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Life at Puget Sound: With Sketches of Travel in Washington Territory, British Columbia, Oregon and California Part 13

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We are only an hour's ride by cars and steamer from San Francisco. It is hard to believe it, it is so wholly different a place. Before us is a field of blue nemophilas. To see them waving in the wind, recalled to me what Emerson said about its restoring any one to reason and faith to live in the midst of nature,--so many trivial cares and anxieties disappeared at the sight of it. On the other side, the water rolls softly up to our very door. We bathe in it, floating about at will in warm or cold currents.

The first morning after we moved here, I noticed two small hills and holes, newly dug, beside our door. A curious little head thrust itself out of one, and two small eyes peered at me. They belonged to one of the little underground creatures, called gophers, that we have all about us.

They eat roots, and it is almost impossible to cultivate any thing where they are. They appeared to have come just because they saw that the house was going to be occupied. I think they like human company, only they want to keep their own distance. They and the lizards quite animate the landscape. The gopher's wise, old-fas.h.i.+oned looking head is quite a contrast to that of the lizard, with its eager, inquisitive expression.

There is always a little twisted-up head and bright eye, or a sharp little tail, appearing and disappearing, wherever we look. They spend their whole time in coming and going. Their purpose seems to be accomplished, if they succeed in seeing us, and getting safely away.

The wagoner who moved us over from San Francisco made some commiserating remarks concerning me, as he deposited the last load of furniture; saying that it was a good place to raise children, but would be very solitary for the woman.

It is a lonely place here, but the water is constant company. As I write, the only sound I can hear is the gentle roll of waves, and now and then an under sound that seems to come from far-off caverns,--so soft and so deep. I never lived so close to the water before, so that its changes made a part of my every-day life. Even when I am so busy that I do not look at it, I feel how the tide is creeping in, filling up all the little inlets, and making all waste places bright and full.

MAY 10, 1878.

We made inquiries of some of the old residents, in reference to the wind, before we decided to come here; but people who live in half-settled places, I find, are very apt to misrepresent,--they are so eager for neighbors. How much wiser we should have been to have consulted the trees!--they show so plainly that they have fought all their lives against a strong sea-wind, bending low, and twisting themselves about, trying to get away from it.

We find that where we live is not Alameda proper, but is called the Encinal District,--_encinal_ being the Spanish for _oak_. I do not know whether they mean by it the old dusky evergreens, or the poison oak which is every where their inseparable companion. Soon after we arrived, we found ourselves severely affected by it. It was then in flower, and we attributed its strength to that circ.u.mstance; but every change it pa.s.ses through re-enforces its life,--when it ripens its berries, when its leaves turn bright, or when the autumn rains begin. Every thing suits it; moisture or dryness, whichever prevails, appears to be its element. Th.o.r.eau, who liked to see weeds overrun flowers, would have rejoiced in its vigor. We never touch it; but any one sensitive to its influence cannot pa.s.s near it, nor breathe the air where it grows, without being affected by it. Alameda seems hardly ready for human occupancy yet, unless something effectual can be done to exterminate it. We often see superficial means taken, like burning it down to the level of the earth; but what short-sighted warfare is that which gives new strength after a brief interval! On one account I forgive it many injuries,--that it furnishes our only bright autumn foliage, turning into most vivid and beautiful shades of red. Except for the poison oak, and a few of the long, narrow leaves of the Eucalyptus, that hang like party-colored ribbons on the trees, we have no change in the foliage between summer and winter; there are always the same old dingy evergreen oaks everywhere about us.

There are some cultivated grounds and gardens in the neighborhood, but everywhere interspersed among them are wild fields. The trees have a determined look, as they stand and hold possession of them. The cultivated ones that border the streets, in contrast with them, appear quite tame. I find myself thinking of the latter sometimes as if they were artificial, and only these old aborigines were real; they have so much more character and expression. I heard a lady criticising Alameda, saying that there were so many trees, you could not see the place. We have a general feeling, all the time, as if we were camping out, and everybody else were camping out too. The trees are scattered everywhere; and it is quite the fas.h.i.+on, in this humble part of the town, for people to live in tents while they build their own houses.

