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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 8 - Chapter X. The San Gabriel Valley


[Letter dated "September 1, 1877." Editor.]

THE sun valley of San Gabriel is one of the brightest spots to be found in all our bright land, and most of its brightness is wildness - wild south sunshine in a basin rimmed about with mountains and hills. Cultivation is not wholly wanting, for here are the choicest of all the Los Angeles orange groves, but its glorious abundance of ripe sun and soil is only beginning to be coined into fruit. The drowsy bits of cultivation accomplished by the old missionaries and the more recent efforts of restless Americans are scarce as yet visible, and when comprehended in general views form nothing more than mere freckles on the smooth brown bosom of the Valley.

I entered the sunny south half a month ago, coming down along the cool sea, and landing at Santa Monica. An hour's ride over stretches of bare, brown plain, and through cornfields and orange groves, brought me to the handsome, conceited little town of Los- Angeles, where one finds Spanish adobes and Yankee shingles meeting and overlapping in very curious antagonism. I believe there are some fifteen thousand people here, and some of their buildings are rather fine, but the gardens and the sky interested me more. A palm is seen here and there poising its royal crown in the rich light, and the banana, with its magnificent ribbon leaves, producing a marked tropical effect - not semi-tropical, as they are so fond of saying here, while speaking of their fruits. Nothing I have noticed strikes me as semi, save the brusque little bits of civilization with which the wilderness is checkered. These are semi- barbarous or less; everything else in the region has a most exuberant pronounced wholeness. The city held me but a short time, for the San Gabriel Mountains were in sight, advertising themselves grandly along the northern sky, and I was eager to make my way into their midst.

At Pasadena I had the rare good fortune to meet my old friend Doctor Congar, with whom I had studied chemistry and mathematics fifteen years ago. He exalted San Gabriel above all other inhabitable valleys, old and new, on the face of the globe. "I have rambled," said he, "ever since we left college, tasting innumerable climates, and trying the advantages offered by nearly every new State and Territory. Here I have made my home, and here I shall stay while I live. The geographical position is exactly right, soil and climate perfect, and everything that heart can wish comes to our efforts - flowers, fruits, milk and honey, and plenty of money. And there," he continued, pointing just beyond his own precious possessions, "is a block of land that is for sale; buy it and be my neighbor; plant five acres with orange trees, and by the time your last mountain is climbed their fruit will be your fortune." He then led me down the valley, through the few famous old groves in full bearing, and on the estate of Mr. Wilson showed me a ten-acre grove eighteen years old, the last year's crop from which was sold for twenty thousand dollars. "There," said he, with triumphant enthusiasm, "what do you think of that? Two thousand dollars per acre per annum for land worth only one hundred dollars."

The number of orange trees planted to the acre is usually from forty-nine to sixty-nine; they then stand from twenty-five to thirty feet apart each way, and, thus planted, thrive and continue fruitful to a comparatively great age. J. DeBarth Shorb, an enthusiastic believer in Los Angeles and oranges, says, "We have trees on our property fully forty years old, and eighteen inches in diameter, that are still vigorous and yielding immense crops of fruit, although they are only twenty feet apart." Seedlings are said to begin to bear remunerative crops in their tenth year, but by superior cultivation this long unproductive period may be somewhat lessened, while trees from three to five years old may be purchased from the nurserymen, so that the newcomer who sets out an orchard may begin to gather fruit by the fifth or sixth year. When first set out, and for some years afterward, the trees are irrigated by making rings of earth around them, which are connected with small ditches, through which the water is distributed to each tree. Or, where the ground is nearly level, the whole surface is flooded from time to time as required. From 309 trees, twelve years old from the seed, DeBarth Shorb says that in the season of 1874 he obtained an average of $20.50 per tree, or $1435 per acre, over and above cost of transportation to San Francisco, commission on sales, etc. He considers $1000 per acre a fair average at present prices, after the trees have reached the age of twelve years. The average price throughout the county for the last five years has been about $20 or $25 per thousand; and, inasmuch as the area adapted to orange culture is limited, it is hoped that this price may not greatly fall for many years.

