Flashback to 2009 … Gabrielle Buist, Biz Brocke and Catriona Mackenzie at Glen Affric
‘What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another’
Seven years ago my life changed dramatically when I willingly bid farewell to a blissful Cape Town summer and signed up for an intense month-long Ecovillage living experiment at the opposite end of the world, joining an intentional community in the northeast of Scotland.
Swapping shorts and T-shirt for heavy winter layers I’d last worn during an icy ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro, I found myself in a white snow-blanketed landscape and silently asked the question: “Have you lost the plot?”
This was a journey to the end of my comfort zone and beyond and I somehow knew this was one of the most important decisions I’d ever made. I was choosing to explore the idea of living more lightly and lovingly upon our beautiful Earth and doing it in the company of people from around the world who were no longer satisfied by consumptive and unsustainable lifestyles. There had to be a better way and together we were determined to find it!
My metamorphosis from Petrolhead to Pilgrim had begun in earnest and there was no turning back.
I recognise that my arrival at the Findhorn Foundation community and Ecovillage in 2009 was pivotal for me - and for many others seeking pointers to more joyful and sustainable lifestyles.
Harvesting pine cones for their seeds
Another 30 folks from all over the planet had also signed up for what turned out to be an intense and exhilarating rollercoaster of a month. It left me feeling dizzy with delight and possibility. And if there was a highlight among so many it was perhaps the visit to the Glen Affric National Nature Reserve hosted by the award-winning Trees for Life conservation charity that is one of the best rewilding projects in Britain.
Just one percent of the original Caledonian Forest survives and yet award-winning conservationist Alan Watson Featherstone, the visionary Scottish founder of Trees for Life, appears undaunted by the enormity of the challenge.
His high dream is a rewilded Scotland – from restored forests to the return of predators such as the lynx and wolf that’s probably the most demonised creature of all. “Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?”
Alan explains: "Rewilding offers an exciting vision of hope, through the positive and practical work of renewing and revitalising ecosystems. In the Highlands we have the opportunity to reverse environmental degradation and create a spectacular, world-class wilderness region — offering a lifeline to wildlife including beavers, capercaillie, wood ants and pine martens, and restoring natural forests and wild spaces for our children and grandchildren to enjoy."
In 2012, supported mainly by volunteers, the conservation charity planted its millionth tree and today is well on the way to realising its next major goal of planting another million trees by 2018.
Trees for Life founder Alan Watson Featherstone
Grabbing an opportunity to join the latest Applied Ecovillage Living (AEL) group I returned to Glen Affric and again found myself uplifted by the passion of the participants (many of them younger than the Trees for Life project) and by Alan. He led the way as we trekked through fresh snow, showing a reverence for the trees and creatures as he explained just how we can restore a natural balance to degraded Ecosystems.
It was a revelation to see how much has been achieved in the 26 years of the charity’s existence and even in the seven years since my last visit to the area – and how urgently we need that rejuvenation on a planet that is in the grip of climate change and often devastating human impacts.
But looking around me perhaps the best thing was seeing that spark of determination and hope in the faces of the 16 participants in this year’s AEL group. All are seeking a better world where they can feel more in alignment with their highest aspirations.
For many the programme and time spent at Findhorn has been life-changing. German Laura Bolz, the youngest participant at 19, said: “It’s been intense, fun, beautiful and really, really transformational,” adding wistfully: “I want to find a place where I belong.”
For some, at least for a while, that is the Findhorn Ecovillage and community, six of the youngers in the group deciding to stay on a little longer.
And I notice that despite the weather I’m still here, treading more lightly and lovingly upon the Earth while experiencing what it means to live each day more consciously. I’m learning a lot and that feels good.
A remnant of pristine Caledonian Forest shows how it can and should look
‘That man is little to be envied whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona’
Dr Samuel Johnson, 18th century poet and writer
Life is a pilgrimage - and where better to renew pilgrim vows and set fresh intentions than on the sacred Isle of Iona.
For many centuries this Hebridean island has attracted travellers in search of healing, renewal and a deeper connection with the divine, countless thousands following in the footsteps of Irish monk and missionary Saint Columba who arrived in 563 CE, bringing Christianity to Scotland.
It is a place steeped in history, bathed in blood and according to some legends is the final resting place for 48 Scottish kings including Duncan and Macbeth of Shakespearean fame. “If I be destined to die in Iona, it were a merciful leavetaking,” an abbot reportedly declared in the 600s. “I know not under the blue sky a better little spot for death.”
Sheep outnumber humans here, at least during the winter months. Today Iona is home to some 175 permanent residents who live simply, being largely sustained by more than 120,000 annual visitors from around the world who make a pilgrimage to a place that continues to inspire writers, poets, philosophers, musicians and artists. And like pilgrims of old they all arrive by boat, continuing their journey on foot.
Pilgrims set off from Iona Abbey on a weekly walk arranged by Iona Community
It was here on 7 July 2011 that I started my own pivotal personal journey, vowing to walk the equivalent of the circumference of the world with messages about treading more lightly and lovingly upon the Earth.
Now, nearly five years and 20,000km later, I’ve stopped counting the steps, although I recognise each one as a blessing given and received, each step taking me further along a path of inspiration, discovery and insights.
Highlights on this latest visit included the Sunday service in Iona Abbey and some gentle solo walks. Mostly it was about being rather than doing, especially during quiet meditations in Traigh Bhan’s sanctuary where I was aware of the flickering of the candle, the whisper of the breeze, waves gently breaking on the nearby shore and the sounds of lambs bleating. It’s spring and there’s new life everywhere.
On past visits I’ve often been inward-focused but this time I made it my mission to learn more about the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian fellowship of men and women dedicated to justice, peace and upholding the integrity of creation.
I joined the gentle Pilgrimage walk that starts every Tuesday outside Iona Abbey at St Martin’s Cross. The cross has stood rooted here for over 1,200 years, surviving Viking raids, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the industrial revolution and world wars. It engenders a sense of timelessness.
Rosie Magee was our guide on the Pilgrimage walk that starts at Iona Abbey
Hosting the walk was Rosie Magee, a feisty and fun-loving Presbyterian minister from the north of Ireland, who helped lead a group of 13 of us. We walked slowly, stopping often for reflection, song and prayer.
I was especially moved by our visit to the ruins of the Nunnery that was founded around the same time as the abbey and flourished for almost 400 years. And yet what do we know about these religious women, Rosie questioned. “We have no information about them, where they came from, what their names were?
“It tends to be those in power who write history,” she observed
Significantly in a male-dominated world the abbey has undergone major restoration work and will be closed again for fresh refurbishments in September 2017. Perhaps it is appropriate that the Nunnery is left as an evocative ruin.
