THE HEART OF SANTA CATALINA

American Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle Kleptoparasitized this Fish from a Sea Otter or Osprey

Transcribed and Written by Robert Roy van de Hoek
June 2000

The prose by Blanche Trask presented below comes from an essay, perhaps her finest, THE HEART OF SANTA CATALINA, that was published in the magazine called LAND OF SUNSHINE (Charles Lummis, editor). The essay was published 103 years ago in 1897. She was without a doubt in my mind the finest naturalist of the California Channel Islands at the turn of the last Century. She is perhaps one of the most important, although not widely known, woman naturalists of southern California and the California Islands of the early 20th Century. Blanche Trask was a contemporary of Mary Austin, another great naturalist and mystic, and both were divorced. No one could do better at explaining the mystical landscape and seascapes of southern California as these two women (see "Coasts of Adventure" in the LAND OF THE SUN by Mary Austin, also on this web site). Another way that Mary Austin and Blanche Trask seem to be linked together is by the color "white" which I first pondered after reading the Terry Tempest Williams' Foreward of a new printing of the book by Mary Austin called LAND OF LITTLE RAIN. Terry Tempest Williams discusses at length the manner in which the color "white" is used by Mary Austin and so it is that I looked at Blanche Trask essay, THE HEART OF SANTA CATALINA, to discover that the color white is used 10 times and sometimes by the metaphor of "snow" or "snowy" or as "snow white." Two of Blanche Trask poems titles, MOONLIGHT AT CATALINA and CATALINA FOG are white "parts" of Nature. And the color "white" by Blanche Trask is often used in connection to life, primarily plants flowers, lichens and the Eagle. However, the city of Avalon is also described as white. Marcia Hanscom mentions to me the thought of "white" as clarity. I say "Hmm?" to myself. Terry Tempest Williams uses a title of a book as PIECES OF WHITE SHELL and another book uses "snow" as "THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF SNOW." I am moved to say at this point, that as Sea Otters become more mature, their fur on their head becomes white, and that the Bald Eagle feathers on its head become white when it is mature not to neglect the Brown Pelican whose featers also become white at maturity, and that the hair on a human head becomes white when they become an older-elder, and sometimes is "bald." Is "bald" a metaphor for "white?" It is simply amazing, and so here are the Ten (10) brief passages compiled together where Blanche Trask uses "white" and "snow" and I hope you search for these "white" words yourself when you read the essay:

1. "white city of Avalon"

2. "Bald Eagle, white head and white tail" gleaming in the sunlight (and where else is there such sunlight)."

3. "Avalon spreads its white wings to shelter thousands"

4. "white companies of fog-spirits"

5. "Lyonothamnus groves in June, white blossoms"

6. "And too, if it be June, semblance of the light snow-storm white with the blooms of holly and greasewood ... shy blushing Eriogonum giganteum"

7. "visited by light snow storm for their will be thousands of white lilacs"

8. "crabbed white lilacs, upon which it leans all the weight of its branches"

9. "Midway on a cliff of falling, snow-white stone it stands - stone covered with white lichens - and there, through a vista of hills, it watches the sunset, and catches the glow along with the snowy rocks."

10. "If you visit the Lyonothamnus groves in June you may gather their white blossoms,"

And if that is not enough, Blanche Trask's essay ends with two "white" metaphors (stars and milky) in the following passage: "We forget that without the dust of the stars there would be no Milky Way." That indeed is clarity through the color "white."

So I find myself asking two questions: Does the southern California coast have a soul and spirit with the islands as her heart? And, are the Channel Islands a living organism unto themselves rising from the sea? I say "yes" to both questions and Blanche Trask shows us that in the context of history and geography, as much as any other literary and scientific naturalist of coastal southern California, 100 years ago.

Please note that the 11 photographs that accompany her article are black & white photographs. Photographs include those of an Ironwood Grove, Steamship leaving pier, Waterfalls in Middle Ranch Canyon, Seal on a rock, Mr. Polly posing with Dogwood, 12 foot high Wild Cucumber, Isalnd Oak, Fern Spring in Grand Canyon, Stage Route, Moonlight at Avalon, and Catalina Spring. These photographs should be visible for all to see, not just collecting dust in LAND OF SUNSHINE magazine in libraries. Lastly, please note that Blanche Trask states that Port Los Angeles is located "some 50 miles off Port Los Angeles" which at the time of her writing was located at Santa Monica and consisted of a Long Pier, Dock, and Breakwater.

THE HEART OF SANTA CATALINA
by
Blanche Trask
1897
LAND OF SUNSHINE
Volume 7, Number 4, page 153-160

Some fifty miles off Port Los Angeles, like a flower on the soft breast of the Pacific, lies Santa Catalina Island, familiarly known as "Catalina." The beautiful Spanish names left by the old Franciscans are now, alas, shortened whenever possible, for even into this land dolce far niente the hurry has stolen.

