John Charles Van Dyke.

The desert : further studies in natural appearances online

. (page 4 of 13)
Online LibraryJohn Charles Van DykeThe desert : further studies in natural appearances → online text (page 4 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

tribes would naturally gather. Branches of
the Yuma Indians, like the Cocopas. overran
all this country when the Padres first crossed
the desert ; and it was probably their fore-
fathers who lived by the shores of this Upper
Gulf. No doubt they were fishermen, traders
and fighters, like their modern representatives
on Tiburon Island ; and no doubt they fished
and fought and were happy by the shores of
the mountain-locked sea.

But there came a time when there was a dis-
turbance of the existing conditions in the Up-
per Gulf. Century after century the Colorado
River had been carrying down to the sea its
burden of sedimental sand and silt. It had

Old sea beach on Colorado Des



been entering the Gnlf far down on the eastern
side at an acute angle. Gradually its deposits
had been building up, banking up ; and grad-
ually the river had been pushing them out and
across the Gulf in a southwesterly direction.
Finally there was formed a delta dam stretch-
ing from shore to shore. The tides no longer
brought water up and around the bases of the
big mountains. Communication with the sea
was cut off and what was once the top of the
Gulf changed into an inland lake. It now had
no water supply from below, it lay under a
burning sun, and day by day evaporation car-
ried it away.

No one knows how many days, how many
years, elapsed before the decrease of the water
became noticeable. Doubtless the lake shrunk
away slowly from the white face of the sand-
dunes and the red walls of the mountains.
The river-mouths that opened into the lake
narrowed themselves to small stream -beds.
The shelving beaches where the waves had
fallen lazily year after year, pushing themselves
over the sand in beautiful water-mirrors, shone
bare and dry in the sunlight. The ragged
reefs, over which the chop sea had tumbled
and tossed so long, lifted their black hulks out

The delttt

The inland


of the water and with their hosts of barnacles
and sea-life became a part of the land.

The waters of the great inland lake fell per-
haps a hundred feet and then they made a pause.
The exposed shores dried out. They baked hard
in the sun, and were slowly ground down to sand
and powdered silt by the action of the winds.
The waters made a long pause. They were re-
ceiving reinforcements from some source. Pos-
sibly there was more rainfall in those days than
now, and the streams entering the lake from
the mountains were much larger. Again there
may have been underground springs. There
are flowing wells to-day in this old sea-bed
wells that cast up water salter than the sea it-
self. No one knows their fountain-head. Per-
haps by underground channels the water creeps
through from the Gulf, or comes from mountain
reservoirs and turns saline by passing through
beds of salt. These are the might-bes ; but it
is far more probable that the Colorado River at
high water had made a breach of some kind in
the dam of its own construction and had poured
overflow water into the lake by way of a dry
channel called the New River. The bed of this
river runs northward from below the boundary-
line of Lower California ; and in 1893, during



a rise in the Colorado, the waters rushed in and
flooded the whole of what is called the Salton
Basin. When the Colorado receded, the basin
soon dried out again.

It was undoubtedly some accident of this
kind that called the halt in the original reces-
sion. During the interim the lake had time to
form new shores where the waves pounded and
washed on the gravel as before until miles upon
miles of new beach pebbled, shelled, and slop-
ing downward with great uniformity came into
existence. This secondary beach is intact to-
day and looks precisely like the primary except
that it is not quite so large. Across the basin,
along the southern mountains, the second water-
tracery is almost as apparent as the first. The
rocks are eaten in long lines by wave-action,
and are honeycombed by the ceaseless energies
of the zoophite.

