8. CACTUS AND GREASE-WOOD


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CHAPTER VIII

CACTUS AND GREASE-WOOD


 Views of Nature.  

[page 128] NATURE seems a benevolent or a malevolent goddess just as our own inadequate vision happens to see her. If we have eyes only for her creative beauties we think her all goodness; if we see only her power of destruction we incline to think she is all evil. With what infinite care and patience, worthy only of a good goddess, does she build up the child, the animal, the bird, the tree, the flower! How wonderfully she fits each for its purpose, rounding it with strength, energy, and grace; and beautifying it with a prodigality of colors. For twenty years she works night and day to bring the child to perfection, for twenty days she toils upon the burnished wings of some insect buzzing in the sunlight, for twenty hours she paints the gold upon the petals of the dandelion. And then what? What of the next twenty? Does she leave her handiwork to take care of itself until an unseen dragon called Decay comes [page 129] along to destroy it? Not at all. The good goddess has a hand that builds up. Yes; and

 Growth and decay.  

she has another hand that takes down. The marvellous skill of the one has its complement, its counterpart, in the other. Block by block she takes apart the mosaic with just as much deftness as she put it together.

Those first twenty years of our life we were allowed to sap blood and strength from our surroundings; the last twenty years of our life our surroundings are allowed to sap blood and

 Nature's plan.  

strength from us. It is Nature's plan and it is carried out without any feeling. With the same indifferent spirit that she planted in us an eye to see or an ear to hear, she afterward plants a microbe to breed and a cancer to eat. She in herself is both growth and decay. The virile and healthy things of the earth are hers; and so, too, are disease, dissolution, and death. The flower and the grass spring up, they fade, they wither; and Nature neither rejoices in the life nor sorrows in the death. She is neither good nor evil; she is only a great law of change that passeth understanding. The gorgeous pageantry of the earth with all its beauty, the life thereon with its hopes and fears and struggles, and we a part of the universal whole, are brought

 The law of change.  

[page 130] up from the dust to dance on the green in the sunlight for an hour; and then the procession that comes after us turns the sod and we creep back to Mother Earth. All, all to dust again; and no man to this day knoweth the why thereof.

One is continually assailed with queries of this sort whenever and wherever he begins to study Nature. He never ceases to wonder why

 Nature foiling her own plans.  

she should take such pains to foil her own plans and bring to naught her own creations. Why did she give the flying fish such a willowy tail and such long fins, why did she labor so industriously to give him power of flight, when at the same time she was giving another fish in the sea greater strength, and a bird in the air greater swiftness wherewith to destroy him? Why should she make the tarantula such a powerful engine of destruction when she was in the same hour making his destroyer, the tarantula-wasp? And always here in the desert the question comes up: Why should Nature give these shrubs and plants such powers of endurance and resistance, and then surround them by heat,

 Attack and defence.  

drouth, and the attacks of desert animals? It is existence for a day, but sooner or later the growth goes down and is beaten into dust.

The individual dies. Yes; but not the species. [page 131] Perhaps now we are coming closer to an understanding of Nature's method. It is the species that she designs to last, for a period at least; and the individual is of no great importance, merely a sustaining factor, one among millions

 Preservation of the species.  

requiring continual renewal. It is a small matter whether there are a thousand acres of greasewood more or less, but it is important that the family be not extinguished. It grows readily in the most barren spots, is very abundant and very hardy, and hence is protected only by an odor and a varnish. On the contrary take the bisnaga—a rather rare cactus. It has only a thin, short tap-root, therefore it has an enormous upper reservoir in which to store water, and a most formidable armor of fish-hook

 Means of preservation.  

shaped spines that no beast or bird can penetrate. Remove the danger which threatens the extinction of the family and immediately Nature removes the defensive armor. On the desert, for instance, the yucca has a thorn like a point of steel. Follow it from the desert into the high tropical table-lands of Mexico where there is plenty of soil and moisture, plenty of chance for yuccas to thrive, and you will find it turned into a tree, and the thorn merely a dull blade-ending. Follow the sahuaro and the [page 132] pitahaya into the tropics again, and with their cousin, the organ cactus, you find them growing a soft thorn that would hardly penetrate clothing. Abundance of soil and rain, abundance of other vegetation for browsing animals, and there is no longer need of protection. With it the family would increase too rapidly.


 Maintaining the status quo.  

