Right before the coronavirus quarantine, I went to the Owens Valley to learn more about Mary Austin. The Land of Little Rain, Austin’s 1903 book about the California desert, is an environmental classic rivaling the work of naturalists like John Muir. But today the essay collection, and Austin, are largely forgotten, and I found myself wondering why.
Austin was prolific, producing 34 books and more than 200 shorter works. She believed she possessed genius-level talent, but her literary legacy, as biographer Esther Lanigan Stineman puts it, “would have disappointed the writer who finally yearned for an enduring reputation as a social novelist.” Genius or not, Austin was ahead of her time when it came to feminism, racial equality, and environmentalism. The Land of Little Rain was her first and most successful book, important in its recognition of the striking austerity of the Owens Valley and the Mojave Desert. While Austin was writing it, her circumstances were as inhospitable as the environment around her. Trapped in poverty and a loveless marriage, she was geographically and spiritually isolated as she juggled caring for her disabled daughter and working full-time as a writer and teacher. She remembered that period as “long dull months of living interspersed between the few fruitful occasions when I actually came into contact with the land.” So here I was, going in early spring to that same land to see if I could better understand this complicated writer.
The Owens Valley, Austin writes, “is a narrow one, a mere trough between hills.” It’s surrounded on three sides by the Sierra Nevada and the Inyo and White Mountains, and it empties into Death Valley in the south. Because it sits in the mountains’ rain shadow, it receives only five inches of annual rainfall. In 1913, this arid landscape was made even drier when the Owens River was famously drained and funneled through an aqueduct to Los Angeles in a conflict called the California Water Wars. Despite this, the area is full of natural wonders, from bristlecone pines, which can live for almost 5,000 years, to Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental United States, to mineral deposits that, before miners moved in, included gold.
Getting to the valley from San Francisco meant driving with my family over the Sierra. The coronavirus was all over the news, having spread around the globe in a matter of weeks; it was getting worse every day. As we careened past dizzying drops, a phantom ache kept appearing and disappearing in my throat, along with a buzzing worry that we had the virus and didn’t know it yet. We planned to socially distance by camping away from other people. Isolation seemed appropriate for Austin, who was a lonely person. Though her friendships included Jack London, Herbert Hoover, Willa Cather, and H.G. Wells, as biographer Augusta Fink writes, “essentially she walked alone.”
It was dark by the time we arrived at our Owens Valley campground. That night, a windstorm rocked our van so hard, I worried we would tip over. The next morning, I stepped into a landscape striking in its variety and colors. Gold and yellow chaparral spread over the hillsides, interrupted by stands of white birch or dark green fir trees. The cyan sky was full of clouds that looked like flying saucers—lenticular clouds, I learned, named for their lentil-like shape. I thought of Austin’s description of the valley: “The rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous radiance of the spring, have the lotus charm.”
This March day was pleasant despite the wind that rattled us as we drove south. Until recently, the Owens Valley had the worst air pollution in the country. The draining of its lake, which followed the diversion of its namesake river, caused dust storms so thick, you couldn’t see a house on the other side of the road. Recent environmental measures have cleaned up the air, so I could view the mountains looming in every direction, giving the landscape a sense of intimacy. Small animals scurried through the chaparral—the “strange, furry, tricksy things,” as Austin depicts them, which “dart across the open places, or sit motionless in the conning towers of creosote.”
Austin’s approach to nature was far more than descriptive. Her essays explore a broader, mystical connection to the land as well as its practical uses. This multifaceted view is similar to today’s awareness of how the environment plays many roles in human life and beyond.
“Austin gave the land a personality of its own,” says Susan Goodman, coauthor of Mary Austin and the American West. “She characterizes the land as a witching woman that can utilize you or bleed you dry, and at the same time, seduce you and support you. There’s something nurturing about the land, even as it has these contradictory characteristics to it.”
Nor did Austin shy away from the severity of the desert. In one passage, she describes 57 buzzards on 57 fence posts:
Their heads droop, and all their communication is a rare, horrid croak.… The end of the third successive dry year bred them beyond belief. The first year quail mated sparingly; the second year the wild oats matured no seed; the third, cattle died in their tracks with their heads towards the stopped watercourses. And that year the scavengers were as black as the plague all across the mesa and up the treeless, tumbled hills.
