Wednesday, October 24, 2007


The Land of

The Land of
Little Rain
"The Comfortress of Unsuccess"
The Land of Little Rain
Water Trails of the Ceriso
The Scavengers
The Pocket Hunter
Shoshone Land
Jimville--A Bret Harte Town
My Neighbor's Field
The Mesa Trail
The Basket Maker
The Streets of the Mountains
Water Borders
Other Water Borders
Nurslings of the Sky
The Little Town of the Grape Vines
I confess to a great liking for the Indian fashion of name-giving:
every man known by that phrase which best expresses him to whoso
names him. Thus he may be Mighty-Hunter, or Man-Afraid-of-a-Bear,
according as he is called by friend or enemy, and Scar-Face to
those who knew him by the eye's grasp only. No other fashion, I
think, sets so well with the various natures that inhabit in us,
and if you agree with me you will understand why so few names are
written here as they appear in the geography. For if I love a lake
known by the name of the man who discovered it, which endears
itself by reason of the close-locked pines it nourishes about its
borders, you may look in my account to find it so described. But
if the Indians have been there before me, you shall have their
name, which is always beautifully fit and does not originate in the
poor human desire for perpetuity.
Nevertheless there are certain peaks, canons, and clear meadow
spaces which are above all compassing of words, and have a
certain fame as of the nobly great to whom we give no familiar
names. Guided by these you may reach my country and find or not
find, according as it lieth in you, much that is set down here.
And more. The earth is no wanton to give up all her best to every
comer, but keeps a sweet, separate intimacy for each. But if you
do not find it all as I write, think me not less dependable nor
yourself less clever. There is a sort of pretense allowed in
matters of the heart, as one should say by way of illustration,
"I know a man who . . . " and so give up his dearest experience
without betrayal. And I am in no mind to direct you to delectable
places toward which you will hold yourself less tenderly than I.
So by this fashion of naming I keep faith with the land and annex
to my own estate a very great territory to which none has a surer
The country where you may have sight and touch of that which
is written lies between the high Sierras south from Yosemite--east
and south over a very great assemblage of broken ranges beyond
Death Valley, and on illimitably into the Mojave Desert. You may
come into the borders of it from the south by a stage journey that
has the effect of involving a great lapse of time, or from the
north by rail, dropping out of the overland route at Reno. The
best of all ways is over the Sierra passes by pack and trail,
seeing and believing. But the real heart and core of the country
are not to be come at in a month's vacation. One must
summer and winter with the land and wait its occasions. Pine woods
that take two and three seasons to the ripening of cones, roots
that lie by in the sand seven years awaiting a growing rain, firs
that grow fifty years before flowering,--these do not scrape
acquaintance. But if ever you come beyond the borders as far as
the town that lies in a hill dimple at the foot of Kearsarge, never
leave it until you have knocked at the door of the brown house
under the willow-tree at the end of the village street, and there
you shall have such news of the land, of its trails and what is
astir in them, as one lover of it can give to another.
East away from the Sierras, south from Panamint and Amargosa, east
and south many an uncounted mile, is the Country of Lost Borders.
Ute, Paiute, Mojave, and Shoshone inhabit its frontiers, and
as far into the heart of it as a man dare go. Not the law, but the
land sets the limit. Desert is the name it wears upon the maps,
but the Indian's is the better word. Desert is a loose term to
indicate land that supports no man; whether the land can be bitted
and broken to that purpose is not proven. Void of life it never
is, however dry the air and villainous the soil.
This is the nature of that country. There are hills, rounded,
blunt, burned, squeezed up out of chaos, chrome and vermilion
painted, aspiring to the snowline. Between the hills lie high
level-looking plains full of intolerable sun glare, or narrow
valleys drowned in a blue haze. The hill surface is streaked with
ash drift and black, unweathered lava flows. After rains water
accumulates in the hollows of small closed valleys, and,
evaporating, leaves hard dry levels of pure desertness that get the
local name of dry lakes. Where the mountains are steep and the
rains heavy, the pool is never quite dry, but dark and bitter,
rimmed about with the efflorescence of alkaline deposits. A thin
crust of it lies along the marsh over the vegetating area, which
has neither beauty nor freshness. In the broad wastes open to the
wind the sand drifts in hummocks about the stubby shrubs, and
between them the soil shows saline traces. The sculpture of the
hills here is more wind than water work, though the quick storms do
sometimes scar them past many a year's redeeming. In all the
Western desert edges there are essays in miniature at the famed,
terrible Grand Canon, to which, if you keep on long enough in this
country, you will come at last.
Since this is a hill country one expects to find springs, but
not to depend upon them; for when found they are often brackish and
unwholesome, or maddening, slow dribbles in a thirsty soil. Here
you find the hot sink of Death Valley, or high rolling districts
where the air has always a tang of frost. Here are the long heavy
winds and breathless calms on the tilted mesas where dust devils
dance, whirling up into a wide, pale sky. Here you have no rain
when all the earth cries for it, or quick downpours called
cloud-bursts for violence. A land of lost rivers, with little in
it to love; yet a land that once visited must be come back to
inevitably. If it were not so there would be little told of it.
This is the country of three seasons. From June on to
November it lies hot, still, and unbearable, sick with violent
unrelieving storms; then on until April, chill, quiescent, drinking
its scant rain and scanter snows; from April to the hot season
again, blossoming, radiant, and seductive. These months are only
approximate; later or earlier the rain-laden wind may drift up the
water gate of the Colorado from the Gulf, and the land sets its
seasons by the rain.
The desert floras shame us with their cheerful adaptations to
the seasonal limitations. Their whole duty is to flower and fruit,
and they do it hardly, or with tropical luxuriance, as the rain
admits. It is recorded in the report of the Death Valley
expedition that after a year of abundant rains, on the Colorado
desert was found a specimen of Amaranthus ten feet high. A year
later the same species in the same place matured in the drought at
four inches. One hopes the land may breed like qualities in her
human offspring, not tritely to "try," but to do. Seldom does the
desert herb attain the full stature of the type. Extreme aridity
and extreme altitude have the same dwarfing effect, so that we find
in the high Sierras and in Death Valley related species in
miniature that reach a comely growth in mean temperatures.
Very fertile are the desert plants in expedients to prevent
evaporation, turning their foliage edge-wise toward the sun,
growing silky hairs, exuding viscid gum. The wind, which has a
long sweep, harries and helps them. It rolls up dunes about the
stocky stems, encompassing and protective, and above the dunes,
which may be, as with the mesquite, three times as high as a man,
the blossoming twigs flourish and bear fruit.
There are many areas in the desert where drinkable water lies
within a few feet of the surface, indicated by the mesquite and the
bunch grass (Sporobolus airoides). It is this nearness of
unimagined help that makes the tragedy of desert deaths. It is
related that the final breakdown of that hapless party that gave
Death Valley its forbidding name occurred in a locality where
shallow wells would have saved them. But how were they to know
that? Properly equipped it is possible to go safely across that
ghastly sink, yet every year it takes its toll of death, and yet
men find there sun-dried mummies, of whom no trace or recollection
is preserved. To underestimate one's thirst, to pass a given
landmark to the right or left, to find a dry spring where one
looked for running water--there is no help for any of these things.
Along springs and sunken watercourses one is surprised to find
such water-loving plants as grow widely in moist ground, but the
true desert breeds its own kind, each in its particular habitat.
The angle of the slope, the frontage of a hill, the structure
of the soil determines the plant. South-looking hills are nearly
bare, and the lower tree-line higher here by a thousand feet.
Canons running east and west will have one wall naked and one
clothed. Around dry lakes and marshes the herbage preserves a set
and orderly arrangement. Most species have well-defined areas of
growth, the best index the voiceless land can give the traveler
of his whereabouts.
If you have any doubt about it, know that the desert begins
with the creosote. This immortal shrub spreads down into Death
Valley and up to the lower timberline, odorous and medicinal as
you might guess from the name, wandlike, with shining fretted
foliage. Its vivid green is grateful to the eye in a wilderness of
gray and greenish white shrubs. In the spring it exudes a resinous
gum which the Indians of those parts know how to use with
pulverized rock for cementing arrow points to shafts. Trust
Indians not to miss any virtues of the plant world!
Nothing the desert produces expresses it better than the
unhappy growth of the tree yuccas. Tormented, thin forests of it
stalk drearily in the high mesas, particularly in that triangular
slip that fans out eastward from the meeting of the Sierras and
coastwise hills where the first swings across the southern end of
the San Joaquin Valley. The yucca bristles with bayonet-pointed
leaves, dull green, growing shaggy with age, tipped with
panicles of fetid, greenish bloom. After death, which is slow,
the ghostly hollow network of its woody skeleton, with hardly power
to rot, makes the moonlight fearful. Before the yucca has come to
flower, while yet its bloom is a creamy cone-shaped bud of the size
of a small cabbage, full of sugary sap, the Indians twist it deftly
out of its fence of daggers and roast it for their own delectation.
So it is that in those parts where man inhabits one sees young
plants of Yucca arborensis infrequently. Other yuccas,
cacti, low herbs, a thousand sorts, one finds journeying east from
the coastwise hills. There is neither poverty of soil nor species
to account for the sparseness of desert growth, but simply that
each plant requires more room. So much earth must be preempted to
extract so much moisture. The real struggle for existence, the
real brain of the plant, is underground; above there is room for
a rounded perfect growth. In Death Valley, reputed the very core
of desolation, are nearly two hundred identified species.
Above the lower tree-line, which is also the snowline, mapped
out abruptly by the sun, one finds spreading growth of pinon,
juniper, branched nearly to the ground, lilac and sage, and
scattering white pines.
There is no special preponderance of self-fertilized or
wind-fertilized plants, but everywhere the demand for and evidence
of insect life. Now where there are seeds and insects there
will be birds and small mammals and where these are, will come the
slinking, sharp-toothed kind that prey on them. Go as far as you
dare in the heart of a lonely land, you cannot go so far that life
and death are not before you. Painted lizards slip in and out of
rock crevices, and pant on the white hot sands. Birds,
hummingbirds even, nest in the cactus scrub; woodpeckers befriend
the demoniac yuccas; out of the stark, treeless waste rings the
music of the night-singing mockingbird. If it be summer and the
sun well down, there will be a burrowing owl to call. Strange,
furry, tricksy things dart across the open places, or sit
motionless in the conning towers of the creosote. The poet may
have "named all the birds without a gun," but not the fairy-footed,
ground-inhabiting, furtive, small folk of the rainless regions.
They are too many and too swift; how many you would not believe
without seeing the footprint tracings in the sand. They are nearly
all night workers, finding the days too hot and white. In
mid-desert where there are no cattle, there are no birds of
carrion, but if you go far in that direction the chances are that
you will find yourself shadowed by their tilted wings. Nothing so
large as a man can move unspied upon in that country, and they
know well how the land deals with strangers. There are hints to be
had here of the way in which a land forces new habits on its
dwellers. The quick increase of suns at the end of spring
sometimes overtakes birds in their nesting and effects a reversal
of the ordinary manner of incubation. It becomes necessary to keep
eggs cool rather than warm. One hot, stifling spring in the Little
Antelope I had occasion to pass and repass frequently the nest of
a pair of meadowlarks, located unhappily in the shelter of a very
slender weed. I never caught them sitting except near night, but
at mid-day they stood, or drooped above it, half fainting with
pitifully parted bills, between their treasure and the sun.
Sometimes both of them together with wings spread and half lifted
continued a spot of shade in a temperature that constrained me at
last in a fellow feeling to spare them a bit of canvas for
permanent shelter. There was a fence in that country shutting in
a cattle range, and along its fifteen miles of posts one could be
sure of finding a bird or two in every strip of shadow; sometimes
the sparrow and the hawk, with wings trailed and beaks parted,
drooping in the white truce of noon.
If one is inclined to wonder at first how so many dwellers
came to be in the loneliest land that ever came out of God's hands,
what they do there and why stay, one does not wonder so much after
having lived there. None other than this long brown land lays such
a hold on the affections. The rainbow hills, the tender bluish
mists, the luminous radiance of the spring, have the lotus
charm. They trick the sense of time, so that once inhabiting there
you always mean to go away without quite realizing that you have
not done it. Men who have lived there, miners and cattlemen, will
tell you this, not so fluently, but emphatically, cursing the land
and going back to it. For one thing there is the divinest,
cleanest air to be breathed anywhere in God's world. Some day the
world will understand that, and the little oases on the windy tops
of hills will harbor for healing its ailing, house-weary broods.
There is promise there of great wealth in ores and earths, which is
no wealth by reason of being so far removed from water and workable
conditions, but men are bewitched by it and tempted to try the
You should hear Salty Williams tell how he used to drive
eighteen and twenty-mule teams from the borax marsh to Mojave,
ninety miles, with the trail wagon full of water barrels. Hot
days the mules would go so mad for drink that the clank of the
water bucket set them into an uproar of hideous, maimed noises, and
a tangle of harness chains, while Salty would sit on the high seat
with the sun glare heavy in his eyes, dealing out curses of
pacification in a level, uninterested voice until the clamor fell
off from sheer exhaustion. There was a line of shallow graves
along that road; they used to count on dropping a man or two of
every new gang of coolies brought out in the hot season. But
when he lost his swamper, smitten without warning at the noon halt,
Salty quit his job; he said it was "too durn hot." The swamper he
buried by the way with stones upon him to keep the coyotes from
digging him up, and seven years later I read the penciled lines on
the pine head-board, still bright and unweathered.
But before that, driving up on the Mojave stage, I met Salty
again crossing Indian Wells, his face from the high seat, tanned
and ruddy as a harvest moon, looming through the golden dust above
his eighteen mules. The land had called him.
The palpable sense of mystery in the desert air breeds fables,
chiefly of lost treasure. Somewhere within its stark borders, if
one believes report, is a hill strewn with nuggets; one seamed with
virgin silver; an old clayey water-bed where Indians scooped up
earth to make cooking pots and shaped them reeking with grains of
pure gold. Old miners drifting about the desert edges, weathered
into the semblance of the tawny hills, will tell you tales like
these convincingly. After a little sojourn in that land you will
believe them on their own account. It is a question whether it is
not better to be bitten by the little horned snake of the desert
that goes sidewise and strikes without coiling, than by the
tradition of a lost mine.
And yet--and yet--is it not perhaps to satisfy expectation
that one falls into the tragic key in writing of desertness? The
more you wish of it the more you get, and in the mean time lose
much of pleasantness. In that country which begins at the foot of
the east slope of the Sierras and spreads out by less and less
lofty hill ranges toward the Great Basin, it is possible to live
with great zest, to have red blood and delicate joys, to pass and
repass about one's daily performance an area that would make an
Atlantic seaboard State, and that with no peril, and, according to
our way of thought, no particular difficulty. At any rate, it was
not people who went into the desert merely to write it up who
invented the fabled Hassaympa, of whose waters, if any drink, they
can no more see fact as naked fact, but all radiant with the color
of romance. I, who must have drunk of it in my twice seven years'
wanderings, am assured that it is worth while.
For all the toll the desert takes of a man it gives
compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the
stars. It comes upon one with new force in the pauses of the night
that the Chaldeans were a desert-bred people. It is hard to escape
the sense of mastery as the stars move in the wide clear heavens to
risings and settings unobscured. They look large and near and
palpitant; as if they moved on some stately service not
needful to declare. Wheeling to their stations in the sky, they
make the poor world-fret of no account. Of no account you who lie
out there watching, nor the lean coyote that stands off in the
scrub from you and howls and howls.
By the end of the dry season the water trails of the Ceriso are
worn to a white ribbon in the leaning grass, spread out faint and
fanwise toward the homes of gopher and ground rat and squirrel.
But however faint to man-sight, they are sufficiently plain to the
furred and feathered folk who travel them. Getting down to the eye
level of rat and squirrel kind, one perceives what might easily be
wide and winding roads to us if they occurred in thick plantations
of trees three times the height of a man. It needs but a slender
thread of barrenness to make a mouse trail in the forest of the
sod. To the little people the water trails are as country roads,
with scents as signboards.
It seems that man-height is the least fortunate of all heights
from which to study trails. It is better to go up the front of
some tall hill, say the spur of Black Mountain, looking back and
down across the hollow of the Ceriso. Strange how long the soil
keeps the impression of any continuous treading, even after
grass has overgrown it. Twenty years since, a brief heyday of
mining at Black Mountain made a stage road across the Ceriso, yet
the parallel lines that are the wheel traces show from the height
dark and well defined. Afoot in the Ceriso one looks in vain for
any sign of it. So all the paths that wild creatures use going
down to the Lone Tree Spring are mapped out whitely from this
level, which is also the level of the hawks.
There is little water in the Ceriso at the best of times, and
that little brackish and smelling vilely, but by a lone juniper
where the rim of the Ceriso breaks away to the lower country, there
is a perpetual rill of fresh sweet drink in the midst of lush grass
and watercress. In the dry season there is no water else for a
man's long journey of a day. East to the foot of Black Mountain,
and north and south without counting, are the burrows of small
rodents, rat and squirrel kind. Under the sage are the shallow
forms of the jackrabbits, and in the dry banks of washes, and among
the strewn fragments of black rock, lairs of bobcat, fox, and
The coyote is your true water-witch, one who snuffs and paws,
snuffs and paws again at the smallest spot of moisture-scented
earth until he has freed the blind water from the soil. Many
water-holes are no more than this detected by the lean hobo
of the hills in localities where not even an Indian would look for
It is the opinion of many wise and busy people that the
hill-folk pass the ten-month interval between the end and renewal
of winter rains, with no drink; but your true idler, with days and
nights to spend beside the water trails, will not subscribe to it.
The trails begin, as I said, very far back in the Ceriso, faintly,
and converge in one span broad, white, hard-trodden way in the
gully of the spring. And why trails if there are no travelers in
that direction?
I have yet to find the land not scarred by the thin, far
roadways of rabbits and what not of furry folks that run in them.
Venture to look for some seldom-touched water-hole, and so long as
the trails run with your general direction make sure you are right,
but if they begin to cross yours at never so slight an angle, to
converge toward a point left or right of your objective, no matter
what the maps say, or your memory, trust them; they know.
It is very still in the Ceriso by day, so that were it not for
the evidence of those white beaten ways, it might be the desert it
looks. The sun is hot in the dry season, and the days are filled
with the glare of it. Now and again some unseen coyote signals his
pack in a long-drawn, dolorous whine that comes from no determinate
point, but nothing stirs much before mid-afternoon. It is a sign
when there begin to be hawks skimming above the sage that
the little people are going about their business.
We have fallen on a very careless usage, speaking of wild
creatures as if they were bound by some such limitation as hampers
clockwork. When we say of one and another, they are night
prowlers, it is perhaps true only as the things they feed upon are
more easily come by in the dark, and they know well how to adjust
themselves to conditions wherein food is more plentiful by day.
And their accustomed performance is very much a matter of keen eye,
keener scent, quick ear, and a better memory of sights and sounds
than man dares boast. Watch a coyote come out of his lair and cast
about in his mind where be will go for his daily killing. You
cannot very well tell what decides him, but very easily that he has
decided. He trots or breaks into short gallops, with very
perceptible pauses to look up and about at landmarks, alters his
tack a little, looking forward and back to steer his proper course.
I am persuaded that the coyotes in my valley, which is narrow and
beset with steep, sharp hills, in long passages steer by the
pinnacles of the sky-line, going with head cocked to one side to
keep to the left or right of such and such a promontory.
I have trailed a coyote often, going across country, perhaps
to where some slant-winged scavenger hanging in the air signaled
prospect of a dinner, and found his track such as a man, a
very intelligent man accustomed to a hill country, and a little
cautious, would make to the same point. Here a detour to avoid a
stretch of too little cover, there a pause on the rim of a gully to
pick the better way,--and it is usually the best way,--and making
his point with the greatest economy of effort. Since the time of
Seyavi the deer have shifted their feeding ground across the valley
at the beginning of deep snows, by way of the Black Rock, fording
the river at Charley's Butte, and making straight for the mouth of
the canon that is the easiest going to the winter pastures on
Waban. So they still cross, though whatever trail they had has
been long broken by ploughed ground; but from the mouth of Tinpah
Creek, where the deer come out of the Sierras, it is easily seen
that the creek, the point of Black Rock, and Charley's Butte are in
line with the wide bulk of shade that is the foot of Waban Pass.
