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Granite Crags (1884) by Constance Gordon-Cumming



San Rafael, April 26, 1882.

Dear Nell, —People may well say this is but a small world. It is only four days since I landed in San Francisco, without the slightest expectation of seeing one “kent face,” and lo! there immediately appeared a friend from Sussex, whom I now discover to be a true old Californian, a magician, who has made my way all plain. He left me, determined to find a pleasant companion to be my escort to the Yō-semitÚ Valley. Who should come to his house that very day but Mr David, whom I supposed to be safe in Morayshire! It appears that he came to California a good while ago, and has been so entranced by sport and fishing, that he has never been able to tear himself away!

At last, however, he wishes to visit Canada; but feeling that he really could not leave California without seeing the Yō-semitÚ, he came to the town to make arrangements for so doing, and was greeted with the news of my arrival. A few minutes later he was giving me screeds of home news, having just received long letters from several members of my family. As a matter of course, he at once assumed all the troubles and duties of escort. We hear that the roads to the valley are open, so we have every prospect of a delightful expedition. Is it not a strange piece of luck to have thus “happened” on a stanch old friend of thirty years’ standing, in this New World? I am to rejoin him at San Francisco this afternoon, and make our start from thence.

I have been for two days in this pretty town of pleasant villas and gardens, surrounded with very green grassy hills. It is one of the numerous suburbs of San Francisco, each of which is in itself a large and important town. San Rafael, San Pablo, Saucelito, Oakland, Brooklyn, Alameda, San Leandro, San Lorenzo, San Mateo, San Bruno, San Miguel, Milbrae, Belmont, and Redwood City, are a few of the flourishing young children of this wonderfully prolific young mother.

Those I have named all lie within about an hour by steamboat or rail, and are the homes of a multitude of men whose business requires their daily presence in the crowded city, but whose wealth enables them to create most luxurious semi-country homes in a more genial climate than that of San Francisco, which is exceptionally disagreeable, as compared with that of California in general. There are few days which do not ring the changes on pleasant, enticing sunshine, and treacherous, chilling sea-fogs. These are driven down the coast by the trade-winds; but as they rarely rise above a thousand feet, the Coast Range acts as an effectual barrier for their exclusion, till they reach the Golden Gate, through which they sweep as through a funnel, and the heated air in the bay suddenly becomes clammy and chill; and the rash stranger, who had been enticed by the brilliant morning to go out without warm wraps, is conscious of piercing damp, and shivers involuntarily. The old inhabitants tell you that it is rarely safe to sit for long at an open window, and that there are few days in the year when it is not desirable to have a fire morning and evening, though there is ample warmth while the sun shines. They say, too, that neuralgia and rheumatism, in all their painful phases, are only too common.

I daresay you are as much astonished as I am at the multitude of saintly names in this part of the world. They are all reminders of the old Spanish Mission, which seems to have dedicated some corner to every saint in the calendar, lest any should feel neglected!

The Jesuit Fathers found their way to Lower California in the year 1697, and established various mission stations, where they worked with considerable success for nearly a hundred years, till Charles III. of Spain decreed that even in this far country they might not dwell in peace. So they were expelled, and their settlements were made over to the Franciscans. Eventually these gave way to the Dominicans, who remained in exclusive possession of Lower California, the Franciscans retiring northward, marking their pathway by the saintly names sown broadcast over the land.

The members of the mission do not seem to have penetrated beyond the Sierra Nevada; at least I can only hear of one inland town having been canonised—namely, San Carlos. Even in the great fertile San Joaquin Valley, there are very few names which suggest a Spanish origin.

But all down the coast, from San Francisco to Mexico, the strip of country between the sea and the low Coast Range is entirely given over to the saints; and you pass from Santa Clara to San JosÚ (which is pronounced Hozay), Santa Cruz, St Paul, St Vincent, San Benito, San Lorenzo, Santa Lucia, Santa Margarita, San Luis Obispo, San Mauelilo, Santa Rese, San Inez, Point Concepcion, Point Purissima, Jesu Maria, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, San Sisquac, San Francisquitto, Los Angeles, Santa Monte, San Pedro, San Diego and San Diegnito, San Bernardino,—and so on ad infinitum. All the islands are similarly dedicated to Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Santa Catalina, Santa Rosa, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, San Miguel, San Nicolas, San Clemente, &c. &c. Among the mountains are the Sierra Sangre de Christo and Sierra Miguel; and of rivers we find Rio Virgin and Rio de los Dolores.

