Friday, December 10, 2010
The desert is described in Mary Austin’s ‘Land of Little Rain’ and Frank Norris’ ‘McTeague’ yet the two authors view the barren land very differently. While there really is no argument contrary to the fact that the desert is an extremely harsh and difficult place to survive, Norris only describes the desert as unhospitable and hell-like while Austin goes deeper into the various layers of the desert and describes that there is much more to the land than meets the eye. Norris tells the reader merely about McTeague’s journey through the desert, one that begins and ends with death always looming over McTeague, which seems appropriate enough considering he is traveling through Death Valley. But Austin recognizes how multi-faceted the desert is and that while McTeague may not have had what it takes to survive, many animals and some humans have found a way to make the desert their homes. So what allows the people and animals in Austin’s novel survive and thrive in the desert while Norris’ McTeague perishes? McTeague couldn’t let go of his materialistic ways and become one with the land around him. He could not and would not adapt in a region where you have no choice.
Norris describes the desert in extremely lonely and harsh terms. He says that, “the silence vast, illimitable, enfolded him like an immeasurable tide. From all that gigantic landscape, that colossal reach of baking sand, there arose not a single sound” (Norris 319). This silence is probably due to the fact that the animals have more common sense than McTeague and are hidden during the hottest part of the day in the desert. Norris goes on to say, “Not a twig rattled, not an insect hummed, not a bird or beast invaded that huge solitude with call or cry. Everything as far as the eye could reach, to north, to south, to east, and west, lay inert, absolutely quiet and moveless under the remorseless scourge of the noon sun” (Norris 219). McTeague was driven to the desert by his own selfish reasons, he committed a cold-blooded murder and was terrified of facing the consequences and wanted to keep the money all for himself. Norris then tells of McTeague being driven by some mysterious sixth sense described as “instinct”. In his journey through the desert, McTeague believes there is some unknown force driving him forward. Norris describes it as “warning [McTeague] again, that strange sixth sense, that obscure brute instinct. It was aroused again and clamoring to be obeyed” (Norris 312). I find myself having to disagree with Norris. I doubt this is “instinct”, I would argue more that it is pure guilt and greed that is driving McTeague forward. The desert is a region described by both Norris and Austin as being extremely difficult to survive in yet McTeague is more concerned about materialism then his own survival. He does not once think rationally in his journey through his Death Valley, nor does he look at the animals around him for guidance. Instead of conserving water, he is using it to keep is pet bird alive. And even more impractical then that is he is carrying $5000 worth of money with him and a heavy gilded birdcage. Surviving in the desert is difficult enough carrying the weight of ones body, let alone a gold-plated bird cage and pounds of money. This just proves that McTeague was not cut out for life in the desert. He could not let go of his materialism and instead chose to perish rather than part with his greedy ways and adapt to the land around him. Even at the very end of the novel, after McTeague and Marcus are reunited, the main focus is still monetary. The water is spilled, they know they are doomed yet McTeague cannot and will not part with the $5000. Norris described that, “in an instant the eyes of the two doomed men had met as the same thought simultaneously rose in their mind. The canvas sack with its five thousand dollars was still tied to the horn of the saddle” (Norris 335). He should be conserving his energy. He should be making peace with himself and a higher power knowing that death is imminent. He should be thinking of any other possible chances of survival. But instead he is more concerned about taking that money with him to the grave.
So what makes some thrive in the desert while others die under the scorching sun? I believe that one must make a conscious decision to leave behind all materialistic aspects because that will only drag them down in the unforgiving, barren, land. It’s not necessarily fair for Norris to only give one view of the desert when clearly there are plenty of animals and people who can survive in the desert. I think that McTeague is a poor representation of what life in the desert can really be. For example, Austin writes about a character named the Pocket Hunter who survives completely fine in the desert. The difference between McTeague and the Pocket Hunter is that the Pocket Hunter is willing to give up all items that are not conducive to his survival. He only brings along the bare essentials; no gilded bird cage and pet bird or $5000 cash like McTeague. Austin says that, “he traveled far and took a long time to it, but the simplicity of his kitchen arrangements was elemental” (Austin 26). The Pocket Hunter had no more advantages than McTeague. Austin describes him in similar terms as McTeague in so much that they both were born desert people. The Pocket Hunter is different than McTeague because he chooses to fully immerse himself in the desert and become one with the land, which is necessary for survival. Austin also writes that he even thinks of the desert and its inhabitants as his family saying, “I suppose he never knew how much he depended for the necessary sense of home and companionship on the beasts and trees…” (Austin 29).
