Woman in Levi's

Eulalia Bourne

Chapter 9

Caring For The Green

The morning Charlie and Paul came to make the cement slab in front of my kitchen door, I was busy doctoring cows at the corral.

"We'll go ahead and make the forms," Charlie said.

When I returned, Charlie and Paul were down on their hunkers staking out the neatly arranged boards. Suddenly I gasped to see the tall green plant that had been growing to the left of the door now uprooted and leaning over against the garden fence.

"Oh! You pulled up my little tree!" I cried, and squatted down at once to begin digging like a dog at the rubble Charlie had shoveled into the tree hole.

"Why," he protested, "it's just a castor bean!"

It came up about a year ago," I said. "Planted itself right where I wanted a green something. I kept it from freezing last winter. I put boxes around it to break the wind, and on cold nights I covered it with gunnysacks. Every morning I pour a coffeepotful of water on it"

As I spoke I filled the cleared hole with water from the hose and took up the manhandled castor bean, its straight six-foot stalk topped by a cluster of dull green leaves now doomed to wither, and replanted it in hope it might start living again. Charlie knelt and arranged the roots and patted the earth over them. He was sorry. But to him it was still only an old castor bean.

Charlie lived in town where organized society has put water and soil where Nature didn't, so that residents of the community can mask the desert in green and have their pick of vegetation. Also, he was a member of the axe-wielding sex who whacked down the virgin forests of North America without a qualm of conscience.

"I never thought you'd care about a castor bean," he apologized.

"They say they keep away flies," I said, giving my scorned plant another dash of water. I didn't hold it against Charlie. He just didn't understand the way I looked at it.

Civilization doesn't cut much ice on my little outfit. In this under-watered area of rock-bound ridges and sunbaked cliffs and gorges, any vegetable thing taking up root-rights must depend on moisture from the stingy skies of the horse latitudes. Any green thing that isn't actually obnoxious is welcome. Charlie did wonder at the trouble I took to cultivate Johnson grass and Bermuda grass, both constantly exterminated by dirt farmers. I like them because, if given water, they grow luxuriantly even in an inch or two of soil covering solid congIomerate. Another advantage is that they'll keep an old sore-eyed cow in good flesh, and when she is gone they'll come right back again.

Obviously this fondness for low-life plants marks me as a rather desperate member of the sex that clutched geranium slips and rose cuttings to its bosom through the terrors of crossing the Sea Of Darkness in windjammers; and later nourished a few sprigs of green things across the western plains in covered wagons. In this climate of seven to nine months of growing season almost any plant thrives if given water.

In my present location of many disadvantages, I do have water. (When I moved in, a neighbor said: "You have worlds of water." )

The biggest disadvantage here is that this place isn't Los Alisos, my homestead, dear to me because I built it up myself from the grass roots (there wasn't a nail or a piece of board or a scrap of any man-made material when I took it over) and made a tree-shaded little home of dramatic beauty on the rocky, flat-topped slope overlooking the sheer 60-feet high walls of the sandy canyon. It broke my heart to leave it. In a recent Cattle-Growers' Newsletter I read a letter written by a ranch woman who had lived in the same house for 64 years. That's the kind of history I wish I could have had.

The Old Vaquero called the Pepper Sauce Place Rancho Sal si Puedes (Get-Out-If-You-Can Ranch) because the road hazard was so formidable. (It still is. Although it became a part of an affluent ranch to the west and the owners bulldozed two roads into the rough canyon and spent thousands of dollars remodeling and decorating the main cabin and the guest house, no one has lived there since I left. It is too inaccessible. The bulldozed roads wash out as fast as they are made; and nobody but me ever attempted to navigate the deep sand in the canyon. )

I stayed on with the help of my "three old men," my good sister Ruby after she was widowed, an occasional hired hand, and some of my pupils who came to visit as well as labor.

