Chapter 8: Returning Home

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by Dr. Sydney Ellerton

Heading east, heading home; it was a long way still and there were many more experiences on the way. A steam train once more, weaving its way up the valleys of the Columbia River and its major tributary the Snake. In 1938, long-distance diesel-­hauled trains were beginning to run in America. They were faster, charged higher fares, and even then did not appeal to me so much as the black monsters behind which I was now used to riding. The trans-continental steam trains averaged about 45 mph day and night, and the gradients on some of the mountain passes really made them puff and blow, with an exciting, throaty sound. There were places where the track ascended in a loop and it was possible to look down the mountainside and see another part of the track curving below.

The Pacific slope in Oregon was densely wooded. Over the top, in the rain shadow of the high mountains, it was suddenly desert; no saguaro cacti or Joshua trees, for the winters are far too cold, but sparse grassland and mile after mile of sage brush. There were some smaller cacti, Opuntias, out in full bloom, with their large, showy, pale yellow or deep red flowers. They are the hardiest and most widespread of their kind. The Snake River is a source of water for irrigation, which is all that is needed to transform the desert into some of the richest farmland anywhere. At the time I was there the irrigated area was still being expanded.

We passed by Boise, Idaho, the city heated by geothermal energy, then continued across the plateau (some 4,500 feet high) with dust blowing and odd balls of tumbleweed rolling along, often a couple of feet or so in diameter, sooner or later to have their travel halted by a fence. At American Falls the Snake River had been dammed and a huge lake had formed, the source of irrigation for a large area. It was here that the train was again specially stopped for me and I was met by ‘Doc’ and Mary Martini. That night we had a picnic by the lake and ‘Doc’ found an Indian arrowhead in the sand. The Stone Age had not long passed in Western America.

This dry, high plateau, with mountains rising abruptly out of it, has amazingly clear air, at least when the dust is not blowing. Mountains 30 miles away look like walking distance and ranges 150 miles away can often be seen clearly.

The U.S.D.A. experiment station where the barley work was conducted was at Aberdeen, a community with about 600 inhabitants. Southern Idaho is not very far, as American distances go, from Salt Lake City and about 40 percent of the Aberdonians were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Mormons for short. Rather surprisingly, we all went to see a film at the Mormon church, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. It was newly out and was an amazing advance on all previous cartoon films and everybody was highly enthused. There was something odd about Mormon communities. In some ways they were a very strict sect, but in the old days they certainly did not object to having a gamble. When a new settlement was projected, the land would be marked out into plots, city size near the centre and larger and larger as they moved outwards into potential farm land. On one of the central plots a general store would be built, on another a hotel, and so on, so as to provide the basis for essential services. Buyers of lots would pay a fixed price, but their particular lot would be chosen at random. For their money they might get a bit of desert, or they might be lucky enough to get, for the same price, a very valuable property. The result was that many buyers had a go, were disappointed, and went away. To this day, many such towns have scattered vacant lots in them.

For a while I helped with the crossing programme with the barleys. This was quite easy for me, as I had been used to crossing wheats. In a day or two Mrs Harlan, Jack and Jean Yocum, his girl friend, arrived by car. It was soon announced that, since the crossing programme was complete and there was nothing else to do until harvest time, at least nothing that could not be delegated, we would all go up into the mountains. What a trip that was!

We travelled about 200 miles from Aberdeen, across plains which in some areas were covered with black lava, lava so rough and full of sharp edges that it would cut your shoes to pieces if you walked on it for any distance. In one place there was a group of craters and the area had been taken over by the National Parks Service as the Craters of the Moon National Monument. Looking down inside the smaller craters it was still possible to see the remains of the winter’s snow. Only two species of plants managed to survive in the lava fields. Then we drove up to Sun Valley, just getting established as a fashionable ski resort, and over a pass 8,750 feet high, only recently cleared of winter snow. It was June 23rd, which says something for the severity of the winter in those parts. We dropped down into the Salmon River valley, down to an altitude of 7,000 feet and stayed in cabins on the Running Springs Ranch at Obsidian. It was a lovely spot, with a fine view of the well-named Sawtooth Mountains, rising to a height of 10,000 to 11,000 feet. This was beautiful, remote country, basically sage brush in the valley but quickly turning to dense forest at higher altitudes. It was so remote that in going through the forest it was thought necessary to cut marks on trees so as not to get lost on the way back.

One thing should be said to salve my conscience of any guilt which I might have felt for leaving all the work and projected visits behind and simply going on holiday. Quite informally and spontaneously, usually in the evenings, ‘Doc’ would get around to chatting with us about plant breeding. He had many original ideas, some of which I later tested out successfully in England, and the experience was much more worthwhile than a typical lecture course. At any rate, that is my excuse for lingering in Idaho!

The younger members of our little group, which description included me, took to fishing, horse-riding and climbing the high peaks, all new experiences to me. Jack and Jean were very polite about having me join them, for we doubtless all knew the maxim “two’s company, three’s none”.

