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THE DESERT REJOICES
WHAT was foretold in Judea is fulfilled in Arizona — the desert has blossomed like the rose.
I could hardly believe it, a month ago, when a Tucson business man, who in the kindness of his heart had turned the city upside down, almost, seeking to find a home for a man who was not a consumptive and did not wish to live in a hospital or a pest-house — I could hardly believe it, I repeat, when he said: “Oh, you mustn’t go back to Texas yet. You must stay and see the desert in bloom. After these unusual rains and snowfalls it will soon be all like a flower garden.” “So may it turn out,” I thought; “but time will tell.”
He spoke, according to the privilege of prophets, in the language of hyperbole; for, although his prediction has come true, its fulfillment is more than a little straitened and stingy. The desert has blossomed, but it is like a flower garden only in this respect — that there are flowers in it. They are numbered by millions, indeed; or, rather, they are beyond all thought of numeration; but, as far as the appearance of the place is concerned, it is scarcely more like a flower garden than like a billiard table. A careless traveler — and not so very careless, neither — might tread the blossoms under his feet for miles without seeing so much as one of them. They are desert flowers; vegetable Lilliputians; minute, almost microscopic, for the most part, as if moisture had been doled out to them by the drop or the thimbleful, as indeed it has been; and the few that are larger have in the main a weedy aspect, such as blinds the eye of the ordinary non-observer, to whom, rightly or wrongly, a flower is one thing and a weed another. As for the tiny ones, the overwhelming majority, a blossom that you can see in its place only by getting down on your knees to look for it may be a “flower” to a botanist, but hardly to a plain, unlettered, matter-of-fact citizen.
And still, after the prophetic manner, the prediction has come true. The desert has blossomed abundantly. As it now is, I can imagine that it would be a place of unspeakable interest to a philosophic botanist. He would know, presumably, what I do not, whether these starveling races, existers upon nothing, are to be accounted species by themselves, or only stunted representatives of species that under favoring conditions grow to a more considerable size. To his mind numberless problems would be suggested touching the methods by which plants, sturdy and patient beings, adapt themselves to untoward circumstances and keep themselves alive — so perpetuating the race — upon the chariest of encouragement. He would understand the significance of the prevailing hairiness of desert-inhabiting species, as well as of the all but universal light bluish or dusty color of the foliage; for, saving the yellow-green creosote, there is hardly so much as a bright green leaf from one end of the desert to the other.
The state of my own unphilosophic mind is peculiar, like the circumstances in which it finds itself. It is (or perhaps it would be more honest to say, it ought to be) humiliating, but it has something of the charm of novelty.
I spoke a month ago of my ornithological predicament when, newly arrived in Texas, I found myself surrounded by a quite strange set of birds. I was back in the primer, I think I said. Well, botanically, here in Tucson, I have retrograded a long step farther even than that. If I may say so, my state is pre-primeric. I am not even a primary scholar. I am no scholar at all. My condition is what it was in childhood, when I had never heard of botany. In those days, in what for some reason was known as a grammar school, we studied reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and grammar. One older girl, long since dead (poor child, I can see her now, reciting all by herself), studied “Watts on the Mind!” At the high school we added algebra, geometry, Latin, and Greek. As for “nature study,” neither the name nor the thing was ever mentioned to us. Mr. Burroughs had not yet written, and if Thoreau had written, his books were not yet heard of. Botany and Hebrew were alike absent from our curriculum. For my own part, at any rate, whatever may have been true of my cleverer or more home-favored contemporaries, I neither knew the names of the flowers I saw, nor did I aspire to know them. If I ever thought of such knowledge, I regarded it as permanently beyond my ken. Who was I, that I should be wiser than all my betters? I contented myself with liking the things themselves.
Then, years afterward, I somehow began to “botanize,” — as we say, — by myself; and from that time to the present, whether at home or abroad, I have always had a “manual” at my elbow or in my trunk. A strange flower must be looked up and set in its place.
But now, in Arizona, all this is done. I have no manual. This carpet of desert plants I walk over almost without curiosity, as I might walk over a flowery carpet in a parlor. Their names are nothing more to me than the jabberings of the Mexicans who pass me on the desert with loads of wood. Sometimes, indeed, I guess at a relationship, as now and then I catch a word of Spanish. This flower, I say, may be a Myosotis. But nine chances to one I do not so much as guess. It’s a pretty red flower, or a dainty white blossom, and there’s an end of it. As I said just now, the state of my mind is pre-primeric. I am too ignorant even to ask questions.
