[page vii] After the making of Eden came a serpent, and after the gorgeous furnishing of the world, a human being. Why the existence of the destroyers? What monstrous folly, think you, ever led Nature to create her one great enemy—man! Before his coming security may have been; but how soon she learned the meaning of fear when this new Œdipus of her brood was brought forth! And how instinctively she taught the fear of him to the rest of her children! To-day, after centuries of association, every bird and beast and creeping thing—the wolf in the forest, the antelope on the plain, the wild fowl in the sedge—fly from his approach. They know his civilization means their destruction. Even the grizzly, secure in the chaparral of his mountain home, flinches as he crosses the white man's trail. The boot mark [page viii] in the dust smells of blood and iron. The great annihilator has come and fear travels with him.
"Familiar facts," you will say. Yes; and not unfamiliar the knowledge that with the coming of civilization the grasses and the wild flowers perish, the forest falls and its place is taken by brambles, the mountains are blasted in the search for minerals, the plains are broken by the plow and the soil is gradually washed into the rivers. Last of all, when the forests have gone the rains cease falling, the streams dry up, the ground parches and yields no life, and the artificial desert—the desert made by the tramp of human feet—begins to show itself, Yes; everyone must have cast a backward glance and seen Nature's beauties beaten to ashes under the successive marches of civilization. The older portions of the earth show their desolation plainly enough, and the ascending smoke and dust of the ruin have even tainted the air and dimmed the sunlight.
Indeed, I am not speaking figuratively or extravagantly. We have often heard of "Sunny Italy" or the "clear light" of Egypt, but believe me there is no sunlight there compared with that which falls upon the upper peaks of [page ix] the Sierra Madre or the uninhabitable wastes of the Colorado Desert. Pure sunlight requires for its existence pure air, and the Old World has little of it left. When you are in Rome again and stand upon that hill where all good romanticists go at sunset, look out and notice how dense is the atmosphere between you and St. Peter's dome. That same thick air is all over Europe, all around the Mediterranean, even over in Mesopotamia and by the banks of the Ganges. It has been breathed and burned and battle-smoked for ten thousand years. Ride up and over the high table-lands of Montana—one can still ride there for days without seeing a trace of humanity—and how clear and scentless, how absolutely intangible that sky-blown sunshot atmosphere! You breathe it without feeling it, you see through it a hundred miles and the picture is not blurred by it.
It is just so with Nature's color. True enough, there is much rich color at Venice, at Cairo, at Constantinople. Its beauty need not be denied; and yet it is an artificial, a chemical color, caused by the disintegration of matter—the decay of stone, wood, and iron torn from the neighboring mountains. It is Nature after a poor fashion—Nature subordinated to the will [page x] of man. Once more ride over the enchanted mesas of Arizona at sunrise or at sunset, with the ragged mountains of Mexico to the south of you and the broken spurs of the great sierra round about you; and all the glory of the old shall be as nothing to the gold and purple and burning crimson of this new world.
You will not be surprised then if, in speaking of desert, mesa and mountain I once more take you far beyond the wire fence of civilization to those places (unhappily few now) where the trail is unbroken and the mountain peak unblazed. I was never over-fond of park and garden nature-study. If we would know the great truths we must seek them at the source. The sandy wastes, the arid lands, the porphyry mountain peaks may be thought profitless places for pilgrimages; but how often have you and I, and that one we both loved so much, found beauty in neglected marshes, in wintry forests, and in barren hill-sides! The love of Nature is after all an acquired taste. One begins by admiring the Hudson-River landscape and ends by loving the desolation of Sahara. Just why or how the change would be difficult to explain. You cannot always dissect a taste or a passion. Nor can you pin Nature to a [page xi] board and chart her beauties with square and compasses. One can give his impression and but little more. Perhaps I can tell you something of what I have seen in these two years of wandering; but I shall never be able to tell you the grandeur of these mountains, nor the glory of color that wraps the burning sands at their feet. We shoot arrows at the sun in vain; yet still we shoot.
And so it is that my book is only an excuse for talking about the beautiful things in this desert world that stretches down the Pacific Coast, and across Arizona and Sonora. The desert has gone a-begging for a word of praise these many years. It never had a sacred poet; it has in me only a lover. But I trust that you, and the nature-loving public you represent, will accept this record of the Colorado and the Mojave as at least truthful. Given the facts perhaps the poet with his fancies will come hereafter.
JOHN C. VAN DYKE.
LA NORIA VERDE