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Lessons On Tracking & Observational Prowess from Mary H. Austin by Mark Hatmaker


The Land of Little Rain is a 1903 work from Mary Hunter Austin that can be thought of as a South-westerner’s poetic agreement with Thoreau. In a series of observational walks Austin reveals the beauty of the desert that she sees so ably. She offers evocative expressions of the landscape, insightful commentary regarding the flora and fauna and how to “see” as the animals do and ends the volume with a few choice comments on the difference between those who live on or close to the land and those who don’t.

This slim volume is chockful of wisdom. I’ll admit the poetic style may slow the progress of some, for others [myself being one] I find that the poetry of the prose adds emotional color to the information being offered. It smacks of heartfeltness and deep appreciation as opposed to simply rote advice-observation.

Here is Austin on our propensity to blunder through our environments.

Man is a great blunderer going about in the woods, and there is no other except the bear makes so much noise. Being so well warned beforehand, it is a very stupid animal, or a very bold one, that cannot keep safely hid. The cunningest hunter is hunted in turn, and what he leaves of his kill is meat for some other. That is the economy of nature, but with it all there is not sufficient account taken of the works of man. There is no scavenger that eats tin cans, and no wild thing leaves a like disfigurement on the forest floor.”

Those blundering humans were of the 1903 variety, how much more so the phone-in-hand variety of today?

Austin offers sage advice regarding changing our visual perspective to witness more clearly, as we are often “trapped” by something as insignificant as assuming our height is the proper height to view the world. [Try spending time at your dog’s or cat’s height for an hour or two. It’s a mighty illuminating exercise.]

By the end of the dry season the water trails of the Ceriso are worn to a white ribbon in the leaning grass, spread out faint and fanwise toward the homes of gopher and ground rat and squirrel. But however faint to mansight, they are sufficiently plain to the furred and feathered folk who travel them. Getting down to the eye level of rat and squirrel kind, one perceives what might easily be wide and winding roads to us if they occurred in thick plantations of trees three times the height of a man. It needs but a slender thread of barrenness to make a mouse trail in the forest of the sod. To the little people the water trails are as country roads, with scents as signboards.”

Austin offers advice on robustification to both be better able to weather [literally] the elements and to increase appreciation and observational-immersion into the world.

The Pocket Hunter [an individual who goes into the wild with nothing but what he can comfortably carry] had gotten to that point where he knew no bad weather, and all places were equally happy so long as they were out of doors. I do not know just how long it takes to become saturated with the elements so that one takes no account of them. Myself can never get past the glow and exhilaration of a storm, the wrestle of long dust heavy winds, the play of live thunder on the rocks, nor past the keen fret of fatigue when the storm outlasts physical endurance. But prospectors and Indians get a kind of a weather shell that remains on the body until death.”

There are also observations that strike as a sort of spiritual robustification.

What taxed me most in the wreck of one of my favorite cañons by cloudburst was to see a bobcat mother mouthing her drowned kittens in the ruined lair built in the wash, far above the limit of accustomed waters, but not far enough for the unexpected. After a time you get the point of view of gods about these things to save you from being too pitiful.”

And lastly, I’ll allow this observation on the “simple” religion of a desert dwelling people to testify for the beauty of this slim volume.

Sometimes the speech of simple folk hints at truth the understanding does not reach. I am persuaded only a complex soul can get any good of a plain religion. Your earthborn is a poet and a symbolist. We breed in an environment of asphalt pavements a body of people whose creeds are chiefly restrictions against other people's way of life, and have kitchens and latrines under the same roof that houses their God. Such as these go to church to be edified, but at Las Uvas they go for pure worship and to entreat their God. The logical conclusion of the faith that every good gift cometh from God is the open hand and the finer courtesy. The meal done without buys a candle for the neighbor's dead child. You do foolishly to suppose that the candle does no good.”

Is the volume a bit eccentric? Oh, indeed. But there is no denying that spending time with these pages the serious student of situational awareness will be reminded that much of the heavy-lifting is seeing everything, all of the time. There is no doubt that Mary Hunter Austin saw much and saw it well.

Do we see our own world just as deeply, just as ably, with as much heart?

[For in-depth observational drills and see our NSC Book of Drills and/or our Frontier Rough & Tumble Tactical material all part of the RAW Subscription Service.]

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