Steep Trails/Chapter IX

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Steep Trails by John Muir
Chapter IX: Mormon Lilies[11]

Lilies are rare in Utah; so also are their companions the ferns and orchids, chiefly on account of the fiery saltness of the soil and climate. You may walk the deserts of the Great Basin in the bloom time of the year, all the way across from the snowy Sierra to the snowy Wahsatch, and your eyes will be filled with many a gay malva, and poppy, and abronia, and cactus, but you may not see a single true lily, and only a very few liliaceous plants of any kind. Not even in the cool, fresh glens of the mountains will you find these favorite flowers, though some of these desert ranges almost rival the Sierra in height. Nevertheless, in the building and planting of this grand Territory the lilies were not forgotten. Far back in the dim geologic ages, when the sediments of the old seas were being gathered and outspread in smooth sheets like leaves of a book, and when these sediments became dry land, and were baked and crumbled into the sky as mountain ranges; when the lava-floods of the Fire Period were being lavishly poured forth from innumerable rifts and craters; when the ice of the Glacial Period was laid like a mantle over every mountain and valley--throughout all these immensely protracted periods, in the throng of these majestic operations, Nature kept her flower children in mind. She considered the lilies, and, while planting the plains with sage and the hills with cedar, she has covered at least one mountain with golden erythroniums and fritillarias as its crowning glory, as if willing to show what she could do in the lily line even here.

Looking southward from the south end of Salt Lake, the two northmost peaks of the Oquirrh Range are seen swelling calmly into the cool sky without any marked character, excepting only their snow crowns, and a few weedy-looking patches of spruce and fir, the simplicity of their slopes preventing their real loftiness from being appreciated. Gray, sagey plains circle around their bases, and up to a height of a thousand feet or more their sides are tinged with purple, which I afterwards found is produced by a close growth of dwarf oak just coming into leaf. Higher you may detect faint tintings of green on a gray ground, from young grasses and sedges; then come the dark pine woods filling glacial hollows, and over all the smooth crown of snow.

While standing at their feet, the other day, shortly after my memorable excursion among the salt waves of the lake, I said: "Now I shall have another baptism. I will bathe in the high sky, among cool wind-waves from the snow." From the more southerly of the two peaks a long ridge comes down, bent like a bow, one end in the hot plains, the other in the snow of the summit. After carefully scanning the jagged towers and battlements with which it is roughened, I determined to make it my way, though it presented but a feeble advertisement of its floral wealth. This apparent barrenness, however, made no great objection just then, for I was scarce hoping for flowers, old or new, or even for fine scenery. I wanted in particular to learn what the Oquirrh rocks were made of, what trees composed the curious patches of forest; and, perhaps more than all, I was animated by a mountaineer's eagerness to get my feet into the snow once more, and my head into the clear sky, after lying dormant all winter at the level of the sea.

But in every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks. I had not gone more than a mile from Lake Point ere I found the way profusely decked with flowers, mostly compositae and purple leguminosae, a hundred corollas or more to the square yard, with a corresponding abundance of winged blossoms above them, moths and butterflies, the leguminosae of the insect kingdom. This floweriness is maintained with delightful variety all the way up through rocks and bushes to the snow--violets, lilies, gilias, oenotheras, wallflowers, ivesias, saxifrages, smilax, and miles of blooming bushes, chiefly azalea, honeysuckle, brier rose, buckthorn, and eriogonum, all meeting and blending in divine accord.

Two liliaceous plants in particular, Erythronium grandiflorum and Fritillaria pudica, are marvelously beautiful and abundant. Never before, in all my walks, have I met so glorious a throng of these fine showy liliaceous plants. The whole mountainside was aglow with them, from a height of fifty-five hundred feet to the very edge of the snow. Although remarkably fragile, both in form and in substance, they are endowed with plenty of deep-seated vitality, enabling them to grow in all kinds of places--down in leafy glens, in the lee of wind-beaten ledges, and beneath the brushy tangles of azalea, and oak, and prickly roses--everywhere forming the crowning glory of the flowers. If the neighboring mountains are as rich in lilies, then this may well be called the Lily Range.

After climbing about a thousand feet above the plain I came to a picturesque mass of rock, cropping up through the underbrush on one of the steepest slopes of the mountain. After examining some tufts of grass and saxifrage that were growing in its fissured surface, I was going to pass it by on the upper side, where the bushes were more open, but a company composed of the two lilies I have mentioned were blooming on the lower side, and though they were as yet out of sight, I suddenly changed my mind and went down to meet them, as if attracted by the ringing of their bells. They were growing in a small, nestlike opening between the rock and the bushes, and both the erythronium and the fritillaria were in full flower. These were the first of the species I had seen, and I need not try to tell the joy they made. They are both lowly plants,--lowly as violets,--the tallest seldom exceeding six inches in height, so that the most searching winds that sweep the mountains scarce reach low enough to shake their bells.