And along with this the deer have learned that Charley's Butte is
almost the only possible ford, and all the shortest crossing of the
valley. It seems that the wild creatures have learned all that is
important to their way of life except the changes of the moon. I
have seen some prowling fox or coyote, surprised by its sudden
rising from behind the mountain wall, slink in its increasing glow,
watch it furtively from the cover of near-by brush, unprepared and
half uncertain of its identity until it rode clear of the
peaks, and finally make off with all the air of one caught napping
by an ancient joke. The moon in its wanderings must be a sort of
exasperation to cunning beasts, likely to spoil by untimely risings
some fore-planned mischief.
But to take the trail again; the coyotes that are astir in the
Ceriso of late afternoons, harrying the rabbits from their shallow
forms, and the hawks that sweep and swing above them, are not there
from any mechanical promptings of instinct, but because they know
of old experience that the small fry are about to take to seed
gathering and the water trails. The rabbits begin it, taking the
trail with long, light leaps, one eye and ear cocked to the hills
from whence a coyote might descend upon them at any moment.
Rabbits are a foolish people. They do not fight except with their
own kind, nor use their paws except for feet, and appear to have no
reason for existence but to furnish meals for meat-eaters. In
flight they seem to rebound from the earth of their own elasticity,
but keep a sober pace going to the spring. It is the young
watercress that tempts them and the pleasures of society, for they
seldom drink. Even in localities where there are flowing streams
they seem to prefer the moisture that collects on herbage, and
after rains may be seen rising on their haunches to drink
delicately the clear drops caught in the tops of the young sage.
But drink they must, as I have often seen them mornings and
evenings at the rill that goes by my door. Wait long enough at the
Lone Tree Spring and sooner or later they will all come in. But
here their matings are accomplished, and though they are fearful of
so little as a cloud shadow or blown leaf, they contrive to have
some playful hours. At the spring the bobcat drops down upon them
from the black rock, and the red fox picks them up returning in the
dark. By day the hawk and eagle overshadow them, and the coyote
has all times and seasons for his own.
Cattle, when there are any in the Ceriso, drink morning and
evening, spending the night on the warm last lighted slopes of
neighboring hills, stirring with the peep o' day. In these half
wild spotted steers the habits of an earlier lineage persist. It
must be long since they have made beds for themselves, but before
lying down they turn themselves round and round as dogs do. They
choose bare and stony ground, exposed fronts of westward facing
hills, and lie down in companies. Usually by the end of the summer
the cattle have been driven or gone of their own choosing to the
mountain meadows. One year a maverick yearling, strayed or
overlooked by the vaqueros, kept on until the season's end, and so
betrayed another visitor to the spring that else I might have
missed. On a certain morning the half-eaten carcass lay at the
foot of the black rock, and in moist earth by the rill of the
spring, the foot-pads of a cougar, puma, mountain lion, or
whatever the beast is rightly called. The kill must have been made
early in the evening, for it appeared that the cougar had been
twice to the spring; and since the meat-eater drinks little until
he has eaten, he must have fed and drunk, and after an interval of
lying up in the black rock, had eaten and drunk again. There was
no knowing how far he had come, but if he came again the second
night he found that the coyotes had left him very little of his
Nobody ventures to say how infrequently and at what hour the
small fry visit the spring. There are such numbers of them that if
each came once between the last of spring and the first of winter
rains, there would still be water trails. I have seen badgers
drinking about the hour when the light takes on the yellow tinge it
has from coming slantwise through the hills. They find out shallow
places, and are loath to wet their feet. Rats and chipmunks have
been observed visiting the spring as late as nine o'clock mornings.
The larger spermophiles that live near the spring and keep awake to
work all day, come and go at no particular hour, drinking
sparingly. At long intervals on half-lighted days, meadow and
field mice steal delicately along the trail. These visitors are
all too small to be watched carefully at night, but for evidence of
their frequent coming there are the trails that may be traced miles
out among the crisping grasses. On rare nights, in the places
where no grass grows between the shrubs, and the sand silvers
whitely to the moon, one sees them whisking to and fro on
innumerable errands of seed gathering, but the chief witnesses of
their presence near the spring are the elf owls. Those
burrow-haunting, speckled fluffs of greediness begin a twilight
flitting toward the spring, feeding as they go on grasshoppers,
lizards, and small, swift creatures, diving into burrows to catch
field mice asleep, battling with chipmunks at their own doors, and
getting down in great numbers toward the long juniper. Now owls do
not love water greatly on its own account. Not to my knowledge
have I caught one drinking or bathing, though on night wanderings
across the mesa they flit up from under the horse's feet along
stream borders. Their presence near the spring in great numbers
would indicate the presence of the things they feed upon. All
night the rustle and soft hooting keeps on in the neighborhood of
the spring, with seldom small shrieks of mortal agony. It is clear
day before they have all gotten back to their particular hummocks,
and if one follows cautiously, not to frighten them into some
near-by burrow, it is possible to trail them far up the slope.
The crested quail that troop in the Ceriso are the happiest
frequenters of the water trails. There is no furtiveness about
their morning drink. About the time the burrowers and all that
feed upon them are addressing themselves to sleep, great
flocks pour down the trails with that peculiar melting motion of
moving quail, twittering, shoving, and shouldering. They splatter
into the shallows, drink daintily, shake out small showers over
their perfect coats, and melt away again into the scrub, preening
and pranking, with soft contented noises.
After the quail, sparrows and ground-inhabiting birds bathe
with the utmost frankness and a great deal of splutter; and here in
the heart of noon hawks resort, sitting panting, with wings aslant,
and a truce to all hostilities because of the heat. One summer
there came a road-runner up from the lower valley, peeking and
prying, and he had never any patience with the water baths of the
sparrows. His own ablutions were performed in the clean, hopeful
dust of the chaparral; and whenever he happened on their morning
splatterings, he would depress his glossy crest, slant his shining
tail to the level of his body, until he looked most like some
bright venomous snake, daunting them with shrill abuse and feint of
battle. Then suddenly he would go tilting and balancing down the
gully in fine disdain, only to return in a day or two to make sure
the foolish bodies were still at it.
Out on the Ceriso about five miles, and wholly out of sight of
it, near where the immemorial foot trail goes up from Saline Flat
toward Black Mountain, is a water sign worth turning out of the
trail to see. It is a laid circle of stones large enough not
to be disturbed by any ordinary hap, with an opening flanked by
two parallel rows of similar stones, between which were an arrow
placed, touching the opposite rim of the circle, thus it would
point as the crow flies to the spring. It is the old, indubitable
water mark of the Shoshones. One still finds it in the desert
ranges in Salt Wells and Mesquite valleys, and along the slopes of
Waban. On the other side of Ceriso, where the black rock begins,
about a mile from the spring, is the work of an older, forgotten
people. The rock hereabout is all volcanic, fracturing with a
crystalline whitish surface, but weathered outside to furnace
blackness. Around the spring, where must have been a gathering
place of the tribes, it is scored over with strange pictures and
symbols that have no meaning to the Indians of the present day; but
out where the rock begins, there is carved into the white heart of
it a pointing arrow over the symbol for distance and a circle full
of wavy lines reading thus: "In this direction three [units of
measurement unknown] is a spring of sweet water; look for it."
Fifty-seven buzzards, one on each of fifty-seven fence posts at the
rancho El Tejon, on a mirage-breeding September morning, sat
solemnly while the white tilted travelers' vans lumbered down the
Canada de los Uvas. After three hours they had only clapped their
wings, or exchanged posts. The season's end in the vast dim valley
of the San Joaquin is palpitatingly hot, and the air breathes like
cotton wool. Through it all the buzzards sit on the fences and low
hummocks, with wings spread fanwise for air. There is no end to
them, and they smell to heaven. Their heads droop, and all their
communication is a rare, horrid croak.
The increase of wild creatures is in proportion to the things
they feed upon: the more carrion the more buzzards. The end of the
third successive dry year bred them beyond belief. The first year
quail mated sparingly; the second year the wild oats matured no
seed; the third, cattle died in their tracks with their heads
towards the stopped watercourses. And that year the
scavengers were as black as the plague all across the mesa and up
the treeless, tumbled hills. On clear days they betook themselves
to the upper air, where they hung motionless for hours. That year
there were vultures among them, distinguished by the white patches
under the wings. All their offensiveness notwithstanding, they
have a stately flight. They must also have what pass for good
qualities among themselves, for they are social, not to say
It is a very squalid tragedy,--that of the dying brutes and
the scavenger birds. Death by starvation is slow. The
heavy-headed, rack-boned cattle totter in the fruitless trails;
they stand for long, patient intervals; they lie down and do not
rise. There is fear in their eyes when they are first stricken,
but afterward only intolerable weariness. I suppose the dumb
creatures know nearly as much of death as do their betters, who
have only the more imagination. Their even-breathing submission
after the first agony is their tribute to its inevitableness. It
needs a nice discrimination to say which of the basket-ribbed
cattle is likest to afford the next meal, but the scavengers make
few mistakes. One stoops to the quarry and the flock follows.
Cattle once down may be days in dying. They stretch out their
necks along the ground, and roll up their slow eyes at longer
intervals. The buzzards have all the time, and no beak is dropped
or talon struck until the breath is wholly passed. It is
doubtless the economy of nature to have the scavengers by to clean
up the carrion, but a wolf at the throat would be a shorter agony
than the long stalking and sometime perchings of these loathsome
watchers. Suppose now it were a man in this long-drawn, hungrily
spied upon distress! When Timmie O'Shea was lost on Armogosa
Flats for three days without water, Long Tom Basset found him, not
by any trail, but by making straight away for the points where he
saw buzzards stooping. He could hear the beat of their wings, Tom
said, and trod on their shadows, but O'Shea was past recalling what
he thought about things after the second day. My friend Ewan told
me, among other things, when he came back from San Juan Hill, that
not all the carnage of battle turned his bowels as the sight of
slant black wings rising flockwise before the burial squad.
There are three kinds of noises buzzards make,--it is
impossible to call them notes,--raucous and elemental. There is a
short croak of alarm, and the same syllable in a modified tone to
serve all the purposes of ordinary conversation. The old birds
make a kind of throaty chuckling to their young, but if they have
any love song I have not heard it. The young yawp in the nest a
little, with more breath than noise. It is seldom one finds a
buzzard's nest, seldom that grown-ups find a nest of any sort; it
is only children to whom these things happen by right. But
by making a business of it one may come upon them in wide, quiet
canons, or on the lookouts of lonely, table-topped mountains, three
or four together, in the tops of stubby trees or on rotten cliffs
well open to the sky.
It is probable that the buzzard is gregarious, but it seems
unlikely from the small number of young noted at any time that
every female incubates each year. The young birds are easily
distinguished by their size when feeding, and high up in air by the
worn primaries of the older birds. It is when the young go out of
the nest on their first foraging that the parents, full of a crass
and simple pride, make their indescribable chucklings of gobbling,
gluttonous delight. The little ones would be amusing as they tug
and tussle, if one could forget what it is they feed upon.
One never comes any nearer to the vulture's nest or nestlings
than hearsay. They keep to the southerly Sierras, and are bold
enough, it seems, to do killing on their own account when no
carrion is at hand. They dog the shepherd from camp to camp, the
hunter home from the hill, and will even carry away offal from
under his hand.
The vulture merits respect for his bigness and for his bandit
airs, but he is a sombre bird, with none of the buzzard's frank
satisfaction in his offensiveness.
The least objectionable of the inland scavengers is the
raven, frequenter of the desert ranges, the same called locally
"carrion crow." He is handsomer and has such an air. He is nice
in his habits and is said to have likable traits. A tame one in a
Shoshone camp was the butt of much sport and enjoyed it. He could
all but talk and was another with the children, but an arrant
thief. The raven will eat most things that come his way,--eggs and
young of ground-nesting birds, seeds even, lizards and
grasshoppers, which he catches cleverly; and whatever he is about,
let a coyote trot never so softly by, the raven flaps up and after;
for whatever the coyote can pull down or nose out is meat also for
the carrion crow.
And never a coyote comes out of his lair for killing, in the
country of the carrion crows, but looks up first to see where they
may be gathering. It is a sufficient occupation for a windy
morning, on the lineless, level mesa, to watch the pair of them
eying each other furtively, with a tolerable assumption of
unconcern, but no doubt with a certain amount of good understanding
about it. Once at Red Rock, in a year of green pasture, which is
a bad time for the scavengers, we saw two buzzards, five ravens,
and a coyote feeding on the same carrion, and only the coyote
seemed ashamed of the company.
Probably we never fully credit the interdependence of wild
creatures, and their cognizance of the affairs of their own kind.
When the five coyotes that range the Tejon from Pasteria to
Tunawai planned a relay race to bring down an antelope strayed from
the band, beside myself to watch, an eagle swung down from Mt.
Pinos, buzzards materialized out of invisible ether, and hawks came
trooping like small boys to a street fight. Rabbits sat up in the
chaparral and cocked their ears, feeling themselves quite safe for
the once as the hunt swung near them. Nothing happens in the deep
wood that the blue jays are not all agog to tell. The hawk follows
the badger, the coyote the carrion crow, and from their aerial
stations the buzzards watch each other. What would be worth
knowing is how much of their neighbor's affairs the new generations
learn for themselves, and how much they are taught of their elders.
So wide is the range of the scavengers that it is never safe
to say, eyewitness to the contrary, that there are few or many in
such a place. Where the carrion is, there will the buzzards be
gathered together, and in three days' journey you will not sight
another one. The way up from Mojave to Red Butte is all
desertness, affording no pasture and scarcely a rill of water. In
a year of little rain in the south, flocks and herds were driven to
the number of thousands along this road to the perennial pastures
of the high ranges. It is a long, slow trail, ankle deep in bitter
dust that gets up in the slow wind and moves along the backs of the
crawling cattle. In the worst of times one in three will
pine and fall out by the way. In the defiles of Red Rock, the
sheep piled up a stinking lane; it was the sun smiting by day. To
these shambles came buzzards, vultures, and coyotes from all the
country round, so that on the Tejon, the Ceriso, and the Little
Antelope there were not scavengers enough to keep the country
clean. All that summer the dead mummified in the open or dropped
slowly back to earth in the quagmires of the bitter springs.
Meanwhile from Red Rock to Coyote Holes, and from Coyote Holes to
Haiwai the scavengers gorged and gorged.
The coyote is not a scavenger by choice, preferring his own
kill, but being on the whole a lazy dog, is apt to fall into
carrion eating because it is easier. The red fox and bobcat, a
little pressed by hunger, will eat of any other animal's kill, but
will not ordinarily touch what dies of itself, and are exceedingly
shy of food that has been man-handled.
Very clean and handsome, quite belying his relationship in
appearance, is Clark's crow, that scavenger and plunderer of
mountain camps. It is permissible to call him by his common name,
"Camp Robber:" he has earned it. Not content with refuse, he pecks
open meal sacks, filches whole potatoes, is a gormand for bacon,
drills holes in packing cases, and is daunted by nothing short of
tin. All the while he does not neglect to vituperate the chipmunks
and sparrows that whisk off crumbs of comfort from under the
camper's feet. The Camp Robber's gray coat, black and white barred
wings, and slender bill, with certain tricks of perching, accuse
him of attempts to pass himself off among woodpeckers; but his
behavior is all crow. He frequents the higher pine belts, and has
a noisy strident call like a jay's, and how clean he and the
frisk-tailed chipmunks keep the camp! No crumb or paring or bit of
eggshell goes amiss.
High as the camp may be, so it is not above timberline, it is
not too high for the coyote, the bobcat, or the wolf. It is the
complaint of the ordinary camper that the woods are too still,
depleted of wild life. But what dead body of wild thing, or
neglected game untouched by its kind, do you find? And put out
offal away from camp over night, and look next day at the foot
tracks where it lay.
Man is a great blunderer going about in the woods, and there
is no other except the bear makes so much noise. Being so well
warned beforehand, it is a very stupid animal, or a very bold one,
that cannot keep safely hid. The cunningest hunter is hunted in
turn, and what he leaves of his kill is meat for some other. That
is the economy of nature, but with it all there is not sufficient
account taken of the works of man. There is no scavenger that eats
tin cans, and no wild thing leaves a like disfigurement on the
forest floor.
I remember very well when I first met him. Walking in the evening
glow to spy the marriages of the white gilias, I sniffed the
unmistakable odor of burning sage. It is a smell that carries far
and indicates usually the nearness of a campoodie, but on the level
mesa nothing taller showed than Diana's sage. Over the tops of it,
beginning to dusk under a young white moon, trailed a wavering
ghost of smoke, and at the end of it I came upon the Pocket Hunter
making a dry camp in the friendly scrub. He sat tailorwise in the
sand, with his coffee-pot on the coals, his supper ready to hand in
the frying-pan, and himself in a mood for talk. His pack burros in
hobbles strayed off to hunt for a wetter mouthful than the sage
afforded, and gave him no concern.
We came upon him often after that, threading the windy passes,
or by water-holes in the desert hills, and got to know much of his
way of life. He was a small, bowed man, with a face and manner
and speech of no character at all, as if he had that faculty of
small hunted things of taking on the protective color of his
surroundings. His clothes were of no fashion that I could
remember, except that they bore liberal markings of pot black, and
he had a curious fashion of going about with his mouth open, which
gave him a vacant look until you came near enough to perceive him
busy about an endless hummed, wordless tune. He traveled far and
took a long time to it, but the simplicity of his kitchen
arrangements was elemental. A pot for beans, a coffee-pot, a
frying-pan, a tin to mix bread in--he fed the burros in this when
there was need--with these he had been half round our western world
and back. He explained to me very early in our acquaintance what
was good to take to the hills for food: nothing sticky, for that
"dirtied the pots;" nothing with "juice" to it, for that would not
pack to advantage; and nothing likely to ferment. He used no gun,
but he would set snares by the water-holes for quail and doves, and
in the trout country he carried a line. Burros he kept, one or two
according to his pack, for this chief excellence, that they would
eat potato parings and firewood. He had owned a horse in the
foothill country, but when he came to the desert with no forage but
mesquite, he found himself under the necessity of picking the beans
from the briers, a labor that drove him to the use of pack animals
to whom thorns were a relish.
I suppose no man becomes a pocket hunter by first intention.
He must be born with the faculty, and along comes the occasion,
like the tap on the test tube that induces crystallization. My
friend had been several things of no moment until he struck a
thousand-dollar pocket in the Lee District and came into his
vocation. A pocket, you must know, is a small body of rich ore
occurring by itself, or in a vein of poorer stuff. Nearly every
mineral ledge contains such, if only one has the luck to hit upon
them without too much labor. The sensible thing for a man to do
who has found a good pocket is to buy himself into business and
keep away from the hills. The logical thing is to set out looking
for another one. My friend the Pocket Hunter had been looking
twenty years. His working outfit was a shovel, a pick, a gold pan
which he kept cleaner than his plate, and a pocket magnifier. When
he came to a watercourse he would pan out the gravel of its bed for
"colors," and under the glass determine if they had come from far
or near, and so spying he would work up the stream until he found
where the drift of the gold-bearing outcrop fanned out into the
creek; then up the side of the canon till he came to the proper
vein. I think he said the best indication of small pockets was an
iron stain, but I could never get the run of miner's talk enough to
feel instructed for pocket hunting. He had another method in the
waterless hills, where he would work in and out of blind
gullies and all windings of the manifold strata that appeared not
to have cooled since they had been heaved up. His itinerary began
with the east slope of the Sierras of the Snows, where that range
swings across to meet the coast hills, and all up that slope to the
Truckee River country, where the long cold forbade his progress
north. Then he worked back down one or another of the nearly
parallel ranges that lie out desertward, and so down to the sink of
the Mojave River, burrowing to oblivion in the sand,--a big
mysterious land, a lonely, inhospitable land, beautiful, terrible.
But he came to no harm in it; the land tolerated him as it might a
gopher or a badger. Of all its inhabitants it has the least
concern for man.
There are many strange sorts of humans bred in a mining
country, each sort despising the queernesses of the other, but of
them all I found the Pocket Hunter most acceptable for his clean,
companionable talk. There was more color to his reminiscences than
the faded sandy old miners "kyoteing," that is, tunneling like a
coyote (kyote in the vernacular) in the core of a lonesome hill.
