What’s changed in Southern California since the last century? Everything.

| March 1, 2018 | 0 Comments

VERDANT, lush landscape of Glendale, circa 1913, by Sutton Palmer.

Look deeply into this landscape image. You might well think it is a dreamscape of Eden, or, perhaps, a fantasia of Devon. The original was painted by an English watercolor landscape painter and illustrator, Sutton Palmer (1854-1933).

The painting is Palmer’s painting of the verdant, gentle landscape of Glendale, California, around 1913.

It is one of 32 lush, tipped-in reproduction watercolors in a book called, simply, “California,” published in 1914 in New York and London. On the beautifully embossed cover of my copy, with gold and a rich orange, is the following information:

Painted by – Sutton Palmer
Described by – Mary Austin

THE BOOK, “California,” tells of the land Mary Austin found a century ago.

Few readers, even fans of Austin’s, have seen an original copy, with Palmer’s images intact. The book is Austin’s hymn to the California she found more then a century ago. She looks, she travels, she reads — and she tells her readers the stories of how she feels about the state she loves. She is the consummate quilt maker, making a whole of history, geography, climate, folklore, religion, architecture, agriculture, horticulture — and beauty.

Mary Hunter Austin was born in Illinois, but came to California at 20, and soon settled in the Owens River Valley with a husband and baby. There, she found her subject and her voice — a steady, sure, almost oracular voice that ripened into an incantation-like tone praising the beauty she found around her in the Owens Valley in her first and most enduring book, “The Land of Little Rain,” published in 1903. She was 35.

“These are hills, rounded, blunt, burned, squeezed up out of chaos, chrome and vermillion, painted, aspiring to the snow line …” she writes in the first of 14 essays in “The Land of Little Rain.” She was also observing how farmers in the Valley were losing their water rights.

She had a difficult, grief-filled life, and she was a meticulous, focused writer, devoted to the precise word. Puzzling and worrying over a sentence, she paced her desert haunts, awaiting clarity.

But the marriage was a failure, and the beautiful daughter was profoundly disabled. Austin would leave them both in 1906, armed with the success of “Little Rain,” to find her place under the literary sun.

“California” is divided into eight sections. In “Mothering Mountains,” the section on Southern California, she refers to the “Sierra Madre,” which we know as the San Gabriel Mountains. (Both names were used interchangeably until 1927, when the U.S. Board on Geographic Names decided that San Gabriel Mountains was to be the correct reference.)

This is a beautiful book in all ways. “Sometimes the mere mechanics of the land, the pull of the wind up the narrow gorges as you pass, advises the open mind of the power and immensity residing in the thinly forested bulks,” she writes of the San Gabriels.

Her sweeping, lyrical voice may seem to some a relic from the 18th century. Her work lay forgotten for a half-century after her death, in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1934. But then a new generation of readers and writers praised her environmental prescience, multiculturalism, and eco-feminism. Edward Abbey found her work a wonder; so does Terry Tempest Williams, the writer and environmental activist, who keeps a photo of Austin above her desk.

But before she was labeled as any of these things, Austin’s keen senses, swift mind, deep sensibilities, compassion, and lyricism stood her in good stead as she looked around her at the land that was California near the turn of the 20th century.

(Bibliographical note: The book, with an added subtitle, has been reprinted a few times since 2010, as befits a book in the public domain. Some editions are labeled, incorrectly, as fiction.)

By Paula Panich

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Category: Real Estate

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