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Granite Crags (1884) by Constance Gordon-Cumming



Clarke’s Ranch, Monday Night.

We have spent a long day of delight in the most magnificent forest that it is possible to imagine; and I have realised an altogether new sensation, for I have seen the Big trees of California, and have walked round about them, and inside their cavernous hollows, and have done homage as beseems a most reverent tree-worshipper. They are wonderful—they are stupendous! But as to beauty—no. They shall never tempt me to swerve from my allegiance to my true tree-love—the glorious Deodara forests of the Himalayas.

If size alone were to be considered, undoubtedly the Sequoia stands pre-eminent, for to-day we have seen several trees at least three times as large as the biggest Deodara in the cedar shades of Kunai; but for symmetry, and grace, and exquisitely harmonious lines, the “God-given” cedar of Himala stands alone, with its wide-spreading, twisted arms, and velvety layers of foliage studded with pale-green cones,—its great red stem supporting a pyramid of green, far more majestic than the diminutive crown of the Big trees. So at first it was hard to realise that the Californian cedars are altogether justified in concentrating all their growing power in one steady upward direction, so intent on reaching heaven that they could not afford to throw out one kindly bough to right or left. They remind me of certain rigidly good Pharisees, devoid of all loving sympathies with their fellows, with no outstretched arms of kindly charity—only intent on regulating their own lives by strictest unvarying rule.

Great Towers of Babel they seem to me, straining upward toward the heaven which they will never reach.

There is nothing lovable about a Sequoia. It is so gigantic that I feel overawed by it, but all the time I am conscious that in my secret heart I am comparing it with the odd Dutch trees in a Noah’s Ark, with a small tuft of foliage on the top of a large red stem, out of all proportion. And another unpleasant simile forces itself on my mind—namely, a tall penguin, or one of the wingless birds of New Zealand, with feeble little flaps in place of wings, altogether disproportioned to their bodies.

But this is merely an aside—lest you should suppose that each new land I visit wins my affections from earlier loves. The Deodara forests must ever keep their place in my innermost heart: no sunlight can ever be so lovely as that which plays among their boughs—no sky so blue—no ice-peaks so glittering as those which there cleave the heaven; and I am sure that these poor wretched-looking Digger Indians can never have the same interest for me as the wild Himalayan highlanders—the Paharis—who assemble at the little temples of carved cedar-wood in the Great Forest Sanctuary, to offer their strange sacrifices, and dance in mystic sunwise procession.

Having said this much, I may now sing the praises of a newly found delight, for in truth these forests of the Sierras have a charm of their own, which cannot be surpassed, in the amazing variety of beautiful pines, firs, and cedars of which they are composed. The white fir, the Douglas spruce, sugar-pine, and pitch-pine are the most abundant, and are scattered singly or in strikingly picturesque groups over all the mountains hereabouts.

But the Big trees are only found in certain favoured spots—sheltered places watered by snow-fed streams, at an average of from 5000 to 7000 feet above the sea. Eight distinct groves have been discovered, all growing in rich, deep vegetable-mould, on a foundation of powdered granite. Broad gaps lie between the principal groves, and it is observed that these invariably lie in the track of the great ice-rivers, where the accumulation of powdered rock and gravel formed the earliest commencement of the soil, which by slow degrees became rich, and deep, and fertile. There is even reason to believe that these groves are pre-Adamite. A very average tree (only twenty-three feet in diameter) having been felled, its annual rings were counted by three different persons, whose calculations varied from 2125 to 2137; and this tree was by no means very aged-looking—probably not half the age of some of its big relations, one of which (on King’s river) is forty-four feet in diameter.

Then, again, some of the largest of these trees are lying prostrate on the ground; and in the ditches formed by their crash, trees have grown up of such a size, and in such a position, as to prove that the fallen giants have lain there for centuries—a thousand years or more; and although partially embedded in the earth, and surrounded by damp forest, their almost imperishable timber is as sound as if newly felled. So it appears that a Sequoia may lie on damp earth for untold ages without showing any symptom of decay. Yet in the southern groves huge prostrate trees are found quite rotten, apparently proving that they must have lain there for an incalculable period.

