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on December 4, 2010
I chose this book as it describes Death Valley and surrounds in the US and as I had been there thought it might provide a little more in depth information about the area. She writes delightfully about flora, fauna and nature's way, however, I got a little bogged down two thirds of the way in with almost unlimited descriptions of flora - perhaps someone with this background would find it fascinating - anyhow I soldiered on and found the remainder of the book very good, particularly the native indian tribe's customs and ways. Recommended....
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on June 17, 1998
Austin lived in the Owens Valley during a turbulent period at the turn of the century, and she observes the people and wild things dwelling there with a novelist's eye. But what sets this gem above all the rest is simply her writing, the plain beauty of her voice and phrasing. She achieves a tone that is somehow at once wistful and tinged with levity, very gently ironic yet always loving. Her words caress their subjects like -- well, like the pen and ink drawings that graced the original publication in 19-ought-whatever. They evoke all the richness of the place, its austerity, its pathos, its beauty, with a gentle affection that is sweet but never cloying, sometimes sad but never downcast. It has a kind of Zen translucency, filtered through the gently humorous, sensitive lens of a literary genius.
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on April 10, 2005
The famous American-West landscape photographer, Ansel Adams and friend of M.H.A., said of The Land of Little Rain: "The sharp beauty of The Land of Little Rain is finely etched in the distinguished prose of Mary Austin. Many books and articles have probed the factual aspects of this amazing land, but no writing to my knowledge conveys so much of the spirit of earth and sky, of plants and people, of storm and the desolation of majestic wastes, of tender, intimate beauty, as does The Land of Little Rain." (Re: "A Note on the Land and on the Photographs", from "The Land of Little Rain"- Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1950).

Indeed, M.H.A. displayed an uncanny sensitivity and understanding of the desert lands in the Owens Valley, California. Death Valley is, indeed, harsh and unforgiving, but to the astute observer who has learned how to live within the limits of sparse resources, it is an unequaled Paradise. She writes so eloquently and poetically of how the desert people and flora/fauna survive. The interaction of desert botany, biology, hydrology, geography, meteorology, and ecology come across vividly and often humorously with such lines as:

"Once at Red Rock, in a year of green pasture (a wet year), which is a bad time for the scavengers, we saw two buzzards, five ravens, and a coyote feeding on the same carrion, and only the coyote seemed ashamed of the company". (chapter 3- "The Scavengers")

M.H.A. studied the land, the flora/fauna, the weather (her "2" basic desert seasons- summer and winter) and she learned from her neighbors the Shoshone and Paiute Indians (she preferred to call the American Indians "Amerinds") , the Mexicans, the white settlers, and many colorful desert loners such as the "Pocket Hunter" (for seeker of pockets of gold)- her name for an old prospector friend. She learned much wisdom and practical knowledge from her Indian friends like "The Basket Maker", Seyavi, whose life story is so eloquently told. The Indians shared with her their survival knowledge of how to find water from signs displayed by plants, how to read the activities of animals for food, how to "know" which plants are medicinal and/or edible and which plants to stay away from:

"Live long enough with an Indian, and he or the wild things will show you a use for everything that grows in these borders". (Chapter- "Shoshone Land")

This beautiful little book finishes with: "Come away, you who are obsessed with your own importance in the scheme of things, and have got nothing you did not sweat for, come away by the brown valleys and full-bosomed hills to the even-breathing days, to the kindliness, earthliness, ease of Pueblo de Las Uvas."

According to Ansel Adam's notes, Las Uvas is Grape Canyon or Creek and is part of the Tejon area south of Bakersfield, Ca.

After reading this fine book, one will come to understand why so many people have referred to M.H.A. as the "Henry David Thoreau
of the American West". Thoreau is the author of the renown classic, "Walden".

There are many different publications of The Land of Little Rain and many have variations from the original format, ie., different introductions, preface, illustrations, etc. The text is all that really matters, of course, but I have checked-out a few of the different copies from regional libraries so I could copy the intros by such notables as "Cactus Ed" (Edward Abbey- "The Monkey Wrench Gang", et al.). Abbey's Forward is in the 1988 Penguin Books edition. My copy is a reproduction of the original 1903 edition complete with line drawings by E. Boyd Smith who knew M.H.A. and the regions she wrote about.

Ansel Adams teamed-up with Houghton-Mifflin Co. in 1950 to give tribute to this outstanding classic by publishing a version her book with 48 of his photos taken in the Owens Valley, California region where the book was written and M.H.A. lived for sometime.

In describing the various areas and geographical locations in her book, M.H.A. cloaked many of the popular modern regional names with original Indian or old nicknames known only to a few to protect the privacy of those she wrote about. Adams and the editors used several resources to decipher the pseudonyms so he could match them to his photographs with the current regional names for accurate descriptions. They published an interesting glossary of all the names that could be deciphered in this 1950 edition.

