Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Always Coming Home

In her acceptance speech when awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in November 2014, Ursula Le Guin said:

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality. (The Wind’s Twelve Quarters and the Compass Rose, 2015, ix)

Le Guin has been one of those visionary writers herself, and perhaps never more so than in her book Always Coming Home. Published in 1985 it is hardly recent, yet it imagines a future society—the Kesh—living in a radically altered world, long after the ‘hard times’ which are coming, and happening, now. As Le Guin writes, by way of explanation: ‘The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California’. Thus, it was, and still is, a book ahead of its time.

I first learned about Always Coming Home in an article by Sharon Blackie, in which she describes it as one of the few science-fiction, post-apocalyptic novels that tells of a society that she would willingly live in, because ‘it offered a world that was built on strong, caring community’ (What Comes After Civilisation? – The Wild Women Versus the Wild Men). Reading this, and because I already love and admire the work of Le Guin, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy.

Perhaps what struck me most about the book was the animistic relationship the Kesh have with the land around them, conveyed most eloquently through their language, and their unique perception of the world (which is clearly inspired in part by Native American culture and philosophy, but also contains Le Guin’s own distinctive form of wisdom). For instance, to the Kesh the word ‘people’ is applied to nonhumans as much as to humans; so there are quail people, coyote people, woodrat people, oak people, and so on. (If we saw all creatures as people, we would treat them differently, no?)

Most beautifully, they call death ‘Going Westward to the Sunrise’, and a series of songs are sung for the dead or dying, to send them on their way; when a child is born it is said that the girl/boy made so and so their parents, not that so and so had a girl/boy; feathers are considered to be words, and therefore accepted with reverence as gifts or messages from the birds; and when a person is in the presence of something holy, or that fills them with awe, they say (and often repeat) the sacred word: ‘Heya’.

Names are also of great significance to the Kesh, and most of them have a number of names throughout their lives. Names that are not just given by parents, but that come to them, or are found, due to life experiences, happenings, or visions. As a person grows and changes, so does their name. The character of the main story, Stone Telling, says:

In [the town of] Sinshan babies’ names often come from birds, since they are messengers. In the month before my mother bore me, an owl came every night to the oak trees called Gairga outside the windows of High Porch House, on the north side, and sang the owl’s song there; so my first name was North Owl. (7)

If you are familiar with Le Guin’s Earthsea series, then you will know that names are of vital importance in those books too. In that world people have an everyday, ‘use name’ (which is the name their parents give them, or a nickname they acquire, known to everyone), as well as a ‘true name’, given to them in adolescence by a witch or wizard skilled in naming (known to the namer, the named, and perhaps never disclosed to anyone else, unless they are truly trusted). This true name usually reveals something about the character or qualities of the person, and therefore fits them (perhaps you could call it a soul name). A true name is also a word in the Old Speech and therefore contains great power. Wizards can control someone or something if they know their or its true name; this is the basis of all magic in the world of Earthsea. 

I love the way the Kesh imbue meaning in their names, many of which are related to the natural world. To be called something that embodies some aspect of yourself or your life, or indeed, the wider world—to be Morning Star, Flicker, Lark Rising or Mooncarder—seems so much more authentic than the way we generally use names.

Further, Kesh culture, being animistic, is shamanistic, which I find fascinating. They practice vision quests, drumming, trance dancing, fasting, dreamwork, speaking with nonhumans, and use song and chanting for healing (alongside more conventional medicines)—all spiritual practices that are common in nature-based societies, and that we need to relearn in our own culture. 

Also in common with most nature-based societies, they define wealth by how much is given, not how much is gained or accumulated; to be wealthy is to be generous—a moral position quite foreign in our modern world.

The culture that Le Guin has created in Always Coming Home is indeed extraordinary, and does provide an example of an alternative way of being, a strong, soulful community in close relationship with the natural world, embracing the great mystery that is life, and for this it is truly inspiring. Like Sharon Blackie, I too would willingly live in the world of the Kesh.

To end, I wish to share with you a few wise quotes that particularly resonated with me, all taken from Stone Telling’s story, which is told in three parts throughout the book, surrounded by poems, songs, myths, histories and other cultural lore.  

On authenticity and the true self:

As a kitten does what all other kittens do, so a child wants to do what other children do, with a wanting that is as powerful as it is mindless. Since we human beings have to learn what we do, we have to start out that way, but human mindfulness begins where that wish to be the same leaves off. (29)

On knowing and unknowing:

We have to learn what we can, but remain mindful that our knowledge not close the circle, closing out the void, so that we forget that what we do not know remains boundless, without limit or bottom, and that what we know may have to share the quality of being known with what denies it. What is seen with one eye has no depth. (29)

On the importance of using our hands in collaboration with our minds:

Nothing we do is better than the work of handmind. When mind uses itself without the hands it runs the circle and may go too fast; even speech using the voice only may go too fast. The hand that shapes the mind into clay or written word slows thought to the gait of things and lets it be subject to accident and time.  (175)

The cover illustration above is by Mike van Houten; the beautiful illustrations from within the book are by Margaret Chodos.


  1. I love that book, and you have reviewed it so beautifully here.

    1. Thank you, sarah. It's a stunning book, and should be more well-known than it is.


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