Such a one has found, perhaps, a body of tolerable ore in a poor
lead,--remember that I can never be depended on to get the terms
right,--and followed it into the heart of country rock to no
profit, hoping, burrowing, and hoping. These men go harmlessly mad
in time, believing themselves just behind the wall of
fortune--most likable and simple men, for whom it is well to do any
kindly thing that occurs to you except lend them money. I have
known "grub stakers" too, those persuasive sinners to whom you make
allowances of flour and pork and coffee in consideration of the
ledges they are about to find; but none of these proved so much
worth while as the Pocket Hunter. He wanted nothing of you and
maintained a cheerful preference for his own way of life. It was
an excellent way if you had the constitution for it. The Pocket
Hunter had gotten to that point where he knew no bad weather, and
all places were equally happy so long as they were out of doors.
I do not know just how long it takes to become saturated with the
elements so that one takes no account of them. Myself can never
get past the glow and exhilaration of a storm, the wrestle of long
dust-heavy winds, the play of live thunder on the rocks, nor past
the keen fret of fatigue when the storm outlasts physical
endurance. But prospectors and Indians get a kind of a weather
shell that remains on the body until death.
The Pocket Hunter had seen destruction by the violence of
nature and the violence of men, and felt himself in the grip of an
All-wisdom that killed men or spared them as seemed for their good;
but of death by sickness he knew nothing except that he believed he
should never suffer it. He had been in Grape-vine Canon the year
of storms that changed the whole front of the mountain. All
day he had come down under the wing of the storm, hoping to win
past it, but finding it traveling with him until night. It kept on
after that, he supposed, a steady downpour, but could not with
certainty say, being securely deep in sleep. But the weather
instinct does not sleep. In the night the heavens behind the hill
dissolved in rain, and the roar of the storm was borne in and mixed
with his dreaming, so that it moved him, still asleep, to get up
and out of the path of it. What finally woke him was the crash of
pine logs as they went down before the unbridled flood, and the
swirl of foam that lashed him where he clung in the tangle of scrub
while the wall of water went by. It went on against the cabin of
Bill Gerry and laid Bill stripped and broken on a sand bar at the
mouth of the Grape-vine, seven miles away. There, when the sun was
up and the wrath of the rain spent, the Pocket Hunter found and
buried him; but he never laid his own escape at any door but the
unintelligible favor of the Powers.
The journeyings of the Pocket Hunter led him often into that
mysterious country beyond Hot Creek where a hidden force works
mischief, mole-like, under the crust of the earth. Whatever agency
is at work in that neighborhood, and it is popularly supposed to be
the devil, it changes means and direction without time or season.
It creeps up whole hillsides with insidious heat, unguessed
until one notes the pine woods dying at the top, and having
scorched out a good block of timber returns to steam and spout in
caked, forgotten crevices of years before. It will break up
sometimes blue-hot and bubbling, in the midst of a clear creek, or
make a sucking, scalding quicksand at the ford. These outbreaks
had the kind of morbid interest for the Pocket Hunter that a house
of unsavory reputation has in a respectable neighborhood, but I
always found the accounts he brought me more interesting than his
explanations, which were compounded of fag ends of miner's talk and
superstition. He was a perfect gossip of the woods, this Pocket
Hunter, and when I could get him away from "leads" and "strikes"
and "contacts," full of fascinating small talk about the ebb and
flood of creeks, the pinon crop on Black Mountain, and the wolves
of Mesquite Valley. I suppose he never knew how much he depended
for the necessary sense of home and companionship on the beasts and
trees, meeting and finding them in their wonted places,--the bear
that used to come down Pine Creek in the spring, pawing out trout
from the shelters of sod banks, the juniper at Lone Tree Spring,
and the quail at Paddy Jack's.
There is a place on Waban, south of White Mountain, where
flat, wind-tilted cedars make low tents and coves of shade and
shelter, where the wild sheep winter in the snow. Woodcutters and
prospectors had brought me word of that, but the Pocket
Hunter was accessory to the fact. About the opening of winter,
when one looks for sudden big storms, he had attempted a crossing
by the nearest path, beginning the ascent at noon. It grew cold,
the snow came on thick and blinding, and wiped out the trail in a
white smudge; the storm drift blew in and cut off landmarks, the
early dark obscured the rising drifts. According to the Pocket
Hunter's account, he knew where he was, but couldn't exactly say.
Three days before he had been in the west arm of Death Valley on a
short water allowance, ankle-deep in shifty sand; now he was on the
rise of Waban, knee-deep in sodden snow, and in both cases he did
the only allowable thing--he walked on. That is the only thing to
do in a snowstorm in any case. It might have been the creature
instinct, which in his way of life had room to grow, that led him
to the cedar shelter; at any rate he found it about four hours
after dark, and heard the heavy breathing of the flock. He said
that if he thought at all at this juncture he must have thought
that he had stumbled on a storm-belated shepherd with his silly
sheep; but in fact he took no note of anything but the warmth of
packed fleeces, and snuggled in between them dead with sleep. If
the flock stirred in the night he stirred drowsily to keep close
and let the storm go by. That was all until morning woke him
shining on a white world. Then the very soul of him shook
to see the wild sheep of God stand up about him, nodding their
great horns beneath the cedar roof, looking out on the wonder of
the snow. They had moved a little away from him with the coming of
the light, but paid him no more heed. The light broadened and
the white pavilions of the snow swam in the heavenly blueness of
the sea from which they rose. The cloud drift scattered and broke
billowing in the canons. The leader stamped lightly on the litter
to put the flock in motion, suddenly they took the drifts in those
long light leaps that are nearest to flight, down and away on the
slopes of Waban. Think of that to happen to a Pocket Hunter! But
though he had fallen on many a wished-for hap, he was curiously
inapt at getting the truth about beasts in general. He believed in
the venom of toads, and charms for snake bites, and--for this I
could never forgive him--had all the miner's prejudices against my
friend the coyote. Thief, sneak, and son of a thief were the
friendliest words he had for this little gray dog of the
Of course with so much seeking he came occasionally upon
pockets of more or less value, otherwise he could not have kept up
his way of life; but he had as much luck in missing great ledges as
in finding small ones. He had been all over the Tonopah country,
and brought away float without happening upon anything that gave
promise of what that district was to become in a few years.
He claimed to have chipped bits off the very outcrop of the
California Rand, without finding it worth while to bring away, but
none of these things put him out of countenance.
It was once in roving weather, when we found him shifting pack
on a steep trail, that I observed certain of his belongings done up
in green canvas bags, the veritable "green bag" of English novels.
It seemed so incongruous a reminder in this untenanted West that I
dropped down beside the trail overlooking the vast dim valley, to
hear about the green canvas. He had gotten it, he said, in London
years before, and that was the first I had known of his having been
abroad. It was after one of his "big strikes" that he had made the
Grand Tour, and had brought nothing away from it but the green
canvas bags, which he conceived would fit his needs, and an
ambition. This last was nothing less than to strike it rich and
set himself up among the eminently bourgeois of London. It seemed
that the situation of the wealthy English middle class, with just
enough gentility above to aspire to, and sufficient smaller fry to
bully and patronize, appealed to his imagination, though of course
he did not put it so crudely as that.
It was no news to me then, two or three years after, to learn
that he had taken ten thousand dollars from an abandoned claim,
just the sort of luck to have pleased him, and gone to London to
spend it. The land seemed not to miss him any more than it
had minded him, but I missed him and could not forget the trick of
expecting him in least likely situations. Therefore it was with a
pricking sense of the familiar that I followed a twilight trail of
smoke, a year or two later, to the swale of a dripping spring, and
came upon a man by the fire with a coffee-pot and frying-pan. I
was not surprised to find it was the Pocket Hunter. No man can be
stronger than his destiny.
It is true I have been in Shoshone Land, but before that, long
before, I had seen it through the eyes of Winnenap' in a rosy mist
of reminiscence, and must always see it with a sense of intimacy in
the light that never was. Sitting on the golden slope at the
campoodie, looking across the Bitter Lake to the purple tops of
Mutarango, the medicine-man drew up its happy places one by one,
like little blessed islands in a sea of talk. For he was born a
Shoshone, was Winnenap'; and though his name, his wife, his
children, and his tribal relations were of the Paiutes, his
thoughts turned homesickly toward Shoshone Land. Once a Shoshone
always a Shoshone. Winnenap' lived gingerly among the Paiutes and
in his heart despised them. But he could speak a tolerable English
when he would, and he always would if it were of Shoshone Land.
He had come into the keeping of the Paiutes as a hostage for
the long peace which the authority of the whites made
interminable, and, though there was now no order in the tribe, nor
any power that could have lawfully restrained him, kept on in the
old usage, to save his honor and the word of his vanished kin. He
had seen his children's children in the borders of the Paiutes, but
loved best his own miles of sand and rainbow-painted hills.
Professedly he had not seen them since the beginning of his
hostage; but every year about the end of the rains and before the
strength of the sun had come upon us from the south, the
medicine-man went apart on the mountains to gather herbs, and when
he came again I knew by the new fortitude of his countenance and
the new color of his reminiscences that he had been alone and
unspied upon in Shoshone Land.
To reach that country from the campoodie, one goes south and
south, within hearing of the lip-lip-lapping of the great tideless
lake, and south by east over a high rolling district, miles and
miles of sage and nothing else. So one comes to the country of the
painted hills,--old red cones of craters, wasteful beds of mineral
earths, hot, acrid springs, and steam jets issuing from a leprous
soil. After the hills the black rock, after the craters the spewed
lava, ash strewn, of incredible thickness, and full of sharp,
winding rifts. There are picture writings carved deep in the face
of the cliffs to mark the way for those who do not know it. On the
very edge of the black rock the earth falls away in a wide
sweeping hollow, which is Shoshone Land.
South the land rises in very blue hills, blue because thickly
wooded with ceanothus and manzanita, the haunt of deer and the
border of the Shoshones. Eastward the land goes very far by broken
ranges, narrow valleys of pure desertness, and huge mesas uplifted
to the sky-line, east and east, and no man knows the end of it.
It is the country of the bighorn, the wapiti, and the wolf,
nesting place of buzzards, land of cloud-nourished trees and wild
things that live without drink. Above all, it is the land of the
creosote and the mesquite. The mesquite is God's best thought in
all this desertness. It grows in the open, is thorny, stocky,
close grown, and iron-rooted. Long winds move in the draughty
valleys, blown sand fills and fills about the lower branches,
piling pyramidal dunes, from the top of which the mesquite twigs
flourish greenly. Fifteen or twenty feet under the drift, where it
seems no rain could penetrate, the main trunk grows, attaining
often a yard's thickness, resistant as oak. In Shoshone Land one
digs for large timber; that is in the southerly, sandy exposures.
Higher on the table-topped ranges low trees of juniper and pinon
stand each apart, rounded and spreading heaps of greenness.
Between them, but each to itself in smooth clear spaces, tufts of
tall feathered grass.
This is the sense of the desert hills, that there is
room enough and time enough. Trees grow to consummate domes; every
plant has its perfect work. Noxious weeds such as come up thickly
in crowded fields do not flourish in the free spaces. Live long
enough with an Indian, and he or the wild things will show you a
use for everything that grows in these borders.
The manner of the country makes the usage of life there, and
the land will not be lived in except in its own fashion. The
Shoshones live like their trees, with great spaces between, and in
pairs and in family groups they set up wattled huts by the
infrequent springs. More wickiups than two make a very great
number. Their shelters are lightly built, for they travel much and
far, following where deer feed and seeds ripen, but they are not
more lonely than other creatures that inhabit there.
The year's round is somewhat in this fashion. After the pinon
harvest the clans foregather on a warm southward slope for the
annual adjustment of tribal difficulties and the medicine dance,
for marriage and mourning and vengeance, and the exchange of
serviceable information; if, for example, the deer have shifted
their feeding ground, if the wild sheep have come back to Waban, or
certain springs run full or dry. Here the Shoshones winter
flockwise, weaving baskets and hunting big game driven down from
the country of the deep snow. And this brief intercourse is all
the use they have of their kind, for now there are no wars,
and many of their ancient crafts have fallen into disuse. The
solitariness of the life breeds in the men, as in the plants, a
certain well-roundedness and sufficiency to its own ends. Any
Shoshone family has in itself the man-seed, power to multiply and
replenish, potentialities for food and clothing and shelter, for
healing and beautifying.
When the rain is over and gone they are stirred by the
instinct of those that journeyed eastward from Eden, and go up each
with his mate and young brood, like birds to old nesting places.
The beginning of spring in Shoshone Land--oh the soft wonder of
it!--is a mistiness as of incense smoke, a veil of greenness over
the whitish stubby shrubs, a web of color on the silver sanded
soil. No counting covers the multitude of rayed blossoms that
break suddenly underfoot in the brief season of the winter rains,
with silky furred or prickly viscid foliage, or no foliage at all.
They are morning and evening bloomers chiefly, and strong seeders.
Years of scant rains they lie shut and safe in the winnowed sands,
so that some species appear to be extinct. Years of long storms
they break so thickly into bloom that no horse treads without
crushing them. These years the gullies of the hills are rank with
fern and a great tangle of climbing vines.
Just as the mesa twilights have their vocal note in the
love call of the burrowing owl, so the desert spring is voiced by
the mourning doves. Welcome and sweet they sound in the smoky
mornings before breeding time, and where they frequent in any great
numbers water is confidently looked for. Still by the springs one
finds the cunning brush shelters from which the Shoshones shot
arrows at them when the doves came to drink.
Now as to these same Shoshones there are some who claim that
they have no right to the name, which belongs to a more northerly
tribe; but that is the word they will be called by, and there is no
greater offense than to call an Indian out of his name. According
to their traditions and all proper evidence, they were a great
people occupying far north and east of their present bounds, driven
thence by the Paiutes. Between the two tribes is the residuum of
old hostilities.
Winnenap', whose memory ran to the time when the boundary of
the Paiute country was a dead-line to Shoshones, told me once how
himself and another lad, in an unforgotten spring, discovered a
nesting place of buzzards a bit of a way beyond the borders. And
they two burned to rob those nests. Oh, for no purpose at all
except as boys rob nests immemorially, for the fun of it, to have
and handle and show to other lads as an exceeding treasure, and
afterwards discard. So, not quite meaning to, but breathless with
daring, they crept up a gully, across a sage brush flat and
through a waste of boulders, to the rugged pines where their sharp
eyes had made out the buzzards settling.
The medicine-man told me, always with a quaking relish at this
point, that while they, grown bold by success, were still in the
tree, they sighted a Paiute hunting party crossing between them and
their own land. That was mid-morning, and all day on into the dark
the boys crept and crawled and slid, from boulder to bush, and bush
to boulder, in cactus scrub and on naked sand, always in a sweat of
fear, until the dust caked in the nostrils and the breath sobbed in
the body, around and away many a mile until they came to their own
land again. And all the time Winnenap' carried those buzzard's
eggs in the slack of his single buckskin garment! Young Shoshones
are like young quail, knowing without teaching about feeding and
hiding, and learning what civilized children never learn, to be
still and to keep on being still, at the first hint of danger or
As for food, that appears to be chiefly a matter of being
willing. Desert Indians all eat chuckwallas, big black and white
lizards that have delicate white flesh savored like chicken. Both
the Shoshones and the coyotes are fond of the flesh of Gopherus
agassizii, the turtle that by feeding on buds, going without
drink, and burrowing in the sand through the winter, contrives to
live a known period of twenty-five years. It seems that
most seeds are foodful in the arid regions, most berries edible,
and many shrubs good for firewood with the sap in them. The
mesquite bean, whether the screw or straight pod, pounded to a
meal, boiled to a kind of mush, and dried in cakes, sulphur-colored
and needing an axe to cut it, is an excellent food for long
journeys. Fermented in water with wild honey and the honeycomb, it
makes a pleasant, mildly intoxicating drink.
Next to spring, the best time to visit Shoshone Land is when
the deer-star hangs low and white like a torch over the morning
hills. Go up past Winnedumah and down Saline and up again to the
rim of Mesquite Valley. Take no tent, but if you will, have an
Indian build you a wickiup, willows planted in a circle, drawn over
to an arch, and bound cunningly with withes, all the leaves on, and
chinks to count the stars through. But there was never any but
Winnenap' who could tell and make it worth telling about Shoshone
And Winnenap' will not any more. He died, as do most
medicine-men of the Paiutes.
Where the lot falls when the campoodie chooses a medicine-man
there it rests. It is an honor a man seldom seeks but must wear,
an honor with a condition. When three patients die under his
ministrations, the medicine-man must yield his life and his office.
Wounds do not count; broken bones and bullet holes the Indian can
understand, but measles, pneumonia, and smallpox are
witchcraft. Winnenap' was medicine-man for fifteen years. Besides
considerable skill in healing herbs, he used his prerogatives
cunningly. It is permitted the medicine-man to decline the case
when the patient has had treatment from any other, say the white
doctor, whom many of the younger generation consult. Or, if before
having seen the patient, he can definitely refer his disorder to
some supernatural cause wholly out of the medicine-man's
jurisdiction, say to the spite of an evil spirit going about in the
form of a coyote, and states the case convincingly, he may avoid
the penalty. But this must not be pushed too far. All else
failing, he can hide. Winnenap' did this the time of the measles
epidemic. Returning from his yearly herb gathering, he heard of it
at Black Rock, and turning aside, he was not to be found, nor did
he return to his own place until the disease had spent itself, and
half the children of the campoodie were in their shallow graves
with beads sprinkled over them.
It is possible the tale of Winnenap''s patients had not been
strictly kept. There had not been a medicine-man killed in the
valley for twelve years, and for that the perpetrators had been
severely punished by the whites. The winter of the Big Snow an
epidemic of pneumonia carried off the Indians with scarcely a
warning; from the lake northward to the lava flats they died in the
sweathouses, and under the hands of the medicine-men. Even
the drugs of the white physician had no power.
After two weeks of this plague the Paiutes drew to council to
consider the remissness of their medicine-men. They were sore with
grief and afraid for themselves; as a result of the council, one in
every campoodie was sentenced to the ancient penalty. But
schooling and native shrewdness had raised up in the younger men an
unfaith in old usages, so judgment halted between sentence and
execution. At Three Pines the government teacher brought out
influential whites to threaten and cajole the stubborn tribes. At
Tunawai the conservatives sent into Nevada for that pacific old
humbug, Johnson Sides, most notable of Paiute orators, to harangue
his people. Citizens of the towns turned out with food and
comforts, and so after a season the trouble passed.
But here at Maverick there was no school, no oratory, and no
alleviation. One third of the campoodie died, and the rest killed
the medicine-men. Winnenap' expected it, and for days walked and
sat a little apart from his family that he might meet it as became
a Shoshone, no doubt suffering the agony of dread deferred. When
finally three men came and sat at his fire without greeting he knew
his time. He turned a little from them, dropped his chin upon his
knees, and looked out over Shoshone Land, breathing evenly. The
women went into the wickiup and covered their heads with
their blankets.
So much has the Indian lost of savageness by merely desisting
from killing, that the executioners braved themselves to their work
by drinking and a show of quarrelsomeness. In the end a sharp
hatchet-stroke discharged the duty of the campoodie. Afterward his
women buried him, and a warm wind coming out of the south, the
force of the disease was broken, and even they acquiesced in the
wisdom of the tribe. That summer they told me all except the names
of the Three.
Since it appears that we make our own heaven here, no doubt we
shall have a hand in the heaven of hereafter; and I know what
Winnenap''s will be like: worth going to if one has leave to live
in it according to his liking. It will be tawny gold underfoot,
walled up with jacinth and jasper, ribbed with chalcedony, and yet
no hymnbook heaven, but the free air and free spaces of Shoshone
When Mr. Harte found himself with a fresh palette and his
particular local color fading from the West, he did what he
considered the only safe thing, and carried his young impression
away to be worked out untroubled by any newer fact. He should have
gone to Jimville. There he would have found cast up on the
ore-ribbed hills the bleached timbers of more tales, and better
You could not think of Jimville as anything more than a
survival, like the herb-eating, bony-cased old tortoise that pokes
cheerfully about those borders some thousands of years beyond his
proper epoch. Not that Jimville is old, but it has an atmosphere
favorable to the type of a half century back, if not
"forty-niners," of that breed. It is said of Jimville that getting
away from it is such a piece of work that it encourages permanence
in the population; the fact is that most have been drawn there by
some real likeness or liking. Not however that I would deny the
difficulty of getting into or out of that cove of reminder,
I who have made the journey so many times at great pains of a poor
body. Any way you go at it, Jimville is about three days from
anywhere in particular. North or south, after the railroad there
is a stage journey of such interminable monotony as induces
forgetfulness of all previous states of existence.