One imagines that the nuns’ pattern of daily life would have been very similar to that of the monks: eating their meals together, worshipping in the chapel and going about their everyday tasks. But we know next to nothing about them.
The ruins of the medieval Nunnery on Iona
Here at this crumbling reminder of the often unsung role of women, we were invited to remember women of faith and those whose names never made the history books, as well as the countless contemporary women who shape the world through their service.
“Let us remember the women who have shaped our own lives by their example. If you wish, speak any of these names aloud now, so that these nunnery walls may once again reverberate with the energy of women who have served God.”
Someone called out “Mother Mary,” while I added “Sister Theresa” and then the names of my own daughters Bonnie and Tammy, who I’d photographed in these same ruins five years earlier.
As modern-day pilgrims we were encouraged to open ourselves to each other and to fresh ideas.
Pausing at Martyr’s Bay we pondered an event in 806 when 68 monks were reportedly murdered by Viking invaders, while a recent nearby memorial reminded us of those local islanders killed during WW1. The invitation was to consider the victims of violence everywhere and especially the current plight of refugees.
My daughters Bonnie Dalglish and Tammy Lapping at the Nunnery
At Iona’s only crossroads, which is a minor intersection between a single-track road and an unsurfaced track, the invitation was to consider the crossroads in our own lives where our decisions may take us down new and unfamiliar paths.
Reaching the beach that is the furthest point from the Abbey during the walk, we reflected on Columba’s journey away from the safety of the known and considered the turning points in our own lives.
Before heading homeward we were invited to pick up two stones, the first symbolic of that which we wish to let go off - something we need to leave behind. “We cast this rock into the sea and turn and without looking back, pick up a second stone as a sign of a new direction or commitment that we move towards.”
Often I choose to write words in the sand that I wish to release, like fear, guilt or judgement, allowing the incoming waves to wash them away. On this day the sea was so calm that I accepted the invitation to hurl a stone, the splash symbolising a letting go of self-induced busyness.
Picking up a second stone I decided that it will remind me to be more present and to practice deep inner listening. After all, it is in the silence that mystics report hearing that small, still voice of God, or have flashes of intuition and access those whispers of inner knowing.
I decided to ask better questions like “Is this who I am” and “What would love do now?” My vow is to talk less and listen more.
Flashback to 2011 … the start of my world walk with a sendoff from Bonnie and Tammy
A meditation in the Sanctuary at Traigh Bhan
The Traigh Bhan retreat house on the sacred Isle of Iona
‘There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen’
Rumi, 13th century Persian poet and philosopher
Iona Abbey has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries
How remarkable it is that I’ve covered many millions of miles driving, sailing and flying - and yet it is only while walking at the time-honoured pace of our ancestors that I’ve experienced the difference between being a tourist and a pilgrim.
Almost always it has been in wild Nature that I’ve felt the interconnectedness of all life and found my greatest clarity and inspiration, although occasionally I’ve known that peace and serenity as my spirits have soared in cathedrals, temples, mosques or meditation sanctuaries.
Most often those magic moments have happened while walking or sitting alone in a place of natural beauty, usually at daybreak while celebrating the luminosity of first light. That’s definitely a treasured time of day for many pilgrims.
Findhorn Foundation co-founder Eileen Caddy spoke passionately of the ‘small, still voice within’ and encouraged us to take quiet time for inner work, while centuries ago celebrated Persian poet Rumi said: “Silence is the language of God; all else is poor translation.” There seems to be widespread agreement that whatever our faith, or lack of it, we benefit enormously from gifting ourselves with time away from our everyday routines to centre ourselves and be still.
Walking a labyrinth at Columba's Bay
Pivotal to my growth and understanding has been meeting spiritual and ecological activist Satish Kumar and then attending a five-day workshop led by him entitled Exploring Inner and Outer Landscapes. The 79-year-old former monk and editor of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine guided a programme that immersed us in the loving embrace of Mother Nature as we navigated beautiful Scottish landscapes in and around Findhorn, often walking meditatively in silence.
Life, he insists, is a sacred journey and the Earth our sacred home.
“Either we can act as tourists and look at the Earth as a source of goods and services for our personal use, or we can become Earth Pilgrims and treat the planet with reverence and gratitude,” he says. “Tourists value the Earth and all her natural riches only in terms of their usefulness to themselves, while pilgrims perceive the planet as sacred and recognise the intrinsic value of all life.”
He adds that life is to be lived in every moment. “As a pilgrim I discover the mystery, the magic, the meaning and the magnificence of life in every step I take, in every sound I hear and in every sight I see.”
I try to do that each and every day, regardless of the weather, allowing myself time to walk through the woods to Findhorn Beach, pausing to appreciate the trees around me, the sky above, the quick movements of a deer or rabbit, and on rare occasions the gift of a glimpse of the inshore bottle nose dolphins that patrol the Moray coast.
The Traigh Bhan retreat house is an oasis of peace
Soon I’ll have a week away from my usual routines on the Hebridean Isle of Iona where the Findhorn Foundation has a retreat house called Traigh Bhan that is used by community members during the winter and offered for guest retreats, mostly during the summer months. A proviso is that all guests have completed Experience Week or a programme that immerses them in the community’s core values of inner listening, co-creation with the intelligence of Nature and the experience of work - or service - as love in action.
And on 28 May I’ll be back at Traigh Bhan to hold a guest retreat called The Art of Pilgrimage.
It is an invitation for a small group of no more than six guests to join me on the island that has been a place of pilgrimage for many centuries since the arrival of Christian monk and missionary St Columba in 563. It is also the place where I began walking with messages about treading more lightly and lovingly upon the Earth.
This retreat will combine the opportunity for gently guided walks, reconnection with the beauty and healing powers of Nature and time to relax and enjoy the simplicity of island life.
A view from the retreat house
‘Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings’
John F Kennedy, former US President
Walking Water participants are sharing in a grand dream that could be a lifeline for the thirsty city of Los Angeles while renewing hope throughout drought-stricken California and everywhere in the world that’s facing water scarcity challenges.
The dream - presented by Andy Lipkis, the visionary founder of TreePeople who joined the recent 21-day walk through the Mono and Owens Valleys - foresees a new and transformational relationship with water and a massive shift in attitudes and practices.
Instead of allowing precious rainwater to disappear down stormwater drains, it could be harvested on an unprecedented scale to cater for up to half of LA’s needs, simultaneously reducing pressure upstream on communities, landscapes and Ecosystems that have suffered immeasurably as their waters were taken and diverted southwards during the past century.
The diversion of the waters began in 1913 with the creation of the LA Aqueduct system that redirected waters from the Sierra Nevada snowmelt, causing social and economic suffering and widespread environmental destruction that triggered the California Water Wars.
