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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 8 - Chapter XII. Nevada Farms


[Written at Ward, Nevada, in September, 1878. [Editor.]

To the farmer who comes to this thirsty land from beneath rainy skies, Nevada seems one vast desert, all sage and sand, hopelessly irredeemable now and forever. And this, under present conditions, is severely true. For notwithstanding it has gardens, grain fields, and hayfields generously productive, these compared with the and stretches of valley and plain, as beheld in general views from the mountain-tops, are mere specks lying inconspicuously here and there, in out-of-the-way places, often thirty or forty miles apart.

In leafy regions, blessed with copious rains, we learn to measure the productive capacity of the soil by its natural vegetation. But this rule is almost wholly inapplicable here, for, notwithstanding its savage nakedness, scarce at all veiled by a sparse growth of sage and linosyris, the desert soil of the Great Basin is as rich in the elements that in rainy regions rise and ripen into food as that of any other State in the Union. The rocks of its numerous mountain-ranges have been thoroughly crushed and ground by glaciers, thrashed and vitalized by the sun, and sifted and outspread in lake- basins by powerful torrents that attended the breaking-up of the glacial period, as if in every way Nature had been making haste to prepare the land for the husbandman. Soil, climate, topographical conditions, all that the most exacting could demand, are present, but one thing, water, is wanting. The present rainfall would be wholly inadequate for agriculture, even if it were advantageously distributed over the lowlands, while in fact the greater portion is poured out on the heights in sudden and violent thunder-showers called "cloud-bursts," the waters of which are fruitlessly swallowed up in sandy gulches and deltas a few minutes after their first boisterous appearance. The principal mountain-chains, trending nearly north and south, parallel with the Sierra and the Wahsatch, receive a good deal of snow during winter, but no great masses are stored up as fountains for large perennial streams capable of irrigating considerable areas. Most of it is melted before the end of May and absorbed by moraines and gravelly taluses, which send forth small rills that slip quietly down the upper canons through narrow strips of flowery verdure, most of them sinking and vanishing before they reach the base of their fountain ranges. Perhaps not one in ten of the whole number flow out into the open plains, not a single drop reaches the sea, and only a few are large enough to irrigate more than one farm of moderate size.

It is upon these small outfiowing rills that most of the Nevada ranches are located, lying countersunk beneath the general level, just where the mountains meet the plains, at an average elevation of five thousand feet above sea-level. All the cereals and garden vegetables thrive here, and yield bountiful crops. Fruit, however, has been, as yet, grown successfully in only a few specially favored spots.

Another distinct class of ranches are found sparsely distributed along the lowest portions of the plains, where the ground is kept moist by springs, or by narrow threads of moving water called rivers, fed by some one or more of the most vigorous of the mountain rills that have succeeded in making their escape from the mountains. These are mostly devoted to the growth of wild hay, though in some the natural meadow grasses and sedges have been supplemented by timothy and alfalfa; and where the soil is not too strongly impregnated with salts, some grain is raised. Reese River Valley, Big Smoky Valley, and White River Valley offer fair illustrations of this class. As compared with the foothill ranches, they are larger and less inconspicuous, as they lie in the wide, unshadowed levels of the plains - wavy- edged flecks of green in a wilderness of gray.

Still another class equally well defined, both as to distribution and as to products, is restricted to that portion of western Nevada and the eastern border of California which lies within the redeeming influences of California waters. Three of the Sierra rivers descend from their icy fountains into the desert like angels of mercy to bless Nevada. These are the Walker, Carson, and Truckee; and in the valleys through which they flow are found by far the most extensive hay and grain fields within the bounds of the State. Irrigating streams are led off right and left through innumerable channels, and the sleeping ground, starting at once into action, pours forth its wealth without stint.

But notwithstanding the many porous fields thus fertilized, considerable portions of the waters of all these rivers continue to reach their old deathbeds in the desert, indicating that in these salt valleys there still is room for coming farmers. In middle and eastern Nevada, however, every nil that I have seen in a ride of three thousand miles, at all available for irrigation, has been claimed and put to use.

It appears, therefore, that under present conditions the limit of agricultural development in the dry basin between the Sierra and the Wahsatch has been already approached, a result caused not alone by natural restrictions as to the area capable of development, but by the extraordinary stimulus furnished by the mines to agricultural effort. The gathering of gold and silver, hay and barley, have gone on together. Most of the mid-valley bogs and meadows, and foothill rills capable of irrigating from ten to fifty acres, were claimed more than twenty years ago.

A majority of these pioneer settlers are plodding Dutchmen, living content in the back lanes and valleys of Nature; but the high price of all kinds of farm products tempted many of even the keen Yankee prospectors, made wise in California, to bind themselves down to this sure kind of mining. The wildest of wild hay, made chiefly of carices and rushes, was sold at from two to three hundred dollars per ton on ranches. The same kind of hay is still worth from fifteen to forty dollars per ton, according to the distance from mines and comparative security from competition. Barley and oats are from forty to one hundred dollars a ton, while all sorts of garden products find ready sale at high prices.

