The Golden Hesperides
IT has been a subject of regret ever since that I did not buy Southern California when I was there last March, and sell it out the same month. I should have made enough to pay my railway fare back, and purchase provisions to last through the deserts of sand and feeding-places, and had money left to negotiate for one of the little States on the Atlantic coast, and settle down in such plain living and civilization as it might afford. It was all offered to me, but I hesitated, and before the end of the month it was beyond my reach. There is not much of it, little more than what you may call a strip of irrigated sand between the Mohave Desert and the Pacific Ocean ; and if you do not secure a portion of it now, it will be forever beyond your means. For there is but one California in the world (one ought to know this, after hearing it a hundred times a day), and everybody “ has got to have ” some of it. There is nowhere else to go in the winter. Travelers who have been in Southern Italy, in North Africa, in Sicily, in Florida, in Greece, in Madeira, in Jamaica, in Bogota, in the Piney Woods, are perfectly open in telling you this. There is no climate like it. But it is rapidly going into the hands of investors, climate and all. If the present expectations of transferring half-frozen Eastern and Northern people there by the railway companies and land-owners are half realized, Southern California, in its whole extent, will soon present the appearance of a mass-meeting, each individual fighting for a lot and for his perpendicular section of climate. In a year, perhaps in six months from now, you might as well attempt to buy a plot in London city, near the Bank, on which to set out an orange grove and some pepper-trees, as to get a foothold in the Garden of the World. I am not an alarmist, but I have seen London, and I know what its climate is in winter. It is sufficient to hint to prudent folks that there are many people in the world, that there is but one California, and that there is not room enough in it for all. Somebody is going to be left out.
There is nothing that will grow anywhere in the world — except, perhaps, certain great staples — that will not grow there in greater abundance and perfection : oranges, lemons, limes, peaches, nectarines, grapes, figs, almonds, olives, Madeira nuts, every edible vegetable known to woman, — perhaps even grass might be raised by constant and excessive irrigation. Happening one night into the Pullman smoking-room, after days of travel through the Sahara wastes of New Mexico and Arizona, I chanced to hear fragments of a conversation between a man familiar with the region and a new-comer, who was evidently a little discouraged by the endless panorama of sand and dry sagebrush.
“ Anything grow along here ? ”
“ Everything, sir, everything ; the most productive soil on God Almighty’s earth. All it wants is water.”
“ Fruits ? ”
“ Fruits ? I should say so. Every sort that’s known. This country right here is going to beat the world in fruits.”
“ Melons ? ”
“ Well, yes ; ” relapsing into candor and confession, “ no ; the fact is, melons don’t do so well here. They ain’t apt to be good. The vines grow so fast that the melons are bumped along over the ground and bruised.”
“ Ah ? ” without any sign of surprise.
“ Yes,” without a smile, and with evident desire to keep back no part of the truth, even if it were an afterthought ; “ if you want to pick a melon in this country, you have to get on horseback.”
And then the conversation expanded into what seemed to me a little exaggeration of the “ boom ” in New Mexico. There is a buoyancy in the air. The traveler who has been dragged through the sordidness, the endless materialism of flat, muddy, or dusty land, and shanty-towns, as seen from the railway, of Kansas and Nebraska, experiences a certain elevation of spirits on coming to the high, barren vastness of New Mexico, mostly treeless and verdureless; a sort of clean, wind-swept top of the world, free and out-doors, illimitable. The air is like wine. It is a luxury to breathe it. The American lungs expand, the pulse quickens ; it is necessary to breathe twice as fast as in the East, to get oxygen enough to satisfy one. One’s whole nature expands. The imagination is kindled. The tongue is loosened. Here is freedom, the real elixir. You see at once that it was a mistake ever to expect a good climate with trees and a lush, green vegetation, requiring and giving dampness. The mind is enfranchised. The dweller desires to speak, the truth, the whole truth, to give free play to it. Truth becomes buoyant, expansive, hyperbolical. It knows no limit of time or space. The difference between conversation in the East and in the West is that in the latter it is pitched an octave higher. Vast spaces, limitless horizons, thin air, clear skies, beget a certain largeness of speech. The new-comer, in my experience, is more subject to it than the old resident, especially if he has invested in a bit of land, which he may or may not want to sell. Human nature is the same everywhere, under varying conditions. Women who talk of the fashions and of education in the East speak about real estate in the Far West.