I stayed on even after that sad day for many cows on the range when Progress took over the San Pedro River Valley. A big mining company, backed by a big government loan, began pouring millions of dollars into the cholla flats and rocky ridges and greasewood mesas of our back country as well as into the barley and alfalfa fields and mesquite montes (thickets) of the bottomland. Giant operations began groping for ore in a copper-bearing mass two thousand feet underground of a vastness guaranteed to last for fifty years. Housing projects sprang up. Artesian wells were drilled. Finally, a brand-new twenty-million dollar town, complete with electricity, plumbing, and landscaping, came into being in the midst of my most northern cholla sections. That was how Progress got me. I resisted. I said no for three years to the sharp dealers sent out to handle me. But in a contest between a foolish woman, up to her neck in poverty, and a multi-million-dollar corporation, is there any doubt who wins? They were patient. They investigated me. One day a high-priced lawyer who had kissed the blarney stone brought me over to see this place which the company had bought three years previously and let the grass grow up. It looked too rough. I couldn't see my old cows climbing up and down the funnellike sides of this wide, far-off canyon. Then he took me down to the spring. It is a wonderful spring, the best, according to oldtimers, in all these mountains. I sat there looking at the clear stream which rippled along and jumped over the wall of the concrete cistern that spans the creek and found it hard to tear myself away. I was bewitched. My well at home, which we had deepened twice over the years and dug a tunnel out under the creekbed for storage, had only six inches of water in it. And the Uncle and I were suckers for trees-he for fruit trees and I for shade trees. Under the spell of the lovely water I signed a scrap of paper that didn't seem to have much importance but turned out to be as binding as if it bore the great seal of the nation. No complaints. I did not get a good price, but I got a fair price. And the magic spring is mine.

The company kindly helped transplant my outfit root and branch, lock, stock, and barrel, to my present smaller holdings in the rugged Galiuro Mountains, forty miles across the Valley from my homestead. When the sorrowful move was made I clung with maternal tenacity to my cows. And my horses. And my dogs. And my three old men. The year before, I had bought a new pickup. Ruby had the old one. I bought a new Jeep pickup which was driven by hired cowboy. These three little trucks crawled like ants across the Valley for five months. We carted over first the cows with baby calves. Then the heavy cows soon to calve. The rest of the cattle were brought over in a three-day drive with arrangements made to corral them at night at ranches along the river. We tore down corrals, and rebuilt them over here. We dug out windows and doors because the agent who was in charge of dealing with me said that the company was interested only in the land. "You can take the house if you want to," he said. "But you have a big old stone house over there you can fix up and take in boarders if you want to."

It isn't a stone house. It has a stone foundation to a height, on two sides, of about four feet. The adobes it is made of had been plastered to look like cement. The builder, who at the time was superintendent of the mine then flourishing two miles up the canyon, had in mind a Mexican ranchhouse. In a great square he built a series of box-like rooms enclosing a cement-floored patio which was almost entirely roofed over and was broken into by a twelve-by-thirty-two foot living room. He suffered from hayfever, so he left only a small square of dirt in the patio and there planted an arbor vitae. Mary Ann, his daughter, told me that when they lived here it was a pretty, round green ornamental plant barely reaching to the roof. When the owner died and the mine dosed down, the family scattered. A neighboring rancher bought the land and water (everything was cheap in those days) and the house was left to vandals. For ten years the abandoned old house was a target for men and boys with destruction as their aim. They carried off everything that wasn't nailed down: cupboards, doors, windowscreens; they couldn't dislodge the steel-casement windows so they shot out the glass panes.

The first view I had of the devastated place repelled me. It looked like the ruins of an old fort left to the ravages of time. It was sun-beaten, stark, bare as the ridge of Gila conglomerate on which it stood---a kind of natural concrete that has survived millions of years of erosion without being reduced to fertile soil. Chollas, the fish-hook bristling cactus that seems to jump at you, grew close around it.

