‘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
Photography: David Wright
Mono Lake where the pilgrimage begins
‘All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking’
Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher and poet
Two years ago when I enthusiastically agreed to join the Walking Water pilgrimage in California’s Owens Valley, I had only the faintest idea of the enormity and severity of the crisis facing America’s West.
Water is life and in places it is running out : in 2012 the US suffered its worst drought in 50 years, with nearly two-thirds of the country facing water shortages, while a year later California’s drought was judged the most crippling in history.
Recent impacts have been devastating, although the drama surrounding the relentless quest for water is already a century old in the Owens Valley. In 1924, with local outrage boiling over, farmers resorted to violence and sabotage to counter the ruthless tactics of the city of Los Angeles, which was intent on seizing water rights hundreds of kilometres upstream.
The California Water Wars inspired the acclaimed 1974 movie Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, and the true story is no less dramatic. It is one of political corruption and intrigue, of billion-dollar struggles over water rights, of ecological and economic disaster - and of dizzyingly ambitious engineering feats as the desert was transformed into a green Eden, at least for a while.
Some would argue that it was an impossible and unsustainable dream, but the reality is that by diverting and damming rivers California became the salad bowl of America, supplying nearly half of all its fruits, veggies and nuts. But has the bubble finally burst, or is it about to?
Now, like almost everywhere else on the planet, we need to to look for new ways of being in relationship with water and each other.
So this was never going to be an ordinary walk, and neither was it going to be one chosen for the most scenic route, although there is no denying the spectacular beauty of a route that follows the natural and man-made waterways to Los Angeles against a backdrop that includes the majestic Sierra Nevada and Inyo mountains, as well as trekking uncomfortably close to Death Valley, one of the hottest places this side of Hell.
Our walk starts at Mono Lake on 1 September and the idea is to go from source to the place of end use and divide it into three sections to be walked over three years, with a band of pilgrims finally arriving in LA around September 2017.
This allows time to build relationships and spark long-term projects along the way, with the LA aqueduct stretching around 359km (223 miles) and linking so many from all walks of life.
You could argue that the timing is perfect. Already 1.2 billion people around the world 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 everyone on the planet will experience some serious water-related event - a shortage, a flood, an infrastructure failure, interruption to business or economic disruption - within the next 10 years.
So we’ll walk and then sit in circles, learning and sharing in the time-honoured way of our ancestors.
Among us will be members of the indigenous tribes, farmers, environmental activists and hopefully representatives of the authorities that control the supply of power and water.
It is seen as a prayer rather than a protest.
Coordinator Kate Bunney, who has arranged pilgrimages in conflict areas like the Middle East, insists that we are walking for water and not against anything. “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.
“Walking Water attempts to connect that sacred path of pilgrimage - our internal relationship to ourselves - with our relationship to our external environment.
“In this sense we walk for the issue of water, we walk with water and with the communities along this path that are so affected by this issue, and we walk towards a change in our acting and thinking towards water on both a local and global level.
“We also 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.”
Helping to set the scene, an 11-minute documentary on the Walking Water website www.walking-water.org spotlights the issues, captures the beauty of the land and introduces us to some of the personalities involved.
I find it moving and encouraging and it reinforces my belief that we can fix our broken relationship with water and the Earth.
I’m especially touched by the observation of Alan Bacock, water coordinator for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe, who explains: “To prepare for a walk like this is really to prepare for a journey that in a lot of ways is beyond us. Because of that we need to go in prayer. We need to prepare ourselves in prayer and say: ‘Creator, utilise this in the best way possible. Help all of us to be instruments. May none of us be thinking that we are the only aspect that’s needed.’ ”
Andy Lipkis, a practical visionary and founder of TreePeople which has planted millions of trees in the greater LA area over the past three decades, says that people imagine that because the city is so big: “I’m just a drop in the bucket. But every drop makes ripples. It’s about information, it’s about choice - we always make a difference. But we can’t do it without choosing it, without being inspired. That’s what Walking Water is about.”
“The most important thing,” Kate Bunney says, “is that it is an event that inspires and empowers each of us to become part of the global solution to water management and usage.”
The kind of openness, optimism and trust I’m encountering fills me with excitement and hope.
Special thanks to David Wright for his inspiring images, reminding us of the beauty and preciousness of this land and our Earth Mother
The Avenue of the Giants in northern California with a car dwarfed by the towering redwoods
‘The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need’
Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle
In the space of days my inner pendulum has swung wildly from joyful connection to a jarring, jangling place of disconnection and then back again to the peace I always find in the loving embrace of nature.
