Santa Cruz County History - Places

A Sea-Port on the Pacific
by Mary Hallock Foote

Part 2

It would be impossible to imagine anything more unlike the general impression eastern people have of California than this new street of the little fields, - these low-porched houses and little gardens ranged side by side with paths and grass-plots, and chaste picket-fences. You might fancy yourself in the cold, peaceful atmosphere of a New England village were it not for the gardens which the picket-fences inclose. These gardens always remind me of the people, - such a heterogeneous mass of transplanted life growing and blooming together, more or less prosperously. A botanist separating them according to their nativity would scatter them to every corner of the world. Even to the unlearned they offer a strange mixture of associations. English violets hide in the grass beneath the sculptured stem of a yucca palm, round which clings a passion-vine, its heavy purple blossoms drooping among the saber-like leaves which spring from the plinth of the palm. The shadow of a huge prickly pear falls across the white New England fence; it was planted about twenty-five years ago, and its broad, spiked leaves are printed with the initials of youths and maidens belonging to the new generation,- the young Californians. The Lamarque rose, which covers our porch with its thicket of shining green, has a stem like a strong man's wrist. It scales the pillars and storms the piazza-roof, tossing its white blossoms about in the wind; we can see them from our upper windows like a surf against the blue sky. There are flowering shrubs from New Zealand and the Sandwich Islands; tall plumes of pampas-grass, yew-trees and fig-trees; old-fashioned pied wall-flowers, japanese lilies, and pomegranate blossoms. The bright-eyed narcissus will always have a new association, since the Chinese "New-Year's Day," when the washermen carried them about the town presenting them to their customers, - the blossoming bulbs arranged in a dish of water, with pebbles heaped around them filling the dish and supporting the flower-stems.

There is a bed of chrysanthemums round the corner of the house, in the shade. Their bitter-sweet breath is strong with home memories. I wonder how they can gather its pungent fragrance in this mild air, if they miss the still, keen November nights and the cold kisses of the early snows.

It is November here, but not the November of the East. I walk up and down the grape-arbor at the K-'s, and see how the sky looks in through the widening spaces in the leafy roof. There is a smell of ripening grapes. The dead leaves curl and drop. They have the same rustle as on still fall days at home, but there is something missing. We seem to be always skipping a season here. Now, in late November, the fields are getting softly, tenderly green, as in early Spring. We found wild roses growing along the sandy paths by the shore. It is lovely, surprising; but there seems to be always something we are waiting for - something left out!

You should see the innocent parade of baby-wagons on the street during the sunny hours! This is a wonderful climate for babies, as well as flowers, and after sunset until dark there is a cheerful fizzling of garden hose in all the neighboring gardens. One fancies that the air suddenly grows cool, moist, and perfumed.

There are many trees in the streets of the town - great-grandchildren, perhaps, of the "oaks, thorns, firs, willows and poplars " Viscayno saw, but he did not see the delicate feathery pepper-tree or the Eucalyptus (Australian gum-tree), which shows its pale bluish-green foliage here and there. It is always "out of tone," and looks as if seen through a fog, or with a hoar-frost upon it. Its long leaves flap instead of flutter, and show a silver lining. I respect the old brook-willows which mark the winding chanel of the "San Lorenzo," but the weeping willows have no bones in them. They are all a loose wash of pale green, like a bad watercolor drawing.

The poplars stand up firmly, lightly poised against the deep blue of the sky; they are all yellow now on top, as if the sun touched them: the locusts let all their leaves drift down light and slow, and in their bare, rugged outlines keep the sentiment of the fall.

The town made its beginning in a quiet way, down on the "Flat," then climbed the hill to enjoy its leisure with a "view," and refuge from the business streets. Almost all the streets on the hill end in a flight of wooden steps, leading to the "Flat." This is one of the pretty features of the town, - these unexpected little stair-ways, sometimes long and straight, sometimes short and crooked, almost all with a landing in the middle and a bench to rest on. We cannot help wishing, that the hospitality which put these landings and benches here, with their mute invitations to stop and rest, could be perpetuated in something more lasting than boards.

