Farming

Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat (Part 1)

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.


For many years I kept a copy of Zane Grey’s novel, The Desert of Wheat (1919), on my bookshelf. I confess it was mostly there because the title had piqued my hope that the famed Western author might have once turned his attention away from Southwestern cowboys to farmers in the Northwest. A few pages into the book confirmed its setting to be on the Columbia Plateau. But encounters on its opening pages with “motor-cars” and labor organizers led me to set it aside in favor of what I thought might be more interesting reads. Only in recent weeks did I return to the book after realizing that Grey had composed it amidst the convolutions of American involvement in World War one hundred years ago. So I pulled it off the shelf again and this time found myself immersed transported through compelling prose to a remarkable time that I found had high relevance to many issues of our present day.

Best-selling author and conservationist Zane Grey (1872-1939) is considered the father of the modern Western novel. He wrote eighty books with nine selling over 100,000 copies in their year of initial publication, including the quintessential Western classic Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) which became a million-seller. Even today sales of his many works typically reach 500,000 copies annually. Grey’s novels and some 300 short stories were known for idealizing the American frontier spirit with archetypal characters inhabiting moral landscapes who exemplified the Code of the West—integrity, friendship, loyalty. British poet John Masefield and Ernest Hemingway considered his writing praiseworthy and others compared allegorical storylines laden with struggle and mystery to the ancient Beowulf saga and Star Wars science fiction trilogy. Though some critics found Grey’s plots to be formulaic, several of his works ventured beyond worlds inhabited by cowboys and desperados to explore contemporary issues, and human influence on landscapes.

Zane Grey’s  The Desert of Wheat  first appeared in a series of articles published in May and June, 1918, issues of  The Country Gentleman

Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat first appeared in a series of articles published in May and June, 1918, issues of The Country Gentleman

Grey and his wife, Dolly, journeyed from their home in Pennsylvania to the Pacific Northwest during the summer of 1917 and traveled through eastern Washington in July. That same tumultuous month Alexander Kerensky was named premier of the Russian provisional government after revolutionaries toppled the Romanov monarchy, and a major German World War I counter-offensive commenced on the Eastern Front in Galicia. Grey closely followed world events through newspaper reports sought to incorporate their impact on American national life into his writing. He had been encouraged by The Country Gentleman editor Benton Currie to compose an agrarian-themed story for serialization the following year.

Davenport Hotel Hall of Doges, Spokane, c. 1915, Washington State Historical Society

Davenport Hotel Hall of Doges, Spokane, c. 1915, Washington State Historical Society

While attending a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in July at Spokane’s opulent Davenport Hotel, Grey and A. Duncan Dunn, regent of the state’s agricultural school in Pullman, discussed the plight of the region’s farmers since Northwest grain markets and labor unrest seemed highly related to unfolding international events. Inspired in part by events in Russia, the Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”) sought to organize itinerant harvest laborers throughout the wheatlands in order to hold out for raises from two to three dollars for a customary ten-hour day of intense physical labor tending the annual threshing operations. The Wobblies were strongly opposed by farmers on economic grounds, and many throughout the country considered their socialist leanings a threat the moral and political order. The inland Pacific Northwest was also heavily populated by immigrant farmers of German ancestry from central Europe and Russia. Grey’s story would also explore the tensions within families and communities created by complex relationships between heritage and nationalism.

Zane Grey,  The Desert of Wheat  Manuscript Opening Lines (1917), Library of Congress

Zane Grey, The Desert of Wheat Manuscript Opening Lines (1917), Library of Congress

Grey’s “The Desert of Wheat” would first appear in several installments of The Country Gentleman in the spring of 1918, and Harper’s published the first of numerous printings in book form in 1919.  His earlier works had been known for vivid descriptions of action and environment, as well as respectful inclusion of Native Americans and minority cultures. This new work appealed to both reviewers and the general public, and opened with lines inspired by his summertime journey across the Columbia Plateau’s vast farming district:  “Late in June the vast northwestern desert of wheat began to take on a tinge of gold, lending an austere beauty to that endless, rolling, smooth world of treeless hills…. The beauty of them was austere, as if the hand of man had been held back from making green his home site, as if the immensity of the task had left no time for youth and freshness. Years, long years, were there in the round-hilled, many-furrowed gray old earth.”

