Mary Austin (1868-1934), Land of Little Rain, 1903.

"The palpable sense of mystery in the desert air breeds fables, chiefly of lost treasure."


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A primary document of natural history for this is an ecological portrait of the Owen’s Valley, California, and her importance lies in:

1.    Examining the biological transformation of the Owen’s Valley before it was sequestered for municipal water needs during the "age of conservation."

2.    The role of women in the settlement, descriptions, and protection of the west.

3.    The examination of how people embody landscape, water, and climate that influence and are influenced by the original and subsequent settlers in the high desert, of eastern California.


  In that country which begins at the foot of the east slope of the Sierras and spreads out by less and less lofty hill ranges toward the Great Basin, it is possible to live with great zest, to have red blood and delicate joys, to pass and repass about one's daily performance an area that would make an Atlantic seaboard State. ...For all the toil the desert takes of a man it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars."

(pp. 7-8).

Closing lines


Austin homeSierras


Mary Austin's home in Independence, –the Owen's Valley– California is pictured on the left; at right a view of Bishop, California.


Interpret a chapter from Land of Little Rain and explain a complex concept that she conveys and how she clearly describes that idea by examining the structure of the chapter.



I. Background: Agricultural reclamation versus distant urban development


The natural legacy of what was there; the native features of the valley landscapes.


The setting was forever transformed by water diversion.
The natural conditions of the terrain before the diversion was high altitude desert watered from snow melt in the spring and summer. Owen’s Valley land was bought up in small parcels–piecemeal over time–and surreptitiously by the Los Angles Department of water and power [LADWP] ; the largest publicly owned, municipal utility in the United States authorized to generate electricity and provide low cost water to consumers in the city.
Fred Eaton visited the Owens Valley in 1905 and began to purchase land for the City of Los Angeles. He gave the impression that he was working for the US Reclamation Service on a public irrigation project, angering local residents when they discovered he was buying land and water rights for Los Angeles. William Mulholland
(William Mulholland pictured above, director LADWP, 1913.)


The scheme to bring water 300 miles from the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains to southern California was the plan of William Mulholland a hydrological engineer. After securing the land and water rights, the Board of Water Commissioners needed to obtain the money from Los Angeles residents, and legal rights from the Federal Government, to construct an aqueduct. A bond measure to pay for the construction passed in Los Angeles by a 10 to 1 margin.


After much debate in the House of Representatives, President Theodore Roosevelt decided that –despite the Bureau of Reclamation's plans for an agrarian irrigation project in the Owen's Valley, that the City of Los Angeles should have the rights to the Owens River water, based in part on their Municipal Water and Power Department's purchases of that land with riparian rights.


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mary_austinMary Austin's  "This is the nature of the country. ...hills... squeezed up out of chaos, painted vermillion…."


"One finds butterflies, too, about these high, sharp regions which might be called desolate, but will not by me who love them."



"The seasons end in the vast dim valley of the San Joaquin is palpitatingly hot, and the air breathes like cotton wool."


"The increase of wild creatures is in proportion to the things they feed upon; the more carrion, the more buzzards."


II. Where          “East of Yosemite” (Preface)


Sierra Nevada Mountains               White Mountains            Death Valley

Water originates from the mountains and the long valley caldera.

1) The Owens Valley, “East away from the Sierras, south from Panamint and Amorgos, east and south many an uncounted mile.”


III. Begins how?

2-4) The country of lost borders . . . This is the country of three seasons . . . .extreme aridity and extreme altitude . . . . squeezed up out of  chaos, … full of intolerable sun glare. . . the sculpture of the hills here is more wind than water work…The desert floras shame us with their cheerful adaptations to the seasonal limitations."


3) “The angle of the slope, the frontage of a hill, the structure of the soil determines the plant."


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"Void of life it never is, however dry the soil and villainous the soil."

"This is the nature of that country."

p. 1

"where the mountains are steep and the rains are heavy, the pool is never quite dry, but dark and bitter, rimmed about with the efflorescence of alkaline deposits."


"For all the toil that the desert takes of a man, it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep and the communion of the stars. It comes upon one with new force in the pauses of the night. . . ."

"It is hard to escape a sense of mastery as the stars move in the wide clear heavens . . . "

p. 17.



IIII. What?

 LONG Valley

"To understand the fashion of any life, one must know the land that it is lived in, and the procession of the year. This valley is a narrow one, a mere trough between hills...."

p. 61, The Basket Maker


 "Sayavi's baskets had a touch beyond cleverness. The weaver and the warp lived next to the earth and were saturated with the same elements."

(88 edition), p. 62.


"Desert, . . . to indicate a land that supports no man; whether the land can be bitted and broken to that purpose is not proven.”


5) “…know that the desert begins with creosote.” [Vegetation signals the aridity]



  "In spring it exudes a resinous gum which the Indians of those parts know how to use.... Trust Indians not to miss any virtues of the plant world."