In some old stone mediaeval city, what richness and gloom of mellow time-stains, sharp angles of shadow, splashes of color and smoky lights, would gather around these little stair-ways! They would be worn into hollows, and have a look as if the whole human race since the flood had trodden them. The flight at the end of our street has a bench on top, from which there is a charming view over the house-tops to the Monterey Mountains across the bay, and the gray line of the sea, out beyond the light-house point. The trees blow about the white gables and gray roofs at sunset, the windows all sparkle up brightly, the mountains grow darkly blue, and the sky glows with a golden pinkish color. A level light falls across the nearer hills, and the tall poplars, lifting their yellowed tops, look as if they too shared in this last joy of the hills.

For the first two months after we came, the Monterey Mountains were hidden by a haze, and the sky had that luminous indefiniteness which I have seen in some old engravings after Turner. The bench is best on moonlight nights (there is a good deal of quiet competition for it by the young people of the neighborhood, on these occasions), or at twilight, when the whiteness of the houses fades into the gray, and nothing is left of the town but its clustered lights, its spires and softly stirring tree-tops, its wide encircling sweep of mountains and that dim stretch of cloud, or fog, or water which we feel, rather than see, is the ocean. In still, summer weather, the daylight noises of the town almost drown the surf, but when the tide comes in at midnight, and the wind rises, all the living sounds and voices are lulled. Then, if you are wakeful, you can hear its hoarse, loud sigh, dying into murmurs faintly repeated in whispers along the shore.

The convent is only a few streets and corners distant. We can hear the bell ring for early mass. I sometimes meet the sisters, walking, almost always two together, in their heavy dark gowns and stiff white caps. It gives us quite a traveled, Old-Worldly feeling to talk of going round by the convent and the fig-tree. The convent was once an old hotel, and could never have been picturesque in any capacity; and the fig-tree is an aged "buck-eye." The mistake was made by a young lady from the East, whose knowledge of fig-trees was entirely theoretical. We always call it the fig-tree, and have forgiven it long ago for not being one. It couldn't help it, any more than the convent can help its dead white glare and its blank prospective of piazza. A double piazza extending along two sides of a house is so suggestive of life and enjoyment, - it gives me a chill to pass these empty white galleries, where no one ever walks or leans over the railing, or smiles down to a friend below, or looks out at the mountains. The yard runs back on a little street which ends in the usual flight of steps; there is a long whitewashed wall which in some way reminds me of the sisters' caps; the trees show over the top, crowding out into the sunlight. Through a little door in the wall I see, in the afternoons, a troop of children pass out; first in a long string, then scattering apart singly or in little groups, like bright beads rolling away when the string is broken.

The stairs leading from the little convent street are old, crooked, and unfrequented. They overlook some queer back-yards and balconies, with plants in boxes and clothes hung out to dry. There is a Chinese washhouse with its sign, "Jim Wau," illustrated by a picture of a large and not un-Christian-looking flat-iron. It may be that Jim, himself, with his pig-tail neatly wound round his head, sits in the door-way, smoking. The stairs are built against the wall of a high garden; looking up, you see its tangled vines and shrubbery, and one tall superb clump of pampas-grass; its blossoms are like silver flames with a core of gold; they lightly wave to and fro on the long reed stem like torches, paling in the sunlight. On a gray, windy day, - one of the first cloudy days which herald the early rains, - we walked along the top of the cliffs to the light-house point. I had only seen the beach in broad sunlight, and the effect of that darkly curtained sky was unspeakably restful, - no one can know how restful, who has not known seven months of unmitigated sunshine! You could throw your head back and look up, - you could open your eyes wide and gaze long and far!

There was a long, pale streak of light, where the dark curtain lifted to show the meeting line of sky and sea; there were gleams on the wet sand, on the seagull's wings, and a broad white gleam where the hissing foam spread fast up the beach, or swam dizzily back with the retreating wave, - you could follow the curves of the beach by its white flashes, - it was like that robe of Samite, "mystic, wonderful," flung up on the shore in fleecy folds, and then withdrawn by unseen hands; or, like the shroud the weird sisters washed in time of trouble.