A sad case, certainly, but, like sad cases in general, it brings its own partial compensations. I have the more leisure for the birds, and for looking at the mountains. Two months ago it would not have seemed possible, but it has come true; I can sit upon the ground with half a dozen kinds of unknown flowers about me, and gaze upon the Catalinas or the snow-capped Santa Ritas as peacefully or rapturously as if I had never used a manual or a pocket lens since I was born. Have I been converted, and become as a little child? Possibly; but I anticipate a speedy backsliding when conditions alter.
Yet I perceive that, like the prophet, I am waxing tropical, and using language that requires “interpretation.” There are at least three kinds of flowers in the desert that are not microscopic, and that I call by name. They are not very numerous; you may walk long distances without meeting them; but they are there. I mean the evening primrose, the lupine, and the California poppy. The primrose, which is much the commonest of the three, has no stalk, or none that is apparent; the large, handsome, lemon-colored flower opens directly from a tuft of leaves lying flat on the ground. As for the poppies, I should hardly speak of them as growing in the desert but for the fact that two or three days ago I stumbled upon a place (it would be like trying to find a spot in the ocean to look for it again) where the ground for the space of an acre or more was sparsely sprinkled with them. They were abnormally small, and very short in the stem; but they were bright as the sun, and being lighted upon thus unexpectedly they really made the spot a garden. As the prophet said, the place was “glad for them;” and so was I.
Both poppy and primrose (and the lupine as well) are much more at home on the foothills. There, too, are many flowers not to be seen at all on the desert. I cannot talk about them for lack of names. The brightest and showiest of them all is of a vivid, but, in my vocabulary, nameless shade of red; not scarlet, nor crimson, nor orange, nor pink, but red. The plant stands a foot or so in height and bears a dozen, more or less, of rather large cup-shaped blossoms, the lively color of which would attract notice in any garden.
A very different favorite of mine (I have been intimate with it for a week) is a low — inch-high — composite flower, of the size of a ten-cent piece, with seven or eight white rays and a yellow disk; a dwarf daisy, it looks to be, with soft, cottony stem and leaves. It grows in the driest and most barren places, and as I sit down here and there on the hillsides to rest (looking meanwhile at the green barley fields and the ever-glorious mountains) I am sensibly happier if I see this dainty bit of nature’s loveliness (a child, not a dwarf — I take back the word) within my hand’s reach. It is the very flower to make a pet of; prettier by far than if it were taller and showier. Cultivation would spoil it. It was made for the desert.
And this reminds me to say that, if the hills are to be counted as part of the desert, as in reason they may be, then the prophet’s word has been fulfilled, not partially but in all strictness. The desert has blossomed like the rose. For the slopes of the Tucson range are literally on fire with blossoms. Patches of sun-bright yellow, some of them to all appearance an acre or more in extent, can be seen clear across the plain. I saw them yesterday afternoon as I started homeward from Camp Lowell. The distance could hardly be less than eight miles, and probably they would have been visible had it been twice as far. That the flowers are poppies, and not blossoms of a smaller cruciferous plant that is very abundant and gregarious hereabout, I am confident, not only because I am assured so by residents of the city, but because the patches are much less conspicuous in the early forenoon, when poppies are not wide open, than later in the day. Some of the patches (I can see a dozen from my window as I write, fully five miles off 1) are well toward the tops of the mountains, which, needless to say, are not of great elevation, perhaps four thousand feet.
The poppy is the Tucson flower. Children go out upon the hills and bring back bunches to sell along the streets and from house to house. Their splendid color need not be praised. It is known to all Eastern people, who grow the plants in gardens (I seem to remember when they came in) under the name of Eschscholtzia. And here, on the mountain walls of this Arizona desert, are hanging-gardens so full of them as to form masses of color visible ten or fifteen miles away! “They shall blossom abundantly,” said the prophet; and who knows but he spoke of the Tucson Mountains in poppy time?________________________
1 I visited more than one of them afterward.