Nor was the change in beach and rock alone.
New bays and harbors were cut out from where
the sea had been, new river - channels were
opened down to the shrunken lake, new lagoons
were spread over the flat places. Nature evi-
dently made a great effort to repair the damage
and adapt the lake to its new conditions. And
the Indians, too, accepted the change. There


The second



The third

The failing

are many indications in broken pottery, arrow-
heads, and mortars that the aboriginal tribes
moved down to the new beach and built wick-
iups by the diminished waters. And the old
fishing-foraging-fighting life was probably re-

Then once more the waters went down, down,
down. Step by step they receded until the sec-
ondary beach was left a hundred feet above the
water level. Again there was a pause. Again
new beaches were beaten into shape by the
waves, new bays were opened, new arroyos cut
through from above. The whole process of
shore-making the fitting of the land to the
shrunken proportions of the lake was gone
through with for the third time ; while the
water supply from the river or elsewhere was
maintained in decreased volume but with some
steadiness of flow. Possibly the third halt of
the receding water was not for a great length of
time. The tertiary beach is not so large as its
predecessors. There never was any strong wave-
action upon it, its pebbles are few, its faults
and breaks are many. The water supply was
failing, and finally it ceased altogether.

What fate for a lake in the desert receiving
no supplies from river or sea what fate save



annihilation ? The hot breath of the wind blew
across the cramped water and whipped its sur-
face into little waves ; and as each tiny point
of spray rose on the crest and was lifted into
the air the fiery sunbeam caught it, and in a
twinkling had evaporated and carried it up-
ward. Day by day this process went on' over
the whole surface until there was no more sea.
The hollow reefs rose high and dark above the
bed, the flat shoals of silt lifted out of the ooze,
and down in the lowest pools there was the
rush and plunge of monster tortuabas, sharks
and porpoises, caught as it were in a net and
vainly struggling to get out. How strange must
have seemed that landscape when the low ridges
were shining with the slime of the sea, when
the beds were strewn with algce, sponges, and
coral, and the shores were whitening with salt !
How strange, indeed, must have been the first
sight of the Bottom of the Bowl !

But the sun never relaxed its fierce heat nor
the wind its hot breath. They scorched and
burned the silt of the sea-bed until it baked
and cracked into blocks. Then began the wear
of the winds upon the broken edges until the
blocks were reduced to dry fine powder. Fi-
nally the desert came in. Drifts upon drifts of


Bottom of
the Bowl.

Drying out
of the sea-


Advance of


of the basin.

sand blown through the valleys settled in the
empty basin; gravel and bo wider- wash came
down from the mountains ; the grease -wood,
the salt-bush, and the so-called pepper-grass
sprang up in isolated spots. Slowly the desert
fastened itself upon the basin. Its heat became
too intense to allow the falling rain to reach
the earth, its surface was too salt and alkaline
to allow of much vegetation, it could support
neither animal nor bird life ; it became more
deserted than the desert itself.

And thus it remains to this day. When yon
are in the bottom of it you are nearly three
hundred feet below the level of the sea. Cir-
cling about you to the north, south, and west
are sierras, some of them over ten thousand feet
in height. These form the Rim of the Bowl.
And off to the southwest there is a side broken
out of the Bowl through which you can pass
to the river and the Gulf. The basin is perhaps
the hottest place to be found anywhere on the
American deserts. And it is also the most for-
saken. The bottom itself is, for the great part
of it, as flat as a table. It looks like a great
plain leading up and out to the horizon a
plain that has been ploughed and rolled smooth.
The soil is drifted silt the deposits made by


the washings from the mountains and is
almost as fine as flour.

The long line of dunes at the north are just
as desolate, yet they are wonderfully beautiful.
The desert sand is finer than snow, and its
curves and arches, as it builds its succession of
drifts out and over an arroyo, are as graceful as
the lines of running water. The dunes are al-
ways rhythmical and flowing in their forms ;
and for color the desert has nothing that sur-
passes them. In the early morning, before the
sun is up, they are air-blue, reflecting the sky
overhead ; at noon they are pale lines of daz-
zling orange-colored light, waving and undulat-
ing in the heated air ; at sunset they are often
flooded with a rose or mauve color ; under a
blue moonlight they shine white as icebergs in
the northern seas.