So it seems that Nature desires neither increase nor decrease in the species. She wishes to maintain the status quo. And for the sake of keeping up the general healthfulness and virility of her species she requires that there shall be change in the component parts. Each must suffer not a "sea change," but a chemical change; and passing into liquids, gases, or dusts, still from the grave help on the universal plan. So it is that though Nature dips each one of her desert growths into the Styx to make them invulnerable, yet ever she holds them by the heel and leaves one point open to the destroying arrow.


 The plant-struggle for life.  

Yet it is remarkable how Nature designs and prepares the contest—the struggle for life—that is continually going on in her world. How wonderfully she arms both offence and defence! What grounds she chooses for the conflict! What stern conditions she lays down! Given a [page 133] waste of sand and rock, given a heat so intense that under a summer sun the stones will blister a bare foot like hot iron, given perhaps two or three inches of rain in a twelvemonth; and what vegetation could one expect to find growing there? Obviously, none at all. But

 Fighting heat and drouth.  

no; Nature insists that something shall fight heat and drouth even here, and so she designs strange growths that live a starved life, and bring forth after their kind with much labor. Hardiest of the hardy are these plants and just as fierce in their way as the wild cat. You cannot touch them for the claw. They have no idea of dying without a struggle. You will find every one of them admirably fitted to endure. They are marvellous engines of resistance.

The first thing that all these plants have to fight against is heat, drouth, and the evaporation of what little moisture they may have. And here Nature has equipped them with ingenuity and cunning. Not all are designed alike, to be sure, but each after its kind is good. There

 Prevention of evaporation.  

are the cacti, for example, that will grow where everything else perishes. Why? For one reason because they have geometrical forms that prevent loss from evaporation by contracting a [page 134] minimum surface for a given bulk of tissue. 1 There is no waste, no unnecessary exposure of surface. Then there are some members of the family like the "old man" cactus, that have thick coatings of spines and long hairy growths that prevent the evaporation of moisture by keeping off the wind. Then again the cacti

 Absence of large leaves.  

have no leaves to tempt the sun. Many of the desert growths are so constructed. Even such a tree as the lluvia d'oro has needles rather than leaves, though it does put forth a row of tiny leaves near the end of the needle; and when we come to examine the ordinary trees such as the mesquite, the depua, the palo breya, the palo verde, and all the acacia family, we find they have very narrow leaves that have a fashion of hanging diagonally to the sun and thus avoiding the direct rays. Nature is determined that

 Exhaust of moisture.  

there shall be no unnecessary exhaust of moisture through foliage. The large-leafed bush or tree does not exist. The best shade to be found on the desert is under the mesquite, and unless it is very large, the sun falls through it easily enough.

[page 135] As an extra precaution some shrubs are given a shellac-like sap or gum with which they varnish their leaves and make evaporation almost impossible. The ordinary grease-wood is an example of this; and perhaps because of its varnish,

 Gums and varnishes of bushes.  

it is, with the cacti, the hardiest of all the desert growths. It is found wherever anything living is found, and flourishes under the fiercest heat. Its leaves always look bright and have a sticky feeling about them as though recently shellacked.

There are other growths that seem to have a fine sense of discretion in the matter of danger, for they let fall all their leaves at the first approach of drouth. The ocatilla, or "candle wood" as it is sometimes called, puts out a long row of bright leaves along its stems after a rain,

 The ocatilla.  

but as soon as drouth comes it sheds them hastily and then stands for months in the sunlight—a bundle of bare sticks soaked with a resin that will burn with fire, but will not evaporate with heat. The sangre de dragon (sometimes called sangre en grado) does the same thing.

But Nature's most common device for the protection and preservation of her desert brood is to supply them with wonderful facilities for finding and sapping what moisture there is, and [page 136] conserving it in tanks and reservoirs. The

 Tap roots.  

roots of the grease-wood and the mesquite are almost as powerful as the arms of an octopus, and they are frequently three times the length of the bush or tree they support. They will bore their way through rotten granite to find a damp ledge almost as easily as a diamond drill; and they will pry rocks from their foundations as readily as the wistaria wrenches the ornamental wood-work from the roof of a porch. They are always thirsty and they are always running

 Underground structure.  

here and there in the search for moisture. A vertical section of their underground structure revealed by the cutting away of a river bank or wash is usually a great surprise. One marvels at the great network of roots required to support such a very little growth above ground.

Yet this network serves a double purpose. It not only finds and gathers what moisture there is but stores it in its roots, feeding the

 Feeding the top growth.  

top growth with it economically, not wastefully. It has no notion of sending too much moisture up to the sunlight and the air. Cut a twig and it will often appear very dry; cut a root and you will find it moist.

