Early California poppies pop up along a frontcountry trail.
Early California poppies pop up along a frontcountry trail. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

For more than 50 years, constant outdoor hiking and roaming these hinterlands has been my chosen way to fight off urban cares, money, work and overweening ambition. I didn’t take up regular hiking just when this “On The Trail” column started 11 years ago. No, no, it had already been an entirely satisfying way of life since 1971.

Sigmund Freud aptly described the trade-offs involved between “civilized society” and its multitudinous benefits versus the individual’s very specific (and selfish) wishes in his 1930 book “The Uneasiness of Civilization (Civilization and Its Discontents)” (4.1.1.).

Despite cutting back the mileage recently because of some minor eye surgeries, I still manage to head out there into quasi-nature at least three times a week, and during these forays one finds those quiet periods allowing the mind to settle, and then begin to reflect on the world in general. Although it’s against all advice, I regularly roam out alone since I don’t have a job and like to go whenever the urge strikes (yeah, it’s easy to hate those retired folks like me!). Issues looming in the wider planet obviously include the Ukraine war, the pandemic (it ain’t over!), climate politics and funding the education of all our children.

One’s past informs present thinking, even controls it, and these wider thoughts dominate at times. While teaching courses in Western civilization, U.S. history and comparative world religion during the past 40 years, I always stressed civic values: the need to serve “the common good.” Whether in an indigenous small group setting or Hammurabi’s empire or classical Athens, individual society members have always been instilled with the practices of essential civic virtues (4.1.1.).

While we would write “citizens” today, in whatever grouping humans dwell, the individual must give back to the parent culture, and be taught to do so. Sometimes we should serve others for the sake of the common good. Sure, this may seem obvious, but it seems we’ve been failing at it during the past half-century or so. Thus, I have found that many Americans today have had no overarching narrative instilled in them, and so they didn’t imbibe crucial civic virtues or understand their value. A salient example in a democracy is the sacred value in casting your ballot (voting) in the elections — exercising your franchise, as folks used to say. Too many forget how absolutely crucial the vote is as a civic value.

When the conceptual straitjackets of “Judaeo-Christian civilization” and white male hero-worship of Western civilization necessarily fell to the anti-colonialists, deconstructionists, postmodernists and feminists, the critics tossed overboard far too much structure and narrative unity. (Some of this occurred during the intense 1980s culture wars.) At the same time, most Americans report feeling time-pressed, usually racing around town or laboring for a wage, and they often display world-weary attitudes — uh, simply exhausted by the entire exploding process of 21st century urban-digital lifestyles. Teachers find it difficult to foster binding civic values amid these debilitating time-wars with crazed rushings about frantic parents and overbooked kids.

The Germans have a cool term for this psychological condition, which many of them also experience: Weltschmerz — world pain.

This nefarious condition did not simply begin for us with the appalling images unfolding in the current Ukrainian tragedy or searing photographs of the genocide in Rwanda. Again, through 2003 news videos, a lot of us endured horrible feelings as we observed the disgusting “shock and awe” bombings during the unprovoked USA assault on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (2003-07). I was traveling in southern Greece during the American attack on Iraq in 2003 and felt the harsh disdain, nay, detestation emanating from French and Spanish fellow tourists.

All over the highly connected 21st-century world, these violent wars have struck, and beyond the death and destruction they also damaged civic feelings at home as well as relations between nations. Consider Vladimir Putin’s destruction of Grozny in 1999 (so-called Chechen Wars), Xi Jinping’s continuing repression of the Uighers in central Asia, Viktor Orbán’s autocratic antics in Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte’s crimes in the Philippines and so on. These autocratic rulers destroy civic pride in their own countries. (Just like many Americans opposed the idiotic Iraq War, today some Russians suffer when opposing what their country does to a good neighbor, Ukraine.)

This overwhelming Welschmerz amplifies our stress and the sensation that we’re out of time and that one should care only about oneself and ignore the fading ideals of civic virtue — and just then we forget to express our gratitude for the service of others. Originally a Romantic concept, the idea of world pain is fraught with contradictions. It seems like humans can rise up and serve others heroically during wretched times (e.g. how Polish families welcome Ukrainian refugees), yet the general civic spirit still feels splintered with a widening chasm between shared values. As a society here, we can express gratitude for health care workers, first responders, grocery store workers, and all the mothers who nourish their kin.