My outer journey has taken me halfway across the world from the Findhorn Foundation spiritual community in northeastern Scotland to California’s dramatically beautiful and sunbaked Owens Valley, an odyssey of some 53 hours involving four buses, two taxis, three flights and two car rides with friends.
At either end were people I love dearly who value meditation and quiet contemplation, often sitting in sharing and caring circles and checking in to see how others are doing on their great adventure through life - and offering support or encouragement when needed.
In between I experienced a startling reminder of how so many live their big city lives, my travels punctuated by nights in a hostel in the heart of Glasgow and another on the noisy and traffic-clogged flightpath to Los Angeles international airport.
The low point was unquestionably the optimistically named BackPackers Paradise Hostel which was commendably cheap, offered free champagne, impersonal service and a stuffy and untidy room crammed with bunk beds and noisy travellers with a total disregard for the few trying to sleep. Whenever I glanced around me in the wee small hours I saw faces illuminated by the glow of their smart phones, tablets and computers. All were connected to their technology but completely disconnected from each other.
The drive-through tree gives an idea of scale
Is the universe showing me the true extent of Nature Deficit Disorder, I wondered? And what can I do to help? I caught glimpses of the stress, anxiety and hopelessness that seems to envelop so many when they live the lie of separation and become disconnected from the natural world of which they are an intrinsic part.
Sweaty and sleepless, I tossed and turned in my creaky bunk, feeling sadness that so many are deprived by choice or circumstance of the sort of daily early morning ritual I take for granted, walking in nature and giving thanks for the great gifts that that meditative experience bestows upon me. Without that walk my day never seems to flow quite so smoothly and joyfully, and my mind is invariably busier and more agitated.
On the very rare days I don’t walk, I try to spend time with a tree and begin to understand why many of the world’s major conflict zones are places denuded of their natural vegetation. At last science and spirituality are in agreement and crediting trees with the ability to calm, inspire and accelerate healing.
Maybe some plants in the backpackers lodge would have helped. One hostel dweller talked incessantly to himself, sometimes laughing at his own jokes, and I initially thought he was completely loopy and then realised he was only verbalising aloud what often goes on silently in my own head, unheard by those around me.
Be careful not to cast that first stone!
As unpleasant as aspects of this journey were, I valued the chance to see how others live and to remind myself of my own urgent need to balance big city busyness and technology with more nature time.
Three years earlier this was demonstrated so forcefully when I embarked on a Californian epic I think of affectionately as my Carmageddon to Redwood Heaven adventure. I spent several weeks walking and occasionally hitching between Hollywood and Los Angeles and the towering redwood trees to the north of the state. It was a symbolic journey from my earlier life as a motoring journalist to walking pilgrim, and where better to begin, I argued, than LA - the epicenter of car culture where I was once a university student in years long gone by.
The grove of bristlecone pines are around 4,800 years old and they're still alive
Highpoints included communing with the towering redwoods that are the tallest trees on Earth; meeting General Sherman, a giant sequoia that is believed to be the planet’s biggest tree by volume; and visiting a bristlecone pine grove that is home to ancients that were already two thousands years old and more when Buddha and Christ walked among us.
An analysis of one bristlecone pine that was cut down in 1965 proved it to be 4,844 years old - imagine counting all those tree rings!
That 2012 journey also ended with another memorable highpoint - meeting wilderness rites-of-passage guides Gigi Coyle and her partner Win Phelps, and helping out at Three Creeks, the property they care for that is a green oasis in a parched desertscape framed by the magnificent Sierra Nevada mountain range.
I somehow knew I’d be back and there was a great sense of coming home, such as I also experience every time I return to Findhorn. With the day cooling from temperatures in the high 30s we sat in a circle outside and spoke from the heart while frogs plopped in the pond, swallows swooped on insects and a lone bobcat patrolled his domain and looked entirely at home in his glossy tan-coloured skin. I felt a deep peace enveloping me and gradually, gratefully, let go of the stress of the past couple of days.
Happily I’m now ensconced in a tent instead of a bunkbed and it feels like incomparable five-star luxury as I celebrate the overwhelming presence of wild nature and feel the interconnectedness of all life vibrating in and around me.
My prayer is that many many more can reconnect with our Earth Mother and share such gifts.
The hot, harsh world of Death Valley
And the contrast of Three Creeks little more than an hour away
Photography: Geoff Dalglish
‘Walking is man’s best medicine’
Fish swim, snakes slither, birds fly and humans walk - it’s what our ancestors did daily in their quest for food, water and firewood, just as many indigenous people continue to do today.
In study after study, scientists are discovering what our bodies have always known: walking, and especially walking within the loving embrace of the natural world, is a wonderful path to health, happiness and often amazing insights. And it’s free and accessible to all able-bodied beings!