The storage reservoir below ground is not an unusual method of supplying water to the plant. [page 137] Many of the desert growth have it. Perhaps the most notable example of it is the wild gourd. This is little more than an enormous tap root that spreads out turnip-shaped and is in size often as large around as a man's body. It holds

 Storage reservoirs below ground.  

water in its pulpy tissue for months at a time, and while almost everything above ground is parched and dying the vines and leaves of the gourd, fed from the reservoir below, will go on growing and the flowers continue blooming with the most unruffled serenity. In the Sonora deserts there is a cactus or a bush (its name I have never heard) growing from a root that looks almost like a hornet's nest. This root is half-wood, half-vegetable, and is again a water reservoir like the root of the gourd.

But there are reservoirs above ground quite as interesting as those below. The tall fluted column of the sahuaro, sometimes fifty feet high, is little more than an upright cistern for holding moisture. Its support within is a series of sticks arranged in cylindrical form and

 Reservoirs above ground.  

held together by some fibre, some tissue, and a great deal of saturated pulp. Drive a stick into it after a rain and it will run sap almost like the maguey from which the Indians distill mescal. All the cacti conserve water in their [page 138] lobes or columns or at the base near the ground. So too the Spanish bayonets, the yuccas, the prickly pears and the chollas.

Many of the shrubs and trees like the sangre de dragon and the torote have enlarged or thickened barks to hold and supply water. If you cut them the sap runs readily. When it

 Thickened barks.  

congeals it forms a gum which heals over the wound and once more prevents evaporation. Existence for the plants would be impossible without such inventions. Plant life of every kind requires some moisture all the time. It is an error to suppose because they grow in the so-called "rainless desert" that therefore they exist without water. They gather and husband it during wet periods for use during dry

 Gathering moisture.  

periods, and in doing so they seem to display almost as much intelligence as a squirrel or an ant does in storing food for winter consumption.

Is Nature's task completed then when she has provided the plants with reservoirs of water and tap roots to pump for them? By no means. How long would a tank of moisture exist in the

 Attacks upon desert plants.  

desert if unprotected from the desert animals? The mule-deer lives here, and he can go for weeks without water, but he will take it every day if he can get it. And the coyote can run [page 139] the hills indefinitely with little or no moisture; but he will eat a water melon, rind and all, and with great relish, when the opportunity offers. The sahuaro, the bisnaga, the cholla, and the pan-cake lobed prickly pear would have a short life and not a merry one if they were left to the

 Browsing animals.  

mercy of the desert prowler. As it is they are sometimes sadly worried about their roots by rabbits and in their lobes by the deer. It seems almost incredible but is not the less a fact, that deer and desert cattle will eat the cholla—fruit, stem, and trunk—though it bristles with spines that will draw blood from the human hand at the slightest touch.

Nature knows very well that the attack will come and so she provides her plants with various different defenses. The most common weapon which she gives them is the spine or thorn. Almost everything that grows has it and its different forms are many. They are all of them

 Weapons of defense.  

sharp as a needle and some of them have saw-edges that rip anything with which they come in contact. The grasses, and those plants akin to them like the yucca and the maguey, are often both saw-edged and spine-pointed. All the cacti have thorns, some straight, some barbed like a harpoon, some curved like a hook. [page 140] There are chollas that have a sheath covering the thorn—a scabbard to the sword—and when anything pushes against it the sheath is left sticking in the wound. The different forms of the bisnaga are little more than vegetable porcupines. The bristle with quills or have hook-shaped thorns that catch and hold the intruder.

 The spine and thorn,  

The sahuaro has not so many spines, but they are so arranged that you can hardly strike the cylinder without striking the thorns.

The cacti are defended better than the other growths because they have more to lose, and are consequently more subject to attack. And yet there is one notable exception. The crucifixion thorn is a bush or tree somewhat like the palo verde, except that it has no leaf. It is a

 The crucifixion thorn.  

thorn and little else. Each small twig runs out and ends in a sharp spike of which the branch is but the supporting shaft. It bears in August a small yellow flower but this grows out of the side of the spike. In fact the whole shrub seems created for no other purpose than the glorification of the thorn as a thorn. 2

[page 141] Tree, bush, plant and grass—great and small alike—each has its sting for the intruder. You can hardly stoop to pick a desert flower or pull a bunch of small grass without being aware of a

 The sting of flowers.  

prickle on your hand. Nature seems to hve provided a whole arsenal of defensive weapons for these poor starved plants of the desert. Not any of the lovely growths of the earth, like the lilies and the daffodils, are so well defended. And she has given them not only armor but a spirit of tenacity and stubbornness wherewith to carry on the struggle. Cut out the purslain and the iron weed from the garden walk, and it springs up again and again, contending for life. Put heat, drouth, and animal attack against the desert shrubs and they fight back like the higher forms of organic life. How typical they are of everything in and about the desert. There is but one word to describe

 Fierceness of the plant.  

it and that word—fierce—I shall have worn threadbare before I have finished these chapters.

