Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Travelling on the Desert
By Henry Martyn Field (18221907)
[Born in Stockbridge, Mass., 1822. Died there, 1907. On the Desert. 1883.]
WE marched on quite alone, and began to feel more and more the loneliness of the desert. Not only was there no man in sight, but not a living thing. The utter absence of life affected us strangely, as it brought the sense not only of solitude, but of silence. Even while it was yet broad day, there fell on us a silence as of the night. The earth grew calm and still, as if suddenly the course of nature had stopped, and all things had ceased to live. Although the Red Sea still gleamed in the distance, yet as we moved away from it, we could no longer hear the lapping of its waves; and there was no sign of life on sea or land, or in the sky. Not a bird wheeled in the air; not even an insects hum broke the stillness of the desert. Even nature seemed to have hushed her voice; no murmuring brook made music in our ears; no sough of the wind in the pines whispered to us in the gloaming. The only sound that fell on the ear was the steady step of the camel crunching through the hard crust; and when we passed through long stretches of soft sand, even that seemed muffled, as the broad foot, soft and springy as the tigers, sank under us almost without a sound. So oppressive was the stillness that it was a relief to hear the song of the cameleer, though it had little music in it, for it was always in the minor key, and low and feeble, as if he trembled to hear the sound of his own voice in the deep solitude. It seemed as if we had gone out of the world, and entered the Halls of Eternal Silence, and were moving on into a mysterious realm, where the sound of human voices would be heard nevermore.
In studying the geography of the desert, the first lesson to be learned is to know what is meant by a wady. Destitute as these broad stretches of barrenness are of springs, or running brooks, yet at times they are swept by terrific storms, when torrents dash down the mountain side, and plow deep furrows in the sandy waste. The dry beds which they leave behind are wadies. These wadies, depressed below the level of the surrounding plain, are the favorite places for pitching tents, as the banks on either side furnish a shelter from the winds that sweep over the desert. Several of these we crossed to-day, in which the half-dried mud showed that there had been recent rains. Wherever the moisture had touched, there were signs of vegetation. Dr. Post, who is always on the lookout for such treasures, found twenty new species of plants in one day, which he displayed with the delight of a discoverer, pointing out how nature had provided sustenance for them by furnishing them with thick leaves or long roots or little warts, which the microscope showed to be so many minute cells or sacs for water.
Every traveller will have his attention called by his camel, if not by his guide, to a thorny bush of which the camel is very fond. Nor will the rider, if he be wise, urge on the poor beast which stops a moment to crop its leaves, for it is very aromatic, and sends up a fragrant smell into his face. Another bush which is common is the junipermore properly the broom of the desertunder which we often found a shade for our midday meal.
Twice to-day were we reminded that we were on the track of the Israelitesonce at Marah, the spring whose very name tells of its bitterness, and which, however sweetened by Moses, still disappoints the traveller, for indeed it is almost dried up. We found in it no flowing water at all; only digging in the sand, we discovered where a hidden spring was oozing away. A much larger spring, or group of springs, we found at Wady Ghurundel, the Elim of the Scriptures, where we camped for the night. In these desert marches it is always an object to pitch ones tent near a spring. We were indeed supplied with water, which we took in at Suez, from the Sweet Water Canal, which brings it from the Nile. From this were filled the casks, which were slung on the backs of our camels. These are so precious that when unloaded for the night, and set up on end, they are kept locked lest the men should snatch forbidden draughts. Water for themselves they carry in water-skins. But though we were provided so as to be in no danger of dying by thirst, yet in the desert there is something refreshing even in the sight of flowing water. How could we fail to camp at a spot where Moses had arrested his march because he found, as he fells us, twelve springs and seventy palm-trees? Moses is gone, but the springs are still here. Men may come and men may go, but they flow on forever. The Arab still comes to find water for himself and his camels at the same spring which quenched the thirst of the Israelites. On the very spot where the great Hebrew leader pitched his tent, we camped at the end of our second days march. In the morning I went down to the springs, and found them hardly worthy of their ancient fame, or of the place which they still hold in sacred poetry, where the shade of Elims palm is the type of almost heavenly rest. Neither in water nor in shade does Elim approach the Wells of Moses. Instead of a running brook or bursting fountains, one finds only a sluggish rivulet melting away in the sand, with a few straggling palms along its brink. Yet slender as it is, and although the water is somewhat brackish, it may be the very water of life on the desert. The Arabs came from the camp, and filled their water-skins, which they slung over their shoulders, and then threw on the backs of their camels. I bent down to the stream to drink, and though it was not like putting my lips to the moss-covered bucket which hung in the well, still there was a pleasure in drinking of the very springs of which Moses drank more than three thousand years ago.
But the traveller on the desert must not linger by bubbling streams or under palm-trees. While we had been here, the camels had been got ready, and we must up and away. To-days march brought a change of scene, as we left behind the flat or rolling sandy plain, and entered into a region more wild and rugged. We found that this Peninsula was not an unbroken plain, stretching to the base of Sinai, but that the wilderness was a wilderness of mountains, through which one could make his way only by following the wadies that wound about in every direction, forming a perfect labyrinth, and that sometimes assumed the character of mountain defiles. This afternoon we pursued our course along these river beds till we came into one where a torrent in the course of ages had cut through successive strata of rock, cleaving them to the base of the hills, and forming a gorge almost like a cañon of the Rocky Mountains. This we followed in all its windings for several hours, till suddenly the cliffs opened, and before us lay the Red Sea, beyond which was a range of mountains, the line of which was broken by peaks shooting up here and there, like the cliffs of Capri, or the islands of the Greek Archipelago. It was now five oclock, and the sun was sinking in the west, so that every point of that long serrated ridge stood up sharp and clear against the sky. Here was a scene which no artist could transfer to canvas. We had before us at once the mountains and the sea, and mountains on both sides of the sea. Enchanted and almost bewildered by the scene, as we came out upon a wide stretch of beach, we dismounted to walk, for the greater freedom of motion, and that we could stop and turn to every point of the horizon. Can I ever forget that heavenly hour, and how soft was the light on the African mountains! As the sunset shone across the sea, it lighted up also the Arabian hills above which there was a soft violet tint in the sky, which gradually faded away, and was succeeded by an intense blue, while high up in the heavens hung the moon, only two days to the full. Again we mounted our camels, and rode on for a mile or two, till, rounding a point, we discovered our tents in a little cove or inlet in the sandy hills, but a few rods from the shore. The spot seemed made for a camp, as it was sheltered from the winds, and the sand was firm and hard, so that the tent floor was smooth and clean. Here Moses camped by the Red Sea, and following the illustrious example, we camped, as it were, on the very shore, where in our waking moments all night long we heard the waters as they came rippling up the beach.