Mary Austin: Writer, Poet, Naturalist

In Familiar Roads, Rodney and Tay get into a mildly warm discussion about whether North American in general and the Southwest in particular can have geni loci, spirits bound to a place, or at least magical things that act as if they are spirits bound to a place. Part of what inspired that little scene was remembering a fragment of Mary Austin’s poem, “Southwest Magic.”

There are no fairy-folk in our Southwest,

The cactus spines would tear their filmy wings,

There’s no dew anywhere for them to drink

And no green grass to make them fairy rings.

The poem then continues on, describing deities and spirits that those who have studied regional religion and mythology will recognize. It concludes with:

There are no fairy-folk in our Southwest,

But there are hours when prairie-dog and snake,

Black beetle and the tecolote owl

Between two winks their ancient forms will take.

Most people who know of Mary Hunter Austin’s writings focus on her prose, especially the book Land of Little Rain. She was a magnificent writer and observer, who traveled the desert Southwest in the late 1800s, early 1900s, and described the life of the desert Shoshone peoples and the land. She was a major natural history writer in her time, and her work is still very highly regarded.

I studied her writings when I was working on my MA and PhD, because she is one of the people who shaped the popular understanding of the Southwest. She spent much of her life in California, living in Death Valley after she and her husband parted company. They had been involved in the water fight in CA over the Owens Valley. They were on the losing side, and one suspects that that, plus the death of their daughter, was too much. They divorced in 1914. Their daughter was born severely retarded, and Austin was unable to care for her.

Austin is somewhat out of favor at the moment, because she did not hide her dislike of Indians and Mexican-Americans who, in her mind, mistreated the land. On the other hand, she had no illusions about what development would do to her beloved landscape, either. She was a pioneer female nature writer, who wrote in a very spare, dry style without anthropormphizing animals and the land, unlike the most popular male nature writers of her day. Environmentalists like her, feminists like her, but they don’t care for her attitude to People of Color. She also worked to help get the government and society to respect the rights and traditions of American Indians, so she’s a bit of a complex character.

Her work is still in print, although her poetry book is a bit spendy ($35 new, $37 for the e-book.) I’d recommend reading Land of Little Rain along with Ross Calvin’s Sky Determines, and Conrad Richter’s The Sea of Grass. Richter makes New Mexico’s Plains of San Augustine a character in the story, and reminds me in some ways of the later writings of Elmer Kelton, especially The Time it Never Rained.

6 thoughts on “Mary Austin: Writer, Poet, Naturalist

  1. Not enough coffee but I can’t help but remember that the fairie folk are/were much more than her poem gives them credit for being. 😉

    • Of course North America can have genius loci.
      If anamism is true, then it is true everywhere. And no mountain, dell, or river can avoid having its own animating spirit.
      But on a less abstract note, I’ve encountered plenty of places that very definitely hand an overwhelming presence.
      For example, there’s a little nameless lake clutched between the “feathers” of Warbonnet Peak. I’ve stood beside it, and seen trout swimming where no fish should be, seen large crystals of smoky quartz winking at me from the boulders strewn around, heard the chirp of pica, smelled the stink of mountain goat, watched as the Sawtooths ripped the stomach out of scuffing clouds. It was a place of awe. 30 years later, I still wonder at the memory. Seek Him in the high places? I cannot scoff at the sentiment.
      At the other end of the scale, is Amboy, California. If you’ve traveled through it, I don’t need to explain, and if you haven’t, I don’t think I can.
      In short, it is completely unsurprising that Charles Manson had his cult compound here. I’ve had friends tell me they witnessed from afar a procession of torches up the blasted black cinder cone on the outskirts of the town, and I can’t discount the claims. (I also had a black friend who was warned by the CHP to leave as soon as he finished filling up “because I can’t stay and protect you”. I can’t discount this one, either.) It’s the type of place that makes you feel you’ve fallen into a Lovecraft story. And makes you suspect there’s something darker to the hikers that so regularly disappear in the area, sometimes later found at the bottom of abandoned mineshafts.

      • I’ve also encountered places that had a definable “presence.” One of the strongest ones wasn’t in North America, it was in Scotland – the Clava Cairns. I’ve had similar feelings at Grand Canyon and Crater Lake in particular. It would be easy to envision Crater Lake as a gateway to Elsewhere – standing on the crater rim, my normal sense of perspective failed completely, and what I thought was a distance of only a mile or so to the far edge of the crater was actually five miles or more. The summit of Mount Washington on a seriously cloudy day is no slouch in the “presence” department either.

        Another thought: I frequently go out whale-watching during the summer. On certain sorts of days, in certain sorts of weather, at certain times of day, the entire Sea becomes a genius locus. It isn’t just a place, it’s a PRESENCE.

    • *wags paw* She was writing in the late 1800s, when the twee, sweet garden fairies thing was peaking. I don’t think she was exposed to the lore of the Sidhe.

      • Nod.

        I wonder if the Great And Powerful “Good Folk” laughed at those “garden fairies” thing or “grumbled about them” or what.

        On the one hand, they might see that as insulting.

        On the other hand, they might think “what fools those mortals be”.

        On the gripping hand, they might like it because humans might be more vulnerable to them because humans don’t believe that the “Good Folk” can be dangerous. 😈

        • Likely, all the above, in incredible intensities, at unpredictable times.
          I rather liked when S J Games in their “GURPS: Faerie” sourcebook wrote about one of their many roles, “Faerie as Moral Enforcers, is like a criminal justice system run by the mafia. Justice is uncertain, but when it comes, it’s terrible to behold.” (They also had some useful things to say about the rather large overlap between fae, and spirits of the dead. The cover art is amazing, the first chapter is a great resource. After that, it’s just game system templates for archetypes, which are much less useful. )

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