Even today Owens Lake remains a dramatic example of what happened, drying out completely in little more than a decade and becoming infamous as the place in the US with the most dangerous levels of airborne pollution. Around $1.6-billion has recently been spent on dust mitigation measures, adding to the already heavy toll that LA pays for its imported water.
Andy Lipkis, right, near the start of Walking Water
But for more than 20 years Andy Lipkis and the TreePeople social profit organisation he created have cultivated an altogether different vision, recognising that so much water is being unnecessarily wasted.
Demonstrating a possible way ahead, a house to the south of the city was retrofitted in 1998 with measures to harvest and store water instead of encouraging it off the property and into stormwater drains. It’s about creating a catchment instead of a drain.
Officials and media were issued with umbrellas as they witnessed an unusual demonstration in which an artificial downpour was created on this one property with water brought in by tankers. Instead of a torrent rushing into the street, carrying pollution, it was harvested, retained and allowed to nourish the soil. Andy made his point in the most dramatic way he knew how!
Speaking as an Angeleno with a love of the city that is home to some 4 million souls, he says: “The rainfall that we receive is roughly half the water that we need.”
And the great irony is that while the city spends a $1 billion annually to import and distribute the water, other agencies invest close to half that amount “to throw away the rain for flood protection - but that’s the equivalent of half a billion dollars worth of water thrown away from the city alone.”
Before and after ... Martin Luther King Boulevard in LA when it was a concrete island and nearly two decades later after thousands of TreePeople volunteers had transformed the landscape into an avenue of mature trees
And the madness doesn’t end there, he insists: “Half the water that LA imports is to grow grass and landscapes. What’s grown is mostly mowed and taken to landfill at a cost of tens of millions of dollars and then we’re spending tens of millions more on stormwater quality to unpollute the water we pollute.
“Consider also that the single largest use of electricity in the entire state of California is to pump water over the mountains and into LA. With all that money haemorraging out, there are a lot of jobs that aren’t available for chronically unemployed youth and other people.”
In the aftermath of the Rodney King riots of 1992 he calculated that there could be as many as 50,000 jobs locally managing LA as a watershed instead of a drain. “So there’s real pain and suffering in town and it’s not that the people of LA are bad and evil,” he argues. “On the contrary people care a lot but were part of a paradigm where decision-making and water management issues were solely in the hands of a few decision makers. The people didn’t have to be aware of where the water came from, where it went and the quantities used. So they were not aware of potential negative impacts.
“The reality is that paradigm has come to an end - now we have the technology and the new generations have the compassion and capacity to be responsible co-managers of the waters.”
In recent years he has been lobbying and working quietly behind the scenes to further the dream of capturing rainwater and has facilitated dialogue between the Department of Water and Power, the largest public utility in the country, and other parties like the Bureau of Sanitation which is responsible for stormwater quality.
Neighbour Erhard Pfeiffer has tanks to capture up to 5,000 gallons of rainwater to water his fruit trees and support his diet of abundance harvested on the property
He and others recognise that the Earth is a closed system and there is no new water available on the planet, although what we have is very recyclable. “All the water that ever was here is still here and its all recycled. When you drink your water you are drinking dinosaur pee.”
The trick is to look after what we have available to us and find new ways of being in relationship to the water and each other.
He and experts he is working with visualise a system of cisterns and water retaining landscapes, wherever appropriate, that are linked to homes, businesses, schools, shopping malls and anywhere it is possible to harvest rainwater. All could be networked and computer-controlled. But instead of a 50 gallon rain barrel (189 litres), which is like a thimble-ful of water, homes would have huge cisterns of between 2,000 and 10,000 gallons (7,570 to 37,854 litres) that could even be linear storage features replacing perimeter fences.
Looking at the current model where every dam in the country is managed for water supply and flood control, he says: “The manager of a dam has to make a decision four to six months ahead of the rainy season, whether they are going to empty the dam because they know there is a storm coming. It’s a gamble.
“With the networked cisterns and available software you could wait until you have confirmation of a storm, hold on to the water and then release it hours before the storm when you know you are going to refill your supply.“
Much of LA's water is used to irrigate lawns and decorative landscapes
Are the people of LA ready for these changes and how would it be funded?
Andy and others believe there could be significant savings in coordinating these new investments into the design, construction and care of new integrated multi-purpose infrastructure that treats and manages water as a living watershed, instead of a drain.
He has a high regard for the ability and willingness of Angelenos to change and pioneer new ways.
“LA uses less water today, with a million more people, than it did 30 years ago. That’s a huge accomplishment.”
And he sees Walking Water playing an important role in raising awareness and mobilising new initiatives all over the globe. “I just imagine all the work we are doing in our walking as this builds over two or more years during the journey from source to the place of end use.
“Imagine that we do something that is so potent,” he suggests “that every family in Los Angeles has a conversation about: ‘What can we do to take care of the water, the people and to take care of ourselves?’”
Even at the height of the drought sidewalks, driveways and public toilet facilities are often hosed clean instead of being swept
(Click here to see how one event masterminded by Andy Lipkis was reported by a local TV station)
‘Movies are my religion and God is my patron’
Quentin Tarantino, film director, screenwriter and actor
Suddenly, after more than 50 consecutive nights outdoors in my sleeping bag, and 21 days exploring the Mono and Owens Valleys on foot during Walking Water, I face an inner dilemma: is it possible to stay connected and hold on to the magic?
Can I continue to be a pilgrim seeing the sacred all around me while moving at a faster pace and exploring the tourism highlights of the Owens Valley.
Long, hot and challenging walking days in the company of celebrated local film historian Chris Langley, at 71 the oldest Walking Water participant, have led to an invitation to visit the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine and tour the nearby Alabama Hills that have been a favourite Hollywood location for almost a century.
No fewer than 700 westerns have been filmed in the wider area, around 150 of them in neighbouring Death Valley, since comic actor ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle came to town to star in the 1920 silent movie, The Round-Up.
My most recent walk had taken me nearly 300km from the source of the headwaters above Mono Lake to the mostly bone-dry Owens Lake, and here I am today in a 4x4 and questioning whether I’m an authentic pilgrim or just another tourist.
A youthful Clint Eastwood as Joe Kidd
I recall the wisdom of one of my mentors, spiritual and ecological activist Satish Kumar, the editor of Britain’s Resurgence & Ecologist magazine, who sees life as a sacred journey and the Earth as our sacred home.
His words reverberate in my mind: “Either we can act as tourists and look at the Earth as a source of goods and services for our personal use, or we can become Earth Pilgrims and treat the planet with reverence and gratitude.
“Tourists value the Earth and all her natural riches only in terms of their usefulness to themselves, while pilgrims perceive the planet as sacred and recognise the intrinsic value of all life.”
