Atlantis Arisen/Chapter 6

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Having introduced my reader to the two great States of Oregon and Washington by the magnificent river which divides and unites them, let me first describe, as best I can, the one which by age has the right of precedence,—Oregon.

In those early times, between 1820 and 1840, when Congress was discussing the title of the United States to this region, and doubting often whether the game of contending for our right was worth the candle, the whole of this country on both sides of the Columbia was referred to as "the Oregon," and "the Oregon River" was more frequently on their lips than the Columbia. It is interesting to know that the word was invented by one New Englander and immortalized by another. When Jonathan Carver, doughty captain that he was in the French and Indian wars of the last century, turned explorer, he led an expedition to the head-waters of the Mississippi, that region then being the "Far West" of the continent, and, finding little that he really understood, made some audacious guesses, as was the custom of explorers before him, and drew a map on which he had the Mississippi, Missouri, and "Origan" Rivers to rise from the same or neighboring sources.[1] The name, he said, was given him by the Indians, but a thorough search for any such word in Indian languages leads to the conviction that, like the map, the name was purely imaginary.

The word, however, was one suited to the poet's numbers, and after the discovery of the Columbia, when Bryant wrote his immortal "Thanatopsis," he incorporated the word in his poem, with a slightly different spelling and a nobler sound. The fame of Bryant established the use of the word among educated people, and henceforth the territory of the Oregon" was in the mouths of our national legislators until it became fixed. It is possible that but for the controversy with Great Britain, which kept alive the name under which the great river in dispute was known to her statesmen, ours might have ignored it altogether. Let us be thankful we have both names preserved.

The physical geography of Oregon is unique, and gives a great variety of climates. Approaching from the Pacific, we find, first, a narrow skirting of coast, from one to six miles in width. Back of this rises the Coast Range of mountains, from three to five thousand feet high. Beyond this range are fine, level prairies, extending from forty to sixty miles eastward. Beyond these prairies rises again the Cascade Range, from five to eight thousand feet in height, and having to the east of them high, rolling prairies, extending to the base of the Blue Mountains, which trend south westwardly, leaving plains and small valleys, to the east, between themselves and the Snake River, which forms the eastern boundary of Oregon and a portion of Washington.

These differences in altitude would of themselves produce differences in temperature. But the great reason why the change is so great from the coast to the Snake River lies in the arrangement of the mountain ranges, and in the fact that the northwest shore of the American continent is washed by a warm current from the Japan Sea. The effect of this current is such that places in the same latitude on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts are several degrees—sometimes twenty degrees—warmer on the latter coast than on the former. This gives a temperature at which great evaporation is carried on. The moisture thus charged upon the atmosphere by day is precipitated during the cooler hours of night in fog, mist, or rain.

In summer, the prevailing wind of the coast is from the northwest, thus following the general direction of the shoreline. It naturally carries the sea-vapor inland; but the first obstacle encountered by these masses of vapor is a range of mountains high enough to cause, by their altitude and consequent lower temperature, the precipitation of a large amount of moisture upon this seaward slope. Still, a considerable portion of moisture is carried over this first range and through the gaps in the mountains, and falls in rain or mist upon the level prairie country beyond. Not so, however, with the second, or Cascade Range. These mountains, by their height, intercept the sea-fog completely; and while great masses of vapor overhang their western slopes, on their eastern foot-hills and the rolling prairies beyond not a drop of dew has fallen. This is the explanation of the difference in climate, as regards dryness and moisture, between East and West Oregon. All other differences depend on altitude and local circumstances.

