Blue ceanothus in Rattlesnake Canyon.
Blue ceanothus in Rattlesnake Canyon. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

The exuberance found when hiking and clambering around our coastal low mountains, riparian canyons and inland forests relies entirely on our ingestion of these direct personal experiences. Walking along Figueroa Mountain, surging through Sisquoc Canyon Trail or roaming among old-growth conifers at Reyes Peak — every footfall is vital, each motion important, every step needs careful (and quick) consideration since the direct personal immersion in this nature engenders the highest joy.

Smelling the fragrant ceanothus, admiring the rabbits, avoiding the fresh poison oak, honestly being in the moment and just accepting whatever direct exposure brings to the fore should be paramount. In our available natural realms like these foothills, wet riparian canyons and the “sky island” pine forests, the hiker derives ecstasy and rejuvenation based on one-pointed attention. As the hiker sharpens her or his fixed attention on the actual path leading ahead, more spiritual and psychic energy magically wells up, and in a way cleanses the besmirched “mind.” Romantic British poet William Blake chants and asks what “if the doors of perception were cleansed” (4.1.1.).

I’m not yodeling about the manifest benefits of concentration-in-nature because of my older age (74) or any maladies with which I deal — no, my teachers all taught the benefits of focused choice, of developing a singular concentration on an “exactly-where-am-I-now?” mentality, on embracing direct personal experience for its own sake.

Celebrated British novelist E.M. Forster wrote only one science fiction novella, “The Machine Stops,” published in 1928. His female protagonist in this ideal future world, Vashti, believes she dwells in a paradise of epicurean pleasure and rational self-development. A literary woman, Vashti reviews the earlier 19th and 20th century periods’ “Old literature, with its praise of Nature and its fear of Nature — [that now] rang false as the prattle of a child.” Vashti and all of them, with their “fungus-colored faces,” dislike the Earth’s surface, the sun and, in fact, they live seated in chairs in enormous underground hives of enervating comfort.

Forster, author of “A Passage to India,” demonstrates astonishing prescience when describing the society of a post-Industrial Age future with the equivalent of television, iPhones, the Internet, and perfectly convenient and restful rooms full of magic buttons to bring stuff to the citizens like Vashti. However, we know that a fly must naturally be caught by these ointments of comfort, and this idyllic future contains dark dystopian seeds. Vashti and all of the other humans have become so inured to their ideal cells of repose that all wanderlust and desire for direct personal experience in nature have disappeared. Thus, Forster satirizes the sedentary western civilization that he could detect in England 96 years ago.

Exploring from her do-everything armchair, Vashti has many correspondents, and an active intellectual life, and even delivers an online lecture (what’s called a podcast in 2022) with “a humorous account of music in the pre-Mongolian Epoch.” Her sedentary life becomes so static, so very entertaining that like many “she is seized with the terrors of direct experience” (p. 11). She’s like an imprisoned ant larva, only she’s quite certain she is “free.”

When her rebellious son, Kuno, insists she come visit him on the other side of the planet, she refuses, then dithers, but finally forces herself to voyage on the convenient airship to him despite enduring a series of dreadful “face-to-face” experiences with a real stewardess.

E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” with children’s art.

E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” with children’s art. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Kuno tells his mother he wants to go outside and visit the ravaged planet’s surface, but the Machine won’t allow it. If he persists, the Machine will place him in the caste of Homelessness (p. 55), where he would soon die. Poor Kuno “yearned for trees to climb, rivers to bathe in,” and he finds their assigned individual rooms claustrophobic — and in horror Vashti can hardly believe such a being came out of her body.

Referring to Vashti’s fear of leaving her room, Kuno says to her, “You know that we have lost the sense of space” (p. 24). In today’s West, some of us really have lost our sense of space (of “place”). We seldom choose an extended walk or hike and instead we drive, take the subway or bus, we fly; or we don’t move from our chair and mainly interact via Zoom. I meet more and more hikers locally who wear earbuds or are yakking on their phones while others slip silently by. Maybe the earbuds pour fantastic music into these modern Vashtis’ ears, but perhaps the experience would be better heard live in town?

Hey, do it up brown, propagandize yourself with a Spotify-curated playlist, or maybe even one of those Joe Rogan podcasts full of racial epithets, Alex Jones interviews, and vaccine nonsense. (Disclosure: No Spotify for me since I’ve never been trusted with a cellphone or an iPad — but even I have given a podcast; see 4.1.1.)

