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Mary Austin, The scavengers

October 12, 2011

I’ve never heard of Mary Austin but when I saw this story (essay), “The scavengers”, appear as a Library of America offering, I had to read it, because it’s about the deserts of California – and I love those deserts. Mary Austin (1868-1934) was an early nature writer about the American southwest. LOA’s notes tell us that she moved in the literary/artistic circles of her times. She met Ambrose Bierce (whose work she admired though she was less pleased with the man!). She collaborated with Ansel Adams on Taos Pueblo, a hand produced photographic essay. And Willa Cather apparently wrote the last chapters of Death comes for the archbishop while staying in Austin’s home in Taos. Austin and her husband were also involved in the California Water Wars, that were documented so dramatically in the film Chinatown.

According to LOA, she was “among the first to write with careful attention about the desert, and to do so in a way that managed to capture its beauty without indulging in undue sentimentality”. This essay “The scavengers” was first published in 1903 in her book of essays and stories titled The land of little rain, a book that was so well received it enabled her to write for the rest of her life.

Coyote in Death Valley

Coyote in Death Valley, Dec 1992

And so to “The scavengers”. It is a short essay describing, unsentimentally, the buzzards, vultures, ravens (or “carrion crow”), coyotes and Clark’s crows (or “camp robber”) which survive on the death of others. The essay opens on a vivid image:

Fifty-seven buzzards, one on each of fifty-seven posts at the rancho El Tejon, on a mirage-breeding September morning, sat solemnly while the white tilted travelers’ vans lumbered down the Canada de los Uvas. After three hours they had only clapped their wings, or exchanged posts.

She was, clearly, a careful observer. A major theme of the essay is nature’s balance which, in this case, means that when there is drought some creatures die and others (the scavengers) thrive. She graphically describes the slow death by starvation of the cattle with the buzzards waiting patiently for the end (because they will not feed until the last breath is drawn):

Cattle once down may be days in dying … It is doubtless the economy of nature to have the scavengers by to clean up the carrion, but a wolf at the throat would be a shorter agony than the long stalking and sometime perchings of these loathsome watchers.

She goes on to describe vultures, comparing their qualities with those of the buzzards, and then moves on to the other previously mentioned scavengers. She sees the raven as the “least objectionable” of them, partly because “he is nice in his habits and is said to have likable traits”. I particularly enjoyed her observation on “the interdependence of wild creatures, and their cognizance of the affairs of their own kind”. She suggests we may never fully credit this, and she’s probably right, though she’d probably also be astonished by how far science has come in the last century in terms of ecological knowledge. Anyhow, I liked the following description of animal behaviour as coyotes bring down an antelope:

… Rabbits sat up in the chaparral and cocked their ears, feeling themselves quite safe for the once as the hunt swung near them. Nothing happens in the deep wood that the blue jays are not all agog to tell …

She wonders how much of this knowledge of each other is learnt by experience and how much is taught by their “elders”. Austin surely would have loved David Attenborough – or even been him (if you know what I mean!) – had she been born a few decades later.

As I said, a main theme is the balance (or economy, as she calls it) of nature but she concludes on another idea, and that is the role of mankind. Nature, she says, cannot account for the works of man:

There is no scavenger that eats tin cans, and no wild thing leaves a like disfigurement on the forest floor.

Mary Austin
“The scavengers”
Available online at Library of America
Originally published in The land of little rain, 1903

10 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2011 8:32 pm

    Beautiful images, Sue, thanks for sharing that. John.

  2. October 13, 2011 2:33 am

    You know, I don’t believe I’ve heard of Mary Austin before and I grew up in southren California and my family regularly spent time camping in the desert. The California desert is a gorgeous place especially in spring when the ocotillos and other catus bloom. The line ” Nothing happens in the deep wood that the blue jays are not all agog to tell” cracked me up. Not only do they have lots to tell but they are bold little thieves that will snatch food off your plate if you aren’t paying attention. Ah, thanks for the memories 🙂

    • October 13, 2011 8:50 am

      Glad you liked it Stefanie. As you probably remember I lived in SoCal for three years and travelled through the area a lot – heard of Ansel Adams, Edward Abbey, Zane Grey, John Steinbeck (if we include him) but not as I recollect Mary Austin.

      The jays cracked me up too … “all agog to tell” is such a gorgeous way of describing hem.

      • October 14, 2011 3:32 am

        I do recollect that you lived in SoCal for awhile. Do you ever miss it? Surprisingly, I don’t. At least not the cities 🙂

        • October 14, 2011 9:40 am

          Yes and no. Here is my home but I did like the climate and the landscape – and I made a few good friends. I’m not a big city person though and it is a bit more materialistic/consumerist though we’re not that far behind here I must admit! Where you are now is probably lovely lifestyle-wise but the extreme cold and the humidity would not be for me.

  3. October 13, 2011 10:26 am

    I love that beautiful language is used in texts such as these; that figurative language is important to convey the beauty of this particular environment as well.

    • October 13, 2011 10:59 am

      Yes, me too Magpie. I think it is this sort of writing you could call “literary nonfiction” don’t you?

  4. October 13, 2011 9:52 pm

    It is interesting, really, how we recoil from certain aspects of the animal kingdom (vultures circling a sick beast, as here, or a predator that begins eating its prey while still alive) yet, as Austin mentions at the end (or you’ve mentioned at the end), nothing in the animal kingdom destroys the world around it as we do, changing everything forever, often irreparably.

    P.S. I wish I remembered that coyote photo being taken

    • October 13, 2011 10:45 pm

      Austin said it. You were probably asleep or playing with your barbies in the back of the car. We had the grandparents with us.

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