The fritillaria has five or six linear, obtuse leaves, put on irregularly near the bottom of the stem, which is usually terminated by one large bell-shaped flower; but its more beautiful companion, the erythronium, has two radical leaves only, which are large and oval, and shine like glass. They extend horizontally in opposite directions, and form a beautiful glossy ground, over which the one large down-looking flower is swung from a simple stem, the petals being strongly recurved, like those of Lilium superbum. Occasionally a specimen is met which has from two to five flowers hung in a loose panicle. People oftentimes travel far to see curious plants like the carnivorous darlingtonia, the fly-catcher, the walking fern, etc. I hardly know how the little bells I have been describing would be regarded by seekers of this class, but every true flower-lover who comes to consider these Utah lilies will surely be well rewarded, however long the way.

Pushing on up the rugged slopes, I found many delightful seclusions--moist nooks at the foot of cliffs, and lilies in every one of them, not growing close together like daisies, but well apart, with plenty of room for their bells to swing free and ring. I found hundreds of them in full bloom within two feet of the snow. In winter only the bulbs are alive, sleeping deep beneath the ground, like field mice in their nests; then the snow-flowers fall above them, lilies over lilies, until the spring winds blow, and these winter lilies wither in turn; then the hiding erythroniums and fritillarias rise again, responsive to the first touches of the sun.

I noticed the tracks of deer in many places among the lily gardens, and at the height of about seven thousand feet I came upon the fresh trail of a flock of wild sheep, showing that these fine mountaineers still flourish here above the range of Mormon rifles. In the planting of her wild gardens, Nature takes the feet and teeth of her flocks into account, and makes use of them to trim and cultivate, and keep them in order, as the bark and buds of the tree are tended by woodpeckers and linnets.

The evergreen woods consist, as far as I observed, of two species, a spruce and a fir, standing close together, erect and arrowy in a thrifty, compact growth; but they are quite small, say from six to twelve or fourteen inches in diameter, and bout forty feet in height. Among their giant relatives of the Sierra the very largest would seem mere saplings. A considerable portion of the south side of the mountain is planted with a species of aspen, called "quaking asp" by the wood-choppers. It seems to be quite abundant on many of the eastern mountains of the basin, and forms a marked feature of their upper forests.

Wading up the curves of the summit was rather toilsome, for the snow, which was softened by the blazing sun, was from ten to twenty feet deep, but the view was one of the most impressively sublime I ever beheld. Snowy, ice-sculptured ranges bounded the horizon all around, while the great lake, eighty miles long and fifty miles wide, lay fully revealed beneath a lily sky. The shorelines, marked by a ribbon of white sand, were seen sweeping around many a bay and promontory in elegant curves, and picturesque islands rising to mountain heights, and some of them capped with pearly cumuli. And the wide prairie of water glowing in the gold and purple of evening presented all the colors that tint the lips of shells and the petals of lilies--the most beautiful lake this side of the Rocky Mountains. Utah Lake, lying thirty-five miles to the south, was in full sight also, and the river Jordan, which links the two together, may be traced in silvery gleams throughout its whole course.

Descending the mountain, I followed the windings of the main central glen on the north, gathering specimens of the cones and sprays of the evergreens, and most of the other new plants I had met; but the lilies formed the crowning glory of my bouquet--the grandest I had carried in many a day. I reached the hotel on the lake about dusk with all my fresh riches, and my first mountain ramble in Utah was accomplished. On my way back to the city, the next day, I met a grave old Mormon with whom I had previously held some Latter-Day discussions. I shook my big handful of lilies in his face and shouted, "Here are the true saints, ancient and Latter-Day, enduring forever!" After he had recovered from his astonishment he said, "They are nice."

The other liliaceous plants I have met in Utah are two species of zigadenas, Fritillaria atropurpurea, Calochortus Nuttallii, and three or four handsome alliums. One of these lilies, the calochortus, several species of which are well known in California as the "Mariposa tulips," has received great consideration at the hands of the Mormons, for to it hundreds of them owe their lives. During the famine years between 1853 and 1858, great destitution prevailed, especially in the southern settlements, on account of drouth and grasshoppers, and throughout one hunger winter in particular, thousands of the people subsisted chiefly on the bulbs of the tulips, called "sego" by the Indians, who taught them its use.

Liliaceous women and girls are rare among the Mormons. They have seen too much hard, repressive toil to admit of the development of lily beauty either in form or color. In general they are thickset, with large feet and hands, and with sun-browned faces, often curiously freckled like the petals of Fritillaria atropurpurea. They are fruit rather than flower--good brown bread. But down in the San Pitch Valley at Gunnison, I discovered a genuine lily, happily named Lily Young. She is a granddaughter of Brigham Young, slender and graceful, with lily-white cheeks tinted with clear rose, She was brought up in the old Salt Lake Zion House, but by some strange chance has been transplanted to this wilderness, where she blooms alone, the "Lily of San Pitch." Pitch is an old Indian, who, I suppose, pitched into the settlers and thus acquired fame enough to give name to the valley. Here I feel uneasy about the name of this lily, for the compositors have a perverse trick of making me say all kinds of absurd things wholly unwarranted by plain copy, and I fear that the "Lily of San Pitch" will appear in print as the widow of Sam Patch. But, however this may be, among my memories of this strange land, that Oquirrh mountain, with its golden lilies, will ever rise in clear relief, and associated with them will always be the Mormon lily of San Pitch.