John Charles Van Dyke.

The desert; further studies in natural appearances online

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Prof. John C. Van Dyke



University Lectures on the Technical Beauties of
Painting. With 24 Illustrations. 12mo. $1.50.


First Studies in Natural Appearances. With Por-
trait. 12 mo. $1.50.

With 110 Illustrations. 12mo. $1.50.


With Timothy Cole's Wood-engravings. Super-
royal 8vo. $7.50.


Written by American Artists and edited by Pro-
fessor Van Dyke. With 66 full-page Illustrations.
Super-royal 8vo. $10.00.











Published September, 1901.




Jancroh Library


A. M. 0.

After the making of Eden came a serpent,
and after the gorgeous furnishing of the world,
a human being. Why the existence of the de-
stroyers ? What monstrous folly, think you,
ever led Nature to create her one great enemy
man ! Before his coming security may have
been ; but how soon she learned the meaning of
fear when this new (Edipus of her brood was
brought forth ! And how instinctively she
taught the fear of him to the rest of her chil-
dren ! To-day, after centuries of association,
every bird and beast and creeping thing the
wolf in the forest, the antelope on the plain,
the wild fowl in the sedge fly from his ap-
proach. They know his civilization means their
destruction. Even the grizzly, secure in the
chaparral of his mountain home, flinches as he
crosses the white man's trail. The boot mark


in the dust smells of blood and iron. The
great annihilator has come and fear travels
with him.

" Familiar facts/' you will say. Yes ; and not
unfamiliar the knowledge that with the coming
of civilization the grasses and the wild flowers
perish, the forest falls and its place is taken
by brambles, the mountains are blasted in the
search for minerals, the plains are broken by
the plow and the soil is gradually washed into
the rivers. Last of all, when the forests have
gone the rains cease falling, the streams dry up,
the ground parches and yields no life, and the
artificial desert the desert made by the tramp
of human feet begins to show itself, Yes ;
everyone must have cast a backward glance and
seen Nature's beauties beaten to ashes under
the successive marches of civilization. The
older portions of the earth show their desolation
plainly enough, and the ascending smoke and
dust of the ruin have even tainted the air and
dimmed the sunlight.

Indeed, I am not speaking figuratively or
extravagantly. We have often heard of " Sunny
Italy " or the "clear light" of Egypt, but be-
lieve me there is no sunlight there compared
with that which falls upon the upper peaks of


the Sierra Madre or the uninhabitable wastes of
the Colorado Desert. Pure sunlight requires for
its existence pure air, and the Old World has
little of it left. When you are in Eome again
and stand upon that hill where all good roman-
ticists go at sunset, look out and notice how
dense is the atmosphere between you and St.
Peter's dome. That same thick air is all over
Europe, all around the Mediterranean, even
over in Mesopotamia and by the banks of the
Ganges. It has been breathed and burned and
battle-smoked for ten thousand years. Eide up
and over the high table-lands of Montana one
can still ride there for days without seeing a
trace of humanity and how clear and scentless,
how absolutely intangible that sky-blown sun-
shot atmosphere ! You breathe it without feel-
ing it, you see through it a hundred miles and
the picture is not blurred by it.

It is just so with Nature's color. True
enough, there is much rich color at Venice, at
Cairo, at Constantinople. Its beauty need not
be denied ; and yet it is an artificial, a chemical
color, caused by the disintegration of matter
the decay of stone, wood, and iron torn from
the neighboring mountains. It is Nature after
a poor fashion Nature subordinated to the will


of man. Once more ride over the enchanted
mesas of Arizona at sunrise or at sunset, with
the ragged mountains of Mexico to the south of
you and the broken spurs of the great sierra
round about you ; and all the glory of the old
shall be as nothing to the gold and purple and
burning crimson of this new world.

You will not be surprised then if, in speaking
of desert, mesa and mountain I once more take
you far beyond the wire fence of civilization to
those places (unhappily few now) where the
trail is unbroken and the mountain peak un-
blazed. I was never over-fond of park and
garden nature-study. If we would know the
great truths we must seek them at the source.
The sandy wastes, the arid lands, the porphyry
mountain peaks may be thought profitless
places for pilgrimages ; but how often have you
and I, and that one we both loved so much,
found beauty in neglected marshes, in wintry
forests, and in barren hill-sides ! The love of
Nature is after all an acquired taste. One be-
gins by admiring the Hudson-Kiver landscape
and ends by loving the desolation of Sahara.
Just why or how the change would be difficult
to explain. You cannot always dissect a taste
or a passion. Nor can you pin Nature to a


board and chart her beauties with square and
compasses. One can give his impression and
but little more. Perhaps I can tell you some-
thing of what I have seen in these two years of
wandering; but I shall never be able to tell
you the grandeur of these mountains, nor the
glory of color that wraps the burning sands at
their feet. We shoot arrows at the sun in vain ;
yet still we shoot.

