25 years, New York. Walking Water logistics.
of whatever otherness holds it
i hear humility
intelligence of dew
this was spoken earlier.
I’ve recently returned from several weeks in Los Angeles with Walking Water, a pilgrimage and education project designed with the intention to restore relations– to the waters, to ourselves, to each other– with a particular focus on the restoration of connection between the communities of the Los Angeles and Eastern Sierra watersheds. We walked through LA, completing the final phase of a three-year pilgrimage that traced the waterways from source of water at Lee Vining Creek to end users in Los Angeles. Since 2015, an international group of about 40 people has walked for several weeks each year, first from Mono Lake to Owens Lake, then from Owens Lake along the aqueduct pipe to The Cascades at Sylmar in 2016, and finally this year from The Cascades through LA. We walked this October, bearing witness to the city’s stories by exchanging with communities and social justice initiatives, following the LA river, and completing where it meets the ocean at Long Beach.
I write this letter to share reflections on the pilgrimage with my wider community. Serving on the logistics team this year was a training in prayerful action. Moving between the conscious walking pilgrimage and organizing time, the “lines” between prayer and action were blurred and I’m thankful for this reminder of what life is all about—connecting with what’s sacred through the seemingly mundane. Some of the strongest moments occurred in the truck (in traffic!), the gas stations, with the people on the street.
I’m in Brooklyn now, windswept and stirred up by the darkness of this season… reflecting on how to integrate the many gifts of this experience, taking in the realities of headline news; the Keystone Pipeline spill in North Dakota, the ongoing sexual assaults now highlighted in the media …the knowing that so many stories remain unheard in our public discourse … knowing these issues are interwoven… seeing the destruction caused by the extractive systems we all depend on… So. What gives me hope? The people I know and love, and the recognition that so many are doing the courageous work of transformation, inner & outer. Walking Water is one of these hope-sources, so I share pieces of what I learned, and the questions I hold now because of it.
Payahüünadü translates to “place of flowing water” in Paiute Shoshone language. Also known as the Owen’s Valley, Payahüünadü has been impacted by colonization and the influence of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). Los Angeles imports a third of its water from the Eastern Sierra region, which has resulted in displacement of communities, desertification of the land, and the harmful effects of a toxic dust made by the drained Owen’s Lake.
In the early 20th century when the city initiated its expanded urban development and centralized water management systems, the Paiute people of Payahüünadü were resisting. They are doing so to this day, as they are continually denied access to their waters. For many, the Owens Valley is experienced as a colony of Los Angeles because of this history and the lack of adequate political representation in decisions made by LA city governance and DWP… the 18,000 people of Payahüünadü depend on the 11 million in LA county to ask their public officials for just water management practices.
My intention to participate in this pilgrimage was motivated by a wish to give thanks– to learn the stories of Payahüünadü and walk with them. I first visited this place because of the opportunity to participate in a rite of passage for young people that involved a three night fast in the Inyo Mountains. This experience facilitated an embodied reconnection to myself, my community, and the lands that formed me as I marked a transition to adulthood. The rawness and grace of this place is a motivation for how I want to be in the world. My hope from the beginning has been to be in service and to learn– to assist the movement of the group body.
Since the beginning, Walking Water has been about restoring relations. One of the first steps in this intention has been to ask permission to walk the places where the water runs. It has been about making contact with the communities whose homelands we are visiting, the Paiute of Payahüünadü, the Tongva, Tataviam and Chumash Tribes of the Los Angeles region– asking permission from the people of a place before walking. We were then gifted an opportunity to be welcomed as guests on the land. It’s with this listening to stories of a place, and asking what may be needed to support the work the communities are dedicating themselves to– that trust may be built over time.
I’m reflecting on how to be a guest in North America. A guest born here… a piece of a lineage of uninvited peoples. Colonizing settlers as well as displaced peoples…both simultaneously. I engage the histories alive in my identity by stopping to listen to the people most impacted by continual displacement … what I am taught consistently is this need to listen to each other, specifically to those most impacted. And from there, hopefully create the type of world that future generations would want to thrive in.
