In the spring of 2019, the year after Ursula K. Le Guin passed, I took a journey across Oregon. I was in the midst of editing an anthology of short fiction in tribute to her, and I was participating in a writer’s residency in the northeastern corner of the state hosted by the writing organization Fishtrap, which was honoring Oregon’s grande dame of speculative fiction with a whole calendar year of events. I had, at that point, been “living in Le Guin” for nearly that long, reading and rereading her many extraordinary novels, works of criticism, and poetry.
I was driving from Joseph to Portland during a break in this residency, headed north on 82, with the full moon rising over the Wallowa Mountains. All along that drive, through snowcapped peaks rolling down to velvet-green meadows, with cattle dreaming in the blue shadows, Le Guin kept me company. I was thinking of her affinity for the landscape of Eastern Oregon, and for landscapes in general—thinking of her travel journals, detailed in Dancing at the Edge of the World.
Swinging down along the Wallowa River, the Lostine River, and the Minam River, the moonlit mountains loomed close to my little car and then stepped off lightly into the plains around Elgin and Imbler—and then, with a shock, I arrived among the great bright lights of La Grande.
Driving from there on through to Pendleton and The Dalles, I was struck by an odd sort of déjà vu, the sense that I’d seen these small cities as big cities, in a dream, maybe, or, impossibly, in a memory, as if these places really might have been big cities in the past. It took me a moment, on this late-night drive, to realize I was remembering these cities as dreamed by George Orr, the protagonist of Le Guin’s 1971 sci-fi novel set here on Earth, The Lathe of Heaven.
How extraordinary, I thought, the way she inhabits this landscape. How lucky for us that her vision was so strong, her voice so clear, that she is still here among us, challenging us to imagine what might have been, what might yet come to be.
Le Guin claimed a trip to the Steens Mountain town of Frenchglen as the inspiration for The Tombs of Atuan, and her linked story collection Searoad is set on the Oregon Coast—but of all of her work, the book that strikes me as most similar to The Lathe of Heaven, in the way that it reflects both the landscape of the West as it is and its various possible futures, is her 1985 novel Always Coming Home.
One interviewer who met with Le Guin while she was working on this novel noted that a map of Northern California with the Central Valley underwater was hung on the wall of her office. On a sheet of tracing paper covering this map were the familiar towns of Napa Valley—St. Helena, Calistoga, Yountville—while on another transparency, laid over the other two, were the future towns of her own making: Sinshan, Wakwaha, and Chumo. Le Guin summered in the Napa Valley for much of her life, and in Always Coming Home she imagined that landscape remade by earthquakes and continental shift—natural disasters that, in the world of the novel, have destroyed San Francisco, sunk Bakersfield, and given Nevada’s Humboldt River an outlet to the sea.
Always Coming Home felt to me at first like a trip back in time, to a California that maybe never was but certainly could have been. The material culture of the Kesh, the people of the Na Valley, appears to revolve largely around weaving and pottery, and its people subsist on settled agriculture and animal husbandry as well as hunting and gathering. The religion of the Kesh has no God or gods, but it is filled with animal creators, tricksters, and culture heroes—which, Le Guin makes clear, are understood metaphorically—and centered on “changing houses” built into the ground, not unlike the kivas of the Pueblo peoples. Likewise, the social relations of the Kesh are structured around elaborate house/clan systems, not unlike the Hopi, and share central values of humility and generosity, with attendant taboos around arrogance and greed.
Given these echoes of Southwest Native cultures, I at first imagined the people of the Na Valley living in Pueblo-style apartments during the winter—and in reading of their shack-like “summerhouses,” where they lived during the months of agricultural labor, I imagined hillsides covered in Jewish sukkahs, those hut-like outdoor dwellings now built to celebrate the harvest holiday of Sukkot but originally used as temporary shelter by Jewish farmers. It is in many ways an idyllic vision of humanity’s past, a time before the ugliness of the Industrial Revolution, before the horrors of pollution and weapons of mass destruction.
But as I read on, it became clear that the Kesh were actually living in some version of the future. For the most part, the novel is structured like an anthropological survey, and in the section titled “How to Die in the Valley,” our anthropologist narrator stops by, almost casually, to mention, “There was a story told about a group of Finders exploring down the Outer Coast, who got into a chemically poisoned area: four of the group died.” As the book goes on, we learn that the Finders are a clan of the Kesh who venture beyond the safe confines of the Valley to scout out distant lands, make and maintain maps, and scavenge useful resources, many of which appear to be vestiges of a fallen civilization—our own. Then there are the Millers, who handle not just the milling of grains but all the advanced tech of the Kesh, which we eventually learn includes indoor plumbing and electricity.
In the last interview Le Guin gave before she died in 2018, she noted that Always Coming Home was one of her most neglected and central books, and that a core tenet of her work and thought was right there in the title.
You want to understand how my mind works, go there. In the novel within the book, Stone Telling starts in the valley, goes to a different valley, and comes back. There’s this whole difference between the circle and the spiral. We say the Earth has a circular orbit around the sun, but of course it doesn’t. The sun moves too. You never come back to the same place, you just come back to the same point on the spiral. That image is very deep in my thinking.
