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Volume 3387
The Fourteenth Runner-Up in the Seven Wonders of Barsoom 
Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.

Giovanni Schiaparelli's 1877 canali (channels) map

Whelan art for Bradbury's Martian Chronicles
Canal Views from the 1st Wonder of Barsoom


Rick Johnson emailed me while I was writing the series on the ancient oceans, asking me when I was going to do an article on the waterways. I said that I thought I had already covered that topic in the First Wonder of the Life-Saving Pumping Stations of Mars, but he protested that I had not really. After examining that article more closely, I realized Rick was right and I dedicate this article to him.

First of all, there are no open water canals on Mars. That’s why ERB preferred to call them “waterways,” covered conduits through which the life giving water of Barsoom can flow. 

Since the waterways can be discerned by the wide tracts of fertile land that line each side of the conduit, these long tracts show up as the lines, or canals, of Mars when viewed from a telescope on Earth. Which brings us to our next point: Barsoom is not the real Mars. It is a fictional wonderland, like Oz, Pellucidar or Tarzan’s Dark Continent, not to be mistaken for a real place, but a place where fantastic, impossible things, can happen.

That’s why, other than the actual global coordinates given in the stories, a map of Barsoom is as much a work of the cartographer’s imagination, as it is a trustworthy guide to the planet. Thus, it is not my belief that ERB ever really attempted to match the watered cultivated tracts to any actual physical geography on the real Mars. He was more interested in storytelling and entertaining his millions of readers. And that he never ceases in doing.

We discover our first description of the Martian waterways in the first book of the Mythos, A Princess of Mars. It comes as the horde of Tars Tarkas is returning to their capital city of Thark:

“The remainder of our journey to Thark was uneventful. We were twenty days upon the road, crossing two sea bottoms and passing through or around a number of ruined cities, mostly smaller than Korad. Twice we crossed the famous Martian waterways, or canals, so-called by our earthly astronomers. When we approached these points a warrior would be sent far ahead with a powerful field glass, and if no great body of red Martian troops was in sight we would advance as close as possible without chance of being seen and then camp until dark, when we would slowly approach the cultivated tract, and, locating one of the numerous, broad highways which cross these areas at regular intervals, creep silently and stealthily across to the arid lands upon the other side. It required five hours to make one of these crossings without a single halt, and the other consumed the entire night, so that we were just leaving the confines of the high-walled fields when the sun broke out upon us.

“Crossing in the darkness, as we did, I was unable to see but little, except as the nearer moon, in her wild and ceaseless hurtling through the Barsoomian heavens, lit up little patches of the landscape from time to time, disclosing walled fields and low, rambling buildings, presenting much the appearance of earthly farms. There were many trees, methodically arranged, and some of them were of enormous height; there were animals in some of the enclosures, and they announced their presence by terrified squealings and snortings as they scented our queer, wild beasts and wilder human beings.

“Only once did I perceive a human being, and that was at the intersection of our crossroad with the wide, white turnpike which cuts each cultivated district longitudinally at its exact center. The fellow must have been sleeping beside the road, for, as I came abreast of him, he raised upon one elbow and after a single glance at the approaching caravan leaped shrieking to his feet and fled madly down the road, scaling a nearby wall with the agility of a scared cat. The Tharks paid him not the slightest attention; they were not out upon the warpath, and the only sign that I had that they had seen him was a quickening of the pace of the caravan as we hastened toward the bordering desert which marked our entrance into the realm of Tal Hajus.” (PM/16.)

Soon after they arrive in Thark, John Carter and Dejah Thoris recruit Sola for their escape to Helium. Sola speaks:
“‘The great waterway which leads to Helium is but fifty miles to the south,’ murmurred Sola, half to herself; ‘a swift thoat might make it in three hours; and then to Helium it is five hundred miles, most of the way through thinly settled districts. They would know and they would follow us. We might hide among the great trees for a time, but the chances are small indeed for escape. They would follow us to the very gates of Helium, and they would take toll of life at every step; you do not know them.’

“‘Is there no other way we might reach Helium?’ I asked. ‘Can you not draw me a rough map of the country we must traverse, Dejah Thoris?’

“‘Yes,’ she replied, and taking a great diamond from her hair she drew upon the marble floor the first map of Barsoomian territory I had ever seen. It was crisscrossed in every direction with long straight lines, sometimes running parallel and sometimes converging toward some great circle. The lines, she said, were waterways; the circles, cities; and one far to the northwest of us she pointed out as Helium. There were other cities closer, but she said she feared to enter many of them, as they were not all friendly toward Helium.

