Water Trails of the Ceriso


Sierra Nevada Mountains seen from Owens Valley, California

This is Mary Austin country. I am overwhelmed by her writing these days. Seem to think of almost nothing else. Whenever I glance at something to be translated, or open a computer file containing some of my own work in progress, none of it seems to register. Instead, Mary Austin’s images from ‘The Land of Little Rain’ (1903) crowd into my mind from every direction. I’m sure this has some significance, apart from Austin’s overpowering artistic genius, of course, but I have yet to figure out what it is. Indeed, her images won’t allow me even to much consider the question. Luckily with Kindle you can underline things as you read without ever once marring the pages of a book. Here are some passages I noted early this morning while reading Chapter 2 of the Austin book I mention above, a chapter entitled ‘Water Trails of the Ceriso’. It’s about the various paths creatures large and small use to get to water in the desert.

‘It needs but a slender thread of barrenness to make a mouse trail in the forest of the sod. To the little people the water trails are as country roads, with scents as signboards.’

‘It seems that man-height is the least fortunate of all heights from which to study trails.’

‘The coyote is your true water-witch, one who snuffs and paws, snuffs and paws again at the smallest spot of moisture-scented earth until he has freed the blind water from the soil. Many water-holes are no more than this detected by the lean hobo of the hills in localities where not even an Indian would look for it.’

‘It seems that the wild creatures have learned all that is important to their way of life except the changes of the moon. I have seen some prowling fox or coyote, surprised by its sudden rising from behind the mountain wall, slink in its increasing glow, watch it furtively from the cover of near-by brush, unprepared and half uncertain of its identity until it rode clear of the peaks, and finally make off with all the air of one caught napping by an ancient joke. The moon in its wanderings must be a sort of exasperation to cunning beasts, likely to spoil by untimely risings some fore-planned mischief.’

‘I have seen badgers drinking about the hour when the light takes on the yellow tinge it has from coming slantwise through the hills.’

‘The rabbits begin it, taking the trail with long, light leaps, one eye and ear cocked to the hills from whence a coyote might descend upon them at any moment. Rabbits are a foolish people. They do not fight except with their own kind, nor use their paws except for feet, and appear to have no reason for existence but to furnish meals for meat-eaters. In flight they seem to rebound from the earth of their own elasticity, but keep a sober pace going to the spring. It is the young watercress that tempts them and the pleasures of society, for they seldom drink. Even in localities where there are flowing streams they seem to prefer the moisture that collects on herbage, and after rains may be seen rising on their haunches to drink delicately the clear drops caught in the tops of the young sage.’


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