But Santa Catalina has as yet lost only the beauty of her full name, and for two or three months each summer her little tented city of Avalon spreads its white wings to shelter thousands of people who come and go without learning anything about Santa Catalina herself; the remainder of the year, save for a handful of inhabitants left over in Avalon, she is quite alone.

About twenty miles long and from five to eight wide, formed of two mountains, she is said to have been brought into existence by a single upheavel. As has been well said by Mr. Lyons, who botanized here years ago, "Catalina is a world in herself."

"Catalina!" At the name thousands will see again the crescent bay dotted with boats, the beach with bathers, and the white city of Avalon. But this is not Santa Catalina. It is only what man has done towards bringing her into touch of his own moods and ways. Her real self lives on unmoved upon the heights - the heights so full of mystery and beauty, seldom seen by any.

The highest peaks stand looking down upon the dead craters; bare and desolate mountains of over-burnt rock - rock somewhat comforted, perhaps, by the brilliant lichens of green and orange and red and lavender carelessly draped about them by the hand of Time, like oriental scarfs.

Now and then a bald eagle, its white head and tail gleaming in the sunlight (and where else is there such sunlight?) descends to rest upon some tip-top ledge. The goat-trails run to the very summits, and these lonely peaks are the real homes of the goats. All about these they linger and wander aimlessly; otherwise there is perfect quiet on the heights, and no doubt the white companies of fog-spirits, which follow unseen trails, are the only real companions of these peaks. It is well known that the lower lands of Santa Catalina Island are almost free from fog the year round.

After you have once reached the "ridge" you see long slopes in rose and lavender, and there are cliffs all the colors of the rainbow. The trees at your side are not flourishing (though there are fine groves far below), and they stand often alone, making despairing gestures, as though life were not easy upon these arid heights. They seem to have paid a great price for the privilege of living there.

If it be in March you make the trip, the

"Uplands vast,
And lifted universe of crest and crag,
Shoulder and shelf,"
will be kaledidoscopic with green and with red and yellow flowers, and will look as though visited by a light snow-storm, for there will be thousands of white lilacs (Ceanothus cuneatus) in bloom, with now and then a slope over which a lavender veil seems thrown - the orchard like trees of another "lilac" - a lavender one this time (Ceanothus arboreus), a rare form, found only here and on Santa Cruz Island.

If you are "in luck," that miracle in gold may greet your eyes hanging above some "riven ravine" - the tree poppy (Dendromecon rigidum); its flowers three inches in diameter, like great Eschscholtzias, pending from a tree fifteen feet high, shining in the midst of its weird green leaves; a small tree with shredded bark and slender limbs seemingly too frail to carry all its blossoms.

There is a volcanic upland where they may be counted until one reaches fifty and stops counting from weariness - not because there are not yet other poppy trees. Here great rocks stand up like sentinels - rock shattered by earthquake and old-time terrors - still at their posts. Very frail is the poppy tree, and it would never reach maturity save for the little crabbed "white lilac" (Ceanothus macrocarpus), upon which it leans all the weight of its branches.

There is one mountain from which, looking seaward, bright hints of yellow may be caught on a little peak which rises all by itself a quarter of a mile below. These are the gold stars of the Leptosyne gigantea, which grows nowhere else in the world - gold stars from a green fountain - a flower usually overhanging the sea on inaccessible rocks, and one which as yet has no common name. From its imposing situation it looks down upon rocks from which the Indians used to carve their pots; the markings of their implements seem quite fresh today, and the whole place roundabout is strewn with fragments of pots, some of them beautifully lichened.

High above the low trees of sumach (rhus), holly (Hetermomeles arbutifolia) and oak (Quercus dumosa), which are all set like stiff bouquets of green here and there on the slopes, you see the stately Lyonothamnus - a tall, listening, aspiring tree like the pine; a tree so rare (found only on islands off the coast of Southern California) that there has been as yet no common name given it, and for the present Lyonothamnus if is for the tourist and botanist alike. Another day a tramp down to their abode will well repay you, for their haunts are exquisitely shaded; great ferns grow at their feet, and on the strings of their shredded bark the sea wind comes and plays. There is one grove to be remembered apart from all the others. It cannot be seen from the ridge, as it is about five miles distant. Midway on a cliff of falling, snow-white stone it stands - stone covered with white lichens - and there, through a vista of hills, it watches the sunset, and catches the glow along with the snowy rocks.

