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Dan McCaslin: Is Nature Disappearing From Our Vocabulary?

Reconnecting with the outdoors through immersion experiences can free our minds, ease stress — and offer pure enjoyment

Zaca Peak Click to view larger
Springtime surfaces in the Santa Ynez Mountains near Zaca Peak. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Once an adult has ventured farther out there in wild nature long enough, he or she often cognizes with surprise: “I have to have more of this!”

This “more” means additional time roving in nature and away from the confinement of urban modernity. All-day killer hikes or one of the rigorous backpacking treks described in my columns are not necessary, but consistent hikes are.

It’s easy to take my 5-year-old twin grandsons one mile to Los Valley Camp for three days rather than push them another six miles farther east to Manzana Camp and thus deeper in the San Rafael Wilderness. Once we recollect how much we love and need the spatial aspect of wilderness, we can work on elongating the amount of time spent there. Absurdly masochistic and gnarly guy backpacks are fantastic, but one point of nature immersion is rewilding your consciousness, not simply hammering the body in an exquisite workout. (In the 1990s, friends and I made the 49-mile “southern loop” up the Manzana, down the Sisquoc, back up the Manzana a total of five times. Sigh.)

Occasionally, while back in town, a hiker spontaneously recollects the nature-need, and then the next step is making significant lifestyle changes to maximize more stress-free time in the near-wilderness (or wilderness). As an added benefit, more stress-free time affords increased opportunities for service to others.

The Guardian newspaper actually has a "Life Without Technology Columnist" in author Mark Boyle, who has lived without any modern tech since December 2016. But my contention in this column is that even a four-hour jaunt to Rocky Ridge or nearby Figueroa Mountain can rekindle Stone Age memories and awareness, and thus foster a kind of inner relaxation.

While many don’t experience this budding nature-immersion imperative, it may be they haven’t been able to spend enough free time hiking and/or camping in our nearby exotic backcountry.

Make yourself an example, dear reader, and double-check my idea: Undertake 10 of my suggested day hikes/backpacking treks in a 10-week period, and corroborate the hypothesis that once the subject is in nature frequently enough and long enough (minimum four to five hours each time), a lust grows to seize even more time in wildeor.

Wildeor is a Norse/Germanic term meaning a place of wild beasts, a pathless place uncontrolled by humans. In Spanish, we hear tierra salvaje and la inmensidad. While most true wilderness is lost today, we have plenty of near-wilderness and wild places close to our fair city.

Although backpacking hikes of three or more days create this throwback "lust for the woods" most emphatically, many readers will be able to manage the half-days on weekends. The prime requirement is physical exercise, walking hard and aiming away from the towns, forsaking as much tech stuff as possible, and separating from your undoubtedly important and overwhelming urban concerns.

However, another side to my contention is sobering. As more and more Americans have literally never been out-of-doors in semi-wild nature for at least four days and three nights — or 10 hikes in 10 weeks — they’ve never given themselves the chance to experience this intense “recognition scene” between self <— and—> nature (Mother Gaia).

Just as Aristotle comments about powerful “recognition scenes” in Greek drama, this personal realization in nature can be very powerful. The individual changes her thinking drastically on some point. In this instance, the trekker realizes most of the discomforts aren’t so hateful, that the simple food tastes better, that a few hours in wildeor is actually safer than the city physically, mentally and spiritually.

The human species has been evolving for hundreds of thousands of years, and even since the Paleolithic renaissance of 50,000 B.P., more than 99 percent of our development has been out in nature, immersed in Stone Age simplicity, facing la inmensidad and falling in love with our natural fate.

Every October for seven years, I led 30 adolescent seventh-graders from my Santa Barbara school to rustic Camp Whitsett in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains (elevation 4,300 feet in the Sequoia National Forest). Camping a week under the stars in our own tents, this experience in wilder nature enlightened and delighted many of my students, and truly frightened others. In order to introduce them to backpacking in the most attractive way possible, we would undertake very short backpacking trips for one overnight — in “tribes” of 10 with several adults.

This experience was a heaven for some, and inculcated that awakening to joys-in-nature, but certainly it turned off other early adolescents. Generally, the children whose parents had gotten them into wildeor as a family — hiking, backpacking, hunting, fishing — managed to find an inner niche in the outer wilderness surrounding them.

The true goal is to afford every child that chance to experience the startling paleo-truth: The self needs to be “outside” on the edge of civilization, at the frontier, in order to rewild itself. Think of it as slipping back into a faux Stone Age lifestyle for a few hours a week. The rewilding task is easier with the young, because all humans are born uncivilized, like Gilgamesh’s wild-man friend Enki in the ancient Mesopotamian epic. Or like my 5-year-old twin grandsons: They have to go to kindergarten and endure the torrent of civilized things and the insidious colonizing of the mind conducted by implacable technologies, then return to their joyful home nest.

One way to rewild our brains is to seek new words to describe natural features in novel ways. In the United Kingdom, nature lovers noticed that a 2010 new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary had purposely scrapped several terms describing nature. These included words such as acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, dandelion, fern, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, otter, pasture, willow and many others. But new replacement terms included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet point, celebrity, chatroom, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voicemail.

Hey, let’s replace heaven with iCloud!

The relationship of landscape and vocabulary fascinates us, and as we attempt to rewild ourselves with more nature immersion experiences, let’s also rescue words Google and Fakebook ignore, and not allow them to fade from our minds and disappear from our dictionaries. Emerson wrote that we want language to “pierce rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things.”

As you hike with your children and friends along an early morning potrero, you might catch a glimpse of a vanishing shreep — a mist that is slowly fading away. Let us not miss these ghost-like shreeps on Rattlesnake Meadow at 7 a.m., and let us not fail to rush outside with our families and get a whiff of the Stone Age, for our mental health as well as pure enjoyment — la inmensidad awaits!

4.1.1.

» Sources: Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks (2015); available at Chaucer's Bookstore in a Penguin paperback, edition 2016; or click here.

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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