IT took adversity to bring me the sort of life I had always longed for. Not until after my domestic happiness had gone to smash did I realize that I was free to trek up and down the long state of California, to satisfy my insistent curiosity about plants, to find them in their homes meeting their days and seasons, to write down their tricks and manners in my notebook, to photograph their flowers, to collect their seeds, to bring home seedlings in cans just emptied of tomato juice.
I use the notes in magazine articles and books, and some of the thousand and more photographs illustrate them, while others are made into colored slides for flower lectures. I absorb the knowledge of native plants and natural plantings which is so necessary for landscape work — and that, too, is what the seedlings are for. I grow them in plant house or lath house and finally set them out in the open on my windy hillside, to prove to me and to the world what good they can be in the garden.
The seeds, which come home unthreshed in big white bags, looking like my laundry, arrive in the seed house, to hang clean and tidy in labeled alphabetical rows. From there they go to every state in the Union, to Canada, and especially to England and the Continent, where ardent gardeners are always on the lookout for something new. Cold-country enthusiasts want alpines from the Sierras, the Trinities, and the Siskiyous; South Africans, Australians, and southern Europeans ask for valley and foothill flowers; only the seeds of the non-cactusy desert plants, least known and most fascinating of all, go a-begging, because very few gardening regions have the sand, gravel, heat, and sun which they require.
I didn’t take up this job for the poetry of it. I had no ambition to become a Picturesque Lady-Gypsy. I honestly wanted to find out about California wild flowers. There was little written about them in their habitats and nothing at all about their behavior in the garden, so I made it my job to discover the facts for myself.
I live, when I am under a roof, on a steep hillside. In front, beyond the tops of Monterey pines, stretches the Pacific Ocean. It is so quiet up there that I can faintly hear the hum of week-end traffic far below me on the coastal highway which runs south from Carmel.
But I inhabit my hillside only from November to February, while the winter storms are blowing and the winter rains pouring. In March and April I have long shining days on the desert, in May happy weeks in the foothills, where a chorus of robins wakes me and my morning bath is in a rushing stream of just-melted snow. In June I am in the northern counties scented with newmown hay and wild strawberries, in July in the higher mountains, and in August and September up in the alpine zone with mule or burro.
‘Stay at home and be safe,’ my friends urge me. ‘No woman ought to travel about alone the way you do!’
‘What is safe?’ I question, and the annual argument is on again. There are so many ‘What if?’ people to deal with.
‘ What if a mountain lion came and ate you in your sleeping bag?’
‘Mountain lions aren’t supposed to eat people.’
‘What if a bear came?’
‘Bears don’t hurt you unless you bother their cubs.’
‘What if you met a rattlesnake — or a sidewinder?’
‘I’ve just got to look out for them. I can’t stay at home because of a few snakes.’
Then, most terrible thought of all, ‘What if a man came?’
Men do come. But they are usually quite harmless. Fishermen and hunters are on the whole a decent lot, and I feel much safer with country people than I do in crowded cities.
Early in the spring my travels begin, but first I must load the car. There are no large seats in my car, only my own little leather driver’s seat, which stays with me when one model is turned in for the next. Because on rainy or snowy nights I leave the ground and crawl into the car to sleep, it must have a flat floor; and since it is my home for weeks at a time, it must have room for a great many things — flower presses, books, photographic gadgets, canteens, tools, and seed bags. Each year I take a long-handled shovel and a forbidding-looking axe on a 10,000-mile ride. They go along only because the Forest Service requires it — both are far too big and heavy for me to handle.
Ten thousand or fifteen thousand miles doesn’t sound like much for a season’s work, but in my case it isn’t the automobile mileage which counts. It’s the distances covered on foot, alone or with pack animals. A person who studies plants doesn’t work on the highways. The road is just the place where you leave your car — a point to start from and come back to.