The road to Jimville is the happy hunting ground of old
stage-coaches bought up from superseded routes the West over,
rocking, lumbering, wide vehicles far gone in the odor of romance,
coaches that Vasquez has held up, from whose high seats express
messengers have shot or been shot as their luck held. This is to
comfort you when the driver stops to rummage for wire to mend a
failing bolt. There is enough of this sort of thing to quite
prepare you to believe what the driver insists, namely, that all
that country and Jimville are held together by wire.
First on the way to Jimville you cross a lonely open land,
with a hint in the sky of things going on under the horizon, a
palpitant, white, hot land where the wheels gird at the sand and
the midday heaven shuts it in breathlessly like a tent. So in
still weather; and when the wind blows there is occupation enough
for the passengers, shifting seats to hold down the windward side
of the wagging coach. This is a mere trifle. The Jimville stage
is built for five passengers, but when you have seven, with
four trunks, several parcels, three sacks of grain, the mail and
express, you begin to understand that proverb about the road which
has been reported to you. In time you learn to engage the high
seat beside the driver, where you get good air and the best
company. Beyond the desert rise the lava flats, scoriae strewn;
sharp-cutting walls of narrow canons; league-wide, frozen puddles
of black rock, intolerable and forbidding. Beyond the lava the
mouths that spewed it out, ragged-lipped, ruined craters
shouldering to the cloud-line, mostly of red earth, as red as a red
heifer. These have some comforting of shrubs and grass. You get
the very spirit of the meaning of that country when you see Little
Pete feeding his sheep in the red, choked maw of an old vent,--a
kind of silly pastoral gentleness that glozes over an elemental
violence. Beyond the craters rise worn, auriferous hills of a
quiet sort, tumbled together; a valley full of mists; whitish green
scrub; and bright, small, panting lizards; then Jimville.
The town looks to have spilled out of Squaw Gulch, and that,
in fact, is the sequence of its growth. It began around the Bully
Boy and Theresa group of mines midway up Squaw Gulch, spreading
down to the smelter at the mouth of the ravine. The freight wagons
dumped their loads as near to the mill as the slope allowed, and
Jimville grew in between. Above the Gulch begins a pine
wood with sparsely grown thickets of lilac, azalea, and odorous
blossoming shrubs.
Squaw Gulch is a very sharp, steep, ragged-walled ravine, and
that part of Jimville which is built in it has only one street,--in
summer paved with bone-white cobbles, in the wet months a frothy
yellow flood. All between the ore dumps and solitary small cabins,
pieced out with tin cans and packing cases, run footpaths drawing
down to the Silver Dollar saloon. When Jimville was having the
time of its life the Silver Dollar had those same coins let into
the bar top for a border, but the proprietor pried them out when
the glory departed. There are three hundred inhabitants in
Jimville and four bars, though you are not to argue anything from
Hear now how Jimville came by its name. Jim Calkins
discovered the Bully Boy, Jim Baker located the Theresa. When Jim
Jenkins opened an eating-house in his tent he chalked up on the
flap, "Best meals in Jimville, $1.00," and the name stuck.
There was more human interest in the origin of Squaw Gulch,
though it tickled no humor. It was Dimmick's squaw from Aurora
way. If Dimmick had been anything except New Englander he would
have called her a mahala, but that would not have bettered his
behavior. Dimmick made a strike, went East, and the squaw who had
been to him as his wife took to drink. That was the bald
way of stating it in the Aurora country. The milk of human
kindness, like some wine, must not be uncorked too much in speech
lest it lose savor. This is what they did. The woman would have
returned to her own people, being far gone with child, but the
drink worked her bane. By the river of this ravine her pains
overtook her. There Jim Calkins, prospecting, found her dying with
a three days' babe nozzling at her breast. Jim heartened her for
the end, buried her, and walked back to Poso, eighteen miles, the
child poking in the folds of his denim shirt with small mewing
noises, and won support for it from the rough-handed folks of that
place. Then he came back to Squaw Gulch, so named from that day,
and discovered the Bully Boy. Jim humbly regarded this piece of
luck as interposed for his reward, and I for one believed him. If
it had been in mediaeval times you would have had a legend or a
ballad. Bret Harte would have given you a tale. You see in me a
mere recorder, for I know what is best for you; you shall blow out
this bubble from your own breath.
You could never get into any proper relation to Jimville
unless you could slough off and swallow your acquired prejudices as
a lizard does his skin. Once wanting some womanly attentions, the
stage-driver assured me I might have them at the Nine-Mile House
from the lady barkeeper. The phrase tickled all my
after-dinner-coffee sense of humor into an anticipation of Poker
Flat. The stage-driver proved himself really right, though
you are not to suppose from this that Jimville had no conventions
and no caste. They work out these things in the personal equation
largely. Almost every latitude of behavior is allowed a good
fellow, one no liar, a free spender, and a backer of his friends'
quarrels. You are respected in as much ground as you can shoot
over, in as many pretensions as you can make good.
That probably explains Mr. Fanshawe, the gentlemanly faro
dealer of those parts, built for the role of Oakhurst, going
white-shirted and frock-coated in a community of overalls; and
persuading you that whatever shifts and tricks of the game were
laid to his deal, he could not practice them on a person of your
penetration. But he does. By his own account and the evidence of
his manners he had been bred for a clergyman, and he certainly has
gifts for the part. You find him always in possession of your
point of view, and with an evident though not obtrusive desire to
stand well with you. For an account of his killings, for his way
with women and the way of women with him, I refer you to Brown of
Calaveras and some others of that stripe. His improprieties had a
certain sanction of long standing not accorded to the gay ladies
who wore Mr. Fanshawe's favors. There were perhaps too many of
them. On the whole, the point of the moral distinctions of
Jimville appears to be a point of honor, with an absence of
humorous appreciation that strangers mistake for dullness. At
Jimville they see behavior as history and judge it by facts,
untroubled by invention and the dramatic sense. You glimpse a
crude equity in their dealings with Wilkins, who had shot a man at
Lone Tree, fairly, in an open quarrel. Rumor of it reached
Jimville before Wilkins rested there in flight. I saw Wilkins, all
Jimville saw him; in fact, he came into the Silver Dollar when we
were holding a church fair and bought a pink silk pincushion. I
have often wondered what became of it. Some of us shook hands with
him, not because we did not know, but because we had not been
officially notified, and there were those present who knew how it
was themselves. When the sheriff arrived Wilkins had moved on, and
Jimville organized a posse and brought him back, because the
sheriff was a Jimville man and we had to stand by him.
I said we had the church fair at the Silver Dollar. We had
most things there, dances, town meetings, and the kinetoscope
exhibition of the Passion Play. The Silver Dollar had been built
when the borders of Jimville spread from Minton to the red hill the
Defiance twisted through. "Side-Winder" Smith scrubbed the floor
for us and moved the bar to the back room. The fair was designed
for the support of the circuit rider who preached to the few that
would hear, and buried us all in turn. He was the symbol of
Jimville's respectability, although he was of a sect that
held dancing among the cardinal sins. The management took no
chances on offending the minister; at 11.30 they tendered him the
receipts of the evening in the chairman's hat, as a delicate
intimation that the fair was closed. The company filed out of the
front door and around to the back. Then the dance began formally
with no feelings hurt. These were the sort of courtesies, common
enough in Jimville, that brought tears of delicate inner laughter.
There were others besides Mr. Fanshawe who had walked out of
Mr. Harte's demesne to Jimville and wore names that smacked of the
soil,--"Alkali Bill," "Pike" Wilson, "Three Finger," and "Mono
Jim;" fierce, shy, profane, sun-dried derelicts of the windy hills,
who each owned, or had owned, a mine and was wishful to own one
again. They laid up on the worn benches of the Silver Dollar or
the Same Old Luck like beached vessels, and their talk ran on
endlessly of "strike" and "contact" and "mother lode," and worked
around to fights and hold-ups, villainy, haunts, and the hoodoo of
the Minietta, told austerely without imagination.
Do not suppose I am going to repeat it all; you who want these
things written up from the point of view of people who do not do
them every day would get no savor in their speech.
Says Three Finger, relating the history of the
Mariposa, "I took it off'n Tom Beatty, cheap, after his brother
Bill was shot."
Says Jim Jenkins, "What was the matter of him?"
"Who? Bill? Abe Johnson shot him; he was fooling around
Johnson's wife, an' Tom sold me the mine dirt cheap."
"Why didn't he work it himself?"
"Him? Oh, he was laying for Abe and calculated to have to
leave the country pretty quick."
"Huh!" says Jim Jenkins, and the tale flows smoothly on.
Yearly the spring fret floats the loose population of Jimville
out into the desolate waste hot lands, guiding by the peaks and a
few rarely touched water-holes, always, always with the golden
hope. They develop prospects and grow rich, develop others and
grow poor but never embittered. Say the hills, It is all one,
there is gold enough, time enough, and men enough to come after
you. And at Jimville they understand the language of the hills.
Jimville does not know a great deal about the crust of the
earth, it prefers a "hunch." That is an intimation from the gods
that if you go over a brown back of the hills, by a dripping
spring, up Coso way, you will find what is worth while. I have
never heard that the failure of any particular hunch disproved the
principle. Somehow the rawness of the land favors the sense of
personal relation to the supernatural. There is not much
intervention of crops, cities, clothes, and manners between you and
the organizing forces to cut off communication. All this begets in
Jimville a state that passes explanation unless you will accept an
explanation that passes belief. Along with killing and
drunkenness, coveting of women, charity, simplicity, there is a
certain indifference, blankness, emptiness if you will, of all
vaporings, no bubbling of the pot,--it wants the German to coin
a word for that,--no bread-envy, no brother-fervor. Western
writers have not sensed it yet; they smack the savor of lawlessness
too much upon their tongues, but you have these to witness it is
not mean-spiritedness. It is pure Greek in that it represents the
courage to sheer off what is not worth while. Beyond that it
endures without sniveling, renounces without self-pity, fears no
death, rates itself not too great in the scheme of things; so do
beasts, so did St. Jerome in the desert, so also in the elder day
did gods. Life, its performance, cessation, is no new thing to
gape and wonder at.
Here you have the repose of the perfectly accepted instinct
which includes passion and death in its perquisites. I suppose
that the end of all our hammering and yawping will be something
like the point of view of Jimville. The only difference will be in
the decorations.
It is one of those places God must have meant for a field from all
time, lying very level at the foot of the slope that crowds up
against Kearsarge, falling slightly toward the town. North and
south it is fenced by low old glacial ridges, boulder strewn and
untenable. Eastward it butts on orchard closes and the village
gardens, brimming over into them by wild brier and creeping grass.
The village street, with its double row of unlike houses, breaks
off abruptly at the edge of the field in a footpath that goes up
the streamside, beyond it, to the source of waters.
The field is not greatly esteemed of the town, not being put
to the plough nor affording firewood, but breeding all manner of
wild seeds that go down in the irrigating ditches to come up as
weeds in the gardens and grass plots. But when I had no more than
seen it in the charm of its spring smiling, I knew I should have no
peace until I had bought ground and built me a house beside
it, with a little wicket to go in and out at all hours, as
afterward came about.
Edswick, Roeder, Connor, and Ruffin owned the field before it
fell to my neighbor. But before that the Paiutes, mesne lords of
the soil, made a campoodie by the rill of Pine Creek; and after,
contesting the soil with them, cattle-men, who found its foodful
pastures greatly to their advantage; and bands of blethering flocks
shepherded by wild, hairy men of little speech, who attested their
rights to the feeding ground with their long staves upon each
other's skulls. Edswick homesteaded the field about the time the
wild tide of mining life was roaring and rioting up Kearsarge, and
where the village now stands built a stone hut, with loopholes to
make good his claim against cattlemen or Indians. But Edswick died
and Roeder became master of the field. Roeder owned cattle on a
thousand hills, and made it a recruiting ground for his bellowing
herds before beginning the long drive to market across a shifty
desert. He kept the field fifteen years, and afterward falling
into difficulties, put it out as security against certain sums.
Connor, who held the securities, was cleverer than Roeder and not
so busy. The money fell due the winter of the Big Snow, when all
the trails were forty feet under drifts, and Roeder was away in San
Francisco selling his cattle. At the set time Connor took the law
by the forelock and was adjudged possession of the field. Eighteen
days later Roeder arrived on snowshoes, both feet frozen,
and the money in his pack. In the long suit at law ensuing, the
field fell to Ruffin, that clever one-armed lawyer with the tongue
to wile a bird out of the bush, Connor's counsel, and was sold by
him to my neighbor, whom from envying his possession I call Naboth.
Curiously, all this human occupancy of greed and mischief left
no mark on the field, but the Indians did, and the unthinking
sheep. Round its corners children pick up chipped arrow points of
obsidian, scattered through it are kitchen middens and pits of old
sweat-houses. By the south corner, where the campoodie stood, is
a single shrub of "hoopee" (Lycium andersonii), maintaining
itself hardly among alien shrubs, and near by, three low rakish
trees of hackberry, so far from home that no prying of mine has
been able to find another in any canon east or west. But the
berries of both were food for the Paiutes, eagerly sought and
traded for as far south as Shoshone Land. By the fork of the creek
where the shepherds camp is a single clump of mesquite of the
variety called "screw bean." The seed must have shaken there from
some sheep's coat, for this is not the habitat of mesquite, and
except for other single shrubs at sheep camps, none grows freely
for a hundred and fifty miles south or east.
Naboth has put a fence about the best of the field, but
neither the Indians nor the shepherds can quite forego it.
They make camp and build their wattled huts about the borders of
it, and no doubt they have some sense of home in its familiar
As I have said, it is a low-lying field, between the mesa and
the town, with no hillocks in it, but a gentle swale where the
waste water of the creek goes down to certain farms, and the
hackberry-trees, of which the tallest might be three times the
height of a man, are the tallest things in it. A mile up from the
water gate that turns the creek into supply pipes for the town,
begins a row of long-leaved pines, threading the watercourse to the
foot of Kearsarge. These are the pines that puzzle the local
botanist, not easily determined, and unrelated to other conifers of
the Sierra slope; the same pines of which the Indians relate a
legend mixed of brotherliness and the retribution of God. Once the
pines possessed the field, as the worn stumps of them along the
streamside show, and it would seem their secret purpose to regain
their old footing. Now and then some seedling escapes the
devastating sheep a rod or two down-stream. Since I came to live
by the field one of these has tiptoed above the gully of the creek,
beckoning the procession from the hills, as if in fact they would
make back toward that skyward-pointing finger of granite on the
opposite range, from which, according to the legend, when they were
bad Indians and it a great chief, they ran away. This year
the summer floods brought the round, brown, fruitful cones to my
very door, and I look, if I live long enough, to see them come up
greenly in my neighbor's field.
It is interesting to watch this retaking of old ground by the
wild plants, banished by human use. Since Naboth drew his fence
about the field and restricted it to a few wild-eyed steers,
halting between the hills and the shambles, many old habitues of
the field have come back to their haunts. The willow and brown
birch, long ago cut off by the Indians for wattles, have come back
to the streamside, slender and virginal in their spring greenness,
and leaving long stretches of the brown water open to the sky. In
stony places where no grass grows, wild olives sprawl;
close-twigged, blue-gray patches in winter, more translucent
greenish gold in spring than any aureole. Along with willow and
birch and brier, the clematis, that shyest plant of water borders,
slips down season by season to within a hundred yards of the
village street. Convinced after three years that it would come no
nearer, we spent time fruitlessly pulling up roots to plant in the
garden. All this while, when no coaxing or care prevailed upon any
transplanted slip to grow, one was coming up silently outside the
fence near the wicket, coiling so secretly in the rabbit-brush that
its presence was never suspected until it flowered delicately along
its twining length. The horehound comes through the fence
and under it, shouldering the pickets off the railings; the brier
rose mines under the horehound; and no care, though I own I am not
a close weeder, keeps the small pale moons of the primrose from
rising to the night moth under my apple-trees. The first summer in
the new place, a clump of cypripediums came up by the irrigating
ditch at the bottom of the lawn. But the clematis will not come
inside, nor the wild almond.
I have forgotten to find out, though I meant to, whether the
wild almond grew in that country where Moses kept the flocks of his
father-in-law, but if so one can account for the burning bush. It
comes upon one with a flame-burst as of revelation; little hard red
buds on leafless twigs, swelling unnoticeably, then one, two, or
three strong suns, and from tip to tip one soft fiery glow,
whispering with bees as a singing flame. A twig of finger size
will be furred to the thickness of one's wrist by pink five-petaled
bloom, so close that only the blunt-faced wild bees find their way
in it. In this latitude late frosts cut off the hope of fruit too
often for the wild almond to multiply greatly, but the spiny,
tap-rooted shrubs are resistant to most plant evils.
It is not easy always to be attentive to the maturing of wild
fruit. Plants are so unobtrusive in their material processes, and
always at the significant moment some other bloom has reached its
perfect hour. One can never fix the precise moment when the
rosy tint the field has from the wild almond passes into the
inspiring blue of lupines. One notices here and there a spike of
bloom, and a day later the whole field royal and ruffling lightly
to the wind. Part of the charm of the lupine is the continual stir
of its plumes to airs not suspected otherwhere. Go and stand by
any crown of bloom and the tall stalks do but rock a little as for
drowsiness, but look off across the field, and on the stillest days
there is always a trepidation in the purple patches.
From midsummer until frost the prevailing note of the field is
clear gold, passing into the rusty tone of bigelovia going into a
decline, a succession of color schemes more admirably managed than
the transformation scene at the theatre. Under my window a colony
of cleome made a soft web of bloom that drew me every morning for
a long still time; and one day I discovered that I was looking into
a rare fretwork of fawn and straw colored twigs from which both
bloom and leaf had gone, and I could not say if it had been for a
matter of weeks or days. The time to plant cucumbers and set out
cabbages may be set down in the almanac, but never seed-time nor
blossom in Naboth's field.
Certain winged and mailed denizens of the field seem to reach
their heyday along with the plants they most affect. In June the
leaning towers of the white milkweed are jeweled over with
red and gold beetles, climbing dizzily. This is that milkweed from
whose stems the Indians flayed fibre to make snares for small game,
but what use the beetles put it to except for a displaying ground
for their gay coats, I could never discover. The white butterfly
crop comes on with the bigelovia bloom, and on warm mornings makes
an airy twinkling all across the field. In September young linnets
grow out of the rabbit-brush in the night. All the nests
discoverable in the neighboring orchards will not account for the
numbers of them. Somewhere, by the same secret process by which
the field matures a million more seeds than it needs, it is
maturing red-hooded linnets for their devouring. All the purlieus
of bigelovia and artemisia are noisy with them for a month.
Suddenly as they come as suddenly go the fly-by-nights, that pitch
and toss on dusky barred wings above the field of summer twilights.
Never one of these nighthawks will you see after linnet time,
though the hurtle of their wings makes a pleasant sound across the
dusk in their season.
For two summers a great red-tailed hawk has visited the field
every afternoon between three and four o'clock, swooping and
soaring with the airs of a gentleman adventurer. What he finds
there is chiefly conjectured, so secretive are the little people of
Naboth's field. Only when leaves fall and the light is low and
slant, one sees the long clean flanks of the jackrabbits,
leaping like small deer, and of late afternoons little cotton-tails
scamper in the runways. But the most one sees of the burrowers,
gophers, and mice is the fresh earthwork of their newly opened
doors, or the pitiful small shreds the butcher-bird hangs on spiny
It is a still field, this of my neighbor's, though so busy,
and admirably compounded for variety and pleasantness,--a little
sand, a little loam, a grassy plot, a stony rise or two, a full
brown stream, a little touch of humanness, a footpath trodden out
by moccasins. Naboth expects to make town lots of it and his
fortune in one and the same day; but when I take the trail to talk
with old Seyavi at the campoodie, it occurs to me that though the
field may serve a good turn in those days it will hardly be
happier. No, certainly not happier.