The preachers of the Cross found no lack of work, for there was at that time a very large Indian population throughout the whole region; and even so late as 1823, the Indians of California were estimated by various authorities at upwards of 100,000. But from the time when white men invaded the land, the aboriginal inhabitants rapidly decreased (no wonder, when they were shot down as ruthlessly as the herds of wild bison!), and the census of 1863 found only 29,000 Indians remaining. This number is not supposed to have diminished much; but of course it is difficult to obtain an exact census of so nomadic a race.

However, to return to San Rafael. I came here on a visit to a most hospitable Scot, a partner of my original friend. His charming home is only about an hour’s journey from San Francisco; but it involved travelling by tram, steamer, railway, and carriage—or (to express myself correctly) we had a ride in the street car, a ride in the steamship, a ride in the steam-cars, and a ride in a carriage. If we really had occasion to ride, we should talk of “riding horseback,” as a necessary distinction. We exchanged the steamer for the train at St Quentin (yet another saint!).

It was truly pleasant to be welcomed to this cosy, home-like nest, just like an English country-house, except that the roses are here in such profusion as they rarely attain in the old country. They climb over tall shrubs and droop in clustering masses of crimson and white, fragrant and most beautiful. Gardening in this country must be a delight; and when I look at the almost spontaneous growth of everything here, my thoughts go back to our poor little garden in Fiji, and to all the pains expended on it for such small result in the way of blossom. Here, as in Australia, all manner of plants grow happily side by side, and make no difficulty about acclimatisation. The loquat and the lemon grow beside English oak and ivy, and the ground is carpeted with violets and lilies.

Yesterday my kind hosts had arranged a cheery picnic-party to a very pretty artificial lake at the foot of Mount Tamal Pais. Though barely 2600 feet in height, it is the great landmark hereabouts. It lies six miles southwest of San Rafael,—a very beautiful drive through hilly country, all spurs of the Coast Range. In the freshness of this early spring, all the bare slopes are of the most vivid green, just the colour of young rice-fields; while the canyons are clothed with fine timber, including many trees which were to me unfamiliar.

Of the latter, one of the most abundant is the madro˝a, which is peculiar to the Coast Range, and literally found nowhere else. It is a kind of arbutus, with dark glossy foliage, and rich clusters of white blossom like tiny bells. Its stem is of a glossy red. The madro˝a ranks as a first-class forest-tree, occasionally attaining to a height of fifty feet, and a diameter of from six to eight feet. Its bark always retains a warm chocolate colour, very pleasant among the forest greens; and in the spring-time the tree is dear to the brown honey-bees, who find stores of treasure in its countless branches of small wax-like white blossoms. The manzanita is another relative of the arbutus, but it flourishes throughout the State.

The Coast Range also has a monopoly of the stately redwood cedar,1 which belongs exclusively to the forest belt lying within the influence of the Pacific sea-fogs. One man’s meat is said to be his neighbour’s poison, and I think the proverb applies to the beautiful trees which are nourished by the damp chilling sea-mists. Formerly many of the hills near San Francisco were clothed with the beautiful redwood; but it was found so valuable for building purposes, that the primeval forests have now entirely disappeared from the neighbourhood. One advantage is, that it burns very slowly; so its use somewhat lessens the danger of fire. No other tree splits so true to the grain, or is so much prized by the lumberer; none better resists the action of damp and decay. Naturally, therefore, it is a favourite wood with the builders; and so the forests near San Francisco now exist only in the form of houses or railroad timber. And still the work of destruction goes on, and north and south the lumberers are busy felling the beautiful growth of centuries, to be turned to common use.

[1Sequoia sempervirens.]

