Chronicles of America 

Deserts of America

It is often said that America has no real deserts. This is true in the sense that there are no regions such as are found in Asia and Africa where one can travel a hundred miles at a stretch and scarcely see a sign of vegetation-nothing but barren gravel, graceful wavy sand dunes, hard wind-swept clay, or still harder rock salt broken into rough blocks with upturned edges. In the broader sense of the term, however, America has an abundance of deserts--regions which bear a thin cover of bushy vegetation but are too dry for agriculture without irrigation. On the north such deserts begin in southern Canada where a dry region abounding in small salt lakes lies at the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains. In the United States the deserts lie almost wholly between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountain ranges, which keep out any moisture that might come from either the west or the east. Beginning on the north with the sagebrush plateau of southern Washington, the desert expands to a width of seven hundred miles in the gray, sage-covered basins of Nevada and Utah. In southern California and Arizona the sage-brush gives place to smaller forms like the saltbush, and the desert assumes a sterner aspect. Next comes the cactus desert extending from Arizona far south into Mexico. One of the notable features of the desert is the extreme heat of certain portions. Close to the Nevada border in southern California, Death Valley, 250 feet below sea-level, is the hottest place in America. There alone among the American regions familiar to the writer does one have that feeling of intense, overpowering aridity which prevails so often in the deserts of Arabia and Central Asia. Some years ago a Weather Bureau thermometer was installed in Death Valley at Furnace Creek, where the only flowing water in more than a hundred miles supports a depressing little ranch. There one or two white men, helped by a few Indians, raise alfalfa, which they sell at exorbitant prices to deluded prospectors searching for riches which they never find. Though the terrible heat ruins the health of the white men in a year or two, so that they have to move away, they have succeeded in keeping a thermometer record for some years. No other properly exposed, out-of-door thermometer in the United States, or perhaps in the world, is so familiar with a temperature of 100 F. or more. During the period of not quite fifteen hundred days from the spring of 1911 to May, 1915, a maximum temperature of 100 F. or more was reached on five hundred and forty-eight days, or more than one-third of the time. On July 10, 1913, the mercury rose to 134 F. and touched the top of the tube. How much higher it might have gone no one can tell. That day marks the limit of temperature yet reached in this country according to official records. In the summer of 1914 there was one night when the thermometer dropped only to 114 F., having been 128 F. at noon. The branches of a peppertree whose roots had been freshly watered wilted as a flower wilts when broken from the stalk.

East and south of Death Valley lies the most interesting section of the American desert, the so-called succulent desert of southern Arizona and northern Mexico. There in greatest profusion grow the cacti, perhaps the latest and most highly specialized of all the great families of plants. There occur such strange scenes as the "forests" of suhuaros, whose giant columns have already been described. Their beautiful crowns of large white flowers produce a fruit which is one of the mainstays of the Papagos and other Indians of the regions. In this same region the yucca is highly developed, and its tall stalks of white or greenish flowers make the desert appear like a flower garden. In fact this whole desert, thanks to light rains in summer as well as winter, appears extraordinarily green and prosperous. Its fair appearance has deceived many a poor settler who has vainly tried to cultivate it.

Farther south the deserts of America are largely confined to plateaus like those of Mexico and Peru or to basins sheltered on all sides from rain-bearing winds. In such basins the suddenness of the transition from one type of vegetation to another is astonishing. In Guatemala, for instance, the coast is bordered by thick jungle which quickly gives place to magnificent rain forest a few miles inland. This continues two or three score miles from the coast until a point is reached where mountains begin to obstruct the rain-bearing trade-winds. At once the rain forest gives place to jungle; in a few miles jungle in its turn is replaced by scrub; and shortly the scrub degenerates to mere desert bush. Then in another fifty miles one rises to the main plateau passing once more through scrub. This time the scrub gives place to grass-lands diversified by deciduous trees and pines which give the country a distinctly temperate aspect. On such plateaus the chief civilization of the tropical Latin-American countries now centers. In the past, however, the plateaus were far surpassed by the Maya lowlands of Yucatan and Guatemala.

We believe deserts are places where the plants are of few kinds and not much crowded. As a matter of fact, an ordinary desert supports a much greater variety of plants than does either a forest or a prairie. The reason is simple. Every desert contains wet spots near springs or in swamps. Such places abound with all sorts of water-loving plants. The deserts also contain a few valleys where the larger streams keep the ground moist at all seasons. In such places the variety of trees is as great as in many forests. Moreover almost all deserts have short periods of abundant moisture.

At such times the seeds of all sorts of little annual plants, including grasses, daisies, lupines, and a host of others, sprout quickly, and give rise to a carpet of vegetation as varied and beautiful as that of the prairie. Thus the desert has not only its own peculiar bushes and succulents but many of the products of vegetation in swamps, grasslands, and forests. Though much of the ground is bare in the desert, the plants are actually crowded together as closely as possible. The showers of such regions are usually so brief that they merely wet the surface. At a depth of a foot or more the soil of many deserts never becomes moist from year's end to year's end. It is useless for plants to send their roots deep down under such circumstances, for they might not reach water for a hundred feet. Their only recourse is to spread horizontally. The farther they spread, the more water they can absorb after the scanty showers. Hence the plants of the desert throttle one another by extending their roots horizontally, just as those of the forest kill one another by springing rapidly upward and shutting out the light.

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