Quite a large trout was unwise enough to give itself up to my amateur efforts, though Jean caught the biggest. I gradually got into riding, and after a while learnt to bounce up and down in concert with the horse rather than in opposition, which was much easier on the nether regions. Some of the best days were when we rode through the forest, rode or, when it got really steep, walked behind the sure-footed horses, hanging on to their tails and finally tying them up to trees to await our return from climbing the peaks. I remember Jean getting really frightened on one occasion and hanging on to a rock and saying in a tone of terror “I wish I was back in Washington D.C.”!

The Running Springs ranch, kept by the Ellis family, was a very small scale dude ranch, indeed I do not remember any other visitors being there at the time. Mr Ellis kept a small store of Indian craft work and I bought a couple of Navajo rugs and some silver-and-turquoise items. Large rugs cost about $15 (£3) but some were cheaper. They were the ones which included swastikas in the design. The swastika is a symbol which turns up in all sorts of cultures all over the world, but in 1938 it was thought by many to be the sole property of Adolf Hitler. The silver and turquoise jewellery was made by several tribes, the Navajos and Zunis being most prominent. The turquoise was mined in the south-west and the Indians had a curious privilege regarding the silver. They could legally melt down silver dollars, which were still around though fast disappearing. For anybody else, it would constitute the serious offence of defacing the coinage. The Indians had other privileges too. They could hunt and fish without limit and without paying for any licence and they paid no state or federal taxes. It seemed to be a tacit admission by the government that the land still really belonged to the tribes from whom it had been so cruelly taken.

There were a few strange people around. A very tough-looking woman riding on horseback proved to be a convicted cattle-rustler. Out on parole, she was not permitted to go outside the county boundaries. Then there was a rather unprepossessing looking man, who obviously had a way with the ladies in spite of his appearance. He claimed the distinction of being divorced twice and married twice in one day, in Nevada of course. It was Reno then; Las Vegas came later. He had divorced wife no. 1, married no. 2 to legitimise a child she had borne him, and then divorced her to marry the favourite of the moment. Even in present-day America, where divorce is much more frequent than it used to be, that would be very newsworthy.

There were other ways of spending interesting moments. There was a large prairie dog ‘city’ a very short distance away, which was fascinating to watch. These ground squirrels form vast colonies and have a network of tunnels covering acres of land. They post sentinels, sitting upright to gain height, and in the event of danger they give out a squeak and dive underground to safety. A few miles’ car ride through the flower-covered valley took us to a private swimming pool fed by a hot spring, very hot and also quite sulphurous. Then one evening we went to a little mining village called Stanley for their Independence Day dance. It was pretty rough and very western. We went, advisedly, without watches and pocket books and lost only the cap off the car radiator. The place was a two-roomed village hall, the smaller, outer room being full of gaming machines and the other the dance hall. Mostly in cowboy boots, the dancers got wilder and wilder and the dust rose to choking proportions. Apart from being colourful, there was beauty there too. I remember stepping out into the clear, cold night. In such dry conditions, at these high altitudes, the stars were incredibly bright. There seemed to be ten times as many as usual and they appeared to be almost close enough to reach.

Surprisingly, there was rain on a couple of days. This seemed to accentuate the aroma of the sage brush, which smelt like a huge herb garden. Sage brush species (Artemisia) were related to the ‘old man’ and ‘old woman’, species of wormwood sometimes found in traditional cottage gardens in England. Then there was the always attractive smell of the pine woods, sometimes for us made rather richer, if that is the word, by the smell of our horses and their leather harness.

It had to come to an end, and finally Harry took me back to Aberdeen and then on to Pocatello, the nearest sizeable place. I was never to see him again, but I have a copy of his interesting autobiography. He had been a plant explorer, collecting the wild relatives and primitive cultivated forms of crop plants. He had been the first westerner to visit the Gondar region of Abyssinia since the Portuguese some 400 years earlier, and published an article on this in the National Geographic Magazine in 1925. Jack went on to be a breeder of range grasses among other things. He married Jean, of course. I never met his elder brother who was plant exploring in the Andes when I was in America. Mrs Harlan, a middle-westerner, was a homely lady. Homely in the best English meaning of the word, hospitable and kind, and not in the disparaging sense of the word as used in America.

From Pocatello I went to Logan, Utah. This trip was different, for there was no rail connection and I went by Greyhound bus, which was faster and grander than any I had previously experienced, and quite a lot faster than the train. At Logan was a U.S.D.A. experiment station, where I spent a day or two before taking another bus ride to Salt Lake City. At the experiment station there was a small team in the charge of Dr F.V. Owen. All Mormons, of course. American breeders seemed all to have been trained by Hayes in Minnesota. They were understandably greatly impressed with the success of hybrid maize breeding and tried above all else to find ways of getting other species to breed in the same way. Owen was working with sugar beet, about as awkward as any crop to adapt to the maize pattern, since each plant had many hundreds of small flowers all producing pollen as well as seeds. He was trying to make crosses by killing the pollen on the intended female plants. He had found that there was a small difference in the temperature at which the male and female parts of the flower were sterilised and he was trying to exploit this. This was in 1938. By 1948 he had developed genetically male-sterile sugar beet plants which did just what he had wanted, and did it on a large scale without any difficult stratagems such as close temperature control. He became famous as a result. I spent a couple of days with Owen. On the Sunday, some of the time was taken up by a swim in the Great Salt Lake. This was a weird experience, for the water is very nearly a saturated salt solution and people float like corks. Ordinary swimming techniques just do not work. Any of the salty water in the eyes or throat was very painful. Coming out, we were encrusted with salt, which was washed off in a fresh-water shower.

