The Mesa Trail

ImageThe ‘Fiddleneck’, or Amsinckia Menziesii, of the California Foothills.

‘The Mesa Trail’ is the title of the eighth chapter of Mary Hunter Austin’s 1903 blockbuster nature book, ‘The Land of Little Rain’. While the whole work focusses on various aspects of California’s Owens Valley and adjacent mountain areas, a region on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range and the controversial source for Los Angeles’ water supply since the 1920’s, ‘The Mesa Trail’ zeros in on the natural features of the lower hilltop zones. As usual, Austin is quite poetic in her manner of expression, always food for (organic!) thought, and I can’t resist quoting a few lines which leap out at me:

‘The mesa holds very level here, cut across at intervals by the deep washes of dwindling streams, and its treeless spaces uncramp the soul.’

‘Mesa trails were meant to be traveled on horseback, at the jigging coyote trot that only western-bred horses learn successfully.’

And of evening: ‘…the hour when the white gilias set their pale disks to the westering sun.’

I must admit to a certain passion for western wildflowers and their habitats. When one has traveled for hours by automobile over winding country and mountain roads, whose twists and turns amaze the eye but often push one’s physical equilibrium and center of gravity to the limit, what a relief it is to stumble out into a roadside field of rocks, dusty soil and spicy-scented wildflowers. To breathe the dry atmosphere, gaze up at the nearly lighter-than-air flight of hawks and buzzards on the upper thermals, and behold a Mary Austin specific landscape. Better than any tablet or powder you can take to settle your stomach. The only problem is that you’ll have to reenter your mechanical conveyance and leave your new-found healing landscape. But the stop was eminently worth it. And here are a few more quotes from ‘The Mesa Trail’, to get you in the mood:

‘From the height of a horse you look down to clean spaces in a shifty yellow soil, bare to the eye as a newly sanded floor.’

‘There is always a little wind on the mesa, a sliding current of cooler air going down the face of the mountain of its own momentum, but not to disturb the silence of great space.’

‘It is not possible to disassociate the call of the burrowing owl from the late slant light of the mesa. If the fine vibrations which are the golden-violet glow of spring twilights were to tremble into sound, it would be just that mellow double note breaking along the blossom-tops.’

One of the characteristic and reliably-to-be-met wildflowers of Mary Austin country is the ‘Fiddleneck’, or Amsinckia menziesii, as pictured at the top of this post. It can flower in January and February, as in the photo, or even all spring through into June. It can be poisonous to cattle and other livestock, if they ingest it in large quantities, especially when it happens to grow among fields of their regular pasture, or has been carelessly mixed in with feed brought in from outside. But its natural beauty fully redeems its less desirable qualities, especially, I’m sure, for those of us who aren’t engaged professionally in ranching. It was named after Wilhelm Amsinck (1752-1831), a German jurist, businessman and politician, who was a great benefactor of the Hamburg Botanical Garden, and Archibald Menzies (1754-1842), a Scottish naturalist who took part in the Vancouver Expedition to the American West and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and who was a member of the party which made the first recorded ascent of the summit of Mauna Loa. The Amsinckia menziesii itself was given its botanic name by the German botanist Johann Georg Christian Lehmann (1792-1860), a Holsteiner of reportedly cranky and difficult character who was a professor of physics and natural sciences and founder of the Hamburg Botanical Garden. He was the author of many scholarly monographs–in Latin, so be sure to brush up your linguistic skills if you plan to do more than admire the glorious illustrations. 

I’ll leave you with one more quote from ‘The Mesa Trail’, to encourage you to read Mary Austin or even to visit her beloved high desert world yourself:

‘Out West, the west of the mesas and the unpatented hills, there is more sky than any place in the world. It does not sit flatly on the rim of earth, but begins somewhere out in the space in which the earth is poised, hollows more, and is full of clean winey winds.’ 



2 comments on “The Mesa Trail

  1. dappled says:

    I really miss all this. I feel warm & sage-y reading about it. Thanks for your wonderful blog. I learn so much.

  2. leifhendrik says:

    Thanks! I’ve marked passages in each chapter of this Austin book and I go back to them periodically. Seems to work best for me in small batches, so I can give some time to thinking about individual observations and enjoy the author’s tremendous way of putting things. The sage stays with a person, eh? Nothing like it.

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