20 women writing about the outdoors

2 of 21

The Land of Little Rain (Cover image via Counterpoint)

20. Mary Hunter Austin

With the publication of The Land of Little Rain in 1903, Mary Hunter Austin became one of the earliest nature writers to focus on the American Southwest. She herself was a transplant to the region, having moved from Illinois to a homestead in California’s San Joaquin Valley in 1888. Austin had just graduated from Blackburn College and was apparently ready to start her career as a writer.

For most of that time, she focused on the Mojave Desert, and specifically on the native people living there. Indeed, she spent about 17 years of her life focusing on the Mojave Desert and its peoples’ cultures. Austin is probably now best known for The Land of Little Rain, a series of interrelated essays that look at the landscape, animals, settlers, and native people like the Shoshone and Paiute. Altogether, The Land of Little Rain paints the portrait of a region that was about to undergo vast upheavals.

Water Wars

Austin saw some of the dramatic changes that were to come to the region and which heralded a wave of new settlers. She and her husband were involved in the earlier episodes of the California Water Wars. These conflicts took place over the course of many years, beginning around the late 1800s when Los Angeles city developers started to eye the water supplies around the settlement.

Eventually, the water supply of Owens Valley, including the Owens River, was diverted through aqueducts in order to feed the growing city of Los Angeles. The cycle of conflicts punctuated by more and more aqueducts and legal challenges continued until well into the 20th century.

When Austin and her husband lost their particular battle in the Water Wars, they moved to, of all places, Death Valley. She later lived in the freewheeling, bohemian art colony of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California and, after that, Santa Fe, New Mexico. All through this time, she continued to write about the lands and people around her. Austin would eventually cross paths with artists such as Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, William Merritt Chase and Ansel Adams.