Of the eight groves aforesaid, the most northerly is Calaveras, and the most southerly is on the south fork of the Tule river. The others are the Stanislaus, the Merced and Crane Flat, the Mariposa, the Fresno, the King’s and Kaweah rivers, and the north fork of the Tule river. It is worthy of note that the more northerly groves are found at the lowest level, Calaveras being only 4759 feet above the sea, while the Tule and Kaweah belts range over the Sierras at about 7000 feet.

The number of Sequoias in the northern groves is reckoned to be as follows: Calaveras, 90 trees upwards of fifteen feet in diameter; Stanislaus or South Calaveras grove, distant six miles from North Calaveras, contains 1380 trees over one foot in diameter (many of them being over thirty feet in diameter). Mariposa has its 600 Sequoias; and the beautiful Fresno grove, some miles from Mariposa, has 1200. Merced has 50, and Tuolumne 30. The southern belts have not yet been fully explored, but are apparently the most extensive.

The Mariposa grove, where we have been to-day, is the only one which has been reserved by Government as a park for the nation. It lies five miles from here. I should rather say there are two groves. The lower grove lies in a sheltered valley between two mountain-spurs; the upper grove, as its name implies, occupies a higher level, 6500 feet above the sea.

We breakfasted very early, and by 6 a.m. were in the saddle. Capital sure-footed ponies were provided for all who chose to ride. Some of the gentlemen preferred walking. From this house we had to ascend about 2500 feet; but the track follows an easy gradient, and the whole distance lies through beautiful forest, where each successive group of pines seems loftier than the last.

I think we all agreed that the queen of beauty is the sugar-pine,1 so exquisite is the grace of its tall tapering spire and slender branches, each following the most perfect double curve of the true line of beauty. And next to it, I think, ranks the incense-cedar,2 with its rich brown bark and warm golden-green foliage. The young trees are feathered to the ground, their lower branches drooping, those nearer the summit pointing heavenward, the whole forming a perfectly tapering cone of richest green. The older trees throw out great angular arms, from which the golden lichens hang in long waving festoons like embodied sunlight.

[1Pinus Lambertiana.]

[2Libocedrus decurrens.]

As we gradually worked uphill through the coniferous belts, the trees seemed gradually to increase in size, so that the eye got accustomed by degrees; and when at length we actually reached the Big-tree grove1 we scarcely realised that we were in the presence of the race of giants. Only when we occasionally halted at the base of a colossal pillar, somewhere about 80 feet in circumference, and about 250 in height, and compared it with its neighbours, and, above all, with ourselves—poor, insignificant pigmies—could we bring home to our minds a sense of its gigantic proportions.

[1Sequoia gigantea.]

With all the reverence due to antiquity, we gazed on these Methuselahs of the forest, to whom a few centuries more or less in the record of their long lives are a trifle scarcely worth mentioning. But our admiration was more freely bestowed on the rising generation, the beautiful young trees, only about five or six hundred years of age, and averaging thirty feet in circumference; while still younger trees, the mere children of about a hundred years old, still retain the graceful habits of early youth, and are very elegant in their growth—though, of course, none but mere babies bear the slightest resemblance to the tree as we know it on English lawns.

It really is heartbreaking to see the havoc that has been done by careless fires. Very few of the older trees have escaped scathless. Most of this damage has been done by Indians, who burn the scrub to scare the game, and the fire spreads to the trees, and there smoulders unheeded for weeks, till happily some chance extinguishes it. Many lords of the forest have thus been burnt out, and have at last fallen, and lie on the ground partly embedded, forming great tunnels, hollow from end to end, so that in several cases two horsemen can ride abreast inside the tree from (what was once) its base to its summit.

