Monday, April 09, 2007

Last week I read the Los Angeles Times headline "A Permanent Drought Seen for Southwest" and was also reading Mary Austin's The Land of Little Rain, the first and greatest book about the deserts in Southern California. What a coincidence! The newspaper talks about how scary this news is and how states and communities might soon start fighting again about who gets the water.

In contrast, Austin isn't scare of the desert. Her book was published in 1903 after she had lived in and studied the Southern California deserts--the Tejon pass area of the southern San Joaquin Valley, Owens Valley, the Mojave Desert--for 14 years. She calls this region "The County of Lost Borders," and says, "Not the law, but the land sets the limit." In her beautiful prose she shows how plants, animals and humans have adapted to the desert and the limits that the land sets. More than that, her humans have a passion for the desert. More than that the Paiute Basket Maker Seyavi makes beautiful art out of the desert plants: Seyavi is Mary Austin's model for being an artist in the desert who bases her art on the lands there.

Living in Los Angeles as I read Austin I reflect on how my city has ignored if not erased even the knowledge that the region is a semi-desert with a river. What river? most people who live in L.A. ask. It's a river for the desert, I say. What seasons, most people ask here, being unaware that we have seasons. In the second page of her book Austin wonderfully describes the three seasons we have: the heat from June to November; the rains from December through March; and from April to the hot season again, blossoming, radiant, and seductive."