John Charles Van Dyke.

The desert; further studies in natural appearances online

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red of peroxide of iron and copper,, the sang-du-
~bceuf red of oriental ceramics, the deep insistent
red of things time-worn beyond memory. And
there is more than a veneer about the color. It
has a depth that seems luminous and yet is sadly
deceptive. You do not see below the surface
no matter how long you gaze into it. As well
try to see through a stratum of porphyry as
through that water to the bottom of the river.

To call it a river of blood would be exaggera-
tion, and yet the truth lies in the exaggeration.
As one walks along its crumbling banks there is
the thought of that other river that changed its
hue under the outstretched rod of the prophet.
How weird indeed must have been the ensan-
guined flow of the Nile, with its little waves
breaking in crests of pink foam ! How strange
the shores where the receding waters left upon
sand and rock a bordering line of scarlet froth !
But the Colorado is not quite like that not
so ghastly, not so unearthly. It may suggest
at times the heavy welling flow of thickening



blood which the sands at every step are trying
to drink up ; but this is suggestion only, not
realization. It seems to hint at blood, and
under starlight to resemble it ; but the resem-
blance is more apparent than real. The Colo-
rado is a red river but not a scarlet one.

It may be thought odd that the river should
change so radically from the clear blue-green
of its fountain-head to the opaque red of its
desert stream, but rivers when they go wander-
ing down to the sea usually leave their moun-
tain purity behind them. The Colorado rush-
ing through a thousand miles of canyons, cuts
and carries seaward with it red sands of shale,
granite, and porphyry, red rustings of iron, red
grits of carnelian, agate and garnet. All the
tributaries come bearing their tokens of red
copper, and with the rains the whole red sur-
face of the watershed apparently washes into
the smaller creeks and thus into the valleys.
When the river reaches the desert carrying its
burden of silt, it no longer knows the bowlder-
bed, the rocky shores, the breaking waterfalls
that clarify a stream. And there are no large
pools where the water can rest while the silt
settles to the bottom. Besides, the desert
itself at times pours into the river an even

The blood


Red sands
and silt.





deeper red than the canyons. And it does this
not through arroyos alone, but also by a wide
surface drainage.

Often the slope of the desert to the river is
gradual for many miles sometimes like the
top of a huge table slightly tilted from the
horizontal. When the edge of the table is
reached the mesa begins to break into terraces
(often cut through by small gullies), and the
final descent is not unlike the steps of a Eoman
circus leading down into the arena. During
cloud-bursts the waters pour down these steps
with great fury and the river simply acts as
a catch-basin for all the running color of the

The " bottom " lands, forming the immediate
banks of the river, are the silt deposits of
former years. Often they are several miles in
width and are usually covered with arrow-weed,
willows, alders, and cottonwoods. The growth
is dense if not tall and often forms an almost
impenetrable jungle through which are scat-
tered little openings where grass and flowers
grow and Indians build reed wickiups and raise
melons and corn in season. The desert terraces
on either side (sometimes there is a row of sand-
dunes) comedown to meet these "bottom" lands,


and the line where the one leaves off and the
other begins is drawn as with the sharp edge of
a knife. Seen from the distant mountain tops
the river moves between two long ribbons of
green, and the borders are the gray and gold
mesas of the desert.

Afloat and drifting down between these lines
of green your attention is perhaps not at first
attracted by the water. You are interested in
the thickets of alders and the occasional bursts
of white and yellow flowers from among the
bushes. They are very commonplace bushes,
very ordinary flowers ; but how lovely they look
as they seem to drift by the boat ! How silent
again are these clumps of alder and willow !
There may be linnets and sparrows among them
but they do not make their presence obtrusive
in song. A hawk wheels along over the arrow-
weed looking for quail, but his wings cut the
air without noise. How deathly still everything
seems ! The water wears into the soft banks,
the banks keep sloughing into the stream, but
again you hear no splashing fall.

And the water itself is just as soundless.
There is never a sunken rock to make a little
gurgle, never a strip of gravel beach where a
wave could charm you with its play. The beat

The green

Bushes and




Wild fowl.