Some 25 centuries ago this was obvious to Hippocrates, the father of medicine, who observed: “Illnesses do not come upon us out of the blue. They are developed from small daily sins against Nature. When enough sins have accumulated, illnesses will suddenly appear.” Walking is the best preventative and curative medicine, he insisted.
More recently Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder as he noted that modern humanity’s increasing disconnection from nature leads to anxiety, stress, depression, confusion, a sense of hopelessness and even things like obesity.
Children need to grow up in nature with animals around them, climbing trees, swimming in streams and lakes, and ideally feeling the Earth beneath their bare feet.
Solutions are all around us. We need to live simpler, more sustainable lives and find the peace and inspiration that comes from being in nature - from recognising our rightful place not as a controller of the natural world but a strand in the miraculous web of life. We need to learn from the successful blueprint of nature, tapping into millions of years of accumulated wisdom.
Louv suggests: “The future will belong to the nature-smart - those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”
We can also learn from research into the concept of ‘Earthing’ that involves aligning our body to the Earth’s surface energies, ideally by walking barefoot outside. It seems that if our energy is resonating with that of the Earth’s, our body will be in a more natural state, which is energising and healing. I like to imagine each step as a blessing given and received.
While the physical benefits have long been obvious, a little book entitled Walking Your Blues Away by Thom Hartmann, has provided some additional insights into the importance of promoting and maintaining mental health through walking and the ways in which bilateral healing kicks in as the left and right hemispheres of the brain are activated.
Photograph: David Wright
Not only are our bodies designed to be able to walk, they require walking to work right, he says. Walking exercises the heart and lungs and stimulates the pumping of the lymphatic system ... hundreds of studies have shown that people who walk for at least 15 to 30 minutes a day are healthier than people who don’t.
His encouragement is to get out there and walk. “Step by step we will heal ourselves, our friends and family, and, ultimately, the planet.”
And he’s in good company: philosopher Friedriech Nietzsche believed that “all truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” and cautioned “never trust a thought that didn’t come by walking.”
Physicist Albert Einstein was of a like mind: “The legs are the wheels of creativity.”
Thanks to the encouragement of ecological and spiritual activist Satish Kumar, who as a young man undertook a peace walk from India to the nuclear capitals of Moscow, Paris, London and Washington, I now start every day with a solo walk in nature, the daily ritual bestowing upon me a sense of joy, peace and wellbeing, accompanied by fresh whispers of inner knowing.
On the rare days I don’t walk, I feel somehow less capable of meeting whatever challenges arise.
Photograph: David Wright
This morning, as feelings of joy welled up in me while I enjoyed the rhythmic contact between my bare feet and the freshly wave-washed sand on Findhorn Beach, I felt excitement building as I imagined the possibilities and potentials for the Walking Water pilgrimage that starts in California on 1 September.
It seems the good things I feel while walking could be magnified exponentially with around 50 of us undertaking a journey from the source of the water to the place of end use - the Greater Los Angeles Area that is home to some 18 million souls.
And elsewhere around the planet there will be many hundreds, and hopefully thousands of other pilgrims participating in parallel events to raise awareness around the sanctity of water.
The Walking Water pilgrimage will be spread over three years, in three phases, the first following the natural and man-made waterways between Mono Lake and Owens Lake in the Owens Valley. By exploring three sections over three years and only arriving in Los Angeles in 2017, it will allow participants time to interact with the local communities and environments, and to weave in activities that have the potential to create beneficial long-term impacts.
The goal, according to coordinator Kate Bunney, is to contribute to a vision for a cooperative reciprocal relationship between people and nature, and specifically the waters.
“We walk for the issue of water, we walk with water and the communities along this path that are so affected by this issue, and we walk towards a change in our acting and thinking towards water on both a local and global level,” she says.
Participants will practice the time-honoured indigenous tradition of truly connecting with the soul of the land and gathering in circles, and bearing witness to each other while offering reflections that serve the needs of Walking Water and our relationship with water everywhere.
Environmentalist Catriona MacGregor says in her book Partnering with Nature: “By awakening a natural connection to the environment around us, we can move beyond simply using nature and into a true partnership with it.
“Ultimately, when we recognise the inherent sacredness of all life, we become forces for good in this world... for everyone who has a sense of something missing, who wishes to make a difference in the world, nature has much to offer to all who will listen.”
With California, and many parts of the world suffering crippling drought conditions, there has never been a better time to listen and take individual and community responsibility for stewarding the shared resource of water, which is life itself. It starts with each one of us.
Water scarcity is becoming a global challenge that invites a new relationship with water and each other
Photograph: Geoff Dalglish