- The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin
by Mary Austin
New York: Penguin Nature Classics, 2016, originally published 1903. 128pp. Cloth $24.99
Lovers of John Steinbeck and anyone who appreciates environmental writing will be pleased to know that Mary Hunter Austin’s 1903 book The Land of Little Rain is back in print. In a time frame that overlapped with Steinbeck’s early years, Austin lived in Monterey, and later in Carmel, and knew all the literary lights of her day. Since she and was a well-known literary celebrity in her own right, John Steinbeck may have been cognizant of her and this book.
The Land of Little Rain is a classic of the nature-writing genre, and its fourteen “sketches,” “essays,” “descriptions,” and “anecdotes” explore the various desert ecosystems of the American southwest—that area south of the Sierra Mountains and east of the Pacific coast into Arizona and New Mexico. Austin begins by laying out the territory of her subject in highly stylized diction: “East away from the Sierras, south from Panamint and Armargosa, east and south many an uncounted mile, is the Country of Lost Borders. Ute, Paiute, Mojave, and Shoshone inhabit its frontiers, and as far into the heart of it as a man dare go. Not the law, but the land sets the limit. Desert is the name it wears upon the maps. . . . Void of life it never is, however dry the air and villainous the soil.” In this elevated voice, she describes the plant and animal life of the area in meticulous detail, supplementing the text with photographs.
Significantly, an important element of her study includes human as well as plant and animal life. She profiles the Native American tribes who lived in the area alongside white settlers and prospectors. And after the closing of the frontier in the 1890s, Austin became an advocate for the indigenous people in the west. In The Land of Little Rain, she describes the culture of these people and writes of their ability to survive in this land despite daunting political opposition, unfavorable environmental changes, and economic challenges. Her book evokes desert places that readers may still visit, at least in imagination. In the sections titled “A Bret Harte Town” and “The Little Town of the Grape Vines,” she recounts her experiences while visiting some of the small towns in the area. This book was Mary Hunter Austin’s first publication, and it sparked interest in this unique American desert region, at the same time making her famous. She was a California matriarch and “woman’s woman” at the turn of the century as [End Page 224] well as an early defender of Native Americans. She later wrote thirty additional books and hundreds of articles. In 1911 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for The Arrow Maker, a play about the area’s Native American tribes that was staged from 1921 through 1930 at an outdoor theater in Tahquitz Canyon near Palm Springs.
Several well-known writers have written introductions for the various editions of The Land of Little Rain, including Edward Hoagland, who introduced the Penguin Nature Classic series but does not mention John Steinbeck as a nature writer. Terry Tempest Williams provided the introduction for the 1997 Penguin Nature Classic edition, and Robert Hass wrote the opening matter for the 2003 Modern Library Classic edition. Also, Carl Van Doren appreciated the book and the land in his introduction to a 1950 edition, and Kevin Hearle describes it in his introduction to The Essential Austin. In 2014 there was another reprint that included photographs by Walter Feller.
The ongoing success of this book is due in part to continuing interest in maintaining nature preserves in this area, a part of which is now under federal protection as a National Nature Preserve. The desert is a wondrous place to visit and to experience because some areas have much to offer in terms of aesthetics and culture. Described as a seer and mystic, Austin found in this place a religious experience. And many people have since learned to live in this environment, perhaps responding to...