3. THE BOTTOM OF THE BOWL


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CHAPTER III

THE BOTTOM OF THE BOWL


 Early geological days.  

[page 44] IN the ancient days when the shore of the Pacific was young, when the white sierras had only recently been heaved upward and the desert itself was in a formative stage, the ocean reached much farther inland than at the present time. It pushed through many a pass and flooded many a depression in the sands, as its wave-marks upon granite bases and its numerous beaches still bear witness. In those days that portion of the Colorado Desert known as

 The former Gulf.  

the Salton Basin did not exist. The Gulf of California extended as far north as the San Bernardino Range and as far west as the Pass of San Gorgonio. Its waters stood deep where now lies the road-bed of the Southern Pacific railway, and all the country from Indio almost to the Colorado River was a blue sea. The Bowl was full. No one knew if it had a bottom or imagined that it would ever be emptied of water and given over to the drifting sands.

[page 45] No doubt the tenure of the sea in this Salton Basin was of long duration. The sand-dunes still standing along the northern shore—fifty feet high and shining like hills of chalk—were not made in a month; nor was the long shelving beach beneath them—still covered

 Sea-beaches on desert.  

with sea-shells and pebbles and looking as though washed by the waves only yesterday—formed in a day. Both dunes and beach are plainly visible winding across the desert for many miles. The southwestern shore, stretching under a spur of the Coast Range, shows the same formation in its beach-line. The old bays and lagoons that led inland from the sea, the river-beds that brought down the surface

 Harbors and reefs.  

waters from the mountains, the inlets and natural harbors are all in place. Some of them are drifted half full of sand, but they have not lost their identity. And out in the sea-bed still stand masses of cellular rock, honeycombed and water-worn (and now for many years windworn), showing the places where once rose the reefs of the ancient sea.

These are the only records that tell of the sea's occupation. The Indians have no tradition about it. Yet when the sea was there the Indian tribes were there also. Along the [page 46] bases of the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Ranges there are indications of cave-dwelling,

 Indian remains.  

rock-built squares that doubtless were fortified camps, heaps of stone that might have been burial-mounds. Everywhere along the ancient shores and beaches you pick up pieces of pottery, broken ollas, stone pestels and mortars, axe-heads, obsidian arrow-heads, flint spear-points, agate beads. There is not the slightest doubt that the shores were inhabited. It was a warm nook, accessible to the mountains and the Pacific; in fact, just the place where tribes would naturally gather. Branches of

 The Cocopas.  

the Yuma Indians, like the Cocopas, overran all this country when the Padres first crossed the desert; and it was probably their forefathers who lived by the shores of this Upper Gulf. No doubt they were fishermen, traders and fighters, like their modern representatives on Tiburon Island; and no doubt they fished and fought and were happy by the shores of the mountain-locked sea.

But there came a time when there was a disturbance of the existing conditions in the Upper Gulf. Century after century the Colorado

 The Colorado River.  

River had been carrying down to the sea its burden of sedimental sand and silt. It had [page 47] been entering the Gulf far down on the eastern side at an acute angle. Gradually its deposits had been building up, banking up; and gradually the river had been pushing them out and across the Gulf in a southwesterly direction.

 The delta dam.  

Finally there was formed a delta dam stretching from shore to shore. The tides no longer brought water up and around the bases of the big mountains. Communication with the sea was cut off and what was once the top of the Gulf changed into an inland lake. It now had no water supply from below, it lay under a burning sun, and day by day evaporation carried it away.

No one knows how many days, how many years, elapsed before the decrease of the water became noticeable. Doubtless the lake shrunk

 The inland lake.  

away slowly from the white face of the sanddunes and the red walls of the mountains. The river-mouths that opened into the lake narrowed themselves to small stream-beds. The shelving beaches where the waves had fallen lazily year after year, pushing themselves over the sand in beautiful water-mirrors, shone bare and dry in the sunlight. The ragged reefs, over which the chop sea had tumbled and tossed so long, lifted their black hulks out [page 48] of the water and with their hosts of barnacles and sea-life became a part of the land.


 The first fall.  

The waters of the great inland lake fell perhaps a hundred feet and then they made a pause. The exposed shores dried out. They baked hard in the sun, and were slowly ground down to sand and powdered silt by the action of the winds. The waters made a long pause. They were receiving reinforcements from some source. Possibly there was more rainfall in those days than now, and the streams entering the lake from the mountains were much larger. Again there

 Springs and wells in the sea-bed.  

may have been underground springs. There are flowing wells to-day in this old sea-bed—wells that cast up water salter than the sea itself. No one knows their fountain-head. Perhaps by underground channels the water creeps through from the Gulf, or comes from mountain reservoirs and turns saline by passing through beds of salt. These are the might-bes; but it is far more probable that the Colorado River at high water had made a breach of some kind in the dam of its own construction and had poured overflow water into the lake by way of a dry

 The New River.  

channel called the New River. The bed of this river runs northward from below the boundary-line of Lower California; and in 1893, during [page 49] a rise in the Colorado, the waters rushed in and flooded the whole of what is called the Salton Basin. When the Colorado receded, the basin soon dried out again.

