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

The Land of Little Rain by Mary Hunter Austin

Mary Hunter Austin (1868 – 1934) is no longer widely read, but during her lifetime, she traveled in vaunted literary circles. The Land of Little Rain (1903), a nonfiction compilation of connected essays, is her best-remembered work. From the publisher:

“The enduring appeal of the desert is strikingly portrayed in this poetic study, which has become a classic of the American Southwest. First published in 1903, it is the work of Mary Austin, a prolific novelist, poet, critic, and playwright, who was also an ardent early feminist and champion of Indians and Spanish-Americans.

She is best known today for this enchanting paean to the vast, arid, yet remarkably beautiful lands that lie east of the Sierra Nevadas, stretching south from Yosemite through Death Valley to the Mojave Desert.

Comprising fourteen sketches, the book describes plants, animals, mountains, birds, skies, Indians, prospectors, towns, and other aspects of the desert in serene, beautifully modulated prose that conveys the timeless cycles of life and death in a harsh land.

Readers will never again think of the desert as a lifeless, barren environment but rather as a place of rare, austere beauty, rich in plant and animal life, weaving a lasting spell over its human inhabitants.”

As a novelist and essayist, Austin focused her writing on cultural and social problems within the Native American community. In addition to spending seventeen years making a special study of Indian life in the Mojave Desert, Austin was defended the rights of Native Americans and Spanish Americans. 

For many years, she and her husband lived in various towns in California’s Owens Valley, where Austin’s love for the desert and the Native Americans who lived there began to grow. This led to the creation of her first published book, The Land of Little Rain (1903), a tribute to California’s deserts. 

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It’s always fascinating to discover original reviews of somewhat forgotten books, and it appears that The Land of Little Rain received its share of praise when first published. Here is one such review from 1903:


A 1903 review of Land of Little Rain

From the original review in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle,  November 7, 1903: On the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where the slopes drop steeply to the desert stretches, beyond independence, and reaching eastward and southward, ever the eastern borders of that portion of California, is the country which Mary Hunter Austin describes so graphically in her book, The Land of Little Rain.

Wonderfully appropriate to the country is that name. Indeed, it is a land of “little rain.” Desert is the name which the tourist, accustomed to moister areas, gives to it, and when it’s remembered that the stark Death Valley, with its wastes of sand and alkali lies within its borders, its seems well named.

A vivid descriptions of “the country of three seasons”

“Desert is the name it wears upon the maps,” says Austin, “but the Indian’s is the better name.” Another term is the “Country of Lost Borders,” for the land and not the law sets its limits.  Note Austin’s description:

“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. Between the hills lie high, level-looking plains full of intolerable sun glare, or narrow valleys drowned in a blue haze. The hill surface is streaked with ash drift and the black, unweathered lava flows.

After rains, water accumulates in the hollows of the closed valleys, and, evaporating, leaves hard, dry levels of pure desertness that get the local name of dry lakes. Where the mountains are steep and the rains heavy the pool is never quite dry, but dark and bitter, rimmed about with the efflorescence of alkaline deposits.

A thin crust of it lies along the marsh over the vegetating area, which has neither beauty nor freshness. In the broad wastes, open to the wind, the sand drifts its hummocks about he stubby shrubs and between them the soil shows saline traces. The sculpture of the hills here is more wind than water work, though the quick storms do sometimes scar them past many a year’s redeeming.

Since this is a hill country, one expects to find springs, but not to depend on them, for when found they are often brackish and unwholesome, or maddening slow dribbles in a thirsty soil. Here you find the hot sink of the Death Valley, or high rolling districts were the air has always a tang of frost.

Here are the long, heavy winds and breathless calms on the tilted mesas where the dust devils dance, whirling up into a wide, pale sky. Here you have no rain when all the earth cried for it, or quick downpours, called cloudbursts for violence. A land of local rivers, with little in it to love; yet a land that, once visited, must be come back to inevitably. If it were not so there would be little told of it.

This is the country of three seasons. From June on to November it lies hot, still and unbearable, sick with violent unbelieving storms, then on until April — chill, quiescent, drinking its scant rain and scantier snows; from April to the hot season again, blossoming, radiant, and seductive. These months are only approximate: later of earlier the rain-laden wind may drift up the water gate of the Colorado from the Gulf, and the land sets its seasons by the rain.”

Mary Hunter Austin has lived in this country for some years, her home being in Independence, on the railway, which penetrates the eastern sides of the Sierras, southward from Reno and Carson city, through the valley lying between the main ridges of the Sierras on the west, and the White and Inyo ranges on the east.

The road runs south to Owen’s Lake, where the valley opens out into the broad desert-like stretches outward and southward. Ill health sent Austin into this country when she was a young woman and now her home is on the desert edges. She has poked and pried along its plain and canyons, up the mountains and out over the rolling deserts, until she knows it from one end to the other and her soul has become filled with its fascination and charm.

The author’s love of the land and its people

She began writing for the Atlantic and other leading magazines some years ago, and her work was quick to attract attention. She writes of this “Land of Little Rain” from he viewpoint of the artist who has felt its inspiration, and as one who loves it.

All of her writings deal with outdoor places and folk — for this is a land where one can live outdoors if so minded, pretty much the whole year round. She knows the denizens of the hills and mountain valleys; she is accustomed to nights under the pines, and long hours of watching by the water-holes “to see the wild things drink.”

She has broken mountain trails up new slopes and has penetrated into mountain canyons. She knows the Indians, Shoshones and Paintes — as she spells the name — and one of the effective chapters in the book is about an old Indian woman, her basket-making and her outlook upon life.

The Land of Little Rain is made up of a series of sketches and pen pictures, taking its title from the opening chapter, wherein the land is portrayed. the desert Indians she finds as interesting folk and it is evident that she has studied them closely.

Canyons: “The Streets of the Mountains”

It is when Austin gets into “The Streets of the Mountains,” as she terms the canyons, that she is especially charming. “All the streets of the mountains lead to the citadel,” she says: “steep or slow, they go up to the core of the hills.”

“All the mountain streets have streams to thread them, or deep grooves where a stream might run. You would do well to avoid that range, uncomforted by floods. You will find it forsaken of most things but beauty and madness and death and God. Many such lie east and north away from the mid-Sierras, and quicken the imagination with the sends of purpose not revealed, but the ordinary traveler brings nothing away from them but an intolerable beauty.”

She describes vividly the beauty of the mountain parks, the little peak-enclosed valleys, with pines climbing about the edges, the floor lush with grasses and mountain flora, and the pools of the stream alive with trout.

An original writer describes the mysteries of nature

Austin has a crisp, rather original style, expressing her meaning clearly and with an unusual verbal felicity. One feels that she is in thorough sympathy with the world she describes. What John Muir has done for the western slopes of the Sierras, with their solemn forests and their mysterious silences, Austin does in a more tender and intimate fashion for the eastern slopes.

To the lover of nature her book is simply fascinating from cover to cover. The illustrations for the most part are pencil sketches which ramble over the broad margins of the pages, suggetive, always and apparently caught from life.

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The Land of Little Rain by Mary Hunter Austin

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