I arise facing East,
I am asking toward the light;
I am asking that my day
Shall be beautiful with light.
I am asking that the place
Where my feet are shall be light,
That as far as I can see
I shall follow it aright.
I am asking for the courage
To go forward through the shadow,
I am asking towards light!–Mary Austin
Mary Austin wrote about life in the Sierra Nevada mountains and valleys of California, about the Native peoples, the white settlers, the animals and the natural rhythm of the area.
Weather does not happen. It is the visible manifestation of the Spirit moving itself in the void.
Mary Austin (1868-1934) is a southwest writer who wrote about the desert and mountain areas of the Sierra Nevada and the Death Valley region of California. The Land of Little Rain is a collection of essays that first ran in the Atlantic Monthly in 1903 and was subsequently published in book form. For Americans in the east and middle parts of the country, California at this time still evoked mystery and an Eden-like quality, but the desert was an unknown entity.
Austin brought interest to these regions by her lyrical and descriptive writing style (and an independent use of words and phrases to furrow an editor’s brow), not only of the land and animal inhabitants, but as an ally to the plight of the Shoshone and Paiute Indians who had been shut out and shoved around by the “progress” of the encroaching White population. She trekked through mountain passages, Spring-flowered valleys and scrubby foothills observing and finding connections among the nonhuman and human animals who populated the nooks and crannies of a place where only the hardy could survive.
She writes like John Muir personalizing the animals that she observes and brings to life what many people don’t see in the desert. And like Muir, who roamed the Sierras as well, she sees the nondenominational hand of Spirit that both animates and connects all the world. However, unlike Muir and the male dominated “nature” movement shouting to the wide world, her voice is for the local personal relationship with a particular piece of land.
Originally from Illinois, she moved west with her family after college. She married and had a daughter finding a base in the tiny town of Independence where she wandered throughout the desert foothills and mountain trails with Ruth strapped to her back in a device she learned from the Indians.
I lived in her house for the summer many years ago when I came back to California after 5 years in Chicago. A friend owned her house and asked me to stay while she spent long trips backpacking and peak climbing throughout the Sierras. I had never spent much time in the desert let alone such a small town where there was a last street before the wilderness.
As odd as it might seem, I didn’t read any of Mary Austin’s extensive work. Instead, I spent days wandering the foothills coming upon bleached cow bones, poking at the dirt for horned toads, discovering ancient Native petroglyphs etched in big stone rocks, sitting on granite boulders in the evening while the red-tailed hawks above me searched for dinner below, and watching the shadows change the color of the Sierras and the Inyo/Whites as the sun’s shadow passed over them from sun up to sun rise.
Petroglyphs on boulders saying something…?
After reading The Land of Little Rain over the weekend I was duly stunned by what this collection of essays brought up. It wasn’t just the memories of one of the best summers of my life, but why I love to be outside walking trails and keeping company with all of Nature’s creaturely inhabitants and how I am often opened to praise That which is bigger than myself.
Austin eventually settled in Taos, New Mexico where she continued to write books, poems and plays.
Below are passages from The Land of Little Rain that particularly struck me. And incidentally, all the photos on this page are mine. Excuse the quality as they are digital photos taken from snapshots.
A communion of creatures—
Probably we never fully credit the interdependence of wild creatures, and their cognizance of the affairs of their own kind. When the five coyotes that range the Tejon from Pasteria to Tunawai planned a relay race to bring down an antelope strayed from the band, beside myself to watch, an eagle swung down from Mt. Pinos, buzzards materialized out of invisible ether, and hawks came trooping like small boys to a street fight. Rabbits sat up in the chaparral and cocked their ears, feeling themselves quite safe for the once as the hunt swung near them. Nothing happens in the deep wood that the blue jays are not all agog to tell. The hawk follows the badger, the coyote the carrion crow, and from their aerial stations the buzzards watch each other. What would be worth knowing is how much of their neighbor’s affairs the new generations learn for themselves, and how much they are taught of their elders.
This is the sense of the desert hills, that there is room enough and time enough. Trees grow to consummate domes; every plant has its perfect work. Noxious weeds such as come up thickly in crowded fields do not flourish in the free spaces. Live long enough with an Indian, and he or the wild things will show you a use for everything that grows in these borders.
The Desert— For all the toll the desert takes of a man it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars…It is hard to escape the sense of mastery as the stars move in the wide clear heavens to risings and settings unobscured. They look large and near and palpitant; as if they moved on some stately service not needful to declare. Wheeling to their stations in the sky, they make the poor world-fret of no account. Of no account you who lie out there watching nor the lean coyote that stands off in the scrub from you and howls and howls.
