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Land of Little Rain Paperback – September 1, 2000
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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.