|Mary Austin, 1906, Huntington Library|
Mary’s beloved father died when she was ten. Her mother, left with three living children, set to work, giving Mary the housework and the care of her little brother. Mary studied science, especially botany, at a small Presbyterian college, graduating at 20. She was intense and awkward, and felt unloved by her mother. Nevertheless, she joined the family when they moved to the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley near Bakersfield, filing homestead claims.
The farming venture failed due to drought, but the stark environment and the presence of the Paiute Indians fueled a perception that guided Mary throughout life. She wrote of herself in Earth Horizon [published 1932] that she sat out in the dunes in the moonlight, apathetic by day: “Her trouble was that the country failed to explain itself. If it had a history, nobody could recount it. Its creatures had no known life except such as she could discover by unremitting vigilance of observation; its plants no names that her Middlewestern botany could supply. She did not know yet what were its weather signs, nor what the procession of its days might bring forth. Until these things elucidated themselves factually, Mary was spellbound in an effort not to miss any animal behavior, any bird-marking, any weather signs, any signature of tree or flower.”
Determined to become a writer, Mary married Wallace Austin, who supported her in this. They moved to the Owens Valley, which Mary celebrated in her most famous book, The Land of Little Rain [published 1903]. “If one is inclined to wonder at first how so many dwellers came to be in the loneliest land that ever came out of God’s hands, what they do there and why stay, one does not wonder so much after having lived there. None other than this long brown land lays such a hold on the affections. The rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous radiance of the spring, have the lotus charm. They trick the sense of time, so that once inhabiting there you always mean to go away without quite realizing that you have not done it.”
Wallace Austin’s irrigation schemes were a failure. He and Mary also tried to prevent the attempts of Los Angeles to gain control of the Owens River. Mary visited William Mulholland, who said after the interview, “By God, that woman is the only one who has brains enough to see where this is going.” The Austins had one child, Ruth, who was developmentally disabled. Mary worked as a writer and teacher to support the family, eventually putting Ruth in an institution after the success of The Land of Little Rain.
Mary began to move away from her family, meeting other artists and writers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and living in Carmel, California, during its time as an artists’ colony, between 1904 and 1911. She spent three years in Europe, getting a reputation there as a writer from the American West. When she returned, she lived in New York, but was finally called back to the desert, to a home in Santa Fe, where she died in 1934.
Constantly writing for magazines and speaking until her death, Mary Austin was a well-known figure during her time. Though resentment and egocentrism sometimes mar her writing, much of it is straight observation of natural surroundings. She also sought out people who inhabited the desert, the Indians, miners and other outsiders with whom she felt kinship. Of an Indian woman basket-maker: "But suppose you find Seyavi retired into the privacy of her blanket, you will get nothing for that day. There is no other privacy possible in a campoodie. All the processes of life are carried on out of doors or behind the thin, twig-woven walls of the wickiup, and laughter is the only corrective for behavior."
Mary Austin’s writing feeds my own desert longings. Of the lure of the vast cactus garden between Tucson and Phoenix: “If I should disappear from my accustomed places,” she says, “look for me beyond the last spur of Santa Catalina, where there is a one-armed sahuaro having a hawk’s nest in the crotch. Beyond that there is a plantation of thistle poppies on the tops of whose dusty green stems have perched whole flocks of white, wind-ruffled doves.”