We halted at the base of the Grizzly Giant, which well deserves its name; for it measures ninety-three feet in circumference, and looks so battered and weather-worn that it probably is about the most venerable tree in the forest. It is one of the most picturesque Sequoias I have seen, just because it has broken through all the rules of symmetry, so rigidly observed by its well-conditioned, well-grown brethren; and instead of being a vast cinnamon-coloured column, with small boughs near the summit, it has taken a line of its own, and thrown out several great branches, each about six feet in diameter—in other words, about as large as a fine old English beech-tree!

This poor old tree has had a great hollow burnt in it (I think the Indians must have used it as a kitchen), and our half-dozen ponies and mules were stabled in the hollow—a most picturesque group. It seems strange to see trees thus scorched and charred, with their insides clean burnt out, yet, on looking far, far overhead, to perceive them crowned with fresh blue-green, as if nothing ailed them, so great is their vitality. Benjamin Taylor says of such a one, “It did not know that it ought to be dead. The tides of life flowed so mightily up that majestic column!”

The Indians say that all other trees grow, but that the Big trees are the special creation of the Great Spirit. So here too, you see, we have, not tree-worship, but something of the reverence accorded to the cedar in all lands. The Hebrew poet sang of “the trees of the Lord, even the cedars of Lebanon, which He hath planted.” And the hill-tribes of Northern India build a rudely carved temple beneath each specially magnificent clump of Deodar, to mark that they are “God’s trees;’ while in the sacred Sanskrit poems they are called Deva dara or Deva daru, meaning the gift, the spouse, the wood of God, but in any case, denoting the sanctity of the tree.

Whether these Californian Indians had any similar title for their Big trees, I have failed to learn; but the name by which they are known to the civilised world is that of Sequoyah, a half-caste Cherokee Indian, who distinguished himself by inventing an alphabet and a written language for his tribe. It was a most ingenious alphabet, consisting of eighty-six characters, each representing a syllable, and was so well adapted to its purpose that it was extensively used by the Indians before the white man had ever heard of it. Afterwards it was adopted by the missionaries, who started a printing-press, with types of this character, and issued a newspaper for the Cherokee tribe, by whom this singular alphabet is still used.

When the learned botanist Endlicher had to find a suitable name for the lovely redwood cedars, he did honour to Sequoyah, by linking his memory for ever with that of the evergreen forests of the Coast Range.1 And when afterwards these Big trees of the same race were discovered on the Sierras, they of course were included under the same family name.

[1Sequoia sempervirens.]

I began this letter by telling you that these giants fail to impress me with a sense of beauty, from the disproportion of their boughs to their huge stems. This, however, only occurs to me on those rare occasions when a Big tree stands so much alone that the eye can take it in at a glance, and this very rarely is the case. Generally—as Ian Campbell told us—we could not see the trees for the forest! Splendid red and yellow and silvery-grey pillars are grouped all around the colossal Sienna column; and their mingling boughs form a canopy of such lovely green, that at first you scarcely notice that this kindly verdure all belongs to other trees, and that whatever clothing the giant may possess, is all reserved for his (frequently invisible) head and shoulders.

But of the loveliness of the under-world you can form no conception from any comparison with the finest firwood of Scotland. Dearly as I love them, they would seem mere pigmies and monotonously dull, as compared with these pine-forests of the West. There is no heather here, however; so Scotland scores hugely on that point! But one special charm here lies in that exquisite lichen, of which I have already told you, which literally covers all the branches of many trees with a thick coating several inches deep of the most brilliant yellow-green. It is just the colour we call lemon-yellow, sprinkled with chrome; but this sounds prosaic, and its effect in the sombre forest is that of joyous sunbeams lighting up the darkness.