The first trip of the year generally finds me a bit rusty on car packing. The luggage looks all right when I first start out, but that long steep hill down to the highway at Wild Cat Cañon bridge tests my technique, and by the time I am down on the level all the junk has settled round my neck or congregated behind my shoulders. The presses and seed bags, which should be kept dry, make straight for the slightly drippy canteens, my precious camera mixes in with the sharp picks and shovels and trowels, and I have to stop and repack.
Modern boys and girls are born with an instinctive knowledge of cars which I lack entirely. All that I know has been learned by hard experience. For instance, I found out that water is bad for brakes by driving through twentyfour successive fords on a mountain road and subsequently whizzing down one descent after another without the slightest control over my speed. I was stuck for two days and nights in the sand of a desert canon wash before I found that I might have a chance to pull out if I lowered the tire pressure. A Highway Division man told me to put a wet rag on a certain spot under the hood when my car had vapor lock. I marked the spot with a red cross which the wet rag washed off, and pretty soon I was poulticing the engine practically all over.
However, I have come to think that there is a guardian angel for car-ignorant wandering women. The angel generally employs Highway Division or Forest Service men as instruments, and I have come to love the bright orange-red truck of the first and the dark green pickup of the second.
One of the trials of my life is the difficulty of combining the arrangements of a lady with those of a gypsy. I don’t want to give up either sort of existence, and yet they just don’t mix, especially when I must be both on the same trip. The flower presses scratch my good luggage, the canteens drip on my handbag, my hat flies out of the window, and I have to go to a town and buy another. A large and benevolent steamer rug is supposed to cover the manifold trappings in the car, but a sudden jolting stop is sure to bring all the disgraces tumbling out into the light, and before I have tucked them back in again my nice clean hands are dusty and there is a run in my silk stocking.
One night I sleep with a Port Orford cedar at my feet and an incense cedar at my head, with a lake for a bathtub and bread and cheese for breakfast. The next I am in a dainty guestroom, start the day with a scented bath (after lying awake since dawn), and breakfast luxuriously in bed, propped up by many downy pillows. This is all very amusing and pleasant, but the evenings are a difficulty. In the field I creep into my sleeping bag at dusk, but when I am a lady I must sit up till midnight, making desperate efforts to hide my yawns and talking incoherently through a haze of sleep.
The plants I go to look for grow along little-used roads, narrow, rutty, sandy, muddy, or dusty, or roads which in the desert are scarcely more than tracks and in the mountains not much more than ledges. (In the matter of roads it is simply ‘Nothing venture, nothing have.’) They are terrible from the tourist’s point of view, but the botanist usually looks upon them and finds them good. They may be one-way mountain thoroughfares with an almost perpendicular bank on one side and an abrupt drop of many hundreds of feet on the other, but I have my happiest times upon them, though they do possess certain drawbacks, chief of which is the practical impossibility of parking. Also they are bad to be caught on at night. Because I always feel that just around the corner there is sure to be a place wide enough to pull off and sleep, I go on and on with dumb persistence, — along this ridge, across that spur, — till it sometimes ends in my trusting to luck that no one will be traveling that night, and going to sleep right in the middle of the road.
Local people take it for granted that a car parked at the roadside indicates some grief for the car or its owner, and their first thought is to offer help. On the whole I think I have suffered more from being offered help than from needing it. There is so much explaining to be done, and the dear people are so sure something must be wrong, otherwise I would never have stopped. ‘ Sure you ain’t got no trouble?’ they ask reluctantly as they move away.
Once I was milling inquisitively about in the manzanitas and wild lilacs of a mountain side, with raisins in my pocket and water close by in a mountain stream, all set for a happy day. About mid-morning a car came along the road, slowed up just below me, then went on.
In the late afternoon, just as I was collecting my belongings for a regretful descent, a second car came slowly up the mountain, halting every now and then. Opposite me it stopped; two men got out and began working their way up through the chaparral.
‘Are you the woman that’s lost in the mountains?’ they yelled.
‘No!’ I said indignantly.
‘You must be,’ they said.
‘I’m not!' I shouted.
Ignoring this, they announced, ‘We’ve come to find you.’
