instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

The Clueless Eater

Balance and Ursula K. Le Guin

View of an ancient fountain in a courtyard in Pompeii.
Courtyard in Pompeii.


You might think "The Clueless Eater" is a strange place to talk about Ursula K. Le Guin, but I studied with Ursula, who passed away this week at the age of eighty-eight, and her work is broad enough to encompass the ideas explored here over the years. Truthfully, any writer who read her work or paid any attention to her craft has been strongly influenced by her, not only for the care with which she approached the written word, but her care for other writers.


The New Yorker recently published an article by Siddhartha Mukherjee about the decline of his father in old age. He used the term "homeostasis," wherein the body is able to maintain a stable internal environment, even when faced with changing external conditions. As his father's body began to fail, it lost this ability, and his father began falling down.


I was not that close to Ursula – there are many writers who kept up lively correspondences with her – but I do have one story that only writer Molly Gloss witnessed.


One year, we were all teaching at the Flight of the Mind Writers Conference, held somewhere on the wild McKenzie River. It was a lovely conference, and I am still in touch with a number of writers who attended. However, I was trying to meet a deadline for my third novel, and suffered from lack of sleep. In this fog, walking back to our cabins in the dark one night, I began to disparage sheep as unintelligent. I might even have used the word "stupid," because I had once considered keeping sheep for wool when we lived in a small town in Western Colorado. But I had read a book on sheep husbandry and convinced myself that they required too much attention or they would drown in a ditch.


After considering my case, Ursula and Molly slowly began to refute me as too harsh on the poor animals. Finally, Ursula stopped and fixed me with her steady brown gaze and said, "I'll speak for the sheep."


And this about sums up Ursula's relationship with the world. Ever ready to speak up for the maligned, the weak, the seemingly lesser creature, she was not going to let me go to bed thinking I was superior to a sheep. To her, we all held our ground in creation, each a necessary part of the whole.


To that end, I've noticed that the recent accolades mostly discuss Ursula's early books. If you have not read it, may I recommend her last novel. Lavinia is a 2008 Locus Award-winner, although it hardly qualifies as science fiction. It relates the life of a minor character in Virgil's epic poem, the Aeneid. The daughter of the local leader, she watches as the invaders debark from their ships and burn them to the waterline. Lavinia is married off to the leader, Aeneid, to keep the peace. In the original, Lavinia doesn't speak, but in Ursula's re-imagining of the founding of Rome, Lavinia, as a ghostly spirit, lives one more time in the imaginings of a good man.


This is such a complicated point of view, I can only call it an intimate third person. Ursula invented it to produce one of her greatest novels. Lavinia is that peace-maker, the one who, by giving credit to others, using their voices, maintains the equilibrium of a healthy body, a small community that gives birth to the civilization of Rome.


 If Ursula had any religious inclinations, it was this: That the universe is of a whole, and we must constantly strive to maintain a balance within it, like the homeostasis of Mukherjee's article. We are active participants in this balance, and need to be ever compassionate, ever vigilant, making sure that even the softest voice can be heard.



Be the first to comment

Books I read in 2017

Ten Books I read in 2017
Books I read in 2017

History, poetry, geography, finding familiar sounds and rhythms in the language of others – these are a few of my favorite things. Colson Whitehead reminds us again how brilliant he is, Sherman and Claire write brave memoirs reminding us that their success as adults did not come out of an easy place, with helicopter parents meeting their basic needs. Julie Salverson documents the secret of a horrendous crime inflicted on First Nations people in Canada, and how they chose to respond, along with her own secrets. Emmy Perez and Laura Da’ stitch us to the land with words, while Lauret Savoy and Coll Thrush make us look again to see what we missed the first time. Isabel Quintero shows how difficult high school can be in its own right, yet offer shelter from impossible home situations. Rosalie Morales Kearns’ near future novel, in which women say ya, basta! could not be timelier.  Read More 
Be the first to comment

An anchor

Trees on our property
This is the northwest corner of our property, facing south.

On the far left is a cedar cultivar we planted after a hundred-foot Douglas fir fell during a windstorm, its roots weakened by laminated root rot. We were lucky that it missed the house when it fell, and a neighbor volunteered to cut it up and haul it away for firewood.