“Finally, after studying the map carefully in the moonlight which now flooded the room, I pointed out a waterway far to the north of us which also seemed to lead to Helium.

“‘Does this not pierce your grandfather’s territory?’ I asked.

“‘Yes,’ she answered, ‘but it is two hundred miles north of us; it is one of the waterways we crossed on the trip to Thark.’

“‘They would never suspect that we would try for that distant waterway,’ I answered, ‘and that is why I think that it is the best route for our escape.’” (PM/16.)

We next get a fairly thorough idea of the cultivated areas after Carter escapes the Warhoons and finds himself at the atmosphere factory, which appears to be built close to or on a waterway:
“Through two long weeks I wandered, stumbling through the nights guided only by the stars and hiding during the days behind some protruding rock or among the occasional hills I traversed. . . .

“At daybreak of the fifteenth day of my search I was overjoyed to see the high trees that denoted the object of my search. About noon I dragged myself wearily to the portals of a huge building which covered perhaps four square miles and towered two hundred feet in the air.” (PM/20)

We get a better picture of this district after Carter escapes the clutches of the caretaker of the atmosphere plant:
“Hastening away from the shadows of the formidable pile I made for the first crossroad, intending to strike the central turnpike as quickly as possible. This I reached about morning and entering the first enclosure I came to I searched for some evidences of habitation.

“There were low rambling buildings of concrete barred with heavy impassable doors, and no amount of hammering and hallooing brought any response. Weary and exhausted from sleeplessness I threw myself upon the ground commanding Woola to stand guard.

“Some time later I was awakened by his frightful growlings and opened my eyes to see three red Martians standing a short distance from us and covering me with their rifles.

“‘I am unarmed and no enemy,’ I hastened to explain. ‘I have been a prisoner among the green men and am on my way to Zodanga. All I ask is food and rest for myself and my calot and the proper directions for reaching my destination.’

“They lowered their rifles and advanced pleasantly toward me placing their right hands upon my left shoulder, after the manner of their custom of salute, and asking me many questions about myself and my wanderings. They then took me to the house of one of them which was only a short distance away.

“The buildings I had been hammering at in the early morning were occupied only by stock and farm produce, the house proper standing among a grove of enormous trees, and, like all red-Martian homes, had been raised at night some forty or fifty feet from the ground on a large round metal shaft which slid up or down within a sleeve sunk in the ground, and was operated by a tiny radium engine in the entrance hall of the building. Instead of bothering with bolts and bars for their dwellings. the red Martians simply run them up out of harm’s way during the night. They also have private means for lowering or raising them from the ground without if they wish to go away and leave them.

“These brothers, with their wives and children, occupied three similar houses on this farm. They did no work themselves, being government officers in charge. The labor was performed by convicts, prisoners of war, delinquent debtors and confirmed bachelors who were too poor to pay the high celibate tax which all red-Martian governments impose.

“They were the personification of cordiality and hospitality and I spent several days with them, resting and recuperating from my long and arduous experiences.

“When they had heard my story – I omitted all reference to Dejah Thoris and the old man of the atmosphere plant – they advised me to color my body to more nearly resemble their own race and then attempt to find employment in Zodanga, either in the army or the navy.

“‘The chances are small that your tale will be believed until after you have proven your trustworthiness and won friends among the higher nobles of the court. This you can most easily do through military service, as we are a warlike people on Barsoom,’ explained one of them.” (PM/20.)

The Ptor brothers provide a red pigment for his skin, then give him money and letters of introduction for when he arrives in Zodanga, since they are well connected with the ruling class.

As Carter journeys down the turnpike of the waterway, he encounters a strange cross-section of Martian culture:

“As I proceeded on my journey toward Zodanga many strange and interesting sights arrested my attention, and at the several farm houses where I stopped I learned a number of new and instructive things concerning the methods and manners of Barsoom.

“The water which supplies the farms of Mars is collected in immense underground reservoirs at either pole from the melting ice caps, and pumped through long conduits to the various populated centers. Along either side of these conduits, and extending their entire length, lie the cultivated districts. These are divided into tracts of about the same size, each tract being under the supervision of one or more government officers.

“Instead of flooding the surface of the fields, and thus wasting immense quantities of water by evaporation, the precious liquid is carried underground through a vast network of small pipes directly to the roots of the vegetation. The crops upon Mars are always uniform, for there are no droughts, no rains, no high winds, and no insects, or destroying birds.