I am told that these redwood forests are perhaps the most stately in the world, almost more beautiful than the Big Trees groves, and not very far behind them in size. Many individual trees measure from 60 to 80 feet in circumference—some are found ranging from 90 to 100—and from 200 to 300 feet in height. One has been proved to be upwards of 344 feet high—a glorious spire. Much of the characteristic beauty of a redwood forest is attributed to the fact that it generally grows alone, not mixed with other trees; so that thousands of these beautiful stems are grouped like so many pillars, averaging from 8 to 12 feet in diameter, and marvellously straight and tall. These grand cinnamon-coloured shafts lose themselves in a canopy of rich deep green, which almost hides the sky. And no sound breaks the solemn silence but the distant muffled roar of the surf beating on the sands.

One group of these great trees, on the road between San JosÚ and Santa Cruz, has been converted into a quaint hotel! Here is its description, taken from a local paper: “Imagine ten immense trees standing a few feet apart, and hollow inside; these are the hotel,—neat, breezy, and romantic. The largest tree is 65 feet round, and contains a sitting-room. All about this tree is a garden of flowers and evergreens. The drawing-room is a bower made of redwood, evergreens, and madro˝a branches. For bed-chambers, there are nine great hollow trees, whitewashed or papered, and having doors cut to fit the shape of the holes. Literature finds a place in a leaning stump, dubbed ‘the library.’”

Far more startling is the account given in another Californian paper, of a railway viaduct in Sonoma County. Between the Chipper Mills and Stewart’s Point, where the road crosses a deep ravine, the trees are sawed off on a level, and the roadway of rough timber is actually laid on these growing pillars. In the centre of the ravine, two huge redwood trees standing side by side have been cut off 75 feet above the ground, and form substantial central columns for the support of the railway, across which heavily laden timber-cars pass securely.

A very small number of redwoods have been found in Oregon; otherwise the Sequoia sempervirens (like its big brother, the majestic Sequoia gigantea, which English people so obstinately and unreasonably persist in calling Wellingtonia, to the just annoyance of the Americans) is essentially and exclusively Californian,—the former refusing to live anywhere save on the Coast Range, the latter equally rigid in its allegiance to the Sierra Nevada. Of course I allude to the natural habit of these trees. The multitude of flourishing young specimens now growing in Britain and elsewhere, prove their willingness to live in other lands; but many a long century will elapse ere these young generations can attain to even the same character as their noble ancestors.

I do not know whether it is merely an ingenious derivation or a fact, that California owes its name to the pine-forests which form so marked a characteristic both of its shores and mountains. The theory rests on the Spanish word for resin being colofonia; and the idea is, that the State may have been so named by the early Spanish missionaries. Another suggestion is, that the name was derived from caliente fornalo, a heated furnace, in allusion to the blazing heat of the summer.

It really is pathetic to hear of the wholesale destruction of these grand forests, which year by year are mowed down wholesale by the lumberers—men whose one thought in connection with trees is, how many feet of timber they will yield. A good redwood forest yields about 800,000 feet to the acre; but one large tree, eighteen feet in diameter, will give 180,000 feet.

Some years ago, a tremendous storm flooded the rivers in Northern California, and a vast number of huge logs were carried out to sea for a distance of 150 miles, greatly to the peril of ships, as you can well imagine, seeing that they averaged from 120 to 210 feet in length, and some were ten feet in diameter. Many of these poor battered logs drifted back to the homes of their youth—the shores of the forests whence they were hewn, on the Klamath and Redwood rivers; but many were cast ashore near Crescent City, where they were turned to good account. Sometimes great logs thus drift far, far away from land, and the ocean-currents sweep them onward till they reach some distant shore, and are hailed as an invaluable prize by islanders to whom such giant stems are unknown. Thus, when Vancouver visited Kauai, the northernmost of the Hawaiian Isles, he noticed a very handsome canoe upwards of sixty feet in length, which had been made from an American pine-log, that had drifted ashore in a perfectly sound condition. The natives had kept the log unwrought for a long time, hoping that the tide might bring them a second, and enable them to make such a double canoe as would have been the envy of the whole group; but for this they had waited in vain.

