At a time when drought is leading to water restrictions for many areas of California, it may be useful to look back at the life of a writer who had many wise things to say about water and the lack of it.
Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934) grew up in Illinois and at age 10 moved to the area of the San Joaquin Valley near the desert to homestead with her family. She eventually became a schoolteacher and met and married Stafford Austin. He proved to be an unreliable husband who moved from job to job, more interested in pursuing ill-conceived schemes such as trying to make money through gold mining and marketing development of irrigation. The two finally separated. To help support herself and their child, who suffered from severe birth defects, Mary Austin began writing sketches about the region where she lived for Overland Monthly Magazine, based in San Francisco, and Land of Sunshine, the influential magazine based in Los Angeles that focused on the Southwest.
Austin’s writings soon attracted the interest of East Coast editors who featured her work in publications like the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Magazine. In 1904 she published The Basket Woman, an anthology of tales about the Paiutes; in 1905, Isidro, a novel about California during the Mexican period; and in 1906 a long, artistic essay on sheepherding in the Southwest entitled The Flock. These writings brought her national attention at a time when regionalist authors everywhere in the United States were responding to demand for material that offered a mental and emotional counter-balance to the pressures of rapid urbanization and industrialization.
By 1910 Austin was finding life in the San Joaquin Valley area confining, and moved to San Francisco, and later to the colony of bohemian writers and artists that had established itself at Carmel. Starting in 1912 she traveled frequently between Carmel and New York City and enlarged the range of her writings, including addressing issues related to socialism and women’s rights. After travel to Europe, she finally settled in Santa Fe where she spent the remainder of her life.
Although Austin ranged widely in her choice of topics, her chief concern throughout her life was to explore the themes of simplicity and attention to the primitive that she had first addressed while in the San Joaquin Valley region. In The Arrow Maker (1911), she wrote at length about the nation’s ill treatment of Native Americans. In 1923, in The American Rhythm, and in 1928, in Children Sing in the Far West, she sought to increase national appreciation for Native American songs. Her last work, Earth Horizon (1932) was an autobiographical exploration of the belief she developed over a lifetime, that happiness and strength were to be found in mystical oneness with the land and respect for it following the Native American example.
While all of Austin’s works are worth reading, her monument is The Land of Little Rain, published in 1903 while she was still living in the San Joaquin region. It is considered a minor classic of American literature and nature writing. The book garnered praise from critics like Carl van Doren and Van Wyck Brooks, and was reprinted many times, with illustrations and photographs by such noted artists as Walter Feller and Ansel Adams.
The Land of Little Rain is organized as a group of short stories and essays describing the environment and people of the Southwest. All the sketches treat the themes of respect for the land and the importance of making an effort to understand the cultures that have emerged in response to the local features of the land.
Austin describes the intense heat, extreme aridity and sudden appearance of painful windstorms that are defining features of the region. But, she argues, the conditions are worth enduring because they force people to discover their full capacities and help them into a sense of mystical unity with nature that is not always achievable in less harsh environments.
Austin goes to great lengths to avoid sentimentality and illusion. She acknowledges the cruelties that inhabitants of the desert, both animal and human, exert upon each other. But she also sees many forms of cooperation: for example, the ways in which people share food and scarce water resources, and the ways in which desert animals of different species leave trail marks to guide each other to water, even when some of the same species may later kill each other for food.
Austin describes Native American culture respectfully, but has no patience for tribal members who damage plant life and leave rubbish at their campsites. She urges readers to understand the courage and culture of the shepherds who live in the mountains bordering the desert, but condemns those shepherds who allow their animals to graze too long at the same spot and thus denude the land.
At times Austin uses local details to judge those who live far away, for example when she criticizes members of the medical profession, based for the most part in cities, for losing touch with the value of natural remedies. More generally, she argues that urban life makes it hard for people to learn all that nature can teach. And she always reminds the reader to see beauty in the arid.
The Land of Little Rain is vulnerable to many criticisms. It does not acknowledge the many good features of urban life, such as the opportunity it creates for cultural variety, stimulation of learning, and delivery of medical care based on large-scale research. Nor does the book acknowledge the values of industrialization – as, for example, the availability of the trains on which Austin traveled and the steamship that took her to and from Europe. And of course there is the irony that Austin chose to leave, physically at least, the desert region where she had spent her early days.
But such criticisms, even though valid, are beside the point. Austin looked without sentimentality at nature in several of its harshest forms, and at people who developed the ingenuity to live meaningfully in such conditions, usually without wasting or harming the limited resources that were available. The Land of Little Rain will continue to be read because it is just as timely today as it was in Mary Austin’s era.
An excellent source of additional detail is the book by Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson, Mary Austin and the American West (2008).