But neither the dunes nor the flats grow
vegetation of consequence. About the high
edges, up near the mountain slopes, you find
growths of mesquite, palo verde, and cactus ;
but down in the basin there are many miles
where no weed or grass breaks the level uni-
formity. Not even the salt-bush will grow in
some of the areas. And this is not due to
poverty of soil but to absence of water and

Beauty of
the sand-

Cactus and


animals in
the basin.


and snakes.

intense heat. Plants cannot live by sunlight

Nor will the desert animals inhabit an abso-
lute waste. The coyote and the wild cat do not
relish life in this dip in the earth. They care
little for heat and drouth, but the question of
food appeals to them. There is nothing to eat.
Even the abstemious jack-rabbit finds living
here something of a difficulty. Many kinds of
tracks are found in the uncrusted silt tracks
of coyotes, gray wolves, sometimes mountain
lions but they all run in straight trails, show-
ing the animals to be crossing the basin to the
mountains, not prowling or hunting. So, too,
you will occasionally find birds linnets, bobo-
links, mocking-birds, larks but they are seen
one at a time, and they look weary like land
birds far out at sea that seek a resting-place on
passing vessels. They do not belong to the
desert and are only stopping there temporarily
on some long flight. Snakes and Ikards are not
particular about their abiding-place, and yet
they do not care to live in a land where there
is no bush or stone to creep under. You meet
with them very seldom. Practically there is no
life of any kind that is native to the place.

Is there any beauty, other than the dunes,



The water

down in this hollow of the desert ?
From a picturesque point of view it has the
most wonderful light, air, and color imaginable.
You will not think so until you see them
blended in that strange illusion known as
mirage. And here is the one place in all the
world where the water-mirage appears to per-
fection. It does not show well over grassy or
bushy ground, but over the flat lake-beds of the
desert its appearance is astonishing. Down in
the basin it is accompanied by a second illusion


that makes the first more convincing. You
are below sea-level, but instead of the ground
about you sloping up and out, it apparently
slopes down and away on every side. You are
in the centre of a disk or high point of ground,
md around the circumference of the disk is
water palpable* almost tangible, water. It
cannot be seen well from your horse, and fifty
feet up on a mountain side it would not be
visible at all. But dismount and you see it
better ; kneel down and place your cheek to the
ground and now the water seems to creep up to
you. You could throw a stone into it. The
shore where the waves lap is just before you.
But where is the horizon-line ? Odd enough,
this vast circling sea does not always know a




qualities in

horizon ; it sometimes reaches up and blends
into the sky without any point of demarcation.
Through the heated air you see faint outlines of
mountains, dim glimpses of foot-hills, sugges-
tions of distance ; . but no more. Across them
is drawn the wavering veil of air, and the red
earth at your feet, the blue sky overhead, are
but bordering bands of flat color.

And there you have the most decorative land-
scape in the world, a landscape all color, a dream
landscape. Painters for years have been trying
to put it upon canvas this landscape of color,
light, and air, with form almost obliterated,
merely suggested, given only as a hint of the
mysterious. Men like Corot and Monet have
told us, again and again, that in painting, clearly
delineated forms of mountains, valleys, trees,
and rivers, kill the fine color-sentiment of the
picture. The great struggle of the modern
landscapist is to get on with the least possible
form and to suggest everything by tones of color,
shades of light, drifts of air. Why ? Because
these are the most sensuous qualities in nature
and in art. The landscape that is the simplest
in form and the finest in color is by all odds the
most beautiful. It is owing to just these feat-
ures that this Bowl of the desert is a thing of



beauty instead of a dreary hollow in the hills.
Only one other scene is comparable to it, and
that the southern seas at sunset when the calm
ocean reflects and melts into the color-glory of
the sky. It is the same kind of beauty. Form
is almost blurred out in favor of color and air.

Yet here is more beauty destined to destruc-
tion. It might be thought that this forsaken
pot-hole in the ground would never come under
the dominion of man, that its very worthlessness
would be its safeguard against civilization, that
none would want it, and everyone from necessity
would let it alone. But not even the spot de-
serted by reptiles shall escape the industry or the
avarice (as you please) of man. A great company
has been formed to turn the Colorado River
into the sands, to reclaim this desert basin, and
make it blossom as the rose. The water is to
be brought down to the basin by the old channel
of the New River. Once in reservoirs it is to be
distributed over the tract by irrigating ditches,
and it is said a million acres of desert will thus
be made arable, fitted for homesteads, ready for
the settler who never remains settled.

