Reading the Drought on the Eastern Side
In the circa-1900 photo that graces the right-hand side of her Wikipedia page, Mary Austin stares at her spectators unsure whether their presence interests her. She wears a wide-brimmed hat and rough curls hang down either side of her face, which is square and strong as a man’s. She’s not a woman you want to cross.
That indifferent gaze looked me over for the first time two Februarys ago, through the screen of my iPhone. My boyfriend and I had just driven past Austin’s home in Independence, California, in the Owens Valley on the eastern edge of the state. We had both heard of Austin, but curious to know more, I looked her up.
The Owens Valley is most famous for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s massive and suspicious water-grab there, which left the valley parched and unfarmable while supplying LA and the adjacent San Fernando Valley with ample water for their citrus groves and lawns. The Los Angeles Aqueduct, which draws all that water southward, had celebrated its centennial that November, with hoopla that included a reenactment of its opening ceremony, complete with an actor playing water superintendent William Mulholland as he said, “There it is. Take it.”
Austin’s house is green-gray, with brown shingles and burgundy trim. A white picket fence separates the house from Highway 395, which runs up the narrow Owens. A remarkable number of trees enclose the house. Not even just the pines you’d expect: there are willows, Russian olives, and others with leaves. In the midst of brown country, her home looked like the coziest place in the world. And in turn Austin herself seemed as though she might hold insight into the two huge inquiries hanging in my mind, one that had always been there, the other newer and still timorous, oscillating between feeling like self-centeredness and like nourishment.
I read Austin’s biography aloud as Dylan, my boyfriend, drove. Austin was born Mary Hunter in 1868 in Carlinville, Illinois. Her father and sister died while she was growing up. She graduated from Blackburn College, a liberal arts college in Carlinville that is now part of the Labor College Consortium, in 1888, finishing a four-year degree in two years. Later that year, Mary moved with her mother and brother to a homestead in the San Joaquin Valley, the southern half of California’s Central Valley, near Bakersfield. They rode there from the train station in Pasadena by horse; Mary chronicled the experience in the essay “One Hundred Miles on Horseback,” which she sent home to Blackburn College’s literary magazine.
Homesteading proved beyond the family’s abilities. But the owner of the neighboring Tejon Ranch, today the largest piece of privately owned land in California (familiar to anyone who has driven over the Grapevine) had taken kindly to them, and offered them a station on the ranch to manage. Mary began teaching at a nearby primary school. There she met fellow teacher Stafford Wallace Austin, and they were married in the May of 1891.
Life with Wallace was full of false starts. He dreamed of becoming a vintner; he tried and gave up. His brother hired him to manage an irrigation project that he had begun in the Owens Valley town of Lone Pine; he failed at that too. He returned to teaching, in Lone Pine’s school. While Wallace worked, Mary explored the landscape, spent time with the area’s Paiute Indians, and wrote about her experiences. Her essays from that time are collected in the meticulous, masterful The Land of Little Rain.
Then her health failed, and she was sent to recover in Los Angeles, during which time Wallace took a job as registrar of the Desert Land Office in Independence. Mary loved Los Angeles, partially because there she had her first opportunities to meet other writers. But she felt she needed to return to Wallace to keep the marriage intact. They stayed together, but not for long. After fighting hard on the Owens side in the California Water Wars, as the battle between the Owens and the LADWP is now known, the couple, defeated and downtrodden, divorced. Austin moved to Carmel and then to Taos; Wallace moved to Death Valley.
The Owens beamed through the car windows with sandy desolation, even dryer and browner than usual in the apocalyptic drought year. That whole scorching winter and spring I drove around California thinking, this could all be over, so soon. But more than any other, this drive was reminding me of why land and water and environment are lodged so firmly in the forefront of my mind.
I came of age through environmentalism. By the time I was in ninth grade, my stomach knotted every time we had to drive to the outskirts of Denver and see the plain, new rooftops eating up the open land; I compulsively flicked my eyes toward the mountains to check that they still had snow. In high school I joined every environmental club I could, took army showers, organized global warming demonstrations. The goal of conserving a habitable planet, and especially of saving the fragile ecological balance that supports life in the American West, motivated my daily actions, my decision-making, my goals for the future. Still I believe the stakes are high enough that this is not unwarranted.
Dylan, who grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, attended a small college further up Highway 395 from the Austins’ house in Independence. When we drove by the house, we were on our way there. The college is located one mountain pass to the east of the Owens, in a valley that has no buildings but the college’s own. Two of the school’s many peculiarities are that it is closed to visitors, and that the student body is entirely male. We were on our way there because Dylan had volunteered to do some office work during five days he had off from his job. I was tagging along, curious.
