Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Patrick Watters: Waters of Life

by Richard Whittaker, Aug 20, 2020



My first acquaintance with Patrick Watters was via his email address "perching eagle" that accompanied a comment he left on an interview I'd done that appeared in "Hmm..." I thought. "Let's see what he wrote." It was right to the point. And he signed his note, "anonemoose monk." What was that about? Anonymous. A monk. I was Intrigued. I sent back a note of appreciation as I do with most comments people leave. (It's always appreciated to know something was actually read.)
     As the months went by, there were more pieces he responded to. His comments always went to the heart of the matter. Well, who is this man?  A little exchange began and developed in ways I couldn't have predicted, a delight. It wasn't long before I suggested we have a real conversation and here it is.. rw.

Richard Whittaker:  You were saying we had a similar childhood, so tell me about yours.

Patrick Watters:  Okay. I was born in Riverdale, North Dakota in 1951. In that winter, there was a record blizzard. My father was working on Garrison Dam at the time. We shared this government house with a Lakota family. The two fathers both were laborers at the dam. That’s what brought us together.
     The way the government housing worked, you usually ended up sharing with another family. The other little boy and I were born at about the same time in the middle of that winter. But my mother said, “We’re not staying here.” Giving birth to a child in this little government house on the banks of the Missouri was not what she wanted even though she was raised that way. She grew up in the Dakotas and lost a lot of siblings who died during childbirth. So we moved to my father’s family home in Nashua, Eastern Montana. We stayed there for just a short period. 
     One of my uncles had already been in Northern California and had his own paving and grading company. They had an operation in Redding, so we moved there. It was in the middle of summer and we were living in a brick apartment house with no air conditioning. It was 115 degrees, and my mother said, “We’re not staying here, either.” Fortunately, my father was able to get a job with the state of California as a civil engineer, and that was it. We moved to Sacramento.
     So my beginnings were on the Missouri River in 1951, and I moved three times before I was two. But then I never moved again until I was 15. In fact, my nickname all through high school, and even now, is Muddy Watters because the Missouri River by the Dakotas is called, “The Big Muddy.”

Richard:  Well, okay. We’re launched here. Now you told me that in your family, the relationship with water goes back quite a ways.

Patrick:   Closer than you might think. That spelling is Irish. Before we were Watters, in the fifth or eighth century, we were part of Clan O’hUaruisce - the last part of which is pronounced, “whiskey.” Our family was always near water, whether it was an ocean, a lake or stream. Bushmill’s Distillery, where my five-time great-grandfather was a master distiller, is on the Bush River. Then when we moved from Ireland, we settled in Butler County, PA and created a Watters Township and Watters Station Depot on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. And there was a stream running through there as well.

Richard:  Do you think your family’s connection with water through several generations was an intentional thing? Or is that sort of just the way it happened and people don’t talk about it?

Patrick:   The only one who really talks about it is me. But whether we knew it or not, our hearts, and spirits have always been drawn to water. I raised my kids in Sacramento where we have the Sacramento and the American rivers. And every time we vacationed, we were either at the Pacific Ocean, or I would take them up into the mountains to some of the places I had worked and visit the lakes up there.
     Physicists and environmentalists will tell you that water is the key to life. Wherever you can find water in the universe, there’s a potential for life. So when they found ice on Mars, they started thinking, well, there could be life there.

Richard:  You’re the one who talks about water and I’m interested to hear about your relationship with water and why it’s something that you’re aware of. Tell me something about that.

Patrick:   Well, we start out in the womb in water. And I think back to the fact that I was born on the banks of the Missouri River, which is a tremendously sacred river to indigenous people in North America. And the older I got, the more I realized that my affinity for water probably went back to where I was born. Then when I went on a vision quest to Northern Ireland and Scotland and discovered where my family was from, I realized this went back at least to the Bushmills era, to the river itself and the ocean there between Northern Ireland and Scotland. So the water has always been there.