“Nothing the desert produces expresses it better than the unhappy growth of the tree yuccas. . . bristles with bayonet-pointed leaves.”


"Tormented, thin forests of it stalk drearily in the high mesas . . . . makes the moonlight fearful."

p. (88 edition), 4.



"Around dry lakes and marshes the herbage preserves a set and orderly arrangement. Most species have well-defined areas of growth, the best index the voiceless land can give the traveler of his whereabouts."

pp. (88 edition), 3-4.


8) “For all the toll the desert takes of a person it gives compensation deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars.”


21-22) The flash flood of the Pocket hunter on Black Mountain


25) “lip-lapping of the great tideless lake– one comes to the country of the painted hills. Shoshone land – the blue hued ceonothus and Manzanita cloaked hills


25) Country of the big horn sheep, wapiti (elk) and wolves.


Coyotes, tules, Mesquite and bunch grass (native / original to California) grows where there is underground water.


the coyote is the key to finding hidden water in the high and low deserts.


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V. When, 1900s


1903, after the mining boom (1849-1859) and prior to the removal of the water to Los Angeles in 1913, and two years after Theodore Roosevelt had become President.


VI. Where?


Between Bishop and Lone Pine (Lone Pine, elevation 3,700 feet) is high mountain valley with among the sharpest relief stretches in the western US, along a thrust fault that raised Mount Whitney to 14,494 feet and the eastern Sierras sharp vertical walls.



9) Water trails of the Ceriso, CaĖons

"It seems that man-height is the least fortunate of all heights from which to study trails."

Afoot in the ceriso one looks in vain for any sign of it. So all the paths that wild creatures use going down to the Lone Tree Spring are mapped out whitely from this level, which is also the level of the hawks."

pp .9-10




"rabbits are foolish people,"

p. 12.


37) Irrigation ditches and

“A mile up from the water gate that turns the creek into supply pipes for the town begins a row of long leaved pines….”


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VII. How do we know?


She tells us stories of people –like the vegetation— who are remnants of the land's power to transform, hold, and nourish its true residents.


“No man can be stronger than his destiny.”

p. 24.

“Somehow the rawness of the land favors the sense of a personal relation to the supernatural. There is not much intervention of crops, cities, clothes, and manners between you and the organizing forces,”

P. 34.


“Curiously all this human occupancy of greed and mischief left no mark on the field.”


“It is interesting to watch this retaking of old ground by the wild plant, banished by human use.”

The willow and brown birch, have come back to the streamside, tender and virginal in the spring greenness, and leaving long stretches of the brown water open to the sky.”


 “wild olives sprawl.”

pp. 36-37.

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The Basket Maker               Seyavi

"To understand the fashion of any life, one must know the land it is lived in and the procession of the year."

p. 45 | 88 edition, p 61.


"This valley is a narrow one, a mere trough between hills, a draught for storms, hardly a crows flight from the sharp Sierras of the Snows to the curried , red and ochre, uncomforted bare ribs of Waban. Midway of the groove runs a burrowing, dull river, nearly a hundred miles from where it cuts the lava flats of the north its widening in a thick, tideless pool of a lake. Hereabouts the ranges have no foothills, but rise up steeply from the bench lands above the river. Down from the Sierras, for the east ranges have almost no rain, pour glancing white floods toward the lowest land, and all beside them lie the campoodies, brown wattled brush heaps, looking east."

pp. 61-62.

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An Owen's River description before the diversion of water south:

"In the river are mussels, and reeds that have edible white roots, and in the soddy meadows tubers of joint grass; all these at their best in the Spring."



Indian removal

"This influx of overloading whites, had made game wilder and hunters fearful of being hunted"


"You can surmise also, for it was a crude time and the land was raw, that the women became in turn the game of the conquerors."


Paiutes have the art of reducing life to its lowest ebb and yet saving it alive on grasshoppers, lizards, and strange herbs; and that time must have left no shift untried."

p. (88 edition), 62.

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The Streets of the Mountains


"All the streets of the mountains lead to the citadel; steep or slow they go up to the core of the hills."

p. (88 edition), 69.


"Whatever goes up or comes down the streets of the mountains, water has the right of way; it takes the lowest ground and the shortest passage."

p. (88 edition), 71.

Who will say what another will find most to his liking in the streets of the mountains?


“once set above the country of the silver firs (higher elevation), I must go on until I find white columbine. . .  (rock flower)

  “splintered  rock wastes.”


“One must learn to spare a little of the pang of inexpressible beauty.”    

p. 53. p. (88 edition), 73.

"It is astonishing the trouble men will be at to find out when to plant potatoes, and gloze over the eternal meaning of the skies. You have to beat out for yourself many mornings on the windy headlands the sense of the fact that you get the same rainbow in the clouds drift over Waban and the spray of your garden hose."

p. 99.


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Land of Little Rain


Mary Austin, Land of Little Rain. New York: Dover, 1903.


Gloze, to make excuses for

Arroyo, a dry wash or steep sided canyon that floods in the wet season.


U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center, Independence, California