There are sunsets over Portland, Oregon, when the sky turns pink, and Mount St Helens turns the same pale green of glow-in-the-dark objects in direct light. I remember the peak of Mount Hood while driving up Highway 35, strange as a giant moon. Days later, it vanished in Pine Grove from where it loses all shape and turns invisible under a floating cap of snow. From some aspects, there is Broken Top and the Three Sisters’ peaks, overlaid in blues, like the sky has hardened at its base, and is crumbling.
These views were in the late American science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s periphery for the better part of her life. She grew up in California’s Berkeley and Napa Valley, crossing the border shortly after marrying in 1959; she lived in Portland until her death in 2018. They stand at the edges of her work too, in the dramatic, unusual quality of the science fictional worlds she built. Sometimes, they make cameos: a future California’s “Valley of the Na” in Always Coming Home (1985) is a utopian pocket uplifted by indigenous-derived values on a ruined Earth. Portland melts under the influence of a man whose dreams animate reality in The Lathe of Heaven (1971).
Le Guin is often regarded as an environmentalist, and returned to the themes of cultural and planetary transformation and interconnection in her writing. She considered her science fiction more metaphorical than speculative, holding a warped mirror to society and the Anthropocene. This surreal lens, alongside influences from the Tao Te Ching, the Taoist text of which she was a lifelong student, made her perspective on nature poetic. Her fantasy landscapes are intelligent and shapeshifting. These are not departures from but heightenings of reality, and particularly lucid in a place like Oregon. In travelling through the state, I came to experience Oregon as an analogue to Le Guin’s solar system, her influence on my perspective unlocking its environments with the same metaphysics she imparted to her own imagined worlds.
Oregon itself holds many worlds. Driving through the state, they flicker in quick gestures. Lying on the Pacific Northwest coast, there are beaches, but also forests, deserts, canyons, lava fields, floral meadows, wetlands, snowcaps and starscapes. The densely wooded hills line vast stretches of scenic byway and hang over Portland’s northern skyline.
I was travelling through Oregon with Daniel, a guide, and his friend Erich, who had first met four years prior at an apothecary shop in Portland that Daniel and his brother had owned. Both were passionate about the state’s natural attractions and attuned to the subtle characters of its plants, of which they knew many stories and medicinal aspects. Daniel had lived in Oregon all of his life. He seamlessly navigated the roads and landmarks, as if detached from it, but speaking to him seemed to bring me to the precipice of some deeper internal experience. Erich had grown up in the suburbs of Chicago, lived in Colorado, and spent many years in Oregon before moving to Mexico. Erich was a biophile. Spiritually fed by plants, he was almost radically uncool in his warmth and lack of pretence. His return to Oregon was his first in three years.
We headed southwest from Portland toward Yachats early in our journey when the weather was grey. Yachats is a quiet city whose name means “dark water at the foot of the mountain” in the local Siletz. Held up against the town, the coast looks gigantic. Its bungalows lie low like crustaceans. The trees exposed to the ocean are small, too, slim and sparse. Their windblown bodies slant eastward, their hair flies upward to one side.
The environments have a likeness to illustrated science fiction book sleeves in their fanciful scale, shapes and colours. In this spirit, I find myself drawn to them, desiring to sink into their new descriptions upon reality. Frank Herbert, another Pacific Northwest-based science fiction writer, had a similar experience flying over the state’s sand mounds, located directly south of Yachats, which inspired him to write Dune (1965). The drifting sand dunes along the coast were a problem for the state of Oregon through the 19th and 20th centuries, burying train rails and fertile soil while cutting further and further inland through a powerful, relentless coastal throw of wind and water. It was a natural force threatening to “swallow whole cities, lakes, rivers, highways”, Herbert wrote in a letter to his agent.
Despite their scale, we only brushed shoulders with the dunes, Daniel pointing to them from the car window. By the time I had shifted up my seat and turned around, they were gone, but my imagination kept them close to mind. There are marvels beyond what Herbert described in his writings on Oregon’s dunes. For example, the holes boring metres deep beneath their surface – a phenomenon now linked to buried, rotting trees. Their fungi-covered bark forms a cement-like barrier preventing sand filling their decayed hollows, creating long, wide tunnels underground.
It is unclear whether or not Herbert was aware of this curiosity when designing the mouths of Arrakis’ sand worms, but his sense for the landscape’s propulsion and mystery is conveyed by his imaginary planet, where environment itself is the dominating force, and society lives by “the will o’ the sand”.