Over the next couple of years, a madrone that had been intimately involved with the Doug fir slowly died, having been partially uprooted in the fall. It never quite recovered. We had to remove it, too, and now salal has spread to occupy the space and light once occupied by those two trees. The cultivar will never get as tall as the Doug fir, but it promises to fill out and provide screening from the street.

West of the salal is a younger madrone, leaning for the light,  Read More 
Be the first to comment


Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape

By Lauret Savoy
Counterpoint, 2015

This book was recommended to me by Donna Miscolta when it first came out. I was too busy at the time to read it, but I just finished it a few days ago and have to share my joy.

Savoy, an environmental sciences and geology professor at Mount Holyoke College, travels the land with the keen eye of a scientist and the sensitive heart of a memoirist. Each place she pauses, she leads us in catching our breath and examining the land for its ancient presence, “grounding” us in the landscape before turning to her personal connections, or disconnections, to the land.  Read More 
Be the first to comment

Bed Time

While some gardeners are putting their beds to sleep for the season, mine is just warming up! Yellow beets gave way to snow peas. Snow peas gave way to red cabbage. I’ve got a second, sweeter crop of carrots, new crops of broccoli and chard, and every other day I harvest a few potatoes. I tried to grow blue ones, but I must have picked up the wrong starts at Bainbridge Gardens! I made soup with them the other night along with a cup of dried nettles picked earlier this year at Suquamish.

We had a hot, dry summer in the Northwest, punctuated by bad air from fires to the north, east, and south. Some days were apocalyptically bad, with the worst air I have tried to breathe since leaving smog-filled San Bernardino in the 1970s. But the plants loved the days of endless sunlight, rare up here.

Fall means  Read More 
Be the first to comment

REC - Resources, Education, Compassion

Mount Tahoma and ferry from Bainbridge during the eclipse
Like many of you, I have been watching the news and worrying about friends and family in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. People are struggling to keep their families safe, and circumstances are bringing out the heroic in others. Meanwhile, the recent wildfires in British Columbia and the Western United States have produced the worst air  Read More 
Post a comment

Culinary Arts and Local Food

For years and years, my husband and I have visited a magic place on the Washington coast called the Shelburne Inn. It was first recommended by a friend of the chef at the restaurant, but we soon fell in love not only with the food and the brilliant, clean light sweeping up and down the wide beaches, but with innkeepers Laurie Anderson and David Campiche. Laurie always appears calm and collected in the midst of the storm. David is always happy to slip away for a moment for a glass of beer or wine. In my book The Deepest Roots, I credit them with making me aware of the abundance of local food that can be grown, purchased or foraged year-round in Washington State. David grew up on the Long Beach Peninsula, and met Laurie when she got her father’s truck stuck in the deceptively soft sand on the beach. Read More 
Be the first to comment

Vending Veggies

Sam Lillie of Veggie Vinder with giant kale leaf. or is that Swiss Chard?
At a reading from The Deepest Roots in Port Townsend, Washington, at the Imprint Bookstore, I met food purveyor Sam Lillie. His business is called Veggie Vinder.

-First of all, did you grow up in Port Townsend? If not, why did you choose to locate here?

I'm originally from San Diego. I moved to Port Townsend in December of 2015 about a month after I finished thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. It took five months to complete and, because I solo hiked, I spent the majority of it alone. I returned to San Diego but felt claustrophobic from the amount of people. I have family in Port Townsend and was offered a place to stay while I transitioned back into the "real" world. It's been perfect. I get to wake up, have coffee, see deer, and be a part of such an incredible community. I applied to, and was rejected from, 106 companies across 4 states before starting Vinder.  Read More 
Post a comment

The Earth is Flat

Breaking Ground on the Sound to Olympics Trail
The Earth is Flat

It seemed like a good idea at the time. A non-motorized trail that would run all the way from the ferry terminal to the Olympic Peninsula, providing a safe way for bicyclists, wheelchairs, and pedestrians to get closer to the ground. Wilderness would be accessible to all, and cars would be kept in their place. I supported it. I thought it would maintain a green corridor through the middle of the island.

This was a case of “be careful what you wish for.”  Read More 
Post a comment

"Another World is Possible"

I was thrilled and humbled to walk with upwards of 100,000 people in the Womxns March Seattle last Saturday. 50,000 had been expected by the organizers.

Women of all ages, colors, religious backgrounds and agendas turned out to say we have better things to do than help this man take away our rights - to education,  Read More 
Be the first to comment