Walking Water has been an epic three-year, 880km journey made up of many millions of footsteps, countless questions and a determination to listen, harvest stories and set intentions to manifest outcomes that serve all.
It has been a pilgrimage of spectacular contrasts as we’ve followed the waterways – natural and manmade – from the source high in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains to the City of Los Angeles and ultimately the place where the polluted and channelised LA River spills into the ocean at Long Beach.
The early weeks felt like a loveletter to the Earth and particularly to the waters as the walkers delighted in traversing areas of astonishing natural beauty at the time-honoured pace of our ancestors. There were also times of intense challenge inside and out in the extremes of the desert as temperatures soared and sandstorms battered the travel-weary pilgrims
Perhaps most challenging of all was the final fortnight walking from the Cascades through the city to the sea. Sleep often eluded us as we slept in city and state parks under bright lights, ceaseless traffic noise and the unrelenting busyness of the country’s second largest city.<
And yet there were so many highlights, not least of which was the warmth and enthusiasm with which many Angelenos welcomed us.
Appropriately the walk started, continued and finished as a prayer and a blessing, and always the intention was to build bridges, especially between the needs of the people of Los Angeles and those of Payahuunadu, the Paiute tribe’s name for the Owens Valley.
It seemed especially auspicious that the start of Walking Water on the 1st of September 2015 coincided with a call by Pope Francis for a global day of ‘Prayer for the Care of Creation.’
As millions of people around the world bowed their heads in prayer for the wellbeing of all life on Earth – including humanity – walkers, local residents, county officials and elders of the indigenous tribes of California’s Owens Valley sang and prayed to honour the waters and invite new ways of being in relationship with the natural world and each other.
Significantly much of the walk was undertaken against the backdrop of California’s most devastating drought and a worldwide water crisis of epic proportions. Ultimately there was a last-minute reprieve for the city when heavy snowfalls in the Sierras at the end of last year allowed a deluge of water to be channeled through the LA Aqueduct.
It brought welcome relief to many city dwellers, although the Owens Valley continues to suffer.
The Valley remains parched with vegetation dying because the level of the water table has been pumped to below where the roots of trees and plants can reach.
And Owens Lake, which was sucked dry within a decade of the opening of the Aqueduct in 1913, remains a bleak moonscape that is a symbol of the Valley’s deprivation and a reminder of what can happen when humans try to enforce their will upon natural systems.
This year, the third phase of Walking Water, we resumed on the 14th of October and immediately enjoyed another synchronicity – the walkers whose numbers included representatives of the tribes, were invited to join celebrations for the newly recognised Indigenous Peoples Day. The city had decided to honour the tribes and scrap the more usual Columbus Day commemoration of the controversial colonist’s landing in 1492.
Certainly history has not been kind to the indigenous people and part of our walk has been described as a trail of tears.
Historians point to two major events that precipitated an ocean of pain and heartbreak: 150 years ago the first white settlers arrived and forcibly displaced the native tribes who’d lived sustainably for thousands of years, while a century ago it was the turn of both the tribes and local settlers to suffer as the waters were diverted from the Owens Valley via a 377km aqueduct to grow the City of LA.
Often there have been painful reminders of the dominant settlers’ worldview. An example is the museum in the head office of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). It completely overlooks the hardships caused to the people of Payahuunadu and ignores the fact that the tribes lived sustainably and had an effective system of irrigation ditches and canals long before the arrival of the settlers. The true history of this land needs to be told.
It is a core element of the inspiring story in the documentary film Paya that was screened to walkers and guests during an evening at TreePeople.
And yet there appears to have been a slight shift recently and a growing willingness by some water and political officials, along with some senior LADWP officials, to engage.
Steve Cole, assistant director of the city’s water distribution division, joined us one evening, spoke of his love of water and answered questions. He expressed a willingness to expand on the initial contact and have followup meetings with Alan Bacock, water coordinator for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe.
Pivotal to his own career, which has spanned almost 27 years with the LADWP, was a time of crisis in the city after an earthquake. He was refuelling his vehicle and an elderly Asian man approached him and said simply: “Thanks for what you are doing.” It was a life-changing moment and crystallised his role as a servant of the city.
As we neared the sea we walked along a cycle path flanking the LA River and were joined by a number of supporters, including several indigenous activists.
Tahesha Knapp-Christensen, an Angeleno of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, carried the water container that would be poured into the Pacific Ocean on the completion of the walk.
But first there were many songs and blessings, actress Maggie Wheeler leading the Golden Bridge Choir, while indigenous elders offered their wisdom and support. Among them were Harry Williams, a Bishop Paiute Tribal elder, Kathy Bancroft, a Lone Pine cultural resources preservationist, and Charlotte Lange of the Kuzedtika Tribe.
During the walk WW core team leader and Big Pine Paiute tribal member Alan Bacock had deeply explored the question: “Can I forgive?” Standing on the shore he appeared to have found his answer: “I love the people of LA … and that means restoring relationships,” he said.
Visionary Andy Lipkis, founder of TreePeople and an important change agent in Los Angeles, insisted: “A new city is not only possible, it’s happening.”
As in any journey, there were highs and lows. Sometimes there was suspicion and even mistrust, and yet we all found our way and walked on together carried by the strength of our common care and prayer. It seems that there are the tentative beginnings of a new dialogue and the exploration of new relationships and possibilities.
“So we begin to ask what impact has our walk had?” Gigi Coyle muses. “For the walkers, and those that shared parallel walks in other parts of the world, it was significant for sure. We feel solidarity of care and responsibility growing world-wide. And for those ‘in charge’, making the decisions, at minimum we hope we have awakened respect and a willingness to deeply listen.
“We will look for the peoples’ hearts to guide them as well as their minds, to widen the circle of awareness regarding who and what they serve, to expand their understanding of different approaches and to engage in some of the changes we and others are proposing. Time will tell.”
* Look out for an in-depth Walking Water report that will be published soon