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Granite Crags (1884) by Constance Gordon-Cumming



Oakland, near San Francisco,
August 6th.

After a weary day of dusty travelling, it was truly refreshing to arrive last night at the fresh, pleasant home of “the sisters,”—my chief companions in the valley,—and to be welcomed and washed, and made to feel thoroughly happy and at home.

And, indeed, yesterday was a long day; for it began at 3 a.m., when the good landlord at Murphy’s called me and gave me hot coffee. Then the coach came round, driven by “the Colonel,” and we started by dim starlight. It was the best way to see the hideous country.

We halted for breakfast at a wayside inn kept by an Italian family, and the graceful daughters of the house presented me with the largest apples I have ever seen. We passed heavily laden orchards, with a wondrous abundance of all fruits; but each breath of air was dust-laden, and the poor orchards were smothered.

At Milton I exchanged the dusty coach for dustier steam-cars, and so in due time reached the main line at Stockton—a dull, uninteresting town—from which point I might, had wisdom been awake, have taken a river-steamer, and come down the broad San Joaquin to San Francisco. It would have been a lovely night-expedition, by the light of a full moon, and the river is bordered by large willow-trees and tall reedy grasses. It is an expedition which no one ever thinks of making, which would have lent it additional charm in my eyes. But I was burdened with luggage, and could see no railway or steamboat porters; and so, not feeling equal to shouldering my own goods, I thought it best to run in the regular groove—which, of course, I now regret; for the last stage of that dusty, noisy journey was the worst of all.

It was scarcely possible to believe that the thirsty land of tawny dust across which we were rushing, could possibly be the same San Joaquin valley which I had last seen in the freshest spring green; or that these dry arid fields will, as if by magic, again change to one broad expanse of brightest green so soon as the refreshing rains of October fall.

Now the harvest has been reaped, the wheat threshed by steam on the field where it grew, and stored in sacks, which lie by the roadside till it is convenient to remove them (no fear of rain), and the straw is piled in hillocks till required.

When I speak of “a field,” you must not understand the word in our contracted British sense. Here there are no obtrusive boundaries or divisions, but one broad level expanse of grain extending for miles and miles, till it fades away in the hot haze on the horizon, or else reaches nature’s boundary of sun-burnt hills. Far as the eye can reach, extends the vast wheat-crop—the true Californian gold. It has been said of such a field, that “a man sometimes ploughs but a single furrow in a day, but that may be a furrow fifteen or twenty miles long!”

All harvest-work is done by machinery. As the steam-plough prepared the ground, so does the “harvester” reap, glean, thresh, and even sack the grain, mechanically. To the children reared under such influences, the poetry of old-world parables concerning sowers and reapers must be altogether lost, and the stories themselves without meaning.

In truth, the romance of a sweet, old-fashioned English harvest-field finds no echo here. There are no hedgerows nor scattered timber, to give a corner of welcome shadow; and in place of the rich undergrowth of sweet clover and succulent grasses forming a fresh green carpet for the golden sheaves, there is here only a vast plain of driest dust: far as the eye can reach, it sees only the yellow sun-scorched land, and great waggons heavily laden with golden grain, seen dimly through clouds of choking yellow dust. It is unattractive and unlovable, like most of the world’s sources of wealth. I suspect that in all corners of the earth, poetry vanishes at the approach of the yellow-fingered god of gold, even more quickly than from that of squalid poverty. Like Agur, she craves a middle path, and shuns both poverty and riches.

If threshing is not done by steam, the machine is turned by horse-power: perhaps twenty horses walk round and round in endless circle, in clouds of choking dust. Then the grain is carted away in great waggons, and the straw remains on the field. Should the farmer not care to thresh his crop at once, he leaves the corn standing in sheaves where it grew, well knowing that no rain will fall to destroy it, and that no thief will trouble himself to appropriate it; and there it may remain for weeks in perfect safety.

