Chapter no 1

East of Eden

The Salinas Valley is in

Northern California. It is a

long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and

twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.




childhood names for grasses



flowers. I

remember where a toad may

live and what time the birds

awaken in the summer-and what


and seasons smelled like-how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of

odors is very rich.

I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a

beloved mother. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love. The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea, and they were dark and brooding -unfriendly and dangerous. I always found in myself a dread of west and a love of east. Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say, unless it could be that the morning came over the peaks of the Gabilans and the night drifted back from the ridges of the Santa Lucias. It may be that the birth and death of the day had some part in my feeling about the two ranges of mountains. From both sides of the valley little streams slipped out of the hill canyons and fell into the bed of the Salinas River. In the winter of wet years the streams ran full-freshet, and they swelled the river until sometimes it raged and boiled, bank full, and then it was a destroyer. The river tore the edges of the

farm lands and washed whole acres down; it toppled barns and houses into itself, to go floating and bobbing away. It trapped cows and pigs and sheep and drowned them in its muddy brown water and carried them to the sea. Then when the late spring came, the river drew in from its edges and the sand banks appeared. And in the summer

the river didn’t run at all

above ground. Some pools

would be left in the deep swirl places under a high bank. The tules and grasses grew back, and willows straightened up with the flood debris in their

upper branches. The Salinas was only a part-time river. The


sun drove


underground. It was not a fine river at all, but it was the only

one we had and so we

boasted about


dangerous it was in a wet winter and how dry it was in a dry summer. You can boast

about anything if it’s all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast.

The floor of the Salinas Valley, between the ranges and below the foothills, is level because this valley used to be the bottom of a hundred-mile inlet from the sea. The river mouth at Moss Landing was centuries ago the entrance to this long inland water. Once, fifty miles down the valley, my father bored a well. The drill came up first with topsoil and then with gravel and then with white sea sand full of shells and even pieces of

whalebone. There were

twenty feet of sand and then black earth again, and even a piece of redwood,

that imperishable wood that does not rot. Before the inland sea the valley must have been a forest. And those things had happened right under our feet.






sometimes at night that I could feel both the sea and the redwood forest before it. On the wide level acres of the valley the topsoil lay deep and fertile. It required only a rich winter of rain to make it break forth in grass and flowers. The spring flowers in a wet year were unbelievable.

The whole

valley floor, and the foothills too, would be carpeted with lupins and poppies. Once a woman told me that colored flowers would seem more bright if you added a few white flowers to give the colors definition. Every petal of blue lupin is edged with white, so that a field of lurins is more blue than you can imagine. And mixed with these


splashes of

California poppies. These too are of a burning color-not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies. When their season was over the yellow mustard came up and grew to a great height. When my grandfather came into the valley the mustard was so tall that a man on horseback showed only his head above the yellow flowers. On the uplands the grass would be strewn with buttercups, with hen-and-chickens, with black-centered yellow violets. And

a little later in the season

there would be red and yellow stands of Indian paintbrush. These were the flowers of the open places exposed to the sun. Under the live oaks,

shaded and

dusky, the maidenhair flourished and gave a good smell, and under the mossy banks of the water

courses whole clumps of five-fingered ferns and goldy-backs hung down. Then there

were harebells, tiny lanterns, cream white and almost sinful looking, and these were so rare and magical that a child, finding one, felt singled out and special all day long. When June came the grasses headed out and turned brown, and the hills turned a

brown which was not brown

but a gold and saffron and red -an indescribable color. And from then on until the next rains the earth dried and the streams stopped. Cracks

appeared on the level ground. The Salinas River sank under its sand. The wind blew down the valley, picking up dust and straws, and grew stronger and harsher as it went south. It stopped in the evening. It was a rasping nervous wind, and the dust particles cut into a man’s skin and burned his eyes. Men working in the fields wore goggles and tied handkerchiefs around their noses to keep the dirt out. The valley land was deep and rich, but the foothills wore only a skin of topsoil no deeper than the grass roots; and the farther up the hills you went, the thinner grew the soil, with flints sticking through, until at the brush line it was a kind of dry flinty gravel that reflected the hot sun blindingly. I have spoken of the rich years when the rainfall was plentiful. But there were dry years too, and they put a terror on the valley. The water came in a thirty-year cycle. There would be five or six wet and wonderful years when there might be nineteen to twenty-five inches of rain, and the land would shout with grass. Then would come six or seven pretty good years of twelve to sixteen inches of rain. And then the dry years

would come, and sometimes there would be only seven or eight inches of rain. The land dried up and the grasses headed out miserably a few inches high and great bare scabby places appeared in the valley. The live oaks got a crusty look and the sagebrush was gray. The land cracked and the springs dried up and the cattle listlessly nibbled dry twigs. Then the farmers and the ranchers would be

filled with disgust for the Salinas Valley. The cows

would grow



sometimes starve to death. People would have to haul water in barrels to their farms just for drinking.


families would sell out for nearly nothing and move away. And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.