I am strongly advised not to leave this coast till I have seen some of these northern forests, in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, and still farther north in Oregon, where there is a warm damp tract of country, favourable to a most luxuriant growth of all green things, from ferns to forest-trees. Damp it may well be, as it is said to rain there for thirteen months in the year!

I am told that if I care for beautiful scenery, I must at least sail up the great Columbia river, which divides Oregon from Washington territory, and (passing by Portland and Fort Vancouver) stay a while at The Dalles—a dry and dusty region—where the broad beautiful river crosses the Cascade Range; a chain which, though green and pleasant to the eye, is one great mass of lava and basalt, on which are built up a series of grand volcanic cones, one of which, Mount Hood, lies close to The Dalles. It is upwards of 12,000 feet in height—a perfect cone, generally robed in snow,—a thing of glittering light, appearing like a vision far above the clouds.

On the other side of the river, stretching away to the north towards Puget Sound, stand a whole regiment of these great cones—like sentinels guarding the range. Of these the principal are Mout Rainier, St Helen’s, Mount Baker, and Mount Jackson. To the south lie Mount Jefferson, Diamond Peak, Black Bute, and, southernmost and grandest of all, Mount Shasta, a lonely, majestic mount, crowned with eternal snow, and towering from a broad base of dark pine-forest to a height upward of 14,000 feet.

Certainly the expedition to the Columbia river sounds tempting, and would be a very simple one—all straight sailing, or rather steaming, as regular steamers are constantly plying along the coast. However, for the present, my face is steadfastly turned towards the Granite Crags of Yō-semitÚ, and thence to the Fire Fountains of Hawaii.

The redwoods have led me into a long digression. I meant to tell you of the amazing profusion of wild flowers, which make this country like a dream of fairyland. Nowhere have I seen anything approaching to it, though I fancy that the plains of Morocco in spring must be of much the same character. Here, the meadows and the hills alike are literally a blaze of scarlet, gold, and deep blue, from the sheets of what we only know as garden flowers. In the deepest ravines flames of vivid colour shine through the gloom, lighting up every dark chasm with bright-hued blossoms, such as we cultivate carefully in greenhouses. Here they grow spontaneously, and look comfortable and quite at their ease. Some are on a magnified scale as compared with their garden cousins; others, again, are somewhat stunted, but have a wild charm of their own, which to me is ever lacking in artificially educated plants.

Yesterday’s expedition was one long succession of delightful surprises, as each step revealed some dear old friend snugly at home. We collected treasures till we could carry no more. I gathered specimens of fully a hundred different kinds, though as to giving you their names, that is quite beyond me. I am told that in the course of a Californian summer, six hundred different flowers can be collected. But, just to give you a general idea of the sort of thing, there are, first of all, the various lupines I have already mentioned as covering the sand-hills for miles, with a dense carpet of delicate colour—pink, white, and blue, lemon and gold.

Next come the larkspurs, deep blue or pure scarlet; the pale blue nemophila, and the large white variety with purple spots; scarlet columbine, sweetly perfumed musk, yellow borage, scarlet lychnis, yellow tulips; pentstemons, blue and scarlet; Indian pink, heart’s-ease, blue forget-me-not, crimson and scarlet “painted cup,” dwarf sunflower, saxifrage, southernwood, and a most graceful kind of fritillaria, bearing a cluster of six or eight bells on one stem.

I saw some blossoms of the lovely Trillium album with its three snowy petals, also a kind of starry clematis trailing over the brushwood. In the open glades the eschscholtzia lies in broad patches of glowing orange on the park-like slopes. Of the humbler blossoms, one new to me is a lovely little yellow flower, with a brown heart like a pansy. It is called the Californian violet—a variety, I suppose, of the dog-tooth. Never before have I seen Tennyson’s words so well illustrated, for truly

“You scarce could see the grass for flowers.”

Along the sedgy water-courses I found bright blue dwarf iris, and delicate yellow mimulus, golden ranunculus, and myosotis. In short, lovely darlings without number.