These trees are of a very social kind, bending low, and spreading their branches wide, so that any one could almost live in them just as they are. They are a great contrast to the firs which we had wholly around us on Puget Sound. They have strange fancies for twisting and turning. I have never seen two alike, nor one that grew up straight. It is not because they are so yielding,--they are as stiff and rugged as they can be,--it must be their own wild nature that makes them like to grow in strange, irregular ways. Sometimes, when I look at great fields of them, I feel as if I were in the midst of a storm, every thing has such a wind-swept look, although it is perfectly still at the time. One day I came upon a body of them, that appeared as if they had all been stopped by some sudden enchantment, in the midst of running away. Often we see trees that look as if they had come out of the wars, with great clefts in their sides, and holes through them. Their foliage is very slight; there is very little to conceal their muscular look. It seems as if we could feel in them the will that tightened all the fibres.

MAY 15, 1878.

The great event to us lately has been the advent of the baby lizards.

The streets are all laid with planks, clean and sunny. The lizards delight in them, they are so bright and warm. I like to see, as I walk along, these curious little bodies, in old-fas.h.i.+oned scale armor, stopping and looking about, as if they were drinking in the comfort of the suns.h.i.+ne, just as I am. Although they stop a great deal, it is very difficult to catch one, for their movements are like a flash. I did succeed once in holding one long enough to examine his beautiful steel-blue bands. The babies are as delicate as if they were made of gla.s.s, and as light and airy as if they belonged to fairy-land. They run, all the time, backward and forward, just for the pleasure of moving, over the sidewalk, and under it.

When I read in the papers, every week, about the people who kill themselves in San Francisco,--and they generally say that they do it because there does not seem to be any thing worth living for,--I wonder if it would not make a difference to them if they lived in the country, and saw how entertaining the world looks to the lively little creatures about us, who think it worth while to move so quickly, and look well about on every side, for fear they may miss seeing something.

JULY 2, 1878.

When we first came here in the spring, and found the ground all blue and yellow and white with blossoms, I thought how interested I should be, to watch the succession of flowers. But that was all. In these dry places, we have only _spring_ flowers. I did, though, the other day, see something red in the distance, and, going to it, found a clump of thistles, almost as tall as I am, of a bright crimson color. The fields are very dry now, and it seems to be the season of the snakes. Under the serpent-like branches, we find nothing but the cast-off skins of the snakes.

There are some curious old men here who tend cattle, sitting under the trees, with their knitting. I think they are Germans. They do not appear to understand when I speak to them. I thought they might be "broke miners," who are generally the most curious people here-abouts.

One of these "broke miners" is employed to take care of two little children near us, whose mother is dead. He dresses them with their clothes hind-side before, and liable at any moment to drop entirely off; but seems to succeed very well in amusing them, quilting up his dishcloths into dolls for them, and transforming their garments into kites. His failing seems to be that a kind of dreamy mood is apt to steal over him, in which he wanders on the beach, regardless of hours; and the master of the house, coming home, has to hunt high and low for him, to come and prepare the meal. On the last bright moonlight night, he wholly disappeared.

OCTOBER 15, 1878.

We have finally been driven off by the wind from our cottage on the bay.

Margie has been so accustomed to moving, that she takes it as easily as an Indian child would. A few days before we left, she gave me an account of the moving of the man opposite, which was all accomplished before breakfast in the morning. First, she said, he put all his things on a wagon, and then took his house to pieces, and put that on; and then he and the wagoner sat down and drank a pot of coffee together, and started off, on their load.

We did not take our house with us, but found a rather dilapidated one, in what is called Old Alameda. It is quite attractive, from the trees and vines about it, and the s.p.a.cious garden in which it stands. It is owned by an old German woman, who lives next to us. She is rich now, and owns the whole block, but still holds to her old peasant customs, and wears wooden shoes. Opposite is a French family, who go off every year to a vineyard, to make wine; and, next to them, a poor Spanish family, who carry round mussels to sell.

MARCH 3, 1879.

We have had a real winter; not that it was very cold or snowy,--that it never is here,--but so excessively rainy as to keep us a good deal in-doors. The gra.s.s grew up in the house, and waved luxuriantly round the edges of the rooms. The oak-trees surprised us by bursting out into fresh young green, though we had not noticed that they had lost any of their hard, evergreen leaves.

APRIL 10, 1879.

While we were crossing the ferry between San Francisco and Oakland one day, a peculiar-looking person appeared on the deck of the boat, who saluted the a.s.sembled company in a most impressive manner. He was a large man, serene and self-possessed, with rather a handsome face. On his broad shoulders he wore ma.s.sive epaulets, a sword hung by his side, and his hat was crowned with nodding peac.o.c.k feathers. I noticed that he pa.s.sed the gates where the tickets are delivered, unquestioned, giving only a courteous salute, instead of the customary pa.s.sport. Upon inquiry, I learned that he was the "Emperor Norton, ruler of California," according to his fancy; and that he pa.s.sed free wherever he chose to go,--theatres opening their doors to him, railroads and steamers conveying him without charge. He was an old pioneer, distraught by misfortunes, and humored in this hallucination by the people. He was in the habit of ordering daily telegraphic despatches sent to the different crowned heads of Europe. He had once been known to draw his sword upon his washer-woman, because she presumed to demand payment for his was.h.i.+ng; whereupon the Pioneer Society, learning of the affair, took upon itself the charge of meeting all little expenses of this nature.

