John Charles Van Dyke.

The desert; further studies in natural appearances online

. (page 8 of 13)
Online LibraryJohn Charles Van DykeThe desert; further studies in natural appearances → online text (page 8 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

flection, drawn out to stupendous proportions.
In the Salton Basin one hot day in September a
startled coyote very obligingly ran through a
most brilliant water-mirage lying directly be-
fore me. I could only see his head and part of
his shoulders, for the rest of him was cut off
by the air-layer ; but the appearance was that of
a wolf swimming rapidly across a lake of water.
The illusion of the water was exact enough be-
cause it was produced by reflection, but there
was no illusion about the upper part of the
coyote. The rays of light from his head and
shoulders came to me unrefracted and unre-
flected came as light usually travels from ob-
ject to eye.

But refracted or reflected, every feature of the
water-mirage is attractive. And sometimes its
kaleidoscopic changes keep the fancy moving at
a pretty pace. The appearance and disappear-
ance of the objects and colors in the mirage

The swim-
ming wolf.



Colors and
shadows in


are often quite wonderful. The reversed moun-
tain peaks, with light and shade and color upon
them, wave in and out of the imaginary lake,
and are perhaps succeeded by undulations of
horizon colors in grays and pinks, by sunset
skies and scarlet clouds, or possibly by the
white cap of a distant sierra that has been
caught in the angle of reflection.

But with all its natural look one is at loss to
understand how it could ever be seriously ac-
cepted as a fact, save at the first blush. People
dying for water and in delirium run toward it

-at least the more than twice-told tales of trav-
ellers so report but I never knew any healthy
eye that did not grow suspicious of it after the
first glance. It trembles and glows too much
and soon reveals itself as something intangible,
hardly of earth, little more than a shifting fan-
tasy. You cannot see it clear-cut and well-de-
fined, and the snap-shot of your camera does
not catch it at all.

Yet its illusiveness adds to, rather than de-
tracts from, its beauty. Kose-colored dreams are
always delightful ; and the mirage is only a
dream. It has no more substantial fabric than
the golden haze that lies in the canyons at sun-
set. It is only one of nature's veilings which



she puts on or off capriciously. But again its
loveliness is not the less when its uncertain,
fleeting character is revealed. It is one of the
desert's most charming features because of its
strange light and its softly glowing opaline color.
And there we have come back again to that
beauty in landscape which lies not in the lines
of mountain valley and plain, but in the almost
formless masses of color and light.

Beauty of

Views of


NATURE seems a benevolent or a malevolent
goddess just as our own inadequate vision
happens to see her. If we have eyes only for
her creative beauties we think her all goodness ;
if we see only her power of destruction we
incline to think she is all evil. With what
infinite care and patience, worthy only of a
good goddess, does she build up the child, the
animal, the bird, the tree, the flower ! How
wonderfully she fits each for its purpose, round-
ing it with strength, energy, and grace ; and
beautifying it with a prodigality of colors. For
twenty years she works night and day to bring
the child to perfection, for twenty days she toils
upon the burnished wings of some insect buz-
zing in the sunlight, for twenty hours she paints
the gold upon the petals of the dandelion. And
then what ? What of the next twenty ? Does
she leave her handiwork to take care of itself
until an unseen dragon called Decay comes



along to destroy it ? Not at all. The good
goddess has a hand that builds up. Yes ; and
she has another hand that takes down. The
marvellous skill of the one has its complement,
its counterpart, in the other. Block by block
she takes apart the mosaic with just as much
deftness as she put it together.

Those first twenty years of our life we were
allowed to sap blood and strength from our sur-
roundings ; the last twenty years of our life our
surroundings are allowed to sap blood and
strength from us. It is Nature's plan and it is
carried out without any feeling. With the same
indifferent spirit that she planted in us an eye
to see or an ear to hear, she afterward plants a
microbe to breed and a cancer to eat. She in
herself is both growth and decay. The virile
and healthy things of the earth are hers ; and
so, too, are disease, dissolution, and death. The
flower and the grass spring up, they fade, they
wither ; and Nature neither rejoices in the life
nor sorrows in the death. She is neither good
nor evil ; she is only a great law of change that
passeth understanding. The gorgeous pagean-
try of the earth with all its beauty, the life
thereon with its hopes and fears and struggles,
and we a part of the universal whole, are brought

Growth and




The, law of

Nature foil-
ing her own

Attack and

up from the dust to dance on the green in the
sunlight for an hour ; and then the procession
that comes after us turns the sod and we creep
back to Mother Earth. All, all to dust again ;
and no man to this day knoweth the why thereof.

