John Charles Van Dyke.

The desert; further studies in natural appearances online

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that many of them are interesting and beauti-
ful even in form and color.

No doubt it is an acquired taste that leads
one to admire greasewood and cactus ; but can
anyone be blind to the graceful form of the
maguey, or better still, the yucca with its tall
stalk rising like a shaft from a bowl and capped
at the top by nodding creamy flowers ? On the
mountains and the mesas the sahuaro is so com-
mon that perhaps we overlook its beauty of



form ; yet its lines are as sinuous as those of a
Moslem minaret, its flutings as perfect as those
of a Doric column. Often and often you see it
standing on a ledge of some rocky peak, like
the lone shaft of a ruined temple on a Greek
headland. And by way of contrast what could
be more lovely than the waving lightness, the
drooping gracefulness of the lluvia d'oro. The
swaying tossing lluvia d'oro, well called the
" shower of gold " I It is one of the most beau-
tiful of the desert trees with its white skin like
the northern birch, its long needles like the
pine, and the downward sweep of its branches
like the willow. A strange wild tree that seems
to shun all society, preferring to dwell like a
hermit among the rocks. It roots itself in the
fissures of broken granite and it seems at its
happiest when it can let down its shower of gold
over some precipice.

There are other tree forms, like the palo verde
and the mesquite, that are not wanting in a
native grace ; and yet it may as well be admitted
that most of the trees and bushes are lacking
in height, mass, and majesty. It is no place
for large growths that reach up to the sun. The
heat and drouth are too great and tend to make
form angular and grotesque. But these very

The lluvia





and flowers.

conditions that dwarf form perhaps enhance
color by distorting it in an analogous manner.
When plants are starved for water and grow in
thin poor soil they often put on colors that are
abnormal, even unhealthy. Because of starva-
tion perhaps the little green of the desert is a
sallow green ; and for the same reason the lobes
of the prickly pear are pale-green, dull yellow,
sad pink or livid mauve. The prickly pear
seems to take all colors dependent upon the
poverty, or the mineral character, of the ground
where it grows. In that respect perhaps it is
influenced in the same way as the parti-colored
hydrangea of the eastern dooryard.

All the cacti are brilliant in the flowers they
bear. The top of the bisnaga in summer is at
first a mass of yellow, then bright orange, finally
dark red. The sahuaro bears a purple flower,
and the cholla, the ocatilla, the pitahaya come
along with pink or gold or red or blue flowers.
And again all the bushes and trees in summer
put forth showers of color graceful masses of
petaled cups that look more like flowers grown
in a meadow than blossoms grown on a tree.
In June the palo verde is a great ball of yellow-
gold, but there is a variety of it with a blue-
green bark that grows a blossom almost like an



eastern violet. And down in Sonora one is daz-
zled by the splendor of the guyacan (or gual-
lacan) which throws out blossoms half-blue and
half -red. All the commoner growths like the
sage, the mesquite, the palo fierro, and the palo
bianco, are blossom bearers. In fact everything
that grows at all in the desert puts forth in sea-
son some bright little flag of color. In the
mass they make little show, but examined in
the part they are interesting because of their
nurture, their isolation, and their peculiarity
of form and color. The conditions of life have
perhaps contorted bhem, have paled or grayed
or flushed or made morbid their coloring ; but
they are all of them beautiful. Beautiful color
is usually unhealthy color as we have already

Aside from the blossoms upon bush and tree
there are few bright petals shining in the des-
ert. It is no place for flowers. They are too
delicate and are usually wanting in tap root
and armor. If they spring up they are soon
cut down by drouth or destroyed by animals.
Many tales are told of the flowers that grow on
the waste after the rains, but I have not seen
them though I have seen the rains. There are
no lupins, phacelias, pentstemons, poppies, or






The grasses.

The lichens.

yellow violets. Occasionally one sees the wild
verbena or patches of the evening primrose, or
up in the swales the little baby blue-eye grow-
ing all alone, or perhaps the yellow mimulus ;
but all told they do not make up a very strong
contingent. The salt bush that looks the color
of Scotch heather, out-bulks them all ; and yet
is not conspicuously apparent. Higher up in the
hills and along the mesas one often meets with
many strange flowers, some fiery red and some
with spines like the Canadian thistle ; but not
down in the hot valleys of the desert.

