Where does one begin with a book like Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home? For me it is so evidently clear that this book pays homage to both her parents, Alfred and Theodora Kroeber.
First published in 1985, Always Coming Home allows us in to Le Guin’s personal philosophy and experience of the world. Le Guin was a powerful and successful writer who didn’t often expose her personal life. If read with care and curiosity, this book, which explores quite intimately her spirituality, her deepest beliefs, so influenced by her youth and her parents and the California Indians, offers a unique window into her psyche.
Reading The Inland Whale after this book reveals how some things in Always Coming Home are lifted almost wholesale from her mother. Theodora Kroeber’s book The Inland Whale is a retelling of stories of the first people. Both parents, Alfred, and Theodora (1897-1979) worked with the California Indians. Alfred Kroeber (1876-1960) was a highly esteemed anthropologist who established the Anthropology Department at UC Berkeley in the early 1900s. His work spanned many years and many continents but a large focus was studying and attempting to understand and preserve the languages and stories of the California Indians.
Theodora was also an anthropologist but, once married to Alfred, she devoted herself to raising their children. Once the children were grown and out of the house, she wrote four books, three of which centered on the California Indians. Two focused on Ishi, a Yahi Indian who was the last of his tribe. But her first book, The Inland Whale, was a gathering of stories she had heard which she wrote to be accessible to the non-Indian without changing their overall content or meaning. The Inland Whale is also one of the stories in the book of the same title which Theodora Kroeber recognizes as an “oral precursor of the novel”(IW 154).
Read Nasty Women Writers post on Theodora Kroeber:
Theodora Kroeber was first told the story, The Inland Whale, by Robert Spott, a Yurok man. Robert Spott spent a lot of time with the Kroebers and worked closely with Alfred. In her essay, “Indian Uncles,” Le Guin shares her memories of him. The Kroebers lived in Berkeley, CA but had a summer home in Napa Valley. Ursula K. Le Guin spent her summers at this place in Napa Valley with her parents and their Indian friends. She was only a girl and quite impressionable while at the same time ignorant of the importance of her parents’ work and who the men were. Her memories and fondness for the home, the place and the ecosystem permeate Always Coming Home. They lend the book a feeling of nostalgia and wonder as well as a deep abiding love for Northern California. This place is stamped onto her soul and she stamps it onto the Kesh, the people who inhabit the village where most of the narratives in Always Coming Home are located.
Of Robert Spott, Theodora Kroeber writes:
“He owns his own home, a small, immaculately kept house in Rekwoi, with a terrace like that of Pekwoi, [a location in The Inland Whale] except that it was not stone paved. From this terrace he looked steeply down onto the mouth of the Klamath River and out over the ocean. His “aunt”, Fanny Flounder, the last of a Yurok line of famous doctors, lived nearby in a house similar to Robert’s. She and I were sitting on her terrace in the sun one day and looking down at the river which had only just broken itself a new opening through the bar. Fanny watched intently as the surf from an incoming tide seemed to push back the river and to overspread the wide river mouth. “You see there what is wrong with the world,” Fanny said to me, pointing to the break-through. “The earth tips too far and the ocean comes up the river. That is not good. Even whales could come into the river when it is this way. It happens because there are not enough Yurok anymore; not enough people dancing and stamping their feet down hard on the earth. That is what used to keep it from tipping, and what kept whales outside where they belong”(IW 152).
Dances are hugely important in the philosophy and traditions of the people of the past-future that Le Guin creates in Always Coming Home. They dance in the seasonal changes, they dance in and with the Sun and the Moon, festivals focused on human sexuality and the continuation of the people. They dance in the creation and renewal of the world. They dance in the making of the wine. The culture she creates dances the world alive and keeps it cycling with their seasonal festivals of dance, with the stomping of their feet upon the earth.
Pandora is the name of the anthropologist who narrates the anthropological portions of the book, who I believe pays homage to her father, Alfred Kroeber. Perhaps Le Guin names her Pandora because anthropologists, like Pandora from Greek myth, with their curious nature, open boxes containing a culture’s secrets which, once opened, inadvertently influence the culture they are curious about. The observers influence the observed. Pandora the narrator has questions about her own work and her participation in possible destructive forces by opening the eye on this culture and making her own observations through her own lens. It is also true that we may know nothing at all about the culture if Pandora had not studied and written about it.
In Always Coming Home, Le Guin informs us that Pandora studies a culture from the past which may also be the future. At certain points Pandora interacts with people she is studying which would make us believe that there are some still alive at the time of her observation, also a nod to her father and his prescient work.