And so it is that my book is only an excuse
for talking about the beautiful things in this
desert world that stretches down the Pacific
Coast, and across Arizona and Sonora. The
desert has gone a-begging for a word of praise
these many years. It never had a sacred poet ;
it has in me only a lover. But I trust that you,
and the nature-loving public you represent, will
accept this record of the Colorado and the
Mojave as at least truthful. Given the facts
perhaps the poet with his fancies will come





CHAPTER I. The Approach. Desert mountain ranges
Early morning approach Air illusions Sand forms
The winds Sun-shafts Sunlight Desert life Ante-
lope The Lost Mountains The ascent Deer trails
Footprints The stone path Defensive walls The sum-
mit The fortified camp Nature's reclamations The
mountain dwellers Invading hosts Water and food
supplies The aborigines Historic periods The open
desert Perception of beauty Sense of beauty Moun-
tain "view" of the desert Desert colors The land of
fire Drouth and heat Sand and gypsum Sand- whirls
Desert storms Drift of sands Winter cold in the basin
Snow on desert Sea and sand Grim desolation Love
for the desert The descent The Padres in the desert
The light of the cross Aboriginal faith 1

CHAPTER II. The Make of the Desert. The sea of
sand Mountain ranges on desert Plains, valleys, and
mesas Effect of drouth The rains Harshness of des-
ert A gaunt land Conditions of life Incessant strife
Elemental warfare Desert vegetation Protruding
edges Shifting sands Desert winds Radiation of heat
Prevailing winds Wear of the winds Erosion of
mountains Rock-cutting Fantastic forms Wash-outs
Sand- lines in caves Cloud-bursts Canyon waters
Desert floods -Power of water Water-pockets No


surface-streams Oases in the waste Catch-basins
Old sea-beds Volcanic action Lava-flows Geological
ages Kinds of rock Glaciers Land slips Movement
of stones The talus Stages of the talus Desert floors
Sandstone blocks Salt-beds Sand-beds Mountain
vegetation Withered grasses Barren rock Mountain
colors Saw-toothed ridges Seen from the peaks The
Sun-fire kingdom 23

CHAPTER III. The Bottom of the Bowl. Early geo-
logical days The former Gulf Sea-beaches on desert
Harbors and reefs Indian remains The Cocopas The
Colorado Kiver The delta dam The inland lake The
first fall Springs and wells in the sea-bed The New
River New beaches The second fall The third beach
The failing water Evaporation Bottom of the Bowl
Drying out of the sea-bed Advance of the desert Be-
low sea-level Desolation of the basin Beauty of the
sand-dunes Cactus and salt-bush Desert animals
Birds Lizards and snakes Mirage The water illusion
Decorative landscapes Sensuous qualities in Nature
Changing the desert Irrigation in the basin Changing
the climate Dry air Value of the air supply Value of
the desert Destruction of natural beauty Effects of
mining, lumbering, agriculture Ploughing the prairies
u Practical men" Fighting wind, sand, and heat Na-
ture eternal Return of desolation 44

CHAPTER IV. The Silent River. Rise of the Colora-
do In the canyon On the desert The lower river
Sluggish movement Stillness of the river The river's
name Its red color Compared with the Nile The
blood hue River changes Red sands and silt River-
banks u Bottom" lands Green bordering bands
Bushes and flowers Soundless water Wild fowl Her-


ons and bitterns Snipe Sadness of bird-life The for-
saken shores Solitude Beauty of the river Its maj-
esty The delta Disintegration The river in flood
The "bore" Meeting of river and seaThe blue tomb
Shores of Gulf 63