More information including photographs of M.H.A. and her life can be seen at the Owens Valley Historical Society website:
[...]
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on October 7, 2005
It's pretty easy to write a book that makes people want to go somewhere that already looks appealing to them--Manhattan, Yellowstone, other places where tourists flock to--but to write a book that makes one of the most desolate, bleak, inhospitable places on the entire planet seem like somewhere you have to see for yourself as soon as possible...well, that takes some skill.

That's what Mary Austin has done however, in "The Land of Little Rain." This book examines the wildlife, plants, terrain, weather, and people of Death Valley and the surrounding area, and it does so with the eye and the pen of a true poet.

Mary Austin lavishes her words on this area in sparse, measured prose, and distills the essence of this harsh California desert into sentences and paragraphs. She finds a handful of words that perfectly suit this terrain and the life it supports--words like white, slant, tilt, sessile, and winey--and bends and twists these words every way possible to serve her every purpose.

As a result, the land she describes comes across vividly. She writes of how the desert and the wilderness "uncramps our souls," of "the days too hot and white," of slant-winged scavengers," of wandering hopelessly through the desert trodding on vultures' shadows, of "the westering sun," "the late slant light," of "a stream that knows its purpose and reflects the sky," and of the sun dancing up the slope of a mountain.

Her prose is KILLER.

She also tells firsthand accounts of Death Valley's craziest miners, of little towns that could (kind of, sometimes), and of such sad sights as a cougar lamenting the destruction of its lair and family that had been destroyed by a torrential rainstorm, "crying a very human woe." In another such rainstorm she talks of "a bobcat mother mouthing her drowned kittens in the ruined lair built in the wash...."

I highly recommend this book. It's very brief, and is plotless, but the insights and descriptions are invaluable. I've never been to Death Valley, but I'm already planning on going there.

If the book has faults though, it's in some of the generalizations it makes about the area's people (All Spanish people dance and sing every evening? Really?), and in how abruptly it ends. It's a bit like taking a long, beautiful scenic drive and then ending up in a parking lot.

"This is so great, look at that--oh. Oh, we're there."
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on June 7, 1997
Mary Austin's brilliant essay on a small corner of California is the subject of this breathtaking book. In prose of unvarying beauty and satisfaction she paints a stunning portrait of high mountains and deepest valleys, describes in vivid detail the lives of the native Indians and Mexican immigrants, and reminds her readers that there is life and vitality to be found in these trackless desert regions. I believe you will agree with her own motivation for writing "The Land of Little Rain" after reading it: "...as one lover of it can give to another."
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on March 22, 2007
Mary Austin's work is roughly contemporary with John Muir's, although "The Land of Little Rain" comes after the publication of Muir's best work. It's been said that Mary Austin's work is the finest nature writing between John Muir's and Aldo Leopold's. I dearly love John Muir's writing, but Mary Austin is the better writer. There is a haunting, mystical quality in this book. At times it reads like beautifully stark poetry, like the landscape she describes. For me it reads like music. I read this after visiting Owens Valley, Death Valley and the valleys and mountains between. For me it was an affirmation of what I felt and sensed there. If you let it, the landscape has a way of burning itself into you, and she describes that very well.
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I recently read Karen Surina Mulford's Trailblazers: Twenty Amazing Western Women (Great American Women Series) which provided brief biographical sketches of the lives of twenty women of the American West. Regrettably, more than half I had never heard of before. And one was Mary Hunter Austin. Mulford's sketch contained profuse praise for Austin's classic historical, environmental and ethnological work, "The Land of Little Rain." The work is a result of Austin's insatiable curiosity and keen observations made during almost two decades of life in Independence, California, which is still a very small town of under a 1000 people. It is located in the Owens Valley, and lies between the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, and the very lowlands of Death Valley. As the title implies, it doesn't rain much there.

Austin's work was first published in 1903, and Penguin deserves kudos for keeping it in print. In part, it recalls the naturalist observations of Thoreau's Walden, but in a desert setting. She doesn't really say how she does it, or in what company, if any, but it was obvious that she did substantial hiking, long before the days of well-marked trails (or accurate weather forecasts). Thus we learn of the "streets of the mountains" written before the advent of the motor car. Her vocabulary is rich and dense, with the names of the plants and animals... and I did wonder how she learned them, prior to guide books. I still have difficulty knowing what a clematis is; it was simply different paths of knowledge in those pre-electronic days.

Of the 14 essays, several are devoted to the human inhabitants of this area. There were two impressive ones on the American Indians. It was tough to be a "medicine man" in the Paiutes tribe. If three patients died, the "medicine man" would be executed. The very real paperwork travails of modern day doctors pale into insignificance by comparison. In her essay entitled "The Basket Maker" Austin described how Seyavi, of the Paiutes, made baskets that were so tight that one could cook in them... by dropping in heated rocks. Another excellent essay, "The Pocket Hunter" was on one of the (white) miners/prospectors that provided the initial impetus for the settlement of California. The "pocket" being the "sweet spot" in an ore vein that contained the most concentrated amount of the mineral sought.

