The inspiration of Ursula K Le Guin — 21 October 1929–22 January 2018
One day, back in the midst of my early, sometimes confused, adulthood, a book came into my life, that became the book of my life.
Always Coming Home is an extraordinary piece of work. It is a story (or stories); a poem (or poems); an anthropological study of a people, the Kesh, who have never existed, but might one day— a gentle, shining book of hope for what the human race might be capable of becoming.
Back then, I had read the sci-fi standards and the Tolkeinesque fantasies and these were my escape — a way for an insecure and serious young man to burrow back into childhood, where reading had been the most magical experience I could have. I’d read the first couple of LeGuin’s Earthsea books and many of her Haimish sci fi novels as well — they were strange, sat-apart books, with a different sensibility from those hard-man sci-fi tales of planetary conquest and fantasies set in warlike ancient lands.
In the mid-80s, in the UK, the post war consensus was falling apart. The 1984 Miner’s Strike; the Falklands War; the Greenham Common peace camp; the film, Where The Wind Blows — all these and others just highlighted the divisions that were growing in our communities and there was a slowly emerging awareness that the direction of travel of carbon-fuelled, military obsessed Western capitalism was the wrong one — a truth only accentuated further in retrospect by the desperate death-throes of the ruthlessly targeted mining communities. Margaret Thatcher’s famous phrase, “There Is No Alternative”, just brought home to many of us that there just had to be a different way.
It was just that we didn’t know how we could move forward without moving back — there was no real vision of what our world could look like if an alternative was to be found.
Reading Always Coming Home for the first time was when my imagination started to grow up. I got lost in it just as I always did with books, but this time there was something different. Here was a weaving — something deeply prophetic, powerful and poetic. Here was a vision that spoke to a part of me — lets call it my ecological self — that had been dormant for so long (the young child is always alive to the ecological self — but that is another story). And here was a grown up, strange and difficult book that expects a lot of its readers, but gives gift upon gift each time it is opened.
It begins wonderfully: “The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California”. Time-twisting from the start, Le Guin plays with the idea of then (before) and now and then (to come), and tells us something marvellous about this game of life: “What was and what may be lie, like children whose faces we cannot see, in the arms of silence. All we ever have is here, now”.
This sensibility has become central to my life and work, as I evolved from naive, troubled activist and doting young dad, to a (hopefully) more mature therapist, writer and doting grandpa. I have changed, as we all do, but Le Guin’s book has stayed with me; and I read it every few years with new insights emerging each time.
And this book provides me not just with insights — though the book is full of them; embedded jewels hidden away in the chapters and stories — but with a kind of grounding back into my own calling and development. It has a psychological wholeness that few other books have (in my humble opinion), and carries a vision of human sustainability and balance that might be essential in a world on the brink (perhaps) of ecological and cultural collapse.
Just as her science fiction classic The Left Hand of Darkness envisioned a world in which gender and sexuality were fluid, so Always Coming Home imagines a world in which its human people — highly sophisticated and technological in many ways — dance their world and tread on it lightly. It is a world in which women and men dance together as equals and animals are the other people who live in this valley.
It is a book that gives hope.
Can a book be a talisman? Certainly it brings something new to me each time I read it. Unusually for a treasured book, I have felt fine about lending it to people who I think might love and appreciate it. It always returns, and a gift often comes with it. A Guinea Fowl feather uncannily like one of the illustrations in the book; a little photo book of the Yosemite (“Here are some ‘real’ images of California to feed your imagination” wrote my friend, Miriam); an essay on educating for the future, written by Dave, another friend, that uses the book’s concerns as its theme.
It is a book that brings me luck and good fortune — a talisman indeed.
Ursula Le Guin, who died a few days ago, brought us this gift and leaves us at a time when the world is balanced in a precarious state. But perhaps, amidst the crisis of our civilisation, her vision of human resilience, creativity and gentleness is one that can prevail? — “They owned their Valley very lightly, with easy hands” she writes of the Kesh, the people of the Valley. Perhaps, one day, we will all be dancing, writing poetry, sharing rituals, walking the hills and valleys and treating our fellow peoples with companionship and reverence?
Yet, how will we get there? How will we find this Valley for our children’s children’s children?Perhaps all we need to do is follow the trail of breadcrumbs that Ursula K Le Guin has left us — her magical words and her wonderful maps of the terrain of what it means to be human.
Here is her narrator guiding us along the way:
Pandora Gently to the Gentle Reader:
When I take you to the Valley, you’ll see the blue hills on the left and the blue hills on the right, the rainbow and the vineyards under the rainbow late in the rainy season, and maybe you’ll say, “There it is, that’s it!” But I’ll say. “A little farther.” We’ll go on, I hope, and you’ll see the roofs of the little towns and the hillsides yellow with wild oats, a buzzard soaring and a woman singing by the shadows of a creek in the dry season, and maybe you’ll say, “Let’s stop here, this is it!” But I’ll say, “A little farther yet.” We’ll go on, and you’ll hear the quail calling on the mountain by the springs of the river, and looking back you’ll see the river running downward through the wild hills behind, below, and you’ll say, “Isn’t that the Valley?” And all I will be able to say is “Drink this water of the spring, rest here awhile, we have a long way yet to go and I can’t go without you.”*
And for me, it’s time to pick up this book, and get lost in the Valley once more. Maybe you’d like to join me?
*From Always Coming Home by Ursula K LeGuin, this version published in the UK by Grafton Books, 1988.