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The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin

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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 coral-
red 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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