Brendan Clarke participated in Phase 1 of Walking Water both as walker and part of logistics team. Here is a personal account of some of his experiences walking along that path.
WATER IN THE WEST
The Owen’s Valley: Small Story Meets Big Story
I will begin with good news. Owen’s Valley is beautiful, and Los Angeles (LA) is not a desert. Owen’s Valley, which is named for Richard Owens, a man who never set foot in the region, is a majestic place. The name it carries from the original inhabitants of the area translates to: The place where water flows. You might wonder why this high desert valley, in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada, is named for its water. The name becomes even more peculiar when the valley is visibly more thirsty than it has been for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Owen’s Valley, despite its lack of direct rainfall, is historically water rich. Even today, the valley exports some of its water, in the form of heavily irrigated hay, to Japan. The reason for this water wealth is the valley’s location between the Inyo Mountain range and the Sierra Nevada range, both natural catchments for water in the form of snow. The Sierra Nevada is also home to the now rapidly disappearing, southernmost glacier on the continent. When the snow melts, the water flows. The problem becomes one of storing the water in the land, which the local Paiute tribes traditionally solved through an elegant system of irrigation “ditches” that slowed the water and sank it into the ground, thus recharging the underground aquifers and creating a spring-fed landscape.
These mountains are also home to diverse ecosystems and more than a few famous species. One can travel from the high granite Sierra Nevada meadows, ringed with Jeffrey Pines, down into the sagebrush of the valley floor, and up the Inyo Mountains into the land of the 5000-year-old Bristlecone Pines. (Just to add perspective, when the mature Bristlecone Pines of today were spry little saplings, around the world the first shift from stone tools to metal tools was just underway, and writing was a brand new idea.)
Cutting like a ribbon of green through the middle of the valley floor is Owen’s River. It is home to many fish and birds, as well as the elk, mountain lion, deer, raccoons, bobcats, striped skunks, black bears, and other residents who we met either in the flesh or through their tracks along our journey. There are springs feeding the river that are so cold that one can only remain in the water a short while before it becomes painful. There is a geothermal creek that runs hot for miles and miles, and it too, at some points, becomes painful to stay in on account of its temperature. The cold springs and the hot creek are less than a day’s walk away from one another. Most simply put: Owen’s Valley is beauty-full.
A Problem of Catchment
The second piece of aforementioned good news is that LA is not a desert, despite what many believe. By one standard, desert is a land classification that includes places that receive an average of less than 10 inches of rainfall per year. Places that receive 10-20 inches of rainfall per year are considered semi-arid. LA, since 1878, averages about 15 inches per year. Why any of this matters is because it means that LA gets lots of water. Although the source is different, LA is faced with the same problem as the Paiute of Owen’s Valley: How to catch and store the water that is naturally on offer? This, however, is where the different answers, and the different stories, begin to intertwine.
For starters, LA does not catch all of its rainwater. Not by a long shot. On the contrary, the city is designed as a drain. The extensive, impermeable pavement does not allow the water to sink into the earth. Instead, it channels it and speeds it up, turning a gift into a potential hazard. The resulting solution is a complex infrastructure designed to get the water—fresh water—away, as quickly as possible. LA is left wanting water, and in its thirst, has developed elaborate means of bringing water from elsewhere to its faucets. It is these efforts that have been the source of much of the anger and political upheaval in the entire bioregion, including Owen’s Valley. These stories, while important, are still just one part of a bigger story, and one that has its roots in a longer history.
One of the Big Stories
Charles Eisenstein wrote a book called Sacred Economics. I recently watched the 13-minute short video on YouTube and suggest that you do too. He elegantly outlines our current economic paradigm and some of its effects on our lives. Eisenstein presents a powerful case about the basic assumptions underlying capitalism, as well as a simple and nuanced understanding of its mechanics.
Our western monetary system is essentially built on interest-bearing debt. In other words, whatever amount of money is loaned, more must be earned, or created, in order to pay back the original loan. At its core, it is a scarcity model. No matter what, there will not be enough, because more is always required. To make up this interest, people must find new sources of money. This boils down to the commodification of the planet into “goods and services.” What once was free—water, land, food—over time become goods to be bought and sold. What once were relationships are now services. That is not to say that no effort was needed to have food to eat, or water to drink, but rather that one person (or city) was not controlling it and selling it to others. Capitalism thus creates the need for a never-ending growth model of expansion and, ultimately, a reward for what amounts to hoarding. What we are left with is land, like the Owen’s Valley, covered with invisible lines and their very visible consequences.
