Mary Austin’s Desert Scavengers


Winter scene, Owens Valley, California. Mary Austin country.

Like most people, I suppose, I am not much attracted to nature’s scavengers: the vultures and buzzards, the coyotes and rodents and insects which seem to appear whenever there is recently living organic matter suddenly available to be consumed. The most vivid image which comes to my mind in this regard is of a photo taken by a friend, with her digital camera one Saturday morning, of a flock of vultures which had materialized upon the telephone wires behind her house. Why they had chosen to gather above the rooftops of a quiet suburban neighborhood is something I didn’t want to contemplate, any more than I wanted to dwell upon the vast gangly birds’ repellent physical features or the possible details of the dietary habits which kept them alive.

Mary Austin, however, had an entirely different view of these things and described them so beautifully in the third chapter, entitled ‘The Scavengers’, of her book ‘The Land of Little Rain’. There she reflected upon nature’s gleaners, of whatever species, in their identity as the desert’s expert housekeepers who make use of every available resource, waste nary a thing, keep the landscape scoured, and help maintain the balance of the natural world. Only man, she stated at the end of this short essay, disrupts the harmony of this system with his penchant for polluting the environment with his non-recyclable refuse. After reading Mary Austin, I may not feel any more attracted to vultures than I did before, but I do have a greater respect for their place in the grander scheme of things. They are as practical and as useful as can be. Here are some quotes from the book.

‘Fifty-seven buzzards, one on each of fifty-seven fence posts at the rancho El Tejon, on a mirage-breeding September morning, sat solemnly while the white tilted travelers’ vans lumbered down the Cañada de las Uvas. After three hours they had only clapped their wings, or exchanged posts. The season’s end in the vast dim valley of the San Joaquin is palpitatingly hot, and the air breathes like cotton wool. Through it all the buzzards sit on the fences and low hummocks, with wings spread fanwise for air. There is no end to them, and they smell to heaven. Their heads droop, and all their communication is a rare, horrid croak.’

‘Probably we never fully credit the interdependence of wild creatures, and their cognizance of the affairs of their own kind. When the five coyotes that range the Tejon from Pasteria to Tunawai planned a relay race to bring down an antelope strayed from the band, beside myself to watch, an eagle swung down from Mt. Pinos, buzzards materialized out of invisible ether, and hawks came trooping like small boys to a street fight. Rabbits sat up in the chaparral and cocked their ears, feeling themselves quite safe for the once as the hunt swung near them. Nothing happens in the deep wood that the blue jays are not all agog to tell.’

And then there are ‘the chipmunks and sparrows that whisk off crumbs of comfort from under the camper’s feet.’

‘Man is the great blunderer going about in the woods, and there is no other except the bear makes so much noise. Being so well warned beforehand, it is a very stupid animal, or a very bold one, that cannot keep safely hid. The cunningest hunter is hunted in turn, and what he leaves of his kill is meat for some other. That is the economy of nature, but with it all there is not sufficient account taken of the works of man. There is no scavenger that eats tin cans, and no wild thing leaves a like disfigurement on the forest floor.’


2 comments on “Mary Austin’s Desert Scavengers

  1. Mike Crowl says:

    Just to let you know, Leif, that I’ve finally posted a poem on the word Nestbeschmutzer – – I wasn’t sure that it was altogether working, which there’s been quite a delay…anyway, here’s what might be called a first draft. Sorry I didn’t have another way to contact you about it.

    • leifhendrik says:


      The poem is great! I think this could be a whole new genre. I really like the direction you took with the word, things I would never have thought of. Thanks for letting me know.


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