It was when I walked to the front door of the patio (there were only two entrances to the building-front and back through the patio) that I felt a pang of sympathy. There was that arbor vitae, now turned into a half-grown tree with many dead limbs protruding on all sides, still struggling to live, starving for water. The first thing I did when I took possession was to haul a barrel of water to pour on it.

We (the Uncle, the Old Vaquero, the Star Boarder, Ruby, and I) chased the pack rats out of the house, chased the wild pigs from under the neglected hardwood floors, killed the wasps in the eaves, and the snakes lurking under old piles of rotting lumber and other trash. We fenced two acres for a yard and cleared away the offending cactus.

The company installed a gasoline-powered pump and laid 4,000 feet of two-inch pipeline up to the house, 286 feet higher than the spring. We laid another 300 feet of line up to a big cement tank to save water for the house and the corrals. Dave's father, a miner, came over and blasted holes for the thirteen fruit trees we brought here from the homestead; and Dave and I went to the river and dug up a young cottonwood and a willow, both, alas, gluttons for water.

We had doors and windows put in; Ruby cleaned and polished the floors; we brought over our household things-the three little pickups crawling back and forth like ants over the old abandoned road. We at last got the county road crew to scrape it, a job they hadn't had to bother with for years. And in five months we were moved in and had started another ranch. This ranch. The GF Bar as of today.

It is based on the wonder spring that bubbles up in good quantities out of a fault in the bedrock down in the creek channel a mile below the house, and sparkles off in a bright stream through a narrow box canyon over almost solid stone for several hundred yards before finding its way back into the earth cracks. This spring must have been treasured by animals and human beings for thousands of years. It is, however, located in a soilless place where it can nurture only a few brave willows, a tenacious hackberry, and a stunted sycamore. No cowman in the world would build his house so far uphill above his water source. Only a mining man, expecting to make a million dollars almost any day, will attempt such an expensive undertaking. The excuse I have for the folly of carrying on the operation of putting water uphill such a distance is that I like cows and love greenery and am permanently under the spell of that wonderful gushing spring.

The old house's nudity was intolerable. I couldn't wait to clothe it with flowers and vines and trees. Trees first of all. The young fruit trees we transplanted, except the few that died, began to thrive in their new quarters and I could see their pretty green leaves when I got near enough. But I wanted tall green screening trees that could be seen from the hilltop a mile away. I longed for swaying boughs that could be bird shelters and catch the song of the night winds as those at the homestead had done for many years. That's why Dave and I went to the river for the cottonwood and willow. They grew obligingly and were no burden while they were young. If the pump broke down there was still plenty of water down at the spring and I could carry it to them by means of a barrel and a bucket. In my nostalgia I failed to realize that trees and water have some kind of ratio that goes into high mathematics. One that in the beginning got along fine on five gallons of water a day now sops up fifty gallons and reaches for more.

When you move into an unimproved place, friends and neighbors come bearing gifts of slips and cuttings, most of which-because your yard is bare and theirs is oversupplied-are spreaders: mint, myrtle, mile a-minute vine, and honeysuckle. You give them water, and they grow and spread and want more water and grow more and want more until you wake up to the fact that you are caught in a cycle that consumes your time and money. But if you have my weakness for growing things you won't regret it.

From the rim of the canyon, where the road gives the first glimpse into its depths, this place strikes the beholder as an oasis in the depressingly dry environs. Magnetically, it catches the eye of the driver making slow progress in second gear down the long mile to the gate. If my visitors are women or greenhorns, they exclaim with pleasure at the jungle of green leaves and colorful flowers. If by chance a cowman is in the group, he says nothing, takes it all in, gives me some speculative looks, and perhaps finds an opportunity to offer to buy me out at a ridiculous figure. He has reason to judge me a fool. I confess that my determination to live in a green spot, if it kills me, is pure folly a man would not indulge in. Actually it rates me as being at the bottom of the class in cowmanship. Cattle range wouldn't be cattle range if it were well-watered, or even moderately damp. In our long growing season it would be, if not a jungle, at least a forest. And plants such as mine (whose sole use is spiritual) are hard-drinking organisms.