So how does this equate to what I’m doing today, I wonder?
Chris drives us into the Alabama Hills and I’m immediately in awe of my surroundings. Hollywood could never have scripted anything more dramatic or inspiring. Giant boulders are strewn everywhere and the rock formations are as spectacular as you’ll see anywhere, their backdrop the highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. No wonder so many films were made here, and small wonder that it is also a popular setting for TV commercials for the latest new car models from a host of motor manufacturers. It’s breathtaking!
A scene from How the West was Won
Bob Sigman, the museum’s director, has already urged me to invite visitors to treat the area with the utmost respect. He is saddened that in recent times many a huge motorhome has trampled sensitive vegetation, while some visitors have left more than footprints behind, the litter even including babies’ used diapers.
Chris has coined the phrase: “Don’t crush the brush,” and says the Alabama Hills are sacred to the indigenous Native Americans and should be to the rest of us too. “It’s a place of peace and healing for me,” he says, perhaps thinking of his beloved partner of 47 years who passed away earlier this year.
Local author Mary Austin wrote of the Eastern Sierras as a place of 20-mile shadows. When the sun sets over the Sierras their shadows can be seen right across the valley as they inch up the Inyo mountains on the opposite side.
Chris has brought a series of production stills - huge black and white photographs from many iconic films - and we have fun matching up where the scenes were shot. The rocks are so distinctive that its often surprisingly easy to make a match, even many decades later.
I stand where celluloid legends like John Wayne, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, his companion Tonto, Hop-a-Long Cassidy, Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart and others have stood. Or might have stood.
Here's Clint as Joe Kidd actually being led by a woman
Are there famous ghosts stalking these canyons; their gunbelts strapped to their waists, and six-shooters at the ready?
The Western genre passed its peak long ago, although its essence survives.
And as word spread of the valley and the Sierras as an impressive location, other film makers arrived. The Sierras substituted for the Khyber Pass in the 1936 classic The Charge of the Light Brigade with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. And locals fondly recall Gunga Din of 1939 as the big budget epic that involved more than 1,000 people. It starred Gary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Scenes from Star Trek V were shot here and in 2008 the Arabian Desert was the setting for Iron Man, based on the Marvel Comics character and featuring Robert Downey Jr, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Chris has often been on hand to assist as he did three years ago with Quentin Tarantino during the filming of Django Unchained. His director’s chair resides in the museum along with the dental surgeon’s wagon.
Chris Langley compares a photograph with the actual location
Touring the museum is a wonderful trip down memory lane. Chris has so much to share and I know so little of early Western movie history, although I enjoy studying exhibits ranging from famous handguns, saddles, a stagecoach, outfits worn by film heroes to huge original posters.
Steve McQueen, my boyhood hero, is staring out of one for a 1966 film called Nevada Smith. For me he exemplified rugged individuality and a determination to live wild and free.
I have fun watching a superb documentary in the museum’s theatre that tells the story of how the sleepy community of Lone Pine became the busiest film location outside of LA for nearly four decades. The film’s slogan is ‘Where the Real West becomes the Reel West’ and it provides a fascinating overview of the history of filming in the area with clips from movies famous and obscure.
Were there any films that portrayed the Native Americans in an honest light, I wonder? And why was it such a male-dominated world, women often only providing the decoration or love interest for male heroics? Chris explains that the Hollywood spin didn’t always honour truth and historical authenticity.
He adds: “It’s always a startling reality for visitors that nothing is real and they only built stuff to last long enough till they had to take it down, or it fell down.”
The glory of the Wild West is mostly myth and legend, he says, occupying a 20-year timeframe in the late 1800s that is characterised by exaggerated romance and violence.
Interestingly the movies grew out of Wild West shows staged by the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch of Oklahoma. They depicted the western skills and horsemanship of ranch hands and the local American Indian tribes, ultimately touring throughout the US and many countries overseas. It was a trail of glory as ranch hands became showmen and then took themselves off to Hollywood and the big time as they became famous actors.
Leaving the museum I raise my eyes towards the Alabama Hills and Sierras beyond. Mt Whitney, at 4,421 metres, is the highest point in the land although it looks no taller than some of the towering peaks it rubs shoulders with.
I decide that when I return for next year’s leg of Walking Water, I’d like to camp under the stars here. And, God willing, I’ll explore Mt Whitney with my footsteps being those of a pilgrim, and not a tourist.
The Alabama Hills are a Hollywood favourite and the roads originally created to place actors, crew and film equipment
‘God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.’
John Muir, naturalist, philosopher and writer
The granddaddy of all meteorites blazes an incandescent trail across the night sky, forcing a sharp involuntary intake of breath as I gasp in awe and wonder before gratefully remembering to make a wish.
How many of my fellow walkers are awake to share this 4am gift, I wonder, as I replay the kaleidoscope of events during the past three weeks since the start of Walking Water?
Faces are now deeply tanned, waistlines trimmer, hiking muscles more toned and some blisters are becoming callouses that no longer hurt so much. We are nearing the end of an amazing 21-day odyssey in which many of us have explored the outer limits of our resolve and stamina. And yet all have come through, some transformed forever by the experience.
Of course, there’s been pain, discomfort, searing heat and times just before the dawn at high altitude when we’ve shivered in our sleeping bags, but Hollywood could hardly have scripted a more sublimely perfect start to this big day.
Tiredness tugs at my eyelids, wanting to again pull them shut like window blinds, but I’m determined not to miss any of the magic. Today we’ll make an early start across the nearby shoreline and walk to a prearranged point in the northeastern corner of Owens Lake.
All of us are in time to break camp, enjoy a hasty breakfast and gather in a circle as the sun rises over the Inyo Mountain range, it’s first rays leaving much of the valley in darkness as it illuminates the opposite Sierra Nevada peaks in shades of pastel pink and gold.
In my mind’s eye I imagine how this Kodak moment might have looked a century ago as the mountains were mirrored in the vastness of a lake stretching around 28km north-to-south, and up to 16km at its widest point. But all that changed radically in 1913 when Los Angeles began taking the life-giving waters of the Owens Valley for its own use. In little more than a decade the lake was dry and the valley choked in toxic dust, turning it into one of the most polluted places in the country. Anger, hatred and the California Water Wars were the legacy of this audacious resource grab.
Stories of epic dust storms that darkened the sun were commonplace, although on this magnificent morning Mother Nature dishes up her finest weather as we begin our slow walk in silence, resolving to be open-hearted, open-minded and free of accusations and judgements. We’ll simply look and learn.