We have not yet done with enumerating the defenses of these plants. The bushes like the grease-wood and the sage have not the bulk of body to grow the thorn. They are too slight, too rambling in make-up. Besides their reservoirs are protected by being in their roots under

 Odors and juices.  

[page 142] the ground. But Nature has not left their tops wholly at the mercy of the deer. Take the leaf of the sage and crush it in your hand. The odor is anything but pleasant. No animal except the jack-rabbit, no bird except the sage hen will eat it; and no human being will eat either the rabbit or the hen, if he can get anything else, because of the rank sage flavor. Rub the grease-wood in your hand and it feels harsh and brittle. The resinous varnish of the leaves gives it a sticky feeling and a disagreeable odor again. Nothing on the desert will touch

 Saps astringent and cathartic.  

it. Cut or break a twig of the sangre de dragon and a red sap like blood runs out. Touch it to the tongue and it proves the most powerful of astringents. The Indians use it to cauterize bullet wounds. Again no animal will touch it. Half the plants on the desert put forth their leaves with impunity. They are not disturbed by either browsers or grazers. Some of them are poisonous, many of them are cathartic or emetic, nearly all of them are disagreeable to the taste.

So it seems with spines, thorns, barbs, resins, varnishes and odorous smells Nature has armed her desert own very effectually. And her expenditure of energy may seem singularly disproportionate

 The expenditure of energy.  

[page 143] to the result attained. The little vegetation that grows in the waste may not seem worth while, may seem insignificant compared with the great care bestowed upon it. But Nature does not think so. To her the cactus of the desert is just as important in its place as the arrowy pine on the mountain. She means that something shall grow and bear fruit after its kind even on the gravel beds of the Colorado; she means that the desert shall

 The desert covering.  

have its covering, scanty though it be, just the same as the well-watered lands of the tropics.

But are they useful, these desert growths? Certainly they are; just as useful as the pine tree or the potato plant. To be sure, man cannot saw them into boards or cook them in a pot; but then Nature has other animals beside

 Use of desert plants.  

man to look after, other uses for her products than supporting human life. She toils and spins for all alike and man is not her special care. The desert vegetation answers her purposes and who shall say her purposes have ever been other than wise?

Are they beautiful these plants and shrubs of the desert? Now just what do you mean by that word "beautiful"? Do you mean something of regular form, something smooth

 Their beauty.  

[page 144] and pretty? Are you dragging into nature some remembrances of classic art; and are you looking for the Dionysius face, the Doryphorus form, among these trees and bushes? If so the desert will not furnish you too much of beauty. But if you mean something that has a distinct character, something appropriate to its setting, something admirably fitted to a designed end (as in art the peasants of Millet or the burghers of Rembrandt and Rodin), then the desert will show forth much that people nowadays are beginning to think beautiful. Mind you, perfect form and perfect

 Beauty in character.  

color are not to be despised; neither shall you despise perfect fitness and perfect character. The desert plants, every one of them, have very positive characters; and I am not certain but that many of them are interesting and beautiful even in form and color.

No doubt it is an acquired taste that leads one to admire grease-wood and cactus; but can anyone be blind to the graceful form of the maguey, or better still, the yucca with its tall stalk rising like a shaft from a bowl and capped at the top by nodding creamy flowers? On the

 Forms of the yucca and maguey.  

mountains and the mesas the sahuaro is so common that perhaps we overlook its beauty of [page 145] form; yet its lines are as sinuous as those of a Moslem minaret, its flutings as perfect as those of a Doric column. Often and often you see it standing on a ledge of some rocky peak, like the lone shaft of a ruined temple on a Greek headland. And by way of contrast what could be more lovely than the waving lightness, the

 The lluvia d'oro.  

drooping gracefulness of the lluvia d'oro. The swaying tossing lluvia d'oro, well called the "shower of gold"! It is one of the most beautiful of the desert trees with its white skin like the northern birch, its long needles like the pine, and the downward sweep of its branches like the willow. A strange wild tree that seems to shun all society, preferring to dwell like a hermit among the rocks. It roots itself in the fissures of broken granite and it seems at its happiest when it can let down its shower of gold over some precipice.