If you visit the Lyonothamnus groves in June you may gather their white blossoms, and while you are at one of their midway stations - for they always stand high on slopes where they can have a fine view of the sea - you can soon drop down into a deep and narrow canon to your right where thrive a grove of rare oaks, which have been found nowhere else save on Guadalupe Island, off the coast of Lower California (Quercus tomentella). It, too, will be in bloom, and the big acorns are many, deep in the fallen leaves; and cool is the little brown stream at its feet, a contented streamlet which trickles away, not knowing through what rare shade it flows.

And, too, if it be in June you walk the heights, the semblance of the light snow-storm will not be lacking, for miles and miles of slopes will be white with the bloom of holly and grease-wood (Adenostoma fasciculatum); and if you see not the rare poppy-tree, you will behold the shy, blushing Eriogonum giganteum, which grows nowhere else in all the world, but here stands bravely on rocky uplands, though a trifle abashed. And from many a jutting crag, against the silver frost-work of the Dusty Miller (Eriophyllum nevinii) gold stars will show. This species is known only on this island and on San Clemente.

There is only one dogwood (Cornus) on the island; and this lone specimen was discovered by Mr. Harry Polley, of Pasadena, five years ago.

From the heights all the sisters of Santa Catalina stand with purple robes about their dimpled shoulders, while the brothers of San Clemente, not so stern, perhaps, as sometimes they seem, move a step nearer and reach a friendly hand - little Santa Barbara, the home of the gulls, almost to be touched; San Miguel, afar and stretched at ease; and San Nicolas, as though dreaming under olden memories; Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz side by side.

If you are yet "in luck," and the day be clear, San Antonio and all his train, San Jacinto and all the coast heights to San Diego, will be before you.

If, leaving the trail, you follow the ridge across to the south side, you will pause upon toppling crags whose rocks now and then crash down more than 1500 feet into the sea below. In these strangely colored waters the brown "mermaid's hair" sways to and fro in company with the long sea weeds on the submerged rocks, and the gold-fish catch the glinting sunlight; and the fear of standing upon the crumbling edge is forgotten as you watch the underworld.

"The Salto Verde Country" - the Land of the Green Leap - what is to be told of that? Volcanic and sunburnt, the edge of old and splintered rocks, of riven canons, of glaring lichens and of the rainbow cliffs. Here the oaks lie with outstretched arms on the ground, as in fear, not knowing what hour the work of the old ruin may begin. Only the young and thoughtless spring flowers lift up their heads fearlessly. On the rainbow cliffs the eagles build their great nests of drift-wood. There is the bark of the seals, for they have a home below; and now and then the plaintive cry of a kid. This is one of the homes of the goats; here they come up to you, and after regarding you with undisguised interest, turn back to their grazing or their play. Their trails are the best of trails in the wild Salto Verde.

There is a place (not in the Salto Verde country, but many miles distant) where hundreds of goats sleep at night. One moonlight night last winter, hearing a call, they woke and came down to see what was the matter, until finally hundreds and hundreds of little heads encircled me, staring first at me and then at one another; looking over each other's shoulders and crowding one another off the rocks to get a better view. Fear seemed to take hold upon them at last, and they began to run in a great circle, of a half mile, I suppose, usually pausing at each turn to get a look at me.

I have visited the same place by daylight and found the goats feeding all about and evidently quite interested in me as ever, gathering about and looking at each other with their bright eyes, saying still "I can't make her out!"

Santa Catalina is at her best in

Rain and fog and rain,
And mists that i' the wind.

When "cloud-towers" are built on every desolate peak and and each trail becomes the bed of a stream, then it is that the ravines are difficult to climb, and one crouches behind some sheltering tree to await the passing of a band of goats far above, and shudders at the crash of the falling rocks. Treacherous indeed are the cliffs of Santa Catalina; the other day I came across a ledge which had fallen without warning, burying some goats beneath it, as exposed portions of their heads and bodies gave evidence.

That there are no trees on Santa Catalina is a common belief. But it is impossible to see a thing without going where it is; and the tourist seldom enters the abodes of the trees. He sees no more of the great cottonwoods (Populus trichocarpa), the mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus panifolius), the Lyonothamnus, the white oak (Quercus tomentella), the willow-leaved manzanita (Arctostaphylos diversifolia), than he does of the poppy-trees, the rare snap-dragon, the little green orchid or its tall relative which wears its heart on its - slipper! - (Epipactis gigantea.)

There are three falls which cut down 200 feet through the rocks. There are long and winding canons which, starting from "the ridge," end suddenly and leave you standing 500 feet above the sea. There are palisades more than a thousand feet high and of exquisite coloring. Now and then some wild and happy canon or arroyo allows you to bear it company to the very sea-edge.