Three years earlier I’d driven by on my way to Death Valley and seen the stark moonscape and heard some of the tragic stories of broken dreams, financial ruin and chronic respiratory illnesses. Somehow I’m still unprepared for what greets me. I feel like I’ve been kicked in the stomach, experiencing the nausea I remember from my first visit to the epicentre of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb blast that vaporised innocent people, leaving a legacy of death and untold hardship.
What I’m seeing is a vast and mostly dry lake with huge areas that resemble a construction sight, rather than anything that bears the artistic signature of the Creator.
Forgetting my determination not to make judgements, I silently ask Why, Why, Why? How could we humans be so arrogant? Is this what happens when Nature Deficit Disorder becomes an epidemic? Surely this environmental and social disaster could have been avoided? Did LA not imagine that taking the waters of the Owens Valley would have consequences at source?
I tramp through sparsely vegetated deep sand until reaching one of the many raised roads criss-crossing the lakebed, where indigenous elder Kathy Bancroft awaits us. She’s a determined campaigner for the wellbeing of tribal children and the preservation of cultural resources and is vigilantly trying to safeguard what’s left.
“Sometimes I wish for a natural disaster like an earthquake that would destroy all the infrastructure,” she confesses. “Then they’d have to start again, and this time they’d stop and think about what they’re doing.
“Does this make me a bad person,” she questions?
I try to imagine the pain and sense of loss that would make an epic disaster seem preferable to today’s status quo. And I fantasise about setting the waters free again to act out Nature’s masterplan.
As Kathy speaks with us, we’re sitting on a pile of boulders imported from the San Diego area by the landscaping company that didn’t think the type and colour of local rocks appropriate. And yet it was OK to dig into a nearby mountain and leave a visible scar where stone has been mined to create vast areas of gravel for the lakebed.
Ecological activist Mike Prather
The intention is not to return the waters to the lake, so much as to comply with the Clean Air Act and other legislation passed in recent decades that forces LA to clean up the air pollution.
Nearby are some shallow ponds, along with a network of irrigation ditches and many miles of underground piping which have been devised to keep the dust in place, using as little water as possible. Already $1.4-billion has been spent and its working, according to local activist and passionate birder Mike Prather, who has campaigned for more than 30 years to preserve habitat and wildlife.
Thousands of migratory birds again visit each year, even though their traditional habitat is radically reduced.
Kathy’s tone is quiet and concerned and she says: “I’ve worked with some wonderful people from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and other organisations and now we’re more on the same page trying to find solutions.
“It’s not always easy, not always fun, but at least we’re talking.”
The preservation of the surviving cultural sites is a key part of her life’s mission and she and others work continuously and unrelentingly in the heat and complexity of this place. We feel mentally and emotionally drained after a few hours in the lakebed and can imagine they must be tired from shouldering a global responsibility for safeguarding First Nation culture in the face of what modern people believe is progress.
Our little band of pilgrims shares some of our hopes and Walking Water coordinator Kate Bunney launches into song, singing a few lines from Bob Marley’s Redemption Song: “Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom ...”
The next day we’re back with our shade awnings and we welcome officials and well-wishers for our celebratory arrival ceremony. Again the tone is of gratitude and of reaching out and remaining in the spirit of inquiry and witness to differing experiences and worldviews.
As a walking elder I offer a brief prayer that we reconnect with the beauty and wisdom of the Earth, the waters and all life. And I apologise for what has been done to the Earth, the waters and all life. “May all the harm and hurt be healed. Thank you Creator.”
Peacemaker Alan Bacock, a fellow walker and water coordinator for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe, says: “I love the people of Los Angeles.” And he means it, having lived and studied there before assuming his current role as a tribal conservationist.
We’re all deeply moved by the songs and prayers and core team member Gigi Coyle reminds us: “It’s not over yet.”
Walking Water continues to gather stories and understandings that will spark water conservation actions in California and around the world - and a year from now the global and local initiative reconvenes at Owens Lake for the second leg of the journey, finally completing the walk from source to the place of end use - the City of LA - late in 2017.
Rajendra Singh, the Water Man of India, who has demonstrated it is possible to co-create with nature, revive rivers and bring water to parched villages, enthuses: “I feel rejuvenated!”
Photography: Geoff Dalglish
‘Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right’
Jane Goodall, primatologist, anthropologist and UN Messenger of Peace
The land and the waters of the Owens Valley of California are talking to us in ways that inspire awe, respect, intense emotions and a multitude of as-yet unanswered questions.
By day we walk long and dusty roads beneath a scorching desert sun, while at night we lay our tired bodies upon the Earth, hunkering down in our sleeping bags beneath the Milky Way and a vast canopy of stars. Always we try to listen and to understand.
This is a place of extremes - the valley is one of the deepest anywhere in the United States and it is framed by the iconic Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountain ranges. At 4,421 metres, nearby Mount Whitney towers above all other peaks in the land, while Death Valley’s Badwater Basin is 85 metres below sea level and the lowest point in North America. Furnace Creek claims to have recorded the highest air temperature anywhere in the world - 56.7 degrees C in July, 2013.
Petroglyphs carved into slabs of sunbaked rock thousands of years ago speak of the land’s power to inspire, while a disintegrating network of irrigation ditches are reminders of how the Paiute tribes lived lightly and sustainably upon the Earth long before being displaced by the arrival of the first land-hungry settlers in 1860.
The valley is also a place of often extreme viewpoints, its sparse population including indigenous tribes, survivalists, conservationists, cowboys, hunters, fishers, miners, devout Christians and countless employees of the City of LA’s Department of Water and Power (DWP).
And if there is a strange familiarity for first-time visitors to these dramatic landscapes, it’s probably because this is the cowboy country memorialised in around 700 Western movies that have provided Hollywood’s glamorised take on the so-called Wild West.
I’m a relative newcomer to the Owens Valley but after more than 40 consecutive days and nights outdoors, it is weaving its magic spell as I listen to the whispers in the wind and chatter of streams flowing over rocks. What are the messages from the soul of the Earth?
Our walking begins in silence each morning although there’s also plenty of time for conversation. Alan Bacock, the water coordinator for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe, poses the question: “Does the Creator speak in a loud or thunderous voice?
“No,” he says, answering himself. “It is a quiet, gentle voice and you have to be listening to hear it, and not immersed in the noise and busyness of your everyday life.”
On this day he’s leading our band of walkers along a route he’s never traversed before, when he hears that small, still voice within urging him to stop, retrace a few steps and listen.
Alan Bacock of the Big Pine Paiute tribe
A dramatic scene plays out in his mind’s eye and he realises he’s 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 barbecue at Fort Independence, having tired of violence, hunger and a precarious life on the run.
What followed was a betrayal for the tribe which 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 brutal 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 Some died, others escaped, and at least one young daughter was entrusted to the care of a family of kindly white homesteaders.
