The Land of Little Rain


East face of Mt. Whitney as seen from the Alabama Hills, Inyo County, California


Here are some quotes from the first chapter of ‘The Land of Little Rain’ (1903) by Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934) who lived at Independence, California, not far from the scene pictured above. I’m periodically driven from within to reread this fine book–so forcefully that I can’t resist, no matter how hard I tell myself that there are other books to be explored. One thing I love about it most: it’s not anthropocentric, but rather focusses on the land, the elements, the birds and plants, the insects and natural processes of the great southwestern desert regions.


‘A land of lost 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.’


‘The desert floras shame us with their cheerful adaptations to the seasonal limitations. Their whole duty is to flower and fruit, and they do it hardly, or with tropical luxuriance, as the rain admits. It is recorded in the report of the Death Valley expedition that after a year of abundant rains, on the Colorado desert was found a specimen of Amaranthus ten feet high. A year later the same species in the same place matured in the drought at four inches.’


‘If you have any doubt about it, know that the desert begins with the creosote.’


‘There is neither poverty of soil nor species to account for the sparseness of desert growth, but simply that each plant requires more room. So much earth must be preempted to extract so much moisture. The real struggle for existence, the real brain of the plant, is underground; above there is room for a rounded perfect growth. In Death Valley, reputed the very core of desolation, are nearly two hundred identified species.’


‘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.’


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