The mesa trail begins in the campoodie at the corner of Naboth's
field, though one may drop into it from the wood road toward the
canon, or from any of the cattle paths that go up along the
streamside; a clean, pale, smooth-trodden way between spiny shrubs,
comfortably wide for a horse or an Indian. It begins, I say, at
the campoodie, and goes on toward the twilight hills and the
borders of Shoshone Land. It strikes diagonally across the foot of
the hill-slope from the field until it reaches the larkspur level,
and holds south along the front of Oppapago, having the high
ranges to the right and the foothills and the great Bitter Lake
below it on the left. The mesa holds very level here, cut across
at intervals by the deep washes of dwindling streams, and its
treeless spaces uncramp the soul.
Mesa trails were meant to be traveled on horseback, at the
jigging coyote trot that only western-bred horses learn
successfully. A foot-pace carries one too slowly past the
units in a decorative scheme that is on a scale with the country
round for bigness. It takes days' journeys to give a note of
variety to the country of the social shrubs. These chiefly clothe
the benches and eastern foot-slopes of the Sierras,--great spreads
of artemisia, coleogyne, and spinosa, suffering no other
woody stemmed thing in their purlieus; this by election apparently,
with no elbowing; and the several shrubs have each their clientele
of flowering herbs. It would be worth knowing how much the
devastating sheep have had to do with driving the tender plants to
the shelter of the prickle-bushes. It might have begun earlier, in
the time Seyavi of the campoodie tells of, when antelope ran on the
mesa like sheep for numbers, but scarcely any foot-high herb rears
itself except from the midst of some stout twigged shrub; larkspur
in the coleogyne, and for every spinosa the purpling coils
of phacelia. In the shrub shelter, in the season, flock the little
stemless things whose blossom time is as short as a marriage song.
The larkspurs make the best showing, being tall and sweet, swaying
a little above the shrubbery, scattering pollen dust which Navajo
brides gather to fill their marriage baskets. This were an easier
task than to find two of them of a shade. Larkspurs in the botany
are blue, but if you were to slip rein to the stub of some black
sage and set about proving it you would be still at it by the hour
when the white gilias set their pale disks to the westering
sun. This is the gilia the children call "evening snow," and it is
no use trying to improve on children's names for wild flowers.
From the height of a horse you look down to clean spaces in a
shifty yellow soil, bare to the eye as a newly sanded floor. Then
as soon as ever the hill shadows begin to swell out from the
sidelong ranges, come little flakes of whiteness fluttering at the
edge of the sand. By dusk there are tiny drifts in the lee of
every strong shrub, rosy-tipped corollas as riotous in the sliding
mesa wind as if they were real flakes shaken out of a cloud, not
sprung from the ground on wiry three-inch stems. They keep awake
all night, and all the air is heavy and musky sweet because of
Farther south on the trail there will be poppies meeting ankle
deep, and singly, peacock-painted bubbles of calochortus blown out
at the tops of tall stems. But before the season is in tune for
the gayer blossoms the best display of color is in the lupin wash.
There is always a lupin wash somewhere on the mesa trail,--a broad,
shallow, cobble-paved sink of vanished waters, where the hummocks
of Lupinus ornatus run a delicate gamut from silvery green
of spring to silvery white of winter foliage. They look in fullest
leaf, except for color, most like the huddled huts of the
campoodie, and the largest of them might be a man's length in
diameter. In their season, which is after the gilias are at
their best, and before the larkspurs are ripe for pollen gathering,
every terminal whorl of the lupin sends up its blossom stalk, not
holding any constant blue, but paling and purpling to guide the
friendly bee to virginal honey sips, or away from the perfected and
depleted flower. The length of the blossom stalk conforms to the
rounded contour of the plant, and of these there will be a million
moving indescribably in the airy current that flows down the swale
of the wash.
There is always a little wind on the mesa, a sliding current
of cooler air going down the face of the mountain of its own
momentum, but not to disturb the silence of great space. Passing
the wide mouths of canons, one gets the effect of whatever is doing
in them, openly or behind a screen of cloud,--thunder of falls,
wind in the pine leaves, or rush and roar of rain. The rumor of
tumult grows and dies in passing, as from open doors gaping on a
village street, but does not impinge on the effect of solitariness.
In quiet weather mesa days have no parallel for stillness, but the
night silence breaks into certain mellow or poignant notes. Late
afternoons the burrowing owls may be seen blinking at the doors of
their hummocks with perhaps four or five elfish nestlings arow, and
by twilight begin a soft whoo-oo-ing, rounder, sweeter, more
incessant in mating time. It is not possible to disassociate the
call of the burrowing owl from the late slant light of the
mesa. If the fine vibrations which are the golden-violet glow of
spring twilights were to tremble into sound, it would be just that
mellow double note breaking along the blossom-tops. While the glow
holds one sees the thistle-down flights and pouncings after prey,
and on into the dark hears their soft pus-ssh! clearing out
of the trail ahead. Maybe the pinpoint shriek of field mouse or
kangaroo rat that pricks the wakeful pauses of the night is
extorted by these mellow-voiced plunderers, though it is just as
like to be the work of the red fox on his twenty-mile
Both the red fox and the coyote are free of the night hours,
and both killers for the pure love of slaughter. The fox is no
great talker, but the coyote goes garrulously through the dark in
twenty keys at once, gossip, warning, and abuse. They are light
treaders, the split-feet, so that the solitary camper sees their
eyes about him in the dark sometimes, and hears the soft intake of
breath when no leaf has stirred and no twig snapped underfoot. The
coyote is your real lord of the mesa, and so he makes sure you are
armed with no long black instrument to spit your teeth into his
vitals at a thousand yards, is both bold and curious. Not so bold,
however, as the badger and not so much of a curmudgeon. This
short-legged meat-eater loves half lights and lowering days, has
no friends, no enemies, and disowns his offspring. Very
likely if he knew how hawk and crow dog him for dinners, he would
resent it. But the badger is not very well contrived for looking
up or far to either side. Dull afternoons he may be met nosing a
trail hot-foot to the home of ground rat or squirrel, and is with
difficulty persuaded to give the right of way. The badger is a
pot-hunter and no sportsman. Once at the hill, he dives for the
central chamber, his sharp-clawed, splayey feet splashing up the
sand like a bather in the surf. He is a swift trailer, but not so
swift or secretive but some small sailing hawk or lazy crow,
perhaps one or two of each, has spied upon him and come drifting
down the wind to the killing.
No burrower is so unwise as not to have several exits from his
dwelling under protecting shrubs. When the badger goes down, as
many of the furry people as are not caught napping come up by the
back doors, and the hawks make short work of them. I suspect that
the crows get nothing but the gratification of curiosity and the
pickings of some secret store of seeds unearthed by the badger.
Once the excavation begins they walk about expectantly, but the
little gray hawks beat slow circles about the doors of exit, and
are wiser in their generation, though they do not look it.
There are always solitary hawks sailing above the mesa, and
where some blue tower of silence lifts out of the neighboring
range, an eagle hanging dizzily, and always buzzards high up in the
thin, translucent air making a merry-go-round. Between the
coyote and the birds of carrion the mesa is kept clear of miserable
The wind, too, is a besom over the treeless spaces, whisking
new sand over the litter of the scant-leaved shrubs, and the little
doorways of the burrowers are as trim as city fronts. It takes man
to leave unsightly scars on the face of the earth. Here on the
mesa the abandoned campoodies of the Paiutes are spots of
desolation long after the wattles of the huts have warped in the
brush heaps. The campoodies are near the watercourses, but never
in the swale of the stream. The Paiute seeks rising ground,
depending on air and sun for purification of his dwelling, and when
it becomes wholly untenable, moves.
A campoodie at noontime, when there is no smoke rising and no
stir of life, resembles nothing so much as a collection of
prodigious wasps' nests. The huts are squat and brown and
chimneyless, facing east, and the inhabitants have the faculty of
quail for making themselves scarce in the underbrush at the
approach of strangers. But they are really not often at home
during midday, only the blind and incompetent left to keep the
camp. These are working hours, and all across the mesa one sees
the women whisking seeds of chia into their spoon-shaped
baskets, these emptied again into the huge conical carriers,
supported on the shoulders by a leather band about the forehead.
Mornings and late afternoons one meets the men singly and
afoot on unguessable errands, or riding shaggy, browbeaten ponies,
with game slung across the saddle-bows. This might be deer or even
antelope, rabbits, or, very far south towards Shoshone Land,
There are myriads of lizards on the mesa, little gray darts,
or larger salmon-sided ones that may be found swallowing their
skins in the safety of a prickle-bush in early spring. Now and
then a palm's breadth of the trail gathers itself together and
scurries off with a little rustle under the brush, to resolve
itself into sand again. This is pure witchcraft. If you succeed
in catching it in transit, it loses its power and becomes a flat,
horned, toad-like creature, horrid-looking and harmless, of the
color of the soil; and the curio dealer will give you two bits for
it, to stuff.
Men have their season on the mesa as much as plants and
four-footed things, and one is not like to meet them out of their
time. For example, at the time of rodeos, which is perhaps
April, one meets free riding vaqueros who need no trails and can
find cattle where to the layman no cattle exist. As early as
February bands of sheep work up from the south to the high Sierra
pastures. It appears that shepherds have not changed more than
sheep in the process of time. The shy hairy men who herd the
tractile flocks might be, except for some added clothing, the very
brethren of David. Of necessity they are hardy, simple
livers, superstitious, fearful, given to seeing visions, and almost
without speech. It needs the bustle of shearings and copious
libations of sour, weak wine to restore the human faculty. Petite
Pete, who works a circuit up from the Ceriso to Red Butte and
around by way of Salt Flats, passes year by year on the mesa trail,
his thick hairy chest thrown open to all weathers, twirling his
long staff, and dealing brotherly with his dogs, who are possibly
as intelligent, certainly handsomer.
A flock's journey is seven miles, ten if pasture fails, in a
windless blur of dust, feeding as it goes, and resting at noons.
Such hours Pete weaves a little screen of twigs between his head
and the sun--the rest of him is as impervious as one of his own
sheep--and sleeps while his dogs have the flocks upon their
consciences. At night, wherever he may be, there Pete camps, and
fortunate the trail-weary traveler who falls in with him. When
the fire kindles and savory meat seethes in the pot, when there is
a drowsy blether from the flock, and far down the mesa the twilight
twinkle of shepherd fires, when there is a hint of blossom
underfoot and a heavenly whiteness on the hills, one harks back
without effort to Judaea and the Nativity. But one feels by day
anything but good will to note the shorn shrubs and cropped
blossom-tops. So many seasons' effort, so many suns and rains to
make a pound of wool! And then there is the loss of
ground-inhabiting birds that must fail from the mesa when few herbs
ripen seed.
Out West, the west of the mesas and the unpatented hills,
there is more sky than any place in the world. It does not sit
flatly on the rim of earth, but begins somewhere out in the space
in which the earth is poised, hollows more, and is full of clean
winey winds. There are some odors, too, that get into the blood.
There is the spring smell of sage that is the warning that sap is
beginning to work in a soil that looks to have none of the juices
of life in it; it is the sort of smell that sets one thinking what
a long furrow the plough would turn up here, the sort of smell that
is the beginning of new leafage, is best at the plant's best, and
leaves a pungent trail where wild cattle crop. There is the smell
of sage at sundown, burning sage from campoodies and sheep camps,
that travels on the thin blue wraiths of smoke; the kind of smell
that gets into the hair and garments, is not much liked except upon
long acquaintance, and every Paiute and shepherd smells of it
indubitably. There is the palpable smell of the bitter dust that
comes up from the alkali flats at the end of the dry seasons, and
the smell of rain from the wide-mouthed canons. And last the smell
of the salt grass country, which is the beginning of other things
that are the end of the mesa trail.
"A man," says Seyavi of the campoodie, "must have a woman, but a
woman who has a child will do very well."
That was perhaps why, when she lost her mate in the dying
struggle of his race, she never took another, but set her wit to
fend for herself and her young son. No doubt she was often put to
it in the beginning to find food for them both. The Paiutes had
made their last stand at the border of the Bitter Lake;
battle-driven they died in its waters, and the land filled with
cattle-men and adventurers for gold: this while Seyavi and the boy
lay up in the caverns of the Black Rock and ate tule roots and
fresh-water clams that they dug out of the slough bottoms with
their toes. In the interim, while the tribes swallowed their
defeat, and before the rumor of war died out, they must have come
very near to the bare core of things. That was the time Seyavi
learned the sufficiency of mother wit, and how much more
easily one can do without a man than might at first be supposed.
To understand the fashion of any life, one must know the land
it is lived in and the procession of the year. This valley is a
narrow one, a mere trough between hills, a draught for storms,
hardly a crow's flight from the sharp Sierras of the Snows to the
curled, red and ochre, uncomforted, bare ribs of Waban. Midway of
the groove runs a burrowing, dull river, nearly a hundred miles
from where it cuts the lava flats of the north to its widening in
a thick, tideless pool of a lake. Hereabouts the ranges have no
foothills, but rise up steeply from the bench lands above the
river. Down from the Sierras, for the east ranges have almost no
rain, pour glancing white floods toward the lowest land, and all
beside them lie the campoodies, brown wattled brush heaps, looking
In the river are mussels, and reeds that have edible white
roots, and in the soddy meadows tubers of joint grass; all these at
their best in the spring. On the slope the summer growth affords
seeds; up the steep the one-leafed pines, an oily nut. That was
really all they could depend upon, and that only at the mercy of
the little gods of frost and rain. For the rest it was cunning
against cunning, caution against skill, against quacking hordes of
wild-fowl in the tulares, against pronghorn and bighorn and deer.
You can guess, however, that all this warring of rifles and
bowstrings, this influx of overlording whites, had made game
wilder and hunters fearful of being hunted. You can surmise also,
for it was a crude time and the land was raw, that the women became
in turn the game of the conquerors.
There used to be in the Little Antelope a she dog, stray or
outcast, that had a litter in some forsaken lair, and ranged and
foraged for them, slinking savage and afraid, remembering and
mistrusting humankind, wistful, lean, and sufficient for her young.
I have thought Seyavi might have had days like that, and have had
perfect leave to think, since she will not talk of it. Paiutes
have the art of reducing life to its lowest ebb and yet saving it
alive on grasshoppers, lizards, and strange herbs; and that time
must have left no shift untried. It lasted long enough for Seyavi
to have evolved the philosophy of life which I have set down at the
beginning. She had gone beyond learning to do for her son, and
learned to believe it worth while.
In our kind of society, when a woman ceases to alter the
fashion of her hair, you guess that she has passed the crisis of
her experience. If she goes on crimping and uncrimping with the
changing mode, it is safe to suppose she has never come up against
anything too big for her. The Indian woman gets nearly the same
personal note in the pattern of her baskets. Not that she does not
make all kinds, carriers, water-bottles, and cradles,--these
are kitchen ware,--but her works of art are all of the same piece.
Seyavi made flaring, flat-bottomed bowls, cooking pots really, when
cooking was done by dropping hot stones into water-tight food
baskets, and for decoration a design in colored bark of the
procession of plumed crests of the valley quail. In this pattern
she had made cooking pots in the golden spring of her wedding year,
when the quail went up two and two to their resting places about
the foot of Oppapago. In this fashion she made them when, after
pillage, it was possible to reinstate the housewifely crafts.
Quail ran then in the Black Rock by hundreds,--so you will still
find them in fortunate years,--and in the famine time the women cut
their long hair to make snares when the flocks came morning and
evening to the springs.
Seyavi made baskets for love and sold them for money, in a
generation that preferred iron pots for utility. Every Indian
woman is an artist,--sees, feels, creates, but does not
philosophize about her processes. Seyavi's bowls are wonders of
technical precision, inside and out, the palm finds no fault with
them, but the subtlest appeal is in the sense that warns us of
humanness in the way the design spreads into the flare of the bowl.
There used to be an Indian woman at Olancha who made bottle-neck
trinket baskets in the rattlesnake pattern, and could accommodate
the design to the swelling bowl and flat shoulder of the basket
without sensible disproportion, and so cleverly that you
might own one a year without thinking how it was done;
but Seyavi's baskets had a touch beyond cleverness. The weaver and
the warp lived next to the earth and were saturated with the same
elements. Twice a year, in the time of white butterflies and again
when young quail ran neck and neck in the chaparral, Seyavi cut
willows for basketry by the creek where it wound toward the river
against the sun and sucking winds. It never quite reached the
river except in far-between times of summer flood, but it always
tried, and the willows encouraged it as much as they could. You
nearly always found them a little farther down than the trickle of
eager water. The Paiute fashion of counting time appeals to me
more than any other calendar. They have no stamp of heathen gods
nor great ones, nor any succession of moons as have red men of the
East and North, but count forward and back by the progress of the
season; the time of taboose, before the trout begin to leap, the
end of the pinon harvest, about the beginning of deep snows. So
they get nearer the sense of the season, which runs early or late
according as the rains are forward or delayed. But whenever Seyavi
cut willows for baskets was always a golden time, and the soul of
the weather went into the wood. If you had ever owned one of
Seyavi's golden russet cooking bowls with the pattern of plumed
quail, you would understand all this without saying anything.
Before Seyavi made baskets for the satisfaction of
desire,--for that is a house-bred theory of art that makes anything
more of it,--she danced and dressed her hair. In those days, when
the spring was at flood and the blood pricked to the mating fever,
the maids chose their flowers, wreathed themselves, and danced in
the twilights, young desire crying out to young desire. They sang
what the heart prompted, what the flower expressed, what boded in
the mating weather.
"And what flower did you wear, Seyavi?"
"I, ah,--the white flower of twining (clematis), on my body
and my hair, and so I sang:--
"I am the white flower of twining,
Little white flower by the river,
Oh, flower that twines close by the river;
Oh, trembling flower!
So trembles the maiden heart."
So sang Seyavi of the campoodie before she made baskets, and in her
later days laid her arms upon her knees and laughed in them at the
recollection. But it was not often she would say so much, never
understanding the keen hunger I had for bits of lore and the "fool
talk" of her people. She had fed her young son with meadowlarks'
tongues, to make him quick of speech; but in late years was
loath to admit it, though she had come through the period of
unfaith in the lore of the clan with a fine appreciation of its
beauty and significance.
"What good will your dead get, Seyavi, of the baskets you
burn?" said I, coveting them for my own collection.
Thus Seyavi, "As much good as yours of the flowers you strew."
Oppapago looks on Waban, and Waban on Coso and the Bitter
Lake, and the campoodie looks on these three; and more, it sees the
beginning of winds along the foot of Coso, the gathering of clouds
behind the high ridges, the spring flush, the soft spread of wild
almond bloom on the mesa. These first, you understand, are the
Paiute's walls, the other his furnishings. Not the wattled hut is
his home, but the land, the winds, the hill front, the stream.
These he cannot duplicate at any furbisher's shop as you who live
within doors, who, if your purse allows, may have the same home at
Sitka and Samarcand. So you see how it is that the homesickness of
an Indian is often unto death, since he gets no relief from it;
neither wind nor weed nor sky-line, nor any aspect of the hills of
a strange land sufficiently like his own. So it was when the
government reached out for the Paiutes, they gathered into the
Northern Reservation only such poor tribes as could devise no other
end of their affairs. Here, all along the river, and south to
Shoshone Land, live the clans who owned the earth, fallen
into the deplorable condition of hangers-on. Yet you hear them
laughing at the hour when they draw in to the campoodie after
labor, when there is a smell of meat and the steam of the cooking
pots goes up against the sun. Then the children lie with their
toes in the ashes to hear tales; then they are merry, and have the
joys of repletion and the nearness of their kind. They have their
hills, and though jostled are sufficiently free to get some
fortitude for what will come. For now you shall hear of the end of
the basket maker.
In her best days Seyavi was most like Deborah, deep bosomed,
broad in the hips, quick in counsel, slow of speech, esteemed of
her people. This was that Seyavi who reared a man by her own hand,
her own wit, and none other. When the townspeople began to take
note of her--and it was some years after the war before there began
to be any towns--she was then in the quick maturity of primitive
women; but when I knew her she seemed already old. Indian women do
not often live to great age, though they look incredibly steeped in
years. They have the wit to win sustenance from the raw material
of life without intervention, but they have not the sleek look of
the women whom the social organization conspires to nourish.