It can be easy to look at the Owen’s Valley and blame LA, as many do, but in doing so, miss the big story. This commodification process is happening around the world on many local, national, and international scales. At the same time as LA is hoarding distant water, some residents of the Owen’s Valley live by the motto: Use up as much water as possible before it gets to LA. A mindset like this devalues and leads to wasteful practices with the very element they seek to protect. In both cases, the mindset is one of scarcity. By seeing the depth of the issue, and its historical unfolding, perhaps we can move beyond blame and scapegoats, and toward a common vision.
Yet, to move toward a shared vision still begs the question: Do we live in a time of scarcity or a time of abundance? Are the resources finite or infinite? What about during a drought? Or with climate change? The answer is, of course, it depends. On the one hand, we have seen how we can use up resources. Mine the mountain, and it is gone. Empty the fisheries, and they may not bounce back. On the other hand, nature seems to operate in cycles without end. Water, for example goes from sea to summit and back again, cleaning itself in the process. And yet, empty a lake, say for example, Owen’s Lake, and it may not return. Yet, according to Kathy Bancroft, a local Paiute woman who is deeply involved in the life of the valley, the same lake refilled to nearly 40 percent of its original size when the LA aqueduct broke. She remembers that the weather itself changed as a result of the lake partially filling. So, in a sense, we don’t really know how it all comes and goes or simply remains.
This question is made only more complex by climate change. According to Andy Lipkis, founder of TreePeople in LA, the current predictions for LA estimate overall more rainfall per year, but fewer storms. In other words, bigger storms and more water all at once. Again, a problem of catchment, only more pronounced. What it offers, aside from an engineering retrofit challenge of unprecedented scale, is also a chance to question our assumptions about our relationship with the planet. Can we shift from a mindset that asks: How do we make up for mother earth’s scarcity, to one that asks: How do we gracefully receive all of her abundance?
Thanks again to the ingenious design of the earth, many of the answers already exist for how to receive nature’s bounty well. For example, mountains catch and store the water up high, allowing gravity to bring it to the earth over time. Underground aquifers store vast amounts of water beneath the surface of the earth, hydrating plants and trees, and storing clean water. Rivers move water slowly on a curving path, nourishing the land and animals along the way. Imagine each roof in LA as a mini-mountain. Imagine ponds or underground cisterns beneath each lawn, driveway, or foundation. Imagine more creeks and rivers trickling through neighborhoods instead of rushing culverts and hidden sewer systems. And, of course, where these things naturally exist, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
In contrast to nature’s original designs, most current man-made structures, despite their complexity, are often simplistic in their underlying assumptions. Take the example of the LA Department of Water and Power (DWP) power station that sits at the base of the tablelands, where the LA aqueduct pipe is first exposed from beneath the earth. This power plant takes the energy from the gravity-fed pipeline and converts it into electricity, which the DWP then sells locally. When local solar technologies began to create a surplus of electricity, or what you might call abundant electricity, the simplistic grid system created by the DWP was unable to receive the influx. The system crashed. In a sense, it was built in a way that made it inherently incapable of receiving the true abundance offered by the earth (and the sun).
Yet ultimately, with all of these players and moving parts, California is not unique in its water story. It is a microcosm and integral part of the global picture. The water-story-turned-water-crisis crosses the invisible lines we have drawn on this earth. It asks us to look again at how we live and what response is relevant.
WALKING WITH WATER
The Sound of No Opinion
Imagine you and your neighbor were having an argument. Perhaps over property lines, the annual block party, or last night’s ruckus into the wee hours of dawn. Perhaps over water. In any case, imagine that all of a sudden 35 people showed up at your doorstep, just to watch what was going on. If you really let that feeling into your body, it is a powerful action all on its own.
Now imagine that all 35 people were already clearly in agreement with the argument of one neighbor, and not the other. Imagine what that does for the trust of the outnumbered neighbor. To arrive as a witness with predetermined conclusions is to bear witness to one’s own story, not the story of what truly is happening. So, in the case of the California water neighborhood, Walking Water, as a pilgrimage, arrived as a witness with questions and curiosity, not a political platform or public stance. Walking Water arrived to say, “This is important to us, as are all the voices and lives involved.”
The analogy of Walking Water as witness to a neighborhood dispute is apt, but with a few major differences. First, Walking Water asked permission to come and visit this part of California. In a place where land and water have been forcibly taken and trust is thin, this simple practice is itself a sign of change. We were granted permission to walk by tribes, including the Kutzadika and the Big Pine Paiute Tribe. We were welcomed by the local government, local activists and community groups, among many others.
