The Cuyama badlands are seen behind a curtain of conifirs.  (Dan McCaslin photo)

Locally we have only small forests close to urban Santa Barbara — remnant stands of mixed conifers crown 6,800 ft. Big Pine Mountain, 8,900 ft. Mt. Pinos (Iwihinmu’u in Samala), and gray pine and oak encircle nearby Figueroa Mountain (4,500 ft.). 

The sparse pines you can see atop La Cumbre Peak (3,900 ft.) were planted sometime in the 1930s, and as I’ve reported before, they are dying due to our long drought intensified by overall global climate change .

Yet the term forest stands not only for those tall, dark “Germanic” forests that frightened the Romans so much, but the term also stands for lands outside “City” and the farmed countryside.

In Pogue Harrison’s “Forests – the Shadow of Civilization,” we see how the original or primeval “village” established itself, and then those vast uncivilized tracts not beneath human control became outside the gate (foris to “forest” today: now an endangered ecosystem).  

Therefore, when we consider the word forest, we already know it is as much a metaphor or symbol as a geographic description, and we know that California forest trees are dying off in staggering numbers, with over 62 million dead trees this year.

While we write histories of human beings and their civilizations, what about a history of forests within the western imagination? So many of our western governing institutions — city, family, rule of law, religion — originally began in opposition to “the forest” (untamed land, wilderness).

From the Stone Age, it’s a short imaginative leap to city, writing, metals, trade and male-dominating war.

Harrison fancifully links this triad: Forest — Family (single “tree”) — Tree of Knowledge (twig: individual reason). He uses the word “Family” to represent people who made clearings in the deep forests, invented farming, settled on the land, and created the first villages.

Humans have fled to the more captivating cities, where music, business and crowds band together, but they have plundered many valuable resources from their Stone Age dream-time forest habitat: paper, for one, and fossil fuel minerals for another.

Parts of human architecture surely imitate natural forms, e.g. in the shape of the Gothic cathedral and the sacred tree circles where stone-agers worshipped.  

Almost 2,000 years ago the Roman historian Tacitus wrote about the uncivilized Germans: “The grove [of trees] is the center of their whole religion. It is regarded as the cradle of the race and the dwelling-place of the supreme god…” (Germania, 134).

“Forest” may also symbolize the huge chaparral-covered areas north and east of our coastal Santa Barbara; these are arid regions where humans have never held much sway – much of the area gets less than 16 inches of precipitation per year, and even homo sapiens can’t figure out ways to make the earth there fruitful.

My geographic examples include the Cuyama badlands area, around Hurricane Deck, and the dry saline flats like over on the Carrizzo Plain.

Most of the southern part of Los Padres National Forest’s 2 million acres lie just north of us, with the best parts additionally protected by the specific “wilderness” zones created after the historic Wilderness Act of 1964.

Thus, our nearby San Rafael and Dick Smith wildernesses are truly outside and “beyond the gate” — I recommend you go hike them, and take your family!  

Parts of the “forest” near us served as a sanctuary for some of the law-breaking or crazier types, usually fellows fleeing society to repent their sins, or heal themselves, or simply evade the law.

The Joaquin Murietta myth about him hiding out near Ojai fits this trope (see my column).

The forest, or wild zones, often healed messed-up male warriors and hollowed-out leaders: it’s a long list including Tristan, Lancelot (four trips to “the woodshed for him), Gilgamesh, Robinson Crusoe, St. Jerome and also Jesus, who was tested in “the wilderness” for 40 days to figure things out (Matthew 4:1-11).

The famed Hindu avathar Rama was banished to the forest for 14 years by King Dasharatha; and Rama himself later banished his wife, Sita, to the forest, too.

Many local backcountry camps bear the names of weird and interesting old guys, the sort of gnarly and lonesome men who today ply the seats at Starbucks or Peet’s at 5:30 a.m., lonely with laptop.

Like the forest misanthropes, they like having their own way all the time, and here I list only a few of my backcountry brothers:

» Davy Brown (William S. Brown had a cabin between 1879 – 1895).

» Flores Flat (named after settler Jose Flores)

» Murietta Camp and Spring (Joaquin Murietta, 1850s)

» Bill Faris (William L. Faris, a noted Santa Barbara area teacher; 1962)

» Mansfield (Fire Control officer “Stubby” Mansfield; constructed 1971)

» Lonnie Davis (a pioneer Sisquoc family, Lonnie was a forest patrolman)

» Abel (after Henry Ables [sic], late 1800s)

» Forbush Flat (after Washington Forbush and his 1910 cabin)

» Don Victor (after 1927 Basque homesteader Don Victor Utsusaustegui)

“Forest” has often had a negative and even frightening aspect vis-à-vis so-called civilization.

Think of the Grimm Brothers frequent theme in stories like Hansel and Gretel wandering in a dark forest seeking out a cottage and protection.

And in ferocious 19th century-type industrial development, the natural lands, including forests, appear merely as “natural resources” to be cut down, mined, and made “useful” for humans. (Genesis 1:28 makes this clear: Adam and Eve are to “subdue the earth”).

In German forester Peter Wohlleben’s magnificent “The Hidden Life of Trees,” he laments the loss of Europe’s formerly thick forests, and asks “where is the end of the road for our forests?” (pg. 96). He notes that old growth forests eat up (store) carbon dioxide much faster than the amazingly productive German commercial forests’ trees.  

The President-elect’s nominee to head the EPA is Oklahoma’s Attorney-General Scott Pruitt, who has openly spent most of his career fighting the EPA.

Pruitt has stated, “The American people are tired of seeing billions of dollars drained from our economy due to unnecessary EPA regulations…” and these would include logging regulations designed to protect our diminishing forests.

While most scientists contend that atmospheric pollution is harming the health of our remnant forests (forester Wohlleben agrees), who would want the “lungs of the planet” to develop more emphysema in our advancing Anthropocene Age?

The new federal direction will be toward weakening environmental regulations, and less forest and marine protection.

We risk losing the forest and chaparral-wildernesses as sanctuaries, as healing zones, as sources for imaginative rituals and myths, as sacred areas for Native American tribes, AND as vast carbon-absorbing sponges which also spew oxygen out for all of earth’s flora and fauna.

Maps: Bryan Conant’s San Rafael Wilderness Trail Map Guide; maps in Craig Carey’s book (below)

Books used:  “Forests – the Shadow of Civilization” by Robert Pogue Harrison (U. Chicago Press, 1992); “The Hidden Life of Trees — What They Feel and How They Communicate” by Peter Wohlleben (2016; orig. Das Geheime Lebender Bäume, Munich, 2015); Craig Carey, “Hiking and Backpacking Santa Barbara & Ventura” (Wilderness Press, 2012).

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

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.