King Vulture (Gypagus papa
). Illustration from 11th Edition Encyclopędia Britannica, article "Vulture," 1911. Larger.
For many of us, the desert is a place for the briefest of visits. But stay a little longer, and the images you gather there will thereafter glow in your memory like embers.
In The Land of Little Rain
, desert-dweller Mary Austin
paints a vivid image of the desert, a world frozen in heat and dust, a world where buzzards sit on their perches just watching the day go by.
Fifty-seven buzzards, one on each of fifty-seven fence posts at the rancho El Tejon, on a mirage-breeding September morning, sat solemnly while the white tilted travelers' vans lumbered down the Canada de los Uvas. After three hours they had only clapped their wings, or exchanged posts. The season's end in the vast dim valley of the San Joaquin is palpitatingly hot, and the air breathes like cotton wool. Through it all the buzzards sit on fences and low hummocks, with wings spread fanwise for air. There is no end to them, and they smell to heaven. Their heads droop, and all their communication is a rare, horrid croak.
Mary Austin's The Land of Little Rain
, was published in 1903, the best-known of all her many works.
–Contributed by Gabriela Flowers.
It may be that only astronauts and condors ever see firsthand the vast and varied sweep of Californian terrain. But with a little imagination, the rest of us can fly high, too.
may be best known for compelling descriptions of the arid desert east of the Sierras. But even so, she delighted in imagining the various regions of California as if they formed a single, almost incandescent landscape, as in her "Preface" to Lands of the Sun
. . . slightly as I knew the form and frame of that country—the great interior oval between the curving ranges, the broken ranks of hills trailing east and south—it was always geographically complete for me. . . . Always peculiarly susceptible to the rhythmic constitution of the landscape, there was seldom an hour when I could not turn from all my poor affairs to the living shape and pulse of the land as to some refulgent personality. Waking at night, far away in Lone Pine, I would be aware of the tide pushing up Carquinez Straits to Suisun, and the rolling amber river thrusting toward the bay. Or if, from some Sierra peak I watched the rains, I knew in what shut valley to the west, along what foothill slopes dipping to the San Joaquin, what flowers burst to bloom, what boughs bent down with swelling fruit. Even across the continent the land worked a miracle; for we are told that no one ever dreams of color; but the first two or three winters in New York, turning from its drab unloveliness, I used to dream of the blue of Carmel Bay, blue lifting to chrysoprase and breaking white to foam.
Mary Austin published Lands of the Sun
in 1927, a revised version of a 1914 work, California, Land of the Sun
If you live in the California desert, you know about tough love. One day you curse the parched earth and the next you marvel at the beauty of your arid sanctuary.
Mary Hunter Austin
knew all about this love-hate relationship, as is clear in an excerpt from her best-known book, The Land of Little Rain
If one is inclined to wonder at first how so many dwellers came to be in the loneliest land that ever came out of God's hands, what they do there and why stay, 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. Men who have lived there, miners and cattle-men, will tell you this, not so fluently, but emphatically, cursing the land and going back to 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. There is promise there of great wealth in ores and earths, which is no wealth by reason of being so far removed from water and workable conditions, but men are bewitched by it and tempted to try the impossible.
Published in 1903, The Land of Little Rain
gave readers an intimate portrait of desert life in California.
–Contributed by Julianne Seubert.
For early pioneers, the California deserts were formidable places, and for many of us today, they remain so. But for those who have chosen to live there—-as did essayist and novelist Mary Austin—-the desert can be a welcoming home.
While living with her family on a Kern County homestead, Mary Hunter met and married Stafford Austin and moved with him to Independence
, beneath the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada
. There, Mary Austin
was moved by "the palpable sense of mystery in the desert air."
For all of the toll the desert takes of a man, it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars. It comes upon one with new force in the pauses of the night that the Chaldeans were a desert-bred people. 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.
Though Mary Austin moved elsewhere, it was California's landscape and native people that early shaped her voice and led her to write the lovely, evocative essays collected in her 1903 nature study, The Land of Little Rain
Shepherd with his horse and dog on Gravelly Range, Madison County, Montana, by Russell Lee, August 1942. Larger.
We often marvel at the close relationships we sometimes achieve with our animal friends, so much so that we would do well to wonder if it is our intelligence or theirs that is its cause.
Watching sheep herders and their dogs, writer Mary Austin
marveled at the skill and intelligence of these faithful herding canines, especially those with a streak of independence.
Quick to know the willful and unbidable members of a flock, the wise collie is not sparing of bites, and following after a stubborn estray will often throw it, and stand guard until help arrives, or the sheep shows a better mind. But the herder who has a dog trained at the difficult work of herding range sheep through the chutes and runways into boats and cars for transportation is the fortunate fellow.
There was Pete's dog, Bourdaloue, that, at the Stockton landing, with no assistance, put eight hundred wild sheep from the highlands on the boat in eight minutes, by running along the backs of the flock until he had picked out the stubborn or stupid leaders that caused the sheep to jam in the runway, and by sharp bites set them forward, himself treading the backs of the racing flock, like the premier equestrienne of the circus, which all the men of the shipping cheered to see.
Mary Austin's portrait of desert sheepherding appeared in 1906 as The Flock
B.O. Holtermann with gold nugget, c. 1873. Larger.
Think of California and you're likely to conjure up an image of wealth within a land of infinite opportunity—even if sometimes that image is only a mirage.
In 1888, Mary Hunter arrived in California from Illinois, settling with her family in the San Joaquin Valley
. After her marriage, Mary Austin
moved to Independence
, where she wrote her first major work, 1903's The Land of Little Rain
. Here, she warns of the myth of getting rich quick in California.
The palpable sense of mystery in the desert breeds fables, chiefly of lost treasure. Somewhere within its stark borders, if one believes report, is a hill strewn with nuggets; one seamed with virgin silver; an old clayey waterbed where Indians scooped up earth to make cooking pots and shaped them with pure gold. Old miners drifting about the desert edges, weathered into the semblance of the tawny hills, will tell you tales like these convincingly. After a little sojourn into that land you will believe them on their own account. It is a question whether it is not better to be bitten by the little horned snake of the desert that goes sidewise and strikes without coiling, than by the tradition of a lost mine.
Austin offered readers a new voice, one Ansel Adams once described as filled with "intellectual and spiritual power and discipline," elements readers still find enticing.
–Contributed by Emily Elrod.
California deserts may seem barren places, but take a close look and you'll see they're brimming with life and the mini-sagas of the natural world.
When Mary Austin
examines one desert dweller, the rabbit, she doesn't see the cute little creature of children's tales. The rabbits she describes are a fickle bunch whose strange combination of silliness and sociability masks their real purpose.
The rabbits begin it, taking the trail with long, light leaps, one eye and ear cocked to the hills from whence a coyote might descend upon them at any moment. Rabbits are a foolish people. They do not fight except with their own kind, nor use their paws except for feet, and appear to have no reason for existence but to furnish meals for meat-eaters. In flight they seem to rebound from the earth of their own elasticity, but keep a sober pace going to the spring. It is the young watercress that tempts them and the pleasures of society, for they seldom drink.
Austin lovingly describes what she calls "the Country of Lost Borders" in her 1903 collection of sketches, The Land of Little Rain
–Contributed by Christie Genochio.
The Sierra Nevada
divides desert and valley, forming a majestic barrier that once was not easily crossed, not even by the wind.
Better than any other writer, Mary Austin
knew the arid country back of the Sierra and wrote about the living things that dwelt there and even about the airborne spirits that were just visiting.
If you asked any one . . . long acquainted with the open country back of the California Sierras, to catalogue the living things therein, he would without doubt give the desert winds among their number. I do not know how many winds there are, or if indeed there is but one ancient spirit of the air in a hundred matamorphoses. There is a slow inset of the vapor-laden breath of the sea, beginning in the lost hours between the midnight and the morning sun, too high to be felt, made manifest by the velo cloud in skyward-reaching depths of aerial gloom. No breeze disturbs it, nor rain takes shape beneath its wings. Seldom it reaches beyond the eastern outposts of the Sierras, but serves as a veil to their loveliness long summer mornings. Through it the whiteness of the summit snow-bank shows and vanishes like the white wings of gulls in fog.
Mary Austin's The Lands of the Sun
appeared in 1927.
"The Flock," illustration from The Flock
Raising sheep was once one of California's most important activities. Here, shepherds were close to the land and lived what many still regard as a romantic, if rugged, existence.
In her 1906 book The Flock
, Mary Austin
created a compelling account of sheep raising in California, depicting the conditions endured by both shepherds and their charges as they scrabbled for a living in the arid regions she elsewhere called "the land of little rain."
At home they might feed a winter long on the rain-bedewed tall pastures without drink, but here in the desert where the heat and dryness crumple men like grass in a furnace, the sheep, though traveling by night, suffered incredibly. All through the dark they steered a course by the stars that swung so low and white in the desert air; morning and evening they fed as they might on the dry sapless shrubs, and at noon milled together in the sand. Each seeking protection for its head under the body of another, they piled hot and close and perished upon their feet. Made senseless by heat and thirst, they strayed from the trail-weary herders.
Through books like The Flock
and The Land of Little Rain
, Mary Austin may have done more than any other writer to bring appreciation to the majesty of California's arid regions and the ways in which people have adapted to living there.
"A Summer Shower'' by Charles Edward Perugini, 1888. Larger.
You may get angry when a rain storm snarls your morning commute. But when you remember that the earth thrives on every last bit of moisture, you might just welcome each precious drop.
captures the mood and essence of a Sierra Nevada
summer shower in this excerpt from her widely popular book, The Land of Little Rain
One who goes often into a hill country learns not to say: What if it should rain? It always does rain somewhere among the peaks: the unusual thing is that one should escape it....There is keen delight in the quick showers of summer canons, with the added comfort, born of experience, of knowing that no harm comes of a wetting at high altitudes. The day is warm; a white cloud spies over the canon wall, slips up behind the ridge to cross it by some windy pass, obscures your sun. Next you hear the rain drum on the broad-leaved hellebore, and beat down the mimulus beside the brook. You shelter on the lee of some strong pine with shut-winged butterflies and merry, fiddling creatures of the wood. Runnels of rain water from the glacier-slips swirl through the pine needles into rivulets; the streams froth and rise in their banks. The sky is white with cloud; the sky is gray with rain; the sky is clear. The summer showers leave no wake.
Born in Illinois, Austin became famous for her books describing California landscapes and the Native Americans who lived there. The Land of Little Rain
appeared in 1903.
–Contributed by Gabriela Flowers.
|Water Trails of the Ceriso
We all think we want to know what's going on around us, but how far are we really willing to go to find out?
Ruminating about the unexpected beauty of the arid Ceriso, Mary Austin
suggests that man's blindness to the logic of nature boils down to a matter of poorly placed perspective.
By the end of the dry season the water trails of the Ceriso are worn to a white ribbon in the leaning grass, spread out faint and fanwise toward the homes of gopher and ground rat and squirrel. But however faint to man-sight, they are sufficiently plain to the furred and feathered folk who travel them. Getting down to the eye level of rat and squirrel kind, one perceives what might easily be wide and winding roads to us if they occurred in thick plantations of trees three times the height of a man. It needs but a slender thread of barrenness to make a mouse trail in the forest of the sod. To the little people the water trails are as country roads, with scents as signboards.
It seems that man-height is the least fortunate of all heights from which to study trails.
Mary Austin's love for the purity of our arid regions pervades The Land of Little Rain
first published in 1903.
–Contributed by Christie Genochio.