Owens Lake Project: Metamorphosis for Contemplation

“Great numbers of water birds are in sight along the lake shore—avocets, phalaropes, ducks. Large flocks of shorebirds in flight over the water in the distance, wheeling about in mass, now silvery, now dark, against the gray blue of the water. There must be literally thousands of birds within sight of this one spot.”[1]

Owens Lake 2021, photo by author

Owens Lake 2021

photo by Author

The silver Freightliner 18-wheel truck lays on its side in the southbound lane of Highway 395 in Olancha, California, four hours north of Los Angeles. My Oldsmobile Bravada, a heavyweight car, shakes in the hard, buffeting desert wind, as I wait in a line of cars in the northbound lane. The road is littered with hundreds of plastic water bottles bearing the logo which is on the side of the truck: Crystal Geyser Water. The bottling factory is a mile north. The beverage holder at my car console holds a half-opened bottle of Crystal Geyser. Through the cottonwood trees to my left, I can see Olancha Peak of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which appears on the water bottle label. The truck driver sits on the ground, supported by a bystander holding a compress to the man’s bleeding head.

I recognize the Highway Patrol officer Paul Pino as he approaches my car. He lives in Lone Pine, thirty-minutes north. Holding a wind monitor above his head he grimaces and exclaims,

“Horrible! Seventy miles an hour gusts. There are two more big rigs blown over up the road. We have to close the highway until it is safe.”

Dust Storm

Photo by Richard Ellis, 2008

Behind me, a detour road leads to Death Valley and around Owens Lake.  The officer directs traffic as we make U turns. The wind gusts continue to ruthlessly shake my car.

I see the Ranch House Café and decide to wait out the windstorm over there as I eat lunch. In a corner window, I watch the wind bend and shake century old cottonwoods. A sudden crack followed by a thud. A huge tree branch falls to the ground in front of me, shattering wild rose bushes.

In the distance, a white tornado cloud of chemical dust whirls thousands of feet above Owens Lake. The wind blows eastward toward the lakeside village of Keeler. Noxious alkali storms like this can carry four million tons of dust at a time containing carcinogens such as cadmium, nickel, and arsenic. This is the most polluted air in the United States.

It would not be difficult for these hundreds of drivers heading north to look briefly eastward at that poisonous cloud of dust and the dry lake and think: “That must be the septic basin of the Owens Valley. Who cares? I sure wouldn’t want to live around here.”

Two-hours pass. Cars move slowly forward. I join the snaking throng of traffic heading north. In thirty minutes, I am in Lone Pine, standing on the balcony outside room 50 at the Dow Villa Motel. The hovering cloud of nasty dust expands, spreading out toward Lone Pine and the Sierra Nevada.

This dying lake has a grand history. The lake basin may be one million years old. Twelve-thousand years ago, it contained two hundred square miles of water two hundred feet deep. Water from melting glaciers of the waning Ice Age overflowed the lake southward into Rose Valley and China Lake. You can visit ancient shores around the lake. In the last 110 years, it was a 108 square mile lake, 25-50 feet deep. The water disappeared when the Los Angeles Aqueduct opened in 1913, diverting Owens River water away from the lake. The once vibrant ecosystem that sustained birds and plants has dried up into an alkali encrusted sump of a lake bed.

Early Owens Lake

Photo by Forbes

I have been making my Advent and Lenten retreat to the Owens Valley since 1980, staying in Lone Pine and making friends with two remarkable public-school teachers, Michael Prather, and Chris Langley. Knowing them has revealed a great secret about the Owens Valley. They could have been teaching at a top Eastern prep school. But they chose Lone Pine. Michael and Chris developed community organizing skills, bringing residents together to create notable public projects: The Lone Pine Film History Museum, the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area, and the Owens Lake Bird Festival.

I believe that living in this history-soaked, spirit-laden land, experiencing the sacredness of this haunting, achingly beautiful valley, must inspire and empower the people to be assertive in protecting and renewing forlorn sites like Owens Lake.

I found out that there are many other persons, passionate about the ecological vitality of the Owens Valley and skilled at building a powerful coalition between local non-profit organizations. That coalition along with Inyo County government forced the City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) into the courtroom.  The battle between these “small-town folks” and the Big City seemed hopeless. Eventually the courts forced LADWP to take responsibility for the damage to the lake and putting lives at risk, as for a century Los Angeles had drained off the aqueous life blood of this desert land.

Los Angeles Times writer Louis Sagahun has reported on Owens Valley for decades, focusing on the hand-to-hand courtroom battles between Los Angeles and Inyo County.  He joyfully reported on the successful renovation of the Lake.”