It was undoubtedly some accident of this kind that called the halt in the original recession. During the interim the lake had time to form new shores where the waves pounded and washed on the gravel as before until miles upon miles of new beach—pebbled, shelled, and sloping

 New beaches.  

downward with great uniformity—came into existence. This secondary beach is intact today and looks precisely like the primary except that it is not quite so large. Across the basin, along the southern mountains, the second water-tracery is almost as apparent as the first. The rocks are eaten in long lines by wave-action, and are honeycombed by the ceaseless energies of the zoöphite.

Nor was the change in beach and rock alone. New bays and harbors were cut out from where the sea had been, new river-channels were opened down to the shrunken lake, new lagoons were spread over the flat places. Nature evidently

 The second fall.  

made a great effort to repair the damage and adapt the lake to its new conditions. And the Indians, too, accepted the change. There [page 50] are many indications in broken pottery, arrowheads, and mortars that the aboriginal tribes moved down to the new beach and built wickiups by the diminished waters. And the old fishing-foraging-fighting life was probably resumed.

Then once more the waters went down, down, down. Step by step they receded until the secondary beach was left a hundred feet above the water level. Again there was a pause. Again

 The third beach.  

new beaches were beaten into shape by the waves, new bays were opened, new arroyos cut through from above. The whole process of shore-making—the fitting of the land to the shrunken proportions of the lake—was gone through with for the third time; while the water supply from the river or elsewhere was maintained in decreased volume but with some steadiness of flow. Possibly the third halt of the receding water was not for a great length of time. The tertiary beach is not so large as its predecessors. There never was any strong wave-action

 The failing water.  

upon it, its pebbles are few, its faults and breaks are many. The water supply was failing, and finally it ceased altogether.

What fate for a lake in the desert receiving no supplies from river or sea—what fate save [page 51] annihilation? The hot breath of the wind blew across the cramped water and whipped its surface into little waves; and as each tiny point of spray rose on the crest and was lifted into the air the fiery sunbeam caught it, and in a twinkling had evaporated and carried it upward.

 Evaporation.  

Day by day this process went on over the whole surface until there was no more sea. The hollow reefs rose high and dark above the bed, the flat shoals of silt lifted out of the ooze, and down in the lowest pools there was the rush and plunge of monster tortuabas, sharks and porpoises, caught as it were in a net and

 Bottom of the Bowl.  

vainly struggling to get out. How strange must have seemed that landscape when the low ridges where shining with the slime of the sea, when the beds were strewn with algœ, sponges, and coral, and the shores were whitening with salt! How strange, indeed, must have been the first sight of the Bottom of the Bowl!


 Drying out of the sea-bed.  

But the sun never relaxed its fierce heat nor the wind its hot breath. They scorched and burned the silt of the sea-bed until it baked and cracked into blocks. Then began the wear of the winds upon the broken edges until the blocks were reduced to dry fine powder. Finally the desert came in. Drifts upon drifts of [page 52] sand blown through the valleys settled in the empty basin; gravel and bowlder-wash came down from the mountains; the grease-wood, the salt-bush, and the so-called pepper-grass sprang up in isolated spots. Slowly the desert fastened itself upon the basin. Its heat became

 Advance of desert.  

too intense to allow the falling rain to reach the earth, its surface was too salt and alkaline to allow of much vegetation, it could support neither animal nor bird life; it became more deserted than the desert itself.


 Below sea-level.  

And thus it remains to this day. When you are in the bottom of it you are nearly three hundred feet below the level of the sea. Circling about you to the north, south, and west are sierras, some of them over ten thousand feet in height. These form the Rim of the Bowl. And off to the southwest there is a side broken out of the Bowl through which you can pass to the river and the Gulf. The basin is perhaps the hottest place to be found anywhere on the

 Desolation of the basin.  

American deserts. And it is also the most forsaken. The bottom itself is, for the great part of it, as flat as a table. It looks like a great plain leading up and out to the horizon—a plain that has been ploughed and rolled smooth. The soil is drifted silt—the deposits made by [page 53] the washings from the mountains—and is almost as fine as flour.


 eauty of the sand-dunes.  

The long line of dunes at the north are just as desolate, yet they are wonderfully beautiful. The desert sand is finer than snow, and its curves and arches, as it builds its succession of drifts out and over an arroyo, are as graceful as the lines of running water. The dunes are always rhythmical and flowing in their forms; and for color the desert has nothing that surpasses them. In the early morning, before the sun is up, they are air-blue, reflecting the sky overhead; at noon they are pale lines of dazzling orange-colored light, waving and undulating in the heated air; at sunset they are often flooded with a rose or mauve color; under a blue moonlight they shine white as icebergs in the northern seas.

