Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 35, Spring/Summer 1994
The Deserts in Literature

The Desert

by John C. Van Dyke (1856-1932)


"And so it is that my book is only an excuse for talking about the beautiful things in this desert world that stretches down the Pacific Coast [including , in this case, portions of California and Nevada and of Baja California], and across Arizona and Sonora. The desert has gone a-begging for a word of praise these many years. It never had a sacred poet; it has in me only a lover."

So wrote Van Dyke of his superb The Desert, first published in 1901. Lawrence Clark Powell, in his introduction to the 1976 reprint of the 1903 edition published by The Arizona Historical Society, Tucson, disagrees with the author. The Desert is &a far-seeing, prophetic work that remains . . . at the very pinnacle of desert literature,& Powell asserts, &a poem in prose . . . distinguished by precise observation and profound knowledge.& Our excerpt is from "Chapter II: The Make of the Desert":

The first going-down into the desert is always something of a surprise. The fancy has pictured one thing; the reality shows quite another thing. Where and how did we gain the idea that the desert was merely a sea of sand? Did it come from that geography of our youth with the illustration of the sand-storm, the flying camel, and the over-excited Bedouin? Or have we been reading strange tales told by travellers of perfervid imagination - the Marco Polos of to-day? There is, to be sure, some modicum of truth even in the statement that misleads. There are "seas" or lakes or ponds of sand on every desert; but they are not so vast, not so oceanic, that you ever lose sight of the land.

What land? Why, the mountains. The desert is traversed by many mountain ranges, some of them long, some short, some low, and some rising upward ten thousand feet. They are always circling you with a ragged horizon, dark-hued, bare-faced, barren - just as truly desert as the sands which were washed down from them. Between the ranges there are wide-expanding plains or valleys. The most arid portions of the desert lie in the basins of these great valleys - flat spaces that were once the beds of lakes, but are now dried out and left perhaps with an alkaline deposit that prevents vegetation. Through these valleys run arroyos or dry stream-beds - shallow channels where gravel and rocks are rolled during cloudbursts and where sands drift with every wind. At times the valleys are more diversified, that is, broken by benches of land called mesas, dotted with small groups of hills called lomas, crossed by long stratified faces of rock called escarpments.

With these large features of landscape common to all countries, how does the desert differ from any other land? Only in the matter of water - the lack of it. If Southern France should receive no more than two inches of rain a year for twenty years it would, at the end of that time, look very like the Sahara, and the flashing Rhone would resemble the sluggish yellow Nile. If the Adirondack region in New York were comparatively rainless for the same length of time we should have something like the Mojave Desert, with the Hudson changed into the red Colorado. The conformations of the lands are not widely different, but their surface appearances are as unlike as it is possible to imagine.

For the whole face of a land is changed by the rains. With them come meadow-grasses and flowers, hillside vines and bushes, fields of yellow grain, orchards of pink-white blossoms. Along the mountain sides they grow the forests of blue-green pine, on the peaks they put white caps of snow; and in the valleys they gather their waste waters into shining rivers and flashing lakes. This is the very sheen and sparkle - the witchery - of landscape which lend allurement to such countries as New England, France, or Austria, and make them livable and lovable lands.

But the desert has none of these charms. Nor is it a livable place. There is not a thing about it that is "pretty," and not a spot upon it that is "picturesque" in any Berkshire-Valley sense. The shadows of foliage, the drift of clouds, the fall of rain upon leaves, the sound of running waters - all the gentler qualities of nature that minor poets love to juggle with - are missing on the desert. It is stern, harsh, and at first repellent. But what tongue shall tell the majesty of it, the eternal strength of it, the poetry of its wide-spread chaos, the sublimity of its lonely desolation! And who shall paint the splendor of its light; and from the rising up of the sun to the going down of the moon over the iron mountains, the glory of its wondrous coloring! It is a gaunt land of splintered peaks, torn valleys, and hot skies. And at every step there is the suggestion of the fierce, the defiant, the defensive. Everything within its borders seems fighting to maintain itself against destroying forces. There is a war of elements and a struggle for existence going on here that for ferocity is unparalleled elsewhere in nature.

