Still More Dame Shirley

On her way to the mining camps to join her husband, Dame Shirley, author of “The Shirley Letters,” witnessed a practice as old as humanity and described it in a letter to her sister Mary Jane:

“We passed one place where a number of Indian women were gathering flower seeds, which, mixed with pounded acorns and grasshoppers, forms the bread of these miserable people.

“The idea, and the really ingenious mode of carrying it out, struck me as so singlular that I cannot forbear making a description.

“These poor creatures were entirely naked with the exception of a quantity of grass bound round the waist and covering the thighs midway to the knees perhaps. Each one carried two brown baskets (which, I have been told, are made of a species of osier) woven with a neatness which is absolutely marvellous.

“Shaped like a cone, they are about six feet in circumference at the opening, and I should judge them to be nearly three feet in depth. It is evident from by the grace and care with which they handle them that they are exceedingly light.

“It is possible my description may be inaccurate, for I have never read any account of them and merely give my own impressions as they were received while the wagon rolled rapidly by the spot at which the women were at work.

“One of these queer baskets is suspended from the back and is kept in place by a thong of leather passing across the forehead. The other they carry in the right hand and wave over the flower seeds, first to the right and back again to the left alternately, as they walk slowly along, with a motion as regular and monotonous as that of a mower.

“When they have collected a handful of the seeds, they pour them into the basket behind and continue this work until they have filled the latter with their strange harvest. The seeds thus collected are carried to their rancherias and stowed away with great care for winter use.

“It was, to me, very interesting to watch their regular motion, they seemed so exactly to keep time with each other; and with their dark shining skins, beautiful limbs and lithe forms, they were by no means the least picturesque feature of the landscape.”

Loren Eisley, who wrote a lot of interesting books about anthropology and climatology and things like that, points out that humankind came on the scene at the same time as flowering plants, and this may be no coincidence. Surely the harvesting of flower seeds was a precursor to the systematic cultivation of grains that so transformed the life of humanity.