Our trip played out in a swing of long talks through the night, and quietudes in the face of natural giants through the day. Daniel would sometimes point at plants: balsam, or arrow wheat, yellow and sunflower-like, Indian paintbrush, red; or lupine, a tall wildflower resembling purple wheat. Some were ugly or disturbing, like the profusion of carnivorous Darlingtonia californica protected by a state park, but such perspectives were the kind often challenged by Le Guin. In her stories, what was alien and othered oftentimes concealed ingenuity, or simply another significance of life that does not ask for the human robes of good and bad. Indeed, Le Guin found such attributions in other science fiction writers to be yet another Western instinct to conquer and dominate frontiers. Where genre conventions established tropes, Le Guin posed questions through nuance. Such qualities as orthodox prettiness – the land of Omelas from the eponymous short story, or verdant idylls such as Urras, set in dichotomy to the barren moon Anarres in The Dispossessed – more often concealed ambivalent, violent secrets.
Oregon itself is rarely pretty, and as such, extremely beautiful. The views across the state seem mythical for the complexity of moods and emotions they draw, “at once weird, fascinating, enchanting, repellent, of exquisite beauty and at times terrifying in [their] austere-dignity [sic] and oppressing stillness”, as the former General Superintendent of Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, Mark Daniels, observed of his park a century ago.
Oregon’s western forests are peaceful, and you can sometimes find waterfalls and creeks flowing through white mist. Some forests are covered in moss, heaped on trees like lime-green snow. The atmo-sphere is extremely wet and glistening. Oak, cedar, fir and spruce are common to the west of the Cascade mountain range. The burnt red bark of Ponderosa pine colours the east like a savanna. The sprawl of trees makes an idyllic picture, but Erich reflected that there are very few continuous lots of old-growth forest left in Oregon, attributed in part to the climbing rate of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, but primarily, that over 90% have been logged. The statistic is endemic to a country whose management of forestry falls under its Department of Agriculture. More broadly, as pointed to by Le Guin in The Word for World is Forest – a parable of humans colonising the wooded, pacifist planet of Athshe after timber becomes a scarce commodity on Earth – it is endemic to a race that has named and evaluated its own planet by its terra, its land.
It snows only half the year at Crater Lake National Park, but the whiteness throws its views into an intense, dream-like panorama. The lake itself is a glassy disc that reflects a surrounding mountain range. It is the deepest lake in America, and encompassed by a caldera – a giant bowl of mountain range created through the collapse of Mount Mazama, a volcano which erupted approximately 7,700 years ago. Contained by its basin, the water is extremely blue and pure.
The snow was thick on the encircling cliffs when we visited in spring, but in an unusual heatwave, we walked around in our lightest clothes. Each step threw our legs into knee-deep snow beneath our tread, and on the bright, high peaks of the southwestern rim, the ice was a relief.
“Some landscapes draw you out, out onto the horizon,” Erich said to me. “Oregon is so buried in its topography. It wraps around you. Even on the coast, the mountains are dramatic in their elevation and valleys. Even in the high desert, you’re never really looking out over plains. You’re enshrouded in some environment, and contained.” This felt true from a vantage point as open as Crater Lake National Park’s, where it seemed we were entirely wrapped in sky. We rarely spoke as we walked across the peak, only smiling from time to time in acknowledgement of the touches on our emotions.
Crater Lake National Park is an ancestral homeland of the Native American Klamath Tribes. Their legends tell that the caldera was created through a battle of two Spirit Chiefs. In defeat, one was pushed into the underworld, and its entrance sealed through the collapse of volcanic debris. Bottomless, and storied with deaths and disappearances, the lake’s reflection has the character of an underworld, silently in wait like an unconscious or intuitive body. Some Klamath legends say that there is no water beneath the surface after all.
It is estimated that the land surrounding Crater Lake was a secret of the Native Americans for over 13,000 years before being discovered by white settlers in the 19th century, who displaced the Native Americans through manipulation and violence.
There are fragments of awareness of Native American history and culture across Oregon’s non-indigenous citizens, but fundamentally a disintegration between the two peoples. Today, there are seven Native American reservations in Oregon, belonging to seven of the nine federally recognised Oregonian tribes. In Coos Bay, we had dinner with the city councillor, Lucinda DiNovo, who is also the sales director at The Mill Casino Hotel & RV Park, and the widow of the former Coquille Indian Tribe’s leader, Chief Donald Boyd Ivy.