Another major difference is that at their greatest distance, the neighbors live more than 400 miles apart from one another. And so, to bear witness, we walked. We did not walk for the water, presuming our voice and actions to represent a sacred element of life itself, but instead we walked with the water. This we did quite literally, carrying a small bottle of mixed waters, gathered from around the world, and also figuratively, following the path of the water story, even when water was nowhere to be seen.
To walk the pilgrim’s path is to live into a change of pace and a change of paradigm. One cannot help but fall in love with the land when greeted by mountains, sagebrush, springs, and sunrises. One cannot help but deepen into stewardship when in love with a place. Neither can one help but mourn the loss and destruction racing through the land at great speed and scale. What unfolds in the footsteps of pilgrimage is a web of relationships and an understanding of decisions and actions through listening to one another’s stories. Here are just a few of them from the trail.
Rock Hard Care
Years ago, I met a man named Mark Dubois. I did not know then what a man he was. I became friends with his son while I was working at Yes! Magazine on Bainbridge Island. Most of what I knew of Mark was that he was an activist and a tall man who gave long, strong hugs. More than half a decade later, I found myself side by side with Mark on this pilgrimage for water. Mark, as one of the eldest participants from week one, was given a chance to share his story. We sat in the pine forest near a mine, south of Mono Lake, and listened to this man speak of how he became an activist.
It turns out that as a young man, Mark became a river rafting guide in a small canyon in California. The river was slated to be dammed. After many attempts to stop the dam, Mark found himself in a dire situation. He had fallen in love, in this case, with a river. How could he live with himself, were he to simply give up and watch this love of his be destroyed? His answer was that he could not, so he put his life on the line. He chained himself to bedrock in the river canyon and hid the key. He was eventually saved by his friends, but did not manage to save the river. Nevertheless, it was a life-changing event, for him and many others.
David Carle, a fellow pilgrim, local writer, and man well versed in the water story of California, sat in on this circle. He remembered the newspaper article about Mark from the time when he himself was a child. Here he was now, decades later, with one of his childhood heroes, in a pine forest near a mine, south of Mono Lake, on this pilgrimage for water. With a sense of humor and deep respect, we deemed this act of Mark’s: rock hard care.
Despite the humor of the title and play on words, the youngers, who listened the story out of Mark, were deeply moved. With all I have done in my life, and all my love for this planet, never have I come close to this kind of sacrifice, this act of solidarity and this source of courage. Others in the group asked, what they would do, if a place they loved were threatened with destruction in this way? Someone else offered, “Perhaps this is already happening. Perhaps our place is the earth.”
Hastily Formed Community
Walking Water was held together by some strange semi-permeable membrane, of the sort people are taught about in high school biology courses. However, instead of salts and water passing in and out, people came and went. At the opening ceremony, we were nearly 100 taking part in the launch. When we were just the walkers, we were roughly 30 strong. On some days, we were joined by children and tribal members. On others, we lost walkers to heat and altitude illness, who instead rode in the logistics truck, affectionately known as “Driving Water.” At the end of week one, 7 pilgrims left, and 3 joined. At the end of week two, 2 pilgrims left, and more than 10 joined.
I was one of the 2 who left after week two. Confused and a bit grumpy about having to leave this sacred walk, I asked myself, Why? What lesson was the universe offering for me to learn from this set of circumstances and constraints? With time, I came to understand it as a lesson about community.
There are many movements that seek to engage a wide community toward their effort. But the lesson I learned here was not so much about community-based solutions, but community as a solution. Amidst all the changing characters and formulations of this body of walkers, we were challenged to create community, as quickly and deeply as we could. Amidst complete strangers, how could we find our common vision and values, hear one another’s stories, discover our differences, and show up as fully as possible for the people and water in California, and for this place we love called earth? If unable to figure this out amongst the pilgrims, how could we stand a chance to do so with these neighbors of great distance and turbulent history?
When Hurricane Iniki hit Hawaii in 1992, FEMA had to wait four days before reaching the islands due to the severe weather. When they arrived, what they found was not chaos and looting, such as was seen in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina. What they found was much damage and destruction to the infrastructure, but the people were hosting community parties to help consume perishable food. Many food stores offered food freely, and yet many citizens insisted on paying.
When FEMA began interviewing the locals and researching how such a different outcome was possible, one answer that was ringing was the web of community and the resultant ability to hastily form response groups. In other words, people knew each other. They knew who to talk to, how to reach them, and how to work together to find a solution. They knew each other’s skills, and I imagine, each other’s stories. I experienced this way of community on the pilgrimage, and it has left a deep imprint that I now carry within me.
