The 19th-Century Writer Who Braved the Desert Alone
Mary Austin wrote about the Mojave as brilliantly as John Muir wrote about the Sierra. Why was she forgotten?
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To understand Mary Hunter Austin, you must first imagine her walking. She would have cut an eccentric figure, sailing across the deserts of California in the 1890s in her long, swirling dresses, following the tracks of coyotes, observing the movements of small mammals, cataloging the habits of plants and water and wind. By that time, in her twenties, the writer had probably already jettisoned the corset that bound her so that she could breathe and move.
Unlike most women of her day, Austin traveled boldly across open country, often alone. She spirited through expanses of yucca, along dry riverbeds, and into the forests of the Sierra Nevada. She made friends with Spanish shepherds, Mexican and Chinese immigrants, miners, Shoshones, and Paiutes. She took rides from strangers to unknown destinations, claiming a freedom that, at the time, for a woman, was considered brazen at best.
Austin’s dozen years in these harsh lands produced a small volume, The Land of Little Rain, now considered an environmental classic. “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 book is a collection of intimate vignettes of the desert’s land and people that helped establish the allure of an often-maligned ecosystem—and, more broadly, of the West itself.
Over the course of her life, Austin produced more than 30 books and 250 articles. She wrote about the mind-clearing power of open spaces in a time of rapid industrialization. She championed the rights of women on issues such as birth control and suffrage. She advocated for better treatment of Native Americans, immigrants, and other oppressed groups. But in contrast to some of her contemporaries, such as Aldo Leopold and John Muir (with whom she publicly sparred), Austin’s work was largely forgotten after her death, 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 expert 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 diversity of topics, from water issues in the West to the mistreatment of Native Americans, producing novels, essays, plays, and children’s stories. Much of her writing reflects the currents of her own life. One recurring theme investigates how women can escape the straitjackets of cultural expectations.
Much of Austin’s writing reflects the currents of her own life. One recurring theme investigates how women can escape the straitjackets of cultural expectations.
Born in Carlinville, Illinois, in 1868, Austin was an unusual child from the beginning, chafing at the rigid strictures of midwestern culture. She was observant, whip-smart, willful, and outspoken. But to her mother, she was distinctly unfeminine, homely, and not quick enough to please others. (For these offenses, her mother thought she was unfit for marriage.) Much of her life, Austin swung between her insecurities—born of her mother’s criticism and feeling as if she didn’t fit in—and her confidence in her own capacity to write with insight and originality, which some perceived as an unbecoming ego.
In many other ways, Austin’s life was an upstream swim. She did marry, but the union was short and unhappy. She gave birth to one daughter who was severely mentally challenged and died early. In 1907, in her late thirties, Austin was diagnosed with terminal cancer and sailed to Europe to suffer out her death. In a turn of miraculous good luck, she fully recovered and lived for another 26 years. Despite the acclaim and admiration Austin’s work garnered, it never materialized into a monetary boon, and she struggled financially for most of her life.
Between living in Europe, New York, and Carmel, California, Mary Austin kept company with some of the great luminaries of her day, including Herbert Hoover, H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, and Jack London (whom she implored to write a good strong female character). But she always felt called to the liberating openness of the West and the cultures of the people 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 younger 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 talk much about her own physicality. Instead, she focuses on the importance of a connection to nature for an increasingly 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 part of Death Comes for the Archbishop in Austin’s Santa Fe home) as well as subsequent generations of writers, such as 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 edition 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 heart attack, the photographer Ansel Adams also wrote of her influence. “Seldom have I met and known anyone of such intellectual and spiritual power and discipline,” said Adams, who collaborated with Austin on a book 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, scholars started to rediscover Austin’s work, and over the years, some half-dozen of her books have come back into print. College professors now commonly teach her writing in western and environmental literature classes. In 2014, William Randolph Hearst, the grandson of the newspaper tycoon, was so mesmerized by her prose that he arranged for a new edition of The Land of Little Rain accompanied by a collection of landscape photographs by Walter Feller, and plaques now commemorate her work in visitor centers in the area where she lived while researching it.
One of Austin’s most celebrated and enduring short stories, “The Walking Woman,” appears at the end of a 1909 collection of fiction, Lost Borders, about the Mojave. In some ways, it is the fictive counterpart to her masterwork and, while lesser known, just as personal. The titular character remains nameless and wanders the desert on foot, healing herself through the simple act of movement. She drops the pretense of upholding appearances, and for that boldness, many think of her as crazy or lame. But as the narrator, an acquaintance, witnesses, the prints of the walking woman’s feet in the soil are perfectly 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.”