Monday, June 24, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 62: Mary Austin, The Scavengers (#92)

Mary Austin, "The Scavengers" (1903) from American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau:

One reason why I'm doing this project is to read works that I might not otherwise read; and the Mary Austin's "The Scavengers" is a great example of that. It's a short piece, which I recommend, especially to people who live in the southwest. As much as I'm a believer in the role of imagination and sympathy in literature--as Richard Ford said to a writing class I was in, the foundation of literature is "you can know what I can imagine"--there's a certain extra thrill from recognition. As I see turkey vultures more often than I see rain, this piece resonated with my experience.

"The Scavengers" is Chapter Three in Mary Hunter Austin's 1903 The Land of Little Rain, a collection of observational essays about Owens Valley, CA, where Mary and her husband settled. There's a whole bunch of background here about Austin, which the headnote covers--move to the artists' colony at Carmel, divorce, strained relationship with Ambrose Bierce (which seems to be a rite of passage for California writers), collaboration with Ansel Adams, etc. The LoA headnote covers all of that.

What I find most interesting about "The Scavengers" is its variations in tone and subject, while still maintaining a coherent approach towards the natural world around her. Mary Austin sometimes humanizes the scavengers, such as the buzzards--
It is when the young go out of the nest on their first foraging that the parents, full of a crass and simple pride, make their indescribable chucklings of gobbling, gluttonous delight.
--and sometimes she seems more intent on naturalistic observation sans comment--
The young birds are easily distinguished by their size when feeding, and high up in air by the worn primaries of the older birds.
--and she'll slip between the two without any segue or hesitation: those two lines I just quoted are right next to each other. She also sometimes includes a bit of sentimentality, as when she notes,
It is seldom one finds a buzzard’s nest, seldom that grown-ups find a nest of any sort; it is only children to whom these things happen by right.
That seems like a scarring childhood event, but you can see the connection between childhood innocence and natural wonder, a well-worn sentimental vein, which was as strong at the turn of the century as it is today. (See Jackson Lears's No Place of Grace, which would itself be a pretty good title for this sort of desert landscape essay.)

What's curious and notable about Austin's essay, beyond the style, is how wide the subject matter is, taking in coyotes, cattle dying by starvation, crows, buzzards, lack of water, and sheep herds. While her title tells us she's going to focus on one particular aspect of the environment, she recognizes how that one aspect relates to the entire natural landscape. So we can see how she comes to the end of this chapter, where she notes that man fits in "the economy of nature," but that still, "there is not sufficient account taken of the works of man." This is a definite well-spring of amateur naturalism and conservationism.

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