21 Apr FoLAR Mourns Passing of Poet-Founder, Lewis MacAdams
“If it’s not impossible, I’m not interested.” – Lewis MacAdams (1944 – 2020)
Our City and our River have lost one of their best friends and advocates. Friends of the LA River’s beloved poet-founder Lewis MacAdams has passed away at the age of 75. The rebel poet who sparked the River Movement in Los Angeles was a catalyst for change that altered the character of our city for the better. Lewis’s perseverance, creativity, and stubbornness forced the City of Los Angeles to recognize, and eventually embrace, its namesake waterway.
While others of his generation saw fantasy in pristine untouched landscapes, Lewis saw the value in uplifting the most compromised river in perhaps the world. He famously asked the LA River permission to speak on its behalf in the human realm, and took its silence as a “yes.” With the power of his words behind a powerful vision he spoke countless truths on its behalf, with soft whispers in his poetry and a rebellious call to arms for us to recognize not only that we have a river, but that we should mobilize to fight on its behalf.
Mayor Eric Garcetti shared the news on twitter, adding, “One of this city’s truest angels, my dear friend, mentor, and high school teacher, Lewis MacAdams, has passed. He touched our souls, changed my life, and resurrected our river. See you downstream, brother.”
We all have a story to tell. Read the LA Times, and KCET’s tributes to Lewis and join us in sharing your memories of inspiration, Zen, poetry, politics, performance art, and other perspectives, as we invite you to share with us your story of Lewis and the River.
FoLAR Board Chairman M-K O’Connell heeded Lewis’s call after reading an op-ed in the Sunday paper nearly twenty years ago. “Lewis helped me see the power of the LA River as a metaphor of our detachment from native habitat, he said. “It was as if Lewis distilled all my disparate, ambling thoughts about the environment, sprawl, and the need for new urban parkland where people could gather.”
Lewis did more than sing the song of a dream promised, albeit deferred; he transposed the melodies of yellow warblers and Least Bell’s vireos, tapped rhythms only a red-legged frog could teach, and strummed the mother of all power cords in tribute to the steelhead trout, leaving the concrete to tremble in its sonic wake. By launching a “forty year artwork to restore the LA River,” he proved that art, science, and the environment can work together to reimagine current constructs and deliver a superior alternative for everyone.
In his own words, “you start with the river you have and then go to the river you wish you have.” With the humblest of grass roots, Lewis founded Friends of the LA River in 1986 and deployed all manner of protest and performance to change the attitudes of average Angelenos towards their own river. While dispensing undisputed truths within his poetry, he was also no stranger to punching above his weight. As the river’s “main man”, Lewis pushed the powers that be for over three decades to shape an important local success story, touching millions in the process. In that time, the River transformed from a foreign “moonscape”, as described in Lewis’s earliest poetry, to a crucial restoration opportunity in a state that prides itself on its environmental credentials. In his lifetime and with his leadership the River went from neglected flood control channel to designated navigable waterway, protected under the Clean Water Act, and open to recreational activities popular today. Dozens of pocket parks, miles of bikeway, and hundreds of acres of open space have opened and will continue to open along the LA River due to Lewis’s tenacious advocacy.
In 2016, after suffering a rapid series of health challenges, Lewis turned over the reins at FoLAR to current President & CEO Marissa Christiansen. “At the end of his days, I hope Lewis was cognizant of the impact he’s had on this world and on each of us,” Marissa said. “He led such a winding, fabled, and momentous life – the kind that will live on in the memories of all he knew. May we all be so lucky to leave such a lasting and positive mark on the world. I’m proud to be a part of making sure that impact lasts for generations to come.”
M-K O’Connell continued a long tradition of visiting Lewis for lunch through the years. “In my last meetings with Lewis, when he took up residence at an assisted living apartment in East Hollywood, Lewis was an altogether different man. He was pleased by the progress along the River, but it pained him to not be a part of it. I could see how Lewis gave everything to the River, and without it he felt adrift. When I came by with River and FoLAR updates, he would listen attentively, drinking in every piece of news. I wanted to bring news of even greater progress along the River, just to lift his spirits. Those meetings helped me appreciate that true selflessness is to give your everything to a cause, but not yet accomplish your goal. It’s up to us to continue in his spirit to finish Lewis’s forty-year artwork to rewild the River.”
As Lewis often said, “If it’s not impossible, I’m not interested. ”Every single staffer, supporter, and member in the course of FoLAR’s winding history has been inspired by Lewis in some way. The 75,000 volunteers over 30 years of River CleanUps are grateful for the example he set, and the lead for us to follow. The millions of Angelenos who will one day walk to a vibrant and verdant river from its headwaters to the ocean will owe him a debt of thanks.
“It all seems so obvious now, but the rejuvenation of the LA River was never assured, not then and not now. Lewis taught me that nothing is inevitable, but the things that feel right—are right—are worth fighting for, no matter how long it takes,” said O’Connell. While the dream of a fully accessible and ecologically restored LA River remains elusive, its promise and Lewis’s legacy lives on in all of us.