Herons and

of oars breaks the air with a jar, but breaks no
bubbles on the water. You look long at the
stream and fall to wondering if there can be
any life in it. What besides a polywog or a
bullhead could live there ? Obviously, and in
fact nothing. Perhaps there are otter and
beaver living along the pockets in the banks ?
Yes ; there were otter and beaver here at one
time, but they are very scarce to-day. But
there are wild fowl ? Yes ; in the spring and
fall the geese and ducks follow the river in
their flights, but they do not like the red water.
What proof ? Because they do not stop long in
any one place. They swing into a bayou or
slough late at night and go out at early dawn.
They do not love the stream, but wild fowl on
their migratory flights must have water, and
this river is the only one between the Eockies
and the Pacific that runs north and south.

The blue herons and the bitterns do not mind
the red mud or the red water, in fact they
rather like it ; but they were always solitary
people of the sedge. They prowl about the
marshes alone and the swish of oars drives them
into the air with a guttural "Quowk." And
there are snipe here, bands of them, flashing
their wings in the sun as they wheel over the



red waters or trip along the muddy banks
singly or in pairs. They are quite at home on
the bars and bayou flats, but it seems not a very
happy home for them that is judging by the
absence of snipe talk. The little teeter flies
ahead of you from point to point, but makes no
twitter, the yellow-leg seldom sounds his mellow
three-note call, and the kill-deer, even though
you shoot at him, will not cry " Kill-deer ! "
" Kill-deer!"

It may be the season when birds are mute, or
it may merely happen so for to-day, or it may
be that the silence of the river and the desert is
an oppressive influence ; but certainly you have
never seen bird-life so hopelessly sad. Even
the kingfisher, swinging down in a blue line
from a dead limb and skimming the water,
makes none of that rattling clatter that you
knew so well when you were a child by a New
England mill-stream. And what does a king-
fisher on such a river as this ? If it were filled
with fish he could not see them through that
thick water.

The voiceless river ! From the canyon to the
sea it flows through deserts, and ever the seal of
silence is upon it. Even the scant life of its
borders is dumb birds with no note, animals







Beauty of
the river.

with no cry, human beings with no voice. And
so forsaken ! The largest river west of the
mountains and yet the least known. There are
miles upon miles of mesas stretching upward
from the stream that no feet have ever trodden,
and that possess not a vestige of life of any
kind. And along its banks the same tale is
told. You float for days and meet with no
traces of humanity. When they do appear it is
but to emphasize the solitude. An Indian
wickiup on the bank, an Indian town ; yes, a
white man's town, what impression do they
make upon the desert and its river ? You drift
by Yuma and wonder what it is doing there.
Had it been built in the middle of the Pacific
on a barren rock it could not be more isolated,
more hopelessly " at sea/'

After the river crosses the border-line of
Mexico it grows broader and flatter than ever.
And still the color seems to deepen. For all its
suggestion of blood it is not an unlovely color.
On the contrary, that deep red contrasted with
the green of the banks and the blue of the sky,
makes a very beautiful color harmony. They
are hues of depth and substance hues that
comport excellently well with the character of
the river itself. And never a river had more



character than the Colorado. You may not
fancy the solitude of the stream nor its sugges-
tive coloring, but you cannot deny its majesty
and its nobility. It has not now the babble of
the brook nor the swift rush of the canyon
water ; rather the quiet dignity that is above
conflict, beyond gayety. It has grown old, it
is nearing its end ; but nothing could be calmer,
simpler, more sublime, than the drift of it down
into the delta basin.

The mountains are receding on every side,
the desert is flattening to meet the sea, and the
ocean tides are rising to meet the river. Half
human in its dissolution, the river begins to
break joint by joint. The change has been
gradually taking place for miles and now mani-
fests itself positively. The bottom lands widen,
many channels or side-sloughs open upon the
stream, and the water is distributed into the
mouths of the delta. There is a break in the
volume and mass a disintegration of forces.
And by divers ways, devious and slow, the
crippled streams well out to the Gulf and never
come together again.

