Mar 20, 2020

A Former Librarian Writes a Landmark Book on a Land Preservation Icon

Capturing the Spirit of a Real-Life Action Figure

By Ed Goldman

If we can accept a Midwest archaeologist named Henry “Indiana” Jones as an action hero, then we can certainly do the same for a former California librarian named Elizabeth “Betsy” Austin.

Austin has just written “Grand Canyon to Hearst Ranch: One Woman’s Fight to Save Land in the American West,” an incident-filled biography of Harriett Hunt Burgess, who spent 40 years attempting, with great success, to conserve hundreds of thousands of acres. Without Burgess’s efforts, it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the Lake Tahoe region and huge swaths of California’s coastline might have been paved over to make room for office campuses, housing communities and industry.

So why does this make Alabama-born author Austin— the soft-spoken, energetic daughter of a chemical engineer and social worker; a bespectacled career librarian (now retired) with master’s degrees in both library science and history—an action hero? 

Simple. She walked the talk. Or rather, she doried it. 

Author, Elizabeth “Betsy” Austin.

Not content to simply recount her subject’s colorfully rugged, fact-finding journeys on the rapids-riddled Colorado River in a modest fishing boat (called a dory), Austin decided to relive one of Burgess’s more seminal trips, retracing what could have proved a perilous trek. 

“I had never camped before in my life,” she says over a recent lunch. Austin grins often and occasionally shakes her head slightly as she recounts the dual adventures of her trip and of writing her book, as if to say to no one in particular “Can you believe I actually did this?!”

Austin, who’s 65, met Burgess through her husband of nearly 45 years, Russell Austin, a prominent Northern California attorney whose firm had been doing some work for Burgess’s American Land Conservancy foundation.  It wasn’t surprising when Russell tagged along on his wife’s river run: for more than a decade the two have been taking hiking vacations—including a leg of the world-famous Camino sojourn in 2014—“though with hot meals and hotel rooms waiting at the end of each day,” he adds. While the couple met as exchange students in Scotland, they do offer some credence to the maxim about opposites attracting. Betsy comes across as a good-natured, eager teacher, while Russell’s calm demeanor and dry wit turn the term “deadpan” into wild overstatement. The Austins have two grown sons and three grandkids; one of their sons, Michael, accompanied them on the river trip.

As you might expect from a librarian, Betsy Austin’s research into Burgess’s life was extensive, involving many dozens of interviews and generous access to her subject’s files at the American Land Conservancy. What comes as a delight is her writing style, which is friendly, inviting and at times humorous—in sum, hers is the antithesis of most academic writing, which generally has the personality and charm of a tax return.

Austin  divides her book into musical segments, in what appears to be an unitended homage to Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite.” That opus consisted of five movements (those elements you’re never supposed to applaud individually lest the Classical Music Police in the audience have you arrested for excess enthusiasm): Sunrise, Painted Desert, On the Trail, Sunset, and Cloudburst.

Austin’s are: Overture, followed by six interludes, culminating with Finale. That simple conceit  gives the book—available at AmazonBarnes & Noble and independent book retailers—an underlay of seriousness but never solemnity, even in the portions of the book dealing with the legal hula hoops Burgess had to twirl to win case after case on land preservation.

Harriet Hunt Burgess was 74 years old when she died 10 years ago, her restless mind and relentless spirit silenced by Alzheimer’s disease. In “Grand Canyon to Hearst Ranch,” Betsy Austin not only resurrects her to vivid, action-hero life but also, unintentionally, lays claim to the title herself.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).