It is not that their "aqua-holism" deprives any beast of a mouthful of water. In this limited space it would not be possible to run enough cows to drink all the water in the creek. But in a sense my cattle do suffer, for the cost of running a gasoline pump several hours a day would buy considerable hay. And the daily hours spent dragging four hoses from dump to clump of ever-thirsting roots could be profitably spent in riding out to see about the dogies Thus, as in all tippling, the sin is manifest.

The morning glories are the worst lopers. Leaves, stems, and blossoms, they are ninety-five per cent water. Years ago I put ten cents worth of seeds of the big blue variety into the ground to tone the bareness of my sahuaro-rib fence. I have never planted any since. But here they are, in different colors now, all over the place. It is culpable to water them, for two days later they'll need twice as much because they will have doubled in size. Short-budgeted, pressed for time, I resolve to pull them up and throw them away. Then comes daylight, I step out of my door, and there they stand arrayed in morning glory, greeting me in a crescendo of joy. I turn on the hoses and go down to fight the pump into action.

Cattle kings of the Old West generated some unfavorable publicity in their ruthless battle against the dry farmers and other dirt-poor nesters who crept into their public domain holdings and tried to grow plants domestically. A few generations later, agricultural experts conceded that fundamentally the ranchers were right. They had Nature on their side. The only way to make two blades of grass grow where one grew before, is to give the roots twice as much water as is available. Today's cowmen, born to the business (and carrying on with, as often as not, ever less success), have a similar aversion to landscaping. They know it takes precious water and essential time. In the outlying places of the semi-arid Southwest, when you drive up to a country house that is set among stately trees and spacious lawns, you have not come to a working ranch, but to the isolated estate of eastern people who have made money enough in other climates to afford costly irrigation under clear skies and a warm sun.

A few years ago, a ranch not far from my homestead was bought by a gentleman who had a seat on the stock exchange on Wall Street. He paid a king's ransom, the neighbors said, for the water from a mine tunnel in the mountains four and a half miles above his house-and he put in a pipeline to bring it down. They figured it would take a whale of a lot of cows a long time to have calves enough to pay that out. But when they heard the next plan they stopped figuring and stood in jaw-dropping amazement. The man's wife proposed to grow roses the entire length of the pipeline. Quite a dream; over four miles of roses winding down the barren rocky foothills. A few years later, when the dreamers were rudely awakened to facts, they returned to the Land of Money and Rain, where roses are everywhere. And a law suit tied up the pipeline.

It cannot be denied that, as a-rule, men are the romantic adventurers and women the practical beings. Nevertheless, through the makeup of a woman runs a soft streak that makes her a sucker for green leaves and bright posies. She is wooed with flowers; carries them at her wedding; displays them on her tables; nurtures them in her garden. And surely it was a woman who first placed the assuaging beauty of flowers on the grave.

This yearning is in addition to the fact that women were probably the world's first farmers-gathering fruits and seeds for food, planting and tending the best specimens. Among many primitive people women are still the farmers. This love of green things growing is not for bread alone, but seems to arise from an instinct of the female to want to force Nature to function over and above the survival line. In the poorest shacks-even in migrant workers' hovels-that house women, one will find something growing, if only in old lard pails and coffee cans.

When we take off the rose-colored glasses, it is plain to see that Nature is ever of two minds: to create and to destroy. The number and variety of plants in Southern Arizona (which an esteemed botanist has called an "arboreal desert") are something to marvel at. How can so much grow during the months that the brassy skies produce so little measurable moisture?

On a hot July day a dozen weeks or so after the last rain, the trees, bushes, and root-grass appear as brittle and lifeless as skeletons, and gray with dust. Comes a summer shower, and in a few days the countryside sparkles with green. It is a miracle hard to credit.