When Austin moved there in 1892, the Owens Valley was calling itself the Switzerland of America. Irrigation ditches watered pastures, ranches, and orchards. Unbeknownst to the locals, L.A. was quietly buying up land for an aqueduct to divert the Owens River to the city. Austin and her husband, Wallace, were among the first to learn what L.A. was doing and sounded the alarm to the community and the federal government. She later fictionalized the Water Wars in her novel The Ford.
Water also shaped Austin’s early life in California. Originally from Illinois, she came to the San Joaquin Valley in 1888 with her family for a homestead land deal. They arrived during a severe drought, and soon she found herself living in a struggling household, barely tolerated by her emotionally distant mother. Although Austin had a college degree, employment options for a woman were limited. She failed the California teaching exam twice. While she wanted to write, marriage was expected of her, and there wasn’t much romantic interest from men.
I was surprised by how often contemporaries described Austin as unattractive. Even considering the era’s emphasis on feminine beauty, the commentary seems excessive. The superintendent of schools wrote on her teaching exam that she was “a most unattractive young woman.” Austin’s doctor said that she was a “somewhat dumpy-looking woman” with a “homely, heavy lower face.” The Bohemians, a club of San Francisco creatives, rejected her because of her looks. Writer James Hopper explained, “She was writing beautiful stuff, but she wasn’t pretty.”
But Austin seems plenty attractive to me—in one picture in particular, wearing a Rough Rider hat, with her hair streaming around her face, she appears sensual and commanding. People may have been responding to her assertive presence as much as her looks. Many thought she was egocentric and arrogant. Others may have tired of her theatrical behavior. Austin was a mystic and a clairvoyant who claimed to have predicted the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. She dressed dramatically, wearing gray prison gowns while writing or wandering around in white dresses with her hair flowing free. (When the National Arts Club honored her in 1922, she wore an iridescent gown “the rose of an Arizona sunset” and a Spanish comb in her hair and carried a fan and a bouquet of roses. She was accompanied by Native American painter Frank Overton Colbert, who wore embroidered buckskin and a feathered headdress—quite an entrance.) Subject to erratic mood swings, Austin sometimes raged at people. She was often unhappy, and once wrote that a woman with her love life “would have gone mad or bad or committed suicide. I have been very near the last many times.”
When Wallace came along, marrying him may have felt like her best option. He was educated, kind, and respectful of her writing. That was important, as marriage could have forced her to give up her literary ambitions. When he presented her with a pearl-handled pen as a wedding present, she said, “I would rather have this than a pearl necklace, because it means I am to go on with my writing.” Soon after the wedding, Wallace proposed they move to the Owens Valley so he could manage an irrigation business with his brother. At 24, Austin, by then pregnant, made the three-day journey to the desert.
The first town they stayed in was Lone Pine. In The Land of Little Rain, Austin calls it El Pueblo de Las Uvas, or “the little town of grape vines.” She describes a Mexican American town where “the quails cry ‘cuidado’; where all the speech is soft,…where all the dishes have chile in them.” The village “shrouds under a twilight thicket of vines, under a dome of cottonwood-trees, drowsy and murmurous as a hive.”
Today, all this vegetation is missing from Lone Pine’s downtown, which is cut through by a highway. Still, the place retains an appeal different from that of Austin’s sleepy desert garden, the allure of a western movie set or, at least, an era before nationwide chains. Nearby is the Museum of Western Film History, which commemorates the 400-plus movies shot in the area.
Austin stayed at the Old Lone Pine Hotel, a white adobe with an arched doorway that’s now the Chamber of Commerce. One morning, she returned from a walk to find her belongings dumped onto the sidewalk in front of the hotel. She was being evicted because of unpaid bills. Heavily pregnant, she sat on the trunks for hours in the blazing heat, waiting for Wallace to return. Finally, someone told her about a boardinghouse for men suffering from “miners’ rot,” or lead poisoning. She walked there, dragging her belongings, and offered her services mending and baking pies in exchange for lodging.
