Blanche Trask

(Read before Section of Botany, April 18, 1905)
Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences
Volume 4, Number 4, page 63-66

Compiled and Edited by
Robert 'Roy' van de Hoek

In the San Jacinto Mountains, last November, I was fortunate in finding Eunoymus parishii growing luxuriantly in Fern Canyon; also in a canyon--or more properly gorge--which the habitat in which it was first found and to which Mr. Hall refers in Bot. Sen., Page 93. It is in full growth just below the fall of a little stream which trickles over an exposed ledge of granite, which is a landmark from the opposite side of Strawberry Valley heights and facing Lily Rock; it is the first gorge to the left.

The shrubs are from four to ten feet tall and there were no fresh flowers, while the leaves had mostly fallen. It could be bare stems rising like a smoke from the bed of the stream, otherwise easily confounded with the Rhododendron which abounds and in many places fills these arroyos.

The fruit of Euonymus parishii is exquisitely beautiful, with the persistent white waxy petals open like a bud about the gay scarlet anilate seeds; capsule 2-3 lobed and one or two seeds in each cell; the third lobe very often abortive.

The trend of the San Jacinto Range is from the peak towards the southeast for twenty-five miles to Santa Rosa Mountain, and presses closer and closer to the desert until it begins indeed to take on its atmosphere at Van de Venter Flat, at an elevation of 4500 feet; the remarkable Pinus quadrifolia lives in and on the banks of Coyote Canyon. It is there the predominating tree, and perhaps would present a more pleasing appearance had you not come directly from the great forests of Strawberry Valley; it certainly could not afford a more interesting sight. In its youth, it is a trim and indeed as symmetrical as a fir, although it later becomes scraggy and loose-limbed. It is said to be of very slow growth and will not endure trimming or the pruning knife. The leaves number generally from two to five and there are those where two predominate.

The largest trees are thirty feet high and the Van de Venters, who were born in this country, seem to recall no perceptible increase in number of these pines in twenty-five years. The older boy can remember when a Pinus monophylla beside the trail today, and about twelve feet high, was only two or three feet tall when he was a lad of seven years. Pinus monophylla is very common in all desert ranges from 3000 to 4000 feet elevation.

Both these pines bear profusely and the cones are identical to all appearances, but the nut of the P. quadrifolia is hard, while that of P. monophylla is soft. The only family of the Santa Rosa Indians which now remains at the old Indian village, up in the Santa Rosa Mountains, say that these pines (P.quadrifolia) were planted in Coyote Canyon by their forefathers; when, they do not know. They still gather the nuts for food.

Facing northeast, Coyote Canyon is to the right of Van de Venter Flat about a good mile. From Van de Venter Flat, Buss Canyon breaks away to the Colorado Desert. This flat is really a pass between San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains. Five hundred feet below this pass Pinus monophylla begins to grow and is more or less common in all the desert slopes. El Toro Mountain, which rises yet east of Santa Rosa Mountain, has a curious top - as though it had a hollow cone, and one day, from too great a desert blast, had crumbled and fallen in; this mass of old rock-dust seems marked with foot prints of the earthquake, yet strangely enough P. monophylla is thickly set there.

Deep Canyon, which is crossed on the Martinez trail, has a trickling streamlet and in its bed the ash (Fraxinus) grows to be a tree. Populus abounds and even elders fifty feet high show their beautiful trunks against the over-toppling crags; yet fifty feet away Yucca and the Spanish Bayonet grow happily. The trail to Palm Canyon opens out from Van de Venter Flat, and the wall which encloses "Big Canyon" all the way seems to have been thrown there by the hand of a Cyclops; perhaps Big Canyon is Palm Canyon. You might find out if you had the courage to drop into its head and follow it until you meet the first palm; follow it - at least - so long as you lived; what with the furnace blast of the desert and the cacti which beset the way, and the utter lack of water, and no shade save such as a prostrate Juniper bush can give. As you will have long since left the pines behind, you are quite content to tramp along without investigations either to right or to left, other than those which are thrown in your way.