 “In what is now hailed as an astonishing environmental success, nature quickly responded. First to appear were brine flies. Then came masses of waterfowl and shorebirds that feed on the insects.”[2]

Spiritual Exercise: A mindful walk through an alkali marsh.

The best season for a lake visit is between November and April. Avoid windy days.

Directions: driving north on Highway 395, a few miles south of Lone Pine, turn right on to Highway 136. Note the sign to Death Valley. Immediately turn right into the parking lot for Lone Pine Interagency Visitor Center. This is the best place to find information about the Owens Valley and Death Valley. An excellent bookstore features books about the area and many free brochures. Look for The Owens Lake Trails. This will guide you to various access points within Owens Lake. Pages 6-7 have directions to the Plaza Route. Be sure you have ample drinking water.

Exit the Visitor Center, turn right and continue for 10.2 miles on Highway 136. You will pass the remains of the silver ore smelting village of Swansea. Following the map, turn onto the Plaza T30-1 access route. Continue the route down the hill for half a mile toward the eastern shore of Owens Lake. Turn left where the road faces the managed vegetation wetlands. You will see scattered plants and trees bringing life to the once barren playa. Continue down the road, turning right to access the Plaza Trailhead parking area, which is on both sides of the road. Watch out for heavy equipment vehicles that frequently travel this road to continue the maintenance and renovation of the lake.

Begin to walk the gravel pathway leading to the Plover Wing Plaza, one-half mile to the north.

Plaza Trail

Photo by Chris Langley

Instead of a spirited trek to that destination, I invite you to make a walking meditation. This is an exercise to increase “mindfulness.” While this term is active in New Age spirituality, the practice of mindfulness is 2500 years old, going back to the original teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, the Awakened One.

Buddha was a spiritual doctor who diagnosed a core problem of human existence: “Duhkha” or dissatisfaction. Life has an impermanent quality, though we continue to cling to people, things, and experiences in a life of illusion. Buddha developed from his own experience the Eight-Fold Path, a lifelong curriculum of guidance to help people find serenity and inner peace. Meditation is the principal method of awakening to the present moment, which the Buddha contends is what is real: the past is a memory that will not come back; the future is always not yet. What we have is the present moment, this present breath, this present heartbeat. Yet, our human tendency is to fixate on the past or the future. Our minds become possessed with anxiety, depression, anger, and frustration. The medicine he prescribes is meditation.

Mindfulness is one way we can bring our attention to the present moment without judgement. While it is not itself prayer, it can be a warmup prelude to prayer.

Let us begin a walking meditation here on the short trail to the Plover Wing Plaza.

Author on Trail

Photo by Author

I am aware of sensations as I stand on this gravel path. I am aware of the pressure and tension on my feet and legs, my hands hanging down, the weight of my shoulders, back and pelvis. I slowly shift my body weight from left to right and notice how this affects my sense of balance.

I shift body weight to my left side, sensing how the right side feels lighter. I shift weight to my right side and allow my awareness to move through muscle to bone, noticing what is hard and soft, tough, and flexible.

Steven V. Smith is a guiding teacher of the Kyaswa Retreat Center in Myanmar. He advises, “move slowly as if you are very slowly pouring water from a full vessel into an empty one. Notice all the changes as you shift your weight to the left side. With your eyes open just enough to hold your balance, very slowly peel your right foot off the ground and move it forward and place it back on the ground before you. With your awareness on the right, shift your weight, bring awareness to the left, feel from the hips and buttocks down the sides the whole range of sensations. Continue stepping slowly, keeping your awareness on the sensation.”[3]

As you walk with bare awareness, you are not evaluating the experience. You are not looking around, only a few feet ahead. Thoughts will come and go. If some thought tries to take over, stop and let it pass through. You will probably find resistance within you the first time you try this.


In 2016, landscape architect Perry Cardoza was commissioned to create a land art project. At the end of the trail and the mindful walk, there is a surprise: a stone and metal shade structure. This land art work is in the shape of the extended wings of the protected snowy plover (which nests at the lake). The sculpture invites restful contemplation. There are Asian landscape influences reflecting Perry Cardoza’s time in Japan.