One is continually assailed with queries of
this sort whenever and wherever he begins to
study Nature. He never ceases to wonder why
she should take such pains to foil her own plans
and bring to naught her own creations. Why
did she give the flying fish such a willowy tail
and such long fins, why did she labor so in-
dustriously to give him power of flight, when at
the same time she was giving another fish in the
sea greater strength, and a bird in the air great-
er swiftness wherewith to destroy him ? Why
should she make the tarantula such a powerful
engine of destruction when she was in the same
hour making his destroyer, the tarantula- wasp ?
And always here in the desert the question
comes up : Why should Nature give these
shrubs and plants such powers of endurance
and resistance, and then surround them by heat,
drouth, and the attacks of desert animals ? It
is existence for a day, but sooner or later the
growth goes down and is beaten into dust.

The individual dies. Yes ; but not the species*



Perhaps now we are coming closer to an under-
standing of Nature's method. It is the species
that she designs to last, for a period at least ;
and the individual is of no great importance,
merely a sustaining factor, one among millions
requiring continual renewal. It is a small mat-
ter whether there are a thousand acres of grease
wood more or less, but it is important that the
family be not extinguished. It grows readily
in the most barren spots, is very abundant and
very hardy, and hence is protected only by an
odor and a varnish. On the contrary take the
bisnaga a rather rare cactus. It has only a
thin, short tap-root, therefore it has an enor-
mous upper reservoir in which to store water,
and a most formidable armor of fish-hook
shaped spines that no beast or bird can pene-
trate. Remove the danger which threatens the
extinction of the family and immediately Nat-
ure removes the defensive armor. On the
desert, for instance, the yucca has a thorn like
a point of steel. Follow it from the desert in-
to the high tropical table-lands of Mexico where
th^re is plenty of soil and moisture, plenty of
chance for yuccas to thrive, and you will find
it turned into a tree, and the thorn merely a
dull blade-ending. Follow the sahuaro and the

tion of the

Means of



ing the
status quo.

The plant-
struggle for

pitahaya into the tropics again, and with their
cousin, the organ cactus, you find them growing
a soft thorn that would hardly penetrate cloth-
ing. Abundance of soil and rain, abundance
of other vegetation for browsing animals, and
there is no longer need of protection. With
it the family would increase too rapidly.

So it seems that Nature desires neither in-
crease nor decrease in the species. She wishes
to maintain the status quo. And for the sake
of keeping up the general healthfulness and
virility of her species she requires that there
shall be change in the component parts. Each
must suffer not a "sea change," but a chemical
change ; and passing into liquids, gases, or dusts,
still from the grave help on the universal plan.
So it is that though Nature dips each one of her
desert growths into the Styx to make them in-
vulnerable, yet ever she holds them by the heel
and leaves one point open to the destroying

Yet it is remarkable how Nature designs and
prepares the contest the struggle for life
that is continually going on in her world. How
wonderfully she arms both offence and defence !
What grounds she chooses for the conflict !
What stern conditions she lays down ! Given a



waste of sand and rock, given a heat so intense
that under a summer sun the stones will blister
a bare foot like hot iron, given perhaps two or
three inches of rain in a twelvemonth ; and
what vegetation could one expect to find grow-
ing there ? Obviously, none at all. But
no ; Nature insists that something shall fight
heat and drouth even here, and so she designs
strange growths that live a starved life, and
bring forth after their kind with much labor.
Hardiest of the hardy are these plants and just
as fierce in their way as the wild-cat. You can-
not touch them for the claw. They have no
idea of dying without a struggle. You will
find every one of them admirably fitted to en-
dure. They are marvellous engines of resist-

The first thing that all these plants have to
fight against is heat, drouth, and the evaporation
of what little moisture they may have. And
here Nature has equipped them with ingenuity
and cunning. Not all are designed alike, to be
sure, but each after its kind is good. There
are the cacti, for example, that will grow where
everything else perishes. Why ? For one rea-
son because they have geometrical forms that
prevent loss from evaporation by contracting a

heat ana

of evapora-



Absence of
large leaves.