Notwithstanding the great amount of moisture precipitated upon the country west of the Cascades, the general climate may be said to be drier than on the Atlantic coast. The atmosphere does not seem to hold moisture, and even in rainy weather its drying qualities are remarkable. Taken altogether, the stormy days in this part of Oregon are not more numerous than in the Atlantic States; but the rainy days are, because all the storms here are rain, with rare exceptions. The autumn rains commence, usually, in November,—sometimes not till December,—and the wet season continues until April, or possibly till May; not without interruptions, however, oftentimes of a month, in midwinter, of bright weather. About the middle of June the Columbia River is high, and during the flood there are generally frequent flying showers. After the flood is abated, there is seldom any rain until September, when showers commence again, and prove very welcome, after the long, warm, but wholly delightful summer. The annual rain-fall of the Wallamet Valley ranges from thirty-five to fifty inches. In the Umpqua and Rogue River Valleys it is less; and at the mouth of the Columbia, and along the coast, both north and south, it is more. The mean annual temperature of Western Oregon is 52.4°, although in certain localities the average is higher by one or two degrees.

East of the Cascades the arrangement of the seasons is somewhat different. There is much less rain, which comes in showers rather than in a steady fall, and is confined to the months between September and June. Occasionally snow falls to the depth of a few inches, and in some winters to a considerable depth, and has remained on the ground a number of weeks. The heat of summer and the cold of winter are each more extreme, but not at their highest or lowest degrees so trying as the same amount of heat or cold would be in a moister atmosphere. The autumn months in this portion of the country are most delightful, with the thermometer ranging from fifty-five degrees to seventy. The phenomenon of the plains is the periodical warm wind which comes ever the Cascades from the Japan current, known as the "Chinook wind," and so named by the Indians because it came from the direction of the Chinook tribe, with whom they exchanged articles of barter in a sort of annual fair held at the mountain-pass, beyond which they never intruded on each other's territory. This warm air-current has a surprising evaporating quality, licking up several inches of snow in a single night, leaving the ground bare and the temperature mild. It is welcomed by the white stock-raiser, as it formerly was by the aboriginal horse-owner of these plains, and is one of the features of the country.

The opposite of the Chinook is the Walla Walla, or east wind, which is fiercely cold and searching. The Indians had a tradition concerning these winds, that they in the persons of two brothers on each side met and fought a duel to determine which should prevail, one of their ancient gods to be umpire. In the battle the Chinook brothers were worsted and beheaded. But an infant son of the eldest being told of his father’s fate, grew up with the desire for vengeance, and cultivated his strength by such exercise as pulling up trees by the roots, beginning with saplings and increasing the size until he could tear up the largest trees of the forest. Then he sent a challenge to the brothers of the cold wind, whom he overcame, and who were in turn beheaded. But the god who sanctioned these contests declared that it was not good there should be no wind, and decreed that thereafter the cold wind should not blow with so much violence nor be so freezing; neither should the Chinook break down trees or destroy houses. The Chinook might blow strongest at night, and the Walla Walla wind by day, which they still continue to do.

The mean temperature of East Oregon is about one degree higher than the western division; but the short winters are colder and the long summers hotter than West Oregon. A peculiarity of the climate of every part of Oregon and Washington is the comparative coolness of the nights. No matter how warm the days may have been, the nights always bring refreshing sleep, usually under a pair of blankets, even in summer. Nor does the heat, however great, have that fatal effect which it does in the Atlantic States. Not only men, but cattle and horses, can endure to labor without exhaustion in the hottest days of summer, and sun-strokes are of very rare occurrence.

There are two charges brought against the Oregon country on account of climate.—namely, that it does not rain enough in Eastern Oregon, and that it rains too much in West Oregon. Humanity does sometimes tire of an overplus of rain from the monotony of it rather than because it is disagreeable. But the earth enjoys it. If you do not believe it, come with me to the woods, and I will prove it to you,—aye, in March. The turf in the flat or hollow places is soaked with water, like a sponge, and if you do not step carefully you will press it out over your shoe-tops; but, by dint of quick eyes and agile movement, you will escape any serious mishaps. Climbing over logs, jumping weather ditches, and crossing creeks furnishes the necessary excitement and exercise by which you keep off a chill; for if you were to sit down to summer reveries at this time of year, the doctor would be in requisition directly.

