Friday, September 30, 2011

The Scavengers

Mary Austin (1868–1934)
From American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

Raised in Illinois, Mary Hunter Austin moved west at the age of twenty, homesteaded near Fort Tejon in California, and then settled with her husband to the east in the arid Owens Valley, which she dubbed “The Land of Little Rain.” In 1903, following years of various hardships, she published under that title a collection of stories and essays about the American Southwest, which remains to date her most well-known work among her two dozen books. (It topped a 1999 readers poll by the San Francisco Chronicle of the top 100 books “west of the Rockies.”) One of its most celebrated pieces, “The Scavengers,” describes the splendor and squalor of the vultures, buzzards, ravens, coyotes, and other species that make their living from death.

Soon after the success of The Land of Little Rain, in March 1906, Austin separated from her husband—they would divorce in 1914—and joined the fledgling circle of literary Californians in Carmel. Only a month later, while she was visiting San Francisco, the legendary earthquake struck. Austin’s move to Carmel could not have been more propitiously timed; after the quake, dozens of shell-shocked and displaced Bay Area artists and writers migrated to her new neighborhood. Two decades later, she wrote a nostalgic essay about life in Carmel for The American Mercury magazine:
We achieved, all of us who flocked there within the ensuing two or three years, especially after the fire of 1906 had made San Francisco uninhabitable to the creative worker, a settled habit of morning work. . . . There was beauty and strangeness; beauty of Greek quality, but not too Greek, “green fires, and billows tremulous with light,” not wanting the indispensable touch of grief; strangeness of bearded men from Tassajara with bear meat and wild-honey to sell; great teams from the Sur, going by on the high road with the sound of bells; and shadowy recesses within the wood, white with the droppings of night-haunting birds. But I think that the memorable and now vanished charm of Carmel lay, perhaps, most in the reality of the simplicity attained, a simplicity factually adjusted to the quest of food and fuel and housing as it can never be in any “quarter” of city life.
The colony would eventually attract such visitors and residents as Jack London, John Galsworthy, Upton Sinclair, Robinson Jeffers, Clark Ashton Smith, and Ambrose Bierce; although Austin was an admirer of Bierce’s writing, they didn’t think much of each other after they’d met. (This seems to be a recurring theme in Bierce’s biography; he had a similarly chilly relationship with another area resident, Gertrude Atherton.)

In 1923, after living in New York City for a decade, Austin was convinced by the heiress and arts patron Mabel Dodge to relocate to the new artist colony in Taos, New Mexico. In 1930, she collaborated with neighbor Ansel Adams on Taos Pueblo, a 108-copy, hand-produced photographic essay, a copy of which can be yours today for a mere $85,000. One of Austin’s friends who stayed at her home in Taos was Willa Cather, who inscribed a copy of Death Comes for the Archbishop, “For Mary Austin, in whose lovely study I wrote the last chapters of this book.”

Note: Nearly all the place names mentioned by Austin are located in the southern Sierra and desert areas of central California and southern Nevada. For example, Canada de los Uvas is now known more commonly by its English name, Grapevine Canyon (at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley); the modern spelling for Haiwai is Haiwee (in Inyo Country, California); etc.

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Fifty-seven buzzards, one on each of fifty-seven fence posts at the rancho El Tejon, on a mirage-breeding September morning, sat solemnly while the white tilted travelers’ vans lumbered down the Canada de los Uvas. After three hours they had only clapped their wings, or exchanged posts. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.