When food is scarce, women are vulnerable— On the slope the summer growth affords seeds; up the steep the one-leafed pines, an oily nut. That was really all they could depend upon, and that only at the mercy of the little gods of frost and rain. For the rest it was cunning against cunning, caution against skill, against quacking hordes of wild-fowl in the Tulare, against pronghorn and bignhorn and deer. You can guess, however that all this warring of rifles and bowstrings, this influx of of overlording whites, had made game wilder and hunters fearful of being hunted. You can surmise also, for it was a crude time and the land was raw, that the women became in turn the game of the conquerors.
Why do people live in the desert?— …One does not wonder so much after having lived there. None other than this long brown land lays such a hold on the affections. The rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous radiance of the spring, have the lotus charm. They trick the sense of time, so that once inhabiting there you always mean to go away without quite realizing that you have not done it…For one thing there is the divinest, cleanest air to be breathed anywhere in God’s world. Some day the world will understand that, and the little oases on the windy tops of hills will harbor for healing its ailing, house-weary broods.
Independence also has the disturbing distinction as one of the centers of Japanese-American internment during World War II. Manzanar is situated at the edge of the town.
The entrance is on the left. On the right,a cemetery marker where survivors and others sometimes leave personal mementos.
Title: The Land of Little Rain
Author: Mary Austin
Publisher: University of New Mexico Press
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1974, is the complete text of the first edition, 1903
Pages: 171 Full plot summary
Mount TBR, Classics Club, Back to the Classics
I am back in San Diego, house sitting, through next week. It is a regular menagerie around here with two dogs, three cats, a turtle, a spider and fish. Paging Dr. Doolittle!
One of my favorite hiking spots here is in Mission Trails Regional Park. Inside the visitor center is a sculpture called, Heritage. The first time I saw it I had come from walking the long road that divides the park. I’d noticed how the rocks and boulders faced each other across the peaks, with South Fortuna, the most prominent on this side of the park with its wide promontory of tall boulders, greeting visitors as they entered.
In the sculpture, the faces and bodies of aged Native Americans are carved out of boulders. They are at once, FROM the boulders and ARE the boulders. And that is why the boulder outcropping of South Fortuna draws me: they aren’t just rocks, they are Rock People, the Ancestors of the Kumeyaay, the indigenous people of this land.
It is easy to imagine in the tall, flat rocks and boulders the Old Ones of this region, looking out across their land to what was, looking for their people, missing the acknowledgement and reverence they were once given, their presence remembered and acknowledge as the inhabitants moved through their day.
What do they watch for now, these sentries, guarding their ancestral home? I hope, from their tall perch, they see other people enjoying and benefiting from this beautiful open space, and happy their sacred land is appreciated.
Hawks and crows use their ‘heads’ as perches, smaller birds and animals use their nooks and crannies as living spaces. Some humans climb them or walk on them. Do the ancestors mind? Is it desecration to use a boulder like that? If one only stands and looks is that better than one who walks on it? Or is just the fact that whatever we do on this land without destroying it, enough?
Even if there is no conscious appreciation by most of the people who daily walk and bike the trails or the weekend climbers or the campers or noon-time picnickers, they are choosing to do their activities in the shadow of Fortuna, of Fortune and Luck. I would think the climbers, especially, would be appreciative!
This morning I stood for a long while watching this mountain from the road. Besides the birds, I could hear ruffling in the bushes close to me, see streaks of reptile zip across the small rocks and I saw how plants grow out of tiny cracks on a boulder’s surface. But I also found myself breathing deeply the scents of the outdoors, of bushes and flowers and leaves reminding me where I was at that moment.
A woman asked me what I was looking at. She had come up the road with her dog dragging her from side to side as he picked up scents. I pointed to the hawks and crows flying above and perching on top of the boulders. She seemed surprised at that, but not enough to stop and gaze for herself. No matter. She was enjoying her trail workout and happy to share it with her dog. A legitimate way to use and appreciate the place.
Aware or not, the Rock People watch. May we honor the memory of their people and their land.
I am on vacation in the wonderful Southern California city of San Diego. I am house-sitting for my sister, and with my dog the menagerie includes two dogs, four cats, some fish and a renegade turtle.
Since I visit so often I have come to really enjoy my time here. Plenty of places to hike and trail walk, visit California historical sites, experience the incredible variety of restaurants and ethnic and vegan/vegetarian food choices, not to mention the several used bookstores that I go to over and over again.