Exhaust of

minimum surface for a given bulk of tissue.*
There is no waste, no unnecessary exposure of
surface. Then there are some members of the
family like the " old man " cactus, that have
thick coatings of spines and long hairy growths
that prevent the evaporation of moisture by
keeping off the wind. Then again the cacti
have no leaves to tempt the sun. Many of the
desert growths are so constructed. Even such
a tree as the lluvia d'oro has needles rather than
leaves, though it does put forth a row of tiny
leaves near the end of the needle ; and when we
come to examine the ordinary trees such as the
mesquite, the depua, the palo breya, the palo
verde, and all the acacia family, we find they
have very narrow leaves that have a fashion of
hanging diagonally to the sun and thus avoid-
ing the direct rays. Nature is determined that
there shall be no unnecessary exhaust of moist-
ure through foliage. The large-leafed bush or
tree does not exist. The best shade to be found
on the desert is under the mesquite, and unless
it is very large, the sun falls through it easily

* I am indebted to Professor Forbes of the University
of Arizona for this and several other statements in con-
nection with desert vegetation.



As an extra precaution some shrubs are given
a shellac-like sap or gum with which they var-
nish their leaves and make evaporation almost
impossible. The ordinary greasewood is an ex-
ample of this ; and perhaps because of its var-
nish, it is, with the cacti, the hardiest of all the
desert growths. It is found wherever anything
living is found, and flourishes under the fiercest
heat. Its leaves always look bright and have a
sticky feeling about them as though recently

There are other growths that seem to have a
fine sense of discretion in the matter of danger,
for they let fall all their leaves at the first ap-
proach of drouth. The ocatilla, or "candle
wood " as it is sometimes called, puts out a long
row of bright leaves along its stems after a rain,
but as soon as drouth comes it sheds them has-
tily and then stands for months in the sunlight
a bundle of bare sticks soaked with a resin
that will burn with fire, but will not evaporate
with heat. The sangre de dragon (sometimes
called sangre en grado) does the same thing.

But Nature's most common device for the
protection and preservation of her desert brood
is to supply them with wonderful facilities for
finding and sapping what moisture there is, and

Gums and
of bushes.

The ocatilla.



Tap roots.


Feeding the
top growth.

conserving it in tanks and reservoirs. The
roots of the greasewood and the mesqnite are
almost as powerful as the arms of an octopus,
and they are frequently three times the length
of the bush or tree they support. They will
bore their way through rotten granite to find a
damp ledge almost as easily as a diamond drill ;
and they will pry rocks from their foundations
as readily as the wistaria wrenches the ornamen-
tal wood-work from the roof of a porch. They
are always thirsty and they are always running
here and there in the search for moisture. A
vertical section of their underground structure
revealed by the cutting away of a river bank or
wash is usually a great surprise. One marvels
at the great network of roots required to sup-
port such a very little growth above ground.

Yet this network serves a double purpose.
It not only finds and gathers what moisture
there is but stores it in its roots, feeding the
top growth with it economically, not wastef ully.
It has no notion of sending too much moisture
up to the sunlight and the air. Cut a twig and
it will often appear very dry ; cut a root and
you will find it moist.

The storage reservoir below ground is not an
unusual method of supplying water to the plant.