Here we are at last, at the very foot of the mountain; and what does this forest recess furnish us? What magnificent great trees! Fir, cedar, and here and there along this little creek a yew, a maple, or an alder. Hardly a ray of sunshine ever penetrates this green and purple gloom. Spring and fall, winter and summer, are much the same here,—a difference only of water. In summer the creek is within bounds, and you can lie on the mosses, if you feel disposed. "What! lie on the mosses, every one of which seems such a marvel of beauty? What a wonderful, what a charming spot! I never, in all my life——!"

No, of course you never saw anything like it. This is the only country out of the tropics where vegetation has such a remarkable growth. Here are a dozen kinds of elegant green mosses in a group, to say nothing of the tiny gray and brown and yellow varieties with which we have always been familiar, besides lichens innumerable. Observe those fallen trees. Their immense trunks are swathed in elegant blankets of emerald brightness. See here, I can tear them off by the yard,—enough on one tree to carpet a room! Look at the pendent moss,—two feet long at least,—and what a vivid yellow green!

Just step up a little higher: I will show you a wonder. Did you ever dream of anything so marvellous as that bank of moss? Six inches high, branching like a fern, yet fine and delicate as that on the calyx of a moss-rose. Here is enough, if preserved, to furnish all the French flower-makers; and glad would they be to get it. And ferns,—yes, indeed! Just look at this maidenhair. It is of every size, from the delicate plant three inches high to the mature one of fifteen or eighteen inches. And here are some that have stood all winter in their autumn dress. See how exquisitely they are tinted,—raw-sienna for the body color, and such delicate marking in vandyke-brown on every leaf, or gold color, marked with burnt-sienna, and all relieved so beautifully by the polished black of their slender stems.

But we must not stop long in this dense and damp shade; there might be intermittent lurking in it for unaccustomed town-folk. But just note, as we retrace our steps, the great variety of plants, some of them very beautiful, that grow all winter long in these solitary places. This handsome variegated leaf comes from a bulbous root, and bears a lily-shaped flower, I am told; but being new to me, I cannot yet classify it. We are still too far from open sunlight to be much among flowering plants.

But directly we come to occasional openings, or to higher benches of ground that get the light and drainage, we shall see adder-tongue, Solomon's-seal, anemone, wild violet, and spring-beauty, putting up their leaves, waiting for sunny days enough to dare to bring out their blossoms. Here, too, are two species of creeping vines, very delicate and graceful, trailing along the ground, with little fresh leaflets already growing. In April the twin-flower (Linnoea borealis) will blossom with dainty, pinkish-white, trumpet-shaped flowers, very lovely to behold. Yerba buena (Micromeria Douglasii), vulgarly called Oregon tea, from the spicy flavor of its leaves, which make an agreeable infusion, is also a beautiful trailing plant of this season.

Now we get down to the woods along the river-bank. Ah, here is really a blossoming shrub, the flowering currant. In haste to brighten the dull March weather with a touch of color over the green and brown and purple tints that are so melancholy under a cloudy sky, the currant does not 'wait to put forth its foliage first, but crimsons all over with thickest flowers, in racemes of nearly a finger's length. There are two varieties of the red and one of the yellow, all beautiful and ornamental shrubs. In company with this still leafless shrub is the glossy arbutus (misnamed laurel), with its fresh suit of brilliant green reflecting every ray of light from its polished surface. The arbutus grows all winter, putting forth its delicate shoots from December to March, and flowering later in spring. Its cheerful light green makes it a perfect complement to the red of the currant when flowering; and by not looking at all like an evergreen, which it really is, bewilders the beholder, who sees it growing luxuriantly all along the river-banks, as to the time of year.