I’m walking in September when it’s cooler and can only begin to imagine the suffering they must have endured.
In 2013 Alan’s friend Dave Fairley felt compelled to relive that nightmarish march, walking the same route 150 years later, but in reverse, as he didn’t want to repeat history but rather help heal it.
Rajendra Singh, the Waterman of India, who listens for Nature's wisdom
And here we are, Walking Water aspiring to contribute to the healing. We are harvesting the stories of many people both in the valley and in LA in the hope that they might contribute to meaningful dialogue and an improved relationship to water .
In a letter to the DWP, the core team of Gigi Coyle, Kate Bunney and Shay Sloan pose a number of questions and also explain: “Our primary intention is to create a forum where the different voices can be heard and bring forth greater understanding, listening and clarity.
“At this time in our journey, Walking Water is in a process of asking and collecting questions. We feel that making room for the many voices of this valley to be heard is part of what’s needed for a restoration of relations, both within these communities where water is an issue, and with the water itself.”
The letter also asks: “What role and responsibility do you feel the DWP has in the healing of relations in this valley? What steps are you taking as an organisation and what steps or actions do you feel would truly be helpful by us or others?
Sabine Lichtenfels, co-founder of the Tamera peace community in Portugal, says: “Deep listening is the core of peace work - war comes from differing world views and peace comes with contact, and at the core of it is deep listening.”
Sabine Lichtenfels advocates deep listening
Three years ago I remember my indignation at seeing water being squandered in LA as people hosed leaves off their driveways and sprinklers drenched lawns and water-hungry decorative plants. Now I’m trying to listen more and already feel my attitude softening. I’m beginning to see the other side and twice on this walk I’ve experienced the comfort and joy of resting on a soft and lush irrigated lawn.
A major source of my own inspiration has been the example of Peace Pilgrim, who walked for 28 years without money or any organisational backing, explaining: “The tradition of pilgrimage is a journey undertaken on foot and in faith, prayerfully and as an opportunity to contact people.
“One little person, giving all of her time to peace, makes news. Many people, giving some of their time, can make history.”
I long to see the end of a century of conflict between the city and the valley as former opponents meet in an open-hearted attitude of truth and trust.
Imagine if the City of LA was to make a symbolic gesture like switching off the Mulholland Memorial Fountain which celebrates William Mulholland’s role as the father of the Los Angeles water system and engineer of the aqueduct that diverted water from the valley.
Maybe my imagination is just beginning to wake up and I know that by the end of this journey each of us pilgrims will have actions, projects and pictures that will contribute to water for all life.
Walking Water participants are dreaming of new relationships with water and each other
‘When the well is dry, we know the worth of water’
Benjamin Franklin, an American Founding Father
As Walking Water passes the midway point between California’s iconic Mono Lake and the Owens Lake dustbowl, our community-on-the-move has settled into a reverential pace that invites a deep and intimate connection with our surroundings.
Our world has slowed to a speed familiar to our ancestors and each morning we start together in a companionable silence, welcoming the new day and celebrating the sacred all around us.
Always there is the majestic backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains, although often this picture-perfect view is partly obscured by the smoke of wildfires. It is an indication of how dangerously dry the Owens Valley is, while the diversity of tracks in the sand reminds us of the other lifeforms that are also under threat.
I love the first part of the day - for me the luminosity of first light is love itself and feels like the warm embrace of an all-loving Creator who draws no distinction between humans, animals, birds, trees, rocks and rivers. All share equally in that giant early morning hug in the cool of the sunrise, before the heat begins to build relentlessly.
Each walker is touched in different ways by this harsh and beautiful land, local photographer Jasmine Amara declaring enthusiastically: “I was born here and I’m home with myself. It is in my blood and my bones. Being here makes me feel whole.”
Others feel it too, even though many of us come from different corners of the globe.
Somehow this part of California, which is spotlighting planetary issues of water scarcity, is uniting all of us in profound ways. The walking adventure is seen as an ecological action, a prayer, an educational journey and an individual and collective intention to create healthy ways of being in relationship with water and each other.
I’m thoroughly enjoying the walking and perhaps I foolishly challenged fate when I had the thought that many days had been relatively easy compared to the longer days I’m used to on my solo pilgrimages. Oops! Almost as the thought popped into my head an old knee pain returned and I became aware of a hotspot developing on my right foot, warning me that a blister might not be far away.
That night I’d also counted on a well-deserved sleep that was not to be. A squadron of mosquitoes staged a surprise attack and I became an unwitting blood donor, providing a transfusion to a multitude of thirsty flying friends. I tried to ignore them but those little pinpricks were a sure sign that all of mosquitodom knew about the free feast.
Then, to compound my discomfort, my self-inflating mattress punctured and I found myself in closer contact with Mother Earth than I’d planned.
I guess it is a pilgrim’s lot to accept whatever arises and deal with it in good humour.
As I write this we’re in the second half of this year’s pilgrimage - Walking Water is divided into three sections to be walked over three years, reaching the Greater Los Angeles Area late in 2017.
And its definitely got tougher since we left behind the shade of forests and trees and began a long and uncomfortable descent into the Owens Valley, finding ourselves with nowhere to hide from the punishing heat.
We trekked down a little-used road alongside towering powerlines and a huge pipeline built to divert water from the Owens River to Los Angeles - both being symbols of the city’s takeover of major resources of the region.
To an outsider it is surprising to see so many signs warning that the land is owned by LA’s Department of Water and Power and not to be trespassed upon - signs hundreds of kilometres from the city itself.
For some the pipeline is a century-old miracle of engineering achievement while for others it is a symbol that sparks anger and resentment. On this day it offered the only possible shade and our band of walkers deeply appreciated the chance to hide out in the relative cool beneath it.
At one point the pipeline had sprung a leak, creating a small oasis that vividly demonstrated the power of water. Here the vegetation was a lush and vibrant green while elsewhere the plants appeared stunted by comparison and their colours parched and faded by the heat, dryness and dust.
We have learned in our research that leakages in old structures are a concern for many people in many places in the US as well as throughout the world.
That night we endured another waterless camp on bleak, rocky ground that teased us with a tantalizing glimpse of the irrigated greenery of Round Valley, a hamlet nestling at the foot of the distant mountains.
Lured by the promise of walking alongside water again, we were up well before sunrise and stepped out joyfully, not for a moment imagining how our moods would soon be plunged into sorrow, despondency and even despair. The shift was noticeable the moment we passed a power station and witnessed how the once sparkling Owens River had been transformed into a lamentable shadow of its former self.
What’s happening here, I wondered. I’d started the day feeling eager and energetic and now my mood echoed that of the river. I felt dull, lifeless and robbed of a natural freedom to flow and meander between the contours of the Earth. Rounding a bend I discovered that a dam wall blocked the water’s onward journey. The smell was also one of death and decay.
