Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right.
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 14,500 feet (4,421 metres), nearby Mount Whitney towers above all other peaks in the land, while Death Valley’s Badwater Basin is 280 feet (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 numerous 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.
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 200 mile (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.
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.”
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.