Mary Austin’s Home, Independence, CA California Historical Landmark No. 229
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.
Bristlecone Pine, White Mountains, California. Known for their long lives.
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.
Outside the Austin house front door.
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.
Bighorn sheep let me take their picture!
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.
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
Full plot summary
Mount TBR, Classics Club, Back to the Classics