The COVID-19 pandemic intensifies everything, including wrenching fear and anger about the Ukrainian war along with personal anxieties about not enough — time, money, and quality education for our children. These negative emotions lead us into ever faster-paced infernos of activity, angst and doubt, and preclude deep reflection. For children, especially, and those who remain unprotected from these forces, they may become deeply upset, psychologically fragile and writhe about without the comfort of a clear world-narrative (story). Who is teaching effective civics education to our children?

Here are three methods I’ve tried to practice in order to process the overwhelming psychological and political stressors of our divided, violent and plague-ridden 21st century:

A) Seizing those moments to barge into near nature or quasi nature. Over decades of teaching here, I located several handy green swards like the Jesusita Trail, the Tunnel Trail and Rattlesnake Canyon — and long ago ran with my friends Rolf Scheel and guru Franko along local beaches at low tide, churning away in the sand heading for nirvana.

B) Expressing gratitude on a daily and ritual basis also helps foster reflection and a civic spirit. We celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in February in order to highlight his dedication to and love for the U.S. Constitution. Philosopher Byung-Chul Han notes that the loss of common rituals and ceremonies damages the essential group (village, tribe, team, commonwealth, modern society): “One of the gravest problems of our day is the lack of commitment to common symbols.”

In the olden days, such slowed-down and required reflective periods were called prayer, or participation in the Eucharist rites (or other rites), and some today might label them meditation. Many of these grateful expressions would revolve around human relationships, so it involves giving thanks as a ceremony and ritual as well as a duty (dharma in Sanskrit), or as a penitence. Every day perhaps light a candle, or sit on a prayer rug in a certain spot, or gaze upon the best natural views around you and visually enter into them, or hike into nearby woodlands.

C) The third method connects with the first through the effort to increase one’s awareness of others, including animals, and actively perform some sort of service for them, or to them, and thus also for the entire community’s survival and health. E.O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler note that in one ant species, the aging workers remain on the colony’s periphery, and they are fed, but when an enemy colony attacks, these ant-elders rush out at them maniacally, sacrificing themselves for their ant nest (this gives the rest time to prepare for the onslaught).

We can also ask whose task it is to care for the whole tribe or team or society as a whole. Back to effective civics education!

We are a democracy, so specific civic values include the right to vote, the right to freely assemble and choose your own religion, and political freedom. Civic values include the generic term “citizenship,” but when we get specific it means assertion of the virtues of “good” behavior, too, as well as political practices (see 4.1.1.).

In this contrast with “civilization,” we often feel an uneasiness or ambiguousness about our advanced society’s many wonderful techniques. I just had two clear plastic lenses implanted in my eyes and can also see 20/20 in one of my orbs. Yet the industrial pollution overheating our planet, the economic inequalities, and our constant strife and wars really bum people out. It doesn’t help that Wilson claims the ants are even more murderous and even genocidal.

I return to walking a scenic trail above town, inhaling the fragrant blue ceanothus in full bloom, spotting the low golden poppies, enjoying renewed vision in several ways, and there is some inner relaxation. I’ll return to town ready for the fray and the many wonderful challenges there.


» Ten civic values could include justice, freedom, equality, diversity, authority, privacy, due process, property, participation, truth, patriotism, human rights, rule of law, tolerance, mutual assistance, self restraint and self respect.  Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930); the literature on teaching civics and civic virtues is enormous and growing, just compare the 1619 Project and civics material available at Real Clear Politics. Grozny: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/10/world/europe/photos-chechen-war-russia.html.  B-C Han, The Disappearance of Rituals (Polity 2020), p. 6 quote.  B. Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson, Journey to the Ants (Harvard 1994). I thought my photo showed bush poppies, but J. Jamison showed me these blossoms are from a yellow mutant early California golden poppy, whose blossoms are usually orange/gold.

— 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. 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 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.