Up The Road: The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin

May 23, 2018


Ursula Kroeber Le Guin
Credit Jack Liu

We head up the road this week to remember Berkeley-born Ursula K. Le Guin, award-winning novelist, poet, essayist, and science fiction writer, who died at age 88 in January of 2018. A wonderful companion on California road trips if there ever was one. Since I heard the news I feel I’ve been mourning a long-time friend. I know I will miss having her in the world—my world, this world—for a very long time.

Definitely a latecomer among fans of her groundbreaking science fiction, I became a fan girl after first reading some essays and then her magnificent California novel, Always Coming Home, an imaginative “archaeology of the future” set in a landscape suspiciously similar to California. But in the world of the Kesh people, Nevada is underwater (it’s called the Omorn Sea) and San Francisco and the Central Valley, north and south, have disappeared under the Western Ocean.


But it’s not as if we who are here, now, are completely gone. Characters paddling from here to there, above what we know as the Bay Area, can still see, far below, deep underwater, skyscrapers, bridges, and other remnants of ancient civilization, barnacles, seaweed, and all. If you didn’t already know Ursula K. Le Guin was the daughter of an insightful anthropologist and an evocative writer, Always Coming Home might clue you in. 


The question people ask most often, Le Guin often said, is what she remembered of Ishi, popularly known as “the last wild Indian,” though of course he wasn’t wild at all; he had come from complex, longstanding cultures, ones that all but died during his lifetime.


Ursula K. Le Guin
Credit Marian Wood Kolisch

The short answer: She remembered nothing, because Ishi died 13 years before she was born. The longer answer: She remembered as much as possible, if indirectly. Her father, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, befriended Ishi when he was found, starving, mourning, and alone, in an Oroville slaughterhouse corral. Ishi lived at UC Berkeley’s anthropology museum, then located in San Francisco, until he died of tuberculosis. Kroeber was grief-stricken—over and over again, he met and befriended impressive individuals who were the last of their peoples—and after Ishi’s death he took leave of anthropology. Too much grief, finally. But he did return to California ethnology at the end of his life, to support California tribes in their legal fight against the U.S. government for legal restoration of their lands and reparations. Her father wouldn’t speak about Ishi unless asked, and wouldn’t write about him either. So that task fell to her mother, Theodora Kroeber, author of Ishi in Two Worlds and Ishi, Last of His Tribe.


Ursula, the youngest of the Kroebers’ four children, didn’t know Ishi, but in her essay Indian Uncles she shared her family’s long relationships with two Native Americans she did know—describing, among these details, how Robert Spott built a stone fireplace, in the style and orientation of a Yurok meditation shelter, outside at the family’s small ranch in the Napa Valley, that outdoor fireplace a sacred place then and now, the center of their world. 


I became acquainted with Ursula K. Le Guin much later, of course, as a reader and as a writer focused primarily on California, a professional student of California. It was some shock to discover that she had already said all that that needed to be said about the place, in her essay World-Making, just a handful of paragraphs. I was thrilled when she agreed to let me use those words as a foreword for my Northern California book. Someone already knew—so well!—the world I thought I’d discovered and then described, with more than 900 pages of my own words:

Only knowing that we must have a past to make a future with, I took what I could from the European-based culture of my own forefathers and mothers, she wrote. I learned, like most of us, to use whatever I could, to filch an idea from China and steal a god from India, and so patch together a world as best I could. But still there is a mystery. This place where I was born and grew up and love beyond all other, my world, my California, still needs to be made. To make a new world you start with an old one, certainly. To find a world, maybe you have to have lost one. Maybe you have to be lost. The dance of renewal, the dance that made the world, was always danced here at the edge of things, on the brink, on the foggy coast.