Father Serra - Missionary

Father Serra - Missionary
Always forward, never back

Monday, August 19, 2013


More of a 19th Century description of California

Soft, warm, billowy sea bordered by a soft, warm, billowy shore ; billowy green shore bordering a billowy blue sea, and canopied by a deep blue sky; the mornings always young, the nights soothing, gentle dews descending wooing fragrance from the fragrance breathing flowers, the valleys carrpeted with green, the plains clothed in balm and beauty ; while always toward the east the hills rise and roll off in voluptuous swells, like the heaving breast of a love-lorn maid. On pinnacles of the aged mountain range stands flushed by western light the aged snow. Over blossoming lawns rush the wild, bellowing herds, treading out honey and perfume, while the bashful hare, innocently bold, leaps through the tall grass. In the air are swallows, birds of luck and consolation, sacred to the penates.

Like the happy valley of Rasselas, it is comparatively inaccessible except from one side; yet softly on this slanting shore falls the slanting light, gilding the slanting shore.

The soil is light and dry, and like Attica, it is a land of olives, vines, and honey, of sheep and cattle, rather than of corn or cereal cultivation. Low-bending branches, freighted with fruit fair as any that ever tempted Eve, yet all unforbidden seek the hand, begging earth and man to relieve them of their fragrant burden. Sun-painted grapes glowing in rich purple, green, and black clusters, fragrant with the unawakened, care-dispelling juice, coquet wantonly with wind and leaves.

Here and there the earth has clothed herself above the dark and sappy green in a coat of many colors — eschscholtzias, yellow as gold ; lupins, blue as the robe of the ephod, or purple as Caesar's toga ; ancient columbines, twining convolvuli, and lilies white and shining as snow. There is laurel for the Parthian victor's wreath, wild olive for the Olympian, green parsley for the Nemean, and green pine-leaves for the Isthmian. Gray groves of olive, dark green orange-trees gilded with golden fruit — the olive, symbol of peace, emblem of chastity, sacred to Pallas Athene. For when the gods decreed that whoever should produce a gift most useful to man should have possession of the land, and Poseidon, with his trident striking the ground made to appear the horse, Athene meanwhile planting the olive, did not the gods decide that the olive was more useful to man than the horse, and so gave the city to the goddess, from whom it was called Athense?

Back of the Coast Range our lotos-land reaches not; but agencies are there at work, and none the less influential because unseen. There is the proud Sierra, standing like a crystalled billow rolled in from the ocean, scarred and knotted by avalanche, riven by earthquakes, rent asunder by frost and fire, filed down by rasping glaciers, cut by winds into geometric irregularity, rounded by rain into symmetry and rhythm, and topped by silvered cones and turreted peaks. Standing there, arrayed in purple robes of majesty, with an immaculate glacial crown, like Atlas keeping asunder heaven and earth, and holding up the sky, our monarch Sierra assumes the dictatorship of all this region — Father of all, Dominator, Preserver !

The pliocene tertiary period probably saw the waves of the great ocean forced to recede from the base of the Sierra, and the valley of California lifted from beneath the primeval waters by the same Titanic power that upheaved the adjacent acclivities. Checking with adamantine walls the pretentious ocean, the great range ever after presides over our western seaboard and its destiny, directing air currents and water currents, regulating temperature and creating climates. With its own garment of earth it clothes the plain, and overspreads its slimy surface with rich alluvium, heedless of itself. The ambitious winds it checks, compels the clouds to give up their humid freightage, and drop their moisture in fructifying rain and snow upon its western slope, while the cold, dry, wrungout air is permitted to escape eastward to the unhappy consolation of the desert. Rearing its head above the limits of life, watching the stars by night and flashing back in proud defiance the sun's rays by day, it lays its immutable laws on all flesh and grass. Turning its back upon the east and all old-time traditions, it guards our little newly made world as did Olympian Jove his Greece; folding in his quickening embrace our happy valleys.

