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Monday, December 10 , 2018, 4:06 am | Fair 49º


Dan McCaslin: Rewilding and Human vs. Geologic Time Scales

Natural catastrophes such as the recent debris flows in Montecito can elongate a person's perception of time itself

Eroded dirt hill with burned plants Click to view larger
A burned ridge along the Bill Wallace Trail. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

While I’ve been only peripherally affected by the destructive debris flows and tragedies in Montecito, there still has been a negative psychological impact “over here” in Santa Barbara proper as our near neighbors have endured some of nature’s worst calamities.

Some of us realize that natural catastrophes can elongate the individual human’s perception of time itself. Earlier in December, while the ginormous Thomas Fire threatened Carpinteria and upper Montecito, the pall of smoke and ash clouds hanging over Santa Barbara included my humble Westside neighborhood.

My partner and I hunkered down in our small house and coughed indoors for more than two weeks, while worrying about others in worse circumstances — yet these memories now seem like distant nightmares.

Natural catastrophes such as hurricanes, debris flows, wildfires and earthquakes can equally elongate and expand one’s sense of space.

Never did Montecito and Carpinteria seem so foreign and far away as during the 13 days that Highway 101 was closed in January. I know Carpinteria-based teachers who drove all the way around over Highway 126 to Interstate 5 and circled back down through Santa Maria to Santa Barbara in order to serve their students at temporary school sites over here in town.

Nature’s inexorable “Shiva” aspect — the Destroyer in Hinduism — warps the human personal space-time continuum, and sometimes makes it wobble. The "perfect storm" that natural forces rained on our area in January may have torqued and altered our linear-time sense.

While we were happily relieved by the end of the Thomas Fire's threat just before Christmas, and then with elongated temporal perceptions enhanced by our joy, some of us allowed our nature worries to subside into the fog of denial.

By Jan. 8, the Thomas holocaust felt like a distant, primordial memory, and we ignored Henry James’ insightful comment, “Order is the dream of man, but chaos is the law of nature.”

Central to this human penchant for pattern and order is a misplaced faith in the 21st century civilization’s power to control nature’s savage whims. Specifically, we tend to manage this feat by conflating petty human time with the vast aeons of geologic time running in the hundreds of millions of years and more.

For example, we’ve been reading about 200-year storm events, but even a slightly longer, still human-scale, temporal frame includes unmanageable geological power. As detailed by the U.S. Geological Survey, in an “ARkStorm” scenario, California apparently has experienced several mega-storms that flooded more than a third of the state.

Worse, just in the past 1,800 years, California has endured six of these mega-storms, and each one would have dwarfed the destruction Montecito suffered on Jan. 9. These floods and debris flows even make the unbelievable 1861-62 inundations seem minor, yet that spectacular historical event flooded the entire Central Valley, creating a lake 250 miles long and 30 miles wide.

We also entered this Anthropocene Era more than 65 years ago, and the associated climate changes intensify the near-time as well as geologic-time recipe for natural blowouts on the South Coast: very steep mountainsides running straight into the sea (short alluvial plains); occasional winter storms achieving rates like an inch an hour for a few hours; the rapidly expanding human population overbuilding too close to these creeks; and too much faith in our civilization’s capacity to stand up to the Earth’s awesome power.

Rewilding our brains begins with outright skepticism that civilization’s concrete and steel edifices can withstand every storm, or that Facebook’s assurances about data security will protect us from Russian cyberwarfare.

We recall the 12th century A.D. story about King Canute, who after placing his throne in the intertidal zone, laughed at his flattering courtiers who had told him royal decree could stop the tides while the waves struck the chair.

Although the 1928 St. Francis Dam disaster came about because Los Angeles engineer William Mulholland built the dam in the wrong place (San Francisquito Canyon near Castaic), the actual collapse occurred because a long-buried ancient mudslide “moved,” causing the east abutment to collapse on March 12, 1928.

The ensuing 120-foot wall of water raced 54 miles along the route of today’s Highway 126, killing more than 450 humans along the way as it finally debouched into the sea near Oxnard (Jon Wilkman’s Floodpath; see 4.1.1.).

In the USGS ARkStorm scenario, they envision rainfall rates way above the half-inch per hour limit authorities used in calling for continued Montecito evacuations leading to “Evacugeddon 2018.”

For example, on Jan. 26, 1969, 16.3 inches of rain fell in a 24-hour period at Jameson Lake, just seven miles from Montecito, destroying the caretaker house and killing the resident caretaker. Far more of Montecito would have been smashed in such a scenario coming after a bad wildfire like Thomas.

Yet the stretched time-warp effect has let us forget the Jameson Lake incident, just as we’ve forgotten the state’s worst water disaster of the 20th century, only 90 years ago at the St. Francis Dam’s collapse.

Some locals have a stronger carpe diem feeling of living day-to-day, which may be good in some ways, but it also renders residents unsure when fire or flood will strike next. After several evacuations, they entertain a vague indecision about either 1) fleeing — in some instances, meaning a third or fourth evacuation — or 2) nervously remaining in their community, but “hiding in place.”

My theory is that it’s the human suffering and compassionate human awareness of others suffering that stretches or bends the personal time sense, and also blinds us to the reality of the six mega-storms during the past 1,800 years and the certainty that more are coming.

Then, the age-old permanent spiritual questions again arise:

Why does this have to happen? Why here? Why do good people suffer while bad ones flourish and live on?

Nature acts out “instantly” sometimes, without any warning — the flash flood, the earthquake, the debris flow … it simply occurs. Humans can only react, and then assist those in greatest peril.

Mother Nature remains much faster even than our vaunted human communications systems, and we are still unable to predict earthquakes. It’s not for nothing that John McPhee titled his 1989 geology classic with the tongue-in-cheek phrase: The Control of Nature.

As Noozhawk founder and Montecito resident Bill Macfadyen recently noted, “The community must make some painful — and costly — choices about whether rebuilding should even be allowed in some neighborhoods.”

Nature’s instant speed wracks our space and time senses — I still cannot grasp cars and humans being swept into muddy rapids and not being able to get out. But these two senses were warped earlier by scary news about other natural catastrophes that all our civilization’s mighty tools cannot prevent.

Did the Chumash peoples dwelling in their village shalawa, located around today’s intersection of Sheffield Drive and Highway 101, “know” enough to leave the very low site in the six mega-storms? I would argue yes — and they could have very quickly rushed to the top of Ortega Hill in order to save themselves.

Do we need to “rewild” our awareness of natural events in order to do for ourselves what our puny digitally obsessed civilization cannot? Internal rewilding of the self can reset our personal time-space continuum and foster a healthy suspicion of civilization’s blarney.

In the next columns, we will explore what internal rewilding means and how it can help some of us ride out the rugged rainstorms, droughts and debris flows attached to the onrushing Anthropocene Age.


» Books: Floodpath, the deadliest man-made disaster of 20th-century America and the making of modern Los Angeles, by Jon Wikman (2016), and compare the movie Chinatown loosely based on this extraordinary catastrophe

» Bill Macfadyen quoted in his March 23 Noozhawk summary

» Dan McCaslin, "Welcome to the Anthropocene Part II"

— 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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