There are other tree forms, like the palo verde and the mesquite, that are not wanting in a native grace; and yet it may as well be admitted that most of the trees and bushes are lacking

 Grotesque forms.  

in height, mass, and majesty. It is no place for large growths that reach up to the sun. The heat and drouth are too great and tend to make form angular and grotesque. But these very [page 146] conditions that dwarf form perhaps enhance color by distorting it in an analogous manner. When plants are starved for water and grow in thin poor soil they often put on colors that are abnormal, even unhealthy. Because of starvation perhaps the little green of the desert is a sallow green; and for the same reason the lobes of the prickly pear are pale-green, dull yellow, sad pink or livid mauve. The prickly pear seems to take all colors dependent upon the

 Abnormal colors.  

poverty, or the mineral character, of the ground where it grows. In that respect perhaps it is influenced in the same way as the parti-colored hydrangea of the eastern dooryard.

All the cacti are brilliant in the flowers they bear. The top of the bisnaga in summer is at first a mass of yellow, then bright orange, finally dark red. The sahuaro bears a white flower, and the cholla, the ocatilla, the pitahaya come

 Blossoms and flowers.  

along with pink or gold or red or blue flowers. And again all the bushes and trees in summer put forth showers of color—graceful masses of petaled cups that look more like flowers grown in a meadow than blossoms grown on a tree. In June the palo verde is a great ball of yellow-gold, but there is a variety of it with a blue-green bark that grows a blossom almost like an [page 147] eastern violet. And down in Sonora one is dazzled by the splendor of the guyacan (or gualacan) which throws out blossoms half-blue and half-red. All the commoner growths like the sage, the mesquite, the palo fierro, and the palo blanco, are blossom bearers. In fact everything that grows at all in the desert puts forth in season some bright little flag of color. In the

 Many varieties.  

mass they make little show, but examined in the part they are interesting because of their nurture, their isolation, and their peculiarity of form and color. The conditions of life have perhaps contorted them, have paled or grayed or flushed or made morbid their coloring; but they are all of them beautiful. Beautiful color is usually unhealthy color as we have already suggested.


 Wild flowers.  

Besides the blossoms upon bush and tree there is often a great display of wild flowers following the spring rains. In the semi-desert valleys of Southern California or upon the elevated grease-wood plains that lie about Tucson or Prescott one finds in season a wonderful profusion of small flowers—poppies, violets, lupines, phacelias, penstemons. Sometimes beds of these flowers extend for miles, spreading in variegated sweeps of color, apparently undulating [page 148] like a brilliant carpet swayed by the wind. But I have not found this floral procession extending down into the lower desert regions. In the wastes of southwestern Arizona, in the Salton Basin and in the low levels that lie about Death Valley the growth is far more limited. Even there one occasionally finds poppies, violets, wild verbenas, patches of evening primrose, or up in the swales the little baby blue-eye or the yellow mimulus; but all told they do not make

 Salt-bush.  

up a very strong contingent. The salt-bush that looks the color of Scotch heather, out-bulks them all, and yet is not conspicuously apparent.


 The grasses.  

Nor are there many grasses of consequence aside from a small curled grass and the heavy sacaton that grow in bunches upon isolated portions of the desert. By "isolated" I mean that for some unknown reason there are tracts on the desert seemingly sacred to certain plants, some to cholla, some to yuccas, some to greasewood, some to sahuaros, some to sacaton grass. It seems to be a desert oddity that the vegetation does not mix or mingle to any great extent. There are seldom more than four or five kinds of growth to be found in one tract. It

 the lichens.  

is even noticeable in the lichens. One mountain range will have all gray lichens on its northern walls, another range will have all [page 149] orange lichens, and still another will be mottled by patches of coal-black lichens.

Strange growths of a strange land! Heat, drouth, and starvation gnawing at their vitals month in and month out; and yet how determined to live, how determined to fulfill their destiny! They keep fighting off the elements,

 The continuous struggle.  

the animals, the birds. Never by day or by night do they loose the armor or drop the spear point. And yet with all the struggle they serenely blossom in season, perpetuate their kinds, and hand down the struggle to the newer generation with no jot or vigor abated, no little of hope dissipated. Strange growths indeed! And yet strange, perhaps, only to us who have never known their untrumpeted history.


Notes

1. I am indebted to Professor Forbes of the University of Arizona for this and several other statements in connection with desert vegetation.

2. It is said to be very scarce but I have found it growing along the Castle Creek region of Arizona, also at Kingman, Peach Springs, and further north. A stunted variety grows on the Mojave but it is not frequently seen on the Colorado.

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