Family Album

A Sense of Place

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On Today’s Menu:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
** Share some mesquite-flour birthday cake
for a Southwestern naturalist.
** Linger to ponder
what our hometowns mean to us.
** Savor a last ½ cup smiling over
poetic descriptions of beloved desert creatures.
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First Sip:

To understand the fashion of any life,
one must
know the land it is lived in
and the procession of the year

Never believe what you are told, that
midsummer is the best time to go

for seeing and understanding,
the best time is
when you have the longest leave to stay.

And here is a hint
travel light, and as much as possible live off the land.

– Mary Austin


Slice of Cake:

On a mirage-breeding September morningthe
vast dim valley of the San Joaquin,
is palpitatingly hot and the air breathes like cotton wool.

– from The Land of Little Rain (1903)
Mary Austin

Six Quick Facts


In her first book, The Land of Little Rain (1903),
Mary Austin evocatively recounts her travels through the deserts
of the American Southwest.

She writes of her “twice seven years’ wanderings” through country that
“begins at the foot of the east slope of the Sierras
and spreads out by less and less lofty hill ranges
toward the Great Basin.”

She describes plants, animals, and people in prose that reads like poetry.

Austin did not live the
typical life of a woman of her era
and that was reflected in her writing.
Austin sought in nature a place that was
not domesticated and that did not domesticate women.

– Stacy Alaimo
in Studies in American Fiction


Mary Austin helped establish the Santa Fe Community Theatre.
She directed its very first production on February 14, 1919.

It’s now called Santa Fe Playhouse—and it is the
oldest continuously-running theater west of the Mississippi.1
(Their 2019 season included eight plays.)


Austin also helped found
The Southwestern Association for Indian Art in Santa Fe.

Next summer they’ll have their 99th Annual Santa Fe Indian Market.1


During the 1920s,
Austin was active in trying to save the Owens Valley
(a deep, arid valley south of Mono Lake in California).

It was a fight ultimately lost to
water diversions for the city of Los Angeles.

Out West,
the west of mesas and the unpatented hills,
full of clean winey winds.

There are some odors, too, that get into the blood.
There is the
spring smell of sage that is the
warning that sap is beginning to work

the sort of smell that sets one thinking

what a long furrow the plough would turn up here,
the sort of smell that is the beginning of new leafage

There is the palpable smell of bitter dust that comes up
from the alkali flats at the end of the dry seasons,
and the
smell of rain from the widemouthed canyons.

– from The Land of Little Rain (1903)
by Mary Austin


In 1929, Mary Austin’s good friend Ansel Adams took her picture. 2
She was less than pleased with the result.

She wrote to him:

I dare say you can take away
that dreadful smirk,
and the drawn look about the mouth.
The carriage of the head, with the face
thrust down and forward, and
the slumped shoulders are not only
not characteristic of me,
but contradict the effect it is still
necessary for me to make on my public.

– letter from Mary Austin
to Ansel Adams,
dated 1929 3

Mary Austin
photo by Ansel Adams


Sounds like she must have forgiven him, though!
Because the very next year, Mary Austin and Ansel Adams
co-authored a book called Taos Pueblo (1930).

The residents of the pueblo, along with the Taos tribal council,
allowed Adams access to photograph in and around the pueblo,
which is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States.
(It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.)

It was Ansel Adam’s very first book of photography.
Each copy included 12 of Adam’s original photographs
I mean actual prints—not reproductions. (!)

To see one of these books,
you can go to the Rare Book Collections at the New York Public Library,
They have number 57 of the 108 copies that were printed.

It includes autographs
of “the artist” Ansel E. Adams and “the author” Mary Austin.4


Happy 151st Birthday
*** Mary Austin

– born September 9, 1868
in Carlinville, Illinois


Linger Awhile:

You can’t pick your home
any more than you can choose your family.
In poker, you get five cards. Three of them
you can swap out, but two are yours to keep:
family and native land.

– from An American Marriage
Tamari Jones

I’ve been thinking this week about what it means to have a hometown; what a geographical place
can give us, what we take away when we leave it, and what we learn from it when we come back again.

I believe there is a certain kind of knowledge that comes from learning a little bit about a lot of places.
But there is another kind of knowledge that comes from sticking around, and
getting to know one place really, really well.

This past month I got to visit two hometowns: My mother’s and my own.

First to Northern Michigan

to see a half dozen cousins
and to visit with two of my mom’s much-loved siblings.

A walk to the pond where my mother used to fish for dinner.
(My grandfather created the pond with a dam in the 1930s.)

photo by me
my uncle taking care of
Dusty and Finn the goat.

(photo by my sister Patricia)




my aunt & me
up in the U.P.

(photo by Patricia)
me on the road that once led
to my
great-grandparents’ farm
(photo by my cousin Noelle)

Now to answer the questions I started with:

A) What does it mean to have a hometown?
For me it meant going to one elementary, one junior high, and one high school—
all of which my 4 older siblings had been to before me.
It meant living in a place where names of the businesses downtown
were the last names of kids on the playground.
Where people I didn’t know knew me, because my face “looked just like” this sister or that brother.