Here is another elegant shrub that does its growing in the winter, and takes the long dry summer to ripen its fruit and be beautiful in,—the Berberis aquifolium, or holly-leaved barberry, commonly known as the Oregon grape. It is looking as fresh and piquant in March as though it had all of April and May behind it. All around us, on every hand, are plants and shrubs or trees growing. Behold these graceful little yew-trees, two feet high. They look as though they had come up in a day, so delicate and new they seem. Examine the ends of the fir-boughs, and question the crab-apple, the sallal, and the wild-cherry. Do you see that line of silver down under the riverbank? That is the glisten of the catkins on the willows (Salix scouleriana) that were out in February. It makes a pretty contrast to the red stems of a smaller species of willow which grows along the very margin of the river, with its roots in the water. I am not certain of the variety.

There certainly is no lack of interesting things in the woods of early spring in Oregon. To my eye, with such a variety of green and really growing trees and shrubs, it is a relief to take into the view a group of naked stems, like the straight and light boles of the aspen (Populus tremuloides), the gray trunks of the dogwood (Cornus nuttalis), or the rugged, scraggy forms of the water-loving ash (Fraxinus Oregona). Uniform as the climate is, and little as the dropping of the leaves -of deciduous trees affects the general aspect of the landscape, there is yet to the critical observer a sufficiently marked difference in seasons to make the study of spring and summer, and autumn and winter, as shown by the vegetation of fields and forests, profitable and compensatory.

It is true that one cannot come back from a walk at this time of year laden with armfuls of flowering shrubbery, as we may in six weeks from now. You cannot, with safety, stretch yourself on the earth and indulge in building Spanish castles, as in July weather it is pleasant to do, while birds sing among the branches overhead, the nervous little squirrel scolds at you from a safe distance, or the only half-confiding quail maintains vigilant picket duty in your vicinity,—all, as you think, for your gratification, though in truth you are regarded by these little residents as an alien and an intruder. The beauties that should invite you now pass away or lose their freshness with the approach of dry weather. The mosses and lichens will have dried up by midsummer; the ferris can then only be found in the coolest recesses of the woods. The excess of foliage then will close many beautiful vistas; there will be no more signs of daily growth, no tender tints on the leaflets. The year will be at middle age, round and perfect, but with the touching bloom of its youth forever past.

There will be a corresponding difference in the color of the skies, the shape of the clouds, the hues of the water; in every part of nature. Let the student of nature learn all her passing moods. There is a wealth of enjoyment in having well-trained eyes and a receptive observation, that no amount of gold can purchase. It depends on the individual. Certain of us never come into our kingdom, which is the kingdom wherewith the Creator endowed us “in the beginning,” because we are too sordid, too indolent, or too effeminate. Certain others of us are rejoiced to think that we have not wholly missed of it through either of these faults, and that enjoyment grows with possession.

But to return to the subject of climate per se. No country which has not water enough can be productive,—water in some form. West Oregon gets enough, and with great regularity. East Oregon, with equal regularity, gets too little, except in the bottom-lands, where irrigation is natural, or artificial irrigation easy. The soil is good almost anywhere. What then? There must and will be developed a system by which water can be brought upon the arid lands of East Oregon and Washington. When that is done the productiveness of the elevated plains will equal that of the western valleys, and be more certain.

Civilization began in either hemisphere in the rainless countries of Egypt, Peru, and Mexico. The reason is evident. Civilization depends on the ease and security with which man harvests the fruits of his fields. The crop in the Nile Valley was unfailing, from the certainty and uniform duration of the Nile overflow. In Peru, from the constant presence of moisture eliminated from the atmosphere in the form of heavy dews, the cultivation of the earth repaid man’s labor surely. On the high table-lands of Mexico irrigation was necessary, but once accomplished, there, too, agriculture flourished unfailingly; and men, instead of roaming from place to place, settled and remained, until civilization arose and declined, by the natural processes of the growth and decay of nations.