When Wallace returned, she learned that not only had his irrigation business failed but he’d turned down a position as a school principal because he hated teaching. “Wallace had earned not more than a few dollars,” Austin wrote later. “There were debts going back of the marriage and involving practically every event of the last two years.” Instead of providing financial stability, Austin’s husband had borrowed against everything they owned and preferred unsteady business ventures to a regular job. Her trust in him was permanently broken.
At least the miners at the boardinghouse were good writing material. Unable to fit in with respectable society, Austin increasingly drew toward marginalized groups like shepherds, miners, Mexican immigrants, and Native Americans, all of whom are described in The Land of Little Rain. As Stineman writes in Mary Austin: Song of a Maverick, “Austin has no peer in writing the short sketch that captures the daily lives of the people of the West in their ethnic diversity.”
In Lone Pine, Austin began visiting a Paiute “campoody,” a small village beside George’s Creek, now a popular spot for trout fishing. She became friends with the women living in dome-shaped huts called wickiups. A basket weaver named Seyavi in The Land of Little Rain is described from a feminist point of view. “Seyavi learned…how much more easily one can do without a man than might at first be supposed,” Austin writes, echoing how she must have felt about Wallace.
She recognized the injustice of how tribes were treated and was concerned their way of life was being erased. Later, she became a proponent for Native American rights, working against legislation that restricted tribal customs and participating in groups that promoted Native cultures and freedoms. By today’s standards, Austin also appropriated Native American culture, using Indigenous language and dress to promote her career. In The Land of Little Rain, when Austin badgers the women to talk, Seyavi is reluctant, “never understanding the keen hinder I had for bits of lore and the ‘fool talk’ of her people.” Perhaps, like me, Seyavi sensed there was more to Austin’s interest than curiosity. Some of her most popular material was really these women’s stories.
Bishop, where Austin moved without Wallace in 1895, wasn’t the model for Jimville in The Land of Little Rain, but it’s close in spirit. Austin’s “Bret Harte town,” with 300 inhabitants and four bars, is a place of survival, “like the herb-eating, bony-cased old tortoise.” A similar feeling pervades Bishop today. The first thing I saw, driving into town, was a man in hunter’s camouflage going into the Paiute Palace Casino. Bishop was full of barbecue joints and stores selling tools and western wear. Horses grazed behind a chain-link fence near downtown.
We stopped at Erick Schat’s Bakkery, which sells sourdough-like Sheepherder Bread. The building’s Swiss chalet design was emphasized by its backdrop of snowcapped mountains. Inside, it was crowded, and I remembered, with a jolt, that the coronavirus could be lurking anywhere. We took our sandwiches to go and ate them in the van downtown, near the site of the Drake Hotel, which no longer exists. For three years, Austin lived in the hotel with her daughter, Ruth, who by then was a toddler.
Austin told a friend that when she was pregnant, she promised herself that she “would give birth to the smartest child that was ever born.” But Ruth was severely developmentally delayed. Her symptoms included restless hand movements, “strange sounds,” and “passionate, ungovernable spells,” according to Dr. Helen McKnight Doyle, who examined the child. Austin blamed herself for Ruth’s condition. During her pregnancy, she had doubled her writing hours, ignored food and sleep, and traveled 150 miles through the desert in her third trimester. “I figure that I took away from my child’s brain,” she told a neighbor. Eventually she shifted blame to Wallace after learning he had relatives with disabilities—another thing for which she couldn’t forgive him.
After a long and difficult birth at her mother’s house, in Bakersfield, Austin returned to Wallace in Lone Pine in 1893. Two years later, she moved to Bishop without him, perhaps as a separation. Her plan was to teach school, write, and care for her special-needs child on her own, but she was ill-equipped, both practically and emotionally. With no childcare, she left Ruth alone while she went to work. The toddler screamed so much that neighbors finally went into the room to find the “soiled tablecloth and broken dishes, the meager meal of crackers left out for lunch, and the little girl’s disgraceful condition,” according to Fink’s I-Mary. Ruth had wrecked the room and was covered with her own excrement.
