Flow of Memory

TEXT Lorraine Johnson
PHOTOS Plant Architect Inc.

The Grand River flowed through my childhood. This wide, steady watercourse moving through the centre of Galt, Ontario was ever-present for me: something to stare at, wade through, fish in, canoe on, explore. To an eight-year-old, the Grand was an event, a river offering alluring opportunity, mutable invitation. 

The city of Galt, however, seemed to turn its back on the Grand. In the 1960s and ’70s, there were no landscaped walkways adorning its banks. The old factories and warehouses, built tight to the water’s edge, presented solid stone walls. It was as if there had been a collective agreement to ignore the Grand.

Of course, some rivers are too big to ignore. For the past few decades, the city of Galt has been engaged in official recuperation, celebrating the Grand with trails, signage and waterfront renovation. The river is now central to the city, not just in literal configuration, but imaginatively as well. Galt finally feels like a river city.

Even so, there are still hidden water secrets to discover about the place, one of which–Mill Creek–is enigmatically explored by Toronto-based PLANT Architect Inc. in a project commissioned by Cambridge Galleries called Channelled Buried Moved Lost: Where Did My Creek Go? PLANT’s outdoor installation ensures that Mill Creek, buried and hidden for much of its route, is reinserted into the city’s imagination.

There is a large (10’ by 20’) culvert built into the retaining wall along the Grand, just a few hundred feet from the intersection of Main and Water Streets. Outflow pours over the culvert’s algae-covered concrete and into the Grand. Recently, I stood watching a gull play a game with the current. The gull braced itself on the slippery concrete, then lifted its feet and let itself be propelled into the river; after drifting, it swam back to the culvert, and launched itself for another rushed float. The water that sent this gull into the Grand is the culverted flow of Mill Creek.

More than 40 years ago, I played my own version of that gull’s watery game, also on Mill Creek, but about two miles upstream, at Soper Park. I sat on algae-covered rocks, staining my swimsuit green, and let the water’s force push me off the rocks. I didn’t know the name of the creek–nobody ever graced it with a name in those days. Mill Creek, which disappears at Main Street, channelled underground, hidden below city streets, has long been a phantom.

To find Mill Creek requires an act of tracery, a scavenger hunt for hints and clues: the sound of water under a trap door in the floor of the old Galt Knitting factory; stone remnants of what looks like a bridge; a blue-stencilled word, stating “Buried” on the sidewalk.

Guided by PLANT’s project, you can go on a scavenger hunt in Galt to find blue-stencilled words and phrases, traced onto sidewalks, roads, culverts and walls for 10 downtown sites that follow the path of this hidden creek. PLANT’s declarative, detective act of remembering the creek breaches a collective urban amnesia, reminding us that what is below should not be forgotten. CA

Please visit www.millcreekgalt.ca for locations of PLANT Architect Inc.’s installation entitled Channelled Buried Moved Lost.

Lorraine Johnson is the editor of Ground: Landscape Architect Quarterly, and the author of the recently published book City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing.