Natural History Anthology

Blanche Trask
Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences
Volume 3, page 76-78 & 90-95

For many years San Clemente has lifted its amethystine heights, as I have followed the trails of Santa Catalina Island; a day’s trip to the “West End” and a week’s camping at the “East End,” with a long tramp over the crest-line, made me doubt the common assertion that “San Clemente is only a treeless waste of sand.”

Visits to the more northern of the Channel Islands--Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and the little Anacapas--claimed my attention; and a three months’ sojourn at San Nicolas Island, at three different seasons with a tarrying at tiny Santa Barbara Island and one special trip there, absorbed all my leisure; while the heights of San Clemente ever upheld their deeps, unknown to me! So near--and yet I knew them not!

However, last year, after living there three months, I have a real satisfaction in thinking I know something of that island. When I left I felt I would never again care to see places so terrible; but I find my heart following my eyes from the dear old Catalina trails as I see San Clemente this winter lying in all its amethystine beauty, like an Indian arrow-head, tipped with shining stretches of sand, enshrined by the white arms of the sea.

Eighteen miles long and nearly 2000 feet elevation upon its greatest height, it is by far the most inacessible of all the Channel Islands.

A rolling upland strewn with jagged volcanic rocks, which cut the boots at every step, reaches its greatest altitude on the north coast--a coast gashed by precipitous and bold gorges, not one of which could properly be called a canayon.

The south coast rises from the sea with perpendicular walls fifty to three hundred feet high, where it surprises you by a flat which may be followed the entire length of the south coast, over a trail the worst of all the trails which I have followed in many athousand miles’ tramping on these Channel Islands in the last ten years. It winds and turns and breaks into “cuts” and never a moment is the foot on level ground, but constantly caught in the crevices of the gnawing lava rocks, while a glimmering heat waves under the eaves of the heights, from whence great arroyos leap to the river flat below, casting rivers of fresh rock upon the already over-burdened rim; between these arroyos terracesd rise in endless succession.

You walk there in October and November and the aridity is oppressive; but in May the same trail is a miracle of color. Eschscholtzia ramosa starring the way, while Gilia nevinii, whose ehart is the true turquoise, so that I called it “The Turquoise Daisy,” is so plentiful that the arms could be filled with it. Senecio lyoni is nearly as common as everywhere, one to three feet tall.

The sweet “Lava Daisy” --Malacothrix foliosa Greene -- is here in its own home and special joy existence. You marvel that it can draw its life from rocks which are hot to the hand and which even burn the feet in walking.

On the north coast from the highest line the gorges leap into the sea below, five hundredfive hundred to two thousand feet, so suddenly, and often so unexpectedly, that no man can follow such ways in safety; there are rims of beaches below which can be looked into directly from the greatest heights; at high tide, they are well-nigh covered with surf, for much of the time either a north or a west or a “nor-west wind” is sweeping wildly down the whole length of the island, stirring the waves to a foam without warning.

At the east end are long stretches of sandy beaches and low outlying points; at the west end are some two miles of dunes and the principal Indian rancherias.

There are two springs of water on the north coast and two of the south coast of San Clemente. At “Gallagher’s” -- the west end -- an old ranch-house is situated where rain water is caught in tanks for all purposes. There is an artesian well at the east end; at the middle of the south coast is a pumping plant for a brackish spring. Two shepherds are regularly retained upon the island by the San Clemente Wool Coompany, who have leased this land from the United States Government.

I am indebted to the courtesy of the San Clemente Wool Company for granting me a pass to all parts of the island, with camping privileges; and I pledged myself that not a sheep should suffer through my hand or that of my people.

(Continued in June Number of the Bulletin)

There is but one man who knows San Clemente Island. This is John Robearts, and he has lived on the island over twenty years. I have named the most remarkable and picturesque of all the gorges on the north coast “Robearts’ Gorge,” in commemoration of his heroic explorations for the love of nature in its sternest forms. This gorge can be plainly viewed from a ship aat sea, its pinnaccles uplifted fo a thousand feet. It lises a half hour’s row westward from Mosquito Harbor and can eassily be recognized.

Generally, there is that wind from the west; at times it brings a wild storm of sand, when the very air is thick and you have to watch your guy ropes from early morn to night, and ‘tis well if even then the breaath abates--yet gentle days intervene when the placidity is dream-like.

An interesting phenomenon may be constantly observed from the heights. Great banks of cloud seem continually to be drawn to the highest elevation on the north crest, and when about one mile off shore evidently there is encountered an opposing force, for turmoil ensues and dissolution follows, with the result that although the larger part of the cloud-rack continues its old course and reaches the height, yet another portion is lost. It hesitates, is carried far out to sea and eventually rounds the extreme west end and drifts along the dunes of the “Sou’-west Harbor.”

“--Puts forth an arm and loiters
slowly drawn----”

 Once observed-twice-thrice! You begin to think it is more than an accidental occurrence. It gratified me afterward to find it was made note of by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Johnny says it has been going on ever since he can remember.

In the deep gorges under these beclouded headlands and on the bold steeps is the growth remarkable as would be expecteed.

Small stunted groves of Lyonothamnus floribundus var. asplenifolius are occasionally met on the south coasat heights, but it is on north coast that it ever follows--who can say why--ledges of exposed rocks as trails and under these beclouded crests it marches in long defiles like a conquering army, one to two feet in diameter; ten to twenty-five feet high; strong, heavy trunks, and never an entire leaf; it should stand as a species by itself; the same tree which thrives in similar exposures on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands, while on Catalina, the trees have a different aspect; entire leaves , and assume tall tapering figures.

Under these same heights in San Clemente, too, the oaks are seen in companies; Quercus tomentella and Q. chrysolepis, low and defiant often, with gray dead tops and outspread limbs; gnarled trunks one to two feet in diameter; you can skirt the coast-line in a skiff and look up and count the companies of the oaks and Lyonothamnus trees by defiles as you pass rowing; count them to the very summits.

The descent from the heights to the sea in these regions is perilous in the extreme. Clovers are four to six feet high, Trifolium tridentatum being the most common growth, is so dense under the feet that neither trail nor rocks can be discerned and you have to feel your way with hands and feet over jagged rocks, while the strong clovers trap you at every step like vines.

Trifolium palmeri is common, nearer the sea than T. gracilentum or T. tridentatum.

Besides all these hindrances, there is yet to be mentioned the chains which guard San Clemente Island, whose links are caves innumerable. It is a relief to the eye to come across a stretch which has not its gaping rents; the gorge is everywhere present and the rock-strewn terrace and the leaping arroyo; but the light of the caves is the Convolvulus macrostegius.

There is one open mouth on the “nor’-west” coast where the Dendromecon flashes -- never in truer glory or more prfusion of bloom. It was also seen towards the East end at the heads of some of the precipitous dips, seven years ago, though of course not so large as in theis protected mouth.

Antirrhinum speciosum is as common in every break as are the boulders which take their places as sand on the beaches; happy under all circumstances; enkindling the darkest gulches where the o’er-toppling walls are shutting out the sky.

Cereus emoryi traverses the entire south coast, swinging from many a gaping cave, while Opuntia prolifera increases in numbers as you near the Easat End, until it fairly besets the trail, making it a serious underetaking for foot of man or beast. Opuntia enelmanni var. littoralis is not frequent, but seems to bloom profusely and to bear well in an occasional spot.

Dr. Rose finds two new species of Stylophyllum and strangely enough, one hides in the west end and one at the east end of the Island -- S. albidum and S. virens respectively.

Johnn tells me Viola pedunculata is singularly fragrant -- “like the odor of peaches”; I found only the crisping pods and seeds.

White flowers, or white with veins of magenta, abound amid the ordinary magenta one of Mirabilis california.

A new Astragalus spreads its silver leaves along the golden sands of thw West End dunes; this is to be Robeartsii Eastwood, while A. nevinii looks out at the “sou’west” Arrowhead Point and seems by its very isolation to be reserved for future ages, its shaggy mantle of black hair recalling at once A. traskiae found on San nicolas island, although the latter is a more handsome plant.

The Mesembryanthemum crystallinum at the west end very properly gives you not a thought beyond recognition of its usual happy style; but when it leaves its dunes and iss your companion for miloes and miles on the outspread uplands, you begin to give it more thought and to see that its sway is remarkable. Johnny says it increases yearly, and can recall when it never left the dunes. It now runs almost to the center on the tableland heights, to the exclusion of nearly all other plant-life; it soaks boots and leggings and makes “time” impossible in its region.

The little Eschscholtzia ramosa which could never be confounded with Eschscholtzia californica by any one who had been familiar with the former in the field, is oftgen met in arid places, six to twelve inches high, its flowers usually not an inch in diameter, with ever a strange glaucous light upon its leaves.

A tree daisy truly is Encelia californica found in “Chalk Cliff Canon;” one to four inches diameter and ten to twelve feet high.

Euphorbia misera holds a little colony of its own in the most picturesque of all the arrow-head points , where, in a broken edge, it is one to two feet high and one to three inches in diameter, with peculiarly blunted branches and creeping ways.

In many a moist nook of the great north coast gulches, thrives a Ribes, appearing strangely domestic and robust in these surroundings; becoming tree-like, even twelve feet high and eight inches in diameter, although it is usually shrubby.

The Prunus, which grows in all parts of San Clemente where it can gain a foothold, should be given specific rank; it is identical with the one at Catalina Island, which is not the variety of Ilicifolia that it has been made. In the deep recesses of San Clemente’s gorges, it attains a height of thirty feet with as great a spread, and measures one to three feet in diameter. The fruit is luscious--its pulp a quarater of an inch thick. The pits have been sent to Santa Ana to the experimental gardens, where Professor Pierce hopes to reduce the stones and increase the pulp, thus securing to California a cherry which will thrive in the low-lands.

In one locality, Crossosoma californicum was seen--a few shrubs ten feet tall crowded into a cleft, yhet in both flower and fruit; a peculiar form of Rhus ovata is on the same height, about four feet high shrubby.

Adenostoma is found on the arid heights of the north coast and Ceanothus macrocarpus at rare intervals; both ten to twelve feet high and one’ to six inches in diameter.

Sambucus glauca is a handsome tree in northern slopes, while Lonicera finds a few moist and shaded spots in which to thrive.

In one locality--an old harbor--brassica nigra flourished six feet tall.

Senecio lyoni stars the land , along with “the turquoise flower,” Gilia nevinii; with the fiery little snap-dragon Antirrhinum speciosum common; and along the sea-edges Eriophyllum nevinii abides and, remembering the frequency of the dainty clover, Trifolium palmeri, you have in san Clemente a galaxy, one plant of which is owrth going a hundred miles to see.

The memory of a little clump of Lycium at the “Nor’-west harbor” was fresh in my mind upon my second trip last year; it looked different from usual and was of course not L. californicum, which covers vast areas westward; both fruit and flower upon my second trip confirmed my suspicions. Miss Eastwood sends word it is none other than Lycium richii, the only know plant in the United States being at Avalon, although, to be sure, it is common in Baja California.

Finding Aphanisma blitoides along the sea-cliff edges and Malva exile in old Indian mounds was typical of what is known of their habits on Catalina.

Rhus integrifolia is here a shrub generally, although in favored situations it is over one foot in diameter.

Rhamnus crocea is an occasional sight in the south coast arroyoss; old and gnarled trunks twelve to eighteen inches in diameter.

A gay rose-pink Cnicus occidentalis is not typical, but occasional here.

In the dunes Franseria and Abronia maritima and A. umbellata are seen.

The blending of Collinsia bicolor is on all the favored nooks toward the Pyramid Head, East End.