The two pieces of advice that were given me on starting for California were that I must wear always there the thickest flannels and the heaviest winter suit, and that I must ask no questions about anybody’s marital relations. The first was good. The second was a humorously malicious allusion to the notion that divorces are as common there as in Chicago and Connecticut. It was repeatedly impressed upon me that the California climate, the best in the world, was something that one must get used to.
From the heights in New Mexico to the Pacific it is a land of strange and confusing contrasts, upsetting all one’s preconceived notions of how Nature ought to act. At Las Vegas Hot Springs, at an elevation of about seven thousand feet, in a barren valley inclosed by stony brown hills, in March, there was no sign of spring except here and there a purple wild-flower in the sand, and yet it somehow looked like summer. The sky was turquoise blue, the sun rays were warm, the air splendid in quality, elastic and inspiring. From the appearance, I should have had no doubt that it was summer, — a summer without vegetation, — if I had not discovered a snow-bank under my north window. It was difficult to conceive that one needed an overcoat, or might not lounge in the easy-chairs on the broad verandas, unless one happened to observe that at ten A. M. the thermometer had risen from the freezing point of sunrise to only 38°. It was so dry. Everything and everybody was electrified. The hotel, sumptuously furnished, heated by steam and lighted throughout by electricity, was a sort of big dynamo. We could not touch a bit of iron, turn on a light, brush against a portière, or shake hands, without experiencing a tingling shock. Inside and out, it was like being in a place enchanted. It was much the same at Santa Fé, — cold, clear, looking like summer, water freezing in the pitcher at night, sky blue by day, purple at sunset, the air so tenuous that Old Bald, a snow-peak twelve thousand feet high, seemed close at hand; and I noticed that the moon was thin and had no body, merely a disk of silver-paper stuck on the distant sky.
But it is seldom cold in the Needles and the Mohave Desert, — a shimmering alkaline waste : 85° in March, and say 120° to 130° in July. It does not matter. The few people in the far-apart stations live in houses that have a second detached roof, put on like the fly of a tent; and the heated, desolate passage is a providential arrangement to lower the spirits of the traveler to the enjoyment of the irrigated country recovered from the desert, in Southern California. It is a veritable paradise, as really such as the oasis of Fayoum in Egypt. Heavens ! how the human eye does crave the green color; how grateful it is for a field of barley, a straight eucalyptustree, vines and roses clambering over the houses, the lustrous foliage of the orange groves starred with globes of gold ! This is Paradise. And the climate ? Perpetual summer (but daily rising in price). There is no doubt of this when you reach the San Gabriel Valley, Passadena, and Los Angeles. Avenues of eucalyptus, pepper, and orange trees, two, three, four rows of them, seven and eight miles long ; vast plumed fields of oranges ; the vine stubs in the grape plantations beginning to bud ; barley fodder (the substitute for hay) well up and verdant; palmettos and other semitropical plants, and all the flowers, and shrubs, and vines, gay, rampant, vigorous, ever-blooming, in dooryards, gardens, overrunning trees and houses, — surely it is summer. There is snow sprinkled on the bare, ashy hills, but everywhere in the plain is water, from the unfailing mountain springs, running in wooden conduits and ditches. You can buy this water at so much an hour. All you need to buy is climate and water, — the land is thrown in. It is warm in the sun, — the thermometer may indicate 70° ; it is even hot, walking out through the endless orange plantations and gardens that surround Los Angeles ; but there is a chill the instant you pass into the shade ; you still need your winter clothing, and if you drive, or ride in the grip-cars over the steep hills, you require a winter overcoat. The night temperature throughout California is invariably in great contrast to that in the daytime; nearly everywhere fire is necessary at night the year round, and agreeable nearly all the year, even in Southern California. I doubt if it is ever pleasant to sit out-of-doors or on the piazzas at night, though it may be in the hotter months, in the southern portion. But it is very confusing to the mind of the new-comer to reconcile his necessity for winter clothing to what he sees and almost feels ; in short, to get used to the climate. The invalid is thrown off his guard by appearances; and I should say that there is no country in the world where a person needs to use more care about taking cold. Yet this must be said : the air is bracing and life-giving. I did not, in any part of the State, in walking or taking any sort of exercise, feel the least fatigue. A “ cold,” therefore, for a person in ordinary health and condition, is not the dragging, nearly mortal experience that it is apt to be in the East. Then the crowning advantage of the country, even if the climate is treacherous and needs watching in its effects, is that one can be out-of-doors all the tune, nearly every day in the year. Meantime, he can eat oranges, if he is not particular about the variety, and get rich selling prospective or real orange groves to Eastern people. But he will never get over the surprises and contrasts of the country. We went one day, by rail, eighteen miles over the gentle hills, from Los Angeles to its lovely seaport of Santa Monica. Fine hotel, charming beach and sand bluffs, illimitable Pacific Ocean. It was not a warm day nor a cold day, just the ordinary kind of day to sell (I suppose one could buy a day’s climate there, or half a day’s, or swap off a morning for an afternoon with the real-estate brokers, — and every man and woman is a real-estate broker), but we wore thick winter clothing, and carried overcoats, which occasionally were needed. Yet as many as seventy-five sane people were bathing in the Pacific Ocean as if it had been August ! Flowers, fruits, summer bathing, and winter overcoats, — you have to get used to it.
