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(Still) The Land of Little Rain: Mary Austin and the Eastern Sierra

Articles: (Still) The Land of Little Rain: Mary Austin and the Eastern Sierra

Photograph by Stephen Ingram

Mary Hunter Austin was the kind of writer, to paraphrase Barbara Kingsolver, for whom the desire to tell stories nipped at her like a ferret, biting through all she knew of the world. Austin’s stories and essays were love songs to the landscape. Her first grand passion was the Lower Owens River Valley in the Eastern Sierra, the “land of little rain” to which she refers in the title of her first book, published in 1903.

More than a century later, the threads of literature, nature, and environmentalism are woven together in a seamless dialogue in this country. But it was far less so when Mary Austin—a woman, no less—set out to sing praise of the Lower Owens River Valley.

Hers was a difficult life. Mary Hunter was born in 1868 in Carlinville, Illinois, to an ambivalent mother and a lawyer father who shared the child’s lively mind. He suffered ill health, however, and died when Mary was ten. She took over the household, caring for younger siblings when her mother went to work. Diphtheria soon struck the family. Mary, an older brother, and the baby survived; a younger sister did...

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