CHAPTER V. Light, Air^ and Color. Popular ideas
Sunlight on desert Glare and heat Pure sunlight
Atmospheric envelope Vapor particles in air Clear air
Dust particles Hazes Seeing the desert air Sea-
breezes on desert Colored air Different hues Pro-
ducing color Refracted rays Cold colors, how produced
Warm colors Sky colors Color produced by dust
Effect of heat Effect of winds Sand-storms Reflec-
tions upon sky Blue, yellow, and pink hazes The dust-
veil Summer coloring Local hues Greens of desert
plants Color of the sands Sands in mirage Color of
mountain walls Weather staining Influence of the air
Peak of Baboquivari Buttes and spires Sun-shafts
through canyons Complementary hues in shadow Col-
ored shadows Blue shadows upon salt-beds How light
makes color Desert sunsets 77

CHAPTER VI. Desert Sky and Clouds. Common-
place things of Nature The blue sky Changes in the
blue Dawns on the desert Blue as a color Sky from
mountain heights Blackness of space Bright sky-col-
ors Horizon skies Spectrum colors Bands of yellow
The orange sky Desert-clouds Rainfall Effect of
the nimbus Cumuli Heap-clouds at sunset Strati
Cirri Ice- clouds Fire-clouds The celestial tapestry
The desert moon Rings and rainbows Moonlight
Stars The midnight sky Alone in the desert The mys-
teries Space and immensity The silences The cry of
the human 95


CHAPTER VII. Illusions. Reality and appearance
Preconceived impressions Deception by sunlight Dis-
torted forms and colors Changed appearance of moun-
tains Changes in line and light False perspective
Abnormal foreshortening Contradictions and denials
Deceptive distances Dangers of the desert Immensity
of valley-plains Shadow illusions Color-patches on
mountains- -Illusions of lava-beds Appearance of cloud-
shadows Mirage Need of explanation Refraction of
light-rays Dense air-strata Illustration of camera-lens
Bent light-rays Ships at sea and upside down
Wherein the illusion " Looming " of vessels, cities, and
islands Reversed image of mountains Horses and cattle
in mirage Illusion of rising buttes Other causes of
mirage Water-mirage The lake appearance How pro-
duced Objects in water Confused mirage The swim-
ming wolf Colors and shadows in mirage Trembling
airBeauty of mirage 109

CHAPTER VIII. Cactus and Grease Wood. Views of
Nature Growth and decay Nature's plan The law of
change Nature foiling her own plans Attack and
drouth Preservation of species Means of preservation
Maintaining the status quo The plant-struggle for life
Fighting heat and drouth Prevention of evaporation
Absence of large leaves Exhaust of moisture Gums
and varnishes of bushes The ocatilla Tap roots Un-
derground structure Feeding the top growth Storage
reservoirs below ground Reservoirs above ground
Thickened barks Gathering moisture Attacks upon des-
ert plants Browsing animals Weapons of defence
The spine and thorn The crucifixion thorn The sting
of flowers Fierceness of the plant Odors and juices-
Saps astringent and cathartic Expenditure of energy
The desert covering Use of desert plants Their beauty


Beauty in character Forms of the yucca and maguey
The lluvia d'oro Grotesque forms Abnormal colors
Blossoms and flowers Many varieties Wild flowers
Salt-bush The grasses and lichens The continuous
struggle 128

CHAPTER IX. Desert Animals. Meeting desert re-
quirements Peculiar desert character Desert Indians
Life without water Endurance of the jack-rabbit
Prairie dogs and water Water famine Coyotes
and wild-cats living without water Lean, gaunt life
Fierceness of animals Attack and escape The wild-
cat Spring of the cat Mountain lion His habits
The gray wolf Home of the wolf The coyote His
cleverness His subsistence His background The fox
The prey Devices for escape Senses of the rabbit
Speed of the jack-rabbit His endurance The " cotton-
tail " Squirrels and gophers Desert antelope His eyes,
nose, and ears His swiftness The mule-deer Deer
in flight White-tailed deer The reptiles Defence of
poison The fang and sting The rattlesnake and his
poison Spiders and tarantulas Centipedes and scor-
pionsLizards and swifts The hydrophobia skunk The
cutthroat band The eternal struggle Brute courage
and character Beauty in character Graceful forms of
animals Colors of lizards Mystery of motion 150

CHAPTER X. Winged Life. First day's walk Tracks
in the sand Scarcity of birds Dangers of bird-life No
cover for protection Food problem Heat and drouth
again A bird's temperature Innocent-looking birds
The road-runner Wrens and fly-catchers Develop-
ment of special characteristics Birds of the air The
vulture His hunting and sailing The southern buzzard
The crow The great condor Eagles and hawks Bats


and owls The burrowing owl Ground-birds The road-
runner's swiftness The vicious beak The desert-quail
Wings of the quail Travelling for water Habits of
the quail His strong legs Bush-birds Woodpeckers
and cactus Finches and mocking-birds Humming-birds
Doves and grosbeaks The lark and flickers Jays and
magpies Water fowl Beetles and worms Fighting de-
struction by breed Blue and green beetles Butterflies
Design and character Beauty of birds Beauty also of
reptiles Nature's work all purposeful Precious jewel
of the toad 174

