I first met Li An Phoa during a week workshop she ran alongside Christianne Sinoo at YIP in 2016, called ‘Inner & Outer’. It was a week of connecting to the Earth and reassessing our relationship with “nature”. She was a huge inspiration to me then and now, and I’m very happy to be able to interview her this month over a telephone conversation whilst she walks with her project ‘Drinkable Rivers’.
Li An “is a passionate systems-thinker engaged in research, holistic learning and creation for vital food, water and landscapes.” Alongside running workshops and teaching at various educational institutes, she is actively engaged in the self-organised, awareness-raising project ‘Drinkable Rivers’ where she walks from source to sea along major rivers of the world, engaging in conversation and education with all she meets…
This interview has been transcribed and redacted… Enjoy!
Where in the world are you right now?
I am walking next to the river Meuse, in France, 21 days away from the source, situated a bit north of Sedan and south of Charleville-Mézières.
How did you come to be there, and what is the work that you’re doing?
I’m walking the entire river Meuse from source to sea, which will be 1000 km. The river itself is 925 km. I chose the Meuse because I’m born in the Meuse-Rhine delta.
Once 13 years ago I was canoeing the Rupert River in Canada, I could drink the river water the whole time. At the time I thought ‘What? I could not imagine my own river could be drinkable like that.’ And ‘why isn’t it like that?’ Those questions started to change my thinking, and then returning to that river three years later, realising I could not drink it any more because of the development choices and activities that happened in the meantime – something that is healthy for millions of years, can within three years change completely. There I got the realisation we have to take care.
In the realisation ‘why can’t I drink my river?’ I started to think ‘ah, all the activities we have been doing’ and ‘what is encouraging those activities?’ Then I think about this economic system that’s guiding our choices of more and of bigger… there is something fundamentally wrong. If all relationships are healthy, then, qualities like water drink-ability appear. [Bonjour] And I thought that is a good indicator. We all live in a watershed all around the world, it’s something in general we all share… On the other hand, we are water, we need it. So, if that is the basic indicator for healthy living, and we start to embrace that, I think every step, every action [Bonjour] could be different.
I just passed now two people I would normally talk to. Normally I make a lot of connections with the local people, and I’m staying at their places. I’ve already been in 20 different homes, very different people, from teachers, farmers, to retired people, young fishermen and mayors. It’s wonderful to get that diversity. While I’m walking, and talking to the local people, I also take every day a test of water. It’s a simple science project. We check the quality of the water and we talk about how it’s a reflection of our activities and how we do things.
So, where I’m born, plus that deep experience that changed my thoughts and now, really connecting to all of them, walking that whole river I was born next to, really getting to know my watershed, and sharing the idea that we are one watershed that is connected.
I know a little bit about Spring College, is that something you’re still working with?
Yes, it’s all part of an extension of my work and the activities I do. So, the invitation to take people outdoors, what you just experienced yourselves [during YIP]. When I call out that invitation, it’s under the name of Spring College. So that is still very much alive. This project, Drinkable Rivers, it started by me as a citizen, but I’d like to grow this into a foundation or organisation, so that next year I can invite more people to join with their rivers and also map that activity around the world.
What’s in store the future, this year and beyond?
This is now getting a lot of momentum. Yesterday another newspaper article, today a radio interview, and after our call a documentary maker is coming. It touches enough of a critical tone, but also proposes a perspective on how to navigate and what to do. I really see that this is moving and growing. I will continue creating events with this and building an organisation, so I’m also looking for donations to grow that organisation and really capture this momentum to deepen what we’ve now been doing.
I will be creating a conference next year, which is about being water, the fact that we are water. I really want to connect people from our physical world, like hydrologists, and make conversations between people in our health world, like dentists, acupuncturists and blood experts. What can we learn about health via the lens of being water?
I will be walking the Yellow River in China, and I will see that the coming 10 years, every year I will do a river expedition and that I invite anyone to create their own and share that. It could be a large expedition that I’m doing, but also could be something very small – if you’re in a wheelchair and you do a 1 km, that also gets captured, so it’s also inviting to anyone – the power is being able to show that we will do this, taking steps to take care of our rivers.
That’s also for the love of the [change-makers] around the world, with whatever their talents and passion are, that they align it to some action – local actions that they can think of. It doesn’t need to be rivers, it can be trees or bees or elderly, or whatever. This feeling of how we are taking care of the places we are living, that is something I want to see, that we show and share and let it grow. I think that it’s, in a good way, infectious, that we ignite each other. What’s your spark?
I see that, how I’m living my spark, how it touches others and then they touch me in return, and we just grow. I’ve not been sleeping much, yeah, only 4-5 hours I’ve been sleeping each night for two months or so, and I walk at least 20 km’s a day, I talk to at least almost 100 people a day. Of course, it’s tiring and a lose my voice, but it gives a lot of energy too. Then I see, OK, this is really regenerative.
Who knows? This is all not planned – I knew I wanted to do this, but I knew I could hardly speak any French, I didn’t know any people in France. It might look like, when you see my pictures, that I planned everything – but none of it was planned. It all goes step by step, seizing the opportunities, creating that initiative that YIP is all about, being awake to jump into those opportunities. Then weave with your dream. If you ask me about the future, that is what I’ll continue to do. And it’s important that we unleash this potential that each of us has within, not to be shy, not to hide any more. I used to do many things but not to be seen, but now it’s important that people see and hear us and that we are really leaving our trail behind and share this spark.
Amazing, well you’re sparking me with this! I have one more question: ‘How can others get involved?’
You can view my website and Instagram and sign the ‘lifeline’ – I’m collecting 100 signatures or 100 names per kilometre that I walk, I want to have that by the end of this calendar year, so that’s 100,000 people, which is quite ambitious. It is saying ‘I will take care of drinkable rivers’ and ‘my first step is…’. With it, I’ll show that we are a bigger group of people wanting to take that step and I can also then say to companies and politicians ‘will you also dare to say, “I take my step”?’.
Then another level is to join physically with the walk if you can, many people have done it. I’ve only had two days where I’ve been completely by myself. One of them is today, but then you have a lot of time for interviews, like this.
I’m collecting donations, it can be very small, or larger ones. On my website there is a ‘donate now’ button. But also, to share your talents. You know, what you’re doing now, with your talents to communicate, everybody has another way to share their spark. So, encouraging that.
Allow yourself to have time outdoors and be connected to that, to do those primal things like drinking directly from a lake…. A very practical step is to thank water before you use it, then you immediately start to use it with a slightly different relationship, instead of just having a functional relationship, you will also create a deeper appreciative relationship, that water is also alive.
Thank you so much Li An, this has been a wonderful interview!
It’s good to talk to you again Jim and I appreciate you wanting to talk about this. It’s wonderful to feel this connection, via you, to YIP. Give a big hug to everybody!
All the links!