‘Angels speak to those who silence their minds long enough to hear’
It seems that we can thank a devout Franciscan priest for the spark of inspiration that led to Los Angeles being nicknamed the City of Angels.
Back in 1769 Father Juan Crespi, who was accompanying the first European land expedition through California, described in his journal a “beautiful river from the northwest” which later became known as the Los Angeles River.
It flows around 77km (48 miles) from the San Fernando Valley through the city that is home to 4-million Angelenos, finally meeting the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach where we’ll end this leg of Walking Water.
No doubt Father Crespi would be disbelieving if he could see what we see. That once magnificent body of water has been imprisoned in concrete channels and its modest flow is fed by treated sewage water and irrigation overflow as it collects unsightly urban and industrial garbage on its pilgrimage to the sea.
Certainly few could have imagined how the initial settlements on the LA River would become an oasis in the desert, a flood of water imported from afar helping to grow it into the second largest city in the US, the global home of the TV and film industry, a world-ranked economy and a place where the automobile rules supreme.
I first fell in love with LA decades ago as a car-crazy student, although the relationship ended up on the rocks in 2012 when I walked from LA on a 1,000km journey to the redwood trees in the north. I jokingly nicknamed it Carmageddon and hoped I’d never need to return to the so-called City of Angels.
Fast-forward to October 2017 and here I was along with around 30 others walking through the very heart of the city in what at first seemed like a kind of madness. The heat being reflected upwards from tarmac and city sidewalks was brutal and the busyness and noise of the traffic a constant assault on the senses. And to make the pilgrimage especially unusual we were pitching our tents in neighbourhood parks, courtesy of a special concession by the authorities. These areas are a sanctuary for city dwellers during the daylight hours, and often off-limits to all at night. Homeless people were never far away and envious of the dispensation granted to these foot-weary pilgrims.
On one level it was truly awful, our nights a clickety-clack cacophony of trains, the wailing of emergency vehicles, blaring music and the endless rumble and thunder of engines powering super-sized automobiles, pickups and gargantuan trucks. The city never sleeps … and often we didn’t either, despite our exhaustion.
And yet something important and often magical was happening. We started each day walking meditatively in silence – our’s and not the city’s! Walking with many questions we were greeted by often surprising insights. And everywhere we seemed to be recognising that spark of divinity that lives within us all, even if it is sometimes deeply hidden.
We experienced the lush, green, over-irrigated wealth of Hollywood and Beverley Hills and rubbed shoulders with the downtrodden and marginalised in the poorer suburbs. Many of the less affluent areas showed real pride in their modest homes and carefully tended gardens, with a beautiful sense of community evident in the joy of children and their devoted parents and grandparents.
While walking through South Central LA I met a shabbily dressed African American who was raging and screaming obsenities. I greeted him politely and he responded with surprise and friendly recognition. Walking seems to be a great leveller.
Everywhere there was curiosity about our source-to-sea journey that is both a prayer and a social, spiritual and environmental action. We walk for the waters and a restoration and healing of relationships. With ourselves, others, and the waters.
In a matter of days my cynicism about LA has been transformed. Yes, I still loathe the noise and busyness, but what a gift it is to empathise with so many living on or near the streets. Half the world’s population of 7.5-billion souls is now in cities and the migration continues.
Daily we’ve been meeting super-heroes intent on making our world a better place, and some like Orland Bishop, a social architect who mentors youth, individuals and organisations, walk with us.
I’m also learning to re-examine my perceptions as a white male settler in the company of indigenous people and others of colour. The question of social activism and justice has been centre-stage throughout and became a focus of a Talking Water evening when we circled up with Orland, youth coach Kruti Parekh and Angela Mooney, executive director of the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples.
Angela’s observation that colonisation leads to a severing of relationships resonates deeply. How we all need connection, relationship and community!
Meeting Marcos Trinidad, the charismatic director of the Audubon Center, was a breath of fresh air and not surprisingly he has a passion LA’s abundant birdlife, although his greater gift is in responding to the needs and challenges in his community. He devotes his time to bringing people together in Debs Park, making the nature connection more accessible to a population other than the upper white class.
Key issues include gentrification where escalating housing prices force low-income residents to seek more affordable options. For some homelessness becomes the only possibility.
We walk among so many focussed on fundamental issues of survival. And meet angels responding to the urgent needs around them.
A visit to Metabolic Studios created by artist and visionary Lauren Bon is a revelation. One of her dreams involves bending the LA River back into the city. A section will be freed from its concrete straightjacket and its waters diverted through a wetland and cleaning facility in the making. It will then be distributed through subterranean irrigation to the nearby Los Angeles Historic Park and future Albion River Park.
She marries creative processes with social actions and brought the Historic Park back to life and funded the major makeover as a gift to local communities.
We visited the Department of Water and Power and had a private meeting with Steve Cole, assistant director of the city’s water distribution division. What emerged was important in this long story of water relations with LA and Payahunaduu (the Paiute word for the Owens Valley) and will feature in a blog in days to come.
The next day we were hosted at the nearby With Love Market & Café that is the brainchild of former advertising executive Andrew McDowell. It offers healthy food and builds community with a variety of free events ranging from yoga classes and cooking demonstrations to creative evenings.
Andrew explains: “With Love believes that all people, regardless of income, race, social status, location and language are equally valuable and deserve the same access and opportunities as any other.
“We have the goal to help right things that are wrong by both helping people out of the hole and working with them to fill that hole so that they and others will not fall back. Together we can make a difference in LA.”
It is a model that some other communities and US cities are taking a keen interest in.
That evening we joined Street Poets, a non-profit poetry-based peace-making organisation dedicated to the creative process as a force for individual and community transformation. It breaks the cycle of violence among at-risk and incarcerated youth, awakening them to their gifts.
Chris Henrikson founded the organisation more than 20 years ago in an incarceration centre for troubled youth and will soon hand over to one of those he has mentored. He leads us in a group creative process started off with a Water Blessing by John O’Donohue. The results of a 10-minute writing frenzy were inspiring to all as we shared around the circle of 40. The larger community poem that arose from all of the individual offerings connected us all and brought some to tears.
Water is our common ground and when we give attention to it there’s a profound beauty and gratitude that emerges from all.
Water must FLOW and that’s an acronym For the Love Of Water – it’s also the title for a documentary film and a water activists’ group in South Africa.