“On this trip I tasted the first meat I had eaten since leaving Earth – large, juicy steaks and chops from the well-fed domestic animals of the farms. Also I enjoyed luscious fruits and vegetables, but not a single article of food which was exactly similar to anything on Earth. Every plant and flower and vegetable and animal has been so refined by ages of careful, scientific cultivation and breeding that the like of them on Earth dwindled into pale, gray, characterless nothingness by comparison.

“At a second stop I met some highly cultivated people of the noble class and while in conversation we chanced to speak of Helium. One of the older men had been there on a diplomatic mission several years before and spoke with regret of the conditions which seemed destined ever to keep these two countries at war. 

“‘Helium,’ he said, ‘rightly boasts of the most beautiful women of Barsoom, and of all her treasures the wondrous daughter of Mors Kajak, Dejah Thoris, is the most exquisite flower.

“‘Why,’ he added, ‘the people really worship the ground she walks upon and ever since her loss on that ill-starred expedition all of Helium has been draped in mourning.

“‘That our ruler should have attacked the disabled fleet as it was returning to Helium was but another of his awful blunders which I fear will sooner or later compel Zodanga to elevate a wiser man to his place.

“Even now, though our victorious armies are surrounding Helium, the people of Zodanga are voicing their displeasure, for the war is not a popular one, since it is not based on right or justice. Our forces took advantage of the absence of the principal fleet of Helium on their search for the princess, and so we have been able easily to reduce the city to a sorry plight. It is said she will fall within the next few passages of the further moon.’” (PM/21.)

As we saw from our article on the River Iss, the First Born Black Pirates adjust the water level in the underground Sea of Omean by pumping the water run-off from the Lost Sea of Korus into the reservoirs of the Red Martians. As Xodar, the Black Dator, explains to Carter and Phaidor as he points to the Sea of Omean:
“‘This sea,’ he continued, ‘is larger than Korus. It receives the waters of the lesser sea above it. To keep it from filling above a certain level we have four great pumping stations that force the oversupply back into the reservoirs far north from which the red men draw the water which irrigates their farm lands.’

“A new light burst on me with this explanation. The red men had always considered it a miracle that caused great columns of water to spurt from the solid rock of their reservoir sides to increase the supply of the precious liquid which is so scarce in the outer world of Mars.

“Never had their learned men been able to fathom the secret of the source of this enormous volume of water. As ages passed they had simply come to accept it as a matter of course and ceased to question is origin.” (GM/8.)

The waterways disappear as elements of drama until once again they take center stage in Thuvia, Maid of Mars. Carthoris and Kar Komak, the reincarnated Lotharian bowman, seeking Thuvia and escaping the Torquasians, stumble upon a Dusarian cultivated tract:
“All that night and the following day and the second night they rode toward the north-east. No indication of pursuit developed, and at dawn of the second day Carthoris saw in the distance the waving ribbon of great trees that marked one of the long Barsoomian waterways.

“Immediately they abandoned their thoats and approached the cultivated district on foot. Carthoris also discarded the metal from his harness, or such of it as might serve to identify him as a Heliumite, or of royal blood, for he did not know to what nation belonged this waterway, and upon Mars it is always well to assume every man and nation your enemy until you have learned the contrary.

“It was mid-afternoon when the two at last entered one of the roads that cut through the cultivated districts at regular intervals, the arid wastes on either side with the great, white, central highway that follows through the center from end to end of the far-reaching, threadlike farm lands.

“The high wall surrounding the fields served as a protection against surprise by raiding green hordes, as well as keeping the savage banths and other carnivora from the domestic animals and the human beings upon the farms.

“Carthoris stopped before the first gate he came to, pounding for admission. The young man who answered his summons greeted the two hospitably, though he looked with considerable wonder upon the white skin and auburn hair of the bowman.

“After he had listened for a moment to a partial narrative of their escape from the Torquasians, he invited them within, took them to his house and bade the servants there prepare food for them.

“As they waited in the low-ceiled, pleasant livingroom of the farmhouse until the meal should be ready, Carthoris drew his host into conversation that he might learn his nationality, and thus the nation under whose dominion lay the waterway where circumstance had placed him. 

“‘I am Halvas,’ said the young man, ‘son of Vas Kor, of Dusar, a noble of the retinue of Astok, prince of Dusar. At present I am Dwar of the Road for this district.’” (TMM/ 11.)


The average width of the cultivated areas, from one boundary on one side to the boundary on the other side, must be vast. It took the Tharks five hours to cross the first one, and all of the night to cross the other one as they made their way to Thark. We are reminded that Sola said that a fast moving thoat could cover a distance of fifty miles in three hours. Thus, the cultivated areas from boundary to boundary could be about this distance since it took the slow moving thoats of the Tharks five hours to cross the first area, and all night to cross the next one, which would mean in about six or seven hours.

