The 19th-Century Writer Who Braved the Desert Alone


To perceive Mary Hunter Austin, you could first think about her strolling. She would have minimize an eccentric determine, crusing throughout the deserts of California within the 1890s in her lengthy, swirling clothes, following the tracks of coyotes, observing the actions of small mammals, cataloging the habits of crops and water and wind. By that point, in her twenties, the author had most likely already jettisoned the corset that certain her in order that she may breathe and transfer. 

Unlike most girls of her day, Austin traveled boldly throughout open nation, usually alone. She spirited via expanses of yucca, alongside dry riverbeds, and into the forests of the Sierra Nevada. She made mates with Spanish shepherds, Mexican and Chinese immigrants, miners, Shoshones, and Paiutes. She took rides from strangers to unknown locations, claiming a freedom that, on the time, for a lady, was thought of brazen at finest. 

Austin’s dozen years in these harsh lands produced a small quantity, The Land of Little Rain, now thought of an environmental traditional. “There are hills, rounded, blunt, burned, squeezed up out of chaos, chrome and vermilion painted, aspiring to the snow line,” she writes. “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.” Published in 1903, the guide is a set of intimate vignettes of the desert’s land and those who helped set up the attract of an often-maligned ecosystem—and, extra broadly, of the West itself. 

Over the course of her life, Austin produced greater than 30 books and 250 articles. She wrote concerning the mind-clearing energy of open areas in a time of speedy industrialization. She championed the rights of ladies on points similar to contraception and suffrage. She advocated for higher remedy of Native Americans, immigrants, and different oppressed teams. But in distinction to a few of her contemporaries, similar to Aldo Leopold and John Muir (with whom she publicly sparred), Austin’s work was largely forgotten after her demise, in 1934. 

“Mary Austin said what she thought, and people don’t like that in women—now or then,” says Melody Graulich, a retired professor of western American literature and an skilled on Austin’s work and life. “There have always been these women who have pushed the envelope, but we forget every generation.” 

With promiscuous curiosity, Austin explored a variety of subjects, from water points within the West to the mistreatment of Native Americans, producing novels, essays, performs, and kids’s tales. Much of her writing displays the currents of her personal life. One recurring theme investigates how ladies can escape the straitjackets of cultural expectations. 

Born in Carlinville, Illinois, in 1868, Austin was an uncommon little one from the start, chafing on the inflexible strictures of midwestern tradition. She was observant, whip-smart, willful, and outspoken. But to her mom, she was distinctly unfeminine, homely, and never fast sufficient to please others. (For these offenses, her mom thought she was unfit for marriage.) Much of her life, Austin swung between her insecurities—born of her mom’s criticism and feeling as if she didn’t slot in—and her confidence in her personal capability to write down with perception and originality, which some perceived as an unbecoming ego. 

In many different methods, Austin’s life was an upstream swim. She did marry, however the union was quick and sad. She gave delivery to 1 daughter who was severely mentally challenged and died early. In 1907, in her late thirties, Austin was recognized with terminal most cancers and sailed to Europe to endure out her demise. In a flip of miraculous good luck, she absolutely recovered and lived for an additional 26 years. Despite the acclaim and admiration Austin’s work garnered, it by no means materialized right into a financial boon, and he or she struggled financially for many of her life. 

Between residing in Europe, New York, and Carmel, California, Mary Austin saved firm with among the nice luminaries of her day, together with Herbert Hoover, H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, and Jack London (whom she implored to write down a superb sturdy feminine character). But she all the time felt referred to as to the liberating openness of the West and the cultures of the individuals who lived there. In 1924, she moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. According to Graulich, Austin felt that her time wandering the desert in her youthful years healed her deepest wounds. 

“She felt it was a way to come into her own way of thinking about the world,” Graulich says. “A fair number of her writings address that specifically—women coming to know themselves and heal themselves with physical activity and casting off corsets.” In all of her writings, Austin doesn’t discuss a lot about her personal physicality. Instead, she focuses on the significance of a connection to nature for an more and more city-bound populace. 

“Come away, you who are obsessed with your own importance in the scheme of things, and have got nothing you did not sweat for,” she writes in The Land of Little Rain, “come away by the brown valleys and full-bosomed hills to the even-breathing days, to the kindliness, earthiness.” 

Over the years, Austin’s work influenced contemporaries (Willa Cather wrote a part of Death Comes for the Archbishop in Austin’s Santa Fe house) in addition to subsequent generations of writers, similar to Gary Snyder and Terry Tempest Williams. 

“Mary Austin haunts me…she is a presence in my life even though she has been dead more than 60 years,” wrote Williams in an introduction to a 1997 version of The Land of Little Rain. “I love that Mary Austin was not polite or coy or particularly accommodating. Too many women have been silenced in the name of ‘niceness.’” 

After Austin died of a coronary heart assault, the photographer Ansel Adams additionally wrote of her affect. “Seldom have I met and known anyone of such intellectual and spiritual power and discipline,” mentioned Adams, who collaborated with Austin on a guide about Taos Pueblo. “She is a ‘future’ person—one who will a century from now appear as a writer of major stature in the complex matrix of American culture.” 

In the 1980s, students began to rediscover Austin’s work, and through the years, some half-dozen of her books have come again into print. College professors now generally educate her writing in western and environmental literature lessons. In 2014, William Randolph Hearst, the grandson of the newspaper tycoon, was so mesmerized by her prose that he organized for a brand new version of The Land of Little Rain accompanied by a set of panorama images by Walter Feller, and plaques now commemorate her work in customer facilities within the space the place she lived whereas researching it. 

One of Austin’s most celebrated and enduring quick tales, “The Walking Woman,” seems on the finish of a 1909 assortment of fiction, Lost Borders, concerning the Mojave. In some methods, it’s the fictive counterpart to her masterwork and, whereas lesser recognized, simply as private. The titular character stays anonymous and wanders the desert on foot, therapeutic herself via the straightforward act of motion. She drops the pretense of upholding appearances, and for that boldness, many consider her as loopy or lame. But because the narrator, an acquaintance, witnesses, the prints of the strolling lady’s ft within the soil are completely even and measured. 

“[S]he went as outliers do, without a hope expressed of another meeting and no word of good-bye,” Austin writes. “She was the Walking Woman. That was it. She had walked off all sense of society-made values, and, knowing the best when the best came to her, was able to take it.” 

(Editor references)

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