Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat (Part 3)

This post is the first of a three-part series about Zane Grey, the father of the modern Western novel, who spent time in Eastern Washington in the early 1900s to write his agrarian-themed novel The Desert of Wheat.

Grey’s novel relates the tragic end of protagonist Kurt Dorn’s father, Chris, who collapses while fighting a crop fire. While recovering from the loss and challenge of bringing in his grain from the field, Kurt is unexpectedly greeted by “a wonderful harvest scene.” Neighbors from all around his home gather for a grand threshing bee to complete the harvest. Grey cleverly uses this special “American” event—commonly seen in rural areas for families in distress, to describe the complicated and labor-intensive process of grain harvesting operations in an era of horse- and steam-power. Kurt arose to see “the glaring gold of the wheat field… crisscrossed everywhere with bobbing black streaks of horses—bays, blacks, whites, and reds; by big, moving painted machines, lifting arms and puffing straw; by immense wagons piled high with sheaves of wheat, lumbering down to the smoking engines and the threshers….” Few other novelists provide such colorful and detailed narration of the harvesting sequence from cutting by combine and reaper to threshing and hauling the year’s precious yield to storage:

First Kurt began to load bags of wheat, as they fell from the whirring combines…. For his powerful arms a full bag, containing two bushels, was like a toy for a child. With a lift and a heave he threw a bag into a wagon. They were everywhere, these brown bags, dotting the stubble field, appearing as if by magic in the wake of the machines. They rolled off the platforms.

…From that he progressed to a seat on one of the immense combines, where he drove twenty-four horses. No driver there was any surer than Kurt of his aim with the little stones he threw to spur a lagging horse. …[H]e liked the shifty cloud of fragrant chaff, now and then blinding and choking him; and he liked the steady, rhythmic tramps of hooves and the roaring whir of the great complicated machine. It fascinated him to see the wide swath of nodding wheat tremble and sway and fall, and go sliding up into the inside of that grinding maw, and come out, straw and dust and chaff, and a slender stream of gold filling the bags.

A Northwest Harvest Scene Postcard, c. 1910,   Palouse Heritage Collection

A Northwest Harvest Scene Postcard, c. 1910, Palouse Heritage Collection

With the successful completion of harvest providing payment on the farm’s mortgage (Kurt sought no favors from Lenore’s sympathetic landlord father) and resolution of further WWI turmoil, young Dorn finally feels free to enlist in the army. Following basic training in the East, he is transported to the front lines in France where he experiences the brutalities of war. Grey paints the ugliness of battle in vivid terms that also express the wastefulness of violent conflict. While an ardent patriot who decried foreign aggression, Grey also uses dialogue and description to relate the horrific long-term consequences of war for survivors frequently overlooked in contemporary press accounts. The injuries Dorn incurs going over the top of a trench amidst machine-gun fire, panic, gas-shelling, and bombardment nearly end his life. The scene is less heroic than nauseous in “pale gloom, with spectral forms,” and death. He returns home as a broken man haunted by hideous dreams and devoid of hope for the future. Once again the abiding power of love and land shown through Lenore in their native fields of Columbia grain bring forth meaning and restoration:

Then clearly floated to him a slow sweeping rustle of the wheat. Breast-high it stood down there, outside his window, a moving body, higher than the gloom. That rustle was the voice of childhood, youth, and manhood, whispering to him, thrilling as never before. …The night wind bore it, but life—bursting life was behind it, and behind that seemed to come a driving and mighty spirit. Beyond the growth of the wheat, beyond its life and perennial gift, was something measureless and obscure, infinite and universal.

Suddenly he saw that something as the breath and the blood and the spirit of wheat—and of man. Dust and to dust returned they might be, but this physical form was only the fleeting inscrutable moment on earth, spring up, giving birth to seed, dying out for that ever-increasing purpose which ran through the ages.

With the completion of The Desert of Wheat in 1918 and lucrative contracts from Harper’s for future works, Grey and his wife, Dolly, relocated from Pennsylvania to southern California in 1920 and acquired a Spanish-Mediterranean Revival mansion near Pasadena. He had long been an avid outdoorsman, and his financial success led to worldwide fishing expeditions and support of conservation efforts. Although one of America’s most prominent authors, Grey had still harbored doubts about his continued capacity for creative writing. But the recent Western travels and popular acclaim for The Desert of Wheat fostered renewed commitment and a turning point in his career. His journal entry of February 16, 1918 records, “…[M]y study and passion shall be directed to that which I have already written best—the beauty and color and mystery of great spaces, of the open, of Nature and her wild moods.”

The commercial success of Grey’s books led in 1920 to his formation of a motion picture company, Zane Grey Productions. The company released a silent movie version of The Desert of Wheat which played in theatres nationwide as Riders of the Dawn. He eventually sold the company to Paramount Studios but continued writing short stories novels for the rest of his life and consulted for later Hollywood productions of dozens of films based on his books.

Paxton Farrar, “Zane Grey House” from  Starry Night  (2016)

Paxton Farrar, “Zane Grey House” from Starry Night (2016)

The Desert of Wheat also inspired Paxton Farrar’s award-winning 2016 short film Starry Night funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Farrar cited “the vastness of the landscapes” and “melancholic romance that permeates the land” as important cinematic influences. In Farrar’s presentation the main character is a young woman who seeks escape from small town life  to pursue her passion to become an astronomer. The film’s starlit scenes evoke young Dorn’s evening soliloquy as he surveys the cosmos and expresses an eloquent philosophy of life uncharacteristic of a Western novel: “Material things—life, success—such as had inspired Kurt Dorn, on this calm night lost their significance and were seen clearly. They could not last. But the wheat there, the hills, the stars—they would go on with their task. …[S]elf-sacrifice, with its mercy, succor, its seed like the wheat, was as infinite as the stars.” Whether returning to familiar Southwest scenes and frontier action for new novels, or while sailing to the South Pacific, Grey’s time on the Columbia Plateau left a favorable and enduring impression.


