Barren vegetation near Mission Pine Spring in the San Rafael Wilderness. Noozhawk columnist Dan McCaslin ponders the “wilderness” we will leave to future generations. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Dystopian feelings of anxiety, fear and impending doom seem to pervade Western culture from Germany to California these days.

Writing from Bavaria, I witness a disintegrating European Union — Brexit, hordes of asylum-seekers, late March terror attacks in Brussels — and ineffective allied attacks on ISIS.

And in the United States, widening economic equalities plus the squalid campaign of the “father-fuehrer,” pretend strongman Donald “Benito” Trump, flush the xenophobes and misogynists out from their dark caverns.

Sure, this is a hiking column, yet those of us who love to haul our kids and ourselves into the forest cannot simply ignore these decaying realities that overtake much of the urban West.

Whenever I lead groups of students into the Rattlesnake Canyon Wilderness area or up the Romero Canyon Trail, the beauty overwhelms us and I typically request periods of silence for portions of our time in these local foothills.


During such periods, however, one imagines the impact of the encroaching Anthropocene Age on these seemingly “wild” lands, and what the planet will be like for the children of these children.

After 40 years hiking in these and other local trails, one observes fewer banana slugs and California newts, and the spate of recent wildfires has destroyed much of the flora (some is coming back, of course): Zaca Fire (2007), Gap Fire (2008), man-made Tea Fire (2008) and the Jesusita Fire (2009), among others.

Heavy floods back in 1991 wreaked havoc on our trails and helped promote the relentless spread of introduced grasses and other weeds. The diversity is obviously not as great as it once was.

After reporting last year on Irus Braverman’s provocative 2015 book, Wild Life — The Institution of Nature, and realizing we must manage our remaining natural lands in different ways, we now have a spate of new tomes focusing on this same “Anthropocene” (see 4-1-1 book list).

The Anthropocene Age can be said to have begun around 1750 with the Industrial Revolution in the West, and is now a geologic era whose main feature is the increasing human control over nature. Most of the impact has been negative.

If we’re honest, we accept that during the Anthropocene Age, the human population has swelled many times to more than 7 billion of us, plus all our vast herds of cattle and pigs and mono-culture crops, such as wheat and corn.

Global climate change is fact, despite the hysterical deniers, and human impact on local nature in Santa Barbara County is readily evident in last May’s 120,000-gallon Refugio oil spill, with 20,000 gallons going directly into the sea and polluting seven miles of local beaches.

It is rational to look directly at the deteriorating state of “nature” today. The so-called “anthropogenic” forces of rapid urbanization, agricultural and industrial intensification, and climate change cannot be denied.

We Westerners need to accept that keeping some areas fairly “wild” is a more appropriate goal than believing we can preserve and protect vast areas of true “wilderness” by simply keeping them “apart” from our civilization.

What is the merit of spending millions of dollars to keep a small number of condors flying when in truth they aren’t in a genuine wilderness anymore; they’re a magnificent but highly managed buzzard species flying in what Braverman calls our planetary “zooland.”

We are at a significant crossroads in the relationship between humans and original nature even as local enthusiasts insist on taking their dogs and riding their bikes into local “wilderness” areas.

A major question students and I discuss is whether we must reshape nature in order to preserve it.

Technological breakthroughs tempt us to overestimate our human cleverness. We learn from a recent Sunday Review article that the following species have been “managed” using radio collars and other devices: the condors, Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, pythons, fruitbats, African wildebeests, white-tailed eagles, feral camels, growling grass frogs and countless others (The New York Times, March 13, “The Unnatural Kingdom” by Daniel Duane).

Do we wish to “rewild” the nature that is left to our descendants? What about re-introducing the grizzly bears to our local backcountry? That might affect our local hiking and taking students into our local canyons. Scientists have successfully managed to re-introduce the European brown bear from Slovenia into the Italian Alps, yet now the locals there are moaning about their depredations among their livestock.

Jedediah Purdy tells us that while the data about the Anthropocene are scientific, the shape and meaning of this new era are open to political questions — a “politics” we haven’t yet figured out.

Some conservationists argue that using the so-called “Lego fallacy” — the concept that ecosystems are like those Lego sets that help the student “build” a plastic monorail or space station, and if you’re missing a couple of pieces you find a replacement from another set and just fit it in.

But true scientists know that nature’s ecosystems are absolutely more complex than any system humans have ever created. University of Montana professor Mark Hebblewhite notes “the only thing rivaling an ecosystem for complexity is the human brain.”

In his brilliant Silence of the Animals, British philosopher John Gray contends “the end result of progress in science is to show the impossibility of progress in civilization. … Human knowledge increases while human irrationality stays the same.”

What will our foothills and backcountry be like for the children of my adolescent student hikers? How will the extraordinarily triumphant human species re-imagine a “nature” that is massively dependent on human manipulation?

What to do about the out-of-control signature apex predator overpopulating this planet? Do we still have to rely on the insane bloodshed of the biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Revelations 6: 1-8)?

Indeed, this is an outdoor hiking column, but will my 3-year-old twin grandsons’ offspring have anything like the nature opportunities we do today?

While the revenue-hungry media focus on morons like Trump and Ted Cruz insulting each other’s spouse, there is precious little attention given to developing a sturdy “politics” for the Anthropocene Age we’ve created.

4-1-1: Read All About It

(Most books available at Chaucer’s Bookstore)

» After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene by Jedediah Purdy (Harvard University Press, 2016)

» The Birth of the Anthropocene by Jeremy Davies (University of California Press; available May 2016)

» Zooland: The Institution of Captivity by Irus Braverman (Stanford University Press, 2013)

» After Preservation: Saving American Nature in the Age of Humans, edd. Ben Minteer and Stephen Pyne (The University of Chicago Press, 2015)

» The Silence of the Animals by John Gray (2013)

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at cazmania3@gmail.com. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Long-haired man smiling

Dan McCaslin, Noozhawk Columnist

Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available at Lulu.com. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at cazmania3@gmail.com. The opinions expressed are his own.