Richard:   So tell me about this vision quest. When was it?

Patrick:   In 2016. I’d been up to Montana and the Dakotas. My father had taught me all about our heritage as Lakota people.

Richard:  You’re Lakota?

Patrick:   Yes.

Richard:  But you’re Irish also?

Patrick:   Oh, yeah. My father loved to do scouting. He was really into the outdoors and scouting, so I grew up a Boy Scout. But he also wanted me to learn this Lakota way.

Richard:  How did he know about the Lakota Way?

Patrick:   Probably through Grandfather. Grandfather told my dad stories that clearly had something to do with being part Lakota. These people had all gone into Montana and North Dakota in the 1800s. If they identified as Lakota, they were going to get put on reservations, or they were going to have to flee to Canada where they were treated a little better.
     My paternal grandfather was James Watters, and his father was Samuel Watters. Samuel and his brother, John, my great-grandfather and great-uncle, chose to leave Pennsylvania and farming and go to work for one of the fur-trading companies—Northwest, I think. One way to get good at fur trading was to take a Native American wife, so Samuel and John both married Native American women. When it gets down to me, I’m only 1/16. So it’s pretty far back, but my father wanted me to know that there was a Lakota way. In fact, when he passed away, he told me if I didn’t have Jesus, the Lakota way would be enough.

Richard:  There was an honoring of that by your father, and his father.

Patrick:   Yes. It was honored, but only quietly.

Richard:  It was quietly held, but it’s an amazing thing…

Patrick:  It was my father, primarily, who carried that on and I felt it was a heritage I had to carry on as well. My children all know that. I told them, “You’re Irish, you’re German from another side and you’re also Lakota. You’re descended from indigenous people of this land—the hosts of this land who we’ve torn everything away from and decimated. But we need to honor that, and by honoring it, we do reparations for it.

Richard:  So you did this pilgrimage.

Patrick:   In 2016. I tell people that World War II killed my father. He took his own life many years after the war. He suffered from PTSD, nightmares and bipolar depression. It finally was too much. His struggle is another whole story.
     My mom passed away and left me some money, and one of her requests was that I would go back to seek my father’s family origins, which I thought was funny coming from my mom who was a German Messianic Jew, so why would she care?  But she really loved my father and cared about his heritage.
     Then an old pastor friend, Jack McNary, reached out to me. He was a Scottish Presbyterian who was going on a pilgrimage to Scotland, and taking some people with him. So I went with him and we toured the highlands. I got some indoctrination into Dominican abbeys and monasteries, as well as Scottish whiskey.

Richard:  Does that interest you at all, the Dominican order? I’m asking because of your moniker— anonemoose monk.

Patrick:   So as I got older, I returned to my Christian faith. But the part I returned to was the desert fathers. These people moved out to the desert in the third and forth centuries because when Constantine combined church and state, it really became a fixed religion. I started discovering these monks, these abbas, who moved into the desert. I started tracing their movements and they eventually ended up in Ireland.

Richard:  The desert fathers end up in Ireland, some of them?

Patrick:   Well, the Desert Fathers moved around and started teaching people. They ended up going into Spain, France and Portugal, and (Saint) Patrick came back home to Britain. So the Celtic monks are who I’m drawn to—Celtic monasticism.

Richard:   That’s very interesting to me. There’s a book I haven’t read, but I bet it’s related. Do you know it— How Ireland Saved Christianity?

Patrick:   That book is going to give you the whole history. And yes, the Church in Ireland becomes a stronghold of Christianity, but not of papal Christianity.

Richard:   I recently learned something related to that in a book by Richard Temple, Icons and the Mystical Origins of Christianity. He says that the early mysticism of the Church still lives in the Orthodox tradition, but the Roman Catholics basically rejected it.