‘You can’t,’ I said, ‘because I’m not lost. My car is just a few miles along the road, down by the stream bed.’
‘Better come with us,’ they pleaded. ‘They sent us out to find you. A man brought the news to town this morning.’ I remembered the loitering car.
‘I won’t,’ I said firmly. ‘I’m not lost and I won’t be found.’
‘Good-bye,’ they said reproachfully, and turned to go.
‘Good-bye,’ I said, at last becoming polite. ‘It was sweet of you to come, anyway.’
When you live out of doors day in and day out, especially if you do not carry a tent, things of no importance when you live in a house become of great moment. Such matters as sunlight and shadow, cold and warmth, take on unexpected proportions, and when you are photographing flowers the behavior of the wind is a vital thing. Sight and hearing grow more alert at need. Stands of plants must be identified a long distance away, and when one is keen on privacy — particularly when taking a sunbath — the approach of wagons or cars, the sound of horses’ feet or of men’s voices, make subconscious listening a part of one’s life. My sense of smell also becomes highly developed, which is sometimes inconvenient; but I can smell a desert lily from afar, and in northwest California and southern Oregon in May I drive for days through the fragrance of azaleas.
It would seem as though there should be some kinship between my life and that of the Indians, but their methods get me nowhere. Evidently I need a different cultural background. I put my ear to the earth, but I hear no better; I cannot carry anything on my head; I cannot even mesmerize a rattlesnake. Cornbread is the only form in which I like maize, and I don’t eat bulbs or acorns, though I once lived for a day on cascara berries with rather unhappy results.
Delightful as much of my work is, it isn’t all sweetness and light. There are times when I actually get lonely and begin talking to the faces in the old newspapers which hold my pressed flowers. There are times when I tire of cold nibbles for meals, times when the ground is very hard (it gets harder every year).
But the mere experience of lying on the earth really does help you to drive fears away. You feel yourself a bit of the nice old round ball. The wind, the streams, and the coyotes sing to you, and in migrating season quantities of birds fly overhead and make twittering noises, sometimes coming so low that you can easily catch their continual conversation and even hear the swish of their many wings, sometimes flying so high that their talk sounds like distant water coming quickly over rocks.
Occasionally — only very occasionally — I come upon men, or men and women, of like mind to myself, and bent on the same sort of work. Then how our tongues wag as we compare notes and specimens and recommend good hunting spots to each other. These few meetings are bright spots on my journeys.
My trade is a constant source of amazement and curiosity to the natives. Since I am neither hunting nor fishing nor looking for gold, I can’t be catalogued, and sometimes in desperation they come right out and ask bluntly, ‘What sort of person are you, anyway? What do you do?' And it isn’t the easiest thing in the world to explain to them.
One morning I was sitting on the ground beside a mountain trail with my arms inserted in the flat black bag in which I take exposed films out of their holders and put in unexposed ones. No matter what happens, when I once begin this performance I dare not take my arms out till it is over, lest light should get in. Three children on horses came clattering down the trail on their way to school, and at the sight of this strange apparition every horse dropped into a walk and then stood still while the youngsters began to speculate in low voices.
‘Playing cards,’ said one; ‘ain’t it funny?’ ‘No, she’s hiding something,’ said another. Then the shrill voice of the smallest child; ‘No! She’s a witch! I’m scared!’ And she beat her horse with the reins and was off.
One of the questions people ask me is ‘What horrible experiences have you had?’ There have been none which were really horrible, though some seemed close to it at the time. These incidents always sound more exciting to other people than they do to me, for they are just parts of my life and all in the day’s work. I have learned now not to pick up hitchhikers, no matter how clean and good-looking or how tired and dirty they are. Lumbermen, trappers, and miners often ride on my running board, but seldom get inside the car.
One August when I left for the mountains a friend thrust a bundle of magazines into the car. ‘Here,’ she said, ‘you can read these when you’re having car trouble.’
