Western Landscapes


DUN plains speckled with sagebrush and blue-gray clumps of weeds, levels that run to huge cliffs of orange-colored stone, — cliffs that rise against the deep blue sky like ruined walls of some gigantic cathedrals or fortresses or castles.

Dim with centuries of sun and wind; older than Thebes or Baalbec ; loftier than the pyramids, soaring a thousand feet above the level sand ; worn by wind and sun and frost and rain, till the handmarks of the builders have been utterly lost, and the primeval rock alone remains.

The clouds soared above the red and green and violet walls in mild majesty. The distant cliffs grew to deep blue, the shadows darkly purple. The plain became lilac, soft as air could dim and subdue it. The peaks that loomed high in the far-off sky were violet. Sand, sand, — everywhere sand. Gray sand, dove-gray sand, lilac in distance, shimmering in the hot, dry air. Every slightest weed, or rock, or squat low cedar threw a vivid violet shadow ; the whole plain was radiant with color, and hot with unsuaged sun-rays.

The river ran a blue ribbon, laid between brick-red mud and flaming yellow gravel, — a vivid, curving, graceful steelblue ribbon of mountain water that still bid defiance to the remorseless sun and the devouring earth.

How beautiful this ribbon of water might be, no one can tell but the hardy horseman faint with an all-day ride across these savage sands, under the parching, absorbing light of the unclouded sun.


A curving line of beach, whereon a quiet, cool sea was breaking. In the midst of the sea stood dim blue peaks of mountain islands. To the left and near at hand, a semicircular line of peaks ran like a wall, so high the evening clouds hung on their tops like a roof. The green foothills rose like terraces.

There was something pictorial,strange, spectacular, in it all. The nearness of the mountains, their bleak, bare heights on which the sunlight struck beneath the roof of clouds, the sea glittering beneath, — all seemed unreal. It was so tropical by the beach, with its palms and bananas, so gigantic and barren of detail in the background, not without grandeur in its sweeping lines, hard and stern on the loftier unclothed heights.

The village itself lay squat upon the hillside, without character or fitness, as a toad might lie on the steps of a splendid cathedral.


As the boat pulsed slowly across the cool sea, the nearing dome of lights which marked the city grew more various in colors : green and red and yellow lights shifted and twinkled. The streets seemed to swing into position, and to order themselves for our inspection.


A tossing spread of dull green water, lined here and there with white waves caught up by the powerful north wind. Out of this dull green level the brown and rounded hills lay, landlocking it. Behind this semicircular wall of hills, the mountains rose not quite to the region of snows.

Gulls wheeled and dipped plenteously, and the yellow-green waves sounded a brisk, not entirely angry note.

The mountains were a royal blue, but the hills and islands were stern and forbidding in color ; barren and treeless except where the live-oaks and chaparral lay in patches, like cloud shadows.

It was all crisp, strong, invigorating; nothing soft, nothing rich. A flare of clear sunshine, and a pushing, sounding wind.


The treeless hills rose above the level of the valley, a stately wall of rose-pink, accented here and there with plum-purple shadows. Above the mountains a cloud of dusty dull gold rose upon the otherwise cloudless concave of sky.

The glorious hills were based in the blue shadow-sea which fell away into the dusky green of near fields and farther trees.

As the sun sank, the deep purple shadows crept higher up the mountains, like an engulfing sea; but still the peaks blazed with color down to the edge of this inexorable shadow.

Windows caught and reflected the red light, like flaming jewels, — caught it and burned for a moment, and then died as the shadows rose. In the meadow near at hand lay winding tide-water creeks, in whose placid water these radiant mountains depended in replica still more ethereal in their brilliancy and delicacy of coloring. Their bosoms held great splashes of purple-green and opal.

The mountains became grayer as the light faded, became loftier and more savagely lonely. In the gulches dense shadows gathered. As night drew on, these peaks dulled down, and became a massive and mysterious wall, over which the stars began to glitter.


A group of rough, unpainted cabins set in a space half cleared of trees.

A mat of fallen half-burned gigantic tree trunks, wherein cattle feed perilously seeking the short green succulent grass.

A few gardens fenced about with rails or wattled fir-tops. A few shops fronting upon a muddy street. And all about the cold dark green and gray, moss-bedrabbled trees stand, lifting their spearlike points, in serried, unending ranks, into the gray sky.

The unpainted houses have an old look. They are mossed on their roofs, and bleached gray as granite with a sort of feathery texture where the beating rains have worn into the fibre of the wood. Moss, everywhere moss! The trees dripped moss. On every projecting limb or knot, on every roof, on every twig, moss lay, green,—all shades of green, from gray-green to flaming emerald.

Forests on every hand, — wild, unmeasured, impenetrable forests, fire-scarred, matted with ferns and fallen trunks.

Forests that seemed old and hoary enough to date back to the carboniferous age, filled with swamps, and carpeted with russet-brown mats of ferns and green and red tangles of berry bushes.

Silent forests ! Soundless except for the moan of the wind, and the wild crescendo snarling howl of the circular saw as it grapples with savage teeth upon the logs which the grim-faced, stalwart woodsmen thrust at it. Its imperious note was like the great trees finding voice.

In this land trees are an enemy. The axemen and sawyers go forth to battle with the gloom and terror of the swamps and fir-trees. To them the song of the saw is a song of battle, — a song that nerves their hands to do the will of their hearts.

As the trees fall, the sunlight comes in, but the moss remains.


Washington continues and deepens the impression of a moist and mossy land of endless forests.