And what a crop it is! To begin with, the average return is from 60 to 70 bushels to the acre; but besides this, so large a quantity of seed drops, that one sowing produces two crops; and though the second is, of course, less abundant than the first, it has the advantage of being a spontaneous gift of the soil, involving no out-lay in time or labour, only the care of reaping the self-sown crop.1

[1It is consolatory to learn that British America bids fair to rival California as a wheat-producing country, though its colder climate does not offer the same attraction as at home. Here is an American view of Manitoba: “Mr Horatio Seymour, ex-Governor of New York—a gentleman whose position renders his utterances of more than ordinary value—has paid a visit to Manitoba, and has conveyed the result of his experience in the form of a letter to a friend. He declares, without fear of successful contradiction, that if Great Britain were to impose a tariff of 10 or 20 cents per bushel upon American wheat and other grain, allowing Canadian wheat and other products to enter her ports free, she could bankrupt the farmers of the American north-west. He saw thousands of acres of wheat clearing 40 bushels to the acre, and weighing 63 to 65 lb. to the bushel. People, he says, are crowding there rapidly, and towns are springing up as if by magic. The Great Canada Pacific Railway will be at Puget Sound before the North Pacific of the United States, and the distance to Liverpool will be 600 miles shorter than any American line which could convey Dakota wheat for shipment thither. The best steel rails are being laid on the road—100 tons to the mile, at 56 dols. per ton; whilst on the parallel American line, the North Pacific, the same rails cost about 70 dols.—a difference of 1400 dols. per mile, in rails alone, in favour of the Canada Pacific. Mr Seymour is equally demonstrative on other points, and he has evidently been strongly impressed by his visit.”]

Is it not enough to fill a British farmer with jealous despair to hear of such farms as Dr Glenn’s in the Sacramento valley, extending thirty miles along the river? I am told that he has 60,000 acres of wheat, besides large vineyards and other crops. Fifteen hundred horses and mules, and hundreds of labourers, are employed on the farm. At times forty ploughs are working simultaneously, and three steam-engines drive the harvest-machinery. But most tantalising of all to the sorely tried farmer of our Mother Isle, is this blessed climate, which distributes the time of harvest throughout five months, from May till the end of September, during which not a cloud has a right to drop even a refreshing shower upon the dusty earth, and assuredly none to lay and saturate the uncut crops.

What with wheat, wine, and wool, nature has truly been bountiful to California. I hear of cattle-ranches in the Southern State on such an immense scale that the vast herds roam at large, their owners being scarcely able to guess at their numbers.

But everything in California is done on a large scale, and so giant fortunes are built up. In farming, as in monster mining or railway speculation, it is neck or nothing. Mediocrity is nowhere (except so far as its own comfort is concerned, and there it has a decided advantage). A man must either be lord of vast flocks or herds,—a shepherd king or a cattle king,—or else he must be known as a princely grain-merchant or a railway potentate. It does not much matter what line he takes,—except, indeed, that pork is accounted lower than beef, and the swine-owner is supposed to rank below a lord of bullocks. So perhaps an ambitious Californian would prefer to leave the pig-market to Chicago, where piggy reigns supreme.

After all, it is no wonder that Californians should have such respect for everything done wholesale, for certainly nature gives them a grand example, what with Big Cliffs, Big Trees, and Big Vegetables.

What think you of cabbages six feet high, and weighing 50 lb. a head? Some have been found to weigh 75 lb. Carrots have been weighed averaging 35 lb. each; onions, 5 lb.; beet-roots, 200 lb.; water-melons, 95 lb.; pears, from 3 to 4 lb. each; potatoes, 15 lb. each. Cherries grow to three inches in circumference, and currants to an inch and a half.

Pumpkins of 200 lb. weight are very common. Near San Diego they grow to 350 lb., a single seed having been known to yield 1400 lb. weight of pumpkins the following season. Cucumbers fifty inches in length are not uncommon (meet company for the silvery salmon, which are brought from the Columbia river to San Francisco by swift steamers before they have time to realise that they have been captured! Rejoice, ye epicures!)

I have learnt a good many of these particulars from a cheery party of Southern Californians, whose homes lie near the old Spanish settlements of Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Bernardino. They tell me I need not imagine that I know anything about California till I have seen those delightful semi-tropical districts, where flowers and fruit of all sorts grow in such profusion as does certainly sound almost incredible.

One lady told me of her father’s orange-orchards, in which there are several trees, each of which bears upwards of 2000 oranges, and one tree occasionally yields 3000. An average tree should yield 1000 oranges at the age of ten to twelve years, and becomes more and more fruitful as it grows older; so, as it lives to the good old age of a hundred, increase must be something amazing.

The price of oranges in San Francisco ranges from fifteen to thirty dollars a thousand (£4 to £6); and as the trees in an orange-orchard are planted sixty to the acre, it does not need a very elaborate calculation to see that the owner of this fragrant crop must derive from it a very nice little income,—especially as expenses are not heavy, one man being able to look after twenty acres.