But neither the dunes nor the flats grow vegetation of consequence. About the high edges, up near the mountain slopes, you find

 Cactus and salt-bush.  

growths of mesquite, palo verde, and cactus; but down in the basin there are many miles where no weed or grass breaks the level uniformity. Not even the salt-bush will grow in some of the areas. And this is not due to poverty of soil but to absence of water and [page 54] intense heat. Plants cannot live by sunlight alone.


 Desert animals in the basin.  

Nor will the desert animals inhabit an absolute waste. The coyote and the wild cat do not relish life in this dip in the earth. They care little for heat and drouth, but the question of food appeals to them. There is nothing to eat. Even the abstemious jack-rabbit finds living here something of a difficulty. Many kinds of tracks are found in the uncrusted silt—tracks of coyotes, gray wolves, sometimes mountain lions—but they all run in straight trails, showing the animals to be crossing the basin to the mountains, not prowling or hunting. So, too,

 Birds.  

you will occasionally find birds—linnets, bobolinks, mocking-birds, larks—but they are seen one at a time, and they look weary like land birds far out at sea that seek a resting-place on passing vessels. They do not belong to the desert and are only stopping there temporarily

 Lizards and snakes.  

on some long flight. Snakes and lizards are not particular about their abiding-place, and yet they do not care to live in a land where there is no bush or stone to creep under. You meet with them very seldom. Practically there is no life of any kind that is native to the place.

Is there any beauty, other than the dunes, [page 55] down in this hollow of the desert? Yes. From a picturesque point of view it has the most wonderful light, air, and color imaginable. You will not think so until you see them blended in that strange illusion known as

 Mirage.  

mirage. And here is the one place in all the world where the water-mirage appears to perfection. It does not show well over grassy or bushy ground, but over the flat lake-beds of the desert its appearance is astonishing. Down in

 The water illusion.  

the basin it is accompanied by a second illusion that makes the first more convincing. You are below sea-level, but instead of the ground about you sloping up and out, it apparently slopes down and away on every side. You are in the centre of a disk or high point of ground, and around the circumference of the disk is water—palpable, almost tangible, water. It cannot be seen well from your horse, and fifty feet up on a mountain side it would not be visible at all. But dismount and you see it better; kneel down and place your cheek to the ground and now the water seems to creep up to you. You could throw a stone into it. The shore where the waves lap is just before you. But where is the horizon-line? Odd enough, this vast circling sea does not always know a [page 56] horizon; it sometimes reaches up and blends into the sky without any point of demarcation. Through the heated air you see faint outlines of mountains, dim glimpses of foot-hills, suggestions of distance; but no more. Across them is drawn the wavering veil of air, and the red earth at your feet, the blue sky overhead, are but bordering bands of flat color.


 Decorative landscapes.  

And there you have the most decorative landscape in the world, a landscape all color, a dream landscape. Painters for years have been trying to put it upon canvas—this landscape of color, light, and air, with form almost obliterated, merely suggested, given only as a hint of the mysterious. Men like Corot and Monet have told us, again and again, that in painting, clearly delineated forms of mountains, valleys, trees, and rivers, kill the fine color-sentiment of the picture. The great struggle of the modern landscapist is to get on with the least possible form and to suggest everything by tones of color, shades of light, drifts of air. Why? Because

 Sensuous qualities in nature.  

these are the most sensuous qualities in nature and in art. The landscape that is the simplest in form and the finest in color is by all odds the most beautiful. It is owing to just these features that this Bowl of the desert is a thing of [page 57] beauty instead of a dreary hollow in the hills. Only one other scene is comparable to it, and that the southern seas at sunset when the calm ocean reflects and melts into the color-glory of the sky. It is the same kind of beauty. Form is almost blurred out in favor of color and air.

Yet here is more beauty destined to destruction. It might be thought that this forsaken pot-hole in the ground would never come under

 Changing the desert.  

the dominion of man, that its very worthlessness would be its safeguard against civilization, that none would want it, and everyone from necessity would let it alone. But not even the spot deserted by reptiles shall escape the industry or the avarice (as you please) of man. A great company has been formed to turn the Colorado River into the sands, to reclaim this desert basin, and make it blossom as the rose. The water is to

 Irrigation in the basin.  

be brought down to the basin by the old channel of the New River. Once in reservoirs it is to be distributed over the tract by irrigating ditches, and it is said a million acres of desert will thus be made arable, fitted for homesteads, ready for the settler who never remains settled.

A most laudable enterprise, people will say. Yes; commercially no one can find fault with it. Money made from sand is likely to be clean

 Changing the climate.  