Many of the desert growths have it. Perhaps
the most notable example of it is the wild gourd.
This is little more than an enormous tap root
that spreads out turnip-shaped and is in size
often as large around as a man's body. It holds
water in its pulpy tissue for months at a time, and
while almost everything above ground is parched
and dying the vines and leaves of the gourd,
fed from the reservoir below, will go on grow-
ing and the flowers continue blooming with the
most unruffled serenity. In the Sonora deserts
there is a cactus or a bush (its name I have never
heard) growing from a root that looks almost like
a hornet's nest. This root is half-wood, half-
vegetable, and is again a water reservoir like the
root of the gourd.

But there are reservoirs above ground quite
as interesting as those below. The tall fluted
column of the sahuaro, sometimes fifty feet
high, is little more than an upright cistern for
holding moisture. Its support within is a se-
ries of sticks arranged in cylindrical form and
held together by some fibre, some tissue, and a
great deal of saturated pulp. Drive a stick
into it after a rain and it will run sap almost
like the maguey from which the Indians distill
mescal. All the cacti conserve water in their









upon desert

lobes or columns or at the base near the ground.
So too the Spanish bayonets, the yuccas, the
prickly pears and the chollas.

Many of the shrubs and trees like the sangre
de dragon and the torote have enlarged or
thickened barks to hold and supply water. If
you cut them the sap runs readily. When it
congeals it forms a gum which heals over the
wound and once more prevents evaporation.
Existence for the plants would be impossible
without such inventions. Plant life of every
kind requires some moisture all the time. It
is an error to suppose because they grow in the
so-called " rainless desert " that therefore they
exist without water. They gather and hus-
band it during wet periods for use during dry
periods, and in doing so they seern to display
almost as much intelligence as a squirrel or an ant
does in storing food for winter consumption.

Is Nature's task completed then when she
has provided the plants with reservoirs of water
and tap roots to pump for them ? By no means.
How long would a tank of moisture exist in the
desert if unprotected from the desert animals ?
The mule-deer lives here, and he can go for
weeks without water, but he will take it every
day if he can get it. And the coyote can run



the hills indefinitely with little or no moisture ;
but he will eat a water melon, rind and all, and
with great relish, when the opportunity offers.
The sahuaro, the bisnaga, the cholla, and the
pan-cake lobed prickly pear would have a short
life and not a merry one if they were left to the
mercy of the desert prowler. As it is they are
sometimes sadly worried about their roots by
rabbits and in their lobes by the deer. It
seems almost incredible but is not the less a
fact, that deer and desert cattle will eat the
cholla fruit, stem, and trunk though it
bristles with spines that will draw blood from
the human hand at the slightest touch.

Nature knows very well that the attack will
come and so she provides her plants with various
different defenses. The most common weapon
which she gives them is the spine or thorn.
Almost everything that grows has it and its
different forms are many. They are all of them
sharp as a needle and some of them have saw-
edges that rip anything with which they come
in contact. The grasses, and those plants akin
to them like the yucca and the maguey, are
often both saw-edged and spine-pointed. All
the cacti have thorns, some straight, some
barbed like a harpoon, some curved like a hook.


Weapons of



The spine
and thorn.

The cruci-
fixion thorn.

There are chollas that have a sheath covering
the thorn a scabbard to the sword and when
anything pushes against it the sheath is left
sticking in the wound. The different forms of
the bisnaga are little more than vegetable por-
cupines. They bristle with qnills or have hook-
shaped thorns that catch and hold the intruder.
The sahuaro has not so many spines, but they
are so arranged that you can hardly strike the
cylinder without striking the thorns.

The cacti are defended better than the other
growths because they have more to lose, and are
consequently more subject to attack. And yet
there is one notable exception. The crucifix-
ion thorn is a bush or tree somewhat like the
palo verde, except that it has no leaf. It is a
thorn and little else. Each small twig runs
out and ends in a sharp spike of which the
branch is but the supporting shaft. It bears
in August a small yellow flower but this grows
out of the side of the spike. In fact the whole
shrub seems created for no other purpose than
the glorification of the thorn as a thorn.*

* It is said to be very scarce but I have found it grow-
ing along the Castle Creek region of Arizona, also at
Kingman, Peach Springs, and further north. A stunted
variety grows on the Mojave but it is not frequently seen
on the Colorado.