B) What can a geographical place give us?
Mine gave me:
a fussy snobbishness as to the ripeness of both apricots and peaches;
a tolerance for hot, dry weather;
a preference for mountains rather than flat landscapes;
and a life-long appreciation for the incomparable beauty of trees in bloom.

C) What do we take when we leave it?
What I took away was a familiarity, stability, and a sense of belonging that has helped me
to create home wherever I’ve found myself.

Home is where you sidestep the ‘No Trespassing’ signs, and keep on going.
Home is where, when you forget your keys, you know how to find the spare.
Home is where barking dogs have wagging tails.
Home is where you can find the light switch in a dark room.
Home is where, as Robert Frost wrote,
‘when you have to go there, they have to take you in.’

D) What did I learn when I came back?
Once, several years ago, I flew into Sacramento, rented a car, drove 20 miles or so—
then realized I was lost. Which is not unusual for me.
What was unusual was how undisturbed I was by it;
I figured sooner or later I’d come across some road I recognized.

It took me a while to fully realize what was missing: Anxiety.
Unlike every other city I fly to and get lost in, here I felt a conspicuous absence of worry.
I was able to take a deep breath and think: I may not know where I’m going, but I know where I am.
Because I knew I was almost home.

My own hometown

Of all the things that a person’s childhood did or did not give them,
having just one hometown does not make the List of Very Important Things.
(Good parents, a bed to sleep in, shoes. Those things make the list.)

But I’ve always appreciated having this sense of place, and I believe it helps me
find my bearings, no matter where I land.
And I love being able to say: See those pretty hills over there, covered with scrub oak,
walnut orchards, and wild oats? That’s where I’m from.

my hometown of Vacaville
(photo by Carlyn Crystal)


“Half Cup More”

Several of my favorite passages from The Land of Little Rain
describe the desert animals that Mary Austin loved.

photo by Paul Lottner

The coyote is your true water-witch,
one who snuffs and paws, snuffs and paws again
at the smallest spot of moisture-scented earth
until he has freed the blind water from the soil.
Many water-holes are no more than this
detected by the
lean hobo of the hills.

– from The Land of Little Rain (1903) by Mary Austin

The crested quailare the
happiest frequenters of the water trails.
There is no furtiveness about their morning drink

Great flocks pour down the trails with
that peculiar melting motion of moving quail,
twittering, shoving, and shouldering.

They splatter into the shallows, drink daintily,
shake out small showers over their perfect coats,
and melt away again into the scrub,
preening and pranking, with soft contented noises.

– from The Land of Little Rain (1903) by Mary Austin

photo by Yessica Wheeler


Take-Away Box

For all the toll the desert takesit gives compensations,
deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars

Stars move in the wide, clear heavens
to risings and settings unobscured

They look large and near and palpitant
wheeling to their
stations in the sky,
they make the poor world-fret of no account.
Of no account you who lie out there watching,
nor the lean coyote that stands off in the scrub from you

and howls and howls.
– Mary Austin

photo by Gail Halm

Thank you for reading!
Kelly J Hardesty

Thoughts? Questions?
Scroll down to the endand you can leave me note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.

You Can Read More…

…about another nature writer, Annie Dillard,
also muskrats, over-sharing,
and the gruesomeness of insects!

…about wizards,
thestrals, pen names,
and my own dad’s 100th birthday!

about leaving home,
my personal reminisces,
and young adult diary entries circa 1979!

extra rambling footnotes + photo credits:

I am very grateful for the permission to use
the beautiful wildlife photos by
Gail Halm, Yessica Wheeler and Paul Lottner.
I’ve so often admired your photos on the
Backyard Wildlife of the Southwest site—
Thank you for letting me share them
with sky-t-tray readers.

For more info about the 2 organizations that
Mary Austin helped start, see:

Santa Fe Playhouse

The Southwestern Association for Indian Art

I found the photo of Austin by Ansel Adams
at the Owens Valley History site:

I found the letter excerpt from Austin to Adams in Terry Tempest Williams’
wonderful introduction
to the 1997 reprint of
Mary Austin’s ‘The Land of Little Rain.’

For the card catalog entry about Taos Pueblo at
the New York Public Library, see:

By the way,
If your curious about current prices of the books with the original Ansel Adams photos, see:

This week I emailed Rebecca Rego Barry, author of the article in the link above.
She’s editor of Fine Books & Collections.
She kindly emailed me back and, among other things, she said that
there is a 2019 audiobook (!) of Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain and it recently
won an “Earphones Award”.
She said that several reviewers have noted how well the narrator, Ellen Parker,
evokes the poetic quality of Austin’s writing.

The article also has the following lovely quote about Mary Austin:

“Seldom have I met and known anyone of such
intellectual and spiritual power and discipline.” 

– Ansel Adams

An ‘it’s-all-connected’ aside:
In the article, Ms Barry references Ken Sanders Rare Books,
which is a bookshop in… Salt Lake City!


Please note:
Whenever you click on ‘Post Comment’ your comments always come to me first. Then I post them below.
If you’d rather they stay between us, just let me know.
© Kelly J Hardesty 2024

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