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IN THE SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS
TO a naturalist on his travels, enviable man, few places are at first sight less encouraging than a large city surrounded by wide areas of cultivated land. Such a place is San José, the principal town of the famous and beautiful Santa Clara Valley. One of the most beautiful valleys in California, it is said to be; and I can easily believe it. But a naturalist, as I say, even though he be also a lover of beauty, looks with distrust upon miles on miles of plum and cherry orchards. Plums and cherries may be never so much to his taste; but by the time an electric car has whirled him past a million or two of white trees (I am assuming the month to be March), and the ladies in the seat behind him have let off a hundred or two of exclamations, he, poor man, is ready to cry “Enough.” Now, if you please, he would be thankful to see a stretch of “timber” (in the New England dialect, “woods” ), a swamp, or even a desert; almost any sort of place, indeed, where he might expect to find a few wild things growing, and among them a few birds and butterflies flitting about.
The naturalist’s predicament at San José, however, is not so hopeless as at first sight it looks. The electric cars are his salvation. My very first ride carried me in three quarters of an hour to a picturesque and measurably wild cañon out among the Mount Hamilton foothills east of the city. The place is a park, to be sure, but a park not yet spoiled by excessive improvement; and at such hours as I was there it proved to be by no means overrun with visitors. In it there were many birds, but nothing new.
Another car conveyed me to the foothills of the Santa Cruz Range. And this was better still, for now my walk did not end in a cul-de-sac, but could be continued till my legs or my watch hinted that for this time I had gone far enough. I would try the place again, I promised myself as I came away, and would provide a day for it.
This morning, therefore (March 26), after a pouring rain overnight, I boarded the car again, and at the end of the route began my day.
And I began it auspiciously; for I was hardly out of the car before a bird moved in a bush at my side, and, looking at it, I saw at once that it was a flycatcher for which I had been on the lookout, the Western flycatcher, so called. The large family to which it belongs is one of the most puzzling, and the genus Empidonax is far from being the easiest of the genera; but, as it happened, I knew that Empidonax difficilis, for all its ill-omened name, was readily distinguishable from any similar bird to be found hereabouts by its distinctly yellow under parts; and the bird before me, face on, and close by, was a plain case, or, as it is the present fashion to say, an easy proposition.
A few rods more and I came to a cluster of small oaks, in which, on the morning previous, I had found two or three Townsend warblers (black-throated green warblers with a difference), birds that I had seen some time before among the Monterey pines at Point Pinos. With what delight I put my glass upon the first one, so bright, so handsome, so new, so suggestive of one of my dearest New England favorites, and so unexpected! After all, I believe it is the unlooked-for things that afford us the keenest pleasure, — though I may be of another mind within a week. The unexpectedness in the present case was due to nothing better than ignorance, it is true, the bird being known (by other people) to be common all winter in the Monterey region; but that is a consideration beside the point. I followed the lovely creature, as it threaded its way among the pine leaves, with as much eagerness as if thousands of dollars had depended upon the sight. And it was well I did (blessed are the ignorant, say I); for, while I was staring at it, and a few like it that presently appeared in its company, fixing their lineaments in memory and on paper, another and much rarer bird hopped into sight: a hermit warbler; the only one I have ever seen, and, as the indications now point, the only one I am ever likely to see. He was a beauty, a male in full spring dress, cheeks of the brightest yellow, and throat as black as jet.1
Well, there were no such warblers in the trees about Congress Spring this March morning, though I scrutinized the branches in the hope of finding some. For an ornithologist is like a dog; if he has once seen a rare bird in a certain tree, he can never go by it without barking up the trunk. But a better bird than any warbler awaited me a little way ahead. There I came to a bridge over the brook, now a turbid, raging torrent, after the last night’s rain; for rain, even though it comes from heaven, will make a California stream muddy. While I had stood here the day before, letting the endless flow of the water moralize my thoughts — a “priestlike task” at which nothing in nature is more efficient, — a dark-colored bird flew out from under the bridge close to the water, anon dropped into it, swam, or was carried by it, a yard or two, took wing again, again dropped into the current, and then came to rest upon a rock on the water’s edge. There it stood for half an hour, a great part of the time on one leg, preening its feathers, yawning, and, what was worth all the rest, winking, till its eye looked like the revolving lamp of a lighthouse, I said to myself. At last, when I was growing weary, it all at once gave signs of nervousness, and the next moment was on the wing and out of sight. A water-ouzel, as the reader knows.
There would be no such fortune for me this morning, I knew well enough as I approached the bridge; but anyhow I must stay a bit, admiring the rush of the water, and the ferns of various sorts that draped the tall, vertical cliff on the farther side. And lo, while I was thus engaged, my ears caught the ouzel’s note. He was at that very moment dropping into the stream under my eyes. Another instant, and he was out again, and in two seconds more he was gone. What a sprite! A bird with none like him. So commonplace an exterior, and, as it surely seems, so romantic a soul, vitality incarnate, the very soul of the mountain brook. If only he would have sung for me!
One thing I must mention. I had never noticed till yesterday that, in addition to his bobbing or nodding habit, he practices sometimes a teeter of the hinder parts, after the manner of the spotted sandpiper and the water-thrush. And, seeing it, I wondered again, what connection, if any, there can be between life about the edges of moving, rippling water and this wave-like seesaw.
Along the road I was following, which itself followed the course of the brook, — since it is part of a river’s business to show surveyors the way, — were trees, shrubs, and ground flowers, all interesting, and nearly all of kinds new to the Eastern traveler. I looked with pleasure, as I had done before, at alder trees (plain alder, for certain, bark, leaf, and fruit all telling the same story) sixty feet or more in height, and as large as good-sized New England beeches, to which, as one looks at their trunks, they bear no small resemblance.
