restricted access Austin’s Consuming “Desertness” in The Land of Little Rain
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Austin’s Consuming “Desertness” in The Land of Little Rain

Mary austin’s ‘the land of little rain’ (1903) has a secure place as a pioneering American environmental text,1 though what remains most challenging to contemporary readers is Austin’s blurring of the romantic with the real, of the human with the non-human, of the spiritual with the material.2 As an environmental text with claims both to realistic objectivity and mystical insight, The Land of Little Rain is difficult not only to interpret, but also, as Austin’s personal friend and collaborator Ansel Adams demonstrated, to illustrate.3 Adams’ well-known photographic illustrations in a 1950 edition of the text capture only partial glimpses of Austin’s land: the aridity, the harsh or dramatic vistas and mountains, the curious rock formations, the no-man’s land parameters of the region.4 What Adams’ photographs do not (or perhaps cannot) capture are Austin’s equally romantic efforts to reveal a high desert region filled with sensuous, intricate, nurturing (but sometimes deadly) communal relationships between human and non-human life.

In fact, one of the most striking images in the text is Austin’s consuming and repeatedly-stated passion for the beauty of “desertness,” a concept she associates both with the physical land and with its spiritual nurturance (Land 5). Like other past and present environmental writers, Austin laments the deleterious aspects of capitalist consumer culture to the environment; however, in The Land of Little Rain, she promotes a different kind of consumerism, one which deliberately mixes the “color of romance” (17) with an often harsh realism to stimulate in her readers a metaphoric appetite for the spiritual and sensory delights of the region. Unlike the brutish capitalist consumerism she credits to [End Page 61] her neighbor (whom she calls Naboth) and other landowners in the seventh chapter, “My Neighbor’s Field,” Austin proposes her readers develop a refined appetite to subvert the deleterious effects of a land-consuming capitalist ethos, one that makes possible, as her final sketch suggests, the creation of utopian communities, such as El Pueblo de Las Uvas. This utopia has been variously linked to Austin’s actual desert and mountain wanderings; to her pantheistic celebration of God or, in her word, “Power” permeating a complex natural realm; to her firm rejection of her fundamentalist Midwestern Methodist heritage; to her appreciation of Emerson’s earlier romantic celebration of nature; to her developing understanding of Native beliefs; to her reading of Frazer’s The Golden Bough; and to her belief in the power and veracity of her own mystical, if not religious, visions in Earth Horizon and other autobiographical writings.5 Like the country she describes as being “squeezed up out of chaos” (9), Austin’s synthesis of such disparate sources seems antithetical to the objective or realistic detailing of this terrain. Yet she has been repeatedly credited by readers with succeeding in depicting the “real matter” (Robertson 70) of these desert regions with language.

Austin’s emerging, if not romantic, awareness is, in fact, virtually inseparable from her realistic or sensory images of desertness. Although she associates negative cravings with Nabothean materialism or, later, Jimvillean gold-hunger, she aggressively encourages her readers to consume “desertness” (5) and thereby satiate their emotional, if not spiritual, hunger. Repeatedly claiming to have metaphorically “drunk” of the “lotus charms” (15) of the high desert, Austin proposes to guide her readers away from their materialistic delusions and, as the last chapter reveals, to the paradisiacal Las Uvas. In his unsympathetic reading of Austin’s romantic tendencies, William Scheick does not cite Las Uvas, but suggests that her multiple allusions to the enchantments of the land transform her into an “Odysseus-like stranger” who attempts (unsuccessfully) to “forget the realities of the present” (38) in order to “assimilate into a desert “lotusland of ideal forgetfulness and lack of consciousness” (40). However, in Austin’s Las Uvas, the lack of consciousness is associated, as it is in her later story, “The Walking Woman,” with a rejection of civilized consciousness in favor of biocentric awareness and absorption into non-human realms.

Like Thoreau’s Walden, Austin’s The Land...