This sad nature book about scorched California is also an indictment

When you think of California, you primarily think of sunny beaches, palm trees, and cities overlooking the Pacific Ocean. But that picture is increasingly blurred by what’s going on inside: the inferno of dry land. The maximum temperatures lie on the border of California and Nevada, where Death Valley is located, the hottest place on Earth, as well as the scorching Mojave Desert. There is little that burns, because there is so little that can burn. Described by writer, essayist, and critic Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934) in the early twentieth century, culminating in the now definitive translation little rain land from 1903.

Austen is known in America as an important writer: one of the first outspoken feminists and advocates for the world’s rights. Redskinswhich I have watched and studied closely in Mojave. Austin herself lived for a long time in Independence Village, where she became involved in California Water Warsa struggle over how explosive Los Angeles plundered the waters east of the Owen Valley.

little rain land He paints by word and picture – beautiful illustrations by a contemporary E Boyd Smith – the region roughly sandwiched between the High Sierras and the Mojave. I once passed by, an area where nothing seemed to survive. But in this early classic of American natural literature, Austin demonstrates how much plants and animals have survived in ‘the loneliest land that ever came from God’s hand’, the same white, scorching hot land where wheels gnaw the sand and the midday air. A suffocation where the tent is closed around everything.

It is a detailed book, based on in-depth knowledge gained through symbiosis with nature. Austin wants to show the beauty of that land, but she’s not shy about its horrors. On hot days the mules were so enraged with thirst that the gurgling of a bucket of water made a fuss of hideous, distorted sounds and the tangle of strings and implements, while Maleh sat high on the stand, the sun shining in his eyes, and shouted soothing cursing words in a careless voice, until the noise of sheer exhaustion died down. . Or about the tragedy of dying animals: “Hunger is a slow death. Cows stumble of skin and bones and their heavy heads over desperate passages. They stand patiently for times. They lie down and never get up again. There is fear in their eyes when they have just given up, but then, only extreme tiredness.” .

Stage show

Austin understands the theatrical tone inherent in wild writing. She wants to be a reporter, not a conduit for delicious tales. It refers to the cohesion of nature, the interdependence of animals, and their knowledge of “all matters of their own kind”. We pay little attention to it, she says, but she herself takes care of everything. Turkey eagles descend from ether and rabbits in Chaparral (Typical California jungle), blue jay in the woods, how the hawk follows the badger, the wolf crow carrion. How this wolf smells invisible water and digs it from the bottom. How eagles spread their wings like fans to cool. And she writes of the frugal people of this region: The prospector who scattered his spoils in the great city and returns, almost at ease; A shaman who wisely squeezes his mustache when a measles epidemic spreads beyond his means.

In Austin’s case, caring about everything also means having the right language for him. Seeing something dictates naming and description, and vice versa: those with vocabulary can observe closely. Where the visitor is half-blind, half-silent that I remain helpless, Austin sees “Larksper in Cologen and clusters of bee bread in all Spinoza.” That language and natural knowledge must have presented the translator Barbara de Lange with many challenges, which she mastered with flying colors.

Austin declares himself indebted to the Shoshones, an indigenous people whose homeland was in the western Pacific. She writes, “If you’ve been living near an Indian long enough, he or the wild animals will show you how to use whatever grows in this frontier area.” In one attempt, she translated this into a critique of modern man – until then. “There are no scavengers eating tin cans, and no wild animals causing so much havoc on the forest floor.”

I read this book with sadness and admiration. About all that has been lost through monoculture, and at our distance from the surviving nature, a nature that no one has words for anymore: proper names of animals large and small, landscape forms, vegetation, well-matched comparison, the visual language that gives life to The area and its inhabitants – humans and non-human animals. This makes Austen’s book not only a historical document, but also an indictment and a lesson.

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