God's glacial-mills grind slowly, but they have been kept in motion long enough in California to grind sufficient soil for a glorious abundance of life, though most of the grist has been carried to the lowlands, leaving these high regions comparatively lean and bare; while the post-glacial agents of erosion have not yet furnished sufficient available food over the general surface for more than a few tufts of the hardiest plants, chiefly carices and eriogonae.
In June and July they begin to blink and thaw out like sleepy eyes, the carices thrust up their short brown spikes, the daisies bloom in turn, and the most profoundly buried of them all is at length warmed and summered as if winter were only a dream. Red Lake is the lowest of the chain, and also the largest.
A single trunk falling across a stream in the woods forms a dam 200 feet long, and from ten to thirty feet high, giving rise to a pond which kills the trees within its reach. These dead trees fall in turn, thus making a clearing, while sediments gradually accumulate changing the pond into a bog, or meadow, for a growth of carices and sphagnum.
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.
In winter, the flocks graze below 8000 feet, on account of the great quantity of snow above that height; in summer they find pasturage as high as 17,000 feet, consisting of grass and small tufted Carices, on which they browse with avidity.
They are often required to retain moisture or nourishment for the future blossom through long times of drought; and this they do in bulbs under ground, of which some become a rude and simple, but most wholesome, food for man. So, now, observe, you are to divide the whole family of the herbs of the field into three great groups, Drosidæ, Carices,* Gramineæ, dew-plants, sedges, and grasses.
On a narrow strip of shingle, close to the water's edge, there were a few tufts of carex gone to seed; and a little way back up the rocky bank at the foot of a crumbling wall so inclined as to absorb and radiate as well as reflect a considerable quantity of sun-heat, was the garden, containing a thrifty thicket of Cowania covered with large yellow flowers; several bushes of the alpine ribes with berries nearly ripe and wildly acid; a few handsome grasses belonging to two distinct species, and one goldenrod; a few hairy lupines and radiant spragueas, whose blue and rose-colored flowers were set off to fine advantage amid green carices; and along a narrow seam in the very warmest angle of the wall a perfectly gorgeous fringe of Epilobium obcordatum with flowers an inch wide, crowded together in lavish profusion, and colored as royal a purple as ever was worn by any high-bred plant of the tropics; and best of all, and greatest of all, a noble thistle in full bloom, standing erect, head and shoulders above his companions, and thrusting out his lances in sturdy vigor as if growing on a Scottish brae.
Next the water there is a girdle of carices with wide overarching leaves, then in regular order a shaggy ruff of huckleberry bushes, a zone of willows with here and there a bush of the Mountain Ash, then a zone of aspens with a few pines around the outside.
On the margin of the meadow darling linnaea was in its glory; purple panicled grasses in full flower reached over my head, and some of the carices and ferns were almost as tall. Here, too, on the edge of the woods I found the wild apple tree, the first I had seen in Alaska. The Indians gather the fruit, small and sour as it is, to flavor their fat salmon.
Tall, wide-leaved grasses take their places along the sides, and rushes and nodding carices in the wetter portions, mingled with the most beautiful and imposing flowers, orange lilies and larkspurs seven or eight feet high, lupines, senecios, aliums, painted-cups, many species of mimulus and pentstemon, the ample boat-leaved veratrum alba, and the magnificent alpine columbine, with spurs an inch and a half long.