A few of her thoughts that resonated: she was into the "travel light" mode before it was popularized - "And here is a hint if you would attempt the stateliest approaches; travel light, and as much as possible live off the land. Mulligatwany soup and tinned lobster will not bring you the favor of the woodlanders." Observing the natural world: "What one has to get used to in flowers at high altitudes is he bleaching of the sun. Hardly do they hold their virgin color for a day, and this early fading before their function is performed gives them a pitiful appearance not according with their hardihood." In terms of settling the often contentious battles over water "rights," Austin reaches back to the classics: "Jesus Montana...walked into five of Judson's bullets and his eternal possession on the same occasion. That was the Homeric age of settlement and passed into tradition."

Today the small village of Independence is just a spot on US 385 through which so many residents of Los Angeles have to slow down a bit in, as they race up towards Mammoth Lakes, the Muir Wilderness and the "back door" to Yosemite, and such more "scenic" places. A read of Austin's classic work might convince the traveler that they had arrived at their destination before they reached the more "scenic" ones. 5-stars.
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on November 9, 2006
The famous American-West landscape photographer, Ansel Adams and friend of M.H.A., said of The Land of Little Rain: "The sharp beauty of The Land of Little Rain is finely etched in the distinguished prose of Mary Austin. Many books and articles have probed the factual aspects of this amazing land, but no writing to my knowledge conveys so much of the spirit of earth and sky, of plants and people, of storm and the desolation of majestic wastes, of tender, intimate beauty, as does The Land of Little Rain." (Re: "A Note on the Land and on the Photographs", from "The Land of Little Rain"- Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1950).

Indeed, M.H.A. displayed an uncanny sensitivity and understanding of the desert lands in the Owens Valley, California. Death Valley is, indeed, harsh and unforgiving, but to the astute observer who has learned how to live within the limits of sparse resources, it is an unequaled Paradise. She writes so eloquently and poetically of how the desert people and flora/fauna survive. The interaction of desert botany, biology, hydrology, geography, meteorology, and ecology come across vividly and often humorously with such lines as:

"Once at Red Rock, in a year of green pasture [a wet year], which is a bad time for the scavengers, we saw two buzzards, five ravens, and a coyote feeding on the same carrion, and only the coyote seemed ashamed of the company". (chapter- "The Scavengers")

M.H.A. studied the land, the flora/fauna, the weather (her "2" basic desert seasons- summer and winter) and she learned from her neighbors the Shoshone and Paiute Indians (she preferred to call the American Indians "Amerinds") , the Mexicans, the white settlers, and many colorful desert loners such as the "Pocket Hunter" (for seeker of pockets of gold)- her name for an old prospector friend. She learned much wisdom and practical knowledge from her Indian friends like "The Basket Maker", Seyavi, whose life story is so eloquently told. The Indians shared with her their survival knowledge of how to find water from signs displayed by plants, how to read the activities of animals for food, how to "know" which plants are medicinal and/or edible and which plants to stay away from:

"Live long enough with an Indian, and he or the wild things will show you a use for everything that grows in these borders". (Chapter- "Shoshone Land")

This beautiful little book finishes with: "Come away, you who are obsessed with your own importance in the scheme of things, and have got nothing you did not sweat for, come away by the brown valleys and full-bosomed hills to the even-breathing days, to the kindliness, earthliness, ease of Pueblo de Las Uvas."

After reading this fine book, one will come to understand why so many people have referred to M.H.A. as the "Henry David Thoreau of the American West" ("Walden").

There are many different publications of The Land of Little Rain and many have variations from the original format, ie., different introductions, preface, illustrations, etc. The text is all that really matters, of course, but I have checked-out a few of the different copies from regional libraries so I could copy the intros by such notables as "Cactus Ed" (Edward Abbey- "The Monkey Wrench Gang", et al.). Abbey's Forward is in the 1988 Penguin Books edition. My copies are a reproduction of the original 1903 edition complete with line drawings by E. Boyd Smith who knew M.H.A. and the regions she wrote about and this 1950 Ansel Adams edition.

Ansel Adams teamed-up with Houghton-Mifflin Co. in 1950 to give tribute to this outstanding classic by M.H.A. by publishing a version her book with 48 of his photos taken in the Owens Valley, California region where the book was written and M.H.A. lived for sometime.

In describing the various areas and geographical locations in her book, M.H.A. cloaked many of the popular modern regional names with original Indian or old nicknames known only to a few to protect the privacy of those she wrote about. Adams and the editors used several resources to decipher the pseudonyms so he could match them to his photographs with the current regional names for accurate descriptions. They published an interesting glossary of all the names that could be deciphered in this 1950 edition.

More information including photographs of M.H.A. and her life can be seen at the Owens Valley Historical Society website (google it)
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on December 23, 2010
This book fascinated myself and other family members. Tells an exacting tale of life in SW desert. Gives historical info on Shoshoni that is hard to find. Enjoyed this edition and got a great deal on it through Amazon.
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on April 17, 2015
Though a bit antiquated in vocabulary (makes reading on the kindle a good bet so you can easily look up the words) and very botanical, it's a wonderful journey through Death Valley and it surrounding environs. If you like to read about the way things were, like I do, this is a book for you.
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