by Mary Austin
"For all the toll the desert takes of a man it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars. It comes upon one with new force in the pauses of the night that the Chaldeans were a desert-bred people. It is hard to escape the sense of mastery as the stars move in the wide clear heavens to risings and settings unobscured. They look large and near and palpitant; as if they moved on some stately service not needful to declare. Wheeling to their stations in the sky, they make the poor world-fret of no account. Of no account you who lie out there watching, nor the lean coyote that stands off in the scrub from you and howls and howls." --The Land of Little Rain, p. 10
Although The Land of Little Rain is very slow moving in parts, I liked this slender 109-page nature-writing classic quite a bit more than I would've expected from just a quick glance at that horrid New Age cover on my library copy above. Austin's prose is suitably spare and unadorned throughout this series of 14 non-fiction vignettes on life in the harsh southern California desert, but she has a great eye for detail and an unconventional point of view that provide for constant surprises when leafing through her work (to provide just one example, Austin is as likely to decry an act of violence with an unexpectedly secular aside--"Since it appears that we make our own heaven here, no doubt we shall have a hand in the heaven of hereafter" --as she is to attribute John Muir's profound love of the natural world to his status as "a devout man" in another passage ). Geographically focused on the areas near the Mojave Desert and the Owens Valley in California where the author lived at the dawn of the 20th century, the Land of Little Rain's thematic concerns embrace the flora and fauna of the region, the itinerant gold prospectors still looking for their lucky strike, and--perhaps most interesting of all over a century later--Austin's interactions with the Paiute and Shoshone Indians and the Mexican settlers of her adopted home. Discovering that the midwest transplant and single mom Austin was so appreciative of these different cultures in an age notorious for intolerance of all kinds makes me want to learn more about this gifted writer sooner rather than later. Rating: 4 out of 5 stars. (http://www.modernlibrary.com/)
The Modern Library edition of The Land of Little Rain includes a fine biographical sketch by Robert Hass, but other versions of the text are available online for free due to its status as a public domain work. For a good recent blog entry about Austin and her life, check out Prof. Peter Richardson's self-titled blog on Californian culture here.