Not so long ago, the late Ursula K. Le Guin posed a question, and suggested an answer, that I’ve been unable to shake from my mind since. “What does it feel like to be an oak?,” she asked, before setting loose the vivid, free-roaming speculation for which her writing has long been cherished:
Large, for one thing; lively, but quiet, and not very flexible, except at the tips, out there, in the sunlight. And deep – very deep – roots going down in the dark…. To live rooted, to be two hundred years in one place, unmoving, yet traveling immensely through the seasons [like] dreams.
The passage is a reflection on age and agedness – a way of making visible the processes of being old (and growing old) in a society unwilling to acknowledge slowness and seeming fragility as natural. At the back of this quiet defiance (this attempt to make room), however, is a wider perception and argument. Le Guin, it seems to me, is deliberately striking a radical chord: in that she proposes rootedness in the natural world (in this case, the imagined life and memory of an oak tree) as well as receptivity to its rhythms and cycles as a starting point for her own self-examination as a writer; and in the political sense of being a subversive of established institutions and modes of thought, including the literary variety. Simply by asking the question that she does, Le Guin exposes the arrogance of its imagined retort (that oaks don’t feel anything, for example), and so upends, with utter lightness and humour, more than a few presumptions of the late capitalistic civilization in which as an artist she is embedded. “Capitalism”, she elaborates in another note, “ceases to exist if it is not expanding its empire”:
[It] establishes an ever-moving frontier and its young conquistadors forever pursue El Dorado. You cannot be too rich, they cry…. Living in a world that is valued only as gain, an ever-expanding world-as-frontier that has no worth of its own, no fullness of its own, as a writer you live in danger of losing your own worth to yourself. That's when you begin to listen to the voices from the other side, and ask questions of failure and the dark.
Oak roots, I imagine, grow strong and deep in “the dark” that Le Guin intuits here, and in any case it’s telling that she would ground her own artistic aspirations in such a space and reality, where the earth has voice, as well as feeling.
As above, across the spectrum of her books Le Guin’s eloquence is winning, her imaginative reach and warmth as a literary thinker close to incomparable (Arundhati Roy is the only other contemporary figure I can think of who exemplifies similar qualities, and to incisive effect). Perhaps what most distinguishes her outlook and approach, however, is the consciousness of human complexity that suffuses her work, in all its bright-shining variety. “The King was pregnant”, we learn near the beginning of The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel that explores the combined difficulty and necessity of trust between two characters whose stories interlace on a planet named Winter (or Gethen), populated by hermaphrodites and fraught, in its politics, with Machiavellian tension. In The Lathe of Heaven, examining the potentially terrifying ramifications of the fact that human dreams can make and re-make the world, the character Orr observes, perhaps too late, that “a conscious mind must be part of the whole intentionally and carefully – as a rock is part of the whole unconsciously”: (literary?) consciousness without (political or ethical) conscience, Le Guin implies, is a dangerous mix. A similar clarity of understanding arrives at the close of another story, when we encounter Laia, who stands as a kind of mother figure for a historic revolution now passed, its potential still to be realised in full:
But will you drag civilization down into the mud? cried the shocked, decent people, later on, and she had tried for years to explain to them that if all you had was mud, then if you were God you made it into human beings, and if you were human you tried to make it into houses where human beings could live. But nobody who thought he was better than mud would understand. Now, water seeking its level, mud to mud, Laia shuffled through the foul, noisy street, and all the ugly weakness of her old age was at home.
What makes Le Guin’s luminous, socially exploratory fictions so compelling, and what distances them from the 2-D sloganeering all-too-typical of leftist discourses, both literary and political, is that they stem from an understanding of relatedness and connection, diversity and change, yearning and creative possibility, as the conditions of human life – available for exploitation or nurturing, as they case may be. All of the imaginary figures above are real people, vulnerable to physical harm and mortality, emotional pride and sexual longing, as well as beautiful mutuality with and within the ecosystems through which they move.
The inverse, however, is also true. Le Guin’s great appeal as a writer is her unwavering recognition of the imagination itself as a political tool, with the result that she is unafraid to accept the responsibilities attendant on the labour of imagining that engages her personally. In other words, she rejects the idea of literature as a politically agnostic endeavour, assuming from the outset that human fictions, however fantastical, have human implications. In the preface to The Word for World in Forest, she is thus explicit in relating the intricately realised tale of ecocide and colonial aggression that follows to the patterns and abuses of power in her own time. The story was written in 1968, she explains,
a bitter year for those who opposed the [Vietnam] war. The lies and hypocrisies redoubled; so did the killing. Moreover, it was becoming clear that the ethic which approved the defoliation of forests and grainlands and the murder of non-combatants in the name of ‘peace’ was only a corollary of the ethic which permits the despoliation of natural resources for private profit, or the GNP, and the murder of the creatures of the Earth in the name of ‘man’. The victory of the ethic of exploitation, in all societies, seemed as inevitable as it was disastrous…. It was from such pressures, internalised, that this story resulted.
The “imagination is an essential means of becoming and remaining human”, Le Guin concludes elsewhere, with the added emphasis that while it is “not a weapon” in itself, “all weapons originate from it, and use or non-use of all weapons depends on it.”
All of which, I think, flows to the heart of the opening quotation in this sketch. To view native woodland (two hundred years old) feelingly, rather than as one more zone of profit-in-the-making for the commercial forestry or real estate industries, and at the same time to pivot such feeling away from the egotism and self-admiring mellifluousness so rampant in contemporary Anglophone Nature Writing, surely constitutes a small, but by no means minor act of literary rebellion, and a challenge. Reading Le Guin, I’m reminded that the incorporation of Ireland into Britain’s empire and network of global commerce was accompanied by (indeed, effected through) the felling of oak groves and native forests, and the quelling of the Irish language as a repository for their lore and history. Similarly today, the lush rainforests of the Amazon, the ancient olive trees of Palestine, are being torn from the roots, their indigenous populations cast aside, as multinational capitalism and Israeli settler-colonialism, respectively, continue their meticulous rampage. To wonder as Le Guin does, “What does it feel like…”, in any of these scenarios is very quickly to find yourself delving into issues of violence and silence, complicity and redress. Soon, the original inquiry re-surfaces in an altered form: “What is to be done?”
And that is a question we can only answer with our full powers of feeling intact.