Caspers Wilderness Park: Bell Canyon

Caspers Wilderness Park contains one of the last wilderness areas in close proximity to sprawling Orange County suburbs. The park reserves two major watercourses – Bell Canyon and San Juan Creek – as well as featuring the usual chaparral-covered hills and mountain vistas. Bell Canyon is a particularly lovely hike dominated by oak and sycamore woodland/savanna.

Distance: 7.6 Miles
Elevation Gained: 1,200′
Difficulty: Moderate
Time: 3:00
Critters: Rabbits, hawks, quail, coyote, a blue heron

Get there like this.

Note: There is a $3 day fee at Caspers during the week. That fee jumps to $5 during the weekend.

Given how thoroughly developed Orange, Los Angeles, and San Diego Counties are these days, it’s difficult to believe that things were ever different in Southern California. As few as two generations ago, there were large swaths of territory that were covered in scrub or even covered in orange trees. Go back even farther, say 3 to 4 generations, and much of Southern California was undeveloped. Vast, open grasslands, trickling streams, oak woodlands, and chaparral covered hills dominated the scene, long before freeways, malls, and suburban track housing.

I suppose this area was probably destined to be developed nearly to the fullest possible capacity. The climate is too nice, and the topography was too beautiful. Who wouldn’t want to live near broad canyons full of oaks, sycamore, and waving grasses. Who wouldn’t want to know that herons, rabbits, and quail are flocking in the nearby hills. It’s a desirable place to be, even if much of that is lost forever.

Not completely, of course. The state parks, national forests, county and regional parks all preserve fragments of the old world upon which our civilization has been built. Some of these fragments, such as Caspers, are remarkably well-preserved. For an afternoon or morning, one can still walk through the old world that now exists as tiny islands in a sea of concrete.

What you see in these pictures is what this place has always been like, at least since the last ice age.  In some ways, one could draw the analogy between being a child and becoming a grown up. Children go through a long process of assuming more and more responsibility, changing their behavior, learning to cope with their own physical development, and expanding their capabilities in order to go from a wild, chaotic, but imaginative and lively state to that of the adult. In a similar way, Southern California went from a wild, beautiful, but chaotic state into one that has fully reached its potential as one of the ten largest metropolitan areas of the world. Southern California civilization is all grown up.

However, many adults recognize that severing themselves completely from the qualities they possessed as a child can lead to disastrous consequences. Children possess awe, wonder, curiosity, spontaneity, humor, and a natural joy for life that adults can easily lose as they learn how to follow guidelines, deadlines, rules, laws, regulations, expectations, and strategies. Adapting both the adult skills and the child-like qualities tends to be an indicator of a healthy adult. The lack of balance likely indicates an unhealthy adult.

So to with civilization. For most of our history, we have lived in constant contact with the natural world. Our complete dominance over the environment is something really only achieved over the last century. Before that, we had to get along with the environment or else we wouldn’t get along at all. We evolved to respond to the natural world to the point that it is not separate from us, even if it does not appear to be so. We still obtain all of our natural resources, including food, water, fuel, heat, and raw materials from the natural world. The notion that we are separate is an illusions on the same level as adults no longer being in touch with their childhood qualities. Somewhere, underneath the veneers, the wildness remains.

That wildness can either be destroyed in favor of heavily-regulated structures, poor facsimiles of natural environments, or it can be segregated off into island preserves. It was inevitable that our civilization would mature. However, it is not inevitable that our civilization would completely shut itself off from the world upon which it has transposed itself. Simply because we have paved over large portions of the natural world does not mean that we are no longer living in the natural world. We’ve only arranged parts of it to unknown effect on ourselves.

Fortunately, though, parts of it remains vibrant and alive, just as the parts of ourselves that once made us so special as children still remain in us. This may or may not be true for everybody, but retaining a part of our old selves, which will never truly leaves us, is as essential as mastering everything that goes into our new selves. Simply applying the labels of “old” and “new” implies that there are somehow two different people or two different worlds. Not so. It is all the same world, and it always will be. We are as much the part of the world as a yucca flower is, and there will never be any separating of that.

Hence, a place like Caspers, with its swaying grasses, rustling leaves, sandy trails, shady recesses, and open views, remains an island upon which we can re-integrate the natural side of life into the constructed side of life. Regeneration, tranquility, and enjoyment are the immediate rewards for doing so, while the long-term benefits are as far-ranging as they are unpredictable.

The landscape has always been a part of our lives, and the disconnect from that represents a major loss for humankind. People often talk of progress and about how far we have come. Others have talked about the havoc technology has wrecked upon our psyches and spirits. Some have suggested a new spirituality to cope with the advance of technology. However, the answer may lie in what has always been there: wholeness. Wholeness in terms of uniting both technology and nature, and allowing each to inform the other; wholeness in terms of maintaining our awe, wonder, creativity, and spontaneity, while also mastering ourselves through discipline. We may only need to do what mankind has always done to reach the fullest potentials.

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