The feeling of fierceness grows upon you as you come to know the desert better. The sunshafts are falling in a burning shower upon rock and dune, the winds blowing with the breath of far-off fires are withering the bushes and the grasses, the sands drifting higher and higher are burying the trees and reaching up as though they would overwhelm the mountains, the cloud-bursts are rushing down the mountain's side and through the torn arroyos as though they would wash the earth into the sea. The life, too, on the desert is peculiarly savage. It is a show of teeth in bush and beast and reptile. At every turn one feels the presence of the barb and thorn, the jaw and paw, the beak and talon, the sting and the poison thereof. Even the harmless Gila monster flattens his body on a rock and hisses a "Don't step on me." There is no living in concord or brotherhood here. Everything is at war with its neighbor, and the conflict is unceasing.

Yet this conflict is not so obvious on the face of things. You hear no clash or crash or snarl. The desert is overwhelmingly silent. There is not a sound to be heard; and not a thing moves save the wind and the sands. But you look up at the worn peaks and the jagged barrancas, you look down at the wash-outs and piled boulders, you look about at the windtossed, half-starved bushes; and, for all the silence, you know that there is a struggle for life, a war for place, going on day by day.

How is it possible under such conditions for much vegetation to flourish? The grasses are scanty, the grease-wood and cactus grow in patches, the mesquite crops out only along the dry river-beds. All told there is hardly enough covering to hide the anatomy of the earth. And the winds are always blowing it aside. You have noticed how bare and bony the hills of New England are in winter when the trees are leafless and the grasses are dead? You have seen the rocks loom up harsh and sharp, the ledges assume angles, and the backbone and ribs of the open field crop out of the soil? The desert is not unlike that all the year round. To be sure there are snow-like driftings of sand that muffle certain edges. Valleys, hills, and even mountains are turned into rounded lines by it at times. But the drift rolled high in one place was cut out from some other place; and always there are vertebrë showing - elbows and shoulders protruding through the yellow byssus of sand.

The shifting sands! Slowly they move, wave upon wave, drift upon drift; but by day and by night they gather, gather, gather. They overwhelm, they bury, they destroy, and then a spirit of restlessness seizes them and they move off elsewhere, swirl upon swirl, line upon line, in serpentine windings that enfold some new growth or fill in some new valley in the waste. So it happens that the surface of the desert is far from being a permanent affair. There is hardly enough vegetation to hold the sands in place. With little or no restraint upon them they are transported hither and yon at the mercy of the winds. . . .

In open places these desert winds are sometimes terrific in force though usually they are moderate and blow with steadiness from certain directions. As you feel them softly blowing against your cheek it is hard to imagine that they have any sharp edge to them. Yet about you on every side is abundant evidence of their works. The sculptor's sand-blast works swifter but not surer. Granite and porphyry cannot withstand them, and in time they even cut through the glassy surface of lava. Their wear is not here nor there, but all over, everywhere. The edge of the wind is always against the stone. Continually there is the slow erosion of canyon, crag, and peak; forever there is a gnawing at the bases and along the face-walls of the great sierras. Grain by grain, the vast foundations, the beetling escarpments, the high domes in air are crumbled away and drifted into the valleys. Nature heaved up these mountains at one time to fulfill a purpose: she is now taking them down to fulfill another purpose. If she has not water to work with here as elsewhere she is not baffled of her purpose. Wind and sand answer quite as well.

But the cutting of the wind is not always even or uniform, owing to the inequalities in the fibre of rock; and often odd effects are produced by the softer pieces of rock wearing away first and leaving the harder section exposed to view. Frequently these remainders take on fantastic shapes and are likened to things human, such as faces, heads, and hands. In the San Gorgonio Pass the rock-cuttings are in parallel lines, and occasionally a row of garnets in the rock will make the jewel-pointed fingers of a hand protruding from the parent body. Again shafts of hard granite may make tall spires and turrets upon a mountain peak, a vein of quartz may bulge out in a white or yellow or rose-colored band; and a ridge of black lava, reaching down the side of a foot-hill, may creep and heave like the backbone of an enormous dragon.

Perhaps the greatest erosion is in the passes through which the winds rush into the desert. Here they not only eat into the ledges and cut away the rock faces, but they make great washouts in the desert itself. These trenches look in every respect as though caused by water. In fact the effects of wind and water are often so inextricably mixed that not even an expert geologist would be able to say where the one leaves off and the other begins. The shallow caves of the mountains - too high up for any wave action from sea or lake, and too deep to be reached by rains - have all the rounded appearance of water-worn receptacles. One can almost see the water-lines upon the walls. But the sandheaped floor suggests that the agent of erosion was the wind.

