Father Serra - Missionary

Father Serra - Missionary
Always forward, never back

Sunday, August 18, 2013


A 19th Century View of California


If ever one were justified in rising out of the path of exact narration, and indulging in a brief spell of the fanciful or ideal, it is in thinking of California when the white men came. A narrow strip of seaboard, the air low breathing and of tender tone, with green and grizzly mountains for a background, all opening toward the sunwaves of this is our lotos-land, where fancy may place the lotos-tree, with its leaves like the ears of elephants, and its branches drooping down from heaven. Among these branches are birds of sweetest song, whose strains are fresh from paradise, and under their shadow angels. pause and rest. The seeds of this tree each encloses an houri; and from its roots spring the two rivers which flow by the invisible throne of Allah. Sitting on a lotos-tree, rising from the watery mud, the Egyptians picture deity, while the great desert prophet places a lotos-tree in his seventh heaven.

It is a winterless earth's end perpetually refreshed by ocean, a land surpassed neither by the island grotto of Calypso, the Elysian fields of Homer, nor the island valley of Avalon seen by King Arthur iu his dying thought. Here day after day, and year after year, may come the stranger, and eat the lotos, and be happy; he may eat the lotos and forget the old home and country, forget the wife and children, content forever to rest in this strange land, waking to fall asleep again, and dream day-dreams and night-dreams, as he floats silently down the sluggish stream of time. Here might be placed the Hebrew's Eden, or the beatitude of the Buddhist; here may the dark-eyed Italian enjoy his dolce far niente, and the sighing ghost of Charles Lamb find a region beyond the domain of conscience. And I doubt not, if proper search be made, that here may be found the singing-tree of the Arabian tale, the leaves whereof are mouths, each one of which discourses harmonious music.

At either end of this seaboard strip is a beautiful bay; San Diego, in the south, the starting-point in Alta California of the Franciscan friars in their tour northward, the initial point in their line of mission buildings, San Francisco being the northern terminus.

What shall I say of this land, and not lay myself open to the charge of hyperbole, grosser than any ever indulged in by the ancients'? If they wrote much about their Arabys and Arcadias of the world learning their stories by heart and repeating them over and over to this day of” may not I write a little about a better country? But indeed, there is no need here for exaggeration, even if I desired to indulge in it; plain, homely prose best fits this and all honest occasions.

Grant that Andalusia is the garden of Spain, Amboise of France, Italy of Europe, and Sicily of Italy, and we may justly claim for our lotos-land a place before them all as the garden of the world. Grant to be not wholly fanciful the great story of the Greek Ulysses ; we can match it in tangible truth from the lips of the English Anson and Cook, when among the soft South Sea isles, and from the profane mouths of scores of ship-masters sailing along the California main, who tell how they often were forced to drag back their seamen to the vessel, provided they were fortunate enough to catch them, so loath were they to abandon the fascinations of the shore.

I do not say that there are here no off days, no treacherous rocks, or shiny reptiles, or poisonous plants; I do not say that winds never blow and storms never beat; that there are no withering northern blasts, or sand-whirlings in the desert, or snow on the mountain-tops ; or that sometimes when night sets in the eastern ridges do not subside and cover their heads beneath the fog-blankets of the valleys — but these are the exceptions, and there are scarcely enough such days to break the dead monotony of the warm, misty mornings that overspread the happy hills and echoing canons, forever wooed by the enchanting smile of ocean. Here along we may be sure are no waters of adversity beneath which the sea-flower blooms not.

But I have seen the Mediterranean angry, spitefully so; one would infer from the high recorded experiences of the veracious old Ulysses, in his little paddlings thereabout, that he had been five times round the world, to have seen so many things which never existed. When we have catalogued the ills of all other Edens, the fever-breeding sun, the foul, floating miasma, and other pestilential airs of Amboise and Andalusia, of Egypt and Italy, and have spread them all out before our California lotos-land, we shall then see the poverty of this place in death-dealing agencies. To grass and flowers, indeed, death comes not in the cold and melancholy robe of autumn ; but sublimated by the summer's sun, undecaying they die, leaving their part substantial for the hungry brute, like the departing soul which leaves the substance of its life in generous deeds. And we are even told of saints departed, whose bodies were preserved by the gods from decay, even as Hector's body was kept fresh and roseate by the devotion of Venus and Apollo.

Fling yourself in early morning, the sky red-flushing with the rosy dawn, upon a point of land — Point Lonia, if you will — and looking seaward and shoreward along the white, curving line of sand, until in the far perspective shore, sea, and sky meet; presently you may see Aurora stealing over the eastern mountains, and peeping in upon her favorite fairy-land, nestling warm and glowing under a coverlet of gray mists, while with roseate lips she kisses night away.

Salute this land, blessed above all lands I Salute the unstained altars and sky-roofed temples of her gods! It is not the Arcadia of tradition, sung by poets, and etherealized by romance writers as a golden refuge-land, free from the harsh prosaic life of other lands; it is the Arcadia of reality, with the three fates plying their lively trade — Lachesis who spins the thread of life, Clotho who holds the distaff, and Atropos who clips, clips, clips, every time-tick ending an earthly existence and opening an eternity; yet with sweet vales flowered by fairy fingers, and watered by smoky streams and dew dropped by departed night, and opening through the mountains vistas far inland of a country where day is but night warmed and lighted by the unseeing sun, and night but shadowy day; where spring and winter, life and decay, fetch and carry fair forms and sweet odors, their coming and going being not birth and death, but only change, and man most of all most unintelligibly changeable, perchance with daughters who even now, like butterflies, lie dreaming m their ante-natal home.

Almost all the days are halcyon, wherein upon the surface of the sea the kingfisher may lay its eggs to incubate. So gently slide the seasons from summer to autumn, and from winter to spring, that summer seems but winter smiling, and winter but the summer born anew by the refreshing rain. So gently fades the summer, like stars before the rising moon; so sweetly falls the winter rain robing all nature in gay livery 1 Stingless winter with its freshening rains spins the green and flowery coverlid which spring spreads over the hills and plains.

Spring breathing bliss comes, and holding winter in her warm embrace until his surly mood is melted. spreads tlie hills with brilliant tapestry, paves the valleys with tender green, and freights the gentle winds with the melody of birds and the fragrance of flowers. Over the white shining peaks float the white shining clouds, with a purity and splendor equalled only by the glories of Bunyan's celestial city Gentle showers succeed the heavier rains of winter, and after the spring showers are the invisible morning dew-clouds, which, after dropping their celestial moisture, hie at the bidding of the sun to realms impalpable. Then from the refreshed earth spring life-sustaining fruits, low panting to perform their mission of martyrdom.

Spring skips over the hills scattering daisies, touching with a livelier hue the palpitating vales, distilling into the blades of grass a darker green, deepening the crimson on the robin's breast, while the lapwing crests himself anew ; then summer comes to every valley and garden, curing the grass, and reddening and yellowing the luscious fruit, filling the air with rich aroma.

[More tomorrow]

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