We all came back laden with golden boughs, and with immense cones of sugar-pine, which are about fifteen inches in length, and with tiny cones of the giant cedar, which scarcely measure two inches. As the acorn is to the oak, so is this tiny seed-bearer to the great trees; and (as the old fable taught us) well for us that it is so—for to-day I stood beneath a tree which measured 272 feet in height, and rather congratulated myself that nothing larger could drop on my head! In another grove, at Calaveras, there are several trees standing upwards of 300 feet, and one is proved to be 325—a noble spire. I hope to see it before long.

Considering the multitude of cones which must fall every autumn, we rather wondered to see so few young cedars springing up round the parent stems. But this is accounted for by the frequent fires which, as I already told you, have done such havoc in the grove. Comparatively few of the largest trees are altogether free from injury. They are either burned at the base or at one side; or, like the Grizzly Giant, their poor old heart has been burnt out, leaving a blackened cavern in its place, and perhaps forming a chimney right up the middle of the tree. I suppose the Indians have been accustomed to camp in the grove, for there are fewer traces of fire on the outskirts, and young trees of five or six inches in diameter are tolerably abundant.

Some one took the trouble to count and measure the trees in the upper Mariposa grove, and found that, without counting baby giants, it contains 365 Sequoias of upwards of three feet in circumference—one for every day of the year. Of these about 125 measure upwards of forty feet round. The lower grove contains about half that number. In the upper grove the Big trees are more strikingly grouped, and stand together in clusters, without so many other sorts intervening.

The trail is led uphill by the course of one stream, and down beside another, so as to pass beside all the finest trees. They are bright rushing streams, leaping from rock to rock, and fringed with crystalline glittering icicles. We did not, however, attempt to follow them closely, as at that high level the snow is still so deep as effectually to conceal the trail, so we struck a line for ourselves. Most of our fellow-travellers were quickly satisfied, and turned back from the lower grove with the happy consciousness that they had seen the Big trees, and could say so, which appears to be the sole aim and end of a multitude of Globe trotters in regard to most of the beauties of nature.

Our party, of course, determined to push on, and it was agreed that I should take my pony as far as possible, as it was likely to be a tiring scramble. Presently we came to a ridge too steep for the willing beast, so tying him up to a tree, I joined the walkers. The snow was a good deal more than knee-deep, but the beauty of the scene was a reward for all the fatigue involved, and we were determined not to turn till we had reached a special group, which had been described to us, and which we were to distinguish by finding a small log-hut near a huge fallen tree.

At last we called a halt, and I remained stationary, while the gentlemen went off in three different directions, prospecting. One by one they returned, having failed in their quest, and agreed to give up the search, when I begged for one more trial, and led the way to a long hillock of snow, which proved to be a fallen giant; and just beyond it, on lower ground, lay the group we sought—by far the grandest we had yet seen—and the little log-hut snugly sheltered in the heart of this forest sanctuary, just where a Pahari would have placed his cedar-wood temple. I did feel so proud of having proved a better woodsman than my comrades, all of whom are experienced foresters!

Returning to the ponies, we unpacked our luncheon-basket with much satisfaction, and then leisurely took the homeward track, very wet and tired, but having thoroughly enjoyed the day.

Among its many interests has been the finding of a flower altogether new to me—a strange bright scarlet-crimson blossom, like a very fleshy hyacinth. It is here called the snow-flower,1 because it rises right out of the earth as soon as ever the snow melts, after the manner of our snowdrop. But instead of being enfolded in smooth green leaves, each crimson bell is wrapped in a crimson leaflet, which uncurls as it rises above the earth, forming a sort of hyacinthine pyramid of blossom eight inches in height. It has only two or three inches of thick stem, and really suggests little tongues of flame darting out of the newly thawed earth, quite close to snow-drifts. I do not know if it grows in any other country, but I never heard of it elsewhere.

[1Sarcodes sanguinea.]