The interviewer, David Streitfeld, goes on to note that Le Guin did not consider herself a progressive, politically speaking—that she found the idea of progress itself invidious and generally harmful. Le Guin responds by pointing out that this idea as extended to outer space, “an extension of the frontier,” is part of why she had something of a crisis of faith in the genre of science fiction. “Once you get to the frontier and there is no more frontier,” she says, “what do you do? Well, you find a new frontier. That was talked about a lot in the 1940s, the 1950s. What is the new frontier? It’s the moon, outer space. We must have a new frontier, we must go forward! It fits with capitalism, after all.”
In her many essays and interviews, Le Guin made it clear: that’s not what she was here for.
In “A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be,” published in The Yale Review in 1983, she likewise challenges the Western idea of utopia as a place we might get to in the future, a thing that might be made via “progress.”
I heed Victor Turner’s warning not to confuse archaic or primitive societies with the true communitas, “which is a dimension of all societies, past and present.” I am not proposing a return to the Stone Age. My intent is not reactionary, nor even conservative, but simply subversive. It seems like the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth. All I’m trying to figure out how to do is to put a pig on the tracks.
Le Guin had a well-known affinity for the Tao Te Ching, and even went so far as to compose her own translation of it. Bearing that in mind, one can’t help but feel that her longer, more circular—or, shall we say, more spiral—view of time is very much in tune with the Tao, the “Watercourse Way,” always moving but essentially unchanging, even as it changes all things, and always returning to itself in time.
The world of the Kesh may be thought of as a utopia—for all the care Le Guin takes to show us these people’s petty squabbles, ongoing tensions, and threats from within and without, it feels rather less ambiguous than the one she gave us in Anarres, the anarchist society of The Dispossessed. And yet, she asserted, “The nature of the utopia I am trying to describe is such that if it is to come, it must exist already.”
Here, George Orr, the protagonist of The Lathe of Heaven, comes to mind. An ordinary guy, living an ordinary life in Portland in a version of 2002, Orr has an extraordinary problem: he has certain dreams that change the world, which he finds quite distressing. In an effort to keep himself from having these “effective dreams,” he’s become a drug addict, which has led him to the state-appointed psychiatrist and sleep researcher Dr. Haber.
George Orr, to anyone familiar with the Tao Te Ching, is an obvious embodiment of the Tao. He is the humble dreamer, the uncarved block, the one imbued with the infinite power to create but who has no ambitions, no agenda. Dr. Haber is the opposite, and when he discovers Orr’s awesome power, he attempts to control it, to use Orr’s dreams to solve societal problems, to improve the world, to make it better—which is to say, to create a utopia.
Needless to say, all does not go well.
In a recent conversation I had with the author Lidia Yuknavitch, she shared a saying that has been central to her own art and practice: “the body holds.” Meaning, the truth of the past is carried forward in the body, particularly those truths the mind cannot hold or is unwilling to. I think the land is like that too: learning to see it through the lens of geology, and the lens of natural history, reveals its deep past, carried forward and embodied in the present.
But even so, that larger sweep of time is easier to see in some places than others. I am from the Midwest, but I have not lived east of New Mexico since I was eighteen, and this, I think, is part of why: back East, I find the deep past much harder to access. Here in the West, human beings have not managed to overwrite that larger sweep of history so completely.
You can feel it in the Columbia River Gorge, the cataclysm that sent a great, ancient lake rushing westward, searching for the sea. You can feel it in the presence of all those basalt sea stacks on the Oregon Coast, formed millions of years ago by the same lava flows that shaped its dramatic headlands and capes. And you can feel it in the Wallowas, those mountains that were once part of the Insular Belt, a group of mountains pushed west when the North American continent was forming, that became the archipelagos stretching from southern British Columbia into Alaska and the Yukon—the sense that these big mountains somehow got separated from their people and decided to settle in this remote region of flat, dry grasslands.
And when the deep past is present in this way, how can the far future fail to be?
I am often aware, as I grow older, that even the most incidental knickknacks in my possession—a little garden gnome I bought a decade ago, the talavera pots I purchased last year—will almost certainly outlast me, which is why I increasingly favor durable goods. I want the things I leave behind to be useful and beautiful to those who come after me, to show that works of human art and industry need not be ugly, shortsighted, and cheap.
In Always Coming Home, Le Guin looked out ahead to the future of this western landscape and imagined what elements of human culture would prove brittle and short-lived. But she created something much more difficult to achieve than dystopia, and far more convincing than utopia: she imagined a world in which human beings, even with all our pettiness and hatred and self-regard, have found a way to fulfill our urge to make and create without necessarily attempting to improve upon the world and, as a consequence, leaving waste and destruction in our wake.
In this, I think, she reflected the great truth of the dreamer, George Orr—the idea that the way the world is, and what it holds, may in fact be the best and only answer to life’s questions, and that if we can find our place within it, we may yet find our truest form as a species, and endure.
3 comments have been posted.
Thank you for this clear wide sweep of Le Guin's world. I enjoy the way you wrapped her stories and perspective in the western landscape.
Rho Mack | January 2022 | Viola, Idaho
Beautiful. I teach The Lathe of Heaven and adore always Coming Home. I look forward to sharing this essay with my students!
Cami Agan | December 2021 | OKC OK
An extremely thought-provoking article. Thank you, Ms DeFreitas. You've given me inspiration to write something similar profiling another late great Oregon writer.
Jim Stewart | December 2021 | Gearhart, Oregon