The headline for this blog came to me and I later discovered that other walkers had shared similar feelings of sadness and regret for what we humans have done.
Coincidentally singer-songwriter Sarah Nutting composed a song also entitled Trail of Tears, although she avoided blame and judgement and was inspired to see the big picture “through the eyes of God.”
Later, when she started to sing it to us, the tears flowed down her cheeks and she stopped strumming her ukulele and apologised: “I’m sorry. I can’t sing this now ... it’s too fresh, my emotions are still too raw!”
I silently asked the water ‘What can we do to help?’ and was surprised to hear the words appear in my mind: “You can love me back to life.”
The message immediately conjured up images of the remarkable work of Masaru Emoto, a Japanese researcher who pioneered experiments to demonstrate that human consciousness can alter the molecular structure of water.
Frozen water particles studied under a microscope revealed hexagonal structures ranging from the ugly mutations of polluted water to designs of astonishing complexity and beauty found in pure, fresh water.
With further research, which sparked the Messages from Water books, it was discovered that contaminated water could be healed by loving intentions, prayer and even the playing of classical music.
For me it is confirmation that my intentions do matter, and words from Sarah’s song keep drifting back into my mind:
‘If I saw it with God’s eyes
Would I judge or would I cry
O-o-oh or would I love, love, love?
May we find our way, back to love
May we find our way, back to love’
‘As a pilgrim I discover the mystery, the magic, the meaning and the magnificence of life, in every step I take, in every sound I hear, and in every sight I see’
Satish Kumar, spiritual and ecological activist
It seems especially auspicious and a beautiful synchronicity that Pope Francis’ call for a global day of ‘Prayer for the Care of Creation’ has coincided with the 1st of September start of our Walking Water pilgrimage.
As millions of people around the world bowed their heads in prayer for the wellbeing of all life on Earth - including humanity - walkers and elders of the indigenous tribes of California’s Owens Valley sang, prayed and performed rituals to honour the waters and invite new ways of being in relationship with the natural world and each other.
Walking Water is a journey of exploration and co-creation from the source of the water in the magnificent Sierra Nevada mountains near Mono Lake, to the place of end use around 560km away in the Greater Los Angeles Area, which is home to some 18-million souls.
The route, divided into three sections to be walked over three years, follows natural and manmade waterways on what 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 to the fast-growing City of LA.
Appropriately Walking Water is unfolding at a time when California, the United States and much of the world is gripped by drought and a water crisis of epic proportions, necessitating urgent measures and an open-hearted spirit of cooperation.
While many in the Owens Valley have watched LA grow and prosper as they were impoverished by the theft of the life-giving waters, coordinator Kate Bunney stresses: “It’s not a march. It’s not a demonstration. Walking Water brings together role players from all walks of life - including representatives of the indigenous tribes who are the first people of the land - and hopefully with ancient and modern knowledge we can co-create healthy ways of being in relationship to water and each other.
“We walk toward a vision of a regenerated environment, a healthy valley and a self-sufficient metropolis. Our approach is to work in a way that is synergistic, collaborative and future-orientated, revolving around a simple bottom line: for the enhanced protection of all life.”
The moving sendoff at Lee Vining Creek, which was once a major source of water for Mono Lake, was attended by a diverse group, some in traditional outfits and others in suits or hiking gear with backpacks and trekking poles. Sending a strong signal of cooperation and support was the presence of people from all sides of what has been a century-long struggle and negotiation, among them the management team of the Mono Lake Committee and a representative of LA’s Department of Power and Water.
We stepped out in baking heat on a route that took us to the northernmost place where waters were diverted, seeing the beginning of an ambitious system of aqueducts, reservoirs and tunnels that channel water southwards.
For all of us it is a journey through inner and outer landscapes as we’re guided by expert locals like former park rangers Dave and Janet Carle, who explained the historic events that have sparked many books, documentary films and endless discussions.
I believe the world is watching to see what we can learn from the California experience.
The landscapes are breathtakingly beautiful, although it isn’t always easy. The walkers have endured suffocating smoke from fires that have left many with bloodshot eyes and allergic reactions. And then there is the searing daytime heat, bitterly cold nights, high winds and billowing dust. It is not a holiday for asthmatics!
And yet the dominant mood is one of hope and optimism, especially after sharing the grand vision of fellow walker Andy Lipkis, founder of TreePeople, whose high dream is to harvest rainwater on a massive scale that could meet up to half of LA’s needs.
We walk with open hearts and open minds, many grappling with bodies unaccustomed to long distances on foot in the time-honoured way of our ancestors. In the evenings the campsite resembles a mini field hospital as blisters are wrapped in surgical tape, bandages and even sheep’s wool, which provides cushioning and contains the healing balm of lanolin.
And it feels as if our connection with nature is deepening, our footprints mixing with the fresh spoor of deer, bobcat, coyote, mountain lion and bear. Each morning we read nature’s newspaper in the prints left in the sand.
Will Scott, Lauren and Dave Hage from the inspiring Weaving Earth organization
There’s also a growing feeling of camaraderie and connection as we become not a gathering of individuals and organisations, but a committed community on the move.
Looking around the circle of suntanned faces I sense that it’s not by chance that we’ve all come together, each person having something special and unique to contribute.
There are representatives from the Tamera peace community in Portugal, the Ojai Foundation, Beyond Boundaries, the School of Lost Borders, Weaving Earth, and I’m flying the flag for the Findhorn Foundation Community and Ecovillage in Scotland.
Tamerians are the biggest group, possibly because of lessons learned from their pioneering work in creating a water retention landscape that has transformed a formerly dry Portuguese landscape into a little Eden for the 170 residents. Within days Tamerian co-founder Sabine Lichtenfels will join our band of pilgrims.
In the evenings there have been beautiful sharings, among them the story of activist Mark du bois who chained himself to a boulder in the 1970s to stop a dam being flooded. He was prepared to die to save waterways he’d grown to love as a canoeist.
Benjamin von Mendelssohn, among others, suggests a walk in silence with an attitude of reverence instead of chatting.
Most report feeling more profoundly connected with their surroundings and fellow walkers, and I’m immediately enveloped by a deep peace and sense of gratitude - this is the way I choose to start every day and I know from experience that my day doesn’t flow as gracefully if I don’t begin with a quiet walk within the healing balm of nature.
Ben’s partner Vera Kleinhammes says: “Walking Water is a political action with spiritual depth.” She collects litter along the trail ranging from the occasional cigarette butt to spent shotgun cartridges, pieces of plastic and even a car’s cigarette lighter. Was all this deliberately thrown away? And where is away?