Patrick:   Yes. Celtic monasticism kept it. Before the great schism in the Church in the 8th Century, there was a schism in the 5th or 6th century between the Celtic Christian Church and the Roman Church. People don’t realize that. But the Celts continued on, and Celtic monasticism is having a rebirth now. It’s much more closely aligned with Orthodox Christianity. It still has the mystic tradition. The person I love to read lately is Richard Rohr. He started his own organization in New Mexico, called the Center for Action and Contemplation.
     So I was drawn to Celtic monasticism already. I had been using a little book, Celtic Daily Prayer, that’s put out by the community of Northumbria,  a kind of a lay monastic community in England. They practice Celtic Christianity brought from Ireland by St. Colomba to Scotland, and through the ages, it has maintained itself. Colomba means “dove.” He was one of the early Irish monks. Back then, monks were not only holy men, but had armies as well. He got into a fight and caused some people to die and he banned himself from Ireland. That resulted in Celtic Christianity moving into Scotland. There’s a long history there.

Richard:   One that you know something about?

Patrick:    I studied it pretty hard, because I realized it had something to do with my family. So I had a twofold purpose. I wanted to go to Scotland and Ireland and see if I could actually talk to some people and trace my family history. I wanted to figure out where this Watters—with two t’s—was from. My family was part of the highland clearances when all the Irish sharecroppers were shoved out so that the landowners could start raising sheep instead of farming.
     So I went over with this group and didn’t really discover much. But I stayed another week and went to Northern Ireland myself. I went up to Bushmill on the Bush River, and stayed at a little B&B. When the people who ran the B&B found out my name, they said, “Our home is built on Watters property. This is a Watters farm here.” So I asked them for information and got sent to a young guy who runs a car shop. He took me to go see his grandpa, Jim Wylie and the moment I walked in to meet him, he said, “Oh yeah, you’re a Watters, all right.” He showed me a portrait. I said, “Oh my God, that’s my dad and my Uncle Walt.” Of course it wasn’t, but they were dead ringers for my dad and uncle.
     Jim Wylie who was 94, proceeded to tell me everything he could about Watters history. He said, “Your family has been here generation upon generation. Go to the Dunluce Presbyterian Church in Bushmill.” It had a graveyard. I walked in there and was speechless. Over half of the gravestones contained the name Watters, and there were six generations of people in that graveyard.
So for three weeks in 2016, I went on this pilgrimage and I found my family. It changed a lot of things for me. I realized that, okay, this is this is who I am, but everybody has a deep, long back story. So that got me interested in doing kind of what you do.
     I was retired by then so what was I going to do? A lot of it involves family, because all of my children and grandchildren live within walking distance. They've all come back to Sacramento. And I volunteer at an elementary school where three of my grandchildren are. It’s very, very diverse, K through 8; we have DACA families, Russians, Native Americans, Blacks, Hispanics. My kids don't know what it is to be a white majority in a public school. And by the way, my wife, Patricia, is descended from braceros, the Tarahumara in northern Mexico.

Richard:   Fascinating, and something we could talk about, but I’d like to go back to water—I think you mentioned that even in your work history, you had a relationship with water in some way. Is that true?

Patrick:   Yes, I got a degree in biology from Sacramento State around aspects of conservation, which is basically an old ecology degree. My first job was as a fisheries aid. I spent a summer up in Alpine County doing a high-mountain lake survey. My boss told me that a good way to assess how the lakes were doing was to assess the fishery, to see how the fish were doing—what they were eating and stuff like that. So I asked, “How do I do that?”
     He said, “Well, we're sending you up there to go fishing!” So I spent a whole summer doing a high-mountain lake surveys. So there's the water again.

Richard:  And you probably ended up swimming, also.

Patrick:   Oh, everything.

Richard:   What was the elevation, more or less?

Patrick:   7,000 feet and up. The highest lake I surveyed was called Raymond Lake. It sits in a little cirque below Raymond Peak at 9,000 feet. It's one of the few lakes left in Northern California that actually has native golden trout in it.