In the essay, “Indian Uncles” written in 1991, six years after Always Coming Home, Le Guin writes:
“The idea that objective observation can be performed only by an observer totally free of subjectivity involves an ideal of inhuman purity which we now recognize as being, fortunately, unattainable. But the dilemma of the subjective practitioner of objectivity persists, and presents itself to anthropologists in its most acute and painful form: the relationship between observer and observed when both of them are human. Novelists, people who write about people, have the same moral problem, the problem of exploitation, but we rarely face it in so stark a form. I’m awed at the courage of any scientist who admits it in all its intractability” (782 ACH).
The Philosophy of the Heyiya
The novel, Always Coming Home alternates between a main narrative by a woman named Stone Telling, anthropological writings and observations by Pandora, poetry, mythology and stories gathered from the culture, as well as other testimonials recorded by residents of the villages. It takes place after there has been a cataclysm on the earth and the coastline of California has moved to Napa Valley or the Valley of Na in the book.
Stone Telling is Kesh and lives in the village of Shinshan. The Kesh are peaceable, matrilocal people, meaning the houses are passed down through the mother line and the women are the ones who decide who can live there. Romantic and sexual relationships are seen as fluid and changing. The only bond that is solid and permanent is between a parent and a child. There is no differentiation between humans and animals, they are all people. Stones are also alive.
The main philosophy revolves around spiraling energy and the center space between two intersecting spirals which is called Heyiya-if: the hinged spiral. Out of this still center of nothing emerges everything. It is also a space of respite and silence. It is creativity and creator, source and all. The Hinge is also a philosophy of transitions, connections and ongoing engagement and separation. Hinge times and spaces are highly charged and important.
The word iya means hinge. Heyiya is life hinge.
The village is organized by houses or clans, 5 earth and 4 sky, with associated heyimas which are characterized by color, direction, element, purpose and function. The heyimas (temple, church, shrine, lodge) are buildings sunk deep into the earth with only their roofs above ground.
“The material manifestation of each of the Five Houses in each of the nine towns was the heyimas. Finding all such translations as church, temple, shrine, lodge misleading, I use the Kesh word in this book. It is formed of the elements heya, heyiya—the connotations of which include sacredness, hinge, connection, spiral, center, praise, and change—and ma, house.
The heyiya-if, two spirals centered upon the same (empty) space, was the material or visual representation of the idea of heyiya. Varied and elaborated in countless ways, the heyiya-if was the choreographic and gestural element in dance, and the shape of the stage and the movement of the staging in drama were based upon it; it was an organizational device in town planning, in graphic and sculptural forms in decoration, and in the design of musical instruments; it served as a subject of meditation and as an inexhaustible metaphor. It was the visual form of an idea which pervaded the thought and culture of the Valley”(ACH 65 ).
The Kesh is not a society based around religion, rather the sacred. And what is sacred is life energy and the still center of the hinge, iya, that generates it. There are ways to interact with this energy and those are codes to live by but not laws. They are codes to be a whole person if you choose to. If you choose not to, there is no shame to you.
The “work” of a person is often assigned according to which heyimas they belong to. The heyimas is a separate identification outside of the familial bonds. Therefore people ‘belong” in multiple ways. Many of the villagers are given the rights to tend to certain crops, fields or trees from which they attain their livelihood. All is provided or attained through trade. Villagers have three different names as they mature through the stages of life.
The Kesh and other valley cultures Le Guin creates are based partly on Native American beliefs and the anthropological studies of her parents but also other indigenous cultures, including the Goddess and women-centered cultures of Neolithic Europe. I also recognize rites from other mythologies from around the globe including Minoan Crete and Classical Greece. Le Guin was steeped in classical history and myth. It is an intermingling of all of these together with her imagination.
See Nasty Women Writers posts on Ursula K. Le Guin:
In Always Coming Home Le Guin writes out the creation myths and other myths for this culture. Coyote, bear and hawk feature big. She doesn’t feel the need to have the stories make perfect sense. Like many stories left us from older times, some are warnings and some are moral. She also inserts one chapter of a full-length novel, Dangerous People, a valley novel, stating that was all that was found of it. I read the part of the novel and loved it. Having the skill and guts to do that as a writer is something I admire. Years later she completed the novel and that was included in the back of the Library of America version of Always Coming Home that I bought. I read the rest of Dangerous People hungrily but truly I didn’t need it. It was fine on its own. Everything does not need to be wrapped up. Fragments are sometimes enough.
The back of the book has explanations, definitions, and a glossary. There are also charts, descriptions of what they ate, what they believed, recipes, table manners, songs, musical instruments, detailed descriptions of the dances, medical practices and beliefs, as well as the Kesh alphabet.
“White Tree,” a story from the Eight Life Stories section, is about a man who spent his life working with the trees. Within this story is a footnote about Kesh views on teaching and learning which is quite lovely. The Kesh learned with others rather than from. “Learning is not a transfer of something by someone to someone, but is a relationship. Moreover, the relationship is considered to be reciprocal”(323). The Fairweather Pear that White Tree hybridized was considered to be developed out of a collaboration with the pear tree.