When I first walked over the six-hundred-forty acres of my homestead, I was delighted to count eleven varieties of trees growing on it: mesquites, palo verdes, catclaws, hackberries, dwarf oaks, stunted cedars (junipers), desert willows, black walnuts, two small slender ash trees, and, down by the well, a big sycamore and a giant cottonwood with a girth of seventeen feet.

Of all the native trees in the Southwest, I dare say the mesquite has been of greatest value to man and livestock. It is sad to know that of late years Progress has condemned this hardy perennial to destruction by bulldozers and death-dealing chemicals-not only where it thrives along rivers where the bottomland is to be cleared for farming, but also far out on dry prairies and hillsides where it is often the only upstanding vegetation that will grow.

I love the mesquite for its beauty and usefulness. Given half a chance, its trunks and branches arrange themselves with a symmetry pleasing to the most exacting eye. Its leaves are intricately graceful. In springtime, the loveliest color in rangeland is that of its tender new green. Its yellow blossoms, protected by businesslike thorns, are fragrant feasts for bees and butterflies and other insect life. Its roots will reach astonishing depths to pick up precious water, or on rock-based land, run laterally for twenty to forty or more feet to gather moisture and store it up against a rainless day.

Mesquite trunks and branches make good fence posts and good firewood. They were used as beams by the cliff-dwellers, and some still exist to be studied by anthropologists and archaeologists. The early padres and their native converts used mesquite wood in their missions: some of the carved doors and lintels at Tucson's San Xavier Mission have endured for close to two centuries. Mesquite gum was used by Indians to make dye and cement for their pottery. The bark has been used for medicine. As for its beans, dried, it would be hard to name anything growing in cattle country more nourishing to animals. The U. S. Cavalry bought them by the pound for their horses. The Indians that knew of them, ate them. Even dogs eat them.

It seems wicked to eradicate this wonderful plant that through ages inhospitable with so many great droughts has provided man with beauty, comfort, shelter, wood for his fires and his buildings, food for himself and his beasts. I am grateful for the fecund mesquites that grow along the creek here, giving shade and browse to my cattle in the seasons of heat and dryness.

As for my cultivated plants, a true gardener would never accept me into his guild. My flowers are not grown; they grow--volunteer and helter-skelter. The rains bring them up, then carelessly cease their life-giving function, and the young plants that survive do so at my mercy and expense. The trouble and cost of watering them can be discounted, for they come with built-in rewards. Beyond my doorstep are zinnias, shoulder-high, splashing pink and red and yellow under a blue sky, enticing the silent, tireless, yellow butterflies. Four-o-clocks, vigorous and profuse, grow to a height of seven feet and spread greedily over the enclosure, so that I have to paw my way through them to move the hose. Roses and honeysuckle vie for a place atop the fence-the rose winning by a triumphant pink and yellow bud. And everywhere there are morning glories, blue-violet, with red-violet veins and fluffy white centers and a look of deep-piled velvet. At night the birds flutter in the branches of the trees, and crickets stir up a symphony. The shadowy lushness of leafy branches and the distillation of plant perfumes give one a sense of being transported to another land.

There is no day in the year that I cannot find a bloom of some kind in my yard. In the fall there are yellow and orchid chrysanthemums. In December and January there are late roses and early violets. The fruit trees come out in February and March (and often get nipped by frost). Then come the irises and other bulbs. And summer rushes in again with a riot of everything, frothed up by a new crop of volunteer morning glories. The truth is that I ought to have to pay an excise tax on my garden spot, for it is a luxury in a definite dictionary sense: "something which conduces to enjoyment over and above the necessaries of life; hence something which is desirable but not indispensable."

Copyright © 1967. The Arizona Board of Regents.

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The University of Arizona Press, 2/2/97 2:07PM