There was time to see the Mormon temple and tabernacle in Salt Lake City. Being a ‘gentile’ (even Jews are gentiles in Utah, only Mormons are not), I could not go into the temple, but the tabernacle was most impressive. A very large oval building with a dome so accurately made that the faintest whisper at one focus could be heard a great distance away at the other, it was built of wood carried across the country in wagons. It was constructed entirely without nails or bolts. It is the home of the famous Mormon choir.

Now I had to catch another Union Pacific train going east to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to visit another experiment station. This was open range country at one time roamed by buffaloes. Now it carried cattle and sheep at a stocking rate of one steer to 27 to 40 acres. It was also part of the great Dust Bowl of those years. There I saw the most dramatic effect of the drought. A horse had walked across some bare land and then there had been a ‘blow’. An inch or so of topsoil had blown away, but where the horse had trodden its weight had consolidated the soil, so that remained. The hoof-marks stood out, raised above the surrounding soil level.

Another train trip took me to Lincoln, Nebraska, there to stay three or four days, and then on to Ames, Iowa. There were no mountains anymore and the land was all marked out, north-south and east-west by roads or tracks into one mile squares or ‘sections’. This was homesteader country, new arrivals in days gone by being entitled to own 160 acres, a quarter section, per family. They had to secure tenure by cultivating a large-enough part of it and building some sort of dwelling on it, within a year.

At Ames I met Martin Weiss, then a soya bean breeder, and that was another new crop for me to look at. For crossing purposes, I did not like the look of the very tiny flowers at all, terribly difficult to manipulate. I was with Martin over the weekend and he had promised to take his girlfriend to a dance in Des Moines. He solved the problem of having the English visitor on his hands by asking her to bring a friend along and we went as a foursome. Years later I met Martin in Washington D.C., where he had attained a very senior position. He teasingly said that he thought I was a bit of a rotter, for he had married his partner at the dance and I had done nothing at all about mine!

From then on, visits came thick and fast. Firstly to the Union Pacific terminus in Chicago and across town by road to the terminus of the Pennsylvania Railroad. All very peaceful, not a gangster in sight. It wasn’t a bit like the movies. Maybe I was out of luck, just as I had been with the earthquakes in California!

After Chicago, on to Wooster, Ohio, to Cornell University in Ithaca and to State College, Pennsylvania before returning to Washington, D.C. Of all these, Cornell was the most memorable. Situated in a delightful setting in up-state New York, it was a prestigious university which I might well have elected to go to instead of to Berkeley. A single-track branch line took me there. I spent time with Marcus Rhodes and Barbara McClintock, both leaders in their field. They were concerned at the time with the heredity of a kind of maize which had mottled grains. They finally sorted it out and published the results, identifying some quite unusual jumping genes’, which seemed to move from chromosome to chromosome. It was not long before McClintock had collected a Nobel Prize for this work. She recently died, aged 90.

Washington was hot, and steamy too. Air conditioning very rare indeed and official departments would send their staff home in 90-90 weather, that is over 90 degrees F. and 90 percent relative humidity. I was back in the Cosmos Club, a neighbour of President Roosevelt once more. I went to see Merle Jenkins’s corn plots and also spent time taking samples of wheat grain from the U.S.D.A. world collection, to supplement the collection in Cambridge.

Now it really was time to go home, back to New York to catch another Cunarder. Even at this stage, and from a distance of well over two thousand miles, ‘Doc’ had his last fling of hospitality. He had friends who lived in a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park. There I spent my last night ashore in America, eating dinner while looking down on all the twinkling lights and flashing signs of the city.

The boat I caught next morning was the Aquitania, this time with no less than four great red funnels, tipped with black. This was no product of German reparations, but had been built on Clydebank in 1914. It was of 45,000 tons. It left on August 3rd and arrived in Southampton on August 9th, at an average speed of over 24 knots. It was a comfortable voyage, all the way, noted on the ship’s log as having light winds and smooth or slight sea. The good and bad sailors were not differentiated on this voyage and stabilisers would have been quite superfluous.

Now back in Britain and to trains again, trains pulled by smaller, neater engines, not black at all and with most of their entrails hidden beneath cladding. Somehow, though, they were an anticlimax after listening to the throaty roar of the great, American engines fighting their way up the mountain passes. There, there was power and splendour.

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