Richard:   I’ve never been a fisherman, but when I was younger on a backpacking trip in the Sierras, I did see a golden trout. It was just the most beautiful thing.

Patrick:   They’re related to the rainbow trout, but the sides are a golden hue. They're all beautiful.

Richard:   So there’s the mystery of water, the beauty of water and the depth of our relationship with water, and most people are just asleep to this, I find.

photo by R. Whittaker - Mission at Carmel, California
Patrick:   They take it for granted!

Richard:   I was still in school down in Claremont, actually, when I went up to the high Sierras with a group of friends. We went up on the Muir Trail. We could drink right out of the streams. The water was—to do it justice in words isn’t possible. The experience of swimming in the nude in those lakes with crystal clear water—it was a sacred experience, one of the deeper experiences I've ever had.

Patrick:   That takes you back to the core of your primal humanity.

Richard:   Doesn't it?  So you were, of course, experiencing that yourself.

Patrick:   And I experienced that as a child. My father raised me that way, so it was only natural that I sought that out later in life, and that summer was special. I still go up to those places when I need to get away - to that stretch of the Mokelumne wilderness. I head onto the Pacific Crest Trail, and then just turn right or left. Sometimes I'll take a drum with me or a Native American flute.

Richard:   You know, you wrote something to me in a note: “Breathe in, breathe out.” A friend, Davis Dimock, who an amazing artist in Vermont, always signs off on his letters to me with: breathe in, breathe out. You wrote that it’s your practice, a prayer. “Breathe in, Lord. Breathe out, have mercy on me.” That was so unexpected that you would know that prayer. I mean, we don't have to talk about this if it's too personal.

Patrick:  No, we can talk about it. This all comes back to Celtic monasticism. I mean, it's Buddhist, it's Sufi, it’s Hindu—it's breathing, right? It gets to the source. I don't even say it out loud. It's just in my mind. When I breathe in I'm saying, “Lord.” When I breathe out I'm saying, “Have mercy.” There needs to be a movement, the Lakota would say, of the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka. I follow a Christian path, but this is universal. If we all came from Africa, we are all one thing. We have a Oneness we haven't tapped into. Water is part of that oneness.
     So some people dragged you up to the Range of Light—that’s what Muir called it.

Richard:   Yes. It’s extraordinary!

Patrick:   And it never leaves you.

Richard:   So a few years ago, I started thinking about water. The whole water system is getting screwed over, and it’s bad news for billions of people. So I was wondering, how can you get people to really feel something deep about water, feel something about its beauty, its mystery? I mean, words fail. That’s the hard thing about art. What can cut through this crust?  
     I tried to write some stuff, but it's not very good. I tried to have some conversations, but I couldn't find many people with whom to have these conversations. I did find one person though—Betsy Damon. She has an incredible story. And I talked about this with Sam Brower who was the founder of, which sadly is no longer around. And there's a beautiful piece I just published by Ron Hobbs, too. Anyway, when I was asking myself what my key experiences with water have been, I felt the depth of it. So it’s good talking with you, Patrick because you're more conscious of it.

Patrick:   Well, even talking to you, I start to remember other aspects of how integral water is to our life in many ways, and to theology as well. We have Christianity with its baptisms and its holy water; they know there's something sacred about water. They have their living water. And living water isn't just a Christian notion. It’s perennial wisdom. Water is life. Now we've got science sending out all these telescopes. We're trying to figure things out in the universe, and we're going to look for water because we know that water is life.

Richard:   And there’s a lot of it out there in the universe, which is amazing.

sons, Prof. Cody, dad Patrick, son Dr. Kyle,

Patrick:   And it's amazing how they can discover it. I'm pretty fortunate. I have one son who’s an environmental biologist and ecologist. He’s a professor of Environmental Biology and Ecology at Sacramento State. The other one is a professor of Astrophysics, Physics and Astronomy. He's got his PhD from Stanford. He's worked for the Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea and he's worked for NASA. I'm delighted that they both decided to teach because this is just what you're talking about. We need to educate people about water. If they get educated about water, guess what they're going to do? They're going to realize they need to be stewards of creation.
     We've done a lot of damage and I point this out to people. I say, “Look what's happening to the water anywhere in the world.”