Yes; there is some water on the deserts, some rainfall each year. Even Sahara gets its occasional showers, and the Colorado and the Mojave show many traces of the cloud-burst. The dark thunder-clouds that occasionally gather over the desert seem at times to reserve all their stores of rain for one place. The fall is usually short-lived but violent; and its greatest force is always on the mountains. There is no sod, no moss, to check or retard the flood; and the result is a great rush of water to the low places. In the canyons the swollen streams roll down boulders that weigh tons, and in the ravines many a huge barranca is formed in a single hour by these rushing waters. On the lomas and sloping valleys they are not less destructive, running in swift streams down the hollows, and whirling stones, sand, and torn bushes into the old river-beds.

In a very short time there is a great torrent pouring down the valley - a torrent composed of water, sand, and gravel in about equal parts. It is a yellow, thick stream that has nothing but disaster for the man or beast that seeks to swim it. Many a life has been lost there. The great onset of the water destroys anything like buoyancy, and the tendency is to drag down and roll the swimmer like a boulder. Even the enormous strength of the grizzly bear has been known to fail him in these desert rivers. They boil and seethe as though they were hot; and they rush on against banks, ripping out the long roots of mesquite, and swirling away tons of undermined gravel as though it were only so much snow. At last after miles of this millracing the force begins to diminish, the streams reach the flat lake-beds and spread into broad, thin sheets; and soon they have totally vanished, leaving scarcely a rack behind.

The desert rainfall comes quickly and goes quickly. The sands drink it up, and it sinks to the rock strata, where, following the ledges, it is finally shelved into some gravel-bed. There, perhaps a hundred feet under the sand, it slowly oozes away to the river or the Gulf. There is none of it remains upon the surface except perhaps a pool caught in a clay basin, or a catch of water in a rocky bowl of some canyon. Occasionally one meets with a little stream where a fissure in the rock and a pressure from below forces up some of the water; but these springs are of very rare occurrence. And they always seem a little strange. A brook that ran on the top of the ground would be an anomaly here; and after one lives many months on the desert and returns to a well-watered country, the last thing he becomes accustomed to is the sight of running water.

In every desert there are isolated places where water stands in pools, fed by underground springs, where mesquite and palms grow, and where there is a show of coarse grass over some acres. These are the so-called oases in the waste that travellers have pictured as Gardens of Paradise, and poets have used for centuries as illustrations of happiness surrounded by despair. To tell the truth they are wretched little mud-holes; and yet because of their few trees and their pockets of yellow brackish water they have an appearance of unreality. They are strange because bright-green foliage and moisture of any kind seem out of place on the desert. . . .

The desert mountains gathered in clusters along the waste, how old and wrinkled, how set and determined they look! Somehow they remind you of a clenched hand with the knuckles turned skyward. They have strength and bulk, the suggestion of quiescent force. Barren rock and nothing more; but what could better epitomize power! The heave of the enormous ridge, the loom of the domed top, the bulk and body of the whole are colossal. Rising as they do from flat sands they give the impression of things deep-based - veritable islands of porphyry bent upward from a yellow sea. They are so weather-stained, so worn, that they are not bright in coloring. Usually they assume a dull garnet-red, or the red of peroxide of iron; but occasionally at sunset they warm in color and look fire-red through the pink haze.

The more abrupt ranges that appear younger because of their saw-toothed ridges and broken peaks, are often much finer in coloring. They have needles that are lifted skyward like Moslem minarets or cathedral spires; and at evening, if there is a yellow light, they shine like brazen spear-points set against the sky. It is astonishing that dull rock can disclose such marvellous coloring. The coloring is not local in the rock, nor yet again entirely reflected. Desert atmosphere, with which we shall have to reckon hereafter, has much to do with it.

And whether at sunset, at sunrise, or at midnight, how like watch-towers these mountains stand above the waste! One can almost fancy that behind each dome and rampart there are cloud-like Genii - spirits of the desert - keeping guard over this kingdom of the sun. And what a far-reaching kingdom they watch! Plain upon plain leads up and out to the horizon - far as the eye can see - in undulations of gray and gold; ridge upon ridge melts into the blue of the distant sky in lines of lilac and purple; fold upon fold over the mesas the hot air drops its veilings of opal and topaz. Yes; it is the kingdom of sun-fire. For every color in the scale is attuned to the key of flame, every airwave comes with the breath of flame, every sunbeam falls as a shaft of flame. There is no questioning who is sovereign in these dominions.

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