(Still) The Land of Little Rain: Mary Austin and the Eastern Sierra

By: Paula Panich

Paula Panich, a garden writer and writing teacher, lives in Los Angeles and in Idyllwild, California, where she rents a…

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Photograph by Stephen Ingram

Photograph by Stephen Ingram

Mary Hunter Austin was the kind of writer, to paraphrase Barbara Kingsolver, for whom the desire to tell stories nipped at her like a ferret, biting through all she knew of the world. Austin’s stories and essays were love songs to the landscape. Her first grand passion was the Lower Owens River Valley in the Eastern Sierra, the “land of little rain” to which she refers in the title of her first book, published in 1903.

More than a century later, the threads of literature, nature, and environmentalism are woven together in a seamless dialogue in this country. But it was far less so when Mary Austin—a woman, no less—set out to sing praise of the Lower Owens River Valley.

Hers was a difficult life. Mary Hunter was born in 1868 in Carlinville, Illinois, to an ambivalent mother and a lawyer father who shared the child’s lively mind. He suffered ill health, however, and died when Mary was ten. She took over the household, caring for younger siblings when her mother went to work. Diphtheria soon struck the family. Mary, an older brother, and the baby survived; a younger sister did not. Austin carried the grief of those deaths to her own, in 1934.

A new graduate of Blackburn College, she traveled by train with her family in 1888 to California to join her homesteading older brother in the San Joaquin Valley. Her account of the trip from Pasadena to the valley is recorded in her first published work, “One Hundred Miles on Horseback,” which she sent to her college magazine.

As a young child, perhaps four or five, Mary had a visceral, perceptual experience—a hint of the unity of all of life, and a hint of how she would view the world. In Earth Horizons, her 1932 autobiography, she recalls another, similar incident (Austin refers to herself in the third person through much of the book):

It was a dry April, but not entirely barren; mirages multiplied on every hand, white borage came out and blue nemophila; where the run-off of the infrequent rains collected in hollows, blue lupine sprang up as though pieces of the sky had fallen. On a morning Mary was walking down one of these, leading her horse, and suddenly she was aware of poppies coming up singly through the tawny, crystal sanded soil, thin, piercing orange-colored flames. And then the warm pervasive sweetness of ultimate reality . . .

She was married, unhappily, in 1891, to Wallace Stafford Austin and the next year gave birth to a beautiful baby who proved mentally disabled. Austin was just coming into her own as a writer. She had no idea that marriage and motherhood would prove to be mountainous obstacles to her writing and well-being. Yet, she never forgot the “sweetness of ultimate reality” she carried within her.

The couple moved frequently as Wallace Austin tried to support the family; they settled for a few years in the Lower Owens River Valley. There, Mary poured her inner life—heart, love, spirit, and attention—into the landscape and people of the Eastern Sierra. In her hymn to the desert, The Land of Little Rain, her exquisite language gives life to an Earth-centered spirituality and her view that landscape is essentially feminine: fertile and bountiful, seductive and bewitching. “By making the desert powerfully female,” writes Austin biographer Esther Lanagan, Austin sees a “. . . land that ravishes all who would traverse her, causing them to lose themselves . . .”

By all accounts she was a prickly woman, not well lliked in Lone Pine or Independence, the two Eastern Sierra towns in which she lived. Her unseemly behavior, at least to the conventional white settlers, included befriending the valley’s Native American and Mexican-American people, whom she would champion the rest of her life.

In the final of the book’s fourteen essays, “The Little Town of the Grape Vines,” she writes of Lone Pine. The piece is a loving celebration of the Mexican-Americans’ way of life at the turn of the twentieth-century. The essay begins:

There are still some places in the west where the quails cry “cuidado”; where all the speech is soft, all the manners gentle; where all the dishes have chile in them, and they make more of the Sixteenth of September than they do of the Fourth of July . . . It has a peak behind it, glinting above the tamarack pines, above a breaker of ruddy hills that have a long slope valley-wards and the shoreward steep of waves toward the Sierras.

Wallace and Mary voiced strong protest when agents of the city of Los Angeles snapped up land and water rights; they foresaw the Eastern Sierra’s decline. Mary’s beautiful essay, “Water Boarders,” reveals the delicate interrelationships between and among the plants, wildlife, and human inhabitants of the river valley—and their mutual dependence on the life-giving water from the high Sierra. She wrote of the water, which would soon disappear:

The origin of mountain streams is like the origin of tears, patent to the understanding but mysterious to the sense . . . the lake is the eye of the mountain, jade green, placid, unwinking, also unfathomable.

Austin was thirty-five when The Land of Little Rain was published. With great sorrow, Austin institutionalized her daughter two years later, left her marriage, and moved to Carmel to live among like-minded writers and artists. She would go on to a prolific and successful literary career, to live in New York and other places, and die in her beloved Santa Fe, at the age of sixty-five.

For a half-century, her books were forgotten. In the 1980s, when eloquent voices of Western writers cried out for conservation and environmental protection of land and water, her work was resurrected. Austin is now viewed with reverence as a pioneering feminist and ecofeminist; The Land of Little Rain, in the words of historian Lawrence Powell, is considered “the ripest, richest book of the many she wrote.”

Austin never returned to the Owens Valley. As Edward Abbey writes in an introduction to a 1988 edition of The Land of Little Rain: “[M]aybe she didn’t have to live there to be faithful to it, since she made the land a permanent part of herself and, in this small, tender, old-fashioned, and engaging book, a part of the basic literature of American nature writing.”