Concerning the latter, I have been here two days and have already bought three books. Considering I will be here until at least next Friday, I am not doing very well pacing my book-buying Self. Yikes, I’d better slow that one down!
I plan on reading a lot, but I am not sure how much I will be posting while I am here. I am always so active, trying to take in as much as possible.
If you ever contemplate a trip to this fine state and you want an alternative or an addition to LA, go south. You won’t regret it.
Some of my favorites:
This peak is South Fortuna and I am madly in love with her. I am not a climber, so I can only worship her from afar. Mission Trails Regional Park
Adams Avenue Book Store. Located in a 1920s building, it used to be someone’s two-story home. The cooking department is upstairs in the kitchen. Over-stuffed chairs and cats are spread out in equal measure. It is known for its literary classics and religion departments. It scares me to go in here. I know I will find everything I can’t afford to buy.
One of the things I love about living in Southern California, is our racial, national and religious diversity. I have the choice of food and culture from possibly every country in the world. I can listen to conversations about the news of global hometowns, and I can share in celebrations of holidays and events from countries I will probably never get the chance to visit.
Scattered over the vast miles of the LA Basin and surrounding counties are statues and plaques celebrating people and events that were or are important to the variety of immigrant populations, who now make this area their home.
Like this: a bust, located on the warm, sunny grounds of Griffith Park commemorating the discovery of America by the Viking Icelander, Leif Erikson!
I stumbled upon it last Saturday, while taking a walk at the bottom of Griffith Park. I am a huge Viking fan—the People, not the football team—and quite an Icelandophile. I was happily surprised to see this larger than life-sized bust of the famed explorer overlooking Los Feliz Blvd., but I was also intrigued and puzzled. He would be appropriate, it seemed to me, in the Midwest or the East where large communities of Scandinavians settled earlier in the last century.
So, I was very surprised to learn of the large Scandinavian community here—80,000 people by 1936 when the bust was dedicated, according to an LA Times article on October 4th of that year. And apropos of this gift presented by the Nordic Civic League, the California governor proclaimed October 9, 1936, Leif Erikson Day.
Events at this inaugural* celebration included a Norwegian quartet singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ and a group of ancient Icelandic songs. Congratulatory messages were sent by the governments of Denmark and Norway, and included this one sent by radiogram and cable from the Icelandic government to the mayor of Los Angeles which read:
“On the occasion of your celebration of Leif Erikson Day by unveiling a statue in his honor, we extend to you and your city our heartiest congratulations and felicitations upon your recognition of our famous countryman, the discoverer of America.”
Do you have any statues or celebrations of Leif Erikson where you live?
The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is one of my favorite weeks of the year. I have always felt in my bones the ending of the old year and the expectation of the new. I suppose that my birthday is on January first has something to do with it, because birthdays, too, feel like fresh starts. Though I don’t make resolutions, I do try to look at my life as I ponder what worked this year, what didn’t, what I want less of and what I want more of in the new year.
So I will spend this week in thoughtful dialog with myself, finding inspiration and journaling a lot. The week will also include old movies, a bike ride or two and some pie. Mmmm, pie 🙂
I have only been blogging on Relevant Obscurity for a few months, but I have treasured the interactions I have experienced with other bloggers, whose own work I hope carries on throughout the new year.
Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885) is known in California for her novel Ramona, but she was also a prolific writer and advocate for Native American rights. As a poet, she sums up well for me the feelings of this time of the year. Published posthumously in a collection of her poems I hope “A New Year’s Morning” (1892), inspires you as well.
Only a night from old to new! Only a night, and so much wrought! The Old Year’s heart all weary grew, But said: “The New Year rest has brought.” The Old Year’s hopes its heart laid down, As in a grave; but trusting, said: “The blossoms of the New Year’s crown Bloom from the ashes of the dead.” The Old Year’s heart was full of greed; With selfishness it longed and ached, And cried: “I have not half I need. My thirst is bitter and unslaked. But to the New Year’s generous hand All gifts in plenty shall return; True love it shall understand; By all my failures it shall learn. I have been reckless; it shall be Quiet and calm and pure of life. I was a slave; it shall go free, And find sweet peace where I leave strife.”
Only a night from old to new! Never a night such changes brought. The Old Year had its work to do; No New Year miracles are wrought. Always a night from old to new! Night and the healing balm of sleep! Each morn is New Year’s morn come true, Morn of a festival to keep. All nights are sacred nights to make Confession and resolve and prayer; All days are sacred days to wake New gladness in the sunny air. Only a night from old to new; Only a sleep from night to morn. The new is but the old come true; Each sunrise sees a new year born.