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Land of Little Rain:
Other Water BordersIt 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 tulares.
Copyright ©Walter Feller. All rights reserved.
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