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Friday, March 22 , 2019, 6:30 pm | Fair 59º


Dan McCaslin: ‘Privacy’ and a Poem Amid the ‘Mountain Snow’ in Rattlesnake Canyon

Basking in the aromatic white ceanothus blossoms that adorn the hillsides is among the benefits of hitting the frontcountry trails

Rattlesnake Canyon Click to view larger
Masses of white ceanothus adorn local hillsides above Rattlesnake Canyon. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

The recent scattered rainstorms oblige the enterprising day hiker to study his options carefully, mindful that other hikers feel similarly limited to the frontcountry treks. Of course, I realize how fortunate Santa Barbara is to have so many accessible public trails, including Jesusita, Tunnel, Bill Wallace and certainly the 450-acre Rattlesnake Canyon Wilderness area itself. Backcountry and beaches, wider Santa Barbara beckons!

Driving over San Marcos Pass and hiking toward Santa Ynez, however, is not an option now with this rainfall, and with fewer trail choices, many more people now seem to frequent the local paths — and bravo! Lately I’ve enjoyed meeting more children, more families, more dogs and more wanderers seeking nature energy and relative solitude in our foothills. Sandy beaches invite us to surf and swim, while frontcountry canyons furnish relative privacy.

Right now in midwinter, some of the chaparral blooms fragrant and vivid: Masses of aromatic white ceanothus blossoms adorn our steep hillsides, as you can see in the lead photograph (taken Feb. 1). Aptly nicknamed “mountain snow,” the Chumash used the strong white ceanothus stalks as digging tools, but preferred utilizing the blue ceanothus (ceanothus oliganthus and c. spinosus), which will blossom later in February. Native Americans also deployed the harder blue ceanothus wood as wedges to split logs for tomol canoe planks, and also as awls. (See 4.1.1. for Timbrook and other references.)

Whenever I am taking students into these hills and the ceanothus (sekh or washiko in Samala) blossoms are abundant, we take some and “wash” our hands. The pleasant lilac smell plus frothy texture really do clean and soothe the hands.

There are those among us who get enough of these frontcountry creek trails but also worship the desert hinterlands, and there are others who cherish our southern coastline and strand. What unites these groups is a wish to flee the city and find some relative solitude and its helpmate, (relative) silence.

It is now common to emphasize how much true “privacy” individuals have lost today because of the overweening surveillance state (aka "nanny state" to my conservative friends), and the dominance of social media and tiny screens.

White ceanothus
Mountain snow or white ceanothus? (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

As we dangle alone together in digital times, trying to agree with Jaron Lanier that You Are Not a Gadget, many of us struggle with an increasing array of apps plaguing us by keeping us connected at all times. So much interconnection has sometimes been called the Death Algorithm (a Roberto Simanowski book).

In “Death of the private self," The Guardian’s John Harris dissects the impact that social media, especially Facebook, have had on western humanity during the past 15 years. He notes that lots of folks lie about themselves on social media, and that Mark Zuckerberg’s vaunted “connectivity” rationale really augments fibbing about oneself (acting) and naked consumerism.

But these aren’t the worst threats. Harris notes: “The Facebook age marks a break from traditional human behaviour in a key aspect. In the past, we could regularly take a break from acting [the fibs], and revert to some sense of our private, authentic selves.”

Since we’re always on call, we’re always “performing,” and the Anthropocene never sleeps. For the individual, sleep becomes ambrosia, and all that’s between your original “genius” (unique self) and total saturation with the Internet’s singularity. Tech critic Lanier contends that we’ve sold access to our personal data (and souls) for immersion in social media, incessant political blarney and shopping convenience. He says we’re now like lab rats running an endless artificial maze while our tech overlords luxuriously preen themselves amid in Silicon Valley and Seattle.

One sure method to recover your individual being, your authentic private self, is to roam back into nature. The siren call of wilderness liberty overwhelms your brain’s executive function — you find yourself biking or driving to a trailhead for an hourlong canyon hike in the relative quiet of Rattlesnake Canyon. Backcountry or beaches, we adore our southern littoral and fragrant foothills. Frequent forays toward Cathedral Peak or bodysurfing at Hendry’s force you to disconnect and become the moment.

My sister Barbara, who lived here for 12 years, loved the coast and the mountains, and she still visits us here. I remind her of her richly private life in Santa Barbara with this poem.

On a Southern Coast

living on a southern coast
she flees to the strand each
day without bringing her dogs,
her partner, or her many cares

living in a southern clime
she worships the desert hinterlands,
outrageous in the outback,
bows to blazing backcountry and
conserves her life’s canteen

living in digital times along a
southern littoral & fragrant foothills,
she perforce dodges the death algorithm
and exits Facebook without a trace
no cell, no screens, no ‘friends’

living well as only the imperial
Americans can in the southern reaches,
enduring the erratic orange-haired fascist,
she buries her mind in identity politics
without shame while tweeting her disgust

the southern strand and desert clime,
interior and littoral, backcountry and beaches,
she searches through them in joy and
sorrow seeking solitude, silence and
the interior foothills: the inner forest

living on the south coast beneath
cathedral peaks beside the gritty strand,
she hides in the open without shame
a digital Crusoe with no Friday in sight
with posthuman disguise and aesthetic game
all hail the Anthropocene’s southern matriarchy


» Books: J. Timbrook, Chumash Ethnobotany (Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 2007); Roberto Simanowski, The Death Algorithm (MIT Press, 2018); David Kirkpatrick, The Facebook Effect (2010); John Harris, “Death of the private self: How 15 years of Facebook changed the human condition” (2019).

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Eternal Backcountry Return, has been published by Sisquoc River Press and is available at Lulu.com. 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 [email protected]. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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