It is a splendid place for invalids. The country was full of them. It will be fuller yet, if Los Angeles, lovely city of angels, growing like asparagus in a hot-bed, already with fifty thousand people, and may be ten thousand more, in the season, trying to find a night’s lodging, never yet having had the least time to pay attention to ordinary sanitary precautions, does not speedily design some system of drainage out of its shutin valley. But this is a matter of detail. And yet it cannot be neglected, for already the doctors there have cases of pneumonia, diphtheria, and typhoid fever. San Diego, lying mostly on sand hills overlooking its magnificent harbor, has already appropriated a million and a quarter of dollars for drainage, inviting the Waring system. And another thing, also a matter of taste as well as of detail: the buyer, driving around the city and the country, which for thirty miles in any direction is humming with the noise of building, and planting, and laying out streets, — the hum of populations yet to be, — the buyer, amid the myriad signs of “ Real Estate For Sale,” ought not to be confronted by so many legends of “ Undertakers and Embalmers.” It chills ardor. Real estate for certain limited purposes, though unlimited occupation, we are all reluctant to purchase.
One of the great uses of New England in the world is that of an object lesson, for the devotees of the development hypothesis, of the survival of the fittest. Southern California offers to illustrate the converse. The movement of people thither is, both in quality and volume, the most striking phenomenon of modern times, in its character a migration perhaps unprecedented in history. It quite equals the movement of 1849, perhaps surpasses it in speculative excitement, but its original motion is entirely different. There was mixed, in the hegira of 1849 to the west coast, a greed for sudden wealth and a spirit of reckless adventure, which recalled the romantic heroism of both Jason and Cortez. The present emigration is not for adventure at all, and primarily not for gold ; it is a pursuit of climate. But naturally, this human desire for dwelling in a place genial and tolerant of human physical weakness has been taken advantage of, and the west coast is the arena of the most gigantic speculation and inflation known in American annals. I cannot conceive that the excitement of ’49 exceeded this. We can well understand why men and women, who discover that they have but one life to live on this engaging planet, that they are freer than plants to change their habitat, and that all the places in the world are not alike inhospitable and not alike devoted to the development of the robust virtues, should weary of the winters of the North, and of the blizzards and cyclones of the West, and seek a land comparatively free from physical anxiety. In the process of natural selection there has been developed a great number of people who come to regard climate as of more importance than anything else. When to this desire is added the advertised advantage of living in luxury with comparatively little labor, the migration is accounted for. The fact is, besides, that we are a poetic people ; notwithstanding the sternness of our discipline, we have a good deal of Oriental imagination, and if you dangle a golden orange before the eyes of a Northern man you can lead him anywhere.
