Mary Austin

CALIFORNIA: The Land of the Sun
177 pages and one map
32 color paintings

Mary Austin
Naturalist, Geographer, and Mystic
Chapter 3
Coasts of Adventure
Page 47-60

Old trails, older than the memory of man, go out from the southern country by way of Cahuenga, by Eagle Rock, toward that part of the shelving coast where the Padre’s mustard gold lingered longest, as if to mark the locality where the gold they missed was first uncovered. But suppose, on that day of the year ‘41, Francisco Lopez, major-domo of the Mission San Fernando, had not had an appetite for onions? Who knows how history would have made itself?

The speculation is idle; anybody named Lopez has always a taste for onions because they are the nearest thing to garlic. Senor Francisco, - I suppose one may grant him the title at this distance - rested under an oak and dug up the wild root with his knife, and the tide of the world’s emigration set toward the Coasts of Adventure.

I have, holding my papers as I write, an Indian basket reputed to be one of those in which, in those days, placer gold was washed out of the sandy loam; it was given me by one who had it from Don Antonio Coronel, and has a pattern about it of the low serried hills of the coast district. Where it breaks, as all patterns of Indian baskets do, to give egress to the spirit resident in things dedicated to human use, there are two figures of men with arms outstretched, but divided as the pioneers who carried the cross into that country were from those who followed the lure of gold. The basket wears with time, but the pattern holds, inwoven with its texture as Romance is woven with the history of all that region lying between San Francisco on the north and Cahuenga where, after a bloodless battle, was consummated cession of California from Mexico.

From the white landmark of San Juan Capistrano to a point opposite Santa Inez, saints thick as sea-birds, standing seaward, break the long Pacific swell: San Clemente, Santa Catalina, Santa Rosa - their deep-scored cliffs searched by the light, revealing their kinship with the parallel mainland ranges. But there are hints here, in the plant and animal life and in the climate, milder even than that of the opposing channel ports, hints which not even the Driest-Dustiness dare despise, of those mellower times than ours from which all fables of Blessed Islands are sprung. Islands “very near the terrestrial paradise” the old Spanish romancer described them. Often as not the imagination sees more truly than the eye. I myself am ready to affirm that something of man’s early Eden drifted thither on the Kuro-Siwa, that warm current deflected to our coast, which, for all we know of it, might well be one of the four great rivers that went about the Garden and watered it. Great golden sun-fish doze upon the island tides, flying-fish go by in purple and silver streaks, and under the flat bays, which take at times colour that rivals the lagoons of Venice, forests of kelp, a-crawl with rainbow-coloured life, sleep and sway upon tides unfelt of men. There are days at Catalina so steeped with harmonies of sea and sun that the singing of the birds excites the soothed sense no more than if the lucent air had that moment dripped in sound. These are the days when the accounts that Cabrillo left of his findings there, of a civil and religious development superior to the tribes of the mainland, beguile the imagination.

One thinks of the watery highway between the west coast and the channel islands as another Camino Real of the sea, where in place of mule trains and pacing Padres, went balsas, skin canoes, galleons, far-blown Chinese junks, Russian traders, slipping under the cliffs of San Juan for untaxwed hides and tallow, Atlantic whalers, packets rounding the Horn, sunk past the load line with Argonauts of ‘49, opium smugglers dropping a contraband cask or an equally prohibited coolie under the very wing of San Clemente. So many things could have happened - Odysseys, AEneids - that it is with a sigh one resigns the peaks of the submerged range, paling and purpling on the west, to the student of sea-birds and sea-nourished plants.

Looking from the islands landward, the locked shores have still for long stretches the aspect of undiscovered country. Hills break abruptly in the suf or run into narrow moon-shaped belts of sand where a mountain arm curves out or the sea eats inward. And yet for nearly four centuries the secret of the land was blazoned to all the ships that passed, in the great fields of poppy gold that every wet season flamed fifty miles or more to seaward.

One must hav eseen the Eschscholtzia so, smouldering under the mists of spring, to understand the thrill that comes of finding them later scattered as they are, throughout the gardens of the world. I recall how at Rome, coming up suddenly out of catacombs - we had gone down by another entrance an had been wandering for hours in the mortuary gloom-memory leaped up to find a great bed of golden poppies tended by brown, beardded Franciscans. They couldn’t say-Fray Filippo, whom I questioned, had no notion-whence the sun-bright cups had come, except that theye were common in the gardens of his order. It seemed a natural sort of thing for some Mission Padre, seeking a memento of himself to send back to his Brotheres of St. Francis half a world away, to have chosen these shining offsprings of the sun. There was confirmation in the fact that Fray Filippo knew them not by the unspellable botanical name, but by the endearing Castilian “dormidera,” sleepy-eyed, in reference to their habit of unfolding only to the light; but the connecting thread was lost. Channel fishermen still, in spite of the obliterating crops, can trace the blue lines of lupins between faint streaks of poppy fires, and catch above the reek of their boats, when the land wind begins, blown scents of islay and ceanothus.

