Ursula K. Le Guin in the Redwood Zone

Ursula K. Le Guin in the Redwood Zone

Ursula K. Le Guin died on Monday at the age of 88. On the Internet and social media, people remembered her as a feminist and poet, defender of culture and integrity against capitalism and commercialism, and exemplar of the depth and sophistication of genres variously described as science fiction, fantasy, and YA. Anthropologists have a special relationship to Le Guin because she was the daughter of Alfred Kroeber, the founder of Berkeley anthropology and the first person to take a Ph.D. under Boas at Columbia. More then that, her writings were ‘anthropological’. In particular, her Hainish cycle of science fiction arories featured anthropologist-like explorers discovering ways of life which defamiliarized our own cultural expectations and enlarged our imaginations. Sometimes the Le Guin fetishization got a little a little stalker-ish. We have not only posted pictures of her as a child (I’m guilty of that one) but her wedding invitations are also available for your viewing pleasure. Le Guin said so much, and so much has been said about her. But reading the current rash of obituaries on line, I feel like one thing has not gotten attention: The fact that Le Guin exemplifies life in the Redwood Zone.

Ursula K. Le Guin, via Flickr

Stretching from Monterey up into Oregon, Redwood trees are emblematic of Northern California and the culture that Le Guin lived her life in. As someone from the ‘left coast’. True, Portland, her home for many years, is out of Redwood range. Perhaps it is better to say that she lived in Ecotopia, the cultural/ecological state imagined by her contemporary and the very Le Guin-esque figure Ernest Callenbach in his important 1975 science fiction novel/utopian tract. However you want to cut it up, Le Guin’s contexts are easily forgotten in today’s world where California is represented by the TV show Silicon Valley, and the Pacific Northwest is synonymous with Portlandia.

We have focused too much on the influence of Alfred on Ursula, and not enough on the influence of Berkeley. Her father was a Victorian or, better, a Wilhelmine, and received a classical high bourgeois education in the German tradition. It was a culture of Goethe and Faust, but also of Helmholtz and Siemens and Kroeber grew up in a world where the specialization of knowledge and the fracture of the humanities and the natural sciences still seemed surmountable. For white settlers, as Kevin Starr notes, California has always been a place where technology and nature are central themes. Many of California’s elite cultural institutions like Berkeley and Stanford were outposts of Anglo-Protestant (and often straight-up Yankee) culture. Berkeley was one such outpost. But it was relatively unbuttoned and de-starched compared to other fin de siecle American universities. Le Guin could read A Room of One’s Own her mother gave it to her when she was fourteen — and then go play outside all day if she chose. She read Dunsany before Tolkein, a luxury unimaginable today. This mix of bildung and frontier informality would mark much of Le Guin’s future work.

Protestants in America have long believed that God was especially easy to find outdoors, and in California religion and spirituality, as well as technology, discovered a strong affinity with nature. Transcendental America’s quest for unity in nature is epitomized, after all, by John Muir’s exploration of the Sierra Nevadas. Robinson Jeffers would do the same in the Redwood Zone. Poetry and literature, fed by Atlantic rim impulses but freed by California’s vastness, were typical of this period. Today we think of California as the place where ‘Eastern’ religious traditions came to the United States, for instance in the founding of the California Zen Center in 1962, and a place where ‘New Age’ spirituality would take hold. It’s even the home of Carlos Castañeda’s novels and personal cult. But all of this happened after Le Guin came of age. It was super-imposed on top of the world she grew up in. Le Guin’s world pre-existed psychedelia.

And it involved Indians. In this, she had much more in common with Jaime de Angulo, the ‘buckaroo doctor’, poet, and anthropologist who her father sparred with. It makes more sense to think of her as a contemporary of the West Coast Beats: poets like Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen who were anthropology majors in Ecotopia, took Indians seriously, and had a deep connection with Zen and Daoism. Think of her as a contemporary of Dell Hymes, who recognized that Indian story telling was a form of poetry and art as important as anything T.S. Elliott could produce.

She should also be remembered alongside Stewart Brand, eight years her junior, whose vision of technology and self-expression working hand in hand created the Whole Earth Catalog. Steve Jobs is more remembered today for pairing creativity, authenticity, and innerness with computers. But let’s face it, at heart he was a Stewart Brand rip-off.

Le Guin was born in 1929, a member of the Silent Generation too old for WWI and too young for WWII. She was born a year before Laura Nader and a year after Fredrik Barth, the same year Margaret Mead got her Ph.D. Like many of her generation, she welcomed the baby boomers and their moves towards cultural renovation, neither too young to be fully part of it nor too old to sternly disapprove. Today we think of her as a feminist and a strong female role model, but I don’t think that was always the case. Her fiction often featured mothers and families, and emphasized values of rootedness and family. “I wish I was as strong as a woman” remarks one of her characters somewhere, noting the exhausting nature of domestic work when challenged by someone who see women as frail. At the height of equality feminism, these sentiments seemed retrograde. Indeed, Le Guin uses the male pronoun for her gender-shifting characters in Left Hand of Darkness, something some would have trouble forgiving her for. In the last half century (!) her reputation has, thankfully, shifted back.

Many anthropologists trying to imagine the Redwood Zone today probably think of Open Ticket, the mushrooming community described by Anna Tsing in Mushroom at the End of the World. Indeed, Tsing’s UC Santa Cruz is a very Le Guin place. After all, that’s why the caves at UCSC where people cough used to (still do?) take acid on campus were called the “Tomb of Atuan”. Le Guin’s participation in conferences with Haraway and Tsing was not chance — they are in many ways the inheritors of her habitus.

But only in some ways. Ultimately, Le Guin is irreplaceable. Her voice was lucid and clear. Her impulse was to make trouble. She will live on in our imaginations and in our imaginings, but to fully understand the way she has colonized our consciousness, we need to understand where she herself came from: The Redwood Zone.


One Reply to “Ursula K. Le Guin in the Redwood Zone”

  1. One thing about living in “Redwood Zone.” It really as a sedimented character, also true if you go into neighboring ecologies, which Le Guin certainly did… Le Guin’s pre-psychedelia stratum, (and pre-Le Guin cattle and mining strata… + she had written on her blog recently about her mother’s and her own ties to eastern Oregon) are still there! Everytime I go to Berkeley (first time was I think in 2014), I am bombarded by remembrances from Le Guin novels and essays…

    And BTW the Gethenians in “Winter’s King” are all “she…”