An orchard of ten acres may fairly be expected to represent an annual profit of £2000! and some men have thirty or forty acres of oranges (Mr L. J. Rose has 500 acres of orange-orchards!) Other men have immense vineyards, and separate large orchards for lemons, limes, citrons, walnuts, nectarines, apricots, peaches, pomegranates, pears, apples, figs, almonds, olives, and Spanish chestnuts,—the latter especially telling of the early Spanish settlers, who brought these memorials of their own land, and planted them at the missions which they dedicated to San Gabriel and San Diego.

The olive-groves of San Diego and Santa Barbara are noted throughout the States, and the tree has become thoroughly naturalised, as trees and men are wont to do in America. So now Californian olives are in greater request that Sevilles in the Eastern States; and the number consumed is something marvellous, as you can judge from the custom of placing a small plate of pickled olives beside each guest, to be eaten during the intervals of dinner. I confess it is a custom which I highly appreciate.

Being Californian, I need scarcely say that they are at least twice the ordinary size, and are very juicy, and fresh in flavour. As a crop, the olive is highly remunerative, one tree occasionally yielding as much fruit as will sell for £10. This, however, is exceptional, and the tree must be well on in years; one of the most remarkable points in this culture being, that the olive-tree becomes more prolific year by year till it has completed its first century,—and how long it may continue fruitful it is impossible to say. There are trees in Asia Minor which are known to be upwards of 1200 years old, and are still in full bearing.

But as regards the immediate prospects of their planting, it appears that the trees (which are planted sixty to the acre) begin to bear at three years, and at five years old are self-supporting— i.e., they pay all expenses of tillage and harvesting, and yield a small surplus. By the sixth year they pay all the expenses of their early years, including the price of land and of young trees. At eight years of age they should yield 2000 gallons of berries to the acre, which, being reduced to oil, gives an average return of £250 to the acre. Of course a large amount of the fruit is reserved for pickling.

Some men devote their whole care to almond-growing; and I hear of one gentleman at Santa Barbara who reckons his almond-trees at 55,000!

One of the most paying industries hereabouts is the manufacture of beet-root sugar, for which there are large factories at San Francisco and Sacramento. The absolute regularity with which the rains and the dry season succeed one another at invariable seasons is singularly favourable to the growth of beet, which requires wet weather in its early days, and subsequent drought. By planting in January, this result is exactly obtained, and the saccharine quality of the beet is developed to the utmost, a much larger percentage of sugar being obtained in California than in Europe.

A ton of beets is expected to yield a barrel of the whitest sugar—in other words, about ten barrels to the acre; and the refuse (known as bagasse) is, when mixed with cut hay, excellent fodder, equally in favour for fattening cattle, or—on dairy farms—for the production of good milk and butter. Consequently large sheds are built near the sugar-factories, in which are stalled the beeves, whose sole duty in life is to become fat as quickly as possible.

I am told that at these sugar-factories, as in most other industries where careful, steady men are required, the Chinese are those chiefly employed.

Oakland, August 11th.

There is some pleasure in gardening in California. One of the houses here is literally covered by a fuchsia, which, within three years from the day it was planted, had tapes-tried the whole wall—seventy feet in length, and three storeys high—and climbed right over the roof, forming a lovely veil of crimson bells.

Geraniums grow into bushes six or eight feet high, and eighteen to twenty in circumference, bearing perhaps a thousand heads in blossom simultaneously. Some sorts grow so rankly that they are planted as hedges, and grow to a height of twenty feet within a year—and of course the fence may be as long as you choose. Just imagine the blaze of colour produced by such a belt of blossom! Our humble clipped hedges are indeed unattractive, compared with such glories.

But the chief delight centres in the roses. I am told of one rose-bush in a Southern garden, which produces from 15,000 to 25,000 roses yearly. And Santa Rosa, true to its name, has a mammoth rose-bush, the stem of which is two feet in circumference, and rises twelve feet before throwing out a branch. Its total height is about thirty feet, and circumference seventy feet. This grand rosebush bears about 12,000 pure white roses at a time, counting half-blown buds.

Even more delightful is a red-rose bush a hundred feet in circumference, in the very heart of which is hidden a romantic cottage, thirty feet square, altogether concealed by the curtain of fragrant pink blossoms. Could a more fascinating nest be imagined?

This town belies its name—or rather the name is a survival of departed glories, for most of the original oaks were cruelly felled in the early days, before there was any idea of making a town here. So they have been replaced by swift-growing eucalyptus, which certainly does its best as a substitute; and all manner of ornamental trees and shrubs are fast growing up.

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management