Richard:   And the groundwater.

Patrick:   The groundwater, oh! fracking. They're getting oil into the groundwater. The Lakota have it right. Thank God for the Cheyenne Sioux tribe, the water protectors. They took a lot of heat and got brutalized. But they wanted to put that pipeline right through their main water source the Oahe Reservoir on the Missouri River—where I was born. So that stuff touches me deeply.

Richard:   It's really awful.

Patrick:   Well, people have to be educated. Otherwise, they're just cruising along in the status quo. We turn on the tap and think that everything's cool.

Richard:   No, I think you're right. It’s education we need. But there’s so much lying going on. I’ve met a few ranchers and a few farmers and from my limited experience, I have a natural affinity for them.

Patrick:   They’re close to the earth.

Richard:   It may be that our politics are often at opposite ends of the spectrum. But as people, I feel so much connection.

Patrick:   You might be surprised. Some of the farmers have realized that the promises that were made by that gentleman have not come through, and they've been decimated. So the farmers I know—yeah, a lot of them are Republicans, but they're the old Grand Old Party Republicans. They know that the land is what feeds them and helps them subsist, and they’ve got to care for it. I know a delightful family in the Lodi area, the Cotta family—third generation, Cotta Family Farms. When you look up their farm on the website, it says Wildlife Sanctuary. They let a lot of things go wild out there. They raise blueberries, ah! the best. They raise all kinds of row crops. Their sons are all involved in the operation. Chris Cotta is an artist. He runs the farm but he's also an artist and musician. He likes old-school cowboy music and he performs in Sacramento a lot.

Richard:   It seems to me that there could be, and it seems like there ought to be, a natural coalition between farmers and ecologists.

Patrick:   I’ll tell you where you’ll find that happening right now, and that’s in the Sacramento River Delta. That was my community. I was a land-use planner for thirty years, assigned to the Delta. So I got to know the farmers down there—the Schonauers, the Bogle family, the Cotta family, the Browns, the Folsters, the Cortland pear people. They’ve all been there forever. They all, to a person, want to do Ag tourism, as part of education down there.
     I don’t know if you know the name Bogle. They’ve turned everything into grapes. They now make some of the best wine in Northern California. Just talking to you, really, you keep stimulating my thinking. I think, “Oh my God, there’s more hope out there than I realized.”
     I have to remind myself that there are a lot of people doing things. We just don’t hear about them, because thanks to William Randolph Hearst, all we hear about is—you know, yellow journalism. Unfortunately, the media doesn’t take the opportunity to tell the good stories. That’s why I love ServiceSpace. Just think about it. It’s telling all kinds of good stories. I share them like crazy. Everything ServiceSpace does is just great.

Richard:   Yes, I feel blessed to have crossed paths with ServiceSpace.

Patrick:   Well, collaboration. That’s what it’s all about. We can’t do a lot.… Well, we can do great things, actually, as one small person: one small act of love. But if we know we’re part of a bigger group, we see that we have a greater impact. We’d be overwhelmed if we didn’t know we were part of a larger group doing this. We’d burn out. Too many social activists want to do good, but get so focused on the social activism part that they burn out. They need to be feeding themselves, as well.
     So water, yes. Somehow educating, and I’m not sure what that mechanism is going to be.

