience, idea, or narrative. The next in line was Roz Crew’s workshop, “Writing Together and Alone in Public.” Crews said that the impetus for this had come, in part, from a question: “What if I spent a whole year writing about an apple?” During Crew’s workshop, we wrote and shared our personal writing about task-based interventions into natural space—from eating apples, to looking at nature furthest away from us, to viewing nature as close up as humanly possible. In sharing our questions and writing, I received a potent response to my own question: “What does it feel like to be in the inner, outer, and ancillary circles?”—something I had been wondering about because our “circle” of participants for this workshop was limited by the number of apples and writing materials available. This person’s written response reminded me of a fundamental principle of nature that I carried in mind the rest of the day: circles might not stay circular; our world is in flux and everything evolves or disintegrates.

In “Creek Stories” with Eliot Feenstra and Lauren Moran, we met up in a grassy field and broke out into small groups, and each member of the group shared personal stories with the common theme of “creek.” We were asked to pocket our critical thinking skills for this workshop, and instead, find new ways to relate to one another by delving into the connection between storytelling and place. Each person in my group seemed to have some point of reference or contact with a creek, a perfect point, given the environment and theme of the day, for folks who were mostly unfamiliar with one another.

Through each workshop or activity, we seemed to be creating shared history—something to return to in memory and in story, undergirded with the physical, environmental, and historical context of the Slough.

This Creek College symposium also included two environmental volunteer sessions, or “barters,” where all participants gathered to pull and chop up English ivy growing around Whitaker Pond. Yoko Silk of Portland Parks and Recreation led us in this task, explaining how this invasive species of ivy needs to be managed in order to make room for healthy native foliage. The adults and children in attendance went to work, and we were all surprised to find how much ivy could be uprooted with so many helping hands.

These barter activities are a lynchpin of Creek College as a program. Dutton explained to me that she and Carlin developed this idea of a “barter” structure to allow participants donate time and service in exchange for the education and experiences offered as part of Creek College. This system of exchange is designed to illuminate for participants the landscape, ecology, and environmental concerns at the Columbia Slough. Unlike a fee-based model, the barter system at makes the program financially accessible to participants through an exchange of resources directly in support of the local landscape—and healthy landscape is invaluable for the long-term health of communities.

Creek College assembles at the Columbia slough/Photo by Kristina Dutton

The sun was on its descent by the time we began our canoe journey. I remember thinking it was that kind of late-afternoon-hot but not too hot—that can happen here in the spring. I looked down through the murky water of the river to see the green seaweed under its surface and then across the river to the other boats as they slowed. We double backed, directed by the silent hand signals of our leaders. Once we returned to the dock, we slowly found our voices again and made our way to the pavilion at Whitaker Ponds Nature Park for the concluding panel discussion.

The symposium was set to culminate in a conversation between Amy Harwood (Co-Director of Signal Fire), Jennifer Starkey, Will Weiler (Wildlife Biologist from the Sandy River Basin Watershed Council), and Roben White (Portland Youth and Elders Council and NAYA). Moderated by Dutton, the panelists discussed the relationship between humans and nature, seeded with the question: “Why does society persist in destroying its habitat?” All the panelists and participants gathered in a circle in the pavilion, as the sunlight became soft and beautiful. During the discussion, White shared his perspective as a leader in his Native community (he is Cheyenne/Lakota and enrolled Oglala Pine Ridge), noting that pollution is legal and that humans are already dying due to these abuses of the environment. From the perspective of indigenous survival, he suggested shifting the focus of our efforts to consider how our actions impact those living seven generations from now.

The day ended on a hopeful note, underscored by scenic views of cottonwood floating through the evening light as the panelists concluded their conversation. With the panel as its culmination, the symposium as a whole seemed to underscore the notion of art-making as an invitation—an invitation to engage in conversation, to see things anew as young children, and to reframe our understanding of our relationships to the natural world. I left with a notebook full of questions and curiosities, wondering how to break out of systems of privilege that reinforce power hierarchies, oppression, and destruction of the environment. If I learned anything that day, it was that NAYA, the Columbia Slough Watershed Council, and Whitaker Ponds Nature Park could be great places to start.


If you would like to know more about how to sign up for the next Creek College symposium at the Columbia Slough, please visit Creek College’s website or email

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