It is not so when the river is at its height with
spring freshets. Then the stream is swollen
beyond its banks. All the bottom lands for

Its majesty.

The delta.




The river



The "bore.'

Meeting of
river and

miles across, up to the very terraces of the
mesas, are covered ; and the red flood moves
like an ocean current, vast in width, ponderous
in weight, irresistible in strength. All things
that can be uprooted or wrenched away, move
with it. Nothing can check or stop it now.
It is the Grand Canyon river once more, free,
mighty, dangerous even in its death-throes.

And now at the full and the change of the
moon, when the Gulf waters come in like a
tidal wave, and the waters of the north meet
the waters of the south, there is a mighty con-
flict of opposing forces. The famous "bore"
of the river-mouth is the result. When the
forces first meet there is a slow push-up of the
water which rises in the shape of a ridge or
wedge. The sea-water gradually proves itself
the greater and the stronger body, and the ridge
breaks into a crest and pitches forward with a
roar. The undercut of the river sweeps away
the footing of the tide, so to speak, and flings
the top of the wave violently forward. The red
river rushes under, the blue tide rushes over.
There is the flash and dash of parti-colored
foam on the crests, the flinging of jets of spray
high in air, the long roll of waves breaking not
upon a beach, but upon the back of the river,



and the shaking of the ground as though an
earthquake were passing. After it is all done
with and gone, with no trace of wave or foam
remaining, miles away down the Gulf the red
river slowly rises in little streams through the
blue to the surface. There it spreads fan-like
over the top of the sea, and finally mingles with
and is lost in the greater body.

The river is no more. It has gone down to
its blue tomb in the Gulf the fairest tomb that
ever river knew. Something of serenity in the
Gulf waters, something of the monumental in
the bordering mountains, something of the un-
known and the undiscovered over all, make it a
fit resting-place for the majestic Colorado. The
lonely stream that so shunned contact with
man, that dug its bed thousands of feet in the
depths of pathless canyons, and trailed its length
across trackless deserts, sought out instinctively
a point of disappearance far from the madding
crowd. The blue waters of the Gulf, the
beaches of shell, the red, red mountains standing
with their feet in the sea, are still far removed
from civilization's touch. There are no towns
or roads or people by those shores, there are no
ships upon those seas, there are no dust and
smoke of factories in those skies. The Indians

The blue

Shores of
the Gulf.



are there as undisturbed as in the days of
Coronado, and the white man is coming but
has not yet arrived. The sun still shines on
unknown bays and unexplored peaks. There-
fore is there silence something of the hush of
the deserts and the river that flows between.



THESE deserts, cut through from north to
south by a silent river and from east to west by
two noisy railways, seem remarkable for only a
few commonplace things, according to the con-
sensus of public opinion. All that one hears
or reads about them is that they are very hot,
that the sunlight is very glaring, and that there
is a sand-storm, a thirst, and death waiting
for every traveller who ventures over the first

There is truth enough, to be sure, in the heat
and glare part of it, and an exceptional truth in
the other part of it. It is intensely hot on the
desert at times, but the sun is not responsible
for it precisely in the manner alleged. The
heat that one feels is not direct sunlight so
much as radiation from the receptive sands ;
and the glare is due not to preternatural bright-
ness in the sunbeam, but to there being no re-
liefs for the eye in shadows, in dark colors, in

ideas of the

Sunlight on



and heat.


heavy foliage. The vegetation of the desert is
so slight that practically the whole surface of
the sand acts as a reflector ; and it is this, rather
than the sun's intensity, that causes the great
body of light. The white roads in Southern
France, for the surface they cover, are more
glaring than any desert sands ; and the sunlight
upon snow in Minnesota or New England is
more dazzling. In certain spots where there
are salt or soda beds the combination of heat
and light is bewildering enough for anyone ;
but such places are rare. White is something
seldom seen on desert lands, and black is an
unknown quantity in my observations. Even
lava, which is popularly supposed to be as black
as coal, has a reddish hue about it. Everything
has some color even the air. Indeed, we shall
not comprehend the desert light without a mo-
mentary study of this desert air.