Tree, bush, plant and grass great and small
alike each has its sting for the intruder. You
can hardly stoop to pick a desert flower or pull a
bunch of small grass without being aware of a
prickle on your hand. Nature seems to have
provided a whole arsenal of defensive weapons
for these poor starved plants of the desert.
Not any of the lovely growths of the earth,
like the lilies and the daffodils, are so well de-
fended. And she has given them not only
armor but a spirit of tenacity and stubbornness
wherewith to carry on the struggle. Cut out
the purslain and the iron weed from the garden
walk, and it springs up again and again, con-
tending for life. Put heat, drouth, and ani-
mal attack against the desert shrubs and they
fight back like the higher forms of organic life.
How typical they are of everything in and about
the desert. There is but one word to describe
it and that word fierce I shall have worn
threadbare before I have finished these chapters.

We have not yet done with enumerating the
defenses of these plants. The bushes like the
greasewood and the sage have not the bulk of
body to grow the thorn. They are too slight,
too rambling in make-up. Besides their reser-
voirs are protected by being in their roots under

The sting of

of the plant.



Odors and

Saps astrin-
gent and

the ground. But Nature has not left their
tops wholly at the mercy of the deer. Take
the leaf of the sage and crush it in your hand.
The odor is anything but pleasant. No animal
except the jack-rabbit, no bird except the sage
hen will eat it ; and no human being will eat
either the rabbit or the hen, if he can get any-
thing else, because of the rank sage flavor.
Rub the greasewood in your hand and it feels
harsh and brittle. The resinous varnish of the
leaves gives it a sticky feeling and a disagreeable
odor again. Nothing on the desert will touch
it. Cut or break a twig of the sangre de dragon
and a red sap like blood runs out. Touch it to
the tongue and it proves the most powerful of
astringents. The Indians use it to cauterize
bullet wounds. Again no animal will touch it.
Half the plants on the desert put forth their
leaves with impunity. They are not disturbed
by either browsers or grazers. Some of them
are poisonous, many of them are cathartic or
emetic, nearly all of them are disagreeable to
the taste.

So it seems with spines, thorns, barbs, resins,
varnishes and odorous smells Nature has armed
her desert own very effectually. And her ex-
penditure of energy may seem singularly dis-



proportionate to the result attained. The little
vegetation that grows in the waste may not
seem worth while, may seem insignificant
compared with the great care bestowed upon it.
But Nature does not think so. To her the cac-
tus of the desert is just as important in its
place as the arrowy pine on the mountain.
She means that something shall grow and bear
fruit after its kind even on the gravel beds of
the Colorado ; she means that the desert shall
have its covering, scanty though it be, just the
same as the well-watered lands of the tropics.

But are they useful, these desert growths ?
Certainly they are ; just as useful as the pine
tree or the potato plant. To be sure, man
cannot saw them into boards or cook them in a
pot ; but then Nature has other animals be-
side man to look after, other uses for her pro-
ducts than supporting human life. She toils
and spins for all alike and man is not her spe-
cial care. The desert vegetation answers her
purposes and who shall say her purposes have
ever been other than wise ?

Are they beautiful these plants and shrubs
of the desert ? Now just what do you mean
by that word " beautiful " ? Do you mean
something of regular form, something smooth

The expend-
iture of

The desert

Use of




Beauty in

Forms of
the yucca

and pretty ? Are yon dragging into nature
some remembrances of classic art ; and are
you looking for the Dionysius face, the
Doryphorus form, among these trees and
bushes ? If so the desert will not furnish you
too much of beauty. But if you mean some-
thing that has a distinct character, something
appropriate to its setting, something admirably
fitted to a designed end (as in art the peasants
of Millet or the burghers of Eembrandt and
Eodin), then the desert will show forth much
that people nowadays are beginning to think
beautiful. Mind you, perfect form and perfect
color are not to be despised ; neither shall you
despise perfect fitness and perfect character.
The desert plants, every one of them, have very
positive characters ; and I am not certain but

1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10 11 12 13

Online LibraryJohn Charles Van DykeThe desert; further studies in natural appearances → online text (page 8 of 13)