Nor are there many grasses of consequence
aside from a small curled grass and the heavy
sacaton that grow in bunches upon isolated
portions of the desert. By " isolated " I mean
that for some unknown reason there are tracts
on the desert seemingly sacred to certain plants,
some to cholla, some to yuccas, some to grease
wood, some to sahuaros, some to sacaton grass.
It seems to be a desert oddity that the vegeta-
tion does not mix or mingle to any great ex-
tent. There are seldom more than four or five
kinds of growth to be found in one tract. It
is even noticeable in the lichens. One moun-
tain range will have all gray lichens on its
northern walls, another range will have all



orange lichens, and still another will be mottled
by patches of coal-black lichens.

Strange growths of a strange land ! Heat,
drouth, and starvation gnawing at their vitals
month in and month out ; and yet how deter-
mined to live, how determined to fulfill their
destiny ! They keep fighting off the elements,
the animals, the birds. Never by day or by
night do they loose the armor or drop the spear
point. And yet with all the struggle they se-
renely blossom in season, perpetuate their kinds,
and hand down the struggle to the newer gen-
eration with no jot of vigor abated, no tittle
of hope dissipated. Strange growths indeed !
And yet strange, perhaps, only to us who have
never known their untrumpeted history.


desert re-





THE life of the desert lives only by virtue of
adapting itself to the conditions of the desert.
Nature does not bend the elements to favor the
plants and the animals ; she makes the plants
and the animals do the bending. The torote
and the evening primrose must get used to heat,
drouth, and a rocky bed ; the coyote must learn
to go without food and water for long periods.
Even man, whose magnificent complacency leads
him to think himself one of Nature's favorites,
fares no better than a wild cat or an angle of
cholla. He must endure the same heat, thirst,
and hunger or perish. There is no other alter-

And so it happens that those things that can
live in the desert become stamped after a time
with a peculiar desert character. The struggle
seems to develop in them special characteristics
and make them, not different from their kind ;
but more positive, more insistent The yucca



of the Mojave is the yucca of New Mexico and
Old Mexico but hardier ; the wild cat of the
Colorado is the wild cat of Virginia but swifter,
more ferocious ; the Yuma Indian is like the
Zuni or the Navajo but lanker, more sinewy,
more enduring. Father Garces, who passed
through here one hundred and twenty-five years
ago, records in his Memoirs more than once the
wonderful endurance of the desert Indians.
"The Jamajabs (a branch of the Yumas) en-
dure hunger and thirst for four days," he writes
in one place. The tale is told that the Indians
in the Coahuila Valley at the present day can
do substantially the same thing. And, too, it
is said that the Yumas have traveled from the
Colorado to the Pacific, across the desert on
foot, without any sustenance whatever. No
one, not to the desert born, could do such a
thing. Years of training in starvation, thirst
and exposure have produced a man almost as
hardy as the cactus, and just as distinctly a
type of the desert as the coyote.

But the Indian and the plant must have some
water. They cannot go without it indefinitely.
And just there the desert animals seem to fit
their environment a little snugger than either
plant or human. For, strange as it may ap-






of the

pear, many of them get no water at all. There
are sections of the desert, fifty or more miles
square, where there is not a trace of water in
river, creek, arroyo or pocket, where there is
never a drop of dew falling ; and where the two
or three showers of rain each year sink into the
sand and are lost in half an hour after they
have fallen. Yet that fifty-mile tract of sand
and rock supports its animal, reptile and insect
life just the same as a similar tract in Illinois
or Florida. How the animals endure, how
even on the theory of getting used to it the
jack-rabbit, the ground squirrel, the rat, and
the gopher can live for months without even
the moisture from green vegetation, is one of
the mysteries. A mirror held to the nose of
a desert rabbit will show a moist breath-mark
on the glass. The moisture came out of the
rabbit, is coming out of him every few sec-
onds of the day ; and there is not a drop of
moisture going into him. Evidently the an-
cient axiom : "Out of nothing, nothing comes "
is all wrong.