Each day we get to know each other better, singer-songwriter Sarah Nutting of the duo MaMuse delighting me with her songs.
Today, as we walk, she is putting music to her latest creation and sings me a few lines:
‘We are travelling, we are travelling on this open road.
And the story, and the story has yet to unfold.
What is sacred? What is sacred? Is the question I keep.
And the water brings the answers. May I be open to receive.
And the water brings the answers. May we be open to receive.
Songstress Sarah Nutting telling the pilgrimage story through her music
Mono Lake captured by David Wright in its moody magnificence
‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has’
Margaret Mead, author and anthropologist
The Walking Water pilgrimage has been likened to the use of acupuncture, where a localised application of needles has the potential to offer immediate pain relief and stimulate healing throughout the body, sometimes even ending long-term suffering.
It is a form of alternate medicine developed by the Chinese more than two thousand years ago that aims to bring the body back into balance by creating a free flow of energy - and maybe it is time to call upon all the ancient and modern wisdom we can. The obvious analogy is that the actions of a handful of modern pilgrims - combining hearts, minds and feet in an educational journey and walking prayer - could create a ripple effect among people and places throughout the land and possibly even the world.
Alan Bacock of California’s indigenous Big Pine Paiute tribe has suggested: “Prayer is an important way to prepare.”
Peacemaker Alan Bacock of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe
Each of us is seeking to be an ambassador, walking for and with water. Each must also ask ourselves why we are doing this, who and what we are doing it for, and how our combined actions and learnings might serve all of life, as we explore and co-create a new story in which there is enough water for all.
It is a journey of hope backed up by recent science that indicates there is in fact enough, if only we find a new way of being in relationship to water and each other. Perhaps that means not blocking the passage of water that has flowed freely and abundantly for millennia, nor using hoses to wash cars or driveways in areas of extreme drought.
For me it is already a journey questioning my old ways. I knew that eating beef was hugely harmful to the planet because of the massive water footprint of meat farming, apart from causing suffering to animals. But I’d never stopped to think about the fact that I was wearing water.
According to Stephen Leahy, author of Your Water Footprint, it takes more than 7,600 litres of water to outfit me in a new pair of jeans and 2,460 litres to add another cotton T-shirt to my wardrobe. And that morning cup of coffee requires 140 litres of water that is used to grow, process and ship the coffee beans.
Perhaps the most startling fact I uncovered is that the water footprint of a bottle of cola is 175 litres - so drinking one bottle is like consuming 350 bottles of water!
The First People of Owens Valley had had no concept of property or water rights
So how serious is our global water crisis? Very, it seems!
All living things need water and humans can survive little more than three days without it.
Already 1.2 billion people live in areas with chronic water scarcity, while another 2 billion are affected by shortages every year. By 2025 three in five people may be living with water shortages.
The 2014 Global Water Summit concluded that shortage of water is the biggest challenge the global economy faces. It predicted that within the next 10 years everyone on the planet will experience some serious water-related event - a shortage, a flood, an infrastructure failure, interruption to business or economic disruption.
So we need to reassess our relationship with water and remember that the Earth is literally a closed system, like a vessel in outer space. As Stephen Leahy explains: “Water cannot be manufactured. It can only be moved around. We’re very good at moving water around by using pipelines and canals. We’re not so good at acknowledging that moving water around always means that some other place will then have less water.” (Your Water Footprint by Stephen Leahy, Firefly Books, October 2014)
Los Angeles prospered while the Owens Valley suffered the 'theft' of its water
On 1 September a group of us gather for a journey through inner and outer landscapes that will hopefully lead to greater understandings. Walking Water is a three-year pilgrimage, that’s divided into three sections, following the natural and manmade waterways from the source in the Owens Valley to the place of end use - the Greater Los Angeles Area that’s home to around 18-million souls.
The first leg will take us around 320km (200 miles) from Mono Lake, one of the country’s great photographic icons, to Owens Lake, that was a vast perennial lake that had held water for at least 800,000 years. But all that changed disastrously a century ago. In 1913 water from the Owens River was diverted to satisfy the thirst of the growing city of LA and by the mid 1920s the lake was dry. To make a dire situation truly desperate, billowing windblown dust clouds containing a number of carcinogens turned it into a respiratory nightmare for residents.
Luckily, the upstream Mono Lake was ultimately spared at least part of this ecological and social disaster, but not before a protracted legal battle.
In 1941 LA’s Department of Water and Power began diverting tributary streams from Mono Lake to meet the city’s ever-growing water demands. Deprived of its freshwater sources, the volume of Mono Lake halved while salinity levels doubled and the intricate ecosystem began to collapse.
If something was not done urgently, Mono Lake was destined to become a lifeless chemical sump.
In 1978 local citizen David Gaines formed the Mono Lake Committee and began talking to conservation clubs, schools, service organisations, legislators, lawyers and anybody who would listen. Membership quickly grew to 20,000 concerned individuals leading a fight to save the lake.
This was the turn off to the beach of what is now a dry lake
While it wasn’t possible to stop all the destruction, it is a story with a happy ending and a history that continues to be written. The Mono Lake Committee successfully sued the powerful water authority to limit diversions, seeking a reasonable compromise rather than stopping all diversions.
It was an action founded out of a love for this remarkable and beautiful place, rather than any wish to fight LA. And their legacy shows that a group of concerned people can come together against seemingly insurmountable odds, find a solution and make a difference.
In 2013 a statement by the LA City Council proudly declared: “The completion of the LA Aqueduct 100 years ago is a significant historical event that led to the growth and prosperity of Los Angeles and Southern California.”
The flipside of that story is instead of prosperity it marked a century of devastation for the Owens Valley since LA stole the water from the white settlers, also marking 150 years since the settlers stole the fertile lands and irrigation ditches from the Paiute people.
Alan Bacock says that until the arrival of the first settlers in 1860, the ancestors of the Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley had lived lightly upon the land and in harmony with their environment through a lifestyle based on traditional subsistence. The most important food item was pinenuts gathered in the mountains.
These first people, who believed the Creator placed them there eons ago, lived sustainably and with a huge respect for water - until suddenly the settlers took ownership of the lands and used them in ways incompatible with the traditional Paiute way of life, making peaceful coexistence impossible.
Not only were his people grappling with alien concepts of property and water rights, but the loss of food control and resulting starvation were precursors to the Owens Valley Indian War fought between the Paiute and the US Cavalry in 1862-1863. “Today we share our story in the hope that one day justice will be granted for our people and the environment.”
He sees Walking Water as a healing journey in which to engage with communities along the way and build bridges between the people of the Valley and LA.
“LA is influential,” he stresses. “If you grab the hearts of those in LA, you grab the hearts of the world.”
All black and white images kindly supplied by David Wright