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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 48.djvu/674

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
STEPPES, DESERTS, AND ALKALI LANDS.
By Prof. E. W. HILGARD.

THE average reader feels but a moderate interest in the subject of steppes, which he usually associates with roving herds and Tartar or Indian tribes, whose periodic raids have in the past been a standing source of disquiet to civilization, whether in the Occident or Orient. The predatory habits of these people seemed to be proof sufficient of the fact that the countries occupied by them are not able to support permanently a population devoted to agricultural and industrial pursuits, and that their inhabitants are under more or less natural stress toward levying forced contributions upon their neighbors in order to eke out their existence in a satisfactory way, as in the case of the tribes of the deserts properly so called.

As to alkali lands, so far as they are known and considered at all, they are regarded only as obstacles to the settlement and cultivation of the otherwise desirable lands whose continuity they mar, aside from the discomfort their pungent dust and saline water causes to the overland traveler; while their Old World equivalents, the "salt steppes" of southeastern Russia, central Asia, and northern Africa, are among the most disconsolate images conjured up by the imagination of those who traverse or read about them. Moreover, it is currently supposed that these regions owe their saline soil to the evaporation of former salt lakes or seas, and that an indefinite amount of similar salts lurks below the surface, ready to replace whatever may be removed in any attempt to reclaim the lands for cultivation.

From this point of view it is hard to understand why the people foremost in ancient civilizations should have chosen for their abodes, and should have developed their civilization rather predominantly, in regions either adjacent to deserts, or having, during a considerable portion of the year, the aspect and character of the ill-reputed steppe. Egypt is the example nearest to Europe, but Asia Minor, Syria (including Palestine, the "land where milk and honey flows"), Persia, Arabia, and (crossing the Indus) northern India, the classic ground of the Vedas and Mahabharata, are more or less tainted with "the breath of the desert," as well as with its actual presence to a greater or less degree. Looking westward, we again find the old Carthaginian and later Moorish civilization on the borders of the desert. Crossing the Atlantic, we find the empire of the Incas on the steep, bare, uninviting western slope of the Andes, when just across the divide there lay the rich countries now forming the Colombian republics and typically exuberant Brazil. In North America, likewise, the civ-