The late Ursula Le Guin was a maestro of the terse pungent speech. In 2014, she addressed the National Book Foundation in acceptance of a belated Lifetime Achievement Award. These six minutes went viral. Le Guin’s words feel ever more prescient:
“I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.”
The scope, depth and insight of Le Guin’s work leaves me starstruck. I feel I have only glimpsed it, yet it has had an enduring impact. One of her lesser-known books is a curious ‘Archaeology of the future’ called Always Coming Home. I found it a challenging book to read in the 90s but it has survived many bookshelf clear-outs and still turns up astonishments.
Always Coming Home is by its nature fragmentary, as archaeological finds tend to be. In A First Note comes this sentence:
“The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long, time from now.”
A sentence like this could only be composed by a writer utterly confident of their syntax and imagination. I remember that sentence when I quail at the grammatical exercises in Le Guin’s writers’ guide book, Steering the Craft. It strengthens my unsteady resolve when it comes to old-school grammatical knowledge.
And I remember impressions from the narratives that thread through Always Coming Home. I don’t know if I have blurred this with other works which make an unknowable future more deeply understood. But sometimes when I take the footbridge across the Eastern Freeway, I look down at the cars and imagine a time when we no longer use them, when the asphalt is cracked and overgrown and people inhabit the world in utterly different ways.
The COVID–19 lockdown in Melbourne has contained many moments of eerie quiet. For me it has been a time of wondering – out of all the ‘obsessive technologies’ we have created –what will endure.
Not far from the footbridge is the Yarra River, known by the Wurundjeri First Peoples as Birrarung. The forested area around the river where it meets with the Merri Creek has been my sanity in this time of lockdown and limited freedom. To be amongst hectares of old trees in a city is a privilege, and for most city dwellers, an alarmingly rare opportunity.
I wonder if in the unknowable future we will also need writers who remember trees.
But this is an impossibility, for as eco-philosopher Deborah Bird Rose said of the more than-human-world, “without them, there is no us.”