The Southern California speculator has a reasonable, not to say a mathematical, basis. You can figure out of our sixty millions of population a certain number of invalids and their families, or of people not exactly invalids, to whom a genial climate seems the most desirable thing, a number large enough to fill up Southern California several times over. What interests the traveler is the inquiry, What will all those people now there, and on the way there, do when they have sold out all the land to each other, and resold and resold it at constantly mounting prices, until it is beyond purchase, and it is found that no possible crop on it can pay a remunerative per cent. on the irrigated principle ? What interests the philosopher is the inquiry, What sort of a community will ultimately result from this union of the Invalid and the Speculator ? Assuming that Southern California is the best winter climate in the republic, and that its product is mainly small fruits, given a land as valuable as Wall Street, is it not the expectation that this shall be the home of the rich, who must draw upon Eastern accumulations of capital ? Agriculture is now the dependence there of labor, for at present coal is so high as to forbid profitable manufacturing. How are the laboring people to live ? I was told, in a certain region, that there were at least a thousand dressmakers and milliners, who had gone there expecting to live by their trades, who found the ground completely occupied, and were filling the positions of chambermaids and other servants, glad to get any sort of work by which they could live. Many a man, who went there with a little money, expecting to enrich himself by speculation, or to own that gold mine, an orange grove, has had his lesson, and is glad to earn the means of subsistence by grooming or driving horses. It begins to be said with frequency, “ This is no place for a poor man.”
If it is true that the quantity of land open to purchase is very limited, as the intending buyer is constantly told, and limited because of the difficulty of irrigating the adjacent desert, there is also at present an artificial limitation on account of the ownership of vast tracts, ranches of from twenty thousand to one hundred thousand acres, by investors and speculators and railway corporations. California — one hears that already — is practically in the hands of a few rich men. It is not literally true, but vast land-ownership is certainly a feature of this Eldorado.
There is an undeniable fascination about the west coast for most persons. Probably the temporary sojourner, however much he may be pleased with certain qualities of the climate, and however deeply he may be interested in the abnormal state of things, declares, if he is in health, that nothing would induce him to live there. Possibly a majority of those who go there think they go temporarily, for the winter, or to make easily a little money. It is a common experience, throughout the State, to dislike the life, the society, the whole thing, at first, and then to become as violently attached to it as a place of residence. Something is apt to draw people back who have been there once: perhaps the climate, or the untrammeled life, or a certain expansiveness congenial to the American mind.
I do not know whether the English language is exactly adapted to Southern California. It seems to me too tame and literal to express the exuberant growth of that region. At any rate, the real-estate people call in the aid of art and music. Brass bands, heading the processions to auction sales of city lots in the outlying deserts, excite the buyer to frenzy ; and seductive paintings, a vast broadside of boards erected at the railway stations, — pictures of vineyards, orchards, lofty rose-covered houses and delectable hills, — appeal to the most stolid visitor. Indeed, our language is too poor to do justice to the prolific powers of nature, to say nothing of the prolific invention of man. Jack’s Beanstalk is not a myth, but simply an illustration. We are accustomed to regard the tree as a slow, laborious product of nature. I do not say that in California the forest tree is an annual, but if you plant eucalyptus saplings you will have in three or four years a fine, stately grove, from which firewood is cut; and very good firewood this fat tree makes. I was shown a big stump of a eucalyptus-tree in a Los Angeles garden, which the owner had cut down because it was too near the house. It was ninety feet high, and he had planted the sapling only seven years before.
Possibly Southern California should be described as a garden rather than an agricultural region. The most considerable plantations I saw were of vineyards and orange groves. The vineyards were on flat, irrigated land, vineyards sometimes six hundred acres in extent. There is no doubt that the yield of grapes is prolific. There is also no doubt that nearly every kind of wine known to the market is made from the same field, — hock, claret, burgundy, champagne ; wine sweet as cordials and sour as vinegar; wines white, red, and golden. Quantity is the thing aimed at. Good wine is produced here and there. I did not happen upon any in the hotels or vineyards of Southern California, but I tasted of a good bottle in San Francisco. I question if choice, fine wines will ever be produced on the rich flats ; certainly not by the present wholesale system of cultivation, — getting the most possible from the acre. It is probable that the best wine grapes will be grown in the foothills, where the producer, for the sake of quality, will be content with a yield of a quarter of the present quantity per acre. I doubt not that if a man were to limit his vineyard to fifty acres, which he could properly cultivate, and the product of which he could properly take care of, he would get a much better result as to quality of wine than he gets from two hundred acres, and that his profit would be greater. The science of wine growing and handling is still little regarded. The effort is to obtain the greatest quantity of juice, and the manipulation and manufacture of sorts from the same juice is, I was told, becoming common, though perhaps not yet as universal as in France, where we get now almost no wine in the bottle answering to the name on the label.