It was a great delight to me to find the jovial round face of the familiar sunflower beaming a cheery welcome to its Californian birthplace, but we only saw a few blossoms. I was told, however, that there are tracts in the mountain districts to the south where, for miles and miles, successive ridges gleam like gold, owing to the myriads of these gigantic yellow daisies—all of the dwarf kind, and so closely packed that there is no green to be seen, only a sheet of saffron hue. The same glory over-spreads southern Colorado, where purple asters also abound; and both grow so freely, that they even spring up from the turf sods with which the miners roof their huts, giving quite an Šsthetic touch to the dingy camps.

Among the flowering shrubs I chiefly noticed the ceanothus or Californian lilac, with its scented spikes of pale-blue blossom; while here, as elsewhere, the wild honeysuckle excelled all else in fragrance, its trails mingling with those of perfumed wild roses, which festooned the scrub, and sometimes tempted us into danger.

For even in this floral paradise mischief lurks, under the guise of a very innocent-looking prickly oak, whose young scarlet leaves are attractive enough to tempt the unwary hand to pluck them—a rash deed, of which only a new-comer could be guilty, for all Californians shrink instinctively from the treacherous poison-oak,1 which, with good reason, they regard with the utmost horror. It is the upas-tree of this region. Many people are utterly prostrated by merely breathing too near it. I suppose it gives forth some subtle exhalation which, to sensitive constitutions, really is poisonous. Certainly some persons are more readily affected than others; for whereas with many the slightest scratch from one of its prickly leaves produces boils and sores, very difficult to cure, others, finding themselves unawares in a thicket of the dreaded plant, have come home in fear and trembling, supposing they must assuredly be poisoned, and yet have felt no harm.

[1Rhus toxicodendron.]

One thing certain is, that it is most poisonous in spring, when the milky sap is rising, and that if it comes in contact with broken skin, any bruise or cut, mischief is almost inevitable. Like that of the opium poppy, this sap, when fresh, is pure white, but becomes black on exposure to the air. Every one seems inspired with a charitable wish to save the new-comer from making this agonising discovery for himself—and many a kind warning has already been given me on this subject. This dangerous little shrub is a scraggy bush, of parasitic habit, inclined to cling like ivy to rocks and trees. It is a member of the Sumach family, and bears a leaf something between a bramble and a holly, but in no wise resembling an oak.

Like most other things, it is capable of being turned to good uses; and I am told that to the skilful homoeopathic herbalist it yields a tincture valuable for sprains and rheumatism, and even useful in paralysis.

In exploring the bush, I was reminded of California’s tendency to large growth by the enormous size of the gall-apples on the common oaks. I gathered a considerable number as curiosities, each as large as a goodly apple!

When we had gathered flowers to our hearts’ content, and watched the blue jays and squirrels darting about, we were ready to enjoy a capital luncheon spread under the trees, on the green turf; after which some went fishing on the large artificial lake,—which is, I believe, the reservoir for the use of San Rafael,—and the others walked round it, still in search of new flowers. We diverged a little, to experience the new sensation of hearing and talking through a telephone with people at San Rafael, distant eight miles. Then came the boiling of the kettle, and a cheery tea, followed by a delightful drive home and a pleasant evening.

This morning I was up at daybreak to write to you, that I may post this letter before starting for “The Valley.” It is 7 a.m., and almost time for breakfast. Mine host, being a busy man, must make up for living so far from his work by leaving home betimes.

P.S.—San Francisco.—We returned here about 9 a.m.; and as we are not to start till 3.30, Mr David suggested that we should fill up the time by a visit to Woodward’s Gardens, which are a combination of zoological and botanical gardens, gymnasium, skating-rink, museum, and anything else you can think of. To me the chief points of interest lay in the aquarium, where there is a charming fish with eyes like two large brass beads, and another with fleshy spikes all round his mouth. Several large tanks are occupied by sea-lions, captured at the Far-allones, and bought by weight, at the rate of three shillings (75 cents) per lb.!

The largest has spent seven years in the gardens. Captivity seems to agree with him, as he now weighs upwards of a ton! We watched him feeding, and felt convinced that he took a malicious pleasure in splashing the rudely staring multitude, including ourselves.

Now good-bye. We are just ready to start.—Your loving sister,   C. F. G. C.

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