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The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin
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The Land of Little Rain (1903)

by Mary Austin

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"Mary Austin was convinced that the valley [Owens Valley*] had died when it sold its first water right to Los Angeles--that city would never stop until it owned the whole river and all of the land. One day, in Los Angeles for an interview with Mulholland, she told him so. After she had left, a subordinate came into his office and found him staring at the wall. "By God, " Mulholland reportedly said, "that woman is the only one who has brains enough to see where this is going." [Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner]

Savvy about early 20th century CA water rights and politics and steeped in 19th century Transcendentalism, Mary Austin is best known for these exquisitely written vignettes that describe the landscape and the inhabitants of the Owens Valley. Her lyricism is finely tempered by acute observation. The book closes with an imperative: "Come away, you who are so obsessed with your own importance in the scheme of things, and have got nothing you did not sweat for, come away by the brown valleys and full-bosomed hills to the even-breathing days, to the kindliness, earthiness, ease of El Pueblo de Las Uvas." Come away, indeed.

*[from Wikipedia: "Owens Valley is the arid valley of the Owens River in eastern California in the United States, to the east of the Sierra Nevada and west of the White Mountains and Inyo Mountains on the west edge of the Great Basin section. The mountain peaks on either side (including Mount Whitney) reach above 14,000 feet in elevation, while the floor of the Owens Valley is at 4,000 feet, making the valley one of the deepest in the United States. The Sierra Nevada casts the valley in a rain shadow. The bed of Owens Lake, now a predominantly dry endorheic alkali flat, sits on the southern end of the valley. The valley provides water to the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the source of half of the water for Los Angeles, and is infamous as the scene of one of the fiercest and longest running episodes of the California Water Wars."] ( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
Mary Austin wrote about nature, specifically in the American Southwest. The Land of Little Rain is a collection of essays celebrating the California desert, an area many would consider a formidable, unforgiving landscape. She brings it to life, describing the flora and fauna in minute detail. Even Scavengers, an essay about buzzards, makes for fascinating reading as she shows how the birds help keep the desert clean -- except, of course, from the litter left by careless humans.

This book was published in 1903, and Austin's language takes some getting used to. In the introduction, Terry Tempest Williams writes about recording these essays as an audiobook, and initially
missing her voice completely. It was only in hearing the text out loud that I realized the era that held Mary Austin. It was a Victorian diction written through the perceptions of a radical spirit. Mary Austin wrote through the lace of her age. (p. xiv)

Reading this book piqued my interest in Mary Austin, en early feminist who worked tirelessly for Native American rights and what we now call "sustainability." I'm saving these essays for a re-read after I learn more about this fascinating woman. ( )
  lauralkeet | Dec 30, 2011 |
A stunning tribute to the savage beauty of the area known as Death Valley. To most travelers it is a parched, empty territory, unwelcoming and forgiving. In a collection of essays that date back almost a century, naturalist and writer Mary Austin (1868-1934) breathes life into the desert landscape, describing its wondrous beauty. A great read which just might inspire a road trip down south!
  CastiLib | Feb 27, 2009 |
This is the first Penguin Nature Classic that I have read, and it sets a high standard for the others to meet.

Mary Austin was an early 20th century naturalist, described by Terry Tempest Williams in the Introduction to this edition: “… a woman, candid and direct, who was utterly focused on her vision, and her vision was focused on the arid lands of the American West”. Tempest describes her as cantankerous, but then goes on to say that Austin’s writing conveys “… an abiding and enduring compassion and humility that came through the rigors of her disciplined eye toward nature.”

I found Austin’s narrative anecdotal; more travelogue than natural science essay. She conveyed wonderfully the contrast between sparseness and abundance in the turn of the desert seasons. Tempest ascribed to Austin “… a Victorian diction written through the perceptions of a radical spirit.” For me, Austin’s prose, while not simple, does not suffer from the weight of Victorian complexity. For me, her prose sings: It tiptoes the edge of poetry from time to time; it is gorgeous. It has the rhythm, song and repetitions of traditional storytelling. I fell in love with it, starting with the third paragraph in the first essay, the one that begins: “This is the nature of that country. There are hills, rounded, blunt, burned, squeezed up out of chaos, chrome and vermillion painted, aspiring to the snow line.”

Passionate about the desert, Austin was also clear-eyed about the realities of the life and lives she loved. While she referred to animals as if they were another kind of person and members of her larger family, she did so with the respect you might expect of a St. Francis and not with the cutesy fantasy of a Disney. She was also reassuringly clear that sheep are breathtakingly dim. Sadly, she was also prescient about the impact of western migration on the health and wellbeing of her desert and its denizens.

I loved it and will reread it with pleasure. ( )
4 vote NeverStopTrying | Dec 31, 1969 |
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East away from the Sierras, south from Panamint and Amargosa, east and south many an uncounted mile, is the Country of Lost Borders.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140249192, Paperback)

A stunning tribute to the savage beauty of the area known as Death Valley. To most travelers it is a parched, empty territory, unwelcoming and forgiving. In a collection of essays that date back almost a century, naturalist and writer Mary Austin (1868-1934) breathes life into the desert landscape, describing its savage beauty, its plants and animals, and the occasional human visitor.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:52:40 -0400)

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