CHAPTER XL Mesas and Foot- Hills Flat steps of
the desert Across Southern Arizona Rising from the
desert The great mesas ll Grease wood plains" Up-
land vegetation Grass plains Spring and summer on the
plains Home of the antelope Beds of soda and gypsum
Hiding into the unexpected The Grand Canyon
country Hills covered with juniper The Painted Desert
Riding on the mesas The reversion to savagery The
thin air again The light and its deceptions Distorted
proportions Changed colors The little hills Painting
the desert Worn - down mountains Mountain wash
Flattening down the plain Mountain making The foot-
hills Forms of the foot-hills Mountain plants Bare
mountains The southern exposures Gray lichens Still
in the desert Arida Zona Cloud-bursts in the mesas
Wash of rains Gorge cutting In the canyons Walls
of rock Color in canyon shadows Blue sky Desert
landscape Knowledge of Nature Nature-lovers
Human limitations 194

CHAPTER XII. Mountain Barriers. The western
mountains Saddles and passes View from mountain
top Looking toward the peaks Lost streams Ava-


lanches and bowlder-beds Ascent by the arroyo Growth
of the stream Kising banks Waterfalls Gorges As-
cent by the ridges The chaparral Home of the grizzly
Eidge trails Among the live-oaks Birds and deer
Yawning canyons Canyon streams Snow Water wear
The pines Barrancas and escarpments Under the
pines Bushes, ferns, and mosses Mountain quail In-
digo jays Warblers The mountain air The dwarf
pines The summit The look upward at the sky The
dark-blue dome White light Distant views The Pa-
cific Southern California The garden in the desert
Reclaiming the valleys Nature's fight against fertility
The desert from the mountain top The great extent of
desert- The fateful wilderness All shall perish The
death of worlds The desert the beginning of the end
Development through adversity Sublimity of the
waste Desolation and silence Good-night to the
desert.. . 213



IT is the last considerable group of mountains
between the divide and the low basin of the
Colorado desert. For days I have been watch-
ing them change color at sunset watching the
canyons shift into great slashes of blue and
purple shadow, and the ridges flame with edg-
ings of glittering fire. They are lonesome look-
ing mountains lying oil there by themselves on
the plain, so still, so barren, so blazing hot
under the sun. Forsaken of their kind, one
might not inappropriately call them the " Lost
Mountains " the surviving remnant no doubt
of some noble range that long centuries ago
was beaten by wind and rain into desert sand.
And yet before one gets to them they may prove
quite formidable heights, with precipitous sides
and unsurmountable tops. Who knows ? Not
those with whom I am stopping, for they have




morning on
the desert.

Air illu-

not been there. They do not even know the
name of them. The Papagoes leave them alone
because there is no game in them. Evidently
they are considered unimportant hills, no-
body's hills, no man's range ; but nevertheless
I am off for them in the morning at daylight.

I ride away through the thin mesquite and
the little adobe ranch house is soon lost to view.
The morning is still and perfectly clear. The
stars have gone out, the moon is looking pale,
the deep blue is warming, the sky is lightening
with the coming day. How cool and crystalline
the air ! In a few hours the great plain will be
almost like a fiery furnace under the rays of
the summer sun, but now it is chilly. And in
a few hours there will be rings and bands and
scarves of heat set wavering across the waste
upon the opalescent wings of the mirage ; but
now the air is so clear that one can see the
breaks in the rocky face of the mountain
range, though it is fully twenty miles away.
It may be further. Who of the desert has not
spent his day riding at a mountain and never
even reaching its base ? This is a land of illu-
sions and thin air. The vision is so cleared at
times that the truth itself is deceptive. But I
shall ride on for several hours. If, by twelve



o'clock, the foot hills are not reached, I shall
turn back.