Plover Wing Plaza

Photo by Chris Langley

Cardoza describes the Plaza:

“The main plaza design was inspired by the nest of the snowy plover. Circular in form, this plaza is meant to be the central gathering space for visitors. The central feature of rock on the plaza that some have named the ‘Zen Rock’ represents a snowy plover, while the other plaza’s boulders positioned in large circles around the plaza represent the eggs in the nest.”[4]

There are two parts to this remarkable land art: The Plover Wing Plaza and the Owens Valley Trails. You will also notice dune-like constructions that are “whitecaps.” Cardoza studied a pre-1912 photograph which showed a deep-water lake and strong winds creating whitecaps. He recreated these whitecaps in his landscape architecture, as noted by the LADWP: “Looking out over the lake, visitors can see fourteen mound-like structures intended to look like whitecap waves. These metaphorical whitecaps vary in size and are placed in locations that will assist with dust control by keeping surrounding lake particles from being gathered up by the wind. The large rocks used to create the whitecaps create habitat for small reptiles, insects and mammals.”[5]

White Caps

Photo by Author

I am sitting on a long stone bench in the shade of Plover Wing Plaza. No wind today, only a gentle, warm, salty breeze. I can taste the briny air. A grey-blue mini-lake spreads out before me, Mount Whitney, and the Sierra Nevada in the distance: a wide-screen, expansive, clear panorama that pulls at my heart and soul. The separateness between I who see, and that which is seen is erased. The water reflects sky, clouds, mountains, birds, and me as I draw closer to the mini lake.

Medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen observed:
“I have created mirrors in which I consider all the wonders of my originality which will never cease.”[6]

Franciscan priest and desert mystic Richard Rohr, OFM shares:

“Nature is not a mere scenic backdrop so humans can take over the stage. Creation is in fact a full participant in human transformation, since the outer world absolutely needs to mirror the true inner world. There are not just two sacraments, or even seven; the whole world is a sacrament.”[7]

Lake Reflections

Photo by Author

Anchored in this place of consolation and contemplation, my human senses, the Creator’s gracious gift, pierce the illusion of my controlling observations, awakening deeper intuitive consciousness of holy communion with breathtaking beauty. Spread out before me are carefully scribed pages of Creation’s book that joyfully proclaim praise to the Creator.

A canticle from the Book of Common Prayer gives voice to this meditation:

Salt Grass at Owens Lake

Photo by Author

Let the earth glorify the Lord,

   praise him and highly exalt him forever.

Glorify the Lord, O mountains and hills,

 and all that grows upon the earth,

   praise him and highly exalt him forever.

Glorify the Lord, O springs of water, seas, and streams,

   O whales and all that move in the waters.

All the birds of the air, glorify the Lord,

   praise him and highly exalt him forever.

Glorify the Lord, O beasts of the wild,

   and all you flocks and herds.

O men and women everywhere, glorify the Lord,

   praise him and highly exalt him forever.[8]

Returning on the trail back to your car, you may continue to explore the lake as you follow a grid of dolomite berms within the lake, which outline several mini-lakes. The remarkable renewal of Owens Lake resulted in unanticipated but wonderful results. It has created a rich habitat to welcome migrating birds, and the elevated berms provide perfect observation sites for bird watching.

Michael Prather organized early bird counts on Owens Lake. As the bird populations continued to multiply, Prather’s tenacious efforts rallied strong local support, resulting in an Audubon Society designation of Owens Lake as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site of international importance.

Snowy Plover Art

Photo by Author

Affirming a celebrative stance, Marty Adams, Chief Operating Officer of the LADWP said in an interview: “We’re extremely proud to be in partnership with Audubon and other groups that worked hand in hand to get to this point. We’ve created one of the largest projects in the world based on natural solutions for quality-of-life issues.”

Practicing Mindfulness with the Birds

Confession time: I have not been a bird watcher. For years, my wife Janice has had a large, all-year aviary on the side of our house, where she has raised and cared for parakeets. This winter, she brought her birds into our home, where they live in two large metal cages, “one for the Democrats and one for the Republicans,” she advises. Phone callers hearing the cacophony of birds tweeting may think we live in the Amazon jungle.

I found a contemplative friend in David Standish, a writing professor at Northwestern University. Standish confesses:

“I used to think it was one of the world’s dumbest ways to spend time, right in there with ice fishing and seeking political office. Once I started doing it, I thought, wait a minute, there’s all these other ancillary rewards. I just sort of landed on (mindfulness) myself.”

“This dumb birdwatching has altered my focus from the usual safe middle distance. Paying attention to birds in the city lets you see more, and for me has spilled over into other things. Doing it gives you the habit of looking carefully, noticing details that never seemed to be there before.”[9]

Traveling further down a lake berm, I find a place to park beside another mini-lake. Sitting quietly on a granite rock, I gaze at the empty surface area. Within fifteen minutes, a few birds cautiously land on the water. A few minutes later, a rush of hundreds of birds land on the water. I am barely breathing now, do not want to make a sound. My senses are alert. After recent cataract surgery, I see shapes and colors more vividly. I do not need to know what kind of birds they are, but I want to actively pay attention.