The orange-tree is very prolific in Southern California. I do not know why the best varieties would not grow there. There is, of course, as much difference between oranges as between apples. The attractive golden outside is a constant deception, the cover of an unpleasant surprise. I found at Las Vegas a delicious orange, not very large, fine skin, firm, lively pulp, melting in the mouth, with little remaining fibre; sweet, but not with the insipid sweetness of so many of the Havana oranges, — very like the Malta oranges. It came from Helmsville, in Mexico. I searched diligently in California, but I did not find in any hotel, market, chance peddler’s basket, or grove any orange to compare with this. Nearly all of them were sharply acrid. There is a kind called the Navel, much praised. But it was sour, wherever I came across it. Oranges were in great abundance. Perhaps I was unfortunate in not finding any in perfection. But I ate those which were praised, and the variety which I was informed had taken the premium in competition with those of Florida. All had the same sourness ; and I concluded that the grafts must have come from Sicily or Southern Italy, where a really sweet, luscious orange is rare. I know that this is a matter of taste ; that Californians ate their own oranges and said they liked them, and seemed hurt when I sometimes asked for a lemon, to “ take the taste out.” I hope the experiment will be made with other varieties, for I desire to believe that California can produce the best oranges in the world.
In some fruits California certainly excels. The small olives have the nutty sweetness of those grown in Southern France ; and I ate raisins, made from grapes grown in a little valley back of San Diego, which were, in my experience with this wholesome article of food, incomparably fine. With more careful cultivation and attention to best varieties, I see no reason why this region cannot supply the rest of the United States with abundance of small fruits and nuts which will be preferred to those now imported.
The success of this gardening and fruit - raising, however, must depend largely upon the price the cultivator finally pays for his land, for the competition will be with countries where land is cheap and wages are low. It would not pay to raise pears in Wall Street. I do not mean to say that the small industries of husbandry are neglected ; irrigation and planting keep pretty even pace with surveying, auctioneering, and building. But at present the leading industry is the selling of real estate, — it is about the only thing talked of. In the six months previous to March, 1887, the price of real estate in the region of Los Angeles and Passadena had advanced four hundred per cent. A lady went out one morning by rail from Los Angeles to Passadena, where she took carriage for the ordinary drive round the country, through Baldwin’s thirty-thousand-acre ranch. As she was starting an agent asked her if she did not want to buy a lot, — they peddle lots like oranges; he could offer her a bargain of a small building lot for fifty dollars. The lady said she did n’t mind making a little investment (the air is so stimulating, the orange blossoms are so intoxicating, there is such a noise of building and hammering everywhere, and there are so many invalids from Maine and New Hampshire, sitting in the rose-covered porches of their little cottages), and she took the lot and paid for it. On her return in the afternoon, the same agent met her, and asked her if she did not want to sell her lot. She replied that she was perfectly willing to sell at a fair price — her drive had been rather dusty, and she had seen a good deal of apparently unoccupied ground. The agent offered her two hundred dollars, and she handed back the lot and took the money, and went home to her dinner. The story has no affidavit attached to it, but it is not an exaggeration of daily occurrences.
In front of San Diego and forming its beautiful harbor lies Coronada Beach, an island of sand, something like two miles long and half a mile broad, with a curved tongue of beach along the Pacific, a superb bathing and driving place. This sand heap had been bought by a company, all staked out in building lots, with shrubs planted at the corners, a shanty or two erected, and from November to March seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of lots had been sold. How much cash had been paid I do not know. The island is reached by a ferry ; water has been carried over, a line of railway crosses the island, and on the ocean side, with a beautiful prospect of gray hills framing the bay and the sparkling Pacific, foundations were being laid for a hotel which was to be the largest in the country (the reader understands that everything is the largest and every view is the finest in the world), twice as big as the Raymond at Passadena. The house is to be ready for occupation this winter, and I hear that its rooms are all engaged, and furthermore that the sale of land on the island is already reckoned at over two millions of dollars. A friend of mine, who during the last half dozen years or so has been gradually investing forty to fifty thousand dollars in San Diego lots, told me that they would any day bring half a million. I do not mean to say that everybody in Southern California is rich, — perhaps the majority are having a hard struggle for existence, — but everybody expects to be rich to-morrow. It gives one a feeling of the rapid accumulation of property merely to hear the ordinary conversation. But it is scarcely a restful feeling, and I must confess that for me the atmosphere of this sunny and flowery land would be more agreeable if I could escape the uneasy sensation that the first duty of man is to buy a lot.