It is said in answer that the jack-rabbit gets
moisture from roots, cactus-lobes and the like.
And the reply is that you find him where there
are no roots but greasewood and no cactus at



all. Besides there is no evidence from an ex-
amination of his stomach that he ever eats any-
thing but dried grass, bark, and sage leaves.
But if the matter is a trifle doubtful about the
rabbit on account of his traveling capacities,
there is no doubt whatever about the ground
squirrels, the rock squirrels, and the prairie
dogs. None of them ever gets more than a hun-
dred yards from his hole in his life, except pos-
sibly when migrating. And the circuit about
each hole is usually bare of everything except
dried grass. There in no moisture to be had.
The prairie dog is not found on the desert, but
in Wyoming and Montana there are villages of
them on the grass prairies, with no water, root,
lobe, or leaf within miles of them. The old
theory of the prairie dog digging his hole down
to water has no basis in fact. Patience, a strong
arm and a spade will get to the bottom of his
burrow in half an hour.

All the desert animals know the meaning of
a water famine, and even those that are pro-
nounced water drinkers know how to get on
with the minimum supply. The mule-deer
whose cousin in the Adirondacks goes down to
water every night, lives in the desert mountains,
month in and month out with nothing more


dogs and





Coyotes and
living with-
out water.

watery to quench thirst than a lobe of the
prickly pear or a joint of cholla. But he is nat-
urally fond of green vegetation, and in the early
morning he usually leaves the valley and climbs
the mountains where with goats and mountain
sheep be browses on the twigs of shrub and tree.
The coyote likes water, too, but he puts up with
sucking a nest of quail eggs, eating some mes-
quite beans, or at best absorbing the blood from
some rabbit. The wild cat will go for weeks
without more moisture than the blood of birds
or lizards, and then perhaps, after long thirst,
he will come to a water pocket in the rocks to
lap only a handful, doing it with an angry
snarling snap as though he disliked it and was
drinking under compulsion. The gray wolf
is too much of a traveler to depend upon any
one locality. He will run fifty miles in a night
and be back before morning. Whether he
gets water or not is not possible to ascertain.
The badger, the coon, and the bear are very
seldom seen in the more arid regions. They
are not strictly speaking desert animals because
unfitted to endure desert hardships. They are
naturally great eaters and sleepers, loving cool
weather and their own fatness ; and to that the
desert is sharply opposed. There is nothing



fat in the land of sand and cactus. Animal
life is lean and gannt ; if it sleeps at all it is with
one eye open ; and as for heat it cares very lit-
tle about it. For the first law of the desert to
which animal life of every kind pays allegiance
is the law of endurance and abstinence. After
that requirement is fulfilled special needs pro-
duce the peculiar qualities and habits of the in-

Yet there is one quality more general than
special since almost everything possesses it, and
that is ferocity fierceness. The strife is des-
perate ; the supply of food and moisture is
small, the animal is very hungry and thirsty.
What wonder then that there is the determi-
nation of the starving in all desert life ! Every-
thing pursues or is pursued. Every muscle is
strung to the highest tension. The bounding
deer must get away; the swift-following wolf
must not let him. The gray lizard dashes for
a ledge of rock like a flash of light ; but the
bayonet bill of the road runner must catch
him before he gets there. Neither can afford
to miss his mark. And that is perhaps the
reason why there is so much development in
special directions, so much fitness for a par-
ticular purpose, so much equipment for the

gaunt Itfe.

of the



Fitness for
attack and

The wild-

The spring
of the cat.

doing or the avoiding of death. Because the
wild-cat cannot afford to miss his quarry, there-
fore is he made a something that seldom does

The description of the lion as " a jaw on four
paws " will fit the wild-cat very well only he
is a jaw on two paws. The hind legs are in-
significant compared with the front ones, and
the body back of the shoulders is lean, lank,
slight, but withal muscular and sinewy. The
head is bushy, heavy, and square, the neck and
shoulders are massive, the forelegs and paws so
large that they look to belong to some other an-
imal. The ears~are smalfyet sensitive enough
to catch the least noise, the nose is acute, the
eyes are like great mirrors, the teeth like points
of steel. In fact the whole animal is little more
than a machine for dragging down and devour-
ing prey. That and the protection of his breed
are his only missions on earth. He is the same
creeping, snarling beast that one finds in the
mountains of California, but the desert animal
is larger and stronger. He sneaks upon a band
of quail or a rabbit with greater caution, and
when he springs and strikes it is with greater
certainty. The enormous paws pin the game to
the earth, and the sharp teeth cut through like



knives. It is not more than once in two or
three days that a meal comes within reach and
he has no notion of allowing it to get away.