The lemon and lime are also cultivated here to some extent, and considerable attention is now being given to the Florida banana, and the olive, almond, and English walnut. But the orange interest heavily overshadows every other, while vines have of late years been so unremunerative they are seldom mentioned.

This is preeminently a fruit land, but the fame of its productions has in some way far outrun the results that have as yet been attained. Experiments have been tried, and good beginnings made, but the number of really valuable, well-established groves is scarce as one to fifty, compared with the newly planted. Many causes, however, have combined of late to give the business a wonderful impetus, and new orchards are being made every day, while the few old groves, aglow with golden fruit, are the burning and shining lights that direct and energize the sanguine newcomers.

After witnessing the bad effect of homelessness, developed to so destructive an extent in California, it would reassure every lover of his race to see the hearty home-building going on here and the blessed contentment that naturally follows it. Travel-worn pioneers, who have been tossed about like boulders in flood- time, are thronging hither as to a kind of terrestrial heaven, resolved to rest. They build, and plant, and settle, and so come under natural influences. When a man plants a tree he plants himself. Every root is an anchor, over which he rests with grateful interest, and becomes sufficiently calm to feel the joy of living. He necessarily makes the acquaintance of the sun and the sky. Favorite trees fill his mind, and, while tending them like children, and accepting the benefits they bring, he becomes himself a benefactor. He sees down through the brown common ground teeming with colored fruits, as if it were transparent, and learns to bring them to the surface. What he wills he can raise by true enchantment. With slips and rootlets, his magic wands, they appear at his bidding. These, and the seeds he plants, are his prayers, and, by them brought into right relations with God, he works grander miracles every day than ever were written.

The Pasadena Colony, located on the southwest corner of the well-known San Pasqual Rancho, is scarce three years old, but it is growing rapidly, like a pet tree, and already forms one of the best contributions to culture yet accomplished in the county. it now numbers about sixty families, mostly drawn from the better class of vagabond pioneers, who, during their rolling-stone days have managed to gather sufficient gold moss to purchase from ten to forty acres of land. They are perfectly hilarious in their newly found life, work like ants in a sunny noonday, and, looking far into the future, hopefully count their orange chicks ten years or more before they are hatched; supporting themselves in the meantime on the produce of a few acres of alfalfa, together with garden vegetables and the quick- growing fruits, such as figs, grapes, apples, etc., the whole reinforced by the remaining dollars of their land purchase money. There is nothing more remarkable in the character of the colony than the literary and scientific taste displayed. The conversation of most I have met here is seasoned with a smack of mental ozone, Attic salt, which struck me as being rare among the tillers of California soil. People of taste and money in search of a home would do well to prospect the resources of this aristocratic little colony.

If we look now at these southern valleys in general, it will appear at once that with all their advantages they lie beyond the reach of poor settlers, not only on account of the high price of irrigable land - one hundred dollars per acre and upwards -but because of the scarcity of labor. A settler with three or four thousand dollars would be penniless after paying for twenty acres of orange land and building ever so plain a house, while many years would go by ere his trees yielded an income adequate to the maintenance of his family.

Nor is there anything sufficiently reviving in the fine climate to form a reliable inducement for very sick people. Most of this class, from all I can learn, come here only to die, and surely it is better to die comfortably at home, avoiding the thousand discomforts of travel, at a time when they are so hard to bear. It is indeed pitiful to see so many invalids, already on the verge of the grave, making a painful way to quack climates, hoping to change age to youth, and the darkening twilight of their day to morning. No such health-fountain has been found, and this climate, fine as it is, seems, like most others, to be adapted for well people only. From all I could find out regarding its influence upon patients suffering from pulmonary difficulties, it is seldom beneficial to any great extent in advanced cases. The cold sea-winds are less fatal to this class of sufferers than the corresponding winds further north, but, notwithstanding they are tempered on their passage inland over warm, dry ground, they are still more or less injurious.

The summer climate of the fir and pine woods of the Sierra Nevada would, I think, be found infinitely more reviving; but because these woods have not been advertised like patent medicines, few seem to think of the spicy, vivifying influences that pervade their fountain freshness and beauty.


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