I appreciate the smallness of this Walking Water action. Though there has not been “impact” in terms of clear-cut policy, press coverage, or major proclamations of next steps, there has been a nourishing of connection between peoples… A strengthened commitment to understanding each other has happened through the facilitation of story sharing and exchange. And, it’s work that began long before Walking Water. This walk is a walk of many that have happened and continue for the water. With the immensity of our local and global challenges, I am supported by the knowledge that last month a collective walked together prayerfully and learned of a place through the voices of the people and the water.
As I reflect on last month in Los Angeles, I remember the graciousness and fierce resilience of those we met. I am encouraged by the radical possibilities dreaming in that city. Walking there has reconfirmed my belief in us humans and our capacity to transform. It has reaffirmed my ability to perceive the beauty growing in the grit of the cities. I was taught to expand my love by witnessing the urban landscape, to not make assumptions about a place and the silent contacts made. There are many angels on those city streets, and we don’t always know how and where they will show up.
I return to an idea that was woven into the pilgrimage of 2016, when I first joined. It is the request from the Paiute organizers and elders we met to imagine what would happen if we got out of the way, and let nature heal herself. It’s a reminder of the possible futures we collectively have the choice to create… the possibility of water returning to Payahüünadü is a possibility that is relevant to all of us. Life brings more life. What would happen if we, or LADWP, stopped doing what we’re doing to divert the waters, and let them flow as they want to? A world where we steward what’s beyond our efforts to control nature would be a world where the Owens Lake is full again. It’s with this imaginative exercise of picturing what seems impossible—the waters returning to the dry lake—that I am quickly reminded of the people who are coming next. Our small acts of care matter. The generations coming matter. Black Lives and Brown Lives and Native Lives and Queer Lives matter. This remembrance of the possibility of flowing waters, of letting her/them heal herself/themselves, prompts me to consider the possibility of healing in our communities.
One of the consistent messages throughout the pilgrimage from olders was to recognize the choice of belonging we can claim for ourselves… Acknowledging the hurt in our lives and of our ancestors, making space to be with this as we can– and where we can, choosing with sovereignty the experiences we wish to realize. It seems like a multi-lifetime practice to me, imperfect and challenging… and, the invitation to examine that lonely voice of separation within feels necessary. By doing so I have a stronger capacity to honor all that is to be celebrated.
As I write, my family is in a process of reconciliation with ancestors previously unknown due to histories of adoption and abandonment. With this reunion and expansion of family, comes the mystery and pain of what could have been true in our family story. This personal narrative feels like a potent reflection of collective issues we are faced with in North America… what beauty could have happened, but didn’t? This nation is founded upon genocide, slavery, and extraction from the land. Simultaneously and throughout, lived stories of incredible resilience, care and creation have persisted.
One of our public events was held at TreePeople, an organization dedicated to creating a water sustainable future for LA– namely through education, reforestation, and water catchment practices. Walking Water hosted a daylong collaborative discussion between tribal members, DWP representatives, politicians, water commissioners, activists, farmers, artists and many others. A focal intention was to engage a dialogue about what needs to be acknowledged in our histories before moving forward in visionary solutions to existing models…as shared by one of the organizers: “If we’re not willing to take the time to acknowledge this historical trauma, how can we truly be a part of the healing?”
After this day, many of us see it clearly. We have the technologies we need to be water sustainable, energy sustainable– perhaps even socially sustainable. What we’re left with is a question of implementation. What’s in the way of actualizing what we know can steer our ship a direction that will minimize the impact of climate change in our communities? An idea shared in different ways throughout was that climate change demands behavior change– a cultural shift. And importantly, we need to interrogate why the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, predominantly people of color, are still being targeted financially and scapegoated as consumers for conservation efforts, when there is plenty of data showing the wealthiest and whitest peoples are consuming the most energy. How can we implement more effective tools of energy technology, conservation, and governance with decolonized heart-minds?