Certainly it was not a restful place. The railways swarmed with excursion trains, the cars were crowded, and it was difficult to get a seat. The towns overflowed with speculators, invalids, and travelers ; it was not easy to obtain accommodations in hotels even by applying days in advance. Los Angeles secured temporary relief by getting up a small-pox scare, and hanging out on various houses about town danger flags, and this sent thousands to the neighboring villages. Owing partially to the sudden influx of settlers and visitors, the post-office service was completely demoralized. The government refused to employ clerks enough to do the business ; as a consequence the post-offices, as at Los Angeles, were closed more than half the time for assorting and redirecting letters, and during the few open hours long cues of people waited a chance at the windows. It required a long time to procure access to the open office, to register a letter or to inquire for one. By chance a letter might be delivered promptly ; by chance it might lie in the office a week. The employees were worked to death. Very soon I gave up all expectation of getting letters with any regularity or promptness. This was of course largely the fault of the government, — though the closing of the post-offices generally for several hours each day seems a relic of the SpanishMexican habit. But the annoyance about the telegraph is due solely to the fact that one company has a monopoly. In New Mexico and Southern California the service was intolerably vexatious. Messages were missent, lost, thrown into the waste-basket, delayed. There was no remedy, little spirit of accommodation, generally carelessness and often insolence in the employees.
Yet the climate remains, with the extraordinary fertility of the irrigated land, the strange beauty of sunny valleys and brown, savage mountain spurs. The beauty of turf, the abundant spontaneous vegetation, and the wonderful wealth of New England landscape in summer it does not approach; but it has a loveliness of its own, partly due to contrast with the surrounding and encroaching desert, but also to the sun, the genial air, and the fruits, flowers, and semitropical suggestions of a perpetual summer. The grandiose scenery of the Far West — great wastes, gigantic mountains, fantastic freaks of a nature worn out with age and violence — reminds one of Spain. Southern California, with something of this character, has a softer attractiveness, and the inhabitants like to say it is Italian. Sierra Madre Villa, nestled amid vineyards and fruit groves on the side of a mountain, with a glimpse of the ocean twenty miles distant, certainly suggests Southern Italy; but no man who has not bought a lot can lay his hand on his heart, and say that there is here the picturesqueness of the Scrrentine promontory, or the atmospheric color. The region should be content to be its glorious self, and unlike any other part of the United States.
I should think that the camel would become this landscape, and I know that the ostrich looks more or less at home. I saw an ostrich farm, where the birds lay eggs at a dollar and a half apiece, and shed plumes at a reasonable price, with no improvement to their appearance. The ostrich is an interesting animal, with his exaggerated, stately strut, his long snake-like neck, the head carried haughtily and parallel with the ground, the big, supercilious eyes looking straight along the flat, soft bill. A procession of these birds is even comical. They are denied, apparently, the pleasures of the palate in eating, everything going whole into the best digestive apparatus known to the physiologists. It is a recreation to see one dispose of an orange. It passes easily into the capacious mouth ; then the ostrich stretches and twists the long neck, and the round fruit is traceable, slowly making its way down, round and round, a solid lump, until it disappears. If the bird could only taste the fruit in its progress, his capacity of enjoyment would be envied.
Traces of the old Spanish life are rapidly disappearing, but may still be seen at such a ranch and hacienda as that of Comulos (the scene of Ramona), and lingering still in Santa Barbara. At this place, besides a few dwellings in the Spanish style, exists a refined Spanish society. Santa Barbara, lying in a valley opening southward to the Pacific, with nooks and cañons among the hills, of wild and almost incomparable beauty, does strongly suggest a sort of Italy. The character and color of the great mountain that shuts it in on the left hand, looking seaward, are very Italian. The railway has not yet reached it, and the situation, the air, the equable climate, — genial in winter and not too warm in summer, — something reposeful and secluded, gave me great content to be there. As I think of it with longing, at the approach here of snow and storm, I cannot but regret that so many days and deserts lie between it and the East.
Charles Dudley Warner.