A most laudable enterprise, people will say.
Yes ; commercially no one can find fault with
it Money made from sand is likely to be clean

the desert.

in the basvn



the climate.

Drv air.

money, at any rate. And economically these
acres will produce large supplies of food. That
is commendable, too, even if those for whom it
is produced waste a good half of what they
already possess. And yet the food that is pro-
duced there may prove expensive to people
other than the producers. This old sea-bed is,
for its area, probably the greatest dry-heat
generator in the world because of its depression
and its barren, sandy surface. It is a furnace
that whirls heat up and out of the Bowl, over
the peaks of the Coast Range into Southern
California, and eastward across the plains to
Arizona and Sonora. In what measure it is re-
sponsible for the general climate of those States
cannot be accurately summarized ; but it cer-
tainly has a great influence, especially in the
matter of producing dry" air. To turn this
desert into an agricultural tract would be to
increase humidity, and that would be practi-
cally to nullify the finest air on the continent.

And why are not good air and climate as es-
sential to human well-being as good beef and
good bread ? Just now, when it is a world too
late, our Government and the forestry societies
of the country are awakening to the necessity
of preserving the forests. National parks are



being created wherever possible and the cutting
of timber within them is prohibited. Why is
this being done ? Ostensibly to preserve the
trees, but in reality to preserve the water sup-
ply, to keep tl*e fountain-heads pure, to main-
tain a uniform stage of water in the rivers.
Very proper and right. The only pity is that
it was not undertaken forty years ago. But
how is the water supply, from an economic and
hygienic stand-point, any more important than
the air supply ?

Grasses, trees, shrubs, growing grain, they,
too, may need good air as well as human lungs.
The deserts are not worthless wastes. You
cannot crop all creation with wheat and alfal-
fa. Some sections must lie fallow that other
sections may produce. Who shall say that the
preternatural productiveness of California is
not due to the warm air of its surrounding des-
erts ? Does anyone doubt that the healthful-
ness of the countries lying west of the Mississ-
ippi may be traced directly to the dry air and
heat of the deserts. They furnish health to
the human ; why not strength to the plant ?
The deserts should never be reclaimed. They
are the breathing-spaces of the west and should
be preserved forever.

Value of the
air supply.

Value of tJie



of natural

Effects of

To speak about sparing anything because it
is beautiful is to waste one's breath and incur
ridicule in the bargain. The aesthetic sense
the power to enjoy through the eye, the ear,
and the imagination is just as important a
factor in the scheme of human happiness as
the corporeal sense of eating and drinking ; but
there has never been a time when the world
would admit it. The "practical men," who
seem forever on the throne, know very well
that beauty is only meant for lovers and young
persons stuff to suckle fools withal. The
main affair of life is to get the dollar, and if
there is any money in cutting the throat of
Beauty, why, by all means, cut her throat. That
is what the " practical men " have been doing
ever since the world began. It is not necessary
to dig up ancient history ; for have we not
seen, here in California and Oregon, in our
own time, the destruction of the fairest valleys
the sun ever shone upon by placer and hy-
draulic mining ? Have we not seen in Minne-
sota and Wisconsin the mightiest forests that
ever raised head to the sky slashed to pieces
by the axe and turned into a waste of tree-
stumps and fallen timber ? Have we not seen
the Upper Mississippi, by the destruction of



the forests, changed from a broad, majestic
river into a shallow, muddy stream ; and the
beautiful prairies of Dakota turned under by
the plough and then allowed to run to weeds ?
Men must have coal though they ruin the val-
leys and blacken the streams of Pennsylvania,
they must have oil though they disfigure half
of Ohio and Indiana, they must have copper
if they wreck all the mountains of Montana
and Arizona, and they must have gold though
they blow Alaska into the Behring Sea. It is
more than possible that the "practical men"
have gained much practice and many dol-
lars by flaying the fair face of these United
States. They have stripped the land of its
robes of beauty, and what have they given in
its place ? Weeds, wire fences, oil-derricks,
board shanties and board towns things that
not even a "practical man" can do less than
curse at.