Seyavi had somehow squeezed out of her daily round a spiritual
ichor that kept the skill in her knotted fingers along after the
accustomed time, but that also failed. By all counts she would
have been about sixty years old when it came her turn to sit in the
dust on the sunny side of the wickiup, with little strength left
for anything but looking. And in time she paid the toll of the
smoky huts and became blind. This is a thing so long expected by
the Paiutes that when it comes they find it neither bitter nor
sweet, but tolerable because common. There were three other blind
women in the campoodie, withered fruit on a bough, but they had
memory and speech. By noon of the sun there were never any left in
the campoodie but these or some mother of weanlings, and they sat
to keep the ashes warm upon the hearth. If it were cold, they
burrowed in the blankets of the hut; if it were warm, they followed
the shadow of the wickiup around. Stir much out of their places
they hardly dared, since one might not help another; but they
called, in high, old cracked voices, gossip and reminder across the
ash heaps.
Then, if they have your speech or you theirs, and have an hour
to spare, there are things to be learned of life not set down in
any books, folk tales, famine tales, love and long-suffering and
desire, but no whimpering. Now and then one or another of the
blind keepers of the camp will come across to where you sit
gossiping, tapping her way among the kitchen middens, guided by
your voice that carries far in the clearness and stillness
of mesa afternoons. But suppose you find Seyavi retired into the
privacy of her blanket, you will get nothing for that day. There
is no other privacy possible in a campoodie. All the processes of
life are carried on out of doors or behind the thin, twig-woven
walls of the wickiup, and laughter is the only corrective for
behavior. Very early the Indian learns to possess his countenance
in impassivity, to cover his head with his blanket. Something to
wrap around him is as necessary to the Paiute as to you your closet
to pray in.
So in her blanket Seyavi, sometime basket maker, sits by the
unlit hearths of her tribe and digests her life, nourishing her
spirit against the time of the spirit's need, for she knows in fact
quite as much of these matters as you who have a larger hope,
though she has none but the certainty that having borne herself
courageously to this end she will not be reborn a coyote.
All streets of the mountains lead to the citadel; steep or slow
they go up to the core of the hills. Any trail that goes
otherwhere must dip and cross, sidle and take chances. Rifts of
the hills open into each other, and the high meadows are often wide
enough to be called valleys by courtesy; but one keeps this
distinction in mind,--valleys are the sunken places of the earth,
canons are scored out by the glacier ploughs of God. They have a
better name in the Rockies for these hill-fenced open glades of
pleasantness; they call them parks. Here and there in the hill
country one comes upon blind gullies fronted by high stony
barriers. These head also for the heart of the mountains; their
distinction is that they never get anywhere.
All mountain streets have streams to thread them, or deep
grooves where a stream might run. You would do well to avoid that
range uncomforted by singing floods. You will find it forsaken of
most things but beauty and madness and death and God. Many
such lie east and north away from the mid Sierras, and quicken the
imagination with the sense of purposes not revealed, but the
ordinary traveler brings nothing away from them but an intolerable
The river canons of the Sierras of the Snows are better worth
while than most Broadways, though the choice of them is like the
choice of streets, not very well determined by their names. There
is always an amount of local history to be read in the names of
mountain highways where one touches the successive waves of
occupation or discovery, as in the old villages where the
neighborhoods are not built but grow. Here you have the Spanish
Californian in Cero Gordo and pinon; Symmes and Shepherd,
pioneers both; Tunawai, probably Shoshone; Oak Creek, Kearsarge,
--easy to fix the date of that christening,--Tinpah, Paiute that;
Mist Canon and Paddy Jack's. The streets of the west Sierras
sloping toward the San Joaquin are long and winding, but from the
east, my country, a day's ride carries one to the lake regions.
The next day reaches the passes of the high divide, but whether one
gets passage depends a little on how many have gone that road
before, and much on one's own powers. The passes are steep and
windy ridges, though not the highest. By two and three thousand
feet the snow-caps overtop them. It is even possible to wind
through the Sierras without having passed above timber-line,
but one misses a great exhilaration.
The shape of a new mountain is roughly pyramidal, running out
into long shark-finned ridges that interfere and merge into other
thunder-splintered sierras. You get the saw-tooth effect from a
distance, but the near-by granite bulk glitters with the terrible
keen polish of old glacial ages. I say terrible; so it seems.
When those glossy domes swim into the alpenglow, wet after rain,
you conceive how long and imperturbable are the purposes of God.
Never believe what you are told, that midsummer is the best
time to go up the streets of the mountain--well--perhaps for the
merely idle or sportsmanly or scientific; but for seeing and
understanding, the best time is when you have the longest leave to
stay. And here is a hint if you would attempt the stateliest
approaches; travel light, and as much as possible live off the
land. Mulligatawny soup and tinned lobster will not bring you the
favor of the woodlanders.
Every canon commends itself for some particular pleasantness;
this for pines, another for trout, one for pure bleak beauty of
granite buttresses, one for its far-flung irised falls; and as I
say, though some are easier going, leads each to the cloud
shouldering citadel. First, near the canon mouth you get the
low-heading full-branched, one-leaf pines. That is the sort of
tree to know at sight, for the globose, resin-dripping cones
have palatable, nourishing kernels, the main harvest of the
Paiutes. That perhaps accounts for their growing accommodatingly
below the limit of deep snows, grouped sombrely on the valleyward
slopes. The real procession of the pines begins in the rifts with
the long-leafed Pinus jeffreyi, sighing its soul away upon
the wind. And it ought not to sigh in such good company. Here
begins the manzanita, adjusting its tortuous stiff stems to the
sharp waste of boulders, its pale olive leaves twisting edgewise to
the sleek, ruddy, chestnut stems; begins also the meadowsweet,
burnished laurel, and the million unregarded trumpets of the coralred
pentstemon. Wild life is likely to be busiest about the lower
pine borders. One looks in hollow trees and hiving rocks for wild
honey. The drone of bees, the chatter of jays, the hurry and stir
of squirrels, is incessant; the air is odorous and hot. The roar
of the stream fills up the morning and evening intervals, and at
night the deer feed in the buckthorn thickets. It is worth
watching the year round in the purlieus of the long-leafed pines.
One month or another you set sight or trail of most roving mountain
dwellers as they follow the limit of forbidding snows, and more
bloom than you can properly appreciate.
Whatever goes up or comes down the streets of the mountains,
water has the right of way; it takes the lowest ground and the
shortest passage. Where the rifts are narrow, and some of
the Sierra canons are not a stone's throw from wall to wall, the
best trail for foot or horse winds considerably above the
watercourses; but in a country of cone-bearers there is usually a
good strip of swardy sod along the canon floor. Pine woods, the
short-leafed Balfour and Murryana of the high Sierras, are sombre,
rooted in the litter of a thousand years, hushed, and corrective to
the spirit. The trail passes insensibly into them from the black
pines and a thin belt of firs. You look back as you rise, and
strain for glimpses of the tawny valley, blue glints of the Bitter
Lake, and tender cloud films on the farther ranges. For such
pictures the pine branches make a noble frame. Presently they
close in wholly; they draw mysteriously near, covering your tracks,
giving up the trail indifferently, or with a secret grudge. You
get a kind of impatience with their locked ranks, until you come
out lastly on some high, windy dome and see what they are about.
They troop thickly up the open ways, river banks, and brook
borders; up open swales of dribbling springs; swarm over old
moraines; circle the peaty swamps and part and meet about clean
still lakes; scale the stony gullies; tormented, bowed, persisting
to the door of the storm chambers, tall priests to pray for rain.
The spring winds lift clouds of pollen dust, finer than
frankincense, and trail it out over high altars, staining the snow.
No doubt they understand this work better than we; in fact
they know no other. "Come," say the churches of the valleys,
after a season of dry years, "let us pray for rain." They would do
better to plant more trees.
It is a pity we have let the gift of lyric improvisation die
out. Sitting islanded on some gray peak above the encompassing
wood, the soul is lifted up to sing the Iliad of the pines. They
have no voice but the wind, and no sound of them rises up to the
high places. But the waters, the evidences of their power, that go
down the steep and stony ways, the outlets of ice-bordered pools,
the young rivers swaying with the force of their running, they sing
and shout and trumpet at the falls, and the noise of it far
outreaches the forest spires. You see from these conning towers
how they call and find each other in the slender gorges; how they
fumble in the meadows, needing the sheer nearing walls to give them
countenance and show the way; and how the pine woods are made glad
by them.
Nothing else in the streets of the mountains gives such a
sense of pageantry as the conifers; other trees, if they are any,
are home dwellers, like the tender fluttered, sisterhood of quaking
asp. They grow in clumps by spring borders, and all their stems
have a permanent curve toward the down slope, as you may also see
in hillside pines, where they have borne the weight of sagging
Well up from the valley, at the confluence of canons, are
delectable summer meadows. Fireweed flames about them against the
gray boulders; streams are open, go smoothly about the glacier
slips and make deep bluish pools for trout. Pines raise statelier
shafts and give themselves room to grow,--gentians, shinleaf, and
little grass of Parnassus in their golden checkered shadows; the
meadow is white with violets and all outdoors keeps the clock. For
example, when the ripples at the ford of the creek raise a clear
half tone,--sign that the snow water has come down from the heated
high ridges,--it is time to light the evening fire. When it drops
off a note--but you will not know it except the Douglas squirrel
tells you with his high, fluty chirrup from the pines' aerial
gloom--sign that some star watcher has caught the first far glint
of the nearing sun. Whitney cries it from his vantage tower; it
flashes from Oppapago to the front of Williamson; LeConte speeds it
to the westering peaks. The high rills wake and run, the birds
begin. But down three thousand feet in the canon, where you stir
the fire under the cooking pot, it will not be day for an hour. It
goes on, the play of light across the high places, rosy, purpling,
tender, glint and glow, thunder and windy flood, like the grave,
exulting talk of elders above a merry game.
Who shall say what another will find most to his liking in the
streets of the mountains. As for me, once set above the
country of the silver firs, I must go on until I find white
columbine. Around the amphitheatres of the lake regions and above
them to the limit of perennial drifts they gather flock-wise in
splintered rock wastes. The crowds of them, the airy spread of
sepals, the pale purity of the petal spurs, the quivering swing of
bloom, obsesses the sense. One must learn to spare a little of the
pang of inexpressible beauty, not to spend all one's purse in one
shop. There is always another year, and another.
Lingering on in the alpine regions until the first full snow,
which is often before the cessation of bloom, one goes down in good
company. First snows are soft and clogging and make laborious
paths. Then it is the roving inhabitants range down to the edge of
the wood, below the limit of early storms. Early winter and early
spring one may have sight or track of deer and bear and bighorn,
cougar and bobcat, about the thickets of buckthorn on open slopes
between the black pines. But when the ice crust is firm above the
twenty foot drifts, they range far and forage where they will.
Often in midwinter will come, now and then, a long fall of soft
snow piling three or four feet above the ice crust, and work a real
hardship for the dwellers of these streets. When such a storm
portends the weather-wise blacktail will go down across the valley
and up to the pastures of Waban where no more snow falls than
suffices to nourish the sparsely growing pines. But the
bighorn, the wild sheep, able to bear the bitterest storms with no
signs of stress, cannot cope with the loose shifty snow. Never
such a storm goes over the mountains that the Indians do not
catch them floundering belly deep among the lower rifts. I have a
pair of horns, inconceivably heavy, that were borne as late as a
year ago by a very monarch of the flock whom death overtook at the
mouth of Oak Creek after a week of wet snow. He met it as a king
should, with no vain effort or trembling, and it was wholly kind to
take him so with four of his following rather than that the night
prowlers should find him.
There is always more life abroad in the winter hills than one
looks to find, and much more in evidence than in summer weather.
Light feet of hare that make no print on the forest litter leave a
wondrously plain track in the snow. We used to look and look at
the beginning of winter for the birds to come down from the pine
lands; looked in the orchard and stubble; looked north and south
on the mesa for their migratory passing, and wondered that they
never came. Busy little grosbeaks picked about the kitchen doors,
and woodpeckers tapped the eaves of the farm buildings, but we saw
hardly any other of the frequenters of the summer canons. After a
while when we grew bold to tempt the snow borders we found them in
the street of the mountains. In the thick pine woods where
the overlapping boughs hung with snow-wreaths make wind-proof
shelter tents, in a very community of dwelling, winter the
bird-folk who get their living from the persisting cones and the
larvae harboring bark. Ground inhabiting species seek the dim snow
chambers of the chaparral. Consider how it must be in a hill-slope
overgrown with stout-twigged, partly evergreen shrubs, more than
man high, and as thick as a hedge. Not all the canon's sifting of
snow can fill the intricate spaces of the hill tangles. Here and
there an overhanging rock, or a stiff arch of buckthorn, makes an
opening to communicating rooms and runways deep under the snow.
The light filtering through the snow walls is blue and
ghostly, but serves to show seeds of shrubs and grass, and berries,
and the wind-built walls are warm against the wind. It seems that
live plants, especially if they are evergreen and growing, give off
heat; the snow wall melts earliest from within and hollows to
thinnness before there is a hint of spring in the air. But you
think of these things afterward. Up in the street it has the
effect of being done consciously; the buckthorns lean to each other
and the drift to them, the little birds run in and out of their
appointed ways with the greatest cheerfulness. They give almost no
tokens of distress, and even if the winter tries them too much you
are not to pity them. You of the house habit can hardly understand
the sense of the hills. No doubt the labor of being
comfortable gives you an exaggerated opinion of yourself, an
exaggerated pain to be set aside. Whether the wild things
understand it or not they adapt themselves to its processes with
the greater ease. The business that goes on in the street of the
mountain is tremendous, world-formative. Here go birds, squirrels,
and red deer, children crying small wares and playing in the
street, but they do not obstruct its affairs. Summer is their
holiday; "Come now," says the lord of the street, "I have need of
a great work and no more playing."
But they are left borders and breathing-space out of pure
kindness. They are not pushed out except by the exigencies of the
nobler plan which they accept with a dignity the rest of us have
not yet learned.
I like that name the Indians give to the mountain of Lone Pine, and
find it pertinent to my subject,--Oppapago, The Weeper. It sits
eastward and solitary from the lordliest ranks of the Sierras, and
above a range of little, old, blunt hills, and has a bowed, grave
aspect as of some woman you might have known, looking out across
the grassy barrows of her dead. From twin gray lakes under its
noble brow stream down incessant white and tumbling waters.
"Mahala all time cry," said Winnenap', drawing furrows in his
rugged, wrinkled cheeks.
The origin of mountain streams is like the origin of tears,
patent to the understanding but mysterious to the sense. They are
always at it, but one so seldom catches them in the act. Here in
the valley there is no cessation of waters even in the season when
the niggard frost gives them scant leave to run. They make the
most of their midday hour, and tinkle all night thinly under the
ice. An ear laid to the snow catches a muffled hint of their
eternal busyness fifteen or twenty feet under the canon
drifts, and long before any appreciable spring thaw, the sagging
edges of the snow bridges mark out the place of their running. One
who ventures to look for it finds the immediate source of the
spring freshets--all the hill fronts furrowed with the reek of
melting drifts, all the gravelly flats in a swirl of waters. But
later, in June or July, when the camping season begins, there runs
the stream away full and singing, with no visible reinforcement
other than an icy trickle from some high, belated dot of snow.
Oftenest the stream drops bodily from the bleak bowl of some alpine
lake; sometimes breaks out of a hillside as a spring where the ear
can trace it under the rubble of loose stones to the neighborhood
of some blind pool. But that leaves the lakes to be accounted for.
The lake is the eye of the mountain, jade green, placid,
unwinking, also unfathomable. Whatever goes on under the high and
stony brows is guessed at. It is always a favorite local tradition
that one or another of the blind lakes is bottomless. Often they
lie in such deep cairns of broken boulders that one never gets
quite to them, or gets away unhurt. One such drops below the
plunging slope that the Kearsarge trail winds over, perilously,
nearing the pass. It lies still and wickedly green in its
sharp-lipped cap, and the guides of that region love to
tell of the packs and pack animals it has swallowed up.
But the lakes of Oppapago are perhaps not so deep, less green
than gray, and better befriended. The ousel haunts them, while
still hang about their coasts the thin undercut drifts that never
quite leave the high altitudes. In and out of the bluish ice caves
he flits and sings, and his singing heard from above is sweet and
uncanny like the Nixie's chord. One finds butterflies, too, about
these high, sharp regions which might be called desolate, but will
not by me who love them. This is above timber-line but not too
high for comforting by succulent small herbs and golden tufted
grass. A granite mountain does not crumble with alacrity, but once
resolved to soil makes the best of it. Every handful of loose
gravel not wholly water leached affords a plant footing, and even
in such unpromising surroundings there is a choice of locations.
There is never going to be any communism of mountain herbage, their
affinities are too sure. Full in the tunnels of snow water on
gravelly, open spaces in the shadow of a drift, one looks to find
buttercups, frozen knee-deep by night, and owning no desire but to
ripen their fruit above the icy bath. Soppy little plants of the
portulaca and small, fine ferns shiver under the drip of falls and
in dribbling crevices. The bleaker the situation, so it is near a
stream border, the better the cassiope loves it. Yet I
have not found it on the polished glacier slips, but where the
country rock cleaves and splinters in the high windy headlands that
the wild sheep frequents, hordes and hordes of the white bells
swing over matted, mossy foliage. On Oppapago, which is also
called Sheep Mountain, one finds not far from the beds of cassiope
the ice-worn, stony hollows where the big-horns cradle their young.
These are above the wolf's quest and the eagle's wont, and though
the heather beds are softer, they are neither so dry nor so warm,
and here only the stars go by. No other animal of any pretensions
makes a habitat of the alpine regions. Now and then one gets a
hint of some small, brown creature, rat or mouse kind, that slips
secretly among the rocks; no others adapt themselves to desertness
of aridity or altitude so readily as these ground inhabiting,
graminivorous species. If there is an open stream the trout go up
the lake as far as the water breeds food for them, but the ousel
goes farthest, for pure love of it.
Since no lake can be at the highest point, it is possible to
find plant life higher than the water borders; grasses perhaps the
highest, gilias, royal blue trusses of polymonium, rosy plats of
Sierra primroses. What one has to get used to in flowers at high
altitudes is the bleaching of the sun. Hardly do they hold their
virgin color for a day, and this early fading before their function
is performed gives them a pitiful appearance not according
with their hardihood. The color scheme runs along the high ridges
from blue to rosy purple, carmine and coral red; along the water
borders it is chiefly white and yellow where the mimulus makes a
vivid note, running into red when the two schemes meet and mix
about the borders of the meadows, at the upper limit of the
Here is the fashion in which a mountain stream gets down from
the perennial pastures of the snow to its proper level and identity
as an irrigating ditch. It slips stilly by the glacier scoured rim
of an ice bordered pool, drops over sheer, broken ledges to another
pool, gathers itself, plunges headlong on a rocky ripple slope,
finds a lake again, reinforced, roars downward to a pothole, foams
and bridles, glides a tranquil reach in some still meadow, tumbles
into a sharp groove between hill flanks, curdles under the stream
tangles, and so arrives at the open country and steadier going.
