"Inextricable disordered ranges": Mary Austin's ecofeminist explorations in Lost Borders

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Author: Beverly A. Hume
Date: Fall 1999
From: Studies in Short Fiction(Vol. 36, Issue 4)
Publisher: Studies in Short Fiction
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,844 words

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Although Mary Austin has generally come to be perceived as a writer who, as Patrick Murphy summarizes, "gives primacy to nature as a dynamic interactive system in which people can participate if they follow the lead of the land" (67), recent critical reevaluations of her writings have provoked critical debates about the relation of her quasi-sentimental mysticism and tendencies toward feminist or cultural essentialism to her more compellingly detailed descriptions of the desert and her early championing and felt indignation regarding the stares of women and Native cultures in the early twentieth century. (1) In one of her earliest short story collections, Lost Borders (1909), Austin uses her tales to establish the parameters of this debate through her creation of characters who mirror the "inextricable disordered ranges" that frame their borderlands (156), simultaneously revealing their narrator (an unnamed storyteller, a thinly-disguised narrative voice for Austin) to be neither strictly feminist nor environmentalist, but rather a combination of the two--that is, an early ecofeminist. Although individual tales in Lost Borders have been discussed and anthologized in recent years, their collective impact, as the following reading argues, clarifies Austin's environmentalist perspective--a perspective that suggests that most "civilized" men and women remain unable to understand the "inextricable," if not inscrutable, "disorder" of the natural landscape of the desert, even though their spiritual growth and general well-being, in terms of these sketches, depends upon it. In these sketches, characters are continually challenged to awaken and explore this landscape. As the poetic versification that frames this collection suggests, the narrator remains hopeful that such explorations for a "Word" that has "never" been "printed in a page" will "wake" in this region of lost borders "with the wind that wakes the morning on a thousand miles of sage" (154).

In Lost Borders, Austin, as storyteller, consciously engages in a reexamination of this "Word"--which is voiceless and seems, as it did for earlier romantic nature writers such as Thoreau or Muir, both connected to and beyond human experience. Unlike these authors, however, Austin becomes engaged in this short story collection with what it means to be human in relation to a civilization (whether European and American) that remains asleep to its own "feminine" potential. In Austin's desert borderlands, "lost" civilized wanderers--typically men--have only barely begun to comprehend what she calls the "Power" of "desertness," a "Power" that she specifically links not only to women but also to indigenous Native cultures. Such a perspective makes Austin an ecofeminist insofar as ecofeminism, as Karen Warren summarizes, not only refers to a "variety of multicultural perspectives on the nature of the connections within social systems of domination" between women and "nonhuman nature," but also has a "twofold commitment to the recognition and elimination of male-gender bias wherever and whenever it occurs ..." (1). Although the term "ecofeminist" was not coined until the 1970s, (2) Austin is best understood as one of its pioneers, particularly in Lost Borders, where Austin's storytelling exposes, in Warren's words, "social systems of domination," explores connections...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A90990567