We turned right off the highway and onto the most tortuous mountain pass I have ever been on. I tried to think of the most persuasive way to say to Dylan that I knew he was experienced driving mountain passes but so was I and would he please slow down so he didn’t flip the car.
In 1917, the same year the college was founded, Mary Austin published a novel called The Ford. It is set in 1905 in the Tierra Longa Valley, a fictional composite of the southern Owens and San Joaquin Valleys, and tells the story of four friends—siblings Kenneth and Anne Brent, and their neighbors Virginia and Frank—growing up on ranches, losing their land, moving to town, and becoming adults.
I read The Ford the day after Dylan’s and my return to Los Angeles from the Eastern Side. It spoke to all the facets of my discovery of interior California: to driving up and down the Owens and the San Joaquin Valleys, past oil rigs, over and down the Grapevine, to reading the coverage of the LA Aqueduct centennial and to wondering what the other side would say if given a voice. Better, it did so with female characters that I wanted to befriend and emulate. Even after years of avid reading, such an abundance of strong women felt rare and revelatory.
Alongside the story of the characters’ lives, the novel describes the encroachment of land, oil, and water speculators into the Tierra Longa Valley. Its climax mirrors the California Water Wars, but replaces the LADWP with officials from San Francisco, and at the last minute, leaves the Valley citizens triumphant. It is a Chinatown of the other sides: the women’s, the Owens’s.
“The spring flood came too early, with the rapidly melting snows, and was gone too soon,” Austin writes at the beginning of The Ford, describing the onset of drought. “The wild grass failed to seed: the buzzards thickened in the lit space between the ranges. The one good rain which was to have saved them dissolved in quick, impotent showers.” Reading this I shuddered, wondering whether we will ever see another onset of spring in California where this is not the case.
One might expect it to be difficult to notice drought in a desert, that a place whose normal state is one of little rain would not look so different with a little less. But what water there is matters more in a desert than anywhere. That spring the drought was visible in the strange sight of the snowless Sierras, standing up to the west resembling hot concrete; you could hear it in the concerned discussions about whether the BLM would allow output on the college’s lease this year or deem the land too parched. Most striking, the drought was perceptible by smell, or rather lack of it, because the air was crisp and plain, the landscape of sage like a movie screen.
I took the bland air for granted until I walked up to the reservoir with Dylan and a friend of his. Approaching the rectangle of water, his friend said,
“Finally, the way things should be.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then I inhaled. Water added to the desert sage, the air might as well have turned purple, so rich was the difference. I looked out over the brown valley and thought of the question I had posed before. How, Mary Austin, can one live assiduously on vulnerable land?
The second of my mute queries to Austin, the one that had been more newly teetering around inside me, that I shoved away as a distraction from resolving what I thought to be the more consequential questions of the world, materialized that afternoon.
I had not exercised beyond the short walk to the reservoir, was drinking a normal amount of water, and was not, by the standards of my upbringing, at a high elevation. Nevertheless, something shook up my body. A strange amount of blood appeared in my vaginal mucous. It started as the threads that sometimes indicate your period will begin the next day. But I was halfway between periods, and was doing my best not to be pregnant. Within an hour it fell out of me in drops.
How do you be a woman in the world?
I panicked. I started doing the urgent googling that only ever makes everything worse, my fright amplified by the sluggish internet. what does blood in vaginal mucous mean. chances of cervical cancer for if blood in vaginal mucous. what is an ovarian cyst. Whatever the problem was, I was in a bad place to have it: I was an alien in a colony of people who didn’t bleed. It was perhaps the first time in my life I couldn’t ignore the face of being a woman.
Which is not to say I wasn’t a feminist. Nothing I was exposed to in college changed my understanding of the world so much as second wave feminism. What would the world would look like if every world leader had been feminine! I remember thinking on the blizzarding day of my freshman year when a friend gave me a crash course in the subject. But I gave as little thought as possible to my own womanhood, of how I was a woman in the world, or of how I would bear and manage that womanhood in the future. I chose almost daily to tag along with my boyfriend and his friends than to devote time to my female friendships. In my mind’s eye I was perfectly rational, had no hips, and never bled. I considered myself more equipped to ignore and deny my womanhood than to figure out a way to inhabit it. As though because I saw no model for a kind of woman I wanted to be, I could choose not to be one.
But reading The Ford, I wanted nothing more than to be every one of the female characters in the book. It was a whole palette of modes of being a woman, and I felt like a girl child coveting all the American Girl dolls in the catalog. The characters felt so wonderful, I realized, because they reminded me of women I befriended and emulated, but had never seen in literature or other media. Never having been thoroughly exposed to those extraordinary women’s archetypes, I barely knew how much I respected them.