Richard:   No, I think that’s very good. I want to get back to your history. You had this summer of checking out the fisheries. And then, tell me…

Patrick:   As a biologist, you’re always getting offers from the federal government for what it calls WAE (when actually employed). That means, “We’re going to pay you for six months, nine months, but you’re not going to get any benefits. And you also don’t get any retirement. But if we have room, we’ll hire you back next year.” So I was basically stringing together a bunch of seasonal jobs. The next job I got was from the Bureau of Land Management office that oversaw the north coast of California from Santa Rosa to the Oregon border. It included the King Range and the Lost Coast—gorgeous country.
     My friend, Gail Yamamoto was already up there and told them they needed another person. She was a National Park ranger at Point Reyes National Seashore. So I got hired. My boss was this crazy old hippie, Tom Schott. I don’t know how he got a job with BLM. He and his wife and four kids lived up on a farm outside of Willits. It was totally off the grid.
     He hired me, and I ran three Youth Conservation Corps camps. One was in Ukiah, where the kids came out during the day. For the other two camps we brought up kids from Berkeley and Oakland and put them to work for the summer out in the wilderness. It took a while to get the gang tendencies out of them.

Richard:   So a lot of these kids were…

Patrick:   Inner-city kids! So here’s the water again. The kids were staying on a virgin fork of the Eel River. The South Fork of the Eel goes up into a virgin redwood forest. There’s a lumber company up there called Harwood. Guess what? They’re like the farmers we were talking about. They care about it. They donated 8,000 acres to the Nature Conservancy.
     There used to be a bohemian camp up there that was started by a guy named Joseph Grenell. He was a botanist from UC-Berkeley. He built a Victorian house out in the middle of a meadow and built a little motel out there. People would go up there to stay. All we were doing there was some light forestry work and some trail building.
     So in one of the camps there they were living in these old wooden shacks. The kids were scared to death when they first walked in there, because everything started scurrying—mice, shrews, moles all over the place. The last camp was in a little town called Honeydew, on the Mattole River.

Richard:   I’ve been through there.

Patrick:   Way up north, near Petrolia. There was a little motel there, too, so we put the kids up in the motel. My work the whole summer long was to make sure these camps got everything they needed. So I drove back and forth from Ukiah all the way up to the Oregon border. The kids were from urban San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland.
     We ended up having a few fights the first couple of days, but then everything got mellowed out. The irony is that the staff were Nature Conservancy people, all from New England, and they’re overseeing inner-city kids from Berkeley and Oakland. It took a while, oh my goodness, to calm everybody down and help them understand we were all out in the wilderness and had to take care of each other.
     But it was all water again. There was the Eel River and we were up in the Cow Mountain area, where there are all kinds of lakes—Mendocino Lake—where the Corps of Engineers were working. Then, on the north coast, we were rebuilding a trail from down on the coast up into the mountains. The wife of one of the maintenance guys there was a commercial fisherman. We had to load all the equipment—the rebar, etc.—onto her boat, and she brought it in and offloaded it onto the beach. Then we worked our way up, pounding rebar in, because it’s all shale; we had to reinforce the trail. So that was another summer.

Richard:  That sounds like another memorable season.

Patrick:  Oh, it was incredible! I met some amazing people. I got to be running the camps, but I was also one of the first rangers for the Bureau of Land Management. So I was a ranger, but also a camp counselor. I had to go out to a local pizza place and get to know all the marijuana farmers, so they didn’t shoot at my truck when I drove by. This was all in the 70s.

Richard:   Now, you’re a big guy and you played football. What was your position?

Patrick:   That’s a pretty funny story, too. I wanted to be a quarterback and a wide receiver, both, but the only position I ever started at was called “long snapper.” The only time I ever got to be quarterback was during practice with the scout team. It was a lot of fun because I could do whatever I wanted.

Richard:   Okay, I just bring that up because I'm imagining it could help you deal with these kids.
Patrick:   Oh, I never had to be rough with them. They respected me because I was big and had played football. Also I could talk with them. I grew up playing football with people of color. But I’m not a macho kind of guy. Anyway, I got out of the ranger business and went to Butte College and for peace officer training. I got post-certified, and was offered a job with the State Parks—again on water.