In these countries, superior intelligence also resulted from the dryness of the climate; as it is well known that a pure, dry air is stimulating to the mental faculties, while a moist, dull, or cloudy atmosphere is depressing. It is evident that men in a savage state, having the obstacles of want and ignorance to overcome, have been aided by these circumstances. Nor are they to be overlooked in considering the future of countries in the infancy of their development. The Columbia River Plains, owing to their elevation above the level of the draining streams, will probably require a system of irrigation by artesian wells, except those parts bordering on mountains, whence water can be conducted with comparative ease. With this addition to the amount of moisture furnished by the light rains and occasional snows of winter, this great extent of country, now given up to pasturage, might be made to support a dense population, producing for them every grain and fruit of the temperate zone in the highest perfection.

We are told that when the missionaries went, in 1836, to look for a suitable place for a mission farm and station in the Walla Walla Valley, they estimated that there were about ten acres of cultivable ground within thirty miles of the Columbia River; and that was a piece of creek-bottom at the junction of a small stream with the Walla Walla River. These same explorers decided that there were small patches of six or ten acres, in places, at the foot of the Blue Mountains which might be farmed. As for the remainder of the country, it was a desert waste, whose alkaline properties made it unfit for any use. A few years’ experience changed the estimate put upon the soil of the Walla Walla Valley; and now it is known to be one of the most fruitful portions of the Pacific Coast, and the quality of the soil really inexhaustible,—its alkaline properties supplying the place of many expensive manures. And yet the capacity of the plains for cultivation has only just begun to be comprehended. East Washington has a greater area of lands which can be rendered productive by irrigation than East Oregon, but the area is large in both of the States.

The hill-tops in transmontane Oregon may be sown to grain and safely left to the encouragement of the soil and the elements, the former having more clay in it than the lower bench lands, and the atmosphere, perhaps, at night a little more moisture. At all events, good crops are harvested on this higher ground without irrigation. Although in imagination we behold this country as it will appear in the happy future, in the very present hour the tourist is bound to prefer the western division, which is already brought to perfection in so many particulars by the deft hand of nature.

All that has been said of Oregon climate, soil, and seasons applies equally to Washington, except where some local cause exists for a difference. For instance, there is a greater rain-fall at the mouth of the Columbia than at Gray’s Harbor, or other points along the coast, until you come to Neah Bay, at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the cause of the excess of moisture being the same in both instances,—namely, a wide opening in the coast-line, through which the storm-winds are drawn as through a funnel. There is much less rain among the islands in the archipelago at the foot of Puget Sound and along the northern coast of the mainland of Washington than in the southern counties, which are affected by the climate of the Lower Columbia. The mean annual precipitation at Olympia is 56.27 inches, and at Portland 50.89 inches. The temperature of the Puget Sound country is very slightly affected by latitude. The mean temperature of Portland in Oregon for the month of December varies from 48° to 43°, although, in an exceptional year, it has been as low as 31°, and in January, 1888, the mercury fell to 2° below zero. There is a difference of about two degrees, mean temperature, lower, between Portland and Olympia, at the head of Puget Sound, and two or three degrees more at Tacoma and points farther north.

The lowest temperature for the last five years at Portland was 9° above zero; at Tacoma, 5° above. The highest temperature in the same time was 97° at Portland and 80° at Tacoma. The mean temperature of the two places is, Portland 52° to 55°, and Tacoma 55° to 58°, the difference being slightly in favor of the latter place, taking the year together, owing to the influence of the Sound upon the climate, and to its sheltered position, away from the air-currents before spoken of. It is common to find roses and pansies in blossom until December in either place, although the stranger may find a chill in the moist atmosphere which he declares to be "cold," even though the mercury does not recognize it. A season usually braces him up to endure this, and he soon has only eulogies for an even climate, whose only fault is that it is not cold enough to be dry in the winter months.

  1. Carver knew that navigators familiar with the west coast of the continent expected to find a river from the centre of the continent falling into the Pacific somewhere in this latitude, and had vaguely named it, before seeing it, the "River of the West." He therefore pretended to give the location of its sources, missing it by only about ten hundred and fifty miles.