Nothing in the world surpasses these mighty and gloomy forests of evergreen, except the forests of Africa or Brazil.

They lie here, covering with a seamless robe, a thousand miles long, valley, foothill, and mountain ; comparatively unbroken, except where some peak lifts its head above the line of vegetation, up into the altitude where rains become snows.

No sun can penetrate these forests. The very life that is there seems a hushed, awed life. The birds are silent birds, as if the gloom and sunlessness of these endless spaces had silenced them.

All life is silent and shadowy. The deer melt away before the eyes like phantoms. Their feet make no noise on the soft, moist ground.

The heron or crane flaps noiselessly along the rivers, like silence taking wing. The bittern at night sends forth its harsh cry as if oppressed by the loneliness. Only the frogs seem cheerful and colloquial.

All animal life shuns the mid-heart of these wastes. The deer seeks the opens, and the bear follows the stream to feed upon the bruised and broken bodies of the salmon that push their fanatic way up the mountain streams to spawn and die.

The hunter may travel for days lost in ferns above his head, toiling over fallen tree trunks like walls, and hear no voice or step but his own in all that time ; hearing no sound except the wind in the high treetops, or the voice of waters white with speed.

In the presence of such savage loneliness, one feels how like an acorn’s fall and rotting man’s death would be.

Everywhere are greens, — bronzegreen of the firs, gray-green and emerald-green of the mosses, the yellow-green of the ferns, the blue-green of the pines, the pea-green of the little firs, and the tender timid grass blades. These are the colors; nothing brighter, nothing gay. All is sombre ; all is oppressive.

It rains much, and then these forests become terrible.

They drip with gray globules. The firs shake, and the hunter is inundated with water. His feet splash in half-concealed pools, and slip in the spongy soil.

The wind moves the branches mysteriously in the mist which hides their tops, and which the wind cannot clear away.

A wild moaning snarl sounds down out of this mist, — a sound that reaches the soul, and shakes it, and sickens it.

The day comes tardily, and the night rushes upon the traveler like a vulture.

Each day is like the one which preceded it, differing only in the added gloom and despair which settle upon the heart.

Then comes a sudden change of wind at sunset. The air grows sweet and serene as May.

The sky clears swiftly. Toward the west a radiant wall of rose-pink and violet rises, incredibly beautiful,—the Olympic mountains!

A vast cone of rosy white, wearing a streaming hood of purple cloud, rises in the east. It is Mount Rainier.

The heart of the traveler leaps with an intoxication of pleasure ; he lifts his arms to the blue sky and the falling sun. It seems as if he could not let the sun set, it is so beautiful !

But it sinks. The light goes out of the Olympic range. It grows dusky purple against the dull yellow sky. But Mount Rainier still catches the light of the fallen sun.

The frogs burst out in song ; the farmyard fowls take on voice ; children in the villages shout with glee.

The light leaves the kingly mountain, — the kingliest of all the coast, save Shasta, — and the damp, chill dusk comes to deepen the sombre forest into cold and desolate night.


As the morning advanced, the sunshine grew to a white radiance that flooded everything in a blinding, shadowless light.

There was nothing to check it or temper it; no tree, no green grass, no hills. Only a russet plain set about with yellow or white little farmhouses. The town behind had no trees.

It was September, and Sabbath morning, and the silence was awesome. Only here and there alone cricket creaked dryly, and far toward a distant swale the ear was aware of the lark’s clear fluting.

Along the road a team of churchgoers moved slowly, a white steamlike cloud of dust rising behind them.

Men were sauntering about the farms with hands in their pockets, their meditative eyes studying the ploughing or the cornfields. On a steam thresher some boys were playing, with shrill shouts of laughter. Rough-looking hands, the nomads of harvest, were coming toward the railway station, on their restless journey.

The air was exhaustingly dry. The homes were like blocks of yellow pine, shadowless and without grace. But there was a fierce, devouring beauty in the plain. It allured with a strange, deepseated power. It embraced, but it destroyed. It seemed to offer freedom in compensation for hills, and streams, and dappled pools, and lush meadows, and orange and purple autumn woods. It allured with the promise of freedom from man, and it gave it, in a way ; but it enslaved its victim to wind and sky and the unspeakable domination of space.

Space, which made him a speck in a measureless prairie ; which made his motions the crawling of an ant, his house a withered leaf, his arm an infinitesimal thread.

Sky, that covered him with its cloudless arch like a shield, yet dropped hail and lightning and wild snows upon him without care or forewarning. A cloudless sky for months ; a beautiful, sinister sky ; a mystical, impassive, radiant, soaring sky, whose colors outstretch woods, whose midday dreams fling shadowy mocking lakes and cities on the hot sod to tempt, and lure, and make mad with longing and despair.

And the wind, — the greatest of the tragic, marvelous triad. Pushing, persistent, restless, — the wind of the plains.

It has no fellow in other lands. It dwells here alone. It is hungry, relentless, desolating, yet intimate ; sad, sorrowful, anomalous in its utterance, intimate and terrible in its demands.

It has no far-off voice. When it speaks, it embraces. Its whisper or wail is in your hair, in the porch of your ears. It coaxes and threatens like a lover while its fingers are in your hair, while its dry lips burn your cheek. You hear its feet on the short dry grass, its wings brushing the scattered weeds — then it is upon you!

It is the voice of the sky, the felt presence of space. It is the menstruum of all life, the devourer of all flesh and blood, the purveyor of earth and sky.

In that close, confiding clasp, it fills the listener with vague forewarnings of death, of reabsorption into the mighty menstruum from which he came.

Hamlin Garland.