The summer heat has withered everything
except the mesquite, the palo verde,* the
grease wood, and the various cacti. Under foot
there is a little dry grass, but more often
patches of bare gravel and sand rolled in shal-
low beds that course toward the large valleys.
In the draws and flat places the fine sand lies
thicker, is tossed in wave forms by the wind,
and banked high against clumps of cholla or
prickly pear. In the wash-outs and over the
cut banks of the arroyos it is sometimes heaped
in mounds and crests like driven snow. It
blows here along the boundary line between
Arizona and Sonora almost every day ; and the
tailing of the sands behind the bushes shows
that the prevailing winds are from the Gulf
region. A cool wind ? Yes, but only by com-
parison with the north wind. When you feel
it on your face you may think it the breath of
some distant volcano.

How pale - blue the Lost Mountains look
under the growing light. I am watching their
edges develop into broken barriers of rock, and

* The use of Spanish names is compulsory. There are
no English equivalents.

forms in
the valleys.

Winds of
the desert.


Sun shafts.

The beauty
of sunlight.

even as I watch the tallest tower of all is struck
with a bright fawn color. It is the high point
to catch the first shaft of the sun. Quickly the
light spreads downward until the whole ridge is
tinged by it, and the abrupt sides of porphyry
begin to glow under it. It is not long before
great shafts of light alternating with shadow
stretch down the plain ahead of me. The sun
is streaming through the tops of the eastern
mountains and the sharp pointed pinnacles are
cutting shadows in the broad beam of light.

That beam of light ! Was there ever any-
thing so beautiful ! How it flashes its color
through shadow, how it gilds the tops of the
mountains and gleams white on the dunes of
the desert ! In any land what is there more
glorious than sunlight ! Even here in the
desert, where it falls fierce and hot as a rain of
meteors, it is the one supreme beauty to which
all things pay allegiance. The beast and the
bird are not too fond of its heat and as soon as
the sun is high in the heavens they seek cover
in the canyons ; but for all that the chief glory
of the desert is its broad blaze of omnipresent

Yes, there is animal and bird life here though
it is not always apparent unless you look for it.


Wrens and linnets are building nests in the
cholla, and finches are singing from the top of
the sahuaro.* There are plenty of reptiles,
rabbits and ground squirrels quietly slipping
out of your way ; and now that the sun is up
you can see a long sun-burned slant-of-hair
trotting up yonder divide and casting an appre-
hensive head from side to side as he moves off.
It is not often that the old gray wolf shows
himself to the traveller. He is usually up in
the mountains before sunrise. And seldom
now does one see the desert antelope along the
mesas, and yet off to the south you can see
patches of white that come and go almost like
flashing mirrors in the sun. They are stragglers
from some band that have drifted up from cen-
tral Sonora. No; they are not far away. A
little mirage is already forming over that portion
of the mesa and makes them look more distant
than they are in reality. You can be deceived
on the desert by the nearness of things quite as
often as by their remoteness.

These desert mountains have a fashion of ap-
pearing distant until you are almost up to them.
Then they seem to give up the game of decep-
tion and come out of their hiding-places. It is
* Properly Saguaro.

Desert life.


The Lost



The ascent.

Deer trails.

just so with the mountains toward which I am
riding. After several hours they seem to rise
up suddenly in front of me and I am at their
base. They are not high perhaps fifteen
hundred feet. The side near me is precipitous
rock, weather-stained to a reddish-black. A
ride around the bases discloses an almost com-
plete perpendicular wall, slanting off half way
down the sides into sloping beds of bowlders
that have been shaken loose from the upper
strata. A huge cleft in the western side half
barranca half canyon seems to suggest a way
to the summit.

The walking up the mountain is not the best
in the world. It is over splintered rock, step-
ping from stone to stone, creeping along the
backbone of bowlders, and worrying over rows
of granite blocks. Presently the course seems
to slip into a diagonal a winding up and
around the mountain and ahead of me the
stones begin to look peculiar, almost familiar.
There seems to be a trail over the ledges and
through the broken blocks ; but what should
make a trail up that deserted mountain ?
Mule-deer travelling toward the summit to lie
down in the heat of the day ? It is possible.
The track of a band of deer soon becomes a


beaten path, and animals are just as fond of
a good path as humanity. By a strange coin-
cidence at this very moment the sharp-toed
print of a deer's hoof appears in the ground
before me. But it looks a little odd. The im-
pression is so clear cut that I stoop to examine
it. It is with no little astonishment that I find
it sunk in stone instead of earth petrified in
rock and overrun with silica. The bare sug-

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Online LibraryJohn Charles Van DykeThe desert; further studies in natural appearances → online text (page 1 of 13)