Moreover, the lesson is not simply one of how do we create community, both for solutions, and as a solution, but also, whom do we include in our concept of community? Is the DWP part of the community? The ranchers? The tribal members? The rivers? The Bristlecone Pines? The people who pollute rivers and cut down trees? This is not even meant as a utopian vision of community. If we all share this planet, and as we see the effects of one being’s actions on all others, can we honestly argue that we are not, at bare minimum, a de facto community? And what gap still exists between the fact of our community and the heart of what that really means?
Perhaps, the heart of community is simply about common sense. The modern usage of this phrase basically boils down to “not doing something stupid.” Some have even quipped that the problem with this kind of common sense is that it is not so common anymore. But I think there is a deeper meaning than this. For me, common sense speaks to our collective intelligence. It speaks to a sense of the commons, of what is held in common. A sense of the commons makes rather obvious that we have this earth in common. It makes it obvious that we are not alone in our lives here, either from each other or the rest of the beings on this earth and beyond. And it makes it obvious that one person soiling or using up the water upstream affects those living downstream.
Yet how do we live this common sense? How do we see what is common to us all, when we are endowed with different perspectives? How do we understand the full spectrum of perspectives from around the circle, especially when our places for gathering as people are dwindling as quickly as so many other endangered species? And how do we take all of this and move toward a common vision?
Meeting Paradox Again, for the First Time
One hot day on week two, we began our rapid descent from the pine-topped mountains to the rather shade-less valley below. As we walked down the asphalt road, gathering bits of garbage as we went we were passed by DWP truck driven by a Native American. We walked and cleaned, wanting to do something, yet not knowing where this garbage would end up after making its way to some dump elsewhere. We walked, with the sweat dripping off our bodies as the desert sun arced across the sky. There alongside us, visible for the first time, was the massive LA aqueduct making its own way down the mountain.
When it came time to rest, we gratefully scrambled underneath the only shade in the area for weary pilgrims: the pipeline itself. Just uphill from us, a few of us walked to a place in the pipe where the water could be heard churning. Placing my hands and head against the pipe, I felt violence and anger come into my body. It was not so much my own, as it was the water’s. Or perhaps, it was the water in me, in its human motion of walking, made angry at the unnatural movement of this rushing water in the pipe, barred from its own walking path across the earth. I returned again to the group, sad and deeply touched, and aware of my paradoxical gratitude for the shade of this very same pipeline, offered to weary pilgrims, on a hot desert day.
A few days later, winding our way through sagebrush to the town of Wilkerson, we found our water truck and logistics team parked on a suburban road in front of a bright green lawn and charming one-story house. The lawn, which was the only green thing around, had clearly been thoroughly watered. The owners were an elderly couple, Lou and Kay, who offered their oasis as a watering hole for us when no other shade was available. We nestled in for lunch under their trees. We took off our shoes and felt the soft grass beneath our feet. It became one of our most joyous breaks on the whole journey. Lou came out of the house bearing two boxes of drumsticks, the old chocolate coated ice-cream cones of summer days spent at the neighborhood pool when I was a child. There was exactly one for each of us on the lawn and we happily gobbled them up.
When we got ready to leave, we invited Lou and Kay out to the lawn and sang them three songs as a way to say thanks. Their eyes and ours were filled with tears at this beautiful exchange. All of it took place because of this lawn and their sense of hospitality to strangers. That it was a lawn in desert suburbia where we found such joy required a deep letting go of the frustration I have felt over the wasteful watering of lawns while others go thirsty, especially in a time of drought. Both are true, and they offer another paradox. This water, that offered us shade, joy, hospitality, and the lawn, was likely the very same churning water that was in the pipeline, and which caused so much anger within me. And if I look more closely, beneath the paradox, the deeper truth is that where there is water and generosity, life and beauty abound. What is at question is how we as humans relate to this life and beauty.
REFLECTIONS AND ACTIONS
The Wake of Walking Water
After all these words, footsteps, and stories, what remains to do? What does it all mean? How am I to respond and carry forward that which I have learned? One of the teachings of rites of passage work is that even though we go out and mark a ceremony, the real journey begins when we return. So, the ongoing pilgrimage, in the ceremony that is each life on this earth, is the subject of this final section of writing. Here are a few of my thoughts, actions, and prayers since I came home from Walking Water.
Poetry as Prayer and Action
A geyser has walked me through,
Up the souls of these feet
That carry me,
One set of tracks amidst the rest
On this dirt straight desert road
To look with smoke red eyes
At the dry lake
And keep heading
Guided by a question
And this river,
springing up in me
Like a song
Traveling the same dirt road
In my direction
I offer a new word to our overgrown English dictionaries. It does not exactly roll off the tongue, but neither does the word desertification, and it made it in. I need this new word to describe some of the pilgrims and projects I came into contact with on Walking Water, including Walking Water itself.
