After going up Manzana Creek to Fish Camp — creek bone dry there — on Nov. 25, my school colleagues and I hiked the glorious Lost Valley Trail up into the Hurricane Deck formation in mid-December. Given the recent December rains, we happily discovered ebullient new life and deep green winter grasses adorning the hillsides (lead photo). Looking back ocean-ward south and west, our eyes inhaled the tan slopes with heavy mist above and then the dark silhouette of the familiar coastal range.
After throwing our gear down at Davy Brown Campground’s site No. 7 early on Saturday, Dec. 14 ($20 a night), the four of us piled back into my small truck, and I quickly drove one mile to U.S. Forest Service Nira Campground, carefully parking near the signed trailhead and away from the overnight campsites.
We debated heading down the creek to Coldwater Camp, but the day was brisk, a cold breeze lanced through our light jackets, so we opted for the more yang (sunny) side of the hill by aiming upstream.
Seven miles ahead lay Manzana Narrows, but I’m recovering from a health scare, so a 14-mile day has little appeal. However, scenic Lost Valley Camp is just one mile upstream, and from there the enticing Lost Valley Trail lances deep into the western Hurricane Deck.
We had extra sandals in case Manzana Creek was too high, but managed to ford it right there at Nira without immersing the boots. There was only one group camping at Nira, and no one at Lost Valley Camp with its two quaint campsites and useful tables. The creek rushed along merrily and was definitely higher than when we came in late November.
This hike became a genuine right-brain style Wanderung, and as we roamed past well-signed Lost Valley Camp with its deep green skirting of winter grasses, the vistas triggered all sorts of nonlinear thoughts. We eschewed specific goals such as reaching Twin Oaks Camp or even topping out on the ferocious Deck itself. My three teacher-friends talk all week with their students, so they appreciate the long periods of silence that developed as we trudged ecstatically uphill.
In her new book, British philosopher Karen Armstrong emphasizes that the left brain<—>right brain split helps explain how humans move between pragmatic focus on the world as it is (left brain) and our right brain assessments of that physical world (art, music, concepts, religion). Periods of relative solitude and silence outside the “village” (or tribe, or city) utilize both hemispheres, of course, but the more reflective and even panoptic right hemisphere revives especially in these wilderness episodes.
“Because the right hemisphere is less self-centered, it is more realistic than the
left hemisphere. Its wide-ranging [panoptic] vision enables it to hold different
views of reality simultaneously and, unlike the left hemisphere, it does not form
certainties based on abstraction … .[The right brain] is the seat of empathy, pathos, and our sense of justice.” (Armstrong, p. 6, see 4.1.1.)
In the last column, I discussed Armstrong’s neurology where we accept that humans never actually “see” the physical reality itself, and this can frustrate the scientific left brain as scientific researchers learn more and more about less and less (rather like medieval discussions about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin). We therefore realize how we very much need right brain imaginative scenarios playing out, along with the soul-saving music, art and life-marking ceremonies.
I wonder how many readers would agree with Armstrong, and others, that since about 1700 we’ve been “starving” the essential right brain in an overemphasis on spectacular left brain achievements.
Armstrong channels the Confucian Xunzi and the Daoists Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu in her insistence that “the Way” can be comprehended by “closing” the left brain’s relentlessly critical mental activities (analyzing) until it becomes still, or “empty.” At that point, one might experience the panoptic vision that unifies the world of 10,000 things that so concerned the Daoists, Confucians and any of us who have observed “the world” swallowing up someone (money? ambition? drugs? physical appetites?).
Most ancient sages and modern therapists would agree that pushing past constraints and boldly hiking into wilder nature is one of several modes to eliminate right brain shackles. I have highlighted our country’s “massive neurological crisis,” and clearly the overstimulation of left brain scientific skills has led to an atrophy of right brain development. (I appreciate most of the left brain achievements of modern science, but not all of them, e.g. nuclear weapons.)
Hiking with my three friends in relative quiet reminds us that the Daoists also believed that the many diverse sounds in nature heal the divide, stimulate metaphoric activity as well as empathy for your friends, and even engender empathy for one’s self. Chuang Tzu argued for mental “forgetting” so that while outside we could learn from the sounds of nature, and since each sound is unique and is what it is without being influenced by other sounds (Armstrong, “The Lost Art of Scripture,” p. 174).
Two or three miles past Lost Valley as we ascended upward enjoying the vast vistas all around and the many natural sounds, we came upon some boulders artfully shaped by natural forces to resemble the famous moai statues found on Easter Island. Carved in a right brain aesthetic storm by the Rapa Nui people between 1250 and 1500 C.E., the meaning of these enormous statues has never been ascertained despite many learned theories. Right-brain artistic creations like the Chumash rock art or Rapa Nui stone sculptures cannot be intellectually “figured out” by western scientists.
I’m grateful to my Crane Country Day School friends for their joy in nature immersion and their serene attitudes in camp and on the trail.
» Twin Oaks Camp: click here; K. Armstrong, “The Lost Art of Scripture” (2019).
— 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 the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.