Accepting the natural world on its own terms


Malibu: Hiking Along the Meaning of Life

By Michael Banks

iUniverse Inc., 287 pp., $21.95

While Michael banks was surfing and hiking Malibu in the 1980s, he was living the freest life possible in this age of civilization. Unfettered by the trappings of ordinary human achievement, he chronicles for the rest of us his adventures, impressions and musings on the complexity and simplicity of the natural world at our front and back doors.

Banks, who now lives and hikes in the Rocky Mountains, will return to Malibu Saturday to sign “Malibu: Hiking Along the Meaning of Life” at Diesel, A Bookstore.

Those who love the sand and surf will completely understand Banks’ lure of the waves, and even the serenity of the quiet days of flat water, a time to reflect. And others who ride and hike the canyons will find echoes of their own experiences here, too.

More difficult for those still driving to work weekdays on PCH is Banks’ total immersion in the unpaved, undeveloped beauty of the wild. His acceptance of the natural world on its own terms and the apparent absence of striving for material gain allow a deeper appreciation of what we’re all trying to share.

In early chapters named for Zuma Beach and Broad Beach, readers used to thrillers and page-turners may have difficulty slowing down to the leisurely pace of the hiker, the philosophical musings of the nascent environmentalist, even his sometimes-redundant polemic against the constraints of modern materialism. A slight deceleration from the pace at which most of us live is well worth the time taken to digest Banks’ references to old literature and philosophy. To fully appreciate this text, one must take it a few pages at a time, savoring the sights and smells as a hiker might if not determined to cover a prescribed number of miles in a day.

For those who will never ride a surfboard or even swim beyond the breakers, Bank’s telling of three fall days spent at Tower 12 bring an understanding of the whole surf culture.

After being swamped and tumbled by a rhino-sized wave, he writes: “On all sides the ocean seethes, the aftermath of an avalanche, and the froth and suds of the surf cover the wash in every direction. The glare off the water is so bright that as you break the surface and gasp for air you squint, snow-blind in the brightness. Steam rises off the ocean surface like vapors from the boil. There is no other sound in my ears save the hiss of the sea. My eyes open just in time to see a second white-hooded behemoth lift . . .” Better he than me, one thinks.

While hiking unmarked trails, he encounters wildlife seldom seen even by longtime residents of the Santa Monica Mountains. Plodding uphill on a footpath above Leo Carrillo, Banks catches a brief glimpse of a mountain lion cub: “A visceral instinct, a primal reflex of the prey and preyed, quickened the pulse in my veins. Perhaps it came from the pride of a lioness said to inhabit a den above Nicholas Canyon . . . If so, it may well be the last of its kind to prowl the Malibu.”

In his descriptions of birds, whistling and singing along with their intricate calls, Banks brings us closer than most of us will ever be to an appreciation of all that is threatened by the encroachment of those who must own something to enjoy it. He supposes that Malibu’s fate may have been more favorable if only she were more homely. “Her beauty was her curse. All eyed her coastal magnificence, and in the same breath coveted that place for their own … The notion that beauty is a quality to absorb but not own, like the very air around us, seems not to enter into this ethos.”

Banks seems to have equally developed both the left and right sides of his brain, rendering the spectacular landscapes in oil on canvas as well as in words. Painting the mustard fields on Nicholas Flat, he comes away with a tangible sense of having done something good with the day. There’s even a reminder here of Winston Churchill’s passion for painting in Banks’ appreciation of the effort. “As one works, brushes and palette in hand, oblivious to all else, time lessens its grip, the remote corners of the universe draw near and one relates to that time when space itself preceded light and was itself nascent.”

Just gazing at these stunning scenes elevates his standard of living, even as he recognizes that soon they may disappear, the land reduced to other uses. “And so, without knowing it at the time, I spent the good part of my life in the company of masterpieces whose days were numbered.”

Sprinkled throughout this unusual book are references to Thoreau and Walden, and philosophical links to passages of Odysseus. Many of Banks’ observations ring truer today than when he chronicled his exploration of the Malibu hillsides and canyons.

“Perhaps the greatest tragedy of our age,” he writes, “is that at a time when art and science should be coming closer and closer together, never have they been farther apart.”

Michael Banks, who now lives and hikes in the Rocky Mountains, will sign this book at Diesel, Saturday, June 25, at 7:30 p.m.