Sometimes There Just Doesn’t Seem To Be Any Rhyme or Reason …
I have been reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s collection of stories and poems entitled Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences (1990) with the usual rapture that goes with reading her work. The following is from an introduction to a group of “Seven Bird and Beast Poems” followed by the relevant bird poem. Enjoy!
The first [poem] is a joke about one of my favorite kinds of bird, the acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus in Latin, boso in Kesh). They are handsome little woodpeckers, still common in Northern California, splendidly marked, with a red cap, and a white circle around the eye giving them a clown’s mad stare. They talk all the time—the loud yacka-yacka-yacka call, and all kinds of mutters, whirs, purrs, comments, criticisms, and gossip going on constantly among the foraging or housekeeping group. They are familial or tribal. Cousins and aunts help a mated pair feed and bring up the babies. Why they make holes and drop acorns into them when they can’t get the acorns back out of the holes is still a question (to ornithologists—not to acorn woodpeckers). When we removed the wasp- and woodpecker-riddled outer wall of an old California farmhouse last year, about a ton of acorns fell out, all worm-hollowed husks; they had never been accessible to the generations of Bosos who had been diligently dropping them since 1870 or so. But in the walls of the barn are neat rows of little holes, each one with a long Valley Oak acorn stuck in, a perfect fit, almost like rivets in sheet iron. These, presumably, are winter supply.On the other hand, they might be a woodpecker art form. Another funny thing they do is in spring, very early in the morning, when a male wants to assert the tribal territory and/or impress the hell out of some redhead. He finds a tree that makes a really loud sound, and drums on it. The loudest tree these days—a fine example of the interfacing of human and woodpecker cultures—is a metal chimney sticking up from a farmhouse roof. A woodpecker doing the kettledrum reveille on the stovepipe is a really good way to start the day at attention.
What Is Going On in the Oaks Around the Barn
The Acorn Woodpeckers
are constructing an Implacable
Pecking Machine to attack oaks
and whack holes to stack acorns in.
They have not perfected
it yet. They keep cranking
it up ratchet by ratchet
by ratchet each morning
till a Bluejay yells, “SCRAP!”
and it all collapses
into black-and-white flaps and flutters
and redheads muttering curses
in the big, protecting branches.
God, how I miss Ursula and her keen insights!
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)
Here is the complete quote: “People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.”
Ursula K. Le Guin died in January of this year, leaving me bereft of her elfin wisdom. Not entirely, because there are all those books and stories of hers, which I am still plodding my way through. Today, I finished A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994), which contained three short stories that are to my mind the best stories ever written about space travel. They include “The Shobies’ Story,” “Dancing to Ganam,” and “Another Story, or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea.”
That middle initial in her name, the “K,” comes from her father, Anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber. What elevates Ursula from the technoid school of science fiction is her interest in exotic, invented cultures. These are best seen in her Hainish stories, which are my favorites among her works. There is no end to the writing of fantasy stories, but somehow Ursula’s were special. They might be set in the distant future and on distant planets, but they involve real feelings among real beings. As she once said ,“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel … is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.” Well, she wrote those kind of books. In spades.
The Edition of A Fisherman of the Inland Sea That I Read
In the three stories I have mentioned from A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, there are two methods of space travel:
- NAFAL, short for Nearly As Fast As Light. To the space travelers, the time expended in travel does not seem so long, but for those who have been left behind, years or even centuries pass.
- Churten Theory, in which the travel is instantaneous. One could travel to Antares and be back for lunch. Travel via a Churten drive can be highly problematical, however, especially if the people traveling don’t get their stories straight or are incompatible in odd ways. “Wrinkles” in Churten travel can lead to strange results.
I look forward to reading (and maybe re-reading) several more of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work this year.
I’m Going to Miss Her
My two favorite contemporary women authors are Joyce Carol Oates and Ursula K. Le Guin. Both of them are deserving of the Nobel Prize for Literature, but now Ursula won’t be able to show up to collect. She died last night at her home in Portland, Oregon.
I keep trying to find new women writers I like. In fact, I’ve made a concerted effort this month—and I’ve found some good ones, but they’re all European.
Born of a famous anthropologist (the K. of her middle initial stands for Kroeber, as in Alfred Louis Kroeber), Ursula always brought something extra to her novels and stories. There was a bit of the anthropologist in her, too, and it made her best-known novels such as The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), the Earthsea Novels, and the Hainish novels more wise and penetrating than many of her contemporaries. When the New York Times referred to her as “America’s greatest living science fiction writer,” she retorted that she preferred to be known simply as an “American novelist.”
The Library of America has been publishing volumes of her work which I am adding to my reference shelf. After I finish reading her work, I want to start all over again. She’s that good.