The panther, or as he is more commonly
called, the mountain lion, is no such square-
built mass of muscle, no such bundle of energy
as the wild-cat, though much longer and larger.
The figure is wiry and serpentine, and has all the
action and grace of the tiger. It is pre-eminently
a figure for crouching, sneaking, springing, and
dragging down. His struggle-f or-lif e is perhaps
not so desperate as that of the cat because he lives
high up in the desert mountains where game is
more plentiful ; but he is a very good struggler
for all that. Occasionally one hears his cry in
the night (a cry that stops the yelp of the coyote
very quickly and sets the ears of the jack-rabbit
a-trembling) but he is seldom seen unless sought
for. Even then the seeker does not usually
care to look for him, or at him too long. He
has the tiger eye, and his jaw and claw are too
powerful to be trifled with. He will not attack
one unless at bay or wounded ; but as a moun-
tain prowler he is the terror of the young deer,
the mountain sheep, and the rabbit family.

One sees the gray wolf but little oftener than
the mountain lion, Sometimes in the very

The moun-
tain lion.

Habits of
the moun-
tain lion.

The gray



early morning you may catch a glimpse of him
sneaking np a mountain canyon, but he usually
keeps out of sight. His size is great for a wolf
sometimes over six feet from nose to tail tip
but it lies mostly in length and bulk. He does
not stand high on his feet and yet is a swift and
long-winded runner. In this and in his strength
of jaw lies his special equipment. He is not
very cunning but he takes up and follows a
trail, and runs the game to earth with consider-
able perseverance. I have never seen anything
but his footprints on the desert. Usually he
keeps well up in the mountains and comes down
on the plains only at night. He prefers prairie
or table-land country, with adjacent stock
ranges, to the desert, because there the hunting
is not difficult. Sheep, calves, and pigs he will
eat with some relish, but his favorite game is the
young colt. He runs all his game and catches
it as it runs like the true wolf that he is. Some-
times he hunts in packs of half a dozen, but if
there is no companionship he does not hesitate
to hunt alone.

The prairie wolf or coyote is not at all like
the gray wolf. He seldom runs after things,
though he does a good deal of running away
from them. And he is a fairly good runner too.



But he does not win his living by his courage.
His special gift is not the muscular energy that
crushes at a blow ; nor the great strength that
follows and tires and finally drags down. Nat-
ure designed him with the wolf form and in-
stinct, but gave him something of the clever-
ness of the fox. It is by cunning and an
obliging stomach that the coyote is enabled to
eke out a living. He is cunning enough to
know, for instance, that you cannot see him on
a desert background as long as he does not
move ; so he sits still at times for many min-
utes, watching you from some little knoll. As
long as he is motionless your eyes pass over him
as a patch of sand or a weathered rock. When
he starts to move, it is with some deliberation.
He prefers a dog-trot and often several shots
from your rifle will not stir him into a run. He
slips along easily and gracefully a lean, hungry-
looking wretch with all the insolence of a hood-
lum and all the shrewdness of a thief. He re-
quires just such qualities together with a keen
nose, good eyes and ears, and some swiftness of
dash to make a living. The desert bill of fare
is not all that a wolf could desire ; but the coyote
is not very particular. Everything is food that
comes to his jaws. He likes rabbit meat, but

of the



His subsist-

His back-


does not often get it. For desert rabbits do
not go to sleep with both eyes shut. Failing
the rabbit he snuffs out birds and their nests,
trails up anything sick or wounded, and in emer-
gencies runs down and devours a lizard. If
animal food is scarce he turns his attention to
vegetation, eats prickly pears and mesquite
beans ; and up in the mountains he stands on
his hind legs and gathers choke cherries and
manzanitas. With such precarious living he be-
comes gaunt, leathery, muscled with whip-cord.
There is a meagreness and a scantiness about him ;
his coarse coat of hair is sun-scorched, his whole
appearance is arid, dusty, sandy. There is no
other animal so thoroughly typical of the desert.
He belongs there, skulking along the arroyos
and washes just as a horned toad belongs under
a granite bowlder. That he can live there at all
is due to Nature's gift to him of all-around clev-

