July 13, 2023

#08-325: The Land of Little Rain

Death Valley (Wikimedia)

Note: Mary Austin's little book is a masterpiece of nature writing, a sure-fire antidote for city living.

Get Ready: What is the allure of deserted. lonely places? Why do so many seek "spiritual" experiences there?

Sometime over a century ago it became de rigueur for some American authors to celebrate the land itself. One thinks of John Muir's The Mountains of California (among many others), perhaps most famously Henry David Thoreau's Walden, and later Joseph Wood Krutch's The Desert Year and Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac.

But, notably, all of these authors are male. After all, exploring wild places is a rugged, manly sort of exercise, is it not? That's why Mary Hunter Austin's 1903 book of short essays, The Land of Little Rain, is all the more precious. She writes about the land and its people from a woman's perspective, in this case the "land" being the high desert, basin-and-range-country to the east of Muir's beloved High Sierras, and stretching down into the daunting Death Valley and beyond.

The book is composed of 14 fairly brief essays that fall into rather loose categories: the first four describe the desert country--"the land of little rain," Austin says the Indians call it--and the stream courses with their wildlife. The next five describe the various human communities, again connected by their need for water. The penultimate four move back upstream toward the mountains, again following watercourses.

And the final essay describes a perhaps-fictional, idealized desert community, "The Little Town of the Grape Vines" or "El Pueblo de Las Uvas," in which a simple people live in peaceful cooperation with their environment, in mud houses with home gardens and few corrupting notions of wealth or class. Plant, harvest, eat, make music, raise children, dance: avoid a sense of self-importance in a world so big that your actions matter little.

Despite the depictions of human communities, nature is the central character in the book, personified and even deified. Standing before Austin's desert is a bit like standing before the ocean: it makes one feel small. She calls it "the loneliest land that ever came out of God's hands," and says that despite the loneliness, "None other than this long brown land lays such a hold on the affections." I agree.


Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. affections
  2. basin-and-range-country
  3. corrupting
  4. daunting
  5. de rigueur
  6. deified
  7. depictions
  8. idealized
  9. penultimate
  10. rugged
  1. made to seem better than it really is
  2. next to the last
  3. intimidating; seeming difficult
  4. made into a god
  5. representations; descriptions
  6. an area of alternating parallel mountain ranges and valleys.
  7. rough; determined
  8. desires; love
  9. the fashion
  10. having a negative influence

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for July 13, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. h; 2. f; 3. j; 4. c; 5. i; 6. d; 7. e; 8. a; 9. b; 10. g