One central great white turnpike runs down the center of each waterway, which are crisscrossed by crossing roads at consistent intervals. It appears that not every cross highway is guarded, since the Tharks were able to cross without challenge, and the one man who jumped the wall that Carter saw, did not appear to be a government official. Each section of each district is ruled by a government official. Except for the cross streets and central turnpike, the cultivated fields and animal pens have high walls surrounding them.

The actual farming appears to be a farmer’s dream: no droughts, high winds, destroying insects or birds, and no rain. The water appears to have a constant flow from year to year, evidencing a uniform supply of water from pole to pole. The first thing that marks a cultivated area is the presence of high trees.

How much water would be needed to cultivate the fields and quench the thirst of all of the Martians on the planet? I cannot remember if ERB ever gave the population of Mars while Carter was there. All I can give by way of analogy is the amount of water necessary to cultivate the fields and quench the thirst of the citizens of the San Joaquin Valley.

There are approximately thirty million people in California as of this date. The vast majority of this population is in the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California. The main sources of water for these areas comes from the Shasta reservoir and the dams along the Sierra Nevada that border the Sacramento Valley. Southern California obtains most of its water from the Owens Valley and the Colorado River. However, in the San Joaquin Valley, a large proportion of the water from the San Luis Reservoir goes to Los Angeles.

Fresno has an average rainfall of 11.23 inches a year. This year we’ve had an exceptional rainy season and most of the reservoirs that feed the San Joaquin Valley are either at full capacity or are being prepared for spring and summer runoff. We’ve had 15.26 inches of rain this year.

Since the Martian supply of water is not subject to El Ninos and other weather conditions, let’s say for the sake of argument that this year’s water levels are normative for Mars for a population of 15 million people. After all, Mars is a dying planet, and the statistics I am about to give are for a population of approximately that size, including the cultivation of the vast farm lands in the San Joaquin Valley.

The following statistics are for the San Joaquin Valley reservoirs and rivers and come from the April 10, 2011, issue of The Fresno Bee:

              Current acre feet     % of capacity
Eastman Lake: 127,873         85%
Hensley Lake: 57, 412          64%
Huntington Lake: 35, 446      40%
Lake Kaweah: 103,694         56%
Lake Success: 43,442           53%
Mammoth Pool Res.: 99,832 82%
McClure: 752,830                 73%
Millerton Lake: 370,890       71%
Pine Flat Res.: 786,479        79%
San Luis Res.: 2,034,192     100%
Shaver Lake: 106,021           78%
Wishon Res.: 0%                    0%

Cubic feet per second
Natural flow at Piedra 5,920
Actual release 6,994
San Joaquin:
Calculated natural flow 6,754
Millerton Lake inflow 4,542
Average Millerton release:
San Joaquin 6,985
Friant-Kern Canal 1,411
Madera 717

(Sources: Kings River Water Association; U.S. Bureau of Reclamation; State Department of Water Resources.)
If the reader is interested in the California water system and would like to learn more, let me recommend the article on the system that appears in Joan Didion’s White Album, a perhaps out-dated but excellent example of reporting. I am neither a meteorologist nor an engineer so these numbers are just that to an amateur like me. However, they are indicative of how much water is necessary for crops and people for the central part of California.

We must always remember that Barsoom is purely an imaginary place, but if you are so inclined, you may take the statistics above as a starting point in your calculations of how much water is on Barsoom in the Mythos.

And there you have it, ERB’s Canals of Mars: the Fourteenth Runner-Up in the Seven Wonders of Barsoom!

19th Century Artist Interpretations of the Mars "Canals"

I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII
7 WONDERS: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII

RUNNERS UP: I.a | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII.2.2b.3a.3b | IX | X.2.3.4
|.XI. |.XII.2.| XIII.|.XIV.|.XV.

SYNTHETIC MEN OF MARS: Art and Commentary
A Princess of Mars
Gods of Mars
Warlord of Mars
Thuvia, Maid of Mars
Chessmen of Mars
Mastermind of Mars
A Fighting Man of Mars
Swords of Mars
Synthetic Men of Mars
Llana of Gathol
Skeleton Men of Jupiter
John Carter and the Giant of Mars

The Lost Canals of Percival Lowell
A Guide to the Mars Novels of ERB
Burroughs, Barsoom and Lowell's Mars by Leathem Mehaffey
Mars Fever

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