The circumambient medium which we call
the atmosphere is to the earth only as so much
ground-glass globe to a lamp something that
breaks, checks, and diffuses the light. We have
never known, never shall know, direct sunlight
that is, sunlight in its purity undisturbed by
atmospheric conditions. It is a blue shaft fall-
ing perfectly straight, not a diffused white or



yellow light ; and probably the life of the earth
would not endure for an hour if submitted to
its unchecked intensity. The white or yellow
light, known to us as sunlight, is produced by
the ground-glass globe of air, and it follows
readily enough that its intensity is absolutely
dependent upon the density of the atmosphere
the thickness of the globe. The cause for
the thickening of the aerial envelope lies in the
particles of dust, soot, smoke, salt, and vapor
which are found floating in larger or smaller
proportions in all atmospheres.

In rainy countries like England and Holland
the vapor particles alone are sufficiently numer-
ous to cause at times great obscurity of light,
as in the case of fog ; and the air is only com-
paratively clear even when the skies are all blue.
The light is almost always whitish, and the
horizons often milky white. The air is thick,
for you cannot see a mountain fifteen miles
away in any sharpness of detail. There is a
mistiness about the rock masses and a vague-
ness about the outline. An opera-glass does
not help your vision. The obscurity is not in
the eyes but in the atmospheric veil through
which you are striving to see. On the contrary,
in the high plateau country of Wyoming, where

ic envelope.




Clear air.




the quantities of dust and vapor in the air are
comparatively small, the distances that one can
see are enormous. A mountain seventy miles
away often appears sharp-cut against the sky,
and at sunset the lights and shadows upon its
sides look only ten miles distant.

But desert air is not quite like the plateau
air of Wyoming, though one can see through it
for many leagues. It is not thickened by moist-
ure particles, for its humidity is almost noth-
ing ; but the dust particles, carried upward by
radiation and the winds, answer a similar pur-
pose. They parry the sunshaf t, break and color
the light, increase the density of the envelope.
Dust is always present in the desert air in some
degree, and when it is at its maximum with the
heat and winds of July, we see the air as a blue,
yellow, or pink haze. This haze is not seen so
well at noonday as at evening when the sun's
rays are streaming through canyons, or at dawn
when it lies in the mountain shadows and re-
flects the blue sky. Nor does it muffle or ob-
scure so much as the moisture-laden mists of
Holland, but it thickens the air perceptibly and
decreases in measure the intensity of the light.

Yet despite the fact that desert air is dust-
laden and must be thickened somewhat, there



is something almost inexplicable about it. It
seems so thin, so rarefied ; and it is so scent-
less I had almost said breathless that it is
like no air at all. You breathe it without feel-
ing it, you look through it without being con-
scious of its presence. Yet here comes in the
contradiction. Desert air is very easily recog-
nized by the eyes alone. The traveller in Cal-
ifornia when he wakes in the morning and
glances out of the car- window at the air in the
mountain canyons, knows instantly on which
side of the Tehachepi Eange the train is mov-
ing. He knows he is crossing the Mojave.
The lilac-blue veiling that hangs about those
mountains is as recognizable as the sea air of
the Massachusetts shore. And, strange enough,
the sea breezes that blow across the deserts all
down the Pacific coast have no appreciable ef-
fect upon this air. The peninsula of Lower
California is practically surrounded by water,
but through its entire length and down the
shores of Sonora to Mazatlan, there is nothing
but that clear, dry air.

I use the word " clear " because one can see
so far through this atmosphere, and yet it is
not clear or we should not see it so plainly.
There is the contradiction again. Is it perhaps

Seeing the
desert air.

Sea breezes
on desert.



Colored air.



the coloring of it that makes it so apparent ?
Probably. Even the clearest atmosphere has
some coloring about it. Usually it is an inde-
finable blue. Air-blue means the most delicate
of all colors something not of surface depth
but of transparency, builded up by superim-
posed strata of air many miles perhaps in
thickness. This air-blue is seen at its best in
the gorges of the Alps, and in the mountain
distances of Scotland ; but it is not so apparent
on the desert. The coloring of the atmosphere
on the Colorado and the Mojave is oftener
pink, yellow, lilac, rose-color, sometimes fire-
red. And to understand that we must take up
the ground-glass globe again.