The land is sentineled by yuccas and century plants ten to twenty feet tall, and white as tapers in November against the over-burnt hills, while Spanish bayonets are challenging on every hand; endless "washes" line the way where you walk, and you hail the "desert willow" or clump of dry cottonwoods as a remarkable propitiation of the fates; indeed, you come to think no green thing can thrive in such a land and that all must partake necessarily of the grayness of the sage brush or of the color of the sun, of the volcanic tints of the over-burnt hills. But the next moment transfixed you stand, for just below in a tangled arroyo are the uplifted plumes of a forest which "stand dressed in living green;" while a thousand feet below and beyond the white sands of the desert are drifted like the snows on San Jacinto's head in winter, and you tramp down as in a dream to drink of the water and to lave your burning head.

The palms, over one hundred feet high, thrive in these arroyos, where columnar cacti as large as a man's waist, live on the dry cliff edges.

Although it seems a desecration to use a palm as a back-log, the great trunks one to two feet in diameter make an excellent bed of coals in the campfire all night.

The stream of water in which the palms grow is strongly alkaline and is always running even in dry years. There is also a warm spring in this region.

Young palms are as thick as grass under your feet and in all stages of growth. There are so many trees and the fallen leaves occupy so large a space that it is really a difficult task to tramp through these places; you cannot decide whether to turn to left or right, as trees twenty-five to thirty feet tall are burdened with their down-hanging leaves, which droop to the ground and make of them mammoth screens. Whichever way you go, you are sure to encounter the hooked-spine, leaf-blade of the palm and stepping high to lunge over a pile of dry leaves, you will be precipitated into a hidden spring or a rock-pool. Necessarily your progess is slow, but the palms tower overhead, and from every crag their leaves are silhouetted against the sky, while you seem to hear the sound of that old sea which broke so long ago over the white sands at the foot of these very cliffs.

Avalon, Santa Catalina Island.

Closing Comment
Robert Roy vand de Hoek
December 2000 - First Edition
January 2004 - Revised Edition

Blanche Trask was a wonderful naturalist and writer, whose writing still links Santa Catalina to San Jacinto Mountain. In addition, notice how she begins the essay on the subject of "TREES," namely the Burning Bush Tree (Eunoymus parishii) and then ends the essay with the Palm, another "TREE."

She explored San Jacinto Mountain 100 years ago and published her article 99 years ago in the new scientific magazine for naturalists and scientist in southern California. Her article appears in the science magazine that also carried many articles by Samuel Parish and Anstruther Davidson, who also wrote about the native plants of southern California. In order to publish an article in the Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences, one need to be a member of the Southern California Academy of Sciences. Since she published at least three articles in the Bulletin, it is presumed that she was a member of the Academy. There would only have been a few women that belonged to the Southern Academy of Sciences, so once again we see how she was a progressive woman ahead of her time and on the cusp of a wave with other early women writers such as Mary Austin.

As a naturalist writer, Blanche Trask utilizes the word "WHITE," in a manner that Mary Austin would do, to bring clarity to the subject, as Terry Tempest Williams has so curiously observed. Blanche Trask used the phrase "white sands" twice and the phrase of "white as tapers in November." I also noticed that Blanche Trask used a metaphor of "great" in reference to the pines as "great forests." And finally, Blanche Trask, also in the closing sentence of the essay, uses the word "SEA" since she loves the ocean, but in connection to "TIME" and "CLIFFS" of ancient waves, tides, and ocean.

Lastly, it is clear that Blanche Trask was interested in the past, whether it be history, archaeology (particularly ancient history of past Native American Indian peoples), or paleontology (via fossils). She was fascinated with natural "history" as science and as nature study. All the fields of natural history drew her in and also drew her out to the great out-of-doors of wild nature.