Tanbark oaks were here, — now and then a truly magnificent specimen, — redwoods, of course, sycamores, maples, of a kind for which I had no name,2 madroñas, now in full bloom (tall, red-barked trees, bearing the blossoms of a blueberry-bush!), and bays, also in bloom, with the glossy leaves of which I was continually setting my nose on fire. “Very good to inhale,” a young man tells me, when I meet him in the road and speak to him about the size and beauty of the trees. I had thought only of smelling them. “Very good” they must be, if pungency be the size and measure of beneficence.
Of course, in this strange land, a man, especially a man with no manual of the local botany, must have his curiosity piqued by a world of things as to the identity, or even the relationship, of which he cannot form so much as a plausible conjecture. Here, for instance, is a low shrub, at this moment in bloom. It looks like nothing that I have ever seen, and I can only pass it by. Here, on the other hand, is another low, waist-high shrub that has the appearance of a birch; and such it is, for a smell of the inner bark is proof conclusive. But what kind of birch? And at my feet are shining green leaves that prophesy of something, I have no notion what.
By and by I come to a place where in the shadow of thick trees a dainty white violet is growing. This I have seen before. Viola Beckwithii, mountain heart’s-ease, Miss Parsons’s “Wild Flowers of California,” a book to which I have been much indebted, enables me to call it. And the sight reminds me that I have yet to see a blue violet on the Pacific coast, though I have seen at least three kinds of yellow ones.
As I approach a house a splendid dark-blue jay shows itself. One of the royal birds; a pretty strict forester, one would imagine it ought to be; but it seems plain, from what I have remarked here as well as elsewhere, that it finds something to its advantage in the neighborhood of man. I am always ready for another look at it. Such depth and richness of color, and so imposing a topknot! I recall the excitement of my first meeting with one of its brothers, the long-crested, at the Grand Cañon in December last. Many new birds I have seen since then, but few to give me keener pleasure.
Another stretch of woods, and I am near another house. And outside the fence, reclining in the sun, is the lord of the manor, a shaggy German, with whom I pass the time of day — though the time of day might seem to be about the last thing to interest a man so profitably employed. A cat lies stretched out in the grass beside him. Yesterday he had a dog for company. Cats and dogs alike have a special fondness for the society of lazy people, I believe.
Still another half-mile of forest, and I come upon a Swede mending the road. How soft and pleasant a voice he has! And how friendly a smile! I love to meet with such a neighbor in a lonely place, and as I pass on I fall to wondering how it is that all these foreigners, as a rule, seem to have a touch of civility that lies beyond the reach of my brother Americans. Politeness, suavity, gentleness of manner, mildness of tone, friendliness of expression — in all these qualities the men from over seas appear to excel us. It was only an hour ago, while I stood on the bridge, watching the ouzel, that a young man, foreign-born, though of what nationality I did not make out, stopped to ask a question about the electric car. Even now I can hear his agreeable voice and the good-bye, like a word of grace, with which, after an acquaintance of two minutes, he took his leave.
Yet I must tell the truth. The only man who has been rude to me in California, where I have been wandering about by myself in all sorts of places, on an errand that must have been a mystery to many, was a foreigner, a Teuton. He, indeed, went so far as to threaten personal violence, with something like murder in his eye; all because, in utter innocence, I had stood for a few minutes a hundred yards or more from his shanty of a house, quite outside the fence, leveling my small field-glass upon a flock of sparrows feeding there on the ground. I might go somewhere else with my telescope, he said, when I tried to explain what I was doing. He wasn’t going to stand it. His dog, meanwhile, was setting him a Christian example; for in response to a coaxing gesture he had ventured up, and was licking my hand. Possibly I made matters worse by remarking, “Your dog seems very friendly,” though I did not go so far as to quote the saying of the French cynic — if he was French — that the more he saw of men, the better he thought of dogs.
But that was months ago, on the outskirts of San Diego, and might never have been brought again to mind but for the praise of foreigners into which I have unwittingly fallen.
Nearly or quite all the residents of this Santa Cruz mountain region (for the little distance that I have gone, that is to say) seem to be men from the old countries. The last one with whom I spoke to-day was a Frenchman. He had been here more than forty years, he said.
The interview began by his appearing at the door and calling out cheerily, “Well, won’t you have some more apples?”
“No, I thank you,” I answered.
But he persisted, “Oh, come in, and have some.”
I had begged the favor of two or three the day before, to piece out the slender luncheon I had brought along. So I went in, and we chatted awhile, he most cheerfully, “as proud of California and these mountains” as if he had been born to their inheritance. I was starting homeward in a few days, I remarked.
“Oh, then you don’t like this country,” he said, in a tone of mingled surprise and sorrow.
Yes, indeed, I assured him; I liked it much; oh, very much; but then, I had not come here with any idea of remaining. He was comforted, I thought, and we parted on the best of terms.
“I am French, you know,” he said; and I answered, “Yes.” He had been jabbering in that tongue with a pretty young woman (Mary, he called her) who had dropped in for a minute or two on her way to the village.
After this I had interviews with sundry birds and flowers, but there is no space in which to tell of them; and, specialist though I am, especially when in new places, I shall remember longest, it may be, a Frenchman, a Swede, and a man of unknown race with whom I have to-day passed kindly words among “these mountains.” For, after all, a man, if he be halfway decent and reasonable, is of more value than many sparrows.
1 Since then I have seen many hermit warblers, in the Yosemite, where they breed, and in my own Santa Barbara dooryard where they were present in goodly numbers, as they were throughout the city, in May, 1912, — a great surprise, and as far as my knowledge extends, a state of things before unheard of.
2 Big-leaf maple, Acer macrophyllum, as I have learned since.