I did have car trouble and I read the magazines, which contained a murder-mystery serial. After I had once started it I couldn’t stop, and its effect on a one-track mind (and that track horticulture) was devastating.
I read as long as there was a vestige of light and then went to bed in a little opening in the woods. I had just nestled in when two men came down a trail from another direction. Ordinarily, on a storyless night, I should have turned over and gone off to sleep, thinking nothing of this. But now I recalled the ghastly doings in the serial, and with a stealthy hand I drew the flap of the sleeping bag over my head. This attracted the men’s attention.
‘Hello,’ said one. ‘Get anything?’ By this I knew that they were deer hunters and took me for another.
‘Naw,’ I grunted, on what I hoped was the right note of masculine disgust.
‘Mind if we settle down here?’ asked the second.
‘Sure,’ I growled, in what was meant to be a firm and hospitable though sleepy tone; it sounded pretty quavery to my ears. I followed it up with what I hoped would be taken for a snore, which at least discouraged further conversation. I was too scared to go to sleep, and until I heard unmistakable sounds of slumber from their direction I had some grim and unpleasant thoughts.
When I woke the next morning it was broad daylight and I had forgotten all about my neighbors. When I suddenly remembered them and cautiously turned my head to peep, they had gone. As soon as I was dressed I went back to the car, took out those magazines, and left them in a neat pile by the roadside.
I once had a king snake living with me for several days. His name was Charles. He was very lovely, — black banded with yellow, — and he came out of a hole at the foot of a tree close to my head and straight into my sleeping bag as though I had sent for him. ‘Hello,’
I said. ‘Hope I haven’t kept you waiting’— at which he put out his tongue cheerfully. I have Dr, Ditmars’s word for it that king snakes will kill rattlers and that they are entirely immune to snake venom, so I thought I had at last solved the rattlesnake problem. Also I felt that in time Charles could be taught to work. He used to go swimming with me, eyeing me as we swam, his long thin body wriggling gracefully and making me feel horribly awkward, and I noticed that he always held his head well out of the waiter. ‘How do you do it?’ I would ask him, but Charles only blinked in a superior manner. Now my only way, at times, to get a plant or seeds growing on steep rocks overhanging the water is to swim across and bring them back, folded in a paper, in my mouth, and that would have been a nice little job for him if only he had stayed with me. But he disappeared just as I thought I had him well tamed.
It is especially pleasant to go up through the mountains on these journeys of mine, rising from one sort of surroundings to another, exchanging the plants and birds of one zone for the quite different plants and birds of the next higher zone, passing through the Kumfy Kamps and Drop Inns of the yellow-pine belt and coming out into the open meadows of the higher reaches, breathing air quite free of gasoline and exhaust fumes, sleeping on heather and the young branches of conifers, getting up in the early morning to plunge into the stinging cold water of a mountain stream, stepping out on a mossy bank into the first rays of the sun and then following the mountain trails for flower finds.
I was questing about on one of these trails when I heard an unexpected noise and a tread too heavy for a deer — and it wasn’t bear country. Then a man appeared coming down the trail. He was quite toothless, with a smile such as Mr. Dick must have worn — a mad, lovable, aimless smile. In one hand he carried a crooked manzanita stick and in the other he swung, with rather cruel carelessness, a gay bunch of pentstemons, mimulus, and sulphur flower. ‘Here,’ I thought, ‘is someone as dotty as I am.’ But when I said admiringly, ‘Oh — nice!’ he answered, not with ‘Yes, aren’t they?’ but with a stern command quite out of key with his guileless face: —
‘Praise the Lord!'
By this time we were alongside each other and I was realizing that his madness lay in a different quarter from mine.
‘Praise the Lord!' he reiterated with an ominous flourish of the manzanita stick.
‘ All right! All right! Praise the Lord!' I soothingly agreed, hurrying my steps with anything but praise in my heart. By and by I began to wonder if I had dreamed him, but on my way back I found his bunch of flowers discarded by the side of the trail.