The Californians have a jolly, good-natured way of regarding idiosyncrasies, and a kind of lavish generosity in the distribution of their alms, quite different from the careful and judicious method of the Eastern people. We hear that some of the early miners, pa.s.sing along the streets of San Francisco, just after it had been devastated by one of the terrible fires that swept every thing before them, and seeing a lone woman sitting and weeping among the ruins, flung twenty-dollar gold pieces and little packages of gold dust at her, until all her losses were made good, and she had a handsome overplus to start anew.

I noticed in Oakland a man who drew the whole length of his body along the sidewalk, like an enormous reptile, moving slowly by the help of his hands, unable to get along in any other way, holding up a bright, sunny, sailor face. On his back was a pack of newspapers, from which men helped themselves, and flung him generally a half or a quarter of a dollar, always refusing the change. That such a man could do business in the streets, was a credit to the kindliness of the people incommoded by him. I hardly think he would have been tolerated in New York or Boston; but his pleasant face and fast-disappearing papers showed that he was not made uncomfortably aware of the inconvenience he caused.

One day, while waiting at the ferry, I saw two men employed in a way that attracted the attention of every one who pa.s.sed. One of them, who had in his hand a pair of crutches, ascended some steps, and, crossing them, nailed them to the wall, close to the gateway where the pa.s.sengers pa.s.sed to the boat. The other arranged some light drapery in the form of wings above them. Below they put a small table, with the photograph of a little newsboy on it. All the business-men, the every-day pa.s.sengers crossing to their homes on the Oakland side, appeared to understand it, and quietly laid some piece of money beside the picture.

It seems that it was the stand of a little crippled boy who had for a year or two furnished the daily papers to the pa.s.sengers pa.s.sing to the boat. The money was for his funeral expenses, and to help his family. It was very characteristic of the Californians to take this dramatic and effective way of collecting a fund. Men who would have been very likely to meet a subscription-paper with indifference, on being appealed to in this poetic manner, with no word spoken, only seeing the discarded crutches and the white wings above, with moist eyes laid their little tribute below, as if it were a satisfaction to do so. I thought how the little newsboy's face would have brightened if he could have seen it, and hoped that he might not be beyond all knowledge of it now.

We have had an opportunity to observe some fine-looking Chinamen who have been at work on the railroad all winter opposite our house. There are a hundred or more of them. We understand that they are from the rural districts of China. They are large, strong, and healthy, quite different from the miserable, stunted, sallow-faced creatures from the cities, of whom we see so many, showing that this inferiority is not inherent in the race, but is the effect of unfavorable circ.u.mstances.

MAY 15, 1879.

Day before yesterday was the anniversary of the birthday of the Chinese G.o.ddess k.u.m Fa, or Golden Flower, guardian of children. She is wors.h.i.+pped chiefly by women; but some of the workers on the railroad begged branches of the feathery yellow acacia, which is now in bloom, to carry with them to the temple in San Francisco. They are so unpoetic in many ways, that we should hardly expect them to be so fond of flowers; but they mourn very much if the bulbs which they keep growing in stones and water in their houses in the winter do not open for the new year.

The moon and the flowers they enjoy more than any thing else. In many things they are children, and like what children like. The moon holds a very important place to them, and the dates of the new year and all their festivals are determined by its changes. We used to see one of our boys standing, sometimes for hours together, with his arms folded, gazing into the moonlit sky. When questioned as to what he was doing, he said he was "looking at the garden in the moon," and listening to "hear the star-men sing."

This boy appeared to be a s.h.i.+n wors.h.i.+pper. He made many drawings representing these spirits, with astonis.h.i.+ng facility and artistic skill, but, when pressed to explain them, said it was not good to speak much about them. Some rode upon clouds; some thrust their heads out of the water, or danced upon the backs of fishes; some looked out of caves among the hills. There were serene, peaceful ones, with flowers or musical instruments in their hands; others were fierce and hostile, brandis.h.i.+ng weapons, and exploding bombs. Everywhere was the wildest freedom and grace, and apparently much symbolic meaning which we could not understand.

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