It has been said that our atmosphere breaks,
checks, and diffuses the falling sunlight like
the globe of a lamp. It does something more.
It acts as a prism and breaks the beam of sun-
light into the colors of the spectrum. Some of
these colors it deals with more harshly than
others because of their shortness and their
weakness. The blue rays, for instance, are the
greatest in number ; but they are the shortest
in length, the weakest in travelling power of
any of them. Because of their weakness, and
because of their affinity (as regards size) with



the small dust particles of the higher air re-
gion, great quantities of these rays are caught,
refracted, and practically held in check in the
upper strata of the atmosphere. We see them
massed together overhead and call them the
"blue sky." After many millions of these
blue rays have been eliminated from the sun-
light the remaining rays come down to earth
as a white or yellow or at times reddish light,
dependent upon the density of the lower atmos-

Now it seems that an atmosphere laden with
moisture particles obstructs the passage earth-
ward of the blue rays, less perhaps than an
atmosphere laden with dust. In consequence,
when they are thus allowed to come down into
the lower atmosphere in company with the
other rays, their vast number serves to dom-
inate the others, and to produce a cool tone of
color over all. So it is that in moist countries
like Scotland you will find the sky cold-blue
and the air tinged gray, pale-blue, or at twi-
light in the mountain valleys, a chilly purple.
A dust-laden atmosphere seems to act just the
reverse of this. It obstructs all the rays in
proportion to its density, but it stops the blue
rays first, holds them in the upper air, while


Cold colors,






Sky colors.

the stronger rays of red and yellow are only
checked in the lower and thicker air-strata
near the earth. The result of this is to pro-
duce a warm tone of color over all. So it is
that in dry countries like Spain and Morocco
or on the deserts of Africa and America, you
will find the sky rose-hued or yellow, and the
air lilac, pink, red, or yellow.

I mean now that the air itself is colored. Of
course countless quantities of light-beams and
dispersed rays break through the aerial envelope
and reach the earth, else we should not see
color in the trees or grasses or flowers about
us ; but I am not now speaking of the color of
objects on the earth, but of the color of the air.
A thing too intangible for color you think ?
But what of the sky overhead ? It is only tint-
ed atmosphere. And what of the bright-hued
horizon skies at sunrise and sunset, the rosy-
yellow skies of Indian summer ! They are only
tinted atmospheres again. Banked up in great
masses, and seen at long distances, the air-color
becomes palpably apparent. Why then should
it not be present in shorter distances, in moun-
tain canyons, across mesas and lomas, and over
the stretches of the desert plains ?

The truth is all air is colored, and that of


the desert is deeper dyed and warmer lined than
any other for the reasons just given. It takes
on many tints at different times, dependent
upon the thickening of the envelope by heat
and dust-diffusing winds. I do not know if it
is possible for fine dust to radiate with heat
alone ; but certain it is that, without the aid of
the wind, there is more dust in the air on hot
days than at any other time. When the ther-
mometer rises above 100 F., the atmosphere is
heavy with it, and the lower strata are dancing
and trembling with phantoms of the mirage at
every point of the compass. It would seem as
though the rising heat took up with it countless
small dust-particles and that these were respon-
sible for the rosy or golden quality of the air-

There is a more positive tinting of the air
produced sometimes by high winds. The lighter
particles of sand are always being drifted here
and there through the aerial regions, and even
on still days the whirlwinds are eddying and
circling, lifting long columns of dust skyward
and then allowing the dust to settle back to
earth through the atmosphere. The stronger
the wind, and the more of dust and sand, the
brighter the coloring. The climax is reached

Color pro-
duced by

Effect of

Effect of



upon sky.

in the dramatic sand-storm a veritable sand-

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Online LibraryJohn Charles Van DykeThe desert; further studies in natural appearances → online text (page 5 of 13)