A very different sort of person was the gentleman who offered me the rabbit stew—an offer I have always been sorry I lacked the nerve to accept. I met him striding over the lower Tehachapis, gun in hand and a very alert semi-fox-terrier at his heels. It was getting dusk and I was following a sheep lane in search of a good beddingdown place. He was tall and lean and wiry.
‘I’m out to get me a rabbit stew,’he said with a Southern drawl. In spite of the drawl they were keen Irish eyes that looked me over and through.
‘Don’t you go above that dark place,’ he said. ‘If a rain come up you’d be stuck there for ten days.'
That was discouraging, for I was headed for a soft crease in the hills which promised a good view and pleasant surroundings. I asked about water, and he led me over a fence to certain mysteriously foreign-looking pipes and tubes which I had been pondering over and which, synthesized, turned out to be an electric pump whose workings he carefully explained while I kept my fingers crossed and prayed that I might remember what I was told. Then I thanked him, said ‘Good night,’ and pushed on a little way. As I might have known, when I walked back to the pump I couldn’t make it work at all and had to depend on the canteens for my bath.
When I woke the next morning the clouds were heavy in the sky and I saw that further advance up that sheep lane was indeed a very bad idea.
In a patch of lupine and mallow seven hares were at play, their long pale ears tipped with brown, agility in every limb, and a sort of apologetic levity in their eyes. I was scarcely dressed before my friend of the previous evening appeared.
‘I was going up the hills a piece,’he explained, ‘and I just thought I’d see how you was getting on.'
After half an hour of chat he turned round and started back, making no attempt to go up the hills any farther, but before going he tore the corner off one of my newspapers and wrote his name on it.
‘Good-bye, little lady,’he said. ‘Goodbye until to-night. Come back to-night and we’ll take the mules and go up into the hills. I’ll make a bunfire — know what a bunfire is?’ I nodded. ‘I’ll have the rabbits and we’ll make that rabbit stew and I’ll tell you the story of my
I tucked the bit of paper carefully away. But presently I was off down the road toward the Salton Sea, missing forever both the story and the rabbit stew.
A bit later that spring I sat on my bedroll in the chilly dawn beside a narrow rutted country road — waiting. At last I heard wheels and got stiffly to my feet.
It seemed a rather elegant car and driver for those rural parts. Probably a salesman taking a short cut back from Imperial Valley, I thought, and certainly quite a contrast to me. He was sleek and well-groomed, and his car was shiny. I was clean, personally, from a morning plunge in the river, but my clothes were a torn and grimy mess and my gone-but-not-forgotten car was a lump of crumpled wreckage.
With a sense of fitness I took the rumble seat, for my bedroll and I were in about the same condition and best kept together. Also I did no more explaining than was absolutely necessary — I was beginning to realize how tramps and hitchhikers feel. And a few hours later, when I sat at the edge of a suburban Los Angeles drive-in market, waiting for friends to come and retrieve me, I sympathized with every homeless wanderer in the world.
I had been gayly heading north after a glorious trip into the mountains at the edge of the desert. In my car were many tin cans, once filled with beans and peaches, now holding seedlings of native plants for a rock garden which was being evolved out of an abandoned quarry near Carmel. In a big water-filled tin was a fine assortment of cut wild flowers for a show which was just about to open. The river below me pranced seaward singing a happy song, and there were lovely places to stop; but a bed with clean white sheets a waited me, and the flower show started next day.
Briskly rounding a curve, the car met a huge boulder fallen from the mountain side. The road was narrow — too narrow for car and boulder both. The car swerved, bounced to the side of the road, and balanced itself on the brink.
Should I jump? No — all those nice cut flowers were between me and the safe level ground, and I might damage them. But another look down into the cañon and a last teetering of the car convinced me that those flowers would never see the show anyway. So I jumped &emdashjust in time.
I went one way and the car went the other. As I landed on hands and knees I heard the slow deliberate crunch, grind, crish, crash as it turned over and over on the way down to the cañon bottom and subsided there among boulders and poison oak.
