IT was last October; the new magazine had arrived at this far-away ranch in Southern California, and, after a quick scanning of its welcome pages, had been put aside for days, awaiting the rare hour in a ranch-woman’s life when the work, not finished, is yet slack enough to be left and forgotten. The time came at last. Perhaps the work was not as slack as it should have been, but it was time to forget it, at any rate, and I hastened away from it out-ofdoors, with the book in my hand. Climbing higher on the hill above the house, I sat down to read.
Immediately, I was lost to every surrounding, even to the insistency of children’s voices, and often, as I read, my face widened with a smile of delight, or lengthened with a reflected pathos; or again, I regret to say, remained a mere blank of uncomprehension! But out of all the good things I read that morning, and they were many, there was one page of which I wish to tell. In ‘A Possession,’ that bit of prose-poetry by Fannie Stearns Davis,1 I found a message which filled me with a sudden responsive joy in my own possessions. I raised my eyes from those lines so full of discoverable beauty, with a new vision. The monotony of the day’s work was forgotten; the ‘sameness of rolling hills, and sunny valley, and high mountains,’ had disappeared; and sitting there in the sunshine, which is mine all the year round, I realized the wealth of my possessions.
I felt the nearness of friends in books; the companionship in the laughter of children at play, and in the sound of the voices of men at work; and the splendor of the wide scene before me. The beauty and the happiness of my day rose before me. I thought of the early mornings in these great, bare hills, before the sun has risen high enough to shine down on our western slopes; of the sweet, damp fragrance. Then of dead grass and sage-brush stirring lightly in the breeze that comes just before the sunrise; the silence of the wide valley below, still in shadow, where far out in the middle lies a sleepy little town nestling close to the railroad station. From the blue distance of the north to the rosy ending in the south extends the river which gives the valley its name. There is no water to be seen in October, but patches of white sand showing through willow clumps indicate its course. On the other side, high above the valley, rise mountains which are touched by the first light of morning. Their lower ‘benches,’ covered with yellow-brown stubble-fields, reach upward into the dark chaparral of the higher slopes, giving an ethereal, floating sense of beauty as they lie in the changing pink and purple and gold of sunrise.
All about me is the great silence of treeless, birdless hills, broken only by the tinkling of bells as the flock of goats leaves the corrals below to climb steep hills in search of the day’s feeding of dry bunch-grass, which is scant enough after the summer, and they must range far to find it. As they climb, the first sunbeams stream down over their backs, and they, and the herder with his knapsack and long stick, and the busy shepherd dog, disappear into the golden light of the hilltop.
Then the long silence of the morning, and the full sunshine of noon-time, when there is no relief on mountain or valley or hillside from the glare of the sun. All the warm air is filled with the scent of tar-weed. Moving drowsily along the wide white road is the old wagon and horses of a mountain rancher who has come down for provisions, bringing with him a load of rough oak wood. The dust rises from the lagging feet of the horses and falls back thick and smothering. On both sides of the road stretch barbed-wire fences as far as can be seen. There are no trees anywhere,— only the dusty tar-weed, and thin-stubbled fields of the level valley. No sign of life but the scurrying of startled squirrels.
Then, in a sudden gust, comes the regular afternoon wind, rushing unimpeded through the long valley and carrying with it the white river sand, high in the air like a curtain between the two mountains. It sweeps along the roads, pushing before it clouds of dust and bunches of dead weeds torn from the ground. Pitilessly it assaults the longsuffering little town, with its ragged row of saloons and stores facing the railroad track, tearing out any forlornest hope of a garden, and battering the few old wind-swept trees.
When at last the wind dies down, and the dry grass stands upright again, and the great silence is restored, it is evening. The shadow of the western mountain creeps visibly across the valley till it touches the foot of these silvery-tan hills; and now, lifted out of their noontime commonplaceness, they stand as in a flood of light poured through windows stained amethyst, — their very bareness lending itself to the purer reflection of jewel-like color. In a place too easily named “God-forsaken,’I have wondered rather, whether He does not pause here sometimes, far from the sins and strivings of men; for there is a lingering glory of light and color, now, that is unearthly in its significance, while the hills stand breathless as if receiving the benison of His presence. Then slowly and tremulously rises the great earthly shadow until the light is gone, and the hills rest in the quiet gray of twilight.
Down the steep hillside the flock is returning; hundreds of sure-footed goats, with their long, silky hair almost touching the ground, following the narrow trails worn by their ancestors. As they hurry downward, companies of them scampering ahead, or stopping suddenly to browse, they look like a field of grain in a summer wind. The old herder, going on before, opens the gates for them, and then disappears into his cabin where the wife has a hot supper waiting. The tired dog stretches himself on the ground near the door, patiently waiting his turn to eat.
In the kitchen of the ranch-house on the hill above, there is the confusion of children’s happy voices; the cheerful tramping of men’s feet on the bare floor; the appetizing sounds of a supper in preparation. The table, covered with white oil-cloth, and serving in turn for reading or writing or eating, is laid for the meal and lighted by a small lamp displaying a pictured card-board shade. There are no luxuries here save those of farm products, but appetites are healthy, and there is abundance to supply the need. The talk is not always of widespread interests, but ‘concerns of the particular hearth and home,’ joined in merrily by all, with frequent interruptions of irrepressible children; and often the board walls ring with hearty, wholesome laughter — for we are young, and fun may be had for the laughing!
It is long before the evening work is over and children’s voices hushed. Then, if heads and backs are not too weary, books are brought from the shelf in the corner, or there is music sung or played by those who can never know the pleasure they give to their unseen listeners.
Outside, the cool night air is sweet with the scent of wild things. There is no sound but the occasional tinkle of a bell in the flock below, and the soft breathing of the sleeping hills — or is that the wind, far up in the cañon? From out in the valley comes the distant whistle of a train, bringing with it the thought of the bright, outside world, until its long line of lights disappears into the darkness and we are left again in the quiet of the night — but not alone, for in the hovering of the close, thick stars I know that God is near.
And this is the day which I possess. I have been given a better understanding of it; I have been taught that the secret of a lasting joy in the steady realization of the good is mine.
It it is the mission of the poet to give and to teach, it is my part, listening, profiting, to render thanks — and I do!
- In the Atlantic, for October, 1911.↩