Austin believes that the best way to survive in the desert is to take note and follow by example of the animals that live there. If one looks closely, which McTeague never did, there are many creatures who sustain life completely fine in the desert and you can use them to your advantage as the. These animals can show you where water is, help you find food, or literally shelter you from a storm much like the Pocket Hunter. When the Pocket Hunter found himself in a snowstorm in Waban and kept warm through the night by sleeping with a pack of wild sheep. Austin writes that, “ it may have been the creature instinct… that lead him to the cedar shelter… and heard the heaving breathing of the flock” (30). He ultimately survived the storm by thinking like an animal. Although it is clear from both Norris and Austin that the desert has extreme weather conditions in which it is hard to survive, Austin makes a point of shedding light on the fact that survival is possible as long as you have the proper mindset.
Austin points out that animals can teach you much more than finding shelter from a storm. They can help you find water trails. Austin says that, “man-height is the least fortunate of all heights from which to study trails” (11). It is better to be low to the ground like a coyote or mouse, or high in the hair like a bird. This is a perfect example of how a man in the desert can survive by observing the animals around them. In a land where water is extremely scarce and hard to find, man must watch the animal around them to be able to locate it. Austin says that a coyote is “your true water-witch, one who snuffs and paws, snuffs and paws again at the smallest spot of moisture-scented earth until he has freed the blind water from the soil” (12). Maybe if McTeauge had taken the time to observe the animals around him he would have been able to make his way through Death Valley. Apparently his “brute instinct” wasn’t enough, he needed the intelligence of the land that only desert animals have. Austin addresses the intelligence of a particularly cunning desert creature – the coyote. She compares the coyotes intelligence to that of a very smart humans saying, “I have trailed a coyote often… some slant-winged scavenger hanging in the air signaled the prospect of dinner, and found his track such as a man, a very intelligent man accustomed to a hill country…” (Austin13). In regards to animals and humans, Austin thinks that we do not give enough credit to the intelligence that animals possess. She says that, “ we have fallen on a very careless usage, speaking of wild creatures as if they were bound by some such limitation as hampers clockwork. When we say of one another, they are night prowlers, it is perhaps true only as the things they feed upon are more easily come by in the dark, and they know well how to adjust themselves to conditions wherein food is more plentiful by day. And their accustomed performance is very much a matter of keen eye, keener scent, quick ear, and a better memory of sights and sounds than man dare boasts” (Austin 13). Austin also explains that animals are superior in the desert because they do not waste anything. Resources are extremely scarce in the desert and animals have learned to utilize every aspect of the land. Humans are very wasteful creatures by nature. For example, McTeague wasted precious water in the desert keeping his pet bird cold. Humans also leave behind their mark on the land and tarnish the desert. Austin says in regards to humans that, “there is no scavenger that eats tin cans, and no wild thing leaves a like disfigurement on the forest floor” (Austin 24). Animals on the other hand have adapted to living in a land where there isn’t much to their disposal. Animals are superior at surviving in the desert because they work together and depend on one another. Austin writes, “probably we never fully credit the interdependence of wild creatures, and their cognizance of the affairs of their own kind” (Austin 22). The animals are willing to scavenge to stay alive and use eachothers kills for their next meals. One animal’s leftovers is another animal’s dinner. Austin writes of their interdependence, “the hawk follows the badger, the coyote the carrion crow, and from their aerial stations the buzzards watch each other” (Austin 14).
As I stated earlier, there is no argument to the contrary that the desert is a very unforgiving and difficult place to live. I think that Austin gives a more positive and fair account of the desert. She gives it more credit than Norris does. Norris describes the desert as a literal hell on earth in which no living creature, animal or man, has a chance of survival. But, Austin explains that those animals and humans that are willing to adapt and work with the land, rather than against it, have a chance to not only survive, but also make the desert their home. Both authors give accounts of human’s experiences in the desert. McTeague failed to survive because he could not cut ties with his materialistic ways and adapt to the land around him. Instead of conserving water and energy, he wasted it on materialism. In contrast, Austin describes why the Pocket Hunter thrived in the same land in which McTeague perished. The Pocket Hunter gave up all material items in his life and only survived in the desert off the bare essentials. He also used the land to his benefit, followed his instincts, and learned invaluable lessons from the animals that live in the desert, like where to find water and shelter. While I respect the two different views of the authors, I believe that Austin gave a more unbiased, fair account of the desert really has to offer. Under the sandy, scorching, barren exterior are very intelligent and resourceful plants, animals and even humans.