Meadows, little strips of alpine freshness, begin before the
timberline is reached. Here one treads on a carpet of dwarf
willows, downy catkins of creditable size and the greatest economy
of foliage and stems. No other plant of high altitudes knows its
business so well. It hugs the ground, grows roots from stem joints
where no roots should be, grows a slender leaf or two and twice as
many erect full catkins that rarely, even in that short
growing season, fail of fruit. Dipping over banks in the inlets of
the creeks, the fortunate find the rosy apples of the miniature
manzanita, barely, but always quite sufficiently, borne above the
spongy sod. It does not do to be anything but humble in the alpine
regions, but not fearful. I have pawed about for hours in the
chill sward of meadows where one might properly expect to get one's
death, and got no harm from it, except it might be Oliver Twist's
complaint. One comes soon after this to shrubby willows, and where
willows are trout may be confidently looked for in most Sierra
streams. There is no accounting for their distribution; though
provident anglers have assisted nature of late, one still comes
upon roaring brown waters where trout might very well be, but are
The highest limit of conifers--in the middle Sierras, the
white bark pine--is not along the water border. They come to it
about the level of the heather, but they have no such affinity for
dampness as the tamarack pines. Scarcely any bird-note breaks the
stillness of the timber-line, but chipmunks inhabit here, as may be
guessed by the gnawed ruddy cones of the pines, and lowering hours
the woodchucks come down to the water. On a little spit of land
running into Windy Lake we found one summer the evidence of a
tragedy; a pair of sheep's horns not fully grown caught in the
crotch of a pine where the living sheep must have lodged
them. The trunk of the tree had quite closed over them, and the
skull bones crumbled away from the weathered horn cases. We hoped
it was not too far out of the running of night prowlers to have put
a speedy end to the long agony, but we could not be sure. I never
liked the spit of Windy Lake again.
It seems that all snow nourished plants count nothing so
excellent in their kind as to be forehanded with their bloom,
working secretly to that end under the high piled winters. The
heathers begin by the lake borders, while little sodden drifts
still shelter under their branches. I have seen the tiniest of
them (Kalmia glauca) blooming, and with well-formed fruit,
a foot away from a snowbank from which it could hardly have emerged
within a week. Somehow the soul of the heather has entered into
the blood of the English-speaking. "And oh! is that heather?" they
say; and the most indifferent ends by picking a sprig of it in a
hushed, wondering way. One must suppose that the root of their
respective races issued from the glacial borders at about the same
epoch, and remember their origin.
Among the pines where the slope of the land allows it, the
streams run into smooth, brown, trout-abounding rills across open
flats that are in reality filled lake basins. These are the
displaying grounds of the gentians--blue--blue--eye-blue,
perhaps, virtuous and likable flowers. One is not surprised to
learn that they have tonic properties. But if your meadow should
be outside the forest reserve, and the sheep have been there, you
will find little but the shorter, paler G. newberryii, and
in the matted sods of the little tongues of greenness that lick up
among the pines along the watercourses, white, scentless, nearly
stemless, alpine violets.
At about the nine thousand foot level and in the summer there
will be hosts of rosy-winged dodecatheon, called shooting-stars,
outlining the crystal tunnels in the sod. Single flowers have
often a two-inch spread of petal, and the full, twelve blossomed
heads above the slender pedicels have the airy effect of wings.
It is about this level one looks to find the largest lakes
with thick ranks of pines bearing down on them, often swamped in
the summer floods and paying the inevitable penalty for such
encroachment. Here in wet coves of the hills harbors that crowd of
bloom that makes the wonder of the Sierra canons.
They drift under the alternate flicker and gloom of the windy
rooms of pines, in gray rock shelters, and by the ooze of blind
springs, and their juxtapositions are the best imaginable. Lilies
come up out of fern beds, columbine swings over meadowsweet, white
rein-orchids quake in the leaning grass. Open swales,
where in wet years may be running water, are plantations of false
hellebore (Veratrum californicum), tall, branched candelabra
of greenish bloom above the sessile, sheathing, boat-shaped leaves,
semi-translucent in the sun. A stately plant of the lily family,
but why "false?" It is frankly offensive in its character, and its
young juices deadly as any hellebore that ever grew.
Like most mountain herbs, it has an uncanny haste to bloom.
One hears by night, when all the wood is still, the crepitatious
rustle of the unfolding leaves and the pushing flower-stalk within,
that has open blossoms before it has fairly uncramped from the
sheath. It commends itself by a certain exclusiveness of growth,
taking enough room and never elbowing; for if the flora of the lake
region has a fault it is that there is too much of it. We have
more than three hundred species from Kearsarge Canon alone, and if
that does not include them all it is because they were already
collected otherwhere.
One expects to find lakes down to about nine thousand feet,
leading into each other by comparatively open ripple slopes and
white cascades. Below the lakes are filled basins that are still
spongy swamps, or substantial meadows, as they get down and down.
Here begin the stream tangles. On the east slopes of
the middle Sierras the pines, all but an occasional yellow variety,
desert the stream borders about the level of the lowest lakes, and
the birches and tree-willows begin. The firs hold on almost to the
mesa levels,--there are no foothills on this eastern slope,--and
whoever has firs misses nothing else. It goes without saying that
a tree that can afford to take fifty years to its first fruiting
will repay acquaintance. It keeps, too, all that half century, a
virginal grace of outline, but having once flowered, begins quietly
to put away the things of its youth. Years by year the lower
rounds of boughs are shed, leaving no scar; year by year the
star-branched minarets approach the sky. A fir-tree loves a water
border, loves a long wind in a draughty canon, loves to spend
itself secretly on the inner finishings of its burnished, shapely
cones. Broken open in mid-season the petal-shaped scales show a
crimson satin surface, perfect as a rose.
The birch--the brown-bark western birch characteristic of
lower stream tangles--is a spoil sport. It grows thickly to choke
the stream that feeds it; grudges it the sky and space for angler's
rod and fly. The willows do better; painted-cup, cypripedium, and
the hollow stalks of span-broad white umbels, find a footing among
their stems. But in general the steep plunges, the white swirls,
green and tawny pools, the gliding hush of waters between
the meadows and the mesas afford little fishing and few flowers.
One looks for these to begin again when once free of the
rifted canon walls; the high note of babble and laughter falls off
to the steadier mellow tone of a stream that knows its purpose and
reflects the sky.
It is the proper destiny of every considerable stream in the west
to become an irrigating ditch. It would seem the streams are
willing. They go as far as they can, or dare, toward the tillable
lands in their own boulder fenced gullies--but how much farther in
the man-made waterways. It is difficult to come into intimate
relations with appropriated waters; like very busy people they have
no time to reveal themselves. One needs to have known an
irrigating ditch when it was a brook, and to have lived by it, to
mark the morning and evening tone of its crooning, rising and
falling to the excess of snow water; to have watched far across the
valley, south to the Eclipse and north to the Twisted Dyke, the
shining wall of the village water gate; to see still blue herons
stalking the little glinting weirs across the field.
Perhaps to get into the mood of the waterways one needs to
have seen old Amos Judson asquat on the headgate with his gun,
guarding his water-right toward the end of a dry summer.
Amos owned the half of Tule Creek and the other half pertained to
the neighboring Greenfields ranch. Years of a "short water crop,"
that is, when too little snow fell on the high pine ridges, or,
falling, melted too early, Amos held that it took all the water
that came down to make his half, and maintained it with a
Winchester and a deadly aim. Jesus Montana, first proprietor of
Greenfields,--you can see at once that Judson had the racial
advantage,--contesting the right with him, walked into five of
Judson's bullets and his eternal possessions on the same occasion.
That was the Homeric age of settlement and passed into tradition.
Twelve years later one of the Clarks, holding Greenfields, not so
very green by now, shot one of the Judsons. Perhaps he hoped that
also might become classic, but the jury found for manslaughter. It
had the effect of discouraging the Greenfields claim, but Amos used
to sit on the headgate just the same, as quaint and lone a figure
as the sandhill crane watching for water toads below the Tule drop.
Every subsequent owner of Greenfields bought it with Amos in full
view. The last of these was Diedrick. Along in August of that
year came a week of low water. Judson's ditch failed and he went
out with his rifle to learn why. There on the headgate sat
Diedrick's frau with a long-handled shovel across her lap and all
the water turned into Diedrick's ditch; there she sat
knitting through the long sun, and the children brought out her
dinner. It was all up with Amos; he was too much of a gentleman to
fight a lady--that was the way he expressed it. She was a very
large lady, and a longhandled shovel is no mean weapon. The next
year Judson and Diedrick put in a modern water gauge and took the
summer ebb in equal inches. Some of the water-right difficulties
are more squalid than this, some more tragic; but unless you have
known them you cannot very well know what the water thinks as it
slips past the gardens and in the long slow sweeps of the canal.
You get that sense of brooding from the confined and sober floods,
not all at once but by degrees, as one might become aware of a
middle-aged and serious neighbor who has had that in his life to
make him so. It is the repose of the completely accepted instinct.
With the water runs a certain following of thirsty herbs and
shrubs. The willows go as far as the stream goes, and a bit
farther on the slightest provocation. They will strike root in the
leak of a flume, or the dribble of an overfull bank, coaxing the
water beyond its appointed bounds. Given a new waterway in a
barren land, and in three years the willows have fringed all its
miles of banks; three years more and they will touch tops across
it. It is perhaps due to the early usurpation of the willows that
so little else finds growing-room along the large canals. The
birch beginning far back in the canon tangles is more
conservative; it is shy of man haunts and needs to have the
permanence of its drink assured. It stops far short of the summer
limit of waters, and I have never known it to take up a position on
the banks beyond the ploughed lands. There is something almost
like premeditation in the avoidance of cultivated tracts by certain
plants of water borders. The clematis, mingling its foliage
secretly with its host, comes down with the stream tangles to the
village fences, skips over to corners of little used pasture lands
and the plantations that spring up about waste water pools; but
never ventures a footing in the trail of spade or plough; will not
be persuaded to grow in any garden plot. On the other hand, the
horehound, the common European species imported with the colonies,
hankers after hedgerows and snug little borders. It is more widely
distributed than many native species, and may be always found along
the ditches in the village corners, where it is not appreciated.
The irrigating ditch is an impartial distributer. It gathers all
the alien weeds that come west in garden and grass seeds and
affords them harbor in its banks. There one finds the European
mallow (Malva rotundifolia) spreading out to the streets
with the summer overflow, and every spring a dandelion or two,
brought in with the blue grass seed, uncurls in the swardy soil.
Farther than either of these have come the lilies that the Chinese
coolies cultivate in adjacent mud holes for their foodful
bulbs. The seegoo establishes itself very readily in swampy
borders, and the white blossom spikes among the arrow-pointed
leaves are quite as acceptable to the eye as any native species.
In the neighborhood of towns founded by the Spanish
Californians, whether this plant is native to the locality or not,
one can always find aromatic clumps of yerba buena, the "good herb"
(Micromeria douglassii). The virtue of it as a febrifuge was taught
to the mission fathers by the neophytes, and wise old dames of my
acquaintance have worked astonishing cures with it and the succulent
yerba mansa. This last is native to wet meadows and distinguished
enough to have a family all to itself.
Where the irrigating ditches are shallow and a little
neglected, they choke quickly with watercress that multiplies about
the lowest Sierra springs. It is characteristic of the frequenters
of water borders near man haunts, that they are chiefly of the
sorts that are useful to man, as if they made their services an
excuse for the intrusion. The joint-grass of soggy pastures
produces edible, nut-flavored tubers, called by the Indians
taboose. The common reed of the ultramontane marshes (here
Phragmites vulgaris), a very stately, whispering reed, light
and strong for shafts or arrows, affords sweet sap and pith which
makes a passable sugar.
It seems the secrets of plant powers and influences yield
themselves most readily to primitive peoples, at least one never
hears of the knowledge coming from any other source. The Indian
never concerns himself, as the botanist and the poet, with the
plant's appearances and relations, but with what it can do for him.
It can do much, but how do you suppose he finds it out; what
instincts or accidents guide him? How does a cat know when to eat
catnip? Why do western bred cattle avoid loco weed, and strangers
eat it and go mad? One might suppose that in a time of famine the
Paiutes digged wild parsnip in meadow corners and died from eating
it, and so learned to produce death swiftly and at will. But how
did they learn, repenting in the last agony, that animal fat is the
best antidote for its virulence; and who taught them that the
essence of joint pine (Ephedra nevadensis), which looks to
have no juice in it of any sort, is efficacious in stomachic
disorders. But they so understand and so use. One believes it to
be a sort of instinct atrophied by disuse in a complexer
civilization. I remember very well when I came first upon a wet
meadow of yerba mansa, not knowing its name or use. It
looked potent; the cool, shiny leaves, the succulent, pink
stems and fruity bloom. A little touch, a hint, a word, and I
should have known what use to put them to. So I felt, unwilling to
leave it until we had come to an understanding. So a musician
might have felt in the presence of an instrument known to
be within his province, but beyond his power. It was with the
relieved sense of having shaped a long surmise that I watched the
Senora Romero make a poultice of it for my burned hand.
On, down from the lower lakes to the village weirs, the brown
and golden disks of helenum have beauty as a sufficient
excuse for being. The plants anchor out on tiny capes, or
mid-stream islets, with the nearly sessile radicle leaves
submerged. The flowers keep up a constant trepidation in time with
the hasty water beating at their stems, a quivering, instinct with
life, that seems always at the point of breaking into flight; just
as the babble of the watercourses always approaches articulation
but never quite achieves it. Although of wide range the helenum
never makes itself common through profusion, and may be looked for
in the same places from year to year. Another lake dweller that
comes down to the ploughed lands is the red columbine. (
C.truncata). It requires no encouragement other than shade, but
grows too rank in the summer heats and loses its wildwood grace.
A common enough orchid in these parts is the false lady's slipper
(Epipactis gigantea), one that springs up by any water where
there is sufficient growth of other sorts to give it countenance.
It seems to thrive best in an atmosphere of suffocation.
The middle Sierras fall off abruptly eastward toward
the high valleys. Peaks of the fourteen thousand class, belted
with sombre swathes of pine, rise almost directly from the bench
lands with no foothill approaches. At the lower edge of the bench
or mesa the land falls away, often by a fault, to the river
hollows, and along the drop one looks for springs or intermittent
swampy swales. Here the plant world resembles a little the lake
gardens, modified by altitude and the use the town folk put it to
for pasture. Here are cress, blue violets, potentilla, and, in the
damp of the willow fence-rows, white false asphodels. I am sure we
make too free use of this word FALSE in naming plants--false
mallow, false lupine, and the like. The asphodel is at least no
falsifier, but a true lily by all the heaven-set marks, though
small of flower and run mostly to leaves, and should have a name
that gives it credit for growing up in such celestial semblance.
Native to the mesa meadows is a pale iris, gardens of it acres
wide, that in the spring season of full bloom make an airy
fluttering as of azure wings. Single flowers are too thin and
sketchy of outline to affect the imagination, but the full fields
have the misty blue of mirage waters rolled across desert sand, and
quicken the senses to the anticipation of things ethereal. A very
poet's flower, I thought; not fit for gathering up, and proving a
nuisance in the pastures, therefore needing to be the more loved.
And one day I caught Winnenap' drawing out from mid leaf a
fine strong fibre for making snares. The borders of the iris
fields are pure gold, nearly sessile buttercups and a
creeping-stemmed composite of a redder hue. I am convinced that
English-speaking children will always have buttercups. If they do
not light upon the original companion of little frogs they will
take the next best and cherish it accordingly. I find five
unrelated species loved by that name, and as many more and as
inappropriately called cowslips.
By every mesa spring one may expect to find a single shrub of
the buckthorn, called of old time Cascara sagrada--the
sacred bark. Up in the canons, within the limit of the rains, it
seeks rather a stony slope, but in the dry valleys is not found
away from water borders.
In all the valleys and along the desert edges of the west are
considerable areas of soil sickly with alkali-collecting pools,
black and evil-smelling like old blood. Very little grows
hereabout but thick-leaved pickle weed. Curiously enough, in
this stiff mud, along roadways where there is frequently a little
leakage from canals, grows the only western representative of the
true heliotropes (Heliotropium curassavicum). It has
flowers of faded white, foliage of faded green, resembling the
"live-for-ever" of old gardens and graveyards, but even less
attractive. After so much schooling in the virtues of
water-seeking plants, one is not surprised to learn that
its mucilaginous sap has healing powers.
Last and inevitable resort of overflow waters is the tulares,
great wastes of reeds (Juncus) in sickly, slow streams. The
reeds, called tules, are ghostly pale in winter, in summer deep
poisonous-looking green, the waters thick and brown; the reed beds
breaking into dingy pools, clumps of rotting willows, narrow
winding water lanes and sinking paths. The tules grow
inconceivably thick in places, standing man-high above the water;
cattle, no, not any fish nor fowl can penetrate them. Old stalks
succumb slowly; the bed soil is quagmire, settling with the weight
as it fills and fills. Too slowly for counting they raise little
islands from the bog and reclaim the land. The waters pushed out
cut deeper channels, gnaw off the edges of the solid earth.
The tulares are full of mystery and malaria. That is why we
have meant to explore them and have never done so. It must be a
happy mystery. So you would think to hear the redwinged blackbirds
proclaim it clear March mornings. Flocks of them, and every flock
a myriad, shelter in the dry, whispering stems. They make little
arched runways deep into the heart of the tule beds. Miles across
the valley one hears the clamor of their high, keen flutings in the
mating weather.
Wild fowl, quacking hordes of them, nest in the tulares. Any
day's venture will raise from open shallows the great blue
heron on his hollow wings. Chill evenings the mallard drakes cry
continually from the glassy pools, the bittern's hollow boom rolls
along the water paths. Strange and farflown fowl drop down against
the saffron, autumn sky. All day wings beat above it hazy with
speed; long flights of cranes glimmer in the twilight. By night
one wakes to hear the clanging geese go over. One wishes for, but
gets no nearer speech from those the reedy fens have swallowed up.
What they do there, how fare, what find, is the secret of the
Choose a hill country for storms. There all the business of the
weather is carried on above your horizon and loses its terror in
familiarity. When you come to think about it, the disastrous
storms are on the levels, sea or sand or plains. There you get
only a hint of what is about to happen, the fume of the gods rising
from their meeting place under the rim of the world; and when it
breaks upon you there is no stay nor shelter. The terrible mewings
and mouthings of a Kansas wind have the added terror of
viewlessness. You are lapped in them like uprooted grass; suspect
them of a personal grudge. But the storms of hill countries have
other business. They scoop watercourses, manure the pines, twist
them to a finer fibre, fit the firs to be masts and spars, and, if
you keep reasonably out of the track of their affairs, do you no
They have habits to be learned, appointed paths, seasons, and
warnings, and they leave you in no doubt about their
performances. One who builds his house on a water scar or the
rubble of a steep slope must take chances. So they did in Overtown
who built in the wash of Argus water, and at Kearsarge at the foot
of a steep, treeless swale. After twenty years Argus water rose in
the wash against the frail houses, and the piled snows of Kearsarge
slid down at a thunder peal over the cabins and the camp, but you
could conceive that it was the fault of neither the water nor the
The first effect of cloud study is a sense of presence and
intention in storm processes. Weather does not happen. It is the
visible manifestation of the Spirit moving itself in the void. It
gathers itself together under the heavens; rains, snows, yearns
mightily in wind, smiles; and the Weather Bureau, situated
advantageously for that very business, taps the record on his
instruments and going out on the streets denies his God, not having
gathered the sense of what he has seen. Hardly anybody takes
account of the fact that John Muir, who knows more of mountain
storms than any other, is a devout man.
Of the high Sierras choose the neighborhood of the splintered
peaks about the Kern and King's river divide for storm study, or
the short, wide-mouthed canons opening eastward on high valleys.
Days when the hollows are steeped in a warm, winey flood the clouds
came walking on the floor of heaven, flat and pearly gray beneath,
rounded and pearly white above. They gather flock-wise,
moving on the level currents that roll about the peaks, lock hands
and settle with the cooler air, drawing a veil about those places
where they do their work. If their meeting or parting takes place
at sunrise or sunset, as it often does, one gets the splendor of
the apocalypse. There will be cloud pillars miles high,
snow-capped, glorified, and preserving an orderly perspective
before the unbarred door of the sun, or perhaps mere ghosts of
clouds that dance to some pied piper of an unfelt wind. But be it
day or night, once they have settled to their work, one sees from
the valley only the blank wall of their tents stretched along the
ranges. To get the real effect of a mountain storm you must be
One who goes often into a hill country learns not to say: What
if it should rain? It always does rain somewhere among the peaks:
the unusual thing is that one should escape it. You might suppose
that if you took any account of plant contrivances to save their
pollen powder against showers. Note how many there are
deep-throated and bell-flowered like the pentstemons, how many
have nodding pedicels as the columbine, how many grow in copse
shelters and grow there only. There is keen delight in the quick
showers of summer canons, with the added comfort, born of
experience, of knowing that no harm comes of a wetting at high
altitudes. The day is warm; a white cloud spies over the
canon wall, slips up behind the ridge to cross it by some windy
pass, obscures your sun. Next you hear the rain drum on the
broad-leaved hellebore, and beat down the mimulus beside the brook.