The first character I wanted to be was the Brents’ friend Addie Scudder. Kenneth, who also has a crush on her, describes: “Her young body, slanted by years of homesteading, had the poise of a pine tree shaped by the wind; the flare of her bright-burned cheeks and sun-streaked hair reminded him of the geraniums.” This was the very image—a body strong, lithe, ready to work, and sun-kissed—which I had long seen when imagining my most attractive potential self, from third grade when we wrote Oregon Trail notebooks on crinkled brown paper bags, to now, when I work on a ranch and take pleasure in my new arm muscles and cracked, winter-tanned hands. And yet it was the first time I had seen that image belonging to a woman, to someone I could actually be.
But then Anne grew up, and I wanted to be her. With a hundred dollars to her name, she gets a mortgage and buys back the ranch her father sold during the drought. She helps organize the people of the valley against water speculators. In one wonderful scene, she tells her brother Kenneth the difference between her attitude toward land and the capitalists’—the men’s. “Land doesn’t mean crops to me the way it does to you and father; it means people—people who want land and are fitted for the land, and the land wants—how it wants them!”
Anne inspires professional respect while maintaining gravitas: “Anne on horseback as she came cantering up along the Palomitas road was a taking figure. Tall and thin-hipped, the brown-laced riding-boots and the knee-length riding-coat, over brown corduroy breeches, gave her distinction.” It was in that image—savvy, effectual, graceful (and a landowner!) —that, as we rode horses in the desert, I yelled to Dylan with a canoe smile, “I would ride a horse every day if I could!”
Virginia turns her childhood bossiness outward when she grows up, becoming a paid union organizer and the novel’s anti-capitalist voice. From a soapbox, she screams, “Call yourself Americans...call yourselves Freemen...miserable wage slaves that daren’t say your souls are your own for fear somebody will dock your pay for it!” When I drove to Bakersfield a month after reading The Ford to go to a Union of Farmworkers immigration reform march, I was thinking of her. In most senses my activism had ended shortly after high school did, as I let myself acknowledge the needs of my introversion, felt discouraged as climate change activism was thwarted over and over again, and got embarrassed about my convictions around my literary friends. But that day I was excited, smitten. That re-energizing still hasn’t worn off.
Ultimately, more than any of the characters, Mary Austin herself is the woman I aspire to be. She feels close by, like a mentor I could have a conversation with, cheering me on and teaching me how to see the desert like she does. And her portraits of the desert are the most intimate I have ever seen. After The Ford, I read The Land of Little Rain slowly and in awe; I often re-read it, always thinking, Mary Austin teaches me that I know nothing about looking at landscape. She knows the scientific name and the local Native American name of every desert plant and bird and landform, and knows their role in the landscape. “If you have any doubt about it, know that the desert begins with the creosote,” she writes. Later, “The mesquite is God’s best thought in all this desertness.” Would that I could even distinguish mesquite from creosote.
“The beginning of spring in Shoshone Land—oh the soft wonder of it!—is a mistiness as of incense smoke, a veil of greenness over the whitish stubby shrubs, a web of color on the silver sanded soil,” she writes. Oh the soft wonder of it! Austin looks at land like a woman. I mean that with such high praise. She gets to know her surroundings piece by piece, never hurrying. She knows that “to understand the fashion of any life, one must know the land it is lived in and the procession of the year.” She finds the rich inner lives of minute aspects of the landscape. She spends hours in solitude. She talks of “getting down to the eye level of rat and squirrel kind.” She humbles herself to mountains and trees and people who know more than she does, and lets them teach her. “The desert floras shame us with their cheerful adaptations to the seasonal limitations.”
Austin showed me ways to be a woman that I needed to know existed and yet whose images were absent from my world. And, most importantly, she embodied a most powerful one herself. She is a writer unafraid of her convictions, and able to deliver them beautifully, compellingly. She both is an introvert and an activist. She loves the land around her, and wants it to be there forever. I want to write with her precision and to fight with her vigor, and I want to do it looking as badass as she does in that Wikipedia photograph.
As for my body, in perhaps the only time that putting symptoms into Google has let calm prevail, I was fine. “All the answers say a small amount of blood in between periods is normal,” I finally told Dylan. We went to dinner as if nothing was wrong, then walked to the highway under a black sky lit by a million pinhole stars. The occasional glob of blood squished out of me, staining the inside of my jeans, but I let it be nothing more than a texture my body could make, a striking color, something soft and wet in the rough, dry desert.