I cannot tell you how glad I am that my lucky star brought me to California (quite against my will) at this season, while there is still just sufficient snow to let me see the Sierra Nevada1 in its true character. All the mountain-peaks stand out clear and dazzlingly bright against a cold steely-grey sky. This morning it was leaden-hued, and a heavy snow-shower swept over the range,—we trust it was winter’s farewell kiss, for certainly we have no wish to be snowed up in the valley, magnificent as it must be, to judge from the description given to me by an adventurous artist, who has braved its dangers in devotion to his art, and deliberately consigned himself to a long captivity in the valley, exquisite in its wintry loveliness, but none the less a prison, with ramparts of frozen snow forty and fifty feet in depth, obliterating every trace of the passes, by which alone the valley is accessible at midsummer, and never melting for six long months.

[1Sierra Nevada—“Range of Snow.”]

In some of the canyons the snow accumulates to the depth of a hundred feet, while fifteen to twenty feet sometimes fall steadily all over the mountains, at the rate of four or five feet in a day. So the few regular inhabitants of the valley make up their minds to total seclusion during this period, and provision themselves accordingly, knowing that till the warm breath of spring shall melt their prison-walls, not even a chance horseman or cat-like Indian will invade their solitude. The wailing of the wild winds and the roar of the rushing rivers are the only murmurs that can reach them from beyond their lonely valley.

Thanks to huge snow-shoes, ten or twelve feet long, turned up in front like the runner of a skate, and with a leather strap in the middle, which is lightly laced over the instep, a good deal of travelling can be done on tolerably level ground; but of course these are utterly useless in traversing difficult mountain-ridges, where the rocky paths are no child’s playground at any time, being merely trails winding along almost precipitous crags, or crumbling slopes of disintegrated rock, which at any moment may give way to the constant action of wind and weather and natural drainage, and glide down with headlong crash, to find rest in the valley some thousand feet below.

Of course in the deep snow every familiar landmark is so utterly changed, that the oldest hunter could scarcely guess where, beneath the smooth expanse of beautiful treacherous white, lies the hidden path; and rash indeed must be the man who attempts to force his way in defiance of the Snow-king.

The effect of the shower this morning was truly lovely. The falling flakes shrouded the mountains in a filmy gauze-like veil, while the distant clumps of dark pines, wrapped in grey shadow, were indistinct and phantom-like. Those nearer to us loomed gigantic, their vast size exaggerated by the magnifying mist and the swirling of the fitful snow-showers. Silently, silently the soft feather-like flakes fell, not a breath of wind stirring to disturb them as they settled on every twig and spray, more lightly than ever butterfly rested on a flower.

Suddenly the clouds cleared off, revealing a heaven more intensely azure than I have ever seen even in the tropics. And then a flood of golden sunlight was outpoured on the beautiful dazzling earth, and the glory of the forest was beyond all description. Each stately pine seemed transformed to a pyramid of glistening alabaster, with strata of malachite, as we caught glimpses of the darkgreen undersides of the graceful sweeping boughs, weighed down beneath their burden of myriad snow-flakes.

On every side of us, in the low-lying forest, or the hanging wood that clothed the steep mountain-side, rose ten thousand times ten thousand tall white spires and minarets and pinnacles—as in some idealised oriental way but assuredly no marble ever gleamed so purely—not even the dreamlike tombs of Agra).

On every grassy reed, each hazel twig and manzanita bush, the light flakes lay in fairy-like crystals—even the silken webs of the busy spiders had caught their share, and now sparkled like jewels in the sunlight. And every great rock-boulder was snow-capped, and each stern rugged crag was softened by a powder-like dusting, lightly sprinkled wherever a crevice or a furrow gave it a chance of resting; and far above all uprose the eternal hills, robed in spotless white, pure and dazzling.

So, from dawn till sunset, the day has been filled with images of beauty; but not one more pleasant than that of the blazing fire and capital dinner which awaited us on our return here. You must remember that to me fire and snow are alike wellnigh forgotten elements, so they possess almost the charm of novelty, linked with that of old association. Now the most attractive of all good gifts presents itself in the prospect of a grand sound sleep, so—Good night.

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