Walking Water is a fervent prayer and pioneering social action and as we participants walk ancient paths we aspire to be as caring and conscious as many indigenous peoples have been for millennia.
We’re walking in the footsteps of ancestors who lived lightly upon the Earth, seeing the sacred in the skies, the waters, the trees and all the creatures that are our kin in this miraculous interconnected web of life.
Perhaps nowhere did we feel this more profoundly than in Red Rock Canyon State Park where we slept alongside spectacular towering cliffs beneath a vast canopy of stars.
It is here at the southernmost tip of California’s Sierra Nevada range, where it converges with the El Paso mountains, that the Kawaiisu Tribe lived and roamed for at least 10,000 years, experiencing a sense of awe and wonder at the Creator’s amazing artistry.
More recent visitors have shared some of that reverence for the rugged beauty of the rock formations, filmmakers choosing the inspiring backdrops for scenes in no fewer than 140 movies, including Jurassic Park, the original Planet of the Apes film and numerous westerns.
Setting off early in the magic light favoured by photographers, we followed paths less travelled including a dry sandy riverbed. Each of us pilgrims maintained a reverential silence and for me it was one of the best days yet!
Always I felt conscious of those who were here before, trying to see the world through their eyes as the land’s original environmentalists, many of whom have been unwavering in their determination to protect all life.
What might those early peoples think of today’s scarred landscapes where a river has been stolen, groundwater depleted and poisoned and the mountains denuded of their tree cover?
As we neared Jawbone Canyon excitement soared within many of us as we saw a series of lakes glistening in the distance – yet that joy was short-lived. The square edges and straight lines were the clue that we were approaching a sea of solar panels erected on an industrial scale.
At the Jawbone Canyon trading store we were warmly welcomed by Bobby who lamented the deviousness of specialists who’d claimed to be conducting routine inspections of the water wells in the area.
It transpired that they were acquiring vast quantities of groundwater to wash dust from the solar panels, while claiming that knobbly motorcycle tyres were a major contributor to the dust problem. A keen off-roader himself, he indignantly showed me photographs of the earthmoving equipment used to prepare the solar ranches and insisted that they created far bigger environmental challenges. Later that day I saw what he meant as huge dust clouds billowed off the freshly turned earth of a new solar ranch.
Not surprisingly with its proximity to the Mojave Desert, the canyon can be punishingly hot, although on this occasion it was the high winds that made it difficult to pitch a tent, tear off a convenient length of toilet paper, or eat a supper that wasn’t seasoned with sand. To be honest being outside that night wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had although there was compensation in the magnificence of the stars.
Just as I was squirming into my sleeping bag I felt a prickle of anxiety as I heard what sounded like uncomfortably close gunfire – it turned out to be fireworks set off by friendly locals intent on celebrating Walking Water’s presence in Jawbone Canyon.
Many have been deeply touched by the intentions behind the pilgrimage and when I spoke of the parallel initiatives happening around the world, one local park official said: “It gives me the chills. Thank you for what you are doing!”
Although there’s much joy and good-natured banter within the group, many have run the gamut of emotions with pain, sadness and even outrage.
A particularly uncomfortable memory that’s haunted me since last year’s leg of the walk revolved around the story told by Alan Bacock, the water coordinator for the Big Pine Paiute tribe.
On that occasion he was leading our band of walkers along a route he’d never traversed before, when he heard that small, still voice within urging him to stop, retrace a few steps and listen.
He explained afterwards that a dramatic scene had played out in his mind’s eye and he realised he was standing near Fort Independence and witnessing an historical happening in 1863. “Babies were crying and mothers attempting to hush them as they tried to listen to the solemn and urgent conversations of their menfolk, as they debated what to do.”
His Paiute ancestors had been driven to starvation after the arrival of the settlers, and had been hiding out in the wilds in the wake of a series of violent conflicts with the US Cavalry. Now, they’d decided to accept an offer to attend a feast at Fort Independence, having tired of violence, hunger and a precarious life on the run.
What followed was a massive betrayal for the tribe that included women and children. Food and water supplies at the fort were perilously low, and after being disarmed, they were forced to take part in a cruel 320 km march southwards in the punishing heat of July.
Their destination was the army outpost of Fort Tejon, near the latter-day city of Bakersfield. Conditions were brutal. Many died, some escaped, and at least one young daughter was entrusted to the care of a family of kindly white homesteaders.
It is a sad chapter in the history of the Owens Valley tribes that understandably troubles them deeply to this day.
Ray Naylor-Hunter of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone tribe, who is walking every step of the way with us this year, had grown up with the heart-breaking story first told to him by his grandmother.
He shared his version of the ‘Trail of Tears’ with the group and many were moved to tears. Our suffering in the heat and wind paled when compared to what we could only imagine that forced march in the furnace-like heat of July must have been like without any of the precious supplies we carried.
“People were crying the whole way,” Ray shared from the stories passed down of incredible punishment and sense of hopelessness. We also wondered what it must have been like for the guards on horseback to witness this heartbreak and death march for many.
“We’ve talked about a pilgrimage and possibly a re-enactment of the forced march,” Ray confided. “It would help us to feel the hurt, to grieve and ultimately let go off the pain and begin the healing.”
Later in the day we stopped alongside the aqueduct pipeline to offer personal reflections and a prayer. Fighting back tears, an elder in our group expressed his grief in a prayer for forgiveness and healing for the troubled world that we are all a part of.
The camp was quiet that evening and the mood sombre as each walker sat with the question of when in our lives we had been called to take a stand and what it was that we had stood for.
We rose at dawn the next day and walked again with our sorrows, joy and questions of what is our part in an urgent personal and global story about water…
This blog was written by Geoff Dalglish and originally posted on his personal blog, Earth Pilgrim Africa. Geoff is an ambassador for the Findhorn Foundation community during the Walking Water pilgrimage and is also an international representative for the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN).