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).
If today you drive around Monterey County, stopping, for example, in the urban areas of Salinas, Monterey, or King City, or in the vast agricultural areas that provide the United States with a significant portion of its lettuce, artichokes, radishes, wine, herbs, and other products, you will be impressed by the great care that has been taken to protect and publicize the area’s many historic sites and structures.
The resources that have been saved and made part of the ongoing life of the county are numerous and mesmerizing: for example, several Spanish missions, hundreds of ranch buildings and farmhouses, small town collections of Victorian business buildings, Stone Age remnants of hunter-gatherers, the building where California’s constitution was drafted, Gatsby-like mansions near the Pebble Beach golf course, the house where John Steinbeck was raised, and the nineteenth-century building where Robert Louis Stevenson lived for a time when he visited California.
As in all parts of the United States, there is a constant danger that such resources may be lost because of neglect or, more likely, demolition to make way for land development and new construction driven by short-term concepts of economic gain. But in Monterey County, at least, something like a balance has been achieved. Local residents and visitors appreciate the value of historic sites and structures, yet still make room for intelligent growth.
I take pleasure in knowing that I played a role, several generations ago, in achieving the present balance. My memories go back to the 1970s, when one could not at all say with certainty that Monterey County would be protecting its patrimony, and when historic preservation there was in the midst of a “quiet crisis,” to borrow a phrase the novelist Wallace Stegner coined at the time to describe America’s nationwide challenges in natural resources conservation.
In 1972 I was working as an assistant to the president of the community college that served the Salinas Valley. The college was under great budgetary pressures. In the early summer of 1972, the president decided he would partially meet the crisis by eliminating my job.
Through a string of fortunate coincidences, I was eventually able to find a new source of income. One day, a retired member of the college’s History faculty, Bob Johnston, asked me if I would like a job helping several groups, made up mostly of retired people like him, who were working to preserve the old homes and historic landscapes in Monterey County where they had grown up. The groups thought that I, as a historian who, more than most academics, enjoyed working with local organizations, and was as an experienced writer of grant proposals, might be able to help. I said I’d love to, but I didn’t know where the money would come from. Bob explained how it would be handled. “We will talk to the members of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. We will simply tell them to create a consultant’s position for you.” They did.
That was my accidental introduction to the historic preservation movement, one of the streams of environmental consciousness that was beginning, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to take on its own features within the larger river of awareness about ecology then developing in the United States.
A contract with the County soon materialized. I was supposed to inventory the good work that had already been done in some parts of the Country, for example in the excellent preservation efforts in the city of Monterey; fill out forms to nominate eligible sites and structures to the National Register of Historic Places, a federal listing that had been established in 1965 and that was gradually expanding throughout the United States; and visit a sampling of concerned groups and organizations to learn their views and mobilize public support. This would lead to a written plan of action for preserving resources, following precedents established by historic preservation efforts elsewhere in the United States, such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Williamsburg, Virginia.
Bob Johnston and his fellow senior citizens pointed out to me that all of these activities should have been set in motion many years before. They hoped that, now, they could catch up and rescue the county’s patrimony before it was obliterated.
In my car I wandered around the county to learn more about sites I had not yet visited. I talked with old timers – in their homes, in bars, at truck stops, at their farms. At local newspaper offices, I spent fascinating evenings going through old clippings and files. At home, tapping away on my portable Olympia typewriter (I knew nothing about computers in those days), I happily produced nominations to get sites listed on the National Register. Drawing on past experience as an intern in Washington DC, I compiled lists of funding sources and relevant regulations, and I gathered information about successful preservation efforts already in progress in places such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Williamsburg, Virginia.
The parts of the job involving public contact showed me the reasons why historic preservation had made some progress in years past, but still was not moving quickly. In one series of meetings, I worked with a group of wives of local growers who were determined to save from the wrecking ball the old house in Salinas where John Steinbeck had grown up. The women explained that their greatest obstacles were their own husbands, who maintained that the house ought to be demolished because they believed that Steinbeck, if still alive, would have sided with the migrant workers’ unions who were striking to obtain improved conditions at the time.
At the meetings of the Parks Commission, my challenge was the odd assortment of members, none with formal training in history or even a college education. Most of the commissioners were longtime community volunteers who knew a lot, in a concrete way, about outdoor recreation. One of the members, wealthy and garrulous, revealed his conception of history by using up all the time at one meeting to reminisce about the food he and he his wife had eaten while touring picturesque inns on a recent vacation in France. With people of this kind, I had to learn the trick of presenting the past in small chunks. I had to be respectful. But I had to present the intellectual aspects of history gradually, and disguise that I was doing so.
To move things along, I relied often on the Chair of the Commission, a charismatic, elderly woman named Elmarie Dyke. In the course of more than a half century of community organizing, she had accumulated a great deal of knowledge and developed a sense of the difference between big issues and little issues, and she was an attentive listener who loved to learn and knew how to ask penetrating questions. She had also lived a significant part of the history we were trying to preserve. I realized this once when I asked her to mail me something. She asked my address. I told her, and then asked, “Do you know where that street is?” She laughed and answered, “I not only know where it is; I named it.”
The speaking engagement that I enjoyed least took place at the historical society that drew its members from Carmel, the city of Monterey, and Pebble Beach. The society was not representative of the enlightened attitude toward preservation I found in the local population as a whole. At the time almost all the members of the society were newly rich and regarded historic structures merely as prestigious antiques, not as assets for the community.
At the opposite extreme, in terms of integrity, was the historical society that served the southern portion of Monterey County. This area was almost completely rural. The economy was based partly on viticulture, but mostly on ranching. The largest urban area, King City, was essentially a town of about 5,000. There were a few rich landowners in the area, but most of the holdings were small and medium-sized and were owned by families who traced themselves and their workers back to the nineteenth century. These people liked their way of life and wanted it to continue. They had their share of foibles and weaknesses, but they also had tremendous dignity. Meeting them, I understood what it meant to say that someone revered the land. They regularly received offers to sell their properties to agricultural conglomerates or to re-zone the area for industry. But they refused and were willing, if necessary, to be cash poor and land rich.
They also pushed hard politically to protect the large areas of conserved land that were between their area of the county and the Big Sur coast to the west. Here there were several national forests and state parks and a large military reservation. The landscape in these areas was unsettled, unknown to most tourists at the time, and hauntingly beautiful. Here and there, midst the forests and creeks and valleys, one found important archeological and historic sites, including caves used by Stone Age Native Americans, as well as stagecoach roads, the remnants of old inns, and pioneer graveyards. The San Antonio Mission was also in the area. Many people regard it as the most beautiful of all those in the network built by the Spaniards in California.
With two of the local ranch owners, I developed a close friendship. Their names were Olive and Rachelle Gillette. They lived on separate ranches and were sisters. They told me fascinating stories about themselves and their neighbors, led me to important historical documents, gave valuable advice about county politics, asked probing questions about preservation initiatives elsewhere in the U.S., and took me on numerous drives in their old cars to see historic sites I would never have been able to discover on my own. Several times I got phone calls from the sisters before dawn in my apartment seventy miles to the north. “Dr. Messinger,” I would hear one of them say, “I’ve been tending the chickens and it looks like it’s going to be a nice day. Would you like to come down here for a tour?”
Even with the cooperation of gracious people like Olive and Rachelle, I might not have succeeded in my work, had it not been for the help I received from Bill Curry, the Deputy Director of the county planning department. Bill was my immediate contact at the department, the person assigned to help me navigate local politics and bureaucracy. Bill had grown up in the county, but had then gone on to Yale where he received a degree in Architecture before returning home. He understood local mentalities, but was also well equipped to integrate the contributions of an outsider like me.
I dropped by to chat with Bill every few weeks in the big county office building in Salinas. We didn’t become close friends but we did greatly enjoy each other’s company, and we had both experienced the bittersweet process of understanding home by means of temporarily leaving it.
About five months into the project, I got a late afternoon phone call from Bill, saying he wanted to come over and see me right away to discuss the introduction to the draft plan I had given him earlier in the week. When Bill arrived at my apartment, he was carrying the plan in one hand and a six-pack of beer in the other. We sat down in my living room and Bill opened two cans of beer and told me we needed to talk friend-to-friend. Bill showed me passages he had circled. All were in the opening section of the draft where I had provided an analysis of the interest groups in the county that helped or hindered preservation.
My analysis was accurate, Bill said, but politically naïve. I seemed to be trying to impress an out-of-county audience — perhaps others in the planning profession, perhaps academic historians, perhaps my friends in Berkeley, perhaps readers of the New York Times and Harper’s Magazine. I did not yet seem to have learned the difference between a document that is designed simply to speak the truth – especially that portion of the truth that attacks everyday assumptions – and a document that is going to be used to get a diverse group of people to unite for action. I did not need to go on at length about the snobbery I had seen among some of the preservationists, or about the anti-Hispanic prejudice of some of the growers in the Salinas Valley, or the reluctance of many county organizations to accept federal grants. I should focus upon the elements of pride that all county residents shared when they encountered their heritage. I should talk about the admiration that would be won by impressing outsiders with the history and achievements of the county. I should more fully explain the economic and social benefits obtainable from well-managed preservation.
In 1974, my work culminated with an address to the County Board of Supervisors after two years of working as their consultant. I described the historic treasures the people of the County had been given by earlier generations, and I talked about the fragility of the historic landscape in Central California, most of which was still in private ownership. I emphasized that, in the hands of the wrong people, much of this environment could be gone within a year, taking away vital benchmarks of identity, as well as economic assets that were vitally important for strategic expansion of the tourist industry. In response, the Supervisors voted my plan into law, directed the planning department to publish an illustrated version, and prepared to hire a staff to coordinate preservation energetically. The groundwork had been laid for more extensive activity.
By this time, however, the County was running into budgetary problems just as the state education system had two years before. I did not see much of an economic future for myself locally. I decided that I would try to find work in Los Angeles, and, if that failed, go to Washington DC. I gave notice to my landlord, packed my car, and began a long journey to find a place that would, I hoped, have room for a historian with a practical bent.