In the time of Omicron, thoughts do turn toward human mortality — and while trudging down Davy Brown Trail in Fir Canyon and then up to the Willow Jumble (and Spring) sacred site, my thoughts bent to eminent religious scholar Mircea Eliade.
Eliade taught at UCSB in 1969 when I was an undergraduate student there majoring in history. After hearing his talk in Lotte Lehmann Hall, my interest in nature and spirituality soared as I continued to seek divinity in the natural world (see 4.1.1. Books).
When some philosophers limit time to linear and rectilinear paradigms — forgetting the glories and mythic power of ancient song and recurring indigenous rituals in nature — they find themselves literally “at the end of the line.” A trail to nowhere, perhaps a path continuing beyond that northside Figueroa Mountain rock jumble? Or, the line may extend infinitely, like some imagine the cosmos does, but this track then again may curl into circular legends like the Stoic’s “myth of the eternal return” (also celebrated by Nietzsche).
Strictly linear thinkers caution against speculations about death since that condition is unknowable. We can imagine the end of ontology and infatuation with Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” drivel that contends there is no Being beyond this apparent Becoming (linear time).
So long as the road to Davy Brown and Nira camps remains closed at Cachuma Saddle, the only way to reach the spectacular Willow Jumble is to start at the top of the Davy Brown Trail. Ignore the other trailhead sign there with “Closed Below” since only the U.S. Forest Service camp is shuttered; the Davy Brown Trail into Fir Canyon remains open.
After the recent rains, this north-facing trail featured a soft and resilient terrain, which was handy for wild Peter and me since the initial section descends very steeply amid spectacular rock formations. I call this portion our own local “mosaic canyon,” and during the sporadic rain it gleamed almost orange at times.
We also observed manzanita, bay trees, small oaks and some scattered conifers. A huge conifer that had recently fallen across the trail had been sawn through and proved to be more than 200 years old as we carefully counted the rings.
Once you’ve dropped down into the trail junction marked by the site of old-time backcountry Ranger Edgar Davison’s tent-camp site, the hiker is then able to locate the signed Willow Trail Spur. A large boulder at the junction there has an affixed photo of Davison, who lived here in 1899, knew old man Brown himself, and built this eponymous trail. Readers may be able to discern Davison and another man in the plaque, along with a rifle and a storage shed. What a challenge to live there during winter rains and snow!
Years ago, this spur (side) trail had fallen into disrepair, and at some recent point the Los Padres Forest Association repaired the wending track over to the spectacular promontory, which I term a jumble. In my 2019 photograph, readers can see it from below.
First century A.D. Roman philosopher and politician Seneca constantly thought about and wrote about dying and human death. Well-educated and especially in the Greek classics of his time, he soon recognized an enormous need for some mental, or philosophic, guidance. He learned from Plato and especially from Zeno, the Greek founder of Stoicism. Seneca had very serious health problems as a young man (breathing), and he had seen other elite-level Romans ordered to commit suicide, and eventually in 65 CE he himself committed “self-suicide” at the order of Emperor Nero.
My interest in the constant hiking, and hence these columns, feels reinforced by reading that the Stoics believed it’s important to engage in vigorous activity in nature and cultivate a rational mind. Zeno of Kition — an ancient city in Cyprus where I’ve swum at Kition harbor (4.1.1) — opined that we need physical health and personal freedom because only with those could one harmonize the mind (reason) with one’s ethical choices. The Stoics believed in a divine reason, or logos, and were notably restrained and had other differences from the Epicureans of Seneca’s imperial Roman period. Seneca, like Zeno, focuses mainly on moral philosophy, and how Stoics manage to face inevitable death looms big in his philosophy. One does not see many truly “stoic” attitudes to the corona-induced deaths we face today.
Willow Spring Trail’s austere and tangled coniferous beauty fits into the canon of Stoic beliefs espoused by Seneca since a restrained mind merely contemplates nature and so may become “content,” and thus avoid petty ambition and endless enmities. We find this idea in Nietzsche and others, of course: Being in green nature and ambling through the forest gives contentment and “happiness.”
Seneca recommends contentment (eudaimonia) — a mental condition of “good spirit,” not the more material and less reliable happiness. For him, an ideal human life is one that is in complete harmony with nature with an attitude of calm indifference toward external events. For example, I became content the moment wild Peter and I began our modest jaunt down to the Willow Spring promontory (jumble) and lookout (see 4.1.1. Conant Map).
After the “death” of the drought brought by this rainfall, there comes the “life” springing back again at the end of December. Seneca writes: “All things that seem to die are in fact only transformed. … Just look at how the circuit of the universe returns upon itself.”
Even in late January, hikers can detect nascent spring in the offing, and in the streambed we noticed green plants flattened by the recent spate but resilient and ready to flourish again.
» Directions: Drive Highway 101 north past Goleta and Gaviota to Highway 154 and double back to Los Olivos, where you turn left on the signed Figueroa Mountain Road and drive past Midland School and Figueroa Mountain Camp to the top of the Davy Brown Trail (see photo; trail is not closed). (Bryan Conant’s “San Rafael Wilderness Trail Guide” (2015 edition) is the best map for this complicated and joyful hike to Willow Spring and Jumble.
» Books: Mircea Eliade, “Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return” (Princeton’s Bollingen series, 1954, still in print); Seneca, “How to Die” (tr. J.S. Romm, Princeton University Press, 2018), the quote is from pp. 5-6 — Moral Epistle 36; Dan McCaslin, “The Cape Kiti [Kition] Underwater Report” in Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology (1978).
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.