John Charles Van Dyke.

The desert; further studies in natural appearances online

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crumbled almost to dust, and near them young
pines springing up to take the place of the fallen.
Manzanita and buckthorn and lilac are here,
too ; but the chaparral is not so dense as lower
down. You pass through it easily and press on
upward, still upward, in the cool mountain-air,
until you are above the barranca of snow and un-

The wear of

The pines.



and escarp-

the pines.

ferns, and

der the lee of a vast escarpment. The wall is
perpendicular and yon have to circle it looking
for an exit higher up. For half an hour you
move across a talus of granite blocks, and then
through a break in the wall you clamber up to
the top of the escarpment. You are on a high
spur which leads up a pine-clad slope. You are
coming nearer your quest.

The pines ! at last the pines ! How gigan-
tic they seem, those trees standing so calm and
majestic in their mantles of dark green how
gigantic to eyes grown used to the little palo
verde or the scrubby grease wood ! All classes
of pines are here sugar pines, bull pines, white
pines, yellow pines not in dense numbers
standing close together as in the woods of Ore-
gon, but scattered here and there with open
aisles through which the sunshine falls in broad
bars. Many small bushes berry bushes most
of them are under the pines ; and with them
are grasses growing in tufts, flowers growing in
beds, and bear-clover growing in fields. Aimless
and apparently endless little streams wander
everywhere, and ferns and mosses go with them.
Bowlder streams they are, for the rounded bowl-
der is still in evidence in the stream, on the
bank, and under the roots of the pine.



The beautiful mountain-quail loves to scram-
ble over these stones, especially when they are
in the water ; and the mountain-quail is here.
This is his abiding-place, and you are sure to
see him, for he has a curiosity akin to that of
the antelope and must get on a bowlder or a log
to look at you. And this is the home of hun-
dreds of woodpeckers that seem to spend their
entire lives in pounding holes in the pine-trees
and then pounding acorns into the holes. It
is a very thrifty practice and provides against
winter consumption, only the squirrels consume
the greater part of the acorns if the blue- jays
do not get ahead of them. For here lives the
ordinary blue-jay and also his mountain cousin,
the crested jay, with a coat so blue that it might
better be called indigo. A beautiful bird, but
with a jangling note that rasps the air with dis-
cord. His chief occupation seems to be climb-
ing pine-trees as by the rungs of a ladder.
There are sweeter notes from the warblers, the
nuthatches, and the chickadees. But no desert-
bird comes up so high ; and as for the common
lawn and field birds like the robin and the
thrush, they do not fancy the pines.

Upward, still upward, under the spreading
arms of the pines ! How silent the forest save






The moun-

The dwarf


for the soughing of the wind through the pine
needles and the jangle of the jays ! And how
thin and clear the mountain-air ! How white the
sunlight falling upon the moss-covered rocks ! It
must be that we have risen out of the dust-
laden atmosphere of the desert. And out of
its heat too. The air feels as though blown to
us from snow-banks, and indeed, they are in the
gullies lying on either side of us. For now we
are coming close to the peak. The bushes have
been dwindling away for some time past, and
the pines have been growing thinner in body,
fewer in number, smaller in size. A dwarf pine
begins to show itself a scraggly tempest-fight-
ing tree, designed by Nature to grow among the
bowlders of the higher peaks and to be the first
to stop the slides of snow. The hardy grasses
fight beside it, and with them is the little snow-
bird, fighting for life too.

Upward, still upward, until great spaces be-
gin to show through the trees and the ground
flattens and becomes a floor of rock. In the
barrancas on the north side the snow still lies in
banks, but on the south side, where the sun falls
all day, the ground is bare. You are now above
the timber line. Nothing shows but wrecked
and shattered strata of rock with patches of



stunted grass. The top is only barren stone.
The uppermost peak, which you have perhaps
seen from the desert a hundred miles away look-
ing like a sharp spine of granite shot up in the
air, turns out to be something more of a dome
than a spine a rounded knob of gray granite
which you have no difficulty in ascending.