I have choices: listen carefully to songs, note colors or behaviors. My efforts at focusing on these birds, plants me into the Now. This has a calming effect; there is a gut felt titillation. I think the birds are watching me.

A memory flashed in my mind: Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, encountered a flock of birds in some trees beside the road. It seemed to Francis that the birds were watching him expectantly. Francis decided to preach to these birds about the love of God for all creatures.

Some monks who were with Francis wrote down what Francis preached to the birds, which was published into The Little Flowers of St. Francis:

“My sweet little sisters, birds of the sky,” Francis said, “you are bound to heaven, to God, your Creator. In every beat of your wings and every note of your songs, praise him. He has given you the greatest of gifts, the freedom of the air. You neither sow, nor reap, yet God provides for you the most delicious food, rivers, and lakes to quench your thirst, mountains and valleys for your home, tall trees to build your nests, and the most beautiful clothing: a change of feathers with every season. You and your kind were preserved in Noah’s Ark. Clearly, our Creator loves you deary, since he gives you gifts so abundantly. So please beware, my little sisters, of the sin of ingratitude, and always sing praise to God.”

Preaching to Birds

Painting by Giotto

“While Francis said these words, all those birds began to open their beaks, and stretch out their necks, and spread their wings, and bend their heads reverently toward the earth, and with acts and songs, they showed that the holy father (Francis) gave them great pleasure.”

“The birds waited patiently for Francis to bless them. The birds flew off in all directions, bearing this gospel of God’s love to share with all creatures.”[10]

As I return to my car, take one last look at Owens Lake, a memory from twenty-five years ago returns. I see the ominous cloud of poisonous dust rising from the dying lake. Los Angeles was draining away the water to sustain the growing population. Years later, a collaboration of the City of Los Angeles with local Owens Valley activists revived Owens Lake, which now invites you and me to enjoy aesthetic inspiration, communion with nature and spiritual consolation.

Lake from Space

NASA photo 2008


The Spoils of Dust: Reinventing the Lake that Made Los Angeles, Alexander Robinson. Applied Research and Design, 2018.

This excellent resource provides maps, photos, and description about the renewal of Owens Lake.

The Legacy of Owens Lake. This YouTube video presents a history of Owens Lake and the Owens Lake Project.

Tour of Plover Plaza. YouTube video of the Plover Plaza Land Art Project and desert village of Keeler, California.

[1] 1917 Joseph Grinnell, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Berkeley

See book for more.

[2] Louis Sagahun LA Times 4-28-18

[3] Steven Smith, Walking Meditation

[4] Chris Langley, Perry Cardoza’s Land Art Project Breaks Ground in the Owens Valley, February 3, 2016,


[5] Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, “Owens Lake Trails: A Public Access, Education and Recreation Project of the LADWP Owens Lake Dust Mitigation program,” 11.

[6] Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works, with Letters and Songs, ed. Matthew Fox (Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Co, 1987, p. 128.

[7] Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, Nature as a Mirror of God, March 12, 2018.


[8] A Song of Creation (Bendedicte, omnia opera Domini), Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 89.

[9] Greg Presto, Birdwatching Is an Easy Way to Practice Mindfulness.


[10] Hopler, Whitney. “Saint Francis of Assisi and His Sermon to Birds.” Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, learnreligions.com/saint-francis-assisi-sermon-to-birds-124321.

About fatherbrad1971

Professor of Philosophy and World Religions at Saddleback Community College, Mission Viejo, CA. Episcopal priest since 1971 in Diocese of Los Angeles (retired). Owner of Desert Spirit Press, publishers of books on desert spirituality. Author, "The Spirit in the Desert: PIlgrimages to Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley." and "Encounters with the World's Religions: the Numinous on Highway 395". Memberships: Nevada Archaeological Association, Western Writers of America, California Cattlemen's Association, American Association of University Professors, Outdoor Writers of California, American Academy of Religion, Western Folklore Association.
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4 Responses to Owens Lake Project: Metamorphosis for Contemplation

  1. Sandy Gilman says:

    Thank you, Father Brad.

  2. Nerice Kaufman says:

    Truly enjoyed this so much! Hope it’s ok that I shared with an ornithologist friend! Beautifully expressed and helped me focus on walking mediation in a new way! Love the hat👍

  3. steve bruce says:

    Every time you write of this area I am transported to the sounds and smells, the history and the sense of God in the moment.

  4. Gary Stewart says:

    Knowing that there are people like you, and the folks working on the Owens Lake projects, in the spirit of improving the world we and so many other forms of life exist, gives me hope that we can address challenges such as climate change. [Also, Father Brad, Sue and I remain very happily married.]

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