Right: W. H. D. Koerner, “The Undulating Sea of Wheat,”  Country Gentleman Magazine  (May 14, 1918)

Right: W. H. D. Koerner, “The Undulating Sea of Wheat,” Country Gentleman Magazine (May 14, 1918)

Through dialogue about Bluestem and Turkey Red wheats and rattling threshers under the hot harvest sun, the story lauds the hard work and struggles of taciturn Kurt Dorn, son of an elderly German immigrant farmer. Young Dorn faces drought, blight, and the elements in order to support his father, and experiences World War I prejudice and rural labor strife. Although Grey’s characters are not typically prone to mystical reflection, Dorn and protagonist love interest, Lenore Anderson, ponder the significance of change in their own relationship, his  enlistment and brutal experience of European battle, and deeper meanings of wartime damage to culture and conviction. As do few other books in Grey’s considerable corpus, The Desert of Wheat exemplifies his lifelong compulsion to express “Love of life, love of youth, [and] love of beauty.” Dorn and Anderson’s dialogue further attest to the wastefulness of war and Grey’s own ambivalence over conceptions of patriotism and heroism. Literary historian Christine Bold characterizes Lenore Anderson as the personification of humanity’s spiritual core—a “Western version of Ceres,” and like waving heads of grain frequently described she symbolizes renewal amidst an odyssey of life, loss, and land.

Comparing Old and New Grain Varieties

This post will highlight some of the points I have presented at recent gatherings like the Spokane Farm & Food Expo and the WSU Grain Gathering at The Bread Lab in Mt. Vernon.

Richard and WSU/Mt. Vernon Agronomist Steve Lyon leading heritage grains field trip tour; Mt. Vernon, Washington (August 2017)

Richard and WSU/Mt. Vernon Agronomist Steve Lyon leading heritage grains field trip tour; Mt. Vernon, Washington (August 2017)

This past June my wife, Lois, and I led a tour of the Baltic countries which provided an opportunity to see first-hand American and European farming systems and to meet agronomists from abroad. Of course agriculture in any single nation is an exceedingly diverse enterprise, so meaningful comparisons invariably require considerable explanation and generalization. At the same time, trends in nutrition and crop production are evident in important studies conducted in places like the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alarp. 

Savijäri Organic Grain and Livestock Farm Porvoo, Finland (2017)

Savijäri Organic Grain and Livestock Farm
Porvoo, Finland (2017)

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Cereal researchers there conducted chemical analysis using plasma spectrometry on several hundred spring and winter wheats. In order to determine nutritional variations among the genotypes, these were divided into groups including primitive “pre-wheats” like emmer, landrace “heritage” grains like we raise at Palouse Colony Farm, old cultivars (1900-1960s releases/hybrids), and new cultivars (varieties released since 1970). The grains were grown at several locations in Sweden and under organic conditions in order to provide comparative results without influence of synthetic soil amendments, herbicides, or other chemical inputs. Results of the study were published in “Mineral Composition of Organically Grown Wheat Genotypes” in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (September 2010) and indicate substantial variation among the various groups. 

Primitive and landrace grains were found to have the highest concentrations of the most minerals with selections highest in manganese, phosphorus, and selenium. Landrace wheats showed the highest concentration of calcium and high levels of boron and iron. Spelts were highest in sulfur and high in copper. The Alnarp researchers suggest that the negative correlation between recent cultivars and mineral density indicated in their study and similar investigations elsewhere is likely due to a dilution effect given the increased yield of most modern varieties. In other words, available minerals are dispersed more widely so require higher amounts of food to receive similar amounts. Another factor may be the deeper root systems of pre-wheats and landrace grains which enable the plant to tap minerals available at greater depth. 

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These studies indicate that mineral levels in whole grain kernels depend on absorption in the soil by the plant’s roots and subsequent redistribution to the kernels through vegetative tissues that are also influenced by photosynthesis. Higher chlorophyll content, for example, is positively correlated to iron concentration, as is availability of nitrogen which facilitates photosynthesis. The Alnarp study also indicates that grain type is more influential than location for mineral content in primitive grains. Finally, growing environments significantly contribute to variations for others, and high organic matter and increased soil pH also favor mineral concentration. 

Research by cereal chemists and soil scientists are contributing to new understandings of the complex biological systems that contribute to healthy crops and people. We at Palouse Heritage look forward to sharing news with you about this vital work and doing our part to promote health, heritage, and rural renewal.  

The Bread Lab, WSU/Mt. Vernon

The Bread Lab, WSU/Mt. Vernon

Bill Gates visiting the Bread Lab

Bill Gates visiting the Bread Lab

Heritage Grain Friends (l to r): German Miller Wolfgang Mock, San Francisco Episcopal Agrarian Chaplain Elizabeth DeRuff, Richard, WSU Agronomist Steve Lyon, New York Artist Katherine Nelson, OSU Cereal Chemist Andrew Ross

Heritage Grain Friends (l to r): German Miller Wolfgang Mock, San Francisco Episcopal Agrarian Chaplain Elizabeth DeRuff, Richard, WSU Agronomist Steve Lyon, New York Artist Katherine Nelson, OSU Cereal Chemist Andrew Ross

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.