Austin appeared overwhelmed and unsure of how to care for her daughter. “Ruth makes me nervous and I make her nervous,” she told Doyle. “It is not good for us to be together.” Yet parenting Ruth had been left to Austin, as the mother. No one questioned what Wallace was doing—in fact, people pitied him for having such an unnatural wife. On top of that, Austin’s own maternal model was deeply flawed. Her mother had withheld affection and blamed Austin for contracting the diphtheria that killed her younger sister Jennie. At the funeral, Austin overheard her mother say, “Why couldn’t it have been Mary?” When Austin sent Ruth to visit her mother, the child was returned with a note: “I don’t know what you’ve done, daughter, to have such a judgment upon you.” They never spoke again.
Austin tried to help Ruth by visiting doctors and finding sympathetic babysitters. She wanted to earn the money to get her child professional care, but her behavior could still be cruel. When Ruth was nine, neighbors walked into Austin’s house to again find the child screaming. “They were shocked to find Mary pacing the floor, hair hanging down her back, apparently oblivious to her daughter, who was strapped to a chair,” writes Fink. Austin was trying to write, and by then Ruth had developed a habit of running away from her abusive home—who can blame her?
By 1897, Wallace had gotten a job in Independence, a town between Bishop and Lone Pine, and Austin agreed to live in the home he was building for them there. Still, she “went to Independence as if into exile,” writes Stineman. The town’s name taunted “someone who felt she had never exercised her own independence.”
Austin can’t be the only person to have thought this—Independence is now home to the Inyo County Jail. The house that she helped design and lived in for five years is now a California historical landmark. Located a block off the main road, it’s an island of decaying charm in this otherwise half-shuttered town. The two-story shingled home has a gambrel roof, big windows, and an overgrown yard behind a sagging picket fence. The neighbor’s field that Austin included in The Land of Little Rain now contains a house. Beyond that is a rocky slab of mountain, wet and silvery with melting snow. In front of Austin’s former home, a plaque quoting her urges you to knock “at the door of the brown house under the willow-tree at the end of the village street.” This being a private residence, I didn’t knock.
Austin wrote The Land of Little Rain in this house. One day, lonely after an illness, she was gazing toward the mountain and suddenly began to write. As she did, “two tall, invisible presences came and stood on either side.” These angel-like beings returned whenever she worked on the book, and even Austin didn’t understand what they were. “I suppose they were projections out of my loneliness, reabsorbed into the subconsciousness when the need of them was past.”
The book came out easily, “practically without erasures or revisions,” and was promptly published. Its success was Austin’s ticket out of her circumstances, allowing her to leave Wallace and move to Carmel. She never returned to the Owens Valley.
It also allowed Austin to put Ruth in an institution, where she could be helped by medical professionals. Austin never saw her again. She lived until age 26, when she died in the 1918 flu pandemic. Later in Austin’s life, people didn’t know she had a daughter.
The last place we visited in the Owens Valley was the Alabama Hills, where Austin homesteaded early in her marriage. Boulders of various sizes lay on the mesa like huge russet potatoes. Climbing through the nooks and crannies of this natural jungle gym, I suddenly found I was 30 feet above the mesa. I imagined cowboys galloping over the plains, an image no doubt put in my mind by all the westerns filmed on this spot. Yet again, Austin was ahead of her time, recognizing this unusual place before anyone else.
That night, I got sick—not from coronavirus, but from an ongoing digestion problem—and we cut the trip short. I lay in the van, the Mojave Desert flashing by in a blur of brown, thinking about the function writing served for Austin. It freed her and gave her a bigger life, but she also sacrificed for it. She chose the literary life over love, family, and even her health, writing through illness and pain. Yet Austin never became the Thoreau of the West, as she’d hoped. Her later work ranged broadly and drifted in unfortunate directions, delving into Austin’s many spiritual and ethnological theories. Despite her devotion, she lost something of the pared-down intensity of her earliest book, an intensity born of a life that had no place else to go, but into writing.