A wrecked schooner lay on the beach before the light-house, with her keel bedded in sand, her one remaining mast slanted at an angle of distress, and the surf breaking over her decks. "Active," was all of the name we could see. Farther-in-shore, below the rocks, lay the mast she lost in the storm, and two little bare-legged boys were balancing up and down its length, treading carefully, one foot before the other, swaying from side to side, with hands upraised and sun-bleached locks blowing in the salt wind. The kelp was strewn in wide swaths upon the beach, and a dead sea-bird lay on one of the dank brown heaps.

From the lighthouse beach we went on, climbing another stile, and following the narrow sandy path along the cliff to Roundtree beach. Here is one of the natural bridges and some fine masses of rocks carved by the waves. Above, what would have been the key-stone of the bridge, where the shadow of the rude arch is blackest, and the tumult of water rushing out of the echoing defile is churned into whitest foam, we saw a Mexican fisherman perched like an old water-fowl, waiting for his prey. His coat was huddled over his shoulders with the sleeves crossed in front; his head sunk forward, watching with silent intentness for the line which quivered down, a slanting thread of light, against the ragged parapet of the bridge.

Far down below, the water hissed and roared; sea-gulls flew in and out, and back on the bank above the old fisherman's head, lay a boy as silent as himself, a "muchacho," all in brown, - face, hat and clothes, as if he had grown out of the brown bank he lay on. They looked as if they had been for hours in the same place, without moving or speaking.

On our way home, we walked on the wet sand below the cliffs; the tide had just gone out, and the rocks for some distance above their base were a mass of life, - such dim subconsciousness as may quiver in a star-fish, or expand the oozy petals of a sea-anemone. The avalone [sic] shell is found clinging to these rocks; it has a tremendous power of suction, and is with difficulty detached from its hold. Its meat, when pounded tender and fried in steaks, is not unlike scallops; it makes a delicious soup. A Chinese fisherman at Soquel was caught by one, - a huge fellow whom he was prying off the rock. It held him in its clammy grasp until the tide washed in and drowned him. I wonder if he felt the ghastly ignominy of such a death.

The fishermen here are almost all Chinese or Italian. I saw a picturesque group of the latter dragging their seine-nets in through the surf at low tide. Their boats are rigged with a lateen sail, such as we see in pictures of the Mediterranean. The Chinese fishermen at Soquel live in a delightful huddle of shanties along the base of the cliffs. They build like birds or animals, and their houses, though dirty and squalid, are seldom obtrusive. They often show a curious ingenuity in adapting a commonplace means to an unusual end; a Chinese vegetable-grower on the Flat has defended his field by a chevaux de frise of tin cans of the square variety opened and stretched out so the four sides form one long strip of tin, notched at the top, and nailed above an ordinary close boarded fence.

The houses at Santa Cruz distressed me at first by their painful whiteness and uprightness, which give them a Pharisaical air of virtue, quite incompatible with the broad and easy stretches of the landscape. The builders here built not in harmony with their new surroundings, but in memory of the old ones they left behind them. These are the white-gabled, steep-roofed houses that in the East are sheltered by hills and seen in prospective at the end of winding roads with deep tree-shadows across them.

The houses do not bear transplanting so well as the clean, upright, peaceful lives they symbolize. Good men and women harmonize, in the best sense, with any landscape, - they may not always be picturesque, - they are often not very happy, but it is good for the country that they are there.

Almost every settlement in California is more or less like the Basil plant, with old wrongs and tragedies clinging to the soil about its roots. Here the conflict of races, religion and land titles is not so far in the past that its heritage is entirely outworn. It is true that society in the West does not hide its wounds so closely as in the East, but is there not hope in the very fact of this openness? At all events the worst is known. The East constantly hears of the recklessness, the bad manners, and the immorality of the West, just as England hears of all our disgraces, social, financial and national; but who can tell the tale of those quiet lives which are the life-blood of the country, - its present strength and its hope in the future?

The tourist sees the sensational side of California - its scenery and society; but it is not all included in the Yo Semite [sic] guidebooks and the literature of Bret Harte.

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