With rich mine markets and salubrious climate, the Nevada farmer can make more money by loose, ragged methods than the same class of farmers in any other State I have yet seen, while the almost savage isolation in which they live seems grateful to them. Even in those cases where the advent of neighbors brings no disputes concerning water-rights and ranges, they seem to prefer solitude, most of them having been elected from adventurers from California - the pioneers of pioneers. The passing stranger, however, is always welcomed and supplied with the best the home affords, and around the fireside, while he smokes his pipe, very little encouragement is required to bring forth the story of the farmer's life - hunting, mining, fighting, in the early Indian times, etc. Only the few who are married hope to' return to California to educate their children, and the ease with which money is made renders the fulfillment of these hopes comparatively sure.

After dwelling thus long on the farms of this dry wonderland, my readers may be led to fancy them of more importance as compared with the unbroken fields of Nature than they really are. Making your way along any of the wide gray valleys that stretch from north to south, seldom will your eye be interrupted by a single mark of cultivation. The smooth lake- like ground sweeps on indefinitely, growing more and more dim in the glowing sunshine, while a mountain-range from eight to ten thousand feet high bounds the view on either hand. No singing water, no green sod, no moist nook to rest in - mountain and valley alike naked and shadowless in the sun-glare; and though, perhaps, traveling a well-worn road to a gold or silver mine, and supplied with repeated instructions, you can scarce hope to find any human habitation from day to day, so vast and impressive is the hot, dusty, alkaline wildness.

But after riding some thirty or forty miles, and while the sun may be sinking behind the mountains, you come suddenly upon signs of cultivation. Clumps of willows indicate water, and water indicates a farm. Approaching more nearly, you discover what may be a patch of barley spread out unevenly along the bottom of a flood-bed, broken perhaps, and rendered less distinct by boulder-piles and the fringing willows of a stream. Speedily you can confidently say that the grain-patch is surely such; its ragged bounds become clear; a sand-roofed cabin comes to view littered with sun-cracked implements and with an outer girdle of potato, cabbage, and alfalfa patches.

The immense expanse of mountain-girt valleys, on the edges of which these hidden ranches lie, make even the largest fields seem comic in size. The smallest, however, are by no means insignificant in a pecuniary view. On the east side of the Toyabe Range I discovered a jolly Irishman who informed me that his income from fifty acres, reinforced by a sheep-range on the adjacent hills, was from seven to nine thousand dollars per annum. His irrigating brook is about four feet wide and eight inches deep, flowing about two miles per hour.

On Duckwater Creek, Nye County, Mr. Irwin has reclaimed a tule swamp several hundred acres in extent, which is now chiefly devoted to alfalfa. On twenty-five acres he claims to have raised this year thirty-seven tons of barley. Indeed, I have not yet noticed a meager crop of any kind in the State. Fruit alone is conspicuously absent.

On the California side of the Sierra grain will not ripen at a much greater elevation than four thousand feet above sea-level. The valleys of Nevada lie at a height of from four to six thousand feet, and both wheat and barley ripen, wherever water may be had, up to seven thousand feet. The harvest, of course, is later as the elevation increases. In the valleys of the Carson and Walker Rivers, four thousand feet above the sea, the grain harvest is about a month later than in California. In Reese River Valley, six thousand feet, it begins near the end of August. Winter grain ripens somewhat earlier, while occasionally one meets a patch of barley in some cool, high-lying caņon that will not mature before the middle of September.

Unlike California, Nevada will probably be always richer in gold and silver than in grain. Utah farmers hope to change the climate of the east side of the basin by prayer, and point to the recent rise in the waters of the Great Salt Lake as a beginning of moister times. But Nevada's only hope, in the way of any considerable increase in agriculture, is from artesian wells. The cleft and porous character of the mountain rocks, tilted at every angle, and the presence of springs bursting forth in the valleys far from the mountain sources, indicate accumulations of water from the melting snows that have escaped evaporation, which, no doubt, may in many places now barren be brought to the surface in flowing wells. The experiment has been tried on a small scale with encouraging success. But what is now wanted seems to be the boring of a few specimen wells of a large size out in the main valleys. The encouragement that successful experiments of this kind would give to emigration seeking farms forms an object well worthy the attention of the Government. But all that California farmers in the grand central valley require is the preservation of the forests and the wise distribution of the glorious abundance of water from the snow stored on the west flank of the Sierra.

Whether any considerable area of these sage plains will ever thus be made to blossom in grass and wheat, experience will show. But in the mean time Nevada is beautiful in her wildness, and if tillers of the soil can thus be brought to see that possibly Nature may have other uses even for rich soil besides the feeding of human beings, then will these foodless "deserts" have taught a fine lesson.


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