Richard:   Peace officer training, meaning like police work?

Patrick:   Yes. I learned how to be a law enforcement person, and the culture in law enforcement, I realized, was a lot like the culture in football—very aggressive and macho. That’s not who I was, but I was offered a job on the Boat Patrol on Lake Oroville. I asked somebody about it. I said, “What’s Boat Patrol like?” He said, “You’re going to be dealing with a bunch of angry drunks every weekend.” I thought, “That’s not my idea of being a park ranger.”

Richard:   Did you take that job?

Patrick:   No, I quit. I didn’t want to be a cop. Then I got offered a job as an interpretive ranger at a brand-new facility: the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area in Lovell, Wyoming. At the time, though, I was married to my first wife who was teaching at Encina High School in Sacramento. She couldn’t relocate and so I didn’t want to go. So rather than take that job, I was offered a job coaching football and teaching agricultural biology at Santa Rosa High School.
     At about that same time, I was offered a job with Sacramento County as an environmental land-use planner; writing environmental impact reports etc., and for the next 30 years, I worked for Sacramento County. I retired from there. But again, water was a significant part of it, because my community was the Delta. And my other community was the American River Parkway, which they call the jewel of Sacramento County, a wild, undeveloped river parkway running right through the middle of an urban area. It’s rare to see something like that. Chicago has a river; San Antonio has a river and you can do a river walk; but ours was left wild.

Richard:   Did you say you were part of EBMUD (East Bay Municipal Utility District) for awhile?

Patrick:   No. My brother-in-law is part of the Oakland-Alameda Waste Management Authority. But a really close friend, John Mott, is connected with it. His father, Phillip Mott, was Secretary of the Interior, and started all of the trail systems up here, including Tilden Park. He also had a lot to do with the national parks. He lived in Orinda-Moraga.
     I probably had some dealings with East Bay M.U.D., just because I worked for thirty years with the Sacramento County Planning and Building Department. It was a long, tedious career. The first ten years, were delightful. There were lots of well-meaning young people, excited about life there. The second ten years I was a husband, raising my kids, and really began to hate the bureaucracy. Then, during the last ten years, I was able to carve out a niche, cut a lot of red tape and almost be my own boss. I worked more for the County Board of Supervisors, the elected officials, and got to know a lot of people. In fact, when our current mayor, Darryl Steinberg, was a State Senator, I worked a lot with him on legislation for affordable housing and things like that. Those turned into statewide laws.

Richard:   What are a couple of things you’re happiest with in your last ten years, where you were able to cut through the red tape.

Patrick:   So I was the zoning administrator, and therefore a public hearing officer. So even though I had bosses who were department heads, they couldn’t influence me as a hearing officer, because I’d been appointed by the Board of Supervisors. The Board of Supervisors knew that I was pretty good at mediating, negotiating and calming people down. Sometimes the hearings were pretty contentious. They were about permits, variances, vicious dog hearings—where I might have to take someone’s dog away or even condemn it—so pretty nasty hearings.
     So the Board realized that I was really good at bringing together people from Planning and Building, who only saw things in black and white, and sitting them down at the table with their constituents who had a problem that needed fixing.
     I was up in the Board offices in their conference rooms all the time having these meetings. A Board person might say to me, “Pat, how do we fix this?” Over here would be sitting the Director of Public Works or the Planning Director, and over here was some State Senator, who owns a house in the Delta and wants to do something to it. So I’d negotiate ways to get around the laws. Fortunately, the chief County Counsel was a pretty good friend. He told me, “I trust you. You can interpret the law any way that you want to. I just don’t want to be defending you or the County in court! So make sure you know what you’re doing. Stay within boundaries.
     So the greatest time I had the last ten years was cutting red tape—not looking at the letter of the law, but the intent of the law: what are we trying to do here? Can I get these people to do what they want to do within the confines of that? Many times, it meant somebody coming into my office, and I would have to take them by the hand and walk them over to some supervisor’s or county employee’s office—most of the time in Public Works—sit down and hammer out an agreement of some sort. I’d built relationships with people who could make those decisions. We’d talk together, then they’d want me to sign off on a lot of stuff.