The Visionary’s Story
Hawk showed Flicker the truth of the universe. She, Flicker, first named Berry, goes into a stone— serpentine—in the 9th house of Still Air and is given this vision.
“It was the universe of power. It was the network, field, and lines of the energies of all the beings, stars, galaxies of stars, worlds, animals, minds, nerves, dust, the lace and foam of vibration that is being itself, all interconnected, every part part of another part and the whole part of each part, and so comprehensible to itself only as a whole, boundless and unclosed.
At the Exchange it is taught that the electrical mental network of the City extends from all over the surface of the distances among the stars: in the vision, all that vast web was one momentary glitter of light on one wave on the ocean of the universe of power, one fleck of dust on one grass-seed in unending fields of grass. The images of the light dancing on the waves of the sea or on dust motes, the glitter of light on ripe grass. The flicker of sparks from a fire are all I have: no image can contain the vision, which contained all images. Music can mirror it better than words can, but I am no poet to make music of words. Foam and the scintillation of mica in rock, the flicker and sparkle of waves in dust, the working of the great broadcloth looms, and all dancing, have reflected the hawk’s vision for a moment to my mind; and indeed everything would do so, if my mind were clear and strong enough. But no mind or mirror can hold it without breaking”(343).
In “The Visionary: Life Story of Flicker of the Serpentine of Telina-na,” another of The Eight Life Stories, Flicker is able to see the dead. She has seen them all her life but didn’t understand until later. Her gift was so powerful that others envied her, though she did not know at the time. She comes to realization there is no death and all is here now.
“Somebody has to open the door”(358), she says later when she finally acknowledged that was her role— to open the door between the dead and the living. She leaves her story behind for those who have a similar gift to help them understand.
The narrative of Stone Telling
Stone Telling became Stone Telling later in life because she had a unique story to tell. Her child name was North Owl. Her father was a man of the Condor, a restless warring tribe of people who wandered the land and robbed the villages of their resources through warfare and intimidation. In the North was their city where women had no rights and lived underground always, waiting on the men. Women were not allowed to read. North Owl does not know this about them until she is older. She only knows that she is the child of her mother, a Kesh woman and a man of the Condor .
As a child she does not know what this means but she knows that her father is not present and is spoken about in hushed tones when she is around and behind her back when she is gone. He is described as a man who belongs to no one. This means he lacks association with a heyimas. When she is eight, he returns and turns her mother into a woman she has never known. A woman in love and a woman loved. He lives with them for a time and acts as a father, then he must leave again. North Owl loses him twice. At this, his second exit, the mother revokes all connection to him and tells him to never return. He is saddened by this response but goes away anyway. This makes North Owl restless and angry and unable to find her place or purpose in the village.
When North Owl is old enough, her father returns and she leaves with him. She has no idea what she is in for until she arrives at the City of Man and is forced into the life of a woman of the Condor. She hardly sees her father and lives there many years, marrying a Condor man and bearing a child.
Finally she realizes she must flee and begins an arduous journey back to the Valley to become the only woman who escapes the Condor alive. The Condor are written in almost cardboard satire of what have come to be called patriarchal religions, tribes and civilizations. They are obsessed with warfare and making weapons only they make them out of human shit and bungle the dispersal.
Stone Telling’s story is classic Le Guin exploring differing cultures and what creates them. What makes a person restless, wandering, what wounds, what heals, what creates a hardened heart, and what leads to forgiveness? All this inhabits a culture and offers meaning or doesn’t.
The theme of coming home permeates Le Guin’s books and poetry. Coming home to herself, coming home to her soul but also, in the book Always Coming Home, coming home to her parents, to her origin, to her place on this earth. It’s all as one for her. Coming home for humans too, to the earth. She was so deeply imprinted. It is all here. Her heart is in this book.
I close with a poem from her book of poems, Late in the Day, published in 2015.
The Dream Stone By Ursula K. Le Guin
Seeking the knowledge I only know I lost,
I take the intangible into my hand
to pay the price of what is past all cost.
It is a grey stone lying on my palm.
Its even substance deepens into a mist
and in it moves a fire, contained and calm,
as in a cloudy opal or a hummingbird’s
rose-turquoise breast. These soft colored flames
speak in their motion without sound or words,
to tell me what it was I knew and lost.
By this remembrance blest, I understand
that I am free, and have come home at last.
I wake to find that I have paid the cost.
I wake to look into my empty hand.
Ursula K. Le Guin is a Nasty Woman Writer.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2023
Le Guin, Ursula K. Always Coming Home. Author’s Expanded Edition, The Library of America. 2019. First published 1985.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Late in the Day: Poems 2010-2014. PM. Press 2015.
Kroeber, Theodora. The Inland Whale: Nine Stories Retold from California Indian Legends. University of California Press. 1959.