And at last they have turned to the desert !
It remains to be seen what they will do with it.
Reclaiming a waste may not be so easy as break-
ing a prairie or cutting down a forest. And
Nature will not always be driven from her
purpose. "Wind, sand, and heat on Sahara
have proven hard forces to fight against ; they

the praines.



wind, sand,
and heat.


may prove no less potent on the Colorado.
And sooner or later Nature will surely come to
her own again. Nothing human is of long du-
ration. Men and their deeds are obliterated,
the race itself fades ; but Nature goes calmly
on with her projects. She works not for man's
enjoyment, but for her own satisfaction and her
own glory. She made the fat lands of the
earth with all their fruits and flowers and fo-
liage ; and with no less care she made the des-
ert with its sands and cacti. She intended
that each should remain as she made it. When
the locust swarm has passed, the flowers and
grasses will return to the valley ; when man
is gone, the sand and the heat will come back
to the desert. The desolation of the kingdom
will live again, and down in the Bottom of
the Bowl the opalescent mirage will waver
skyward on wings of light, serene in its sol
itude, though no human eye sees nor human
tongue speaks its loveliness.


THE career of the Colorado, from its rise in
the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming to its
final disappearance in the Gulf of California,
seems almost tragic in its swift transitions. It
starts out so cheerily upon its course ; it is so
clear and pure, so sparkling with sunshine and
spirit. It dashes down mountain valleys, gur-
gles under bowlders, swirls over waterfalls,
flashes through ravines and gorges. With its
sweep and glide and its silvery laugh it seems to
lead a merry life. But too soon it plunges into
precipitous canyons and enters upon its fierce
struggle with the encompassing rock. Now it
boils and foams, leaps and strikes, thunders and
shatters. For hundreds of miles it wears and
worries and undermines the rock to its destruc-
tion. During the long centuries it has cut
down into the crust of the earth five thousand
feet. But ever the stout walls keep casting it
back, keep churning it into bubbles, beating it \

Rise of the

In the



into froth. At last, its canyon course run, ex-
hausted and helpless, it is pushed through the
escarpments, thrust out upon the desert, to find
its way to the sea as best it can. Its spirit is
broken, its vivacity is extinguished, its color is
deepened to a dark red the trail of blood that
leads up to the death. Wearily now it drifts
across the desert without a ripple, without a
moan. Like a wounded snake it drags its length
far down the long wastes of sand to where the
blue waves are flashing on the Calif ornian Gulf.
And there it meets obliteration.

After the clash and roar of the conflict in the
canyons how impressive seems the stillness of
the desert, how appalling the unbroken silence
of the lower river ! Day after day it moves sea-
ward, but without a sound. You start at its
banks to find no waves, no wash upon gravel
beaches, no rush of water over shoals. Instead
of the soothing murmur of breaking falls there
is at times the boil of currents from below
waters flung up sullenly and soon flattened
into drifting nothingness by their own weight.

And how heavily the stream moves ! Its load
of silt is gradually settling to the bottom, yet
still the water seems to drag upon the shores.
Every reef of sand, every island of mud, every



overhanging willow or cottonwood or handful
of arrow-weed holds out a restraining hand.
But slowly, patiently, winding about obstruc-
tions, cutting out new channels, creeping where
it may not run, the bubbleless water works its
way to the sea. The night-winds steal along its
shores and pass in and out among its sedges,
but there are no whispering voices ; and the stars
emerge and shine upon the flat floor of water,
but there is no lustre. The drear desolation of
it ! The blare of morning sunlight does not
lift the pall, nor the waving illusions of the
mirage break the stillness. The Silent River
moves on carrying desolation with it ; and at
every step the waters grow darker, darker with
the stain of red red the hue of decay.

It was not through paucity of imagination
that the old Spaniards gave the name Col-
orado.* During the first fifty years after its
discovery the river was christened many times,
but the name that finally clung to it was the
one that gave accurate and truthful description.

* Colorado is said to be the Spanish translation of the

1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Online LibraryJohn Charles Van DykeThe desert : further studies in natural appearances → online text (page 4 of 13)