Glocalutions. Noun. Local solutions rooted in a global consciousness, which, when added together, create a global solution, which in turn also supports local solutions in a positive feedback cycle that goes on and on and on. See also: glocalutionaries.
One aspect of the pilgrimage that I have not yet mentioned was the wildfires burning on the mountains. We were lucky to avoid the worst of the smoke, yet we walked in haze with orange sunrises and sunsets on most days. Sometimes you could taste the smoke. The co-incidence of these massive wildfires, uncontained at the time of the pilgrimage, and this prayer in action based on water, left me with many questions. Why the fire and the water at the same time? What is the interplay of these two quintessentially masculine and feminine elements? Why the destruction? What is the message?
As I left Walking Water to return home for work, I received a message on my phone. As it turns out, a major fire had broken out in Lake County, one county north of where I live. Many homes had already been destroyed and 17,000 fire refugees were being displaced. Harbin Hot Springs, a place I have been many times, was burnt to the ground. The message was a voicemail from my landlords saying that many of their friends had lost their homes. They were asking when I was coming back, as they were going to let some close friends and their children stay in my home. I called back, happy with the proposal, and also with the news that I was on my way back that very same day.
I drove home with my friend Scott, who was also on the pilgrimage. As we made our way over the mountain pass, it began to rain. Later, as we descended from the mountains and over toward the coast, we drove into thick smoke and haze from the fires in Lake County. We spoke about our concerns for emergency preparedness on all levels, and also our hope for a bigger vision for healthy relationships on this planet. The real message I had received was that these same issues we met on Walking Water were really close to home.
I arrived home to an empty house. The refugee family slept in a camper nearby and the children rode their bikes on the patio for hours each day over the next several weeks. At night, I would head outside to where I sleep and bring a jar of water, filled from the precious spring in the mountains above Big Pine. I would pray with the water and the pilgrims, often dreaming of the Owen’s Valley and waking up confused, thinking I was still there. I would wake in the mornings and sit alone with my computer, trying to put some of this to words:
The fire is a vehicle of deep transformation and rebirth. The forest, freshly burned, is a fertile place. The ashes of the old give vital nutrients to the vibrant new growth. That which is no longer needed is transformed and the earth herself knows how to hold this kind of profound change, creating a sheen on top of the soil to prevent runoff with the next rains. So while the fires bring to bear the consequences of our actions, and the reality of climate refugees, so too does it bear the chance for deep change, systems change. The fire removes the need to retrofit, and offers the opportunity for redesign. Will we listen? Are we ready? Will we be able to find the right balance, inside and out, of the fire and the water?
The Way of Wild Water
I drink wild water. In the mid-winter of this year, I filled two half-gallon jugs with water from Lake Tahoe. I drank the water over the next month as part of a process taught to me by some of my mentors. It is a beautiful process, and one that many would call “risky.” And yet for me, to drink the water in its natural state, not only from the pipes and faucets where it is channeled to, is to take a stand. It is to recognize that I was taught to be afraid of this kind of unfiltered-by-humankind water; the kind of water that all the other animals readily drink, and humans also once did. I was told it would make me sick.
I have drunk from dozens of streams, rivers, springs, and ponds. Always it is with an asking of permission, an offering, and a prayer. I feel more healthy than when I began and much more connected to water as a source of life. As I have carried the vision for a time when everyone can drink again freely from rivers and streams, I always figured that we had to clean the water externally; that the solution would happen in a long time when run-off, pollution, erosion, etc. had been properly addressed. This is still necessary, but I realized that the change must also be internal. I must create the proper relationship with water inside and out, and truly come to understand how water moves as a being, in order to interact healthily with it.
Water Walks, Ongoing
Roughly one month after the pilgrimage, I had the opportunity to go on a water walk with Bernd Muller, one of the water visionaries from Tamera, a peace research community based in Portugal. To hear him speak of water, how our modern society treats it, and how it naturally wants to move, was to take part in a conversation I will never forget and can hardly put into my own words. What is clear to me is that what we do to the water, we do to ourselves. Currently, we are doing quite a lot of harm, and there is another way. It is this other way onto which I place my focus and my faith.
The journey with Walking Water continues as a journey with water itself. I consider myself an apprentice to water. As I empty myself of this bit of story, I am again full of many questions and the hope that the living of their answers will help guide the vision of a beautiful and healthy relationship with water and life. Given the slice of this story, and the ways that we live and continue to create it each day, I ask, truly and with curiosity: What is our most relevant response in these times?