The necessity of decolonization work was highlighted throughout many conversations, particularly while visiting the Audubon Center at Deb’s Park in LA. We stayed there a night, and co-hosted a council for Tongva and Paiute youth and elders. The staff running this Audubon Center are interrogating the whiteness of our environmental movements and conservation efforts; through creative action and organizing they are dedicating their work to meet the needs of their local community, predominantly Latinx. They are engaging community science instead of “citizen science,” knowing that citizenship is an inaccessible privilege for many. And, they ask the questions– who do we first picture when we think of an “outdoors person”? Is it the white hiker people who have the luxury of recreation? Let us recognize the many people of color whose labor is outside—working with and nurturing the land most days of the week to survive in our economy.
Again, what seems to be at the root of so many problems is an issue of those with systemic privileges rarely listening or being held accountable to those most impacted by systemic violence. It raises the question of how many of us are willing to actively engage a different paradigm of relating to each other and the land. I have more questions than answers…but what I do perceive is faced by those working within agencies like DWP who truly want to make a difference, is the task of changing a deeply patriarchal and bureaucratic institution.
The request for DWP that the tribes have held for years, and that we held throughout the pilgrimage, was that the tribe be given a seat at the table amongst decision makers. As we held the question, it became clear that ultimately what we need to do is “throw out the table altogether” and engage dialogue in different forms. From tables to circles we did move.
So these words …circle… restoration… community… what does that actually mean? Who’s not in community? Aren’t we all, always? It’s easy to get stuck in the sweet feeling of this language. Was I, were we, successful in restoring relations? It’s an ongoing commitment to live out by each walker, I think. In the microcosm of our pilgrim group, there were bumps. The work of being with conflict in a generative way was our intention and a practice. As one younger said during a circle, “we don’t have to like each other, but we have to love each other.”
Through what practices are experiences of trust elicited? The practice of council has been the foundational tool of communication in Walking Water—sitting together in a circle, utilizing a talking piece, listening, speaking from the heart, sharing what serves spontaneously and keeping it “lean” — mindful of time and what serves the circle in that moment. It’s an invitation to be present with others… a map, a tool that supports me in imagining what a redefinition of leadership and organizing can look like.
Some of the council circles inspired useful questions regarding what’s needed for those in power to relinquish that power. The work needed is about those of us with privilege being willing to get uncomfortable and responsible. It’s also about ancestral work. Examining the wounds perpetrated in our lineages, the oppressor and the oppressed within all of us, making space for what needs to heal, taking the time to listen… and creating again with deepened knowledge, compassion, humility, and accountability to this world.
~ Thoughts- Questions-Themes from the collective~
On the individual and collective level, are we ready to receive what we are asking for? How can we be ready to receive the abundance we want? What are the practices that enable us to expand our vision and capacity to create with what we are working toward?
What’s needed for those in power to relinquish that power? Who defines reparations?
“Our personhood is our most powerful tool…”
Transformative justice— As adrienne maree brown writes in her book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds ; “One core practice of resilience is transformative justice, transforming the conditions that make injustice possible.”
How to redefine organizing in a culturally resilient way … “creating a culture of care and shared resources…”
The destiny of place… the dream of possibility that is LA—how is the land dreaming it into reality? The spirits? The social initiatives? All working together…
The aquifer, underground. A mile-deep water body we followed the first days. A silent presence. Much of it contaminated by the weaponry testing of WWII. Continued histories. Stories of war and colonization.
Social justice frameworks and language. Calling in / calling out. Our group was a microcosm of macro issues. The practice of council supported us and I wonder if everyone felt complete… whiteness…cultural, racial, and socioeconomic differences… The different experiences of womanhood … intersectionality. What does solidarity look like? What does decolonization mean? Community?
Partnership – – Expanding our love. By the end we were all singing together…