The Streets of the Mountains

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Mary Hunter Austin House, Independence, California. 

Here are some passages which I find particularly striking, taken from the tenth essay of Mary Hunter Austin’s 1903 ‘The Land of Little Rain’. The essay dwells mostly on the beauty of the Eastern Sierra, White and Inyo mountains which surround the Owens Valley where Hunter lived. But the author also spends time reflecting on how the comforts of modern human dwellings (such as Hunter’s own home in Independence, California, depicted above) can result in people’s diminished capacity to understand and appreciate the mountains, and the roads which pass through them, on their own terms. I have chosen these passages for what I find their beauty or their insights or both.

‘All mountain streets have streams to thread them, or deep grooves where a stream might run. You would do well to avoid that range uncomforted by singing floods. You will find it forsaken of most things but beauty and madness and death and God.’

‘It is even possible to win through the Sierras without having passed above timber-line, but one misses a great exhilaration.’

‘Every cañon commends itself for some particular pleasantness…and, though some are easier going, leads each to the cloud shouldering citadel.’

‘The real procession of the pines begins in the rifts with the long-leafed Pinus Jeffreyi, sighing its soul away upon the wind.’

‘…and the million unregarded trumpets of the coral-red pentstemon.’

‘But in a country of cone-beaers there is usually a good strip of swardy sod along the cañon floor. Pine woods, the short-leafed Balfour and Murryana of the high Sierras, are sombre, rooted in the litter of a thousand years, hushed, and corrective to the spirit.’

‘Sitting islanded on some gray peak above the encompassing wood, the soul is lifted up to sing the Iliad of the pines.’

‘The firs…are tormented, bowed, persisting to the door of the storm chambers, tall priests to pray for rain. The spring winds lift clouds of pollen dust, finer than frankincense, and trail it out over high altars, staining the snow. No doubt they understand this work better than we; in fact they know no other. “Come,” say the churches of the valleys, after a season of dry years, “let us pray for rain.” They would do better to plant more trees.’

‘The meadow is white with violets and all outdoors keeps the clock. For example, when the ripples at the ford of the creek raise a clear half tone–sign that the snow water has come down from the heated high ridges–it is time to light the evening fire. When it drops off a note–but you will not know it except the Douglas squirrel tells you with his high, fluty chirrup from the pines’ aerial gloom–sign that some star watcher has caught the first far glint of the nearing sun.’

‘The business that goes on in the street of the mountain is tremendous, world-formative.’

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