Insights sometimes appear suddenly and often with a painful intensity when you walk in meditative silence and treat each step as a prayer and a blessing, always asking: what are the learnings. And what is my part to do in all of this?
And so it was on the seventh day of the latest leg of our Californian pilgrimage when we arrived at the intersection of Riverside Drive and Los Feliz Boulevard at Griffith Park in the heart of Los Angeles.
In a matter of moments the mood shifted from curiosity and quiet introspection to pain, grief and anger as the William Mulholland Memorial loomed into view, stopping the Walking Water pilgrimage in its tracks.
The centrepiece of the display is a giant fountain and on this idyllic sunny morning its abundant imported waters sparkled blue and inviting. But for many walkers, and especially those from the parched Owens Valley, its presence immediately triggered a flood of emotions and memories of incredible hardships and injustices.
A memorial plaque to the founding father of LA’s water system describes William Mulholland as a self-educated engineering genius, humanitarian and visionary, although nowhere is there a hint of respect or recognition for those of the Owens Valley who were deprived of their local waters when the LA Aqueduct began relocating the Owens River to the city in 1913.
Nor is there mention that Mulholland was more villain than hero to some. He was part of the conspiracy to buy up vast tracts of land in the Owens Valley to secretly gain control of all water rights for the city. Later he also masterminded the St Francis Dam northwest of LA that failed catastrophically in 1928, unleashing a year’s supply of water from the Owens Valley. A giant tidal wave of water carrying 1,000-ton blocks of concrete wiped out entire communities and claimed more than 450 lives in what was the worst civil engineering disaster in US history.
It was a mistake he carried with him to the grave. When a jury found him guilty of having caused the loss of lives, he broke down and wept. “I envy the dead,” he lamented.
Circling up a few minutes after visiting the memorial, I noticed tears running down the cheeks of some, while others sat in stunned silence. A few later admitted to a quiet fury.
Singer-songwriter Sarah Nutting was visibly moved. “As I approached the memorial I felt an ancient stirring of grief … and the tears flowed. Every day the tears flow, and I trust that they too will find their way to the sea to swim into the great big ocean of our collective water prayer.”
We’re praying for a new era of improved relations where there is shared care and respect for the peoples and places at source as well as in LA, the home to a population of 4-million water users.
Two years ago, during the first stage of our epic walk from source to sea, I wrote: “Imagine if the City of LA was to make a symbolic gesture like switching off the Mulholland Memorial Fountain …” Well they’ve done exactly that although the gesture somehow feels wholly inadequate. Yes, jets of water no longer spray high into the sky to evaporate in a fine mist, but the fountain remains full of the waters captured hundreds of kilometres away. Healing, justice and reparations are needed, not small gestures.
So what are the lessons, the learnings? Do the possibilities extend beyond what has continually been described by LA’s Department of Water and Power as good efforts that reflect a care for the Owens Valley communities?
My own feelings of an overwhelming sadness continue amid concerns for the indigenous tribes who have been robbed of their lands and waters and been victims of a genocide that has claimed the lives of so many, among them women and children.
And now it feels infinitely more personal and closer to home as for three years I have walked this land with the some of the tribal people as well as those from other countries whose stories are not so different. Through the Walking Water prayer I and many other activists have come to know and deeply respect a number of the indigenous people, particularly from the Paiute tribe.
They walk with us and open-heartedly share their joys and hurts, displaying a generosity of spirit and willingness to forgive that is often inspiring.
Alan Bacock, water coordinator for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe, said that he had been with the image of Christ hanging on the cross. “I remembered His words: ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do.’ And that raises a powerful question. Can I forgive?”
We resume the walk and the mood shifts yet again.
Our footsteps take us alongside the LA River which is mostly channelled and confined between concrete banks, it’s meagre flow fed by treated sewerage water and overflow from the irrigation of lawns and gardens.
The river is visibly polluted in many places and signs warn that elevated bacteria levels can occur at any time and that contact with the water may increase the risk of illness. The entreaty is to wash your body if any contact is made with the water. Wash yourself where and with what?
Despite the health hazards the river is home to many of the city’s poorest people who have created makeshift shelters between its banks, while wildlife is also demonstrating an adaptability and determination to survive. We enjoyed sightings of herons, cormorants, kingfisher and other water birds, LA boasting an astonishing variety of birdlife.
The great dream of cleaning and rejuvenating the river is alive with many Angelenos, among them Andy Lipkis, the visionary founder of TreePeople who points to the enormous logic and potential of harnessing treated water, including sewage water. “All water is recycled,” he argues. “What you are drinking is dinosaur pee and maybe your own.”
Another with a grand vision of rewilding the river is artist and photographer Daniel Dancer who specialises in what he calls Art for the Sky, his latest creation involving us all.
Along with around 450 children from the LA River School, and later a number of young members of the Paiute Tribes of the Owens Valley, we become part of a magnificent living, breathing artwork on a school playing field.
The idea, we discover, is for the children to form themselves into the body of a kingfisher, an emblematic symbol of healthy rivers and waterways and the largest bird that can hover without the help of thermal updraughts.
Daniel has created a huge outline of the bird on the sportsfield and the youth carefully arrange themselves to form the body of the bird, most of them wearing blue and white shirts. The walkers, on hands and knees, form a spiral emerging from the kingfisher’s beak. It is symbolic of the prayer and dreams we all carry.
There is a wonderful atmosphere of fun and camaraderie and when he feels that we are all perfectly positioned, a drone equipped with a camera is remotely piloted to a position high above us all to capture a bird’s-eye view of the artwork.
That evening Daniel joins us in a circle in the public park that is our home for the night and passes his computer around, watching our faces light up with delight and amazement. Together, we of all ages and backgrounds from many different parts of the planet, have created something remarkable. The kingfisher is a beautiful and inspiring image of hope and possibility.