It seems that you behave oddly at such times. I looked down at the dear departed, bade it a calm though heartbroken farewell, and took quite casually to picking wayside flowers and singing a gay and futile little song. But gradually the situation dawned on my clouded mind and sent me climbing down the swath in the canon side, remembering a certain admonition: ‘The first thing to do when your car turns over is to shut off the engine.’ I had done this before when my cars turned over and had won approval. So I hoisted myself to the upper side of the car, crawled through the window, and duly shut off the engine, but I felt no better for it, nor did the car, so far as I could see. Then I extracted my camera from the hash of mud, glass, stones, books, flower presses, and clothing, and tried unsuccessfully to drag out my sleeping bag.
Back on the road and perched on a wayside rock, I began to listen for wheels, longing for once in my life for thicker traffic. Nothing passed for what seemed half a day —probably about two hours. Then a horse jogged by bearing an Indian, quite friendly but totally blind to my situation, who smiled beamingly at my remarks and passed on, probably thinking I was talking about the weather. At last I heard car wheels. It was a Ford, driven by another Indian, with a large squaw bouncing about loosely in the rear seat; they were going to the bedside of a dying mother ‘up on the Reservation’ and gave me a lift to the nearest telephone, six miles away, where I waited till a wrecking car from the little mountain town of Julian, famous for its apples, picked me up.
Night was coming on now, and I felt a little low as I climbed to a seat beside the driver. He was a jovial chap with a face as round and rosy as a Julian apple, and when we reached the spot marked by X he knew exactly what to do.
‘I gotta build a road,’ he announced, ‘and I gotta have more light. This searchlight of mine ain’t enough. Now you build a nice bright fire and we’ll git to work.’ So I gathered twigs and struck matches and threw on dry branches while he toiled and perspired among the rocks and poison oak, swearing cheerfully because he had no helper. The road completed, he wove a spiderlike web with pulleys and tackle and hawsers and heavy chains, spinning back and forth from the wrecking car to a big oak on the bank, then down to my misshapen car, spilling out its load of treasured freight. He leaped and ran to the accompaniment of grinding and clanking noises while I felt extremely feminine and useless.
The most I could do was to build my fire brighter. It made a really pretty little domestic scene — he powerful and masculine, using brain and brawn, I quite literally keeping the home fires burning as a woman should. The flames leaped gayly, the searchlight peered about, the stars looked down and blinked; the place took on quite a cozy look, and I began to grow attached to it. I made a mental note to retrieve my sleeping bag and camp there until morning.
Far into the night the rosy-cheeked garage man worked. He must have made a hundred trips from point to point of his triangle — wrecking car to oak tree to wrecked car and round again. The tackle creaked and groaned, and my own car too, as though coming out of an anæsthetic, began to make simply ungodly noises. At last came the moment when uncannily, and rather like a movie running in reverse, it arose to its wheels, slowly mounted the incline, teetered once more on the spot where we parted company, and alighted on the road. For the last time the Julian Apple went down the well-worn track into the cañon and scrambled back; he collected his tools, lit a cigarette, and departed.
I watched my car wabble off into the dark, hanging from the derrick of the wrecking car like a mouthful of unmasticated prey from the muzzle of a dinosaur backing into his den; then I spread my bedroll in a sandy trench and went to sleep. I generally seem able to sleep pretty well, whatever happens.
I’m just collecting my working dunnage and packing the car to drive dowm to Mexico and go flower hunting there. I’ve been reading any number of books on Mexico and receiving advice from all manner of people; but nobody seems to know much about the flowers, and there are so many different opinions on the roads, seasons, natives, food, and weather that I’ve simply got to find out the truth about it.
I expect the going will be tougher than anything I’ve had so far, but I’ve heard so many terrible tales about the dangers to a lone woman on desolate Mexican byways that I’ve stopped believing any of them —things cannot be as bad as they say. At any rate I’m surely going to find new flowers and see new country, and, as my friends often remind me, ‘Sensible people don’t have adventures.’