charles francis saunders

The Trees Before Us

Charles Francis Saunders moved beyond the language of botany to lyrical portraits of nature’s upstanding citizens.

Janice Kleinschmidt Arts & Entertainment, Current PSL

charles francis saunders

Charles Francis Saunders photographed his guide, artist Carl Eytel, on a trail with his horse.

When a Pennsylvania Quaker brought his bride to honeymoon in Southern California, the couple indulged in San Diego’s luxe Hotel Coronado — and then spent two life-changing weeks on foot with pack burros in the canyons surrounding Palm Springs.

The year was 1902 when 46-year-old Carl Eytel, Palm Springs’ premier artist, guided the newlyweds into the landscape he knew intimately. Charles Francis Saunders was a 43-year-old trading firm clerk turned lay botanist writing about plants for a Philadelphia newspaper. Elizabeth Saunders was an artist illustrating landscapes, flowers, and trees. The trio’s shared love of nature grew into a longtime friendship after the Saunders moved to Pasadena in 1906.

Undoubtedly through Eytel, Saunders met another literary figure and resident of Palm Springs: J. Smeaton Chase. Saunders and Chase co-authored The California Padres and Their Missions (1915), and Saunders served as best man when Chase wed Isabel White (of Palm Springs’ pioneering White family) in Pasadena in 1917.
“It seemed incredible that we were in the United States.”
Saunders’ 1914 photograph of pine trees in the Santa Rosa Mountains, above the Coachella Valley.

With 18 books to his credit, Saunders reached the pinnacle of his poetic turns in describing trees in the desert canyons and mountains. The following excerpts come from Under the Sky in California (1915) and The Southern Sierras of California (1923). The former gained popularity in part thanks to Sunset Magazine, which ordered 500 copies for new subscribers. The latter was deemed a classic in a foreword by eminent mountain historian and guide writer John W. Robinson that related Saunders’ trip west in 1902.

On his first trek to the peak of Mount San Gorgonio, Saunders describes his vision at the 10,000-foot elevation:

 The firs, incense cedars, and yellow pines of the mountain’s mid-region have now given way to almost pure stands of tamarack pine, their spreading crowns stirred to soft aeolian music by the breeze, the ground beneath laid thick with fall showers of trim chestnut-brown cones. … The trunk has a notably clean, neat look, with bark of a light gray color broken into small, flaky scales that take on a reddish purple in some lights and glow strangely.


As Saunders nears the summit, he comes across the limber pine, which he says in more sheltered environments assumes “the dignity of an upstanding tree,” 30 to 40 feet high.

 Emerging from the high woods of the tamarack belt into unobstructed sunlight, you look ahead over low clumps of shrubby growth hugging the ground here and there. You do not at first suspect them of being trees, but on a second look you see they are, though of a most unorthodox kind, the axis of the crown sometimes higher than the crown itself.

Nothing can speak more eloquently of the windy weather on San Gorgonio’s summit during a considerable part of the year than these queer trees beaten down to earth and held there, the knee of Boreas upon them, their growth diverted from the natural uprightness of trees to horizontality, their tops swept along at the height of a couple of feet above the ground and anchored by stubby trunks of a foot and half or so. … In other cases the bole is humped up above a flattened mass of distorted limbs, suggesting a knocked-down man stayed halfway in his efforts to regain his feet. A tree of superb grit, and a born fighter, to keep up the struggle with such bitter bleakness, when pleasanter conditions are a little down the hill.

With a companion he refers to as “the Professor,” Saunders subsequently traveled into the San Jacinto Mountains on horseback. Here, he relays his impressions on a late April morning:

We chose a route by way of Palm Cañon, because it offered a sight of a unique natural forest — one of the most enchanting to be found within the limits of the United States — a pure stand of Washingtonias, or California fan palms.

 … [I]t seemed incredible that we were in the United States, so unlike the conventional American woodland was this that we were threading. Palms before us, palms behind us, and palms on either hand; seedling palms thrusting unopened fans from out the mould of the trail’s side; stout middle-aged palms, their trunks shingled with the persistent dead leaves hanging head downward to the ground and clothing the tree as with Dutch skirts; grandfatherly palms, scarred and naked of trunk, veterans of fires that had shorn them of the leafy thatch which Nature had obviously provided as a protection from the scorching winds of the desert.
In 1915, Saunders described Palm Canyon in South Palm Springs as “the most enchanting forest” to be found.

A wood like this was too rare to be hurried through; and so we strewed ourselves a springy mattress of the arrowweed which bordered the little creek, spread our blankets, and gave ourselves unreservedly to the enchantment of a moonlit night in this forest primeval. … In the moonlight the great ribbed fronds of the tree crowns glistened like silver, and as the fingers of the wind lightly drew across them, they gave out a soft music to which the ripple of the water in the arrowweeds made accompaniment.

From there, the duo continued through Little Paradise into the canyon of Potrero Creek and on to Pinyon Flat, where Saunders found “the most extensive stand of one-leaf pine — that is, piñon — to be found in our southern mountains.”

An endearing little tree is the piñon, in height rarely over twenty-five feet, oftener ten or fifteen, short and rough of trunk, with a rather shapely pyramidal crown in youth which becomes flattened and drooping in age, as an old felt hat hangs down at the brim. There is no more luxurious outdoor bed that I know than the spongy, needle-packed ground beneath some nonogenarian piñon, whose branches, pendent to the earth, curtain you in as snugly as the hangings of an old-fashioned four poster.

Saunders photographed this Joshua tree on a trip to Ballarat, which is now a ghost town.

On desert sojourns, Saunders was captivated by yuccas.

Miles upon miles of the desert plains are staked with that strange Ishmael of plants, the tree-yucca, whose shaggy arms, clutching a thousand bunched daggers of leaves, are raised against the world. As one rides across the Mojave, where these trees grow, they outline themselves against the sky in a score of fantastic shapes — pitchforks, tridents, mailed fists and colossal battledores whose meshes are branches. Sometimes they resemble writhing, misshapen crosses, as though marking the uneasy grave of men whom the sands have swallowed up.

 A sullen tree, this, which moves stiffly and gracelessly when the wind shakes it, like a stubborn man in the hands of adverse fortune — yielding indeed, but only because forced to yield. Nevertheless, to the tops of this forbidding tree, the gentle doves of the desert truthfully fly and lodge and find comfort there, uttering thence, to the desert’s mystery, the mystery of their own melancholy notes. From the midst of the cruel leaves, too, there rise, in season, panicles of bloom, creamy white bells adroop, pure as the spirits of triumphant mortals who, out of the valley of affliction, have come up into the sunlight of heavenly peace.

In a reverse meaning of “can’t see the forest for the trees,” sometimes we “can’t see the trees for the forest.” Saunders’ words remind us that, in walks through our canyons and mountains, we occasionally should let our focus stray from the big picture to admire nature’s statuesque beauties for the individual forms of life that each represents.

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