One shrub of Baccharis holds forth alone in the treeless region of the west end; while in the hot days of last November in the south arroyos, I came across two or three shrubs which appeared to be a “sp. nov.” of Baccharis, according to Miss Eastwood.

At the far sand reaches of the east end one Atriplex breweri (?) stands besides the sea; in November a beautiful sight of waving golden bloom eight feet tall.

A long disputed question of species of Suaeda was settled by finding a desired development on San Clemente shores; an insular form seen on San Nicolas and Santa Barbara Islands.

The little Saxifraga blooms brightened all the arid western regions in November, bursting as by magic through the hard soil; also Eriogonum nudum and Eriogonum gigantea were frequently beheld; while Atriplex expansa was ever “tumbleweed” in the trail, an actual encumbrance.

A new Malacothrix overhung many an inaccessible gorge in October and November, with its great masses of lavender flowers in atonement for its rank leaves; another Compositae which was not in bloom, was found in better condition in June and may prove a Hazardia interesting; also yet another species of Hazardia was discovered in a remote canyon.

Galium catalinense was often seen in happy state-climbing; Lotus traskiae in some localities, though rare; as strange Castilleia here flourishes, with rich canary-colored bracts shrubby, two to four feet tall.

On the main southern flats in May, Plantago insularis and Oligomeris were common; while Phacelias lay along the trail like bits of fallen sky.

Lamarkia aurea, the “Knights Plume” of Catalina waves also here.

An old Lupine which has long grown at Catalina and which seem to be a variety of L. truncatus was frequently seen in San Clemente Island also, besides other Lupines which sprang easily in that rich old soil.

Lavatera assurgentiflora was twice found--one tree eight inches in diameter--looking into the sea from a cliff near Mosquito Harbor; another in a region of Pot’s Valley pointed out to me by Johnny; it was a foot in diameter and twelve feet high: llow and bent and splitting at base.

Johnny tells me that formerly there were many “Malva Rosa” as he calls them; some even on the south coast; mostly eaten by cattle in years when feed was scarce. He recalls their forming groves

Malva parviflora grows in abundance near Gallagher’s; is often six feet tall.

Marrubium vulgare is to be seen at the “Nor’-west Harbor” along with Salicornia in find condition in a sort of marsh-inland.

A peculiar form of Oenothera, for long years known at Catalina, is to receive recognition at last. Common near the sea, prostrate--with curling bark--woody at base.

An “island” of Hemizonia fasciculata above Pot’s Valley attracts wonderment amidst the sea of Mesembryanthemum which surrounds it.

Hemizonia clementina Brandegee is a shrubby form which is often seen one to two feet tall towards the westward; this also grows in Catalina.

The gay flowers of Penstemon cordiflora which merit the common name “Coral String” given them in Catalina surprise you in many an opening in a gorgee on the north coast.

Closing Comment
Robert Roy vand de Hoek

Blanche Trask, what a wonderful naturalist and writer she was, whose writing still links Santa Catalina to San Clemente as two sibling islands, both in Los Angeles County, and then there are the trees that link these two islands, namely the Island Oak and the Island Ironwood. Is San Clemente Island, owned by LA County and leased to the US NAVY worthy of being added to the Channel Island National Park, similar to five other Channel Islands? Answer-YES!!! Should the Navy Base be closed on San Clemente Island? Answer-YES!!!

The article that you just read was published in 1904 but she explored the island on a 1903 trip to San Clemente Island, however in a paragraph beginning with “The memory...” she points out that: “upon my second trip last year” which indicates that she made a trip there in 1902. And we know from an 1897 publication in Erythea that she visited San Clemente Island in 1897 as well. Thus, Blanche Trask visited San Clemente Island in 1897, 1902, 1903. Was there a fourth trip? It is possible?

Only one time does she ever mention Baja California, that magical and mystical land, in her writings. There is proof too, that she corresponded with Alice Eastwood in 1903-1904. Did these letters survive the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake-fire?