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Heading home with author Ursula K. Le Guin

Photo of Ursula K. Le Guin. Copyright © by Marian Wood Kolisch

Imagination is a primal human tool, a lodestone that helps us find our place in creation. Proof abounds in the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin.

At age 80, Le Guin’s body of work includes 50-plus books – novels, short stories, children’s books, poetry, essays, and translations. Many have garnered awards and worldwide acclaim, including A Wizard of Earthsea (and its five companion books), The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, The Dispossessed, The Word for the World is Forest, The Beginning Place, Always Coming Home, and Lavinia.

My daughters cut their teeth on her Catwings books that delight so many beginning readers. I share their enthusiasm. Since my youth, Le Guin’s fiction has stirred something deep inside, a cellular memory of mythic possibility. Her books for adults continue that tradition.

Recently, I attended a talk by Le Guin on “Writing about Place” in Cannon Beach, Oregon (where she and her husband Charles own a cottage).

“Place can give you a book,” she said to the forty adults gathered in the children’s room of the local library. She read from a short-story collection titled Searoad: the Chronicles of Klatsand that was inspired by visits to Cannon Beach. Shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize, the book includes one of my favorite stories – a piece titled “Texts” that features a woman immersed in the strange oracular messages of her surroundings.

“Do I want to know what the sea writes? she thought, but at the same time she was already reading the foam, which though in vaguely cuneiform blobs rather than letters of any alphabet was perfectly legible as she walked along beside it.” 

Soft-spoken and unpretentious, Le Guin makes it easy to forget when she’s in front you that she also stands in the company of master myth-makers. She’s often listed alongside J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the famed professors from across the pond who plumbed the English worldview.

Loving these authors as much as I do, it’s tempting to imagine them together at the same location on the time-space continuum. I’d especially like to see those Oxford gents meet Le Guin somewhere in the Pacific West, her native ground.

Since Tolkien and Lewis were keen on pubs, perhaps they might be lured into a coastal tavern. It would be fascinating to watch them all hoist frothy brews of King James, spiced with European folklore. Methinks Le Guin could match the Atlantic duo pint for pint with respect to her knowledge of canonical literature. Yet she could also show them how to sip the spirits of American Indian tradition, distilled with Taoist spring-water. (Le Guin’s parents were renowned anthropologists and authors who studied indigenous cultures. She’s also written an English version of the Tao Te Ching, now in its second edition.)

After a round or two, the profs might be enticed to take a stroll on the beach, read the sea-foam, watch the green flash at sunset with a fiery gentle archmage of the West. 

There was a time, back East, when the establishment burned her kind, just as surely as ancient groves were cut by colonizers. Le Guin’s library talk affirmed the truth that legends still dwell among and around us. It acknowledged our need to describe the storied places that play a super organic role in shaping society.

“The character of a place is getting harder to find,” said Le Guin, “and the same thing is happening with fiction. Most writers today move very fast through setting.”

That many of Le Guin’s settings feature fantastic elements sharpens their perception of reality. How else can one describe things that transcend the standard mental lexicon? There’s ample literary precedent. Once upon a time, after all, folks believed fire-breathing dragons were as real as angels.

Who can say what life looked like before mankind left Eden for the Interstates?  What inklings can words retrieve from our ancestral experience and formative development?

Perhaps if we open our awareness to the world, with unbound imagination, we can participate with life in ways that have been forgotten by most adults. Le Guin’s fiction conveys that possibility as clearly as anything I’ve read. In her book,  Cheek by Jowl: Talks and Essays on How and Why Fantasy Matters, she discusses what happens when people close their mind’s eye to creation.

“The monstrous homogenization of our world has now almost destroyed the map, any map, by making every place on it exactly like every other place, and leaving no blanks.” 

Imagining what might be makes me think the talking beasts can overcome our displacement of nature. We might tend the proverbial garden, keep a collective sabbath, so to speak. Real good can grow in the land of make-believe. 

In her book, Always Coming Home, Le Guin creates an “archeology of the future” in which she searches for the humans who most closely connect with her native bio-region. She outlines her scientific method in the introduction. 

“The only way I can think to find them, the only archeology that might be practical, is as follows: you take your child or grandchild in your arms, a young baby not a year old yet, and go down into the wild oats in the field below the barn. Stand under the oak on the last slope of the hill, facing the creek. Stand quietly. Perhaps the baby will see something, or hear a voice, or speak to somebody there, somebody from home.” 

Given the pace at which man’s creeds of greed consume and pollute the planet, let’s hope we can find the way home very soon. Our chances may be enchanted, thanks to Ursula K. Le Guin. 

Magic comes where there’s room for an uncut view.

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