Direct personal experiences spent roving in natural or semi-natural surroundings have been at the core of human life until around 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. Anthropological fieldwork shows that all prior human groupings involved regular walking about in the so-called gatherer-hunter lifestyle. However, I also used to teach that the invention of agriculture (farming and animal domestication) was the great leap forward to true civilization, and certainly it has been if we gauge human success purely by the increasing number of humans. But anthropologists David Wengrow and David Graeber have shown that in many regions there were 3,000 to 6,000 years between the “invention” of fixed-field farming and the consequent rise of sedentary villages and large cities (e.g. in Mesopotamia).

Some Stone Age groups knew about settled farming practices but deliberately preferred the advantages of nonsedentary lifestyles; they often chose to remain in the “complex hunter-gatherer” mode although they certainly knew all about intensive farming. Many indigenous California groups consciously turned their backs on the farming (plus intensive fishing) of permanently settled tribes they knew about in the American Northwest (Kwakiutl and Tlingit and others). The highly sophisticated Chumash knew that acorns were better than fish, and that they gained much more direct personal experience by moving around in various landscapes.

The nonsedentary Stone Age lifestyle offered a better and more varied diet, more resistance to disease, more intense social interactions (yes!) and basically a far greater interest in life. Would you rather help others and make great money by performing exacting hip replacements (or cataract replacement, or knee replacements, or …) for 40 years, or spend those 40 years roving about enjoying a huge diversity of direct personal experiences?

Hummingbird sage and fresh poison oak.

Hummingbird sage and fresh poison oak. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Today, most of us in the West live in a decidedly sedentary (seated) civilization, sedentary pursuits from Wordle to watching the Super Bowl define us, as does sitting in front of small screens. We flourish and also decline in these sedentary civilizations — and if we do move around a lot, it’s not generally on foot. We homo sapiens have been recognizably “us” for at least 200,000 years — probably longer. Around 60,000 BCE, our brains underwent some amazing transformations: We amplified our awareness and our intelligences (the breakdown of the bicameral mind). Taking some tens of thousands of years, a few of the neanderthals and the homo sapiens began drawing on cave walls and carving designs into rocks; their tapping with sticks developed into music (first found musical instrument, a bone flute, about 32,000 BCE).

The earliest true civilizations (in the West) appear in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt, springing up circa 3,500 BCE — 5,500 years ago, but I round this off to 6,000 years ago, thus marking the beginning of (Western) civilization. If I create the fraction 6,000/60,000, we can begin to conceptualize how Western “civilization” has formed only a final one-tenth of our experiential human history!

Therefore, today’s human brain has evolved almost completely out of the wilderness of those many early Stone Ages, the pre-civilized human eras. While some cultures adopted fixed-field farming and animal domestication, several indigenous cultures were aware of agriculture, but they specifically rejected it (Wengrow and Graeber, 4.1.1). My brain’s paleo (very old) hard-wiring has to adjust socially to dwelling in houses and enduring cars, computers, the Internet, airplanes, clocks and a global pandemic. But almost all of my emotions are the same ones Cochise and Ishi and Boadicea and the builders of Stonehenge experienced.

The emotional dashboard is hard-wired and ancient — the same in 60,000 BCE as it is today. Yet we’ve become a distracted and hyper-sedentary civilization, inhabiting a sort of static world where we don’t often run outside for direct personal experiences immersed in beautiful and cruel nature in order to take a long hike. Often, the hard-wired brain intensifies in awareness when we move around physically in nature.

In her uber-rationalistic belief system, Vashti had memorized a mantra from the Machine: “Beware of first-hand ideas” (p. 40). As a scion of rational sedentism, she fears “place” and silence and even her own son’s courage to explore and hike the surface.

As she leaves Kuno after their very short visit and brutal conversation, Vashti says to him quietly, “It will end in Homelessness for you.”

“I wish it would,” Kuno retorted.

“The Machine has been most merciful,” she answered.

“I prefer the mercy of God,” he replied.


» Books: E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops” (1928) and “A Passage to India” (1924); William Blake, “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” — “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is — infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees.” D. Graeber and D. Wengrow, “The Dawn of Everything” (2021).

» Podcast: Dan McCaslin podcast on “Autobiography in the Anthropocene” (and shamanism).

— 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 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 Click here to read previous 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 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 The opinions expressed are his own.