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.
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 people showed up representing 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.
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.
Tamerans 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 Tamera 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 embrace 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.