The minor ranges, like subordinate divinities, join also in controlling nature, oft in selfish quarrelling mood; one extending a shielding moisture-gathering barrier, another excluding too long the refreshing breeze, and exposing the basin-like valleys to the fierce solar rays, or admitting the withering northers. These western later-born formations of metamorphic cretaceous rock are embraced by the Coast Range with its numerous spurs and peaks, of which only three rise above 5,000 feet. On one side they present mostly an abrupt and forbidding front, while the other side melts away in soft verdant or tawny hills. Although less majestic, they form in their extent and location the main orographic feature, and help to frame the many fertile valleys of the country, with their waving wild grass and native groves and vines. The leading chain, interlocking with the dominant Sierra at Mount Shasta in the north and Mount Pinos in the south, forms that huge basin, the great valley of California, famed for its golden wealth, first in yellow metal, subsequently in yellow grain.

Trickling from the side of the Sierra, fed by the melting snow, now hoarsely tumbling over rocky obstructions, now creeping sullenly through gloomy canons, settling in silent crystal pools, and shooting swiftly on in broad, shallow rapids, the Sacramento and San Joaquin wend their tortuous way down to the quiet plains. Under the influence of the warm sun upon the snow above, and the coolness of the night, their clear, cold waters rise and fall each day with the regularity of the tide. From the wooded valleys lying between the parallel ridges, springs shoot up and send their rivulets to swell the larger streams. A series of singularly regular table hills, rising into mountains farther up, where they assume the form of battlements, with all the angles of regular fortifications and bastioned wings and front, mark the course of these headwaters for many miles. The table mountains, for from fifty to two hundred feet from their flat tops, present a blank, cheerless surface, with perpendicular sides, then slope off in uneven descent, with here and there small indentations containing a few stunted trees and meagre vegetation.

There are no outlets offered, aside from mountain passes, save the portal pierced by the mighty streams through the Carquinez Straits and the Golden Gate. That rush of waters drained the inland sea once left by receding ocean, and still drains its relic in the bay of San Francisco, ever widening the channels which are still too narrow or shallow for the swelling spring flow. It is in truth two valleys merged in one, with two great rivers that join in sisterly embrace near the outlet, forming one continuous line. Each presents a beautiful leaf-like ramification of tributaries, one hundred and twenty miles long on an average, flowing from the east as the higher slope, owing to the greater upheaval of the Sierra and its heavier wash. This system embraces the main flow of the country; a few minor streams fall into the same bay, the rest into the ocean in great number, but small in importance. For instance, the only navigable stream — and that only near its mouth — south of the bay of San Francisco is the Salinas ; all south of that are by autumn lost in the sands before reaching the sea.

The five eastern tributaries of the basin partake of the romantic interest centering in the country, passing as they do through so wide a range of altitude, scenery, and wealth. From the sharply profiled sky-line of the great Sierra, where the snow-clouds sweep from peak to peak through the cold dry ether, and falling, hang in glistening festoons from pinnacle and dome, the brook leaps down in boisterous play, entering open vales all afoam from their mad race, pausing in lacustrine hollows, rippling over shallows, eddying around rocks, and splashing against bowlders. Descending farther, the gnarled and storm-whipped coniferse which hover about the limits of plant-life are soon left, the thinly scattered pines gather in aroma-shedding clusters, the white rocky summits are shut out by the deepening foliage of stately groves, and at length a belt of black, compact forest is entered, vast in extent and wildly sublime, bounded by earth-fractures, fantastic with buttress, towers, and bastions. Closely fitting the mountains like a vesture, rising and falling with their heaving sides, and wrapping their limbs in its warm velvety folds, a robe of emerald succeeds a crown of hoary white. A belt of billowy forest intervenes between this and the prairie-plain below. Ranged in long vistas of sweeping colonnade, or gathered in dense groups, standing aside from brambled crags and tufted bluffs to let in the glowing sunshine, are myriads of barbed arrow -shafts and fluted green spires piercing the sky, sable points of pine flanking the Sierra, and drooping plumes of swarthy cypress and closely interwoven firs and cedars casting cold shadows on the earth, and roofing it in infinite verdure. 

[More tomorrow]

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