No rivers of water of notable size pour down this west coast, but rivers of green flood the shallow canons. Here and there from the crest of the range one catches an arrowy glimpase of a seasonal stream, but from the sea-view the furred chaparral is unbroken except for bare ridges, wind-swept even of the round-headed oaks. This coast country is a favourite browsing place for deer; they can be seen there still in early summer, feeding on the acorns of the scrub oaks, and especially on the tender twigs of wind-fallen trees, or herding at noon in the deep fern which closes like cleft waters over their heads. Until within a few years it was no unlikely thing to hear little black bears snorting and snuffing under the manzanita, of the berries of which they aree inordinately fond. This lovely shrub with its twisty, satiny stems of wine-red, suffusing brown, its pale conventionalised leaves and flat little umbels of berries, suggests somehow the carving on old Gothic choirs, as though it borrowed its characteristic touch from an external shaping hand; as if with its predetermined habit of growth it had a secret affinity for man, and waited but to be transplanted into gardens. It needs, however, no garden facilities, but shapes itself to the most inhospitable conditions. About the time it begins to put forth its thousand waxy bells, in December or January, the toyon, the native holly, iks at its handsomest. This is a late summer flowering shrub that in mid-winter looses a little of its glossy green, and above its yellowing foliage bears berries in great scarlet clusters. between these two overlapping ends, the gaumet of the chaparral is run in blues of wild lilac, reds and purples of rhus and buckthorn and the wide, white umbels of the alder, which here becomes a tree fifty to sixty feet in height. It is the only one of the tall chaparral which has edible fruit, for though bears and indians make a meal of manzanita, it does not commend itself to cultivated taste. More humble species, huckleberry, thimble, and blackberry, crowd the open spaces under the oak-madrono forests, or, as if they knew their particular usefulness to man, come hurrying to clearings of the axe, and may be seen holding handss as they climb to cover the track of careless fires. In June whole hill-slopes, under the pine and madronos, burn crimson with sweet, wild strawberries. The wild currant and the fuchsia-flowered goose-berry are not edible, but they are under no such obligations; they “make good” with long wands of jewel-red, drooping blossoms, and in the case of the currant, with delicate pink racemes, thrown out almost before the leaves while the earth still smells of winter dampness. Though nobody seems to know how it travelled so far, the “incense shrub” is a favourite of English gardens where, before the primroses begin, it seves the same purpose as in the west coast canons, quickening the sense into anticipations of beauty on every side.

Inland the close, round-backed hills draw into ranks and ranges, making way for chains of fertile valleys which also fill out the Californian’s calendar of saints. But, in fact, your true Californian prays to his land as much as ever the early Roman did, and pours on it libations of water and continuous incense of praise. Every one of these longish, north-trending basins is superlatively good for something, - olives or wheat, perhaps; Pajaro produces apples and Santa Clara has become the patroness of prunes.

Nothing could be more ethereally lovely than the spring aspect of the orchard country. It begins with the yellowing of the meadow lark’s breast, and then of early mornings, with the appearance, as if flecks of the sky had fallen, of great flocks of bluebirds that blow about in the plouhed lands and are dissolved in rain. Then the poppies spring up like torchmen in the winter wheat, and along the tips of the apricots, petals begin to show, crumpled as the pink lips of children shut upon mischievous secrets; a day or two of this and then the blossoms swarm as bees, white fire breaks out among the prunes, it scatters along the foothills like the surf. Toward the end of the blooming season all the country roads are defined by thin lines of petal drift, and any wind that blows is alive with whiteness. After which, thick leafage covers the ripening fruit and the valley dozes through the summer heat with the farms outlined in firm green, like a patchwork quilt drawn up across the mountain’s knees.

The tree that gives the memorable touch to the landscape of the coast valleys is the oak, both the roble and encinas varieties. There are others with greater claims to distinction, the sequoia, the “big tree,” lurking in the Santa Cruz mountains, the madrono, red-breeched, green-coated, a very Robin Hood of trees, sequestered in cool canons, and the redwood, the palo colorado, discovered by the first Governor, Don Gasper de Portola, on his search for the lost port of Monte Rey. All these keep well back from the main lines of travel. The most that the rail tourist sees of them is a line of redwoods, perhaps, climbing up from the sea-fronting canons to peer and whisper on the ridges above the fruiting orchards. But the oaks go on, keeping well in the laps of the hills, avoiding the wind rivers, marching steadily across the alluvial basins on into the hot interior. They are more susceptible to wind influence than almost any other, and mark the prevailing directions of the seasonal air currents with their three-hundred-year-old trunks as readily as reeds under a freshet. You can see them hugging the lee side of any canon, leaning as far as they may out of the sea-born draughts, but standing apart, true aristocrats among trees, disdaining alike one another and the whole race of orchard inmates. When in full leaf, for the roble is deciduous, they are both of them distinctly paintable, particularly when in summer the trunks, grey and aslant, upbearing cloud-shaped masses of dark gree, make an agreeable note against the fawn-coloured hills. The roble is a noble tree, but seen in winter stripped of its thick, small leafage, it loses interest. Its method of branching is fussy, too finely divided, and without grace.

