Sunday, July 15, 2012

On "The Land of Little Rain" by Mary Austin ***

This is a book referenced constantly on California literature and history lists. It's Austin's account of California's high desert, the land just over the lip of the Sierra Nevadas, where snow comes down in winter but where the land experiences just a glimmer of rain a few months out of the year. Really, that slight bit of rain is typical of California, with its wet winter and dry rest of the year. But in the high desert, just over the mountains, the rain effect is magnified by the fact that rain tends to fall more on the forward side of mountains than the backward side.

The references one reads of Austin's book inevitably do so in the context of the "rape of the Owens Valley," Los Angeles's purchase of the water belonging to the region and its long aqueduct that spirits much of the valley's water down to another: the San Fernando. As a result, a region with towns like Bishop, which should be--in some people's view--a large cities, is instead a collection of tiny struggling habitations (albeit, beautiful--I've been to Bishop).

Austin's book recounts this land before it was taken over. And it's full of elegant and beautiful prose. This is nature writing at its finest--and at its most typical--which for me is both the book's greatest strength and its greatest weakness. I can pleasure in sentences, but there isn't a lot of sustained momentum here, no plot or strong point of argument. As a result, I found my mind wandering, back to the California that is my birthplace and wanting, in some ways, to visit the locales that are the subjects of Ansel Adams's accompanying photographs (in the version I read).

I can't recount much, because that lack of development kept me from feeling connected. There are chapters on a celebration in a town of Mexican heritage, on how a town like Jimville got its name, on the grazing of mountain goats. And there are plenty of discussions about water, which remains a constant concern in California and which is the subject of the next few books I am planning to read.

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