Richard:   And you put yourself on the line by doing that. It’s great you were willing to do that.

Patrick:   The County never got sued because of any action I took. We did get sued sometimes. I helped with legislation to do away with illegal massage parlors, child trafficking, etc., and we got sued by the attorneys of those heinous people. But Bob didn’t care about that. He was perfectly happy to fight against the corrupt people.
     So the last ten years, I worked mostly for the Board. And one perk was I didn’t have to wear a suit and tie anymore to hearings. I’d wear khakis and Hawaiian shirts, and they liked it. You show up like that, people aren’t looking at you as “the Man.” They’d think, “The guy’s in a Hawaii shirt. He’s talking Aloha!” 
     I try to instill that in my children. And I was able to do a lot of youth coaching, soccer, etc., so I was able to talk to a lot of kids, including my children’s friends. So it’s been good. Working at the little elementary school now is just an extension of that. These kids all call me “Papa Watters.”

Richard:   It’s too bad we’ve lost that tradition that exists in some cultures, like in India—where they say, “Nipunbhai,” which is like “brother.” These little tags show respect and love. And they use “Auntie,” and “Mother” and so on. It’s such a deeply wonderful, healthy thing and we don’t have any of that.

Patrick:   If we would go back and embrace indigenous culture we would recapture that. For instance, “grandfather” and “grandmother” are the terms used in Lakota to mean anybody who is two generations above you. The only place I’ve seen that recently, is when my wife took a job—she’s an Occupational Therapist—at an elder care center in Hilo, on the Big Island. They needed help, and she thought she could take a semester off from teaching at Sacramento City College. So I became her chauffeur, her houseboy, her cook. I’d go down to the Suisan Fish Market and get whatever the fresh catch was, and I met all these Hawaiian people. One of them is still a good friend, Harlan Fragas. He works with the juvenile corrections facility on the Big Island and teaches outdoor craft and water safety, CPR, etc. So between him and this other guy, Herb Mamaloa, who taught me how to stand-up paddle, I got to know their families. Sometimes they have three generations living under the same roof. And what you hear all over town is “Auntie,” or “Uncle.” Almost everybody is “Auntie” or “Uncle.” They referred to me, with my white hair— jokingly sometimes—as “big kahuna,” or as “makua-kane,” which is “Grandpa.”
     So we’ve lost a lot of our humanity in this technological age. We don’t sit down and do what you and I are doing right now, really talking. And I’m convinced that this is the pathway to not just racial reconciliation, but conciliation. You can’t reconcile something that wasn’t ever there. We need to build relationships by sitting down and talking with each other.
     It’s also how people are going to start to understand the importance of water. Individual conversations, if we could get out there. Emergence Magazine, I think, published an article called, “Have You Tasted the Wild Water?” It’s great.

Richard:   I did an interview with Emanuel Vaughan-Lee while he was still making his movie about water, “Elemental.” He’s the founder of the Global Oneness Project, I think, and Emergence Magazine comes out of that. Cleary Vaughan-Lee is a big part of that, too. I have immense respect for what they’re both doing. It’s amazing.

Patrick:   A huge part of what they’re doing is the education component. A lot of the people in my own circle are now a part of Emergence Magazine. They’re reading those articles and realizing there is something deep and important there.

Richard:   Yes, they’re doing God’s work—that’s one way to put it. We need that.

Patrick:   Well, all I’m trying to do is express the truth that’s here. The heart knows it, but the mind can’t put words to it. It’s like you said, how do I tell people about this part of water, how do I put words to it? It has to be poetry...

photo by R. Whittaker - water main break and a fountain of sudden beauty



About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.   


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