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The Desert Is a Woman : THE DESERT IS NO LADY Southwestern Landscapes in Women's Writing and Art e dited by Vera Norwood and Janice Monk (Yale University Press: $29.95; 280 pp., illustrated) : : WESTERN TRAILS A Collection of Short Stories by Mary Austin; selected and edited by Melody Graulich (University of Nevada Press: $22.50: 300 pp.)

January 10, 1988|Lynne Bundesen | Bundesen is a writer and photographer living in Santa Fe, N.M

Not to know their own prophets is rather a serious predicament for women .

--Mary Austin

O'Keeffe, Austin, Luhan, Cather, Newhall, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, Bones, Trails, Adobe, Sun, Space--the words have become equivalent in the artistic consciousness of this century.

Georgia, Mary, Mabel Dodge, Willa and Nancy are names synonymous with the Southwestern landscape. Hard edges, wild spaces, endless skies, mythic forms, a singular freedom to be oneself in the neutrality of openness are the legacy of these white women artists who came to the Southwest of the United States wearing laurels of achievement from literary and artistic lives in the East.

All of those women whose names we now recognize experienced a transformation on the Santa Fe Trail as profound in its manner as Saul of Tarsus' conversion on the road to Damascus. "My life broke in two, right then," wrote Mabel Dodge Luhan, "and I entered into the second, a new world."

The artistic and literary output of these women, the body of their work is inextricably linked to the body of the Southwestern earth. One does not think of New Mexico without harboring somewhere in the mind an image of O'Keeffe's, a phrase or name from Willa Cather.

"The Desert Is No Lady: Southwestern Landscapes in Women's Writing and Art," is a scholarly and readable book by women about the women who came to and who were born in the Southwestern United States. The book's title is from a poem by Pat Mora and although the title is catchy (and the poem magnificent and wild) it does not do justice to the premise and purpose of the book which the editors, Vera Norwood and Janice Monk, say is an exploration of how women have come to value the landscape of the Southwest and how their connection to the place shaped their artistic voices.

"The Desert Is Woman," might have been a more apt title as the 10 chapters of this book are not descriptions of women who abandoned their manners but rather describe women who come to full flower and birth significant work in a land of little rain. Each of the 10 chapters is worthy of a separate book.

Many of the chapter titles are reflections of the Southwest terrain itself and hint of metaphors and mythology. For example: "Desert, Rock, Shelter, Legend," "Walking on The Desert Sky," "Crazy Quilt Lives," "The Minds Road," and "With Stone, Star and Earth."

Subjects covered in various chapters include Anglo expatriate women in the Southwest, Willa Cathers' novels, the photographer Laura Gilpin, Chicana literature and art and Native American women's artists and writers.

The chapters on women writers with Indian and Chicana backgrounds indicate how inordinately powerful and lyrical their work is and that it deserves to be much more widely published and read, just as the paintings, pottery and weavings of these artists deserve to be more widely exhibited.

"The Desert Is No Lady" is a indelibly strong collection of the thoughts and works of women from 1880-1980, who found power in the Southwest and who share this power through their art. The conclusion is that the desert landscape is woman, that women flourish in her bosom, that the very soul of the artist and particularly the woman artist is reached through two converging paths; "one tactile, physical, erotic; one spiritual, meditative, mythical."

Any woman who lives in the Southwest will witness to that conclusion.

"Western Trails: A Collection of Short Stories," by Mary Austin, makes a brilliant and beautiful companion to "The Desert Is No Lady." It is a book that proves feminism is not strident but witty, insightful and passionate. Austin was a most remarkable woman and it was she who brought the Southwestern landscape to the attention of men and women of letters in her time and in ours.

Melody Graulich is an associate professor of English at the University of New Hampshire and she has done a wonderful job of presenting Austin's work. These short stories are timeless reading. They are a testimony to Austin's lifelong concern with women and with the Native American. They are lively to read, informative, and bear the hallmark of intelligent thought. There is nothing perverted or self-seeking about them, nothing narcissistic as there is in many seemingly more contemporary collections of short stories. Austin's stories can be read by your pre-pubescent niece or maiden aunt as well as by women with world's of experience.

Austin may be the most quotable woman of North American letters in this century and as her work is informed by education and experience her stories are as appropriate today as when she wrote them in the first half of this century.

"If the desert were a woman", wrote Mary Austin, "I know well what like she would be; deep breasted, broad in the hips, tawny, with tawny hair . . . eyes sane and steady as the polished jewel of her skies, such a countenance as should make men serve without desiring her . . . passionate but not necessitous, patient--and you could not move her, no, not if you had all the earth to give, so much as one tawny hair's-breadth beyond her own desires."

There is no reason that both "The Desert is No Lady" and "Western Trails" (a particularly beautifully designed and edited book) should not be in every library--public or private.

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