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.
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 4.00am 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 17 miles (28 km) north-to-south, and up to 10 miles (16 km) 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’d 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.
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, understandings and momentum 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!”