And that was the long Salinas Valley. Its history was like that of the rest of the state. First there were Indians, an inferior breed without energy, inventiveness, or culture, a people that lived on grubs and grasshoppers and shellfish, too lazy to hunt or fish. They ate what they could pick up and planted nothing. They pounded bitter acorns for flour. Even their warfare was a weary pantomime. Then the hard, dry Spaniards came exploring through, greedy and realistic, and their greed was for gold

or God. They collected souls as they collected jewels. They gathered mountains and

valleys, rivers and whole horizons, the way a man might now gain title to building lots. These tough, dried-up

men moved

restlessly up the coast and

down. Some of them stayed on

grants as large as principalities, given to them by Spanish kings who had not

the faintest idea of the gift.

These first owners lived in poor feudal settlements, and their cattle ranged freely and multiplied. Periodically the owners killed the cattle for their hides and tallow and left the meat to the vultures and coyotes.


the Spaniards came they had to give everything they saw a name. This is the first duty of any

explorer-a duty and a privilege. You must name a thing before you can note it on your hand-drawn map. Of course they were religious people, and the men who could read and write, who kept the records and drew the maps, were the tough untiring priests who traveled with the soldiers. Thus the first names of places were saints’ names or religious holidays celebrated at stopping places. There are many saints, but they are not inexhaustible, so that we find repetitions in the first namings. We have San Miguel, St. Michael, San

Ardo, San Bernardo, San

Benito, San Lorenzo, San Carlos, San Francisquito. And then the holidays-Natividad, the Nativity; Nacimiente, the Birth; Soledad, the Solitude.

But places were also named from the way the expedition felt at the time: Buena

Esperenza, good hope; Buena Vista because the view was beautiful;

and Chualar

because it was pretty. The descriptive names followed: Paso de los Robles because of the oak trees; Los Laureles for the laurels; Tularcitos because of the reeds in the swamp; and Salinas for the alkali which was white as


Then places were named for animals and birds seen- Gabilanes for the hawks

which flew in those mountains; Topo for the mole; Los Gatos for the wild



suggestions sometimes came from the

nature of the place itself:

Tassajara, a cup and saucer;

Laguna Seca, a dry lake; Corral de Tierra for a fence of earth; Paraiso because it was like Heaven. Then

the Americans came-more greedy because

there were more of them. They took the lands, remade the laws to make their titles

good. And farmholds spread over the land, first in the valleys and then up the foothill slopes, small wooden houses roofed with redwood

shakes, corrals of split poles. Wherever a trickle of water came out of the ground a house sprang up and a family began to grow and multiply. Cuttings of red geraniums and rosebushes were planted in the dooryards. Wheel tracks of buckboards replaced

the trails, and fields of corn

and barley and wheat squared out of the yellow mustard. Every ten miles along the traveled routes a general store

and blacksmith shop happened, and these became the nuclei of little towns,




Greenfield. The Americans had a greater tendency to name places for people than had the Spanish. After the valleys were settled the names of places refer more to things which happened there, and these to me are the most fascinating of all names because each name suggests a story that has been forgotten. I think of Bolsa Nueva, a new purse; Morocojo, a lame Moor (who was he and how

did he get there?); Wild

Horse Canyon and Mustang

Grade and Shirt Tail Canyon.

The names of places carry a charge of the people who named them, reverent or

irreverent, descriptive, either poetic or disparaging. You



anything San Lorenzo, but



Canyon or the Lame Moor is something quite different. The wind whistled over the settlements in the afternoon, and the farmers began to set out mile-long windbreaks of eucalyptus to keep the plowed topsoil from blowing away. And this is about the way the Salinas Valley

was when


grandfather brought his wife and settled in the foothills to the east of King City.

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