At last you are on the peak and your first
impulse is to look down. But no. Look up !
You have read and heard many times of the
" deep blue sky." It is a stock phrase in nar-
rative and romance ; but I venture to doubt if
you have ever seen one. It is seen only from
high points from just such a place as you are
now standing upon. Therefore look up first of
all and see a blue sky that is turning into violet.
Were you ten thousand feet higher in the air
you would see it darkened to a purple-violet
with the stars even at midday shining through
it. How beautiful it is in color and how won-
derful it is in its vast reach ! The dome in-
stead of contracting as you rise into it, seems to
expand. There are no limits to its uttermost
edge, no horizon lines to say where it begins.
It is not now a cup or cover for the world, but
something that reaches to infinity something
in which the world floats.

The look
upward at
the sky.

The dark-
blue dome.



White light.


The Pacific,

And do yon notice that the sun is no longer
yellow but white, and that the light that comes
from it is cold with just the faintest shade of
violet about it ? The air, too, is changed.
Look at the far-away ridges and peaks, some of
them snow-capped, but the majority of them
bare ; and see the air how blue and purple it
looks along the tops and about the slopes. Peak
upon peak and chain upon chain disappear to
the north and south in a mysterious veil of gray,
blue, and purple. Green pine-clad spurs of the
peaks, green slopes of the peaks themselves,
keep fading away in blue - green mazes and
hazes. Look down into the canyons, into the
shadowed depths where the air lies packed in a
mass, and the top of the mass seems to reflect
purple again. This is a very different air from
the glowing mockery that dances in the basin
of Death Valley. It is mountain-air and yet
has something of the sea in it. Even at this
height you can feel the sea-breezes moving along
the western slopes. For the ocean is near at
hand not a hundred miles away as the crow
flies. From the mountain-top it looks like a
flat blue band appended to the lower edge of
the sky, and it counts in the landscape only as
a strip of color or light.



Between the ocean and the mountain yon are
standing npon lies the habitable portion of
Southern California, spread out like a relief
map with its broken ranges, its chaparral-cov-
ered foot-hills, and its wide valleys. How fair
it looks lying under the westering sun with
the shadows drawing in the canyons, and the
valleys glowing with the yellow light from
fields of ripened barley ! And what a con-
trast to the yellow of the grain are the dark
green orchards of oranges and lemons scat-
tered at regular intervals like the squares of
a checker-board ! And what pretty spots of
light and color on the map are the orchards
of prunes, apricots, peaches, pears, the patches
of velvety alfalfa, the groves of eucalyptus and
Monterey cypress, the long waving green lines
of cottonwoods and willows that show where
run the mountain-streams to the sea !

Yet large as they are, these are only spots.
The cultivated portion of the land is but a
flower-garden beside the unbroken foot-hills
and the untenanted valleys. As you look down
upon them the terra-cotta of the granite
shows through the chaparral of the hills ; and
the sands of the valleys have the glitter of the
desert. You know intuitively that all this


Bancroft Library

The garden
in the



the valleys.


country was planned by Nature to be desert.
Down to the water-edge of the Pacific she once
carried the light, air, and life of the Mojave
and the Colorado.

But man has in measure changed the desert
conditions by storing the waste waters of the
mountains and reclaiming the valleys by irriga-
tion. His success has been phenomenal. Out
of the wilderness there have sprung farms,
houses, towns, cities with their wealth and lux-
ury. But the cultivated conditions are main-
tained only at the price of eternal vigilance.
Nature is compelled to reap where she has not
sown ; and at times she seems almost human in
the way she rebels and recurs to former condi-
tions. Two, three ; yes, at times, four years
in succession she gives little rain. A great
drouth follows. Then the desert breaks in
upon the valley ranches, upon the fields of bar-
ley, the orchards of prunes and peaches and
apricots. Then abandoned farms are quite as
plentiful as in New England ; and once aban-
doned, but a few years elapse before the desert
has them for its own. Nature is always driven
with difficulty. Out on the Mojave she fights
barrenness at every turn; here in Southern
California she fights fertility. She is deter-



mined to maintain just so much of desert with
just so much of its hardy, stubborn life. When
she is pleased to enhance it or abate it she will
do so ; but in her own good time and way.