Loneliest of all is Silver Peak, at the extreme west end. While now and then someone finds his way to Black Jack or Orizaba, near the middle of the island, Silver Peak, rising beyond the Isthmuss, at the other end from Avalon, has rarely a visitor. From the summit there have been awful leaps and crashes into the sea, and the old crater below is walled by lofty peaks. Desolate indeed it seems, upon making the ascent, with no touch of green but the lichen upon the rocks; yet winding down towards the crater several hundred feet below, three or four groves of Lyonothamnus trees are seen.

Rounding the crater, where the air is stifling and the stones hot from the sun, following a goat trail down a cliff, against whose bruised feet far below the sea breaks, you come suddenly upon a "soft upland down." The Indians must have realized the charm of this protected spot, for going down the slope you come upon mounds of the sparkling abalone shells, which always have a tale to tell, and before you reach the sea your feet trip over the broken pots, and arrow-head and rings lie about. On a bluff fifty feet above the beach you find a pestle projecting from a mound, on the rise beyond some curiously carved fragments, and so wherever you move some evidence of the people who lived their lives here in olden days, as we live ours now, with doubtless less of worry and more of real enjoyment. The Indians have left no reason for their going. It seems a long silence between the time when Cabrillo visited the island and found it inhabited, and the day when we come upon the broken pots and belongings which they left so suddenly.

As it is said this island rose at a single upheavel, so may it sink again; but what of it all? We put too much stress upon the day and hour in which we live. We forget that without the dust of the stars there would be no Milky Way.

"Be comforted; the world is very old,
And generations pass as they have passed,
A troop of shadows moving with the sun;
Thousands of times has the old tale been told;
The world belongs to those who come last."

Santa Catalina Island, California.

Closing Thoughts: 100 Years Later
by
Another Naturalist of the 21st Century

The ending of this naturalist-prose essay is touching as is the whole essay. At the end of the essay is a sketched drawing, that shows the sun either setting or rising on the horizon beyond some rocks and also framed by two magnificently sketched trees that seem to be the Channel Islands Oak, but known to naturalists and scientists as Quercus tomentella.It is so apparent from all this just how much Blanche Trask loved and knew the Island, the sky, water, sun, fog, shadows, and the trees. There, into the "mystic clarity" goes Blanche Trask.

A few new findings are called for in Blanche Trask's essay since science progresses and new discoveries are made. For example, She lists Eriophyllum nevinii as occurring only on Catalina and San Clemente, however it is now also known from Santa Barbara Island, Sutil Island, and Shag Rock. This beautiful plant with "gold stars" as Blanche Trask aptly described the flowers is also found on Indian Island (formerly called Indian Rock) near the west end of Catalina Island at Emerald Bay. One of the best ways to see the magnificence of these "gold stars" is by kayak along the cliffs from Blue Cavern to Empire Landing where literally a thousand of these plants occur on the steep cliffs and hillsides. The California Native Plant Society gives us a better common name than Dusty Miller that was used by Blanche Trask, as Nevin's Woolly Sunflower. Note that Nevin was the one who brought Lyon with him to Catalina whereupon the Ironwood was discovered by these two naturalists. Thus, the Ironwood is named for Lyon, the Woolly Sunflower is named for Nevin, and some 20 years later, Blanche Trask discoverd a new Mahogany tree, which is named for her as the Trask Mahogany, although some incorrectly call it the Catalina Mahogany. It's scientific name is Cercocarpus traskiae but if its name was Cercocarpus catalinae it would be correct to call that endangered tree by the name of Catalina Mahogany. It should be noted here that Blanche Trask found a second new tree on Catalina, also a Mahogany which is also named for her and its name is Blanche Mountain Mahogany. Scientists have given it the name of Cercocarpus betuloides blanchae.

As the author of this web page, I must acknowledge my bias for California Wild Nature, in this case the California Channel Islands. Blanche Trask was undeniably a naturalist for California Wild Nature. In fact, she uses the word "wild" at least 3 times in the essay and she ends the essay with her home being "Santa Catalina Island, California" and not as Avalon.

I now firmly believe that Santa Catalina Island (together with San Clemente and San Nicolas) should be added to Channel Islands National Park bringing final protection to all eight Channel Islands. This is a worthy goal to strive for and something Blanche Trask would have liked. The Catalina Conservancy could remain as could the village of Avalon. On Santa Cruz Island for example, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is cooperating with the National Park Service (NPS). I think this could work for Catalina as well. The residents and families of Avalon are already tied into recreation and tourism, which is something the National Park Service does at Yosemite and Yellowstone for example. However, the Wrigley Family, City Government, and L.A. County Government should be phased out. These three entities definitely are at odds with the mission of the Catalina Conservancy. One thing is clear: The "Island" should be returned to the Bald Eagle, Osprey, Otter, five kinds of seals, native plants and other native animals. This island, we call Santa Catalina, if not to be a National Park, could also be a great STATE PARK! Blanche Trask would agree, wouldn't you?