You shelter on the lee of some strong pine with shut-winged
butterflies and merry, fiddling creatures of the wood. Runnels of
rain water from the glacier-slips swirl through the pine needles
into rivulets; the streams froth and rise in their banks. The sky
is white with cloud; the sky is gray with rain; the sky is clear.
The summer showers leave no wake.
Such as these follow each other day by day for weeks in August
weather. Sometimes they chill suddenly into wet snow that packs
about the lake gardens clear to the blossom frills, and melts away
harmlessly. Sometimes one has the good fortune from a
heather-grown headland to watch a rain-cloud forming in mid-air.
Out over meadow or lake region begins a little darkling of the
sky,--no cloud, no wind, just a smokiness such as spirits
materialize from in witch stories.
It rays out and draws to it some floating films from secret
canons. Rain begins, "slow dropping veil of thinnest lawn;" a wind
comes up and drives the formless thing across a meadow, or a dull
lake pitted by the glancing drops, dissolving as it drives. Such
rains relieve like tears.
The same season brings the rains that have work to do,
ploughing storms that alter the face of things. These come
with thunder and the play of live fire along the rocks. They come
with great winds that try the pines for their work upon the seas
and strike out the unfit. They shake down avalanches of splinters
from sky-line pinnacles and raise up sudden floods like battle
fronts in the canons against towns, trees, and boulders. They
would be kind if they could, but have more important matters. Such
storms, called cloud-bursts by the country folk, are not rain,
rather the spillings of Thor's cup, jarred by the Thunderer. After
such a one the water that comes up in the village hydrants miles
away is white with forced bubbles from the wind-tormented streams.
All that storms do to the face of the earth you may read in
the geographies, but not what they do to our contemporaries. I
remember one night of thunderous rain made unendurably mournful by
the houseless cry of a cougar whose lair, and perhaps his family,
had been buried under a slide of broken boulders on the slope of
Kearsarge. We had heard the heavy detonation of the slide about
the hour of the alpenglow, a pale rosy interval in a darkling air,
and judged he must have come from hunting to the ruined cliff and
paced the night out before it, crying a very human woe. I
remember, too, in that same season of storms, a lake made milky
white for days, and crowded out of its bed by clay washed into it
by a fury of rain, with the trout floating in it belly up,
stunned by the shock of the sudden flood. But there were
trout enough for what was left of the lake next year and the
beginning of a meadow about its upper rim. What taxed me most in
the wreck of one of my favorite canons by cloud-burst was to see a
bobcat mother mouthing her drowned kittens in the ruined lair built
in the wash, far above the limit of accustomed waters, but not far
enough for the unexpected. After a time you get the point of view
of gods about these things to save you from being too pitiful.
The great snows that come at the beginning of winter, before
there is yet any snow except the perpetual high banks, are best
worth while to watch. These come often before the late bloomers
are gone and while the migratory birds are still in the piney
woods. Down in the valley you see little but the flocking of
blackbirds in the streets, or the low flight of mallards over the
tulares, and the gathering of clouds behind Williamson. First
there is a waiting stillness in the wood; the pine-trees creak
although there is no wind, the sky glowers, the firs rock by the
water borders. The noise of the creek rises insistently and falls
off a full note like a child abashed by sudden silence in the room.
This changing of the stream-tone following tardily the changes of
the sun on melting snows is most meaningful of wood notes. After
it runs a little trumpeter wind to cry the wild creatures to their
holes. Sometimes the warning hangs in the air for days
with increasing stillness. Only Clark's crow and the strident jays
make light of it; only they can afford to. The cattle get down to
the foothills and ground-inhabiting creatures make fast their
doors. It grows chill, blind clouds fumble in the canons; there
will be a roll of thunder, perhaps, or a flurry of rain, but mostly
the snow is born in the air with quietness and the sense of strong
white pinions softly stirred. It increases, is wet and clogging,
and makes a white night of midday.
There is seldom any wind with first snows, more often rain,
but later, when there is already a smooth foot or two over all the
slopes, the drifts begin. The late snows are fine and dry, mere
ice granules at the wind's will. Keen mornings after a storm they
are blown out in wreaths and banners from the high ridges sifting
into the canons.
Once in a year or so we have a "big snow." The cloud tents
are widened out to shut in the valley and an outlying range or two
and are drawn tight against the sun. Such a storm begins warm,
with a dry white mist that fills and fills between the ridges, and
the air is thick with formless groaning. Now for days you get no
hint of the neighboring ranges until the snows begin to lighten and
some shouldering peak lifts through a rent. Mornings after the
heavy snows are steely blue, two-edged with cold, divinely fresh
and still, and these are times to go up to the pine borders. There
you may find floundering in the unstable drifts "tainted wethers"
of the wild sheep, faint from age and hunger; easy prey.
Even the deer make slow going in the thick fresh snow, and once
we found a wolverine going blind and feebly in the white glare.
No tree takes the snow stress with such ease as the silver
fir. The star-whorled, fan-spread branches droop under the soft
wreaths--droop and press flatly to the trunk; presently the point
of overloading is reached, there is a soft sough and muffled
drooping, the boughs recover, and the weighting goes on until the
drifts have reached the midmost whorls and covered up the branches.
When the snows are particularly wet and heavy they spread over the
young firs in green-ribbed tents wherein harbor winter loving
All storms of desert hills, except wind storms, are impotent.
East and east of the Sierras they rise in nearly parallel ranges,
desertward, and no rain breaks over them, except from some
far-strayed cloud or roving wind from the California Gulf, and
these only in winter. In summer the sky travails with thunderings
and the flare of sheet lightnings to win a few blistering big
drops, and once in a lifetime the chance of a torrent. But you
have not known what force resides in the mindless things until you
have known a desert wind. One expects it at the turn of the two
seasons, wet and dry, with electrified tense nerves. Along the
edge of the mesa where it drops off to the valley, dust
devils begin to rise white and steady, fanning out at the top like
the genii out of the Fisherman's bottle. One supposes the Indians
might have learned the use of smoke signals from these dust pillars
as they learn most things direct from the tutelage of the earth.
The air begins to move fluently, blowing hot and cold between the
ranges. Far south rises a murk of sand against the sky; it grows,
the wind shakes itself, and has a smell of earth. The cloud of
small dust takes on the color of gold and shuts out the
neighborhood, the push of the wind is unsparing. Only man of all
folk is foolish enough to stir abroad in it. But being in a house
is really much worse; no relief from the dust, and a great fear of
the creaking timbers. There is no looking ahead in such a wind,
and the bite of the small sharp sand on exposed skin is keener than
any insect sting. One might sleep, for the lapping of the wind
wears one to the point of exhaustion very soon, but there is dread,
in open sand stretches sometimes justified, of being over blown by
the drift. It is hot, dry, fretful work, but by going along the
ground with the wind behind, one may come upon strange things in
its tumultuous privacy. I like these truces of wind and heat that
the desert makes, otherwise I do not know how I should come by so
many acquaintances with furtive folk. I like to see hawks sitting
daunted in shallow holes, not daring to spread a feather,
and doves in a row by the prickle-bushes, and shut-eyed cattle,
turned tail to the wind in a patient doze. I like the smother of
sand among the dunes, and finding small coiled snakes in open
places, but I never like to come in a wind upon the silly sheep.
The wind robs them of what wit they had, and they seem never to
have learned the self-induced hypnotic stupor with which most wild
things endure weather stress. I have never heard that the desert
winds brought harm to any other than the wandering shepherds and
their flocks. Once below Pastaria Little Pete showed me bones
sticking out of the sand where a flock of two hundred had been
smothered in a bygone wind. In many places the four-foot posts of
a cattle fence had been buried by the wind-blown dunes.
It is enough occupation, when no storm is brewing, to watch
the cloud currents and the chambers of the sky. From Kearsarge,
say, you look over Inyo and find pink soft cloud masses asleep on
the level desert air; south of you hurries a white troop late to
some gathering of their kind at the back of Oppapago; nosing the
foot of Waban, a woolly mist creeps south. In the clean, smooth
paths of the middle sky and highest up in air, drift, unshepherded,
small flocks ranging contrarily. You will find the proper names of
these things in the reports of the Weather Bureau--cirrus, cumulus,
and the like and charts that will teach by study when to
sow and take up crops. It is astonishing the trouble men will be
at to find out when to plant potatoes, and gloze over the eternal
meaning of the skies. You have to beat out for yourself many
mornings on the windy headlands the sense of the fact that you get
the same rainbow in the cloud drift over Waban and the spray of
your garden hose. And not necessarily then do you live up to it.
There are still some places in the west where the quails cry
"cuidado"; where all the speech is soft, all the manners gentle;
where all the dishes have chile in them, and they make more of the
Sixteenth of September than they do of the Fourth of July. I mean
in particular El Pueblo de Las Uvas. Where it lies, how to come at
it, you will not get from me; rather would I show you the heron's
nest in the tulares. It has a peak behind it, glinting above the
tamarack pines, above a breaker of ruddy hills that have a long
slope valley-wards and the shoreward steep of waves toward the
Below the Town of the Grape Vines, which shortens to Las Uvas
for common use, the land dips away to the river pastures and the
tulares. It shrouds under a twilight thicket of vines, under a
dome of cottonwood-trees, drowsy and murmurous as a hive.
Hereabouts are some strips of tillage and the headgates that dam up
the creek for the village weirs; upstream you catch the growl of
the arrastra. Wild vines that begin among the willows lap
over to the orchard rows, take the trellis and roof-tree.
There is another town above Las Uvas that merits some
attention, a town of arches and airy crofts, full of linnets,
blackbirds, fruit birds, small sharp hawks, and mockingbirds that
sing by night. They pour out piercing, unendurably sweet cavatinas
above the fragrance of bloom and musky smell of fruit. Singing is
in fact the business of the night at Las Uvas as sleeping is for
midday. When the moon comes over the mountain wall new-washed from
the sea, and the shadows lie like lace on the stamped floors of the
patios, from recess to recess of the vine tangle runs the thrum of
guitars and the voice of singing.
At Las Uvas they keep up all the good customs brought out of
Old Mexico or bred in a lotus-eating land; drink, and are merry and
look out for something to eat afterward; have children, nine or ten
to a family, have cock-fights, keep the siesta, smoke cigarettes
and wait for the sun to go down. And always they dance; at dusk on
the smooth adobe floors, afternoons under the trellises where the
earth is damp and has a fruity smell. A betrothal, a wedding, or
a christening, or the mere proximity of a guitar is sufficient
occasion; and if the occasion lacks, send for the guitar and dance
All this requires explanation. Antonio Sevadra,
drifting this way from Old Mexico with the flood that poured into
the Tappan district after the first notable strike, discovered La
Golondrina. It was a generous lode and Tony a good fellow; to work
it he brought in all the Sevadras, even to the twice-removed; all
the Castros who were his wife's family, all the Saises, Romeros,
and Eschobars,--the relations of his relations-in-law. There you
have the beginning of a pretty considerable town. To these accrued
much of the Spanish California float swept out of the southwest by
eastern enterprise. They slacked away again when the price of
silver went down, and the ore dwindled in La Golondrina. All the
hot eddy of mining life swept away from that corner of the hills,
but there were always those too idle, too poor to move, or too
easily content with El Pueblo de Las Uvas.
Nobody comes nowadays to the town of the grape vines except,
as we say, "with the breath of crying," but of these enough. All
the low sills run over with small heads. Ah, ah! There is a kind
of pride in that if you did but know it, to have your baby every
year or so as the time sets, and keep a full breast. So great a
blessing as marriage is easily come by. It is told of Ruy Garcia
that when he went for his marriage license he lacked a dollar of
the clerk's fee, but borrowed it of the sheriff, who expected
reelection and exhibited thereby a commendable thrift. Of what
account is it to lack meal or meat when you may have it of
any neighbor? Besides, there is sometimes a point of honor in
these things. Jesus Romero, father of ten, had a job sacking ore
in the Marionette which he gave up of his own accord. "Eh, why?"
said Jesus, "for my fam'ly."
"It is so, senora," he said solemnly, "I go to the Marionette,
I work, I eat meat--pie--frijoles--good, ver' good. I come home
sad'day nigh' I see my fam'ly. I play lil' game poker with the
boys, have lil' drink wine, my money all gone. My fam'ly have no
money, nothing eat. All time I work at mine I eat, good, ver' good
grub. I think sorry for my fam'ly. No, no, senora, I no work no
more that Marionette, I stay with my fam'ly." The wonder of it is,
I think, that the family had the same point of view.
Every house in the town of the vines has its garden plot, corn
and brown beans and a row of peppers reddening in the sun; and in
damp borders of the irrigating ditches clumps of
yerbasanta, horehound, catnip, and spikenard, wholesome herbs and
curative, but if no peppers then nothing at all. You will have for
a holiday dinner, in Las Uvas, soup with meat balls and chile in
it, chicken with chile, rice with chile, fried beans with more
chile, enchilada, which is corn cake with the sauce of chile and
tomatoes, onion, grated cheese, and olives, and for a relish chile
tepines passed about in a dish, all of which is comfortable
and corrective to the stomach. You will have wine which
every man makes for himself, of good body and inimitable bouquet,
and sweets that are not nearly so nice as they look.
There are two occasions when you may count on that kind of a
meal; always on the Sixteenth of September, and on the two-yearly
visits of Father Shannon. It is absurd, of course, that El Pueblo
de Las Uvas should have an Irish priest, but Black Rock, Minton,
Jimville, and all that country round do not find it so. Father
Shannon visits them all, waits by the Red Butte to confess the
shepherds who go through with their flocks, carries blessing to
small and isolated mines, and so in the course of a year or so
works around to Las Uvas to bury and marry and christen. Then all
the little graves in the Campo Santo are brave with tapers,
the brown pine headboards blossom like Aaron's rod with paper roses
and bright cheap prints of Our Lady of Sorrows. Then the Senora
Sevadra, who thinks herself elect of heaven for that office,
gathers up the original sinners, the little Elijias, Lolas,
Manuelitas, Joses, and Felipes, by dint of adjurations and sweets
smuggled into small perspiring palms, to fit them for the
I used to peek in at them, never so softly, in Dona Ina's
living-room; Raphael-eyed little imps, going sidewise on their
knees to rest them from the bare floor, candles lit on the mantel
to give a religious air, and a great sheaf of wild bloom
before the Holy Family. Come Sunday they set out the altar in the
schoolhouse, with the fine-drawn altar cloths, the beaten silver
candlesticks, and the wax images, chief glory of Las Uvas, brought
up mule-back from Old Mexico forty years ago. All in white the
communicants go up two and two in a hushed, sweet awe to take the
body of their Lord, and Tomaso, who is priest's boy, tries not to
look unduly puffed up by his office. After that you have dinner
and a bottle of wine that ripened on the sunny slope of Escondito.
All the week Father Shannon has shriven his people, who bring clean
conscience to the betterment of appetite, and the Father sets them
an example. Father Shannon is rather big about the middle to
accommodate the large laugh that lives in him, but a most shrewd
searcher of hearts. It is reported that one derives comfort from
his confessional, and I for my part believe it.
The celebration of the Sixteenth, though it comes every year,
takes as long to prepare for as Holy Communion. The senoritas have
each a new dress apiece, the senoras a new rebosa. The
young gentlemen have new silver trimmings to their sombreros,
unspeakable ties, silk handkerchiefs, and new leathers to their
spurs. At this time when the peppers glow in the gardens and the
young quail cry "cuidado," "have a care!" you can hear the
plump, plump of the metate from the alcoves of the vines where
comfortable old dames, whose experience gives them the touch of art,
are pounding out corn for tamales.
School-teachers from abroad have tried before now at Las Uvas
to have school begin on the first of September, but got nothing
else to stir in the heads of the little Castros, Garcias, and
Romeros but feasts and cock-fights until after the Sixteenth.
Perhaps you need to be told that this is the anniversary of the
Republic, when liberty awoke and cried in the provinces of Old
Mexico. You are aroused at midnight to hear them shouting in the
streets, "Vive la Libertad!" answered from the houses and
the recesses of the vines, "Vive la Mexico!" At sunrise
shots are fired commemorating the tragedy of unhappy Maximilian,
and then music, the noblest of national hymns, as the great flag of
Old Mexico floats up the flag-pole in the bare little plaza of
shabby Las Uvas. The sun over Pine Mountain greets the eagle of
Montezuma before it touches the vineyards and the town, and the day
begins with a great shout. By and by there will be a reading of
the Declaration of Independence and an address punctured by
vives; all the town in its best dress, and some exhibits of
horsemanship that make lathered bits and bloody spurs; also a
By night there will be dancing, and such music! old Santos to
play the flute, a little lean man with a saintly countenance, young
Garcia whose guitar has a soul, and Carrasco with the
violin. They sit on a high platform above the dancers in the
candle flare, backed by the red, white, and green of Old Mexico,
and play fervently such music as you will not hear otherwhere.
At midnight the flag comes down. Count yourself at a loss if
you are not moved by that performance. Pine Mountain watches
whitely overhead, shepherd fires glow strongly on the glooming
hills. The plaza, the bare glistening pole, the dark folk, the
bright dresses, are lit ruddily by a bonfire. It leaps up to the
eagle flag, dies down, the music begins softly and aside. They
play airs of old longing and exile; slowly out of the dark the flag
drops down, bellying and falling with the midnight draught.
Sometimes a hymn is sung, always there are tears. The flag is
down; Tony Sevadra has received it in his arms. The music strikes
a barbaric swelling tune, another flag begins a slow ascent,--it
takes a breath or two to realize that they are both, flag and tune,
the Star Spangled Banner,--a volley is fired, we are back, if you
please, in California of America. Every youth who has the blood of
patriots in him lays ahold on Tony Sevadra's flag, happiest if he
can get a corner of it. The music goes before, the folk fall in
two and two, singing. They sing everything, America, the
Marseillaise, for the sake of the French shepherds hereabout, the
hymn of Cuba, and the Chilian national air to comfort two
families of that land. The flag goes to Dona Ina's, with the
candlesticks and the altar cloths, then Las Uvas eats tamales and
dances the sun up the slope of Pine Mountain.
You are not to suppose that they do not keep the Fourth,
Washington's Birthday, and Thanksgiving at the town of the grape
vines. These make excellent occasions for quitting work and
dancing, but the Sixteenth is the holiday of the heart. On
Memorial Day the graves have garlands and new pictures of the
saints tacked to the headboards. There is great virtue in an
Ave said in the Camp of the Saints. I like that name which
the Spanish speaking people give to the garden of the dead,
Campo Santo, as if it might be some bed of healing from
which blind souls and sinners rise up whole and praising God.
Sometimes the speech of simple folk hints at truth the
understanding does not reach. I am persuaded only a complex soul
can get any good of a plain religion. Your earthborn is a poet and
a symbolist. We breed in an environment of asphalt pavements a
body of people whose creeds are chiefly restrictions against other
people's way of life, and have kitchens and latrines under the same
roof that houses their God. Such as these go to church to be
edified, but at Las Uvas they go for pure worship and to entreat
their God. The logical conclusion of the faith that every good
gift cometh from God is the open hand and the finer courtesy. The
meal done without buys a candle for the neighbor's dead
child. You do foolishly to suppose that the candle does no good.
At Las Uvas every house is a piece of earth--thick walled,
whitewashed adobe that keeps the even temperature of a cave; every
man is an accomplished horseman and consequently bowlegged; every
family keeps dogs, flea-bitten mongrels that loll on the earthen
floors. They speak a purer Castilian than obtains in like villages
of Mexico, and the way they count relationship everybody is more or
less akin. There is not much villainy among them. What incentive
to thieving or killing can there be when there is little wealth and
that to be had for the borrowing! If they love too hotly, as we
say "take their meat before grace," so do their betters. Eh, what!
shall a man be a saint before he is dead? And besides, Holy Church
takes it out of you one way or another before all is done. Come
away, you who are obsessed with your own importance in the scheme
of things, and have got nothing you did not sweat for, come away by
the brown valleys and full-bosomed hills to the even-breathing
days, to the kindliness, earthiness, ease of El Pueblo de Las Uvas.

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