From Colonial America To El Camino Real — The Great American Heritage Grains Adventure (Part 4)

This blog is the final installment of a series on my (Richard's) recent trip across the country visiting important sites related to heritage and landrace grain studies. View the previous posts here.

Cabizon Cultural Museum, Indio, California

Judy Stapp, Director

The Garden Oasis Of Mara, Joshua National Monument, Twenty-Nine Palms

John Legniole, Keeper

Oasis of Mara Scythe

Oasis of Mara Scythe

My incredibly gracious hosts and longtime friends, Cliffand Lee Ann Trafzer of Yucaipa, California, generously provided lodging for me during my week in the Los Angeles area so I could further my research on landrace grain varieties of the American West. Cliff and Lee Ann are both noted professors of history, and our friendship goes back to the 1970s when Cliff taught at Washington State University where we began a close friendship that has long endured and led to collaborations on many publishing projects. Lee Ann is an author in her own right, and by some coincidence we learned when she was also studying at WSU back in the day that has many mutual friends and relatives from Brewster, Washington, where she had lived for many years.

Cliff serves a Rupert Costo Endowed Chair of History at UC-Riverside and arranged for me to lecture there on environmental sustainability. Cliff is a prolific writer with the heart of a humanitarian, and he introduced me to an impressive group of graduate students who included Cahuilla tribal elder Sean Milanovich. What Cliff and Sean proceeded to share with me about early Southwestern agriculture was fascinating. I learned that early grain culture spread from 17th century Mexico to the native peoples of the Southwest where some like Cahuilla of present south central California had long gathered grain-like seeds of indigenous plants. Cahuilla elder Francisco Patencio (1857-1947) explained the appearance of the first wheat through the ancient tribal story in which benevolent Cahuilla Creator Múkat fell victim to a conspiracy of the people and animals he had fashioned. The people mourned his loss, and in the place where Múkat died and was cremated in Painted Canyon near Palm Springs, they noticed a variety of nutritious plants emerge from the ashes of his heart, teeth, hair, and other remains. “The first name that they had was the beans, which were the fingers of Múkat,” Patencio related. “These were named Ta va my lum. The corn was named Pa ha vosh lum and the wheat was named Pach che sal and the pumpkins were neh wit em, ….” Soon afterward Múkat returned to earth as a spirit. The following day Cliff took me on an extensive tour east of Riverside to tour the Cahuilla’s legendary Garden of Mara, a place know widely from the tragic story of Willie Boy, Joshua Tree National Monument, and the Painted Rocks area associated with the Múkat story.

Garden of Mara Keeper John (left) and Author-Scholar-Friend Cliff Trafzer

Garden of Mara Keeper John (left) and Author-Scholar-Friend Cliff Trafzer

Cliff is of Wyandot Indian heritage and was raised in the Yuma area so also had much to share with me about the early grain culture of the Pima and Papago peoples of the Gila River basin. By the mid-1800s Pima growers substantially supplied wheat to private teamsters for trade along the Overland Mail Route. These grains contributed to nutritious piñole and other staple soup mixtures of grain, corn, and beans. Some of the earliest California missions developed substantial grain farming and milling operations including places I had been like San Carlos Borroméo de Carmel (1770) and San Antonio du Padua (1771), founded on the fertile lowlands to the south near present Jolon, and San Gabriel Arcángel near present Los Angeles. By the early 1800s San Gabriel, Santa Inéz, and La Purísima led the California missions in production of wheat and barley and helped provision other missions along the El Camino Real. The 1806 stone foundations of San Antonio du Padua’s reconstructed grain mill remain intact, and a stone circular stone-lined threshing floor remains remarkably preserved and is likely the oldest known feature of its kind in North America. German-born artist Edward Visher (1809-1870) included these missions in his collection of twenty-six drawings and pen washes, The Missions of Upper California (1872).

Colored lithograph after Edward Vischer, “Mission San Antonio du Padua”; The Missions of Upper California (1872)

Colored lithograph after Edward Vischer, “Mission San Antonio du Padua”; The Missions of Upper California (1872)

Mission Mortars and Pestles

Mission Mortars and Pestles

The Alta California missions produced substantial amounts of grain and vegetables and raised considerable livestock. An 1850 sketch by frontier artist William H. Dougal (1822-1895) of the San Mateo Rancho granary near the San Juan Bautista Mission shows one side of the wide two-story structure with six doorways and five high windows near the eaves. The oldest extant one in North America is believed to be the Mission San Jose Granary (c. 1726) near San Antonio, Texas, which is a massive barrel-vaulted stone structure with flying buttress supports. Wheat production was especially notable at San Gabriel, Santa Inéz, La Purísima, and San Luis Obispo where at least 150,000 bushels raised at each location from the 1780s until secularization in the 1830s. Mission granary foundations have been located at Mission San Antonio de Padua, La Purísima, and Nuestra Señora de al Soledad. I had read somewhere that the latter, located a few miles west of Highway 101 near Soledad, was among the least restored of the El Camino missions so had not intended to stop there until I found out later its namesake was Mary’s sorrow between the time of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Since I was traveling by on that Saturday I made a pilgrimage to that quiet place which gave some consolation since I had never spent an Easter apart from the family.