The Land of Little Rain

The Land of Little Rain - Body

Mary Hunter Austin: Explorer, Observer, Wanderer, Writer

Sepia photograph of a person in their thirties or forties. The person has a serious expression and chest-length hair. They are wearing a longsleeve black shirt.

Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934) was an explorer, observer, wanderer, and writer. Born in Illinois, Austin moved with her family to Central California when she was 20 years old. The family made the move to take advantage of the 1862 Homestead Act. The Homestead Act, which promised 160 acres of land to any U.S. citizen who agreed to farm the land, was a major part of the United States’ settler colonialism.

As an adult, Austin explored over 200 miles of desert, valley, and mountains across the southeast region of California. On her adventures, she studied the people, plants, and animals living in the different ecosystems of the region. She pulled her research together into a book titled The Land of Little Rain, which she published in 1903.

The Land of Little Rain

A map of central and southern california.

The Land of Little Rain is a collection of short, descriptive chapters that draw on Austin’s detailed studies. The book does not fit easily into any one genre. It is partly a travel journal, partly a memoir, partly an environmentalist text, partly a description of people and cultures, and partly a work of fiction. The fictional aspects of the book come across most strongly in the names of the specific places. Some of the places named have never existed.

The Land of Little Rain is the Indigenous name for the region. Indigenous peoples of the region include Chemehuevi, Paiute, Shoshone, Yokut, Ute, Mono, and Mojave. Austin likely learned the name “The Land of Little Rain” as a part of her studies of various Indigenous populations during her journey.

The Land of Little Rain took Austin more than a decade to research. During her wandering of the region, she used multiple methods of documentation to record her observations of the natural world. Two of her documentation methods were photography and sketching.

Austin photographed, sketched, and wrote about many areas in the region. In this spotlight, we focus on her work in the eastern Sierras.

Observing the Natural World with Photography

These photographs are blue because they are cyanotypes, a popular photography technique in the early 20th century that uses ammonium ferric citrate, potassium ferricyanide, and sunlight to produce a cyan-blue image. Austin took cyanotype photographs of various landscapes and incorporated details into her writing.

Blue photograph depicting tall pine-like trees, large boulders, and a rushing creek.

Sierra Nevada landscape, Mary Hunter Austin, photographer, 1903, photograph. Mary Hunter Austin papers. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. photCL 296.

Blue photograph depicting tall pine-like trees, a high rock face in the background, and a body of still water.

Sierra Nevada landscape, Mary Hunter Austin, photographer, 1903, photograph. Mary Hunter Austin papers. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. photCL 296.

Questions & Prompts

Choose one of the above photographs. Allow the questions and prompts below to guide your observations.

  • Jump into the photograph and choose a spot in the photograph to stand, sit, or lie down. What can you see from your place in the photograph? What can you hear? What can you smell? Taste? Touch?

  • Create a list of adjectives that describe the setting in the photograph. You can use your sensory words from the prompt above to guide your identification of adjectives.

  • Imagine you are in the photograph and are able to move about. What would you do?

  • Create a list of verbs that describe what is happening in the photograph. What are the plants doing? Is there anything moving in the photograph?

  • How would you feel emotionally in this place? Identify the emotions a person might feel while in this place. Have you ever felt these emotions? When?

  • Enlarge the scene. What do you think is going on beyond the frame of the photograph? Take a piece of paper and sketch the photograph in the center of the paper. Use the rest of the paper to extend the landscape.

  • Ask the photographer. If you could ask Austin questions about these places, what would you ask? Why?

  • Connect to the text. How does the photograph relate to the following passage from The Land of Little Rain: “It is about this level one looks to find the largest lakes with thick ranks of pines bearing down on them, often swamped in the summer floods and paying the inevitable penalty for such encroachment. Here in wet coves of the hills harbors that crowd of bloom that makes the wonder of the Sierra canons. They drift under the alternate flicker and gloom of the windy rooms of pines, in gray rock shelters, and by the ooze of blind springs, and their juxtapositions are the best imaginable.”

Observing the Natural World with Sketches

In addition to photography, Austin created sketches to document the natural world she encountered in her explorations. Use the interactive image below to explore one page of her sketchbook and quotes from the “Water Borders” vignette in The Land of Little Rain.

Mary Austin Sketchbook

target icon target icon target icon Color illustration of three plants. The first plant has two flowers with many small purple petals and a yellow center. The second plant has ten flowers, each with five red petals and a white center. The third plant has seven purple star-shaped flowers

Sketchbook, Mary Hunter Austin, artist, 1901, manuscript. Mary Hunter Austin papers. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. AU 1 5456 plate 11.

  1. Shooting Stars (scientific name: Dodecatheon)

“At about the nine-thousand-foot level and in the summer there will be hosts of rosy-winged Dodecatheon, called shooting-stars, outlining the crystal tunnels in the sod. Single flowers have often a two-inch spread of petal, and the full, twelve blossomed heads above the slender pedicels have the airy effect of wings.”

What connections can you make between written text and artistic sketch? Which parts of the description make the most sense to you? Are there any parts of the written description that seem different than the sketch?

  1. Sierra Primrose (scientific name: Primula)

“Since no lake can be at the highest point, it is possible to find plant life higher than the water borders; grasses perhaps the highest, gilias, royal blue trusses of Polymonium, rosy plats of Sierra primroses.”

What can we learn about the Sierra Primrose by reading the above passage? What do they look like? Where do they grow? What grows near them?

  1. Daisy (scientific name: Aster)

Unlike the Primrose and Shooting Star, the Daisy (scientific name: Aster) does not feature in any of the vignettes in The Land of Little Rain.

How do you think Austin might have described the Daisy if she had included it in her writing? Reference her descriptions of the Primrose and Shooting Star to help you create your description.

Photograph and Sketch

Choose a place that is important to you and that you would want to write about. Visit the place and wander through it. Take photographs and create sketches to help you notice new details of the place. How can you include these details in your writing?

References and Resources

Austin, Mary, and Walter Feller. 2014. The Land of Little Rain. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.

Davis, Lisa Selin. 2015. “The Loneliest Land.” National Parks Conservation Association.

Library of Congress. n.d. “The Land of Little Rain.” Accessed March 15, 2022.

“Mary Austin.” n.d. Accessed March 15, 2022.

“Streets of the Mountains.” 2008. Journal of Sierra Nevada History & Biography 1, no. 2.