by John C. Van Dyke (1856-1932)
With horse, dog (named Cappy), rifle, bedroll, and some food, John crossed the San Gorgonio pass in the southern California Sierras, in 1899, and began his long association with the Sonoran Desert. He ranged from Texas to Oregon, from the headwaters of the Colorado river to Guaymas, half-way down the gulf of California, covering the vast area by horse, foot and train in his three-year investigation. He was a lawyer, although he never practiced, and a known authority in the classical arts, having published works on the paintings of the Old Masters. Feeling down in dumps because of a lingering case of asthma, he decided to immerse himself in the so-called wastelands of the west. This book is a collection of his essays on the physical features of the desert.
His descriptions included grey wolves, snakes, antelope, rabbits, Belding ground squirrels, the blue vistas, the canyons, lomas, and mesas. The reader discovers that the appreciation of beauty is not innate but learned. Over long periods of observation, Dyke came to recognize the elements that combined to create the “land of fire” and to perceive and understand the incredible natural wonder of the arid land… The colors stunned him at first. Later he came to realize that their great variation resulted from changes in the dust content of the air, in the differential layering of atmospheric strata above the vast valleys, and the actual color of the land itself. Syenite, rhyolite, basalt, andesite, and all the various granites, quartz monzonites and marbles with their different textures and shades, reflect the native hues into the sky and the astonishing brilliance of the reds, blues, greens and purples, when split into layers by the heat and moisture layers, turn the long vistas into kaleidoscopic displays. The dazzling visions are most intense at dusk, when the distant views are manipulated and transformed by the setting sun. The red and orange light waves, being at the long end of the spectrum, travel far distances, trapped between sheets of water vapor and are colored by dust held in suspension; they impinge upon the eye with a powerful intensity, illuminating the entire scene in a reddish glow. After the sun has gone down, the alteration is to a uniform shade of grey, pervading every crevice and canyon, causing the landscape to convey an impression of imminent Gotterdamerung.
Dyke goes into some detail in describing the Salton Sea, a very large depression in Southern California… It’s a flat playa, 300 feet below sea level, a salt pan with apparently no life. But Dyke, observing patiently and closely, sees reptiles, a few lichens, and some dry sticks, which, in the presence of the rare cloud-bursts, are fueled into growth that turns the dry alkaline beds into a riot of color. He uses the opportunity to discuss mirages, the different sorts, and how the heated air, stratifiying the minuscule amount of moisture into layers separated by varying widths of gas, carries far-off images to the eye. Quite often, there is a camera effect, in which the atmospheric layers invert the distant image before it reaches the eye, so that the object is seen to be upside down. Dyke cites stories of sailors, after storms, seeing distant ships sailing upside down in the sky, or upside down palm trees from distant islands.
The Colorado river begins as a bubbly, rushing mountain stream, cascading through the Rockies, picking up sediments and washing away it’s banks and benches, grinding down through the overlying earth to form the Grand Canyon, and finally covering the delta above the Gulf of California in a wide plain of sand and particulate matter gleaned from a thousand miles of surrounding waste land. Dyke describes the prismatic light in glowing color, emphasizing the incredible variation in the exposed hues revealed by the relentless river in it’s constant erosion of banks, islands, shores, and bed. He doesn’t say a lot about the revealed geology in the Grand Canyon, which tells the story of millions of years of tectonic change and erosion, and the vast alterations in climate and biological evolution experienced by the river; but Dyke was an artist, and was interested in the artistic reality of what he was seeing.
Toward the last chapter, he returns to the Sierras, and depicts the abrupt wall as seen from the eastern prospect, rising tier upon tier into the high peaks, covered with snow even in late spring and summer. He notices the biomes, the changing vegetation that flourishes only at ordained heights, altering as the elevation increases, and disappearing altogether above timber-line. I can’t but help recall John Muir’s ecstatic descriptions of the same area, and his joy in discovering the true wonder of the high Sierras. Dyke notes the increasingly blue-to-purple sky overhanging the severe and naked stone edifices surrounding his position, and compares it with the far distant view of the Pacific ocean, some hundred miles away and remarks on the desert valley between the two. At that time the San Fernando valley was undeveloped compared to the present day, and was classified by Dyke as part of the desert he was studying.
I really liked this book but it wouldn’t do for some readers, i’m afraid, as it is mostly a study and descriptive analysis of the land, creatures, and waters of the area. Van Dyke went on to write many more books, all having to do with wild places, and none of which i’ve read; i hope to alter that situation in the near future. He had a most perceptive eye and his observations were, and are, insightful and fascinating…