The fox is usually accounted the epitome of
animal cunning, but here in the desert he is
not frequently seen and is usually thought less
clever than the coyote. He prefers the foot-
hills and the cover of dense chaparral where he
preys upon birds, smells out the nest of the
valley quail, catches a wood-rat ; or, if hard



pushed to it, makes a meal of crickets and grass-
hoppers. But even at this he is not more facile
than the coyote. Nor can he surpass the coyote
in robbing a hen-roost and keeping out of a
trap while doing it. He cuts no important fig-
ure on the desert and, indeed, he is hardly a
desert animal though sometimes found there.
The conditions of existence are too severe for
him. The strength of the cat, the legs of the
wolf, and the stomach of the coyote are not his ;
and so he prowls nearer civilization and takes
more risk for an easier life.

And the prey, what of the prey ! The ani-
mals of the desert that furnish food for the
meat eaters like the wolf and the cat the ani-
mals that cannot fight back or at least wage un-
equal warfare are they left hopelessly and help-
lessly at the mercy of the destroyers ? Not so.
Nature endows them and protects them as best
she can. Every one of them has some device to
baffle or trick the enemy. Even the poor little
horned toad, that has only his not too thick
skin to save him, can slightly change the color
of that skin to suit the bowlder he is flattened
upon so that the keenest eye would pass him
over unnoticed. The jack-rabbit cannot change
his skin, but he knows many devices whereby he

The prey.

Devices for



Senses of
the rabbit.

Speed of the

contrives to save it. Lying in his form at the
root of some bush or cactus he is not easily seen,
He crouches low and the gray of his fur fits
into the sand imperceptibly. You do not see
him but he sees you. His eyes never close ;
they are always watching. Look at them close-
ly as he lies dead before you and how large and
protruding they are ! In the life they see every-
thing that moves. And if his eyes fail him,
perhaps his ears will not. He was named the
jackass-rabbit because of his long ears ; and the
length of them is in exact proportion to their
acuteness of hearing. No footstep escapes them.
They are natural megaphones for the reception
of sound. It can hardly be doubted that his nose
is just as acute as his eyes and his ears. So
that all told he is not an animal easily caught

And if the jack-rabbit's senses fail him, has
he no other resource ? Certainly, yes ; that is if
he is not captured. In proportion to his size
he has the strongest hind legs of anything on
the desert. In this respect he is almost like a
kangaroo. When he starts running and begins
with his long bound, there is nothing that can
overtake him except a trained greyhound. He
ricochets from knoll to knoll like a bounding



ball, and as he crosses ahead of yon perhaps yon
think he is not moving very fast. Bnt shoot at
him and see how far behind him your rifle ball
strikes the dnst. No coyote or wolf is foolish
enongh to chase him or ever try to rnn him
down. His endurance is quite as good as his
speed. It makes no difference about his not
drinking water and that all his energy comes
from bark and dry grass. He keeps right on
running ; over stones, through cactus, down a
canyon, up a mountain. For keen senses and
swift legs he is the desert type as emphatically
as the coyote that is forever prowling on his

The little " cotton-tail " rabbit is not perhaps
so well provided for as the jack-rabbit ; but
then he does not live in the open and is not so
exposed to attack. He hides in brush, weeds, or
grass ; and when startled makes a quick dash
for a hole in the ground or a ledge of rock. His
legs are good for a short distance, and his senses
are acute ; but the wild-cat or the coyote catches
him at last. The continuance of his species
lies in prolific breeding. The wild-cat, too,
catches a good many gophers, rats, mice, and
squirrels. The squirrels are many in kind and
beautiful in their forms and colorings. One

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Online LibraryJohn Charles Van DykeThe desert; further studies in natural appearances → online text (page 9 of 13)