Come to the eastern side of the peak and
look out once more upon the desert while yet
there is time. The afternoon sun is driving
its rays through the passes like the sharp-cut
shafts of search-lights, and the shadows of the
mountains are lengthening in distorted silhou-
ette upon the sands below. Yet still the San
Bernardino Range, leading off southeast to the
Colorado River, is glittering with sunlight at
every peak. You are above it and can see over
its crests in any direction. The vast sweep of
the Mojave lies to the north ; the Colorado
with its old sea-bed lies to the south. Far
away to the east you can see the faint forms of
the Arizona mountains melting and mingling
with the sky ; and in between lie the long pink
rifts of the desert valleys and the lilac tracery
of the desert ranges.

What a wilderness of fateful buffetings !
All the elemental forces seem to have turned
against it at different times. It has been swept
by seas, shattered by earthquakes and volca-
noes, beaten by winds and sands, and scorched

The desert
from the

The great
extent of the

The fateful



All shall

The death
of worlds.

by suns. Yet in spite of all it has endured. It
remains a factor in Nature's plan. It main-
tains its types and out of its desolation it brings
forth increase that the species may not perish
from the face of the earth.

And yet in the fulness of time Nature de-
signs that this waste and all of earth with it
shall perish. Individual, type, and species, all
shall pass away ; and the globe itself become as
desert sand blown hither and yon through
space. She cares nothing for the individual
man or bird or beast ; can it be thought that
she cares any more for the individual world ?
She continues the earth-life by the death of the
old and the birth of the new ; can it be thought
that she deals differently with the planetary
and stellar life of the universe ? Whence come
the new worlds and their satellites unless from
the dust of dead worlds compounded with the
energy of nebulas ? Our outlook is limited in-
deed, but have we not proof in our own moon
that worlds do die ? Is it possible that its
bleached body will never be disintegrated, will
never dissolve and be resolved again into some
new life ? And how came it to die ? What
was the element that failed fire, water, or at-
mosphere ? Perhaps it was water. Perhaps it



died through thousands of years with the slow
evaporation of moisture and the slow growth of
the desert.

Is then this great expanse of sand and rock
the beginning of the end ? Is that the way our
globe shall perish ? Who can say ? Nature
plans the life, she plans the death ; it must be
that she plans aright. For death may be the
culmination of all character ; and life but the
process of its development. If so, then not in
vain these wastes of sand. The harsh destiny,
the life-long struggle which they have imposed
upon all the plants and birds and animals have
been but as the stepping-stones of character. It
is true that Nature taxed her invention to the
utmost that each might not wage unequal strife.
She gave cunning, artifice, persistence, strength ;
she wished that each should endure and fulfil
to its appointed time. But it is not the armor
that develops the wearer thereof. It is the
struggle itself the hard friction of the fight.
Not in the spots of earth where plenty breeds
indolence do we meet with the perfected type.
It is in the land of adversity, and out of much
pain and travail that finally emerges the high-
est manifestation.

Not in vain these wastes of sand. And this

The desert
the begin-
ning of the




of the waste.

and silence.

time not because they develop character in des-
ert life, but simply because they are beautiful
in themselves and good to look upon whether
they be life or death. In sublimity the su-
perlative degree of beauty what land can equal
the desert with its wide plains, its grim moun-
tains, and its expanding canopy of sky ! You
shall never see elsewhere as here the dome, the
pinnacle, the minaret fretted with golden fire
at sunrise and sunset ; you shall never see else-
where as here the sunset valleys swimming in a
pink and lilac haze, the great mesas and plateaus
fading into blue distance, the gorges and can-
yons banked full of purple shadow. Never
again shall you see such light and air and color ;
never such opaline mirage, such rosy dawn, such
fiery twilight. And wherever you go, by land
or by sea, you shall not forget that which you
saw not but rather felt the desolation and the
silence of the desert.

Look out from the mountain's edge once
more. A dusk is gathering on the desert's face,
and over the eastern horizon the purple shadow
of the world is reaching up to the sky. The
light is fading out. Plain and mesa are blurring
into unknown distances, and mountain-ranges
are looming dimly into unknown heights. Warm



drifts of lilac-blue are drawn like mists across
the valleys ; the yellow sands have shifted into
a pallid gray. The glory of the wilderness has
gone down with the sun. Mystery that haunt-
ing sense of the unknown is all that remains.
It is time that we should say good-night per-
haps a long good-night to the desert.

to the

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