Around Santa Margarita and Paso Robles filmy moss spreads a veil over the robles as of Druid meditation; one fancies them aloof from the stir of present-day life as they were from the bears that used to feed on the mast under them. A hundred years or so ago the Franciscans drove out the bears by an incantation - I mean by the exorcism of the Church enforced with holy water and a procession with banners around the Mission precinct; “I adjure you, O Bears, by the true God, by the Holy God . . . to leave the fields to our flocks, not to molest them nor come near them.” But bears or homo sapiens, it is all one to the oaks of San Antonio; indeed, if legend is to be credited, the four-footed brothers would have been equally as acceptable to the patron of the Mission where this interesting ceremony took place. I can testify, however, that after all this lapse of time the exorcism is still in force, for though I have been up and down that country many times I have seen no bears in it.

Things more pestiferous than bears are driven out, humours of the blood, stiffness of the joints, by the medicinal waters that bubble and seep along certain ancient fissures of the country rock. This has always seemed to me the very insolence of superfluity. Who wishes, when all the air is censed with the fragrance of wild vines, to have his nose assaulted with fumes of sulphur, even though it is known to be good for a number of things? But there are some people who could never be got to observe the noble proportions of five-hundred-year-old oaks with the wild grapes going from tree to tree like a tent, except as a by-process incident to the drinking of nasty waters. So the land has its way even with our weaknesses.

Besides these excursions inland, which bring us in almost every case to one of the ancient Franciscan foundations, there are two or three ports of call on the sea front worth lingering at for more things than the pleasant air and the radiant wild bloom. One of these is Santa Barbara which Santa Inez holds in its lap, curving like a scimitar opposite the most northerly of the channel islands. Understand, however, that no good comes of thinking of Santa Barbara as a place on the map. It is a Sargossa of Romance, a haven of last things, the last Mission in the hands of the Franciscans, the last splendour of the Occupation, the last place where mantillas were worn and they danced the fandango and la jota; an eddy into which have drifted remnants of every delightful thing that has passed on the highways of land and sea, which here hail one another across the curving moon white beach. Summer has settled there, California summer which never swelters, never scorches. Frost descends at times from Santa Inez to the roofs, but lays no finger on the fuchsias, poinsettias, and the heliotropes climbing to second-story windows. The wild thickets which connect the territory with the town, are vocal with night-singing mocking-birds; along the foreshore white pelicans divide the mountain-shadowed waters. The waters, taking all the sky’s changes, race to the fairy islands, the chaparral runs back to the flanks of Santa Inez showing yellowly through the distant blue of pines; overhead a sky clouded with light. This is not a paradox but an attempt to express the misty luminosity of a heaven filled with refractions of the summer-tinted slope, the glaucous leafage of the chaparral, the white sand sapphire-glinting water. The sky beyond the enclosing mountains has the cambric blueness of the superheated interior, but directly overhead it has depth and immensity of colour unequalled except along the Mediterranean.

Santa Barbara is a port of distinguished visitors; more, and more varieties, of sea-birds put in there on the long flight from the Arctic to the Isthmus than is easily believable. In the estero-esteril, sterile-an ill-smelling tide pool lying behind the town, may be found at one season or another, all the western species that delight the ornithologist. The black brant, going by night, and wild swans, as many as a score of them together, have been noted in its backwaters, and scarcely any stroll along the receding surf but is enlivened by the resonant, sweet whistle of the plover. In hollows of the sands thousands of beach - haunting birds may be seen camping for the night, looking like some sea-coloured, strange vegetation, and early mornings when the channel racing by, leaves the bay placid, tens of thousands of shearwaters sleep in shouldering ranks that sway with the incoming swell as the kelp sways, without being scattered by it. One can see the same sight, augmented as to numbers, around Monterey, a long day’s journey to the north as the car goes, long enough and lovely enough to deserve another chapter.

Robert Roy van de Hoek
Closing Comments & Observations

Trained as a scientist in the fields of biology and geography, I now find myself analyzing english literature, namely prose writing by a female mystic of 100 years ago. How strange for a scientist and post-modern Naturalist to find biological science and nature studies in a book about early California landscapes, rather than using modern biological methods. Would some scientists dismiss me for using old literature to understand the natural ecology of wild California and wild nature

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