[page 58] money, at any rate. And economically these acres will produce large supplies of food. That is commendable, too, even if those for whom it is produced waste a good half of what they already possess. And yet the food that is produced there may prove expensive to people other than the producers. This old sea-bed is, for its area, probably the greatest dry-heat generator in the world because of its depression and its barren, sandy surface. It is a furnace that whirls heat up and out of the Bowl, over the peaks of the Coast Range into Southern California, and eastward across the plains to Arizona and Sonora. In what measure it is responsible for the general climate of those States cannot be accurately summarized; but it certainly has a great influence, especially in the

 Dry air.  

matter of producing dry air. To turn this desert into an agricultural tract would be to increase humidity, and that would be practically to nullify the finest air on the continent.

And why are not good air and climate as essential to human well-being as good beef and good bread? Just now, when it is a world too late, our Government and the forestry societies of the country are awakening to the necessity of preserving the forests. National parks are

 Value of the air supply.  

[page 59] being created wherever possible and the cutting of timber within them is prohibited. Why is this being done? Ostensibly to preserve the trees, but in reality to preserve the water supply, to keep the fountain-heads pure, to maintain a uniform stage of water in the rivers. Very proper and right. The only pity is that it was not undertaken forty years ago. But how is the water supply, from an economic and hygienic stand-point, any more important than the air supply?

Grasses, trees, shrubs, growing grain, they, too, may need good air as well as human lungs.

 Value of the deserts.  

The deserts are not worthless wastes. You cannot crop all creation with wheat and alfalfa. Some sections must lie fallow that other sections may produce. Who shall say that the preternatural productiveness of California is not due to the warm air of its surrounding deserts? Does anyone doubt that the healthfulness of the countries lying west of the Mississippi may be traced directly to the dry air and heat of the deserts. They furnish health to the human; why not strength to the plant? The deserts should never be reclaimed. They are the breathing-spaces of the west and should be preserved forever.

[page 60] To speak about sparing anything because it is beautiful is to waste one's breath and incur ridicule in the bargain. The æsthetic sense—the power to enjoy through the eye, the ear, and the imagination—is just as important a

 Destruction of natural beauty.  

factor in the scheme of human happiness as the corporeal sense of eating and drinking; but there has never been a time when the world would admit it. The "practical men," who seem forever on the throne, know very well that beauty is only meant for lovers and young persons—stuff to suckle fools withal. The main affair of life is to get the dollar, and if there is any money in cutting the throat of Beauty, why, by all means, cut her throat. That is what the "practical men" have been doing ever since the world began. It is not necessary to dig up ancient history; for have we not seen, here in California and Oregon, in our own time, the destruction of the fairest valleys the sun ever shone upon by placer and hydraulic mining?

 Effects of mining, lumbering, agriculture.  

Have we not seen in Minnesota and Wisconsin the mightiest forests that ever raised head to the sky slashed to pieces by the axe and turned into a waste of tree-stumps and fallen timber? Have we not seen the Upper Mississippi, by the destruction of [page 61] the forests, changed from a broad, majestic river into a shallow, muddy stream; and the

 Ploughing the prairies.  

beautiful prairies of Dakota turned under by the plough and then allowed to run to weeds? Men must have coal though they ruin the valleys and blacken the streams of Pennsylvania, they must have oil though they disfigure half of Ohio and Indiana, they must have copper if they wreck all the mountains of Montana and Arizona, and they must have gold though they blow Alaska into the Behring Sea. It is

 "Practical men"  

more than possible that the "practical men" have gained much practice and many dollars by flaying the fair face of these United States. They have stripped the land of its robes of beauty, and what have they given in its place? Weeds, wire fences, oil-derricks, board shanties and board towns—things that not even a "practical man" can do less than curse at.

And at last they have turned to the desert! It remains to be seen what they will do with it. Reclaiming a waste may not be so easy as breaking a prairie or cutting down a forest. And Nature will not always be driven from her

 Fighting wind, sand, and heat.  

purpose. Wind, sand, and heat on Sahara have proven hard forces to fight against; they [page 62] may prove no less potent on the Colorado. And sooner or later Nature will surely come to her own again. Nothing human is of long duration. Men and their deeds are obliterated,

 Nature eternal.  

the race itself fades; but Nature goes calmly on with her projects. She works not for man's enjoyment, but for her own satisfaction and her own glory. She made the fat lands of the earth with all their fruits and flowers and foliage; and with no less care she made the desert with its sands and cacti. She intended that each should remain as she made it. When the locust swarm has passed, the flowers and grasses will return to the valley; when man is gone, the sand and the heat will come back

 Return of desolation.  

to the desert. The desolation of the kingdom will live again, and down in the Bottom of the Bowl the opalescent mirage will waver skyward on wings of light, serene in its solitude, though no human eye sees nor human tongue speaks its loveliness.

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