The most populous city on Oregon’s coast, there are two federally recognised tribes headquartered in Coos Bay alone: the Coquille Indian Tribe, and the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. “This place would be remarkably different if we didn’t have two federally recognised tribes here,” DiNovo reflected. Since founding its Community Fund in 2001, the Coquille Indian Tribe has distributed $8 million in casino proceeds to nonprofits in the surrounding counties, in areas including arts, education, environmental and historic preservation, and public health and safety, uplifting both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples alike.
DiNovo attributed this initiative to the Coquille Indian Tribe’s tradition of potlatch, a value for sharing and gifting that shapes their economic paradigm. The practice is at the heart of the community and they sometimes refer to themselves as a potlatch tribe. DiNovo had gifted me a northern flicker feather when we first met earlier in the evening, blown from glass at a tribe member’s factory, inspired by the tail of the bird, and symbolising friendship and good medicine. Later in the night, she told us stories of places that could not be named or located by non-tribal members. This walk to the wall of sacred lands felt generous and humbling. This worldview of interconnection is forever complicated by a need for self-preservation, but its relational ecology is deeply grounded and faithful.
We said goodbye to Erich at Smith Rock State Park, a cliffy desertscape. The air was hot and dry, and the moon was out in daylight. I walked ahead in a crowd of climbers, couples and families. Some carried dogs tired of the burning ground, or had children already playing in caves a few floors higher. Erich called out to me, handing me a stem he had picked from the sagebrushes. It looked like a flat, greyed branch of rosemary. I never asked him what it meant to him or how he might use sagebrush in medicine. I just put it in my bag to be found weeks later, flat, grey, fragrant still, sweet and small. We left him at the park, waiting for a ride from a friend, his features fading into the warm, blond colours of the canyons.
“It never gets old,” Daniel said later, leaning out over the Columbia River Gorge, a giant chasm through the Earth, originally carved by a flood 15,000 years ago. I had asked what the sight evoked for him as an Oregonian. I was curious to what extent my experience here had been shaped by a lifetime in London. He said that in any given environment, he feels drawn to sit by himself and look out.
“It never gets old,” he said again. “I’m very integrated with it now, but always still in awe.” The river was a whole eyeful wide, and walled by wooded canyons, with small pools of water along its bank. The pools were still, milky blue, veined with dirt in shallow parts and glossy as a geode.
For years after reading The Lathe of Heaven, an image of jellyfish flowing like glowing sleeves of water through the ocean in its opening lines has played through my mind in a similar fashion. A symbol throughout the novel, I only recently learned Le Guin employed the image to represent wu wei, a complex Taoist virtue of non-action pertaining to a life in harmony with environment and other planes of consciousness. In Oregon, I observed the instinct to overthink my relationship to nature as it unfolded around me, forcing an emergence of stories, meanings and conclusions. However, to embrace Le Guin’s perspective is to embrace the transient, slippery quality of both the landscapes of the Earth and mind.
“My mental landscape includes a great deal of forest,” Le Guin reflected in the introduction to The Hainish Novels & Stories, Volume One (2005). She gave much of her writing to humanity’s impact on the environment, but the environment’s reciprocity was inseparable from her worldview. Oregon’s natural features are moving in their scope and beauty, even if, as the American cultural anthropologist Robert H. Winthrop noted when writing on Crater Lake in 1997, Anglo-American travellers lack the cultural modes of Native Indian visitors to yield their messages and lasting understandings. Something bright and shimmering washes – not over – but into you as the coast moves, and as the trees move, and, as Le Guin wrote in Searoad, the clouds “change slowly, melting, ‘til the mind melts among them and changes silently”.
I reached out to both Daniel and Erich a month later. I could not get hold of Daniel, but continued talking with Erich from time to time, who has become a friend. He told me that in the wake of our trip, he had decided to leave Mexico and move back to Oregon to put down roots. He planned to move to Ashland later that summer, a small town that is a sister city with Guanajuato, Mexico, where he was based, and is also mountainous and artistically rich. We had spent 24 hours in Ashland. I remember its warm, low streets, and the Ashland Springs Hotel shooting up into the night sky like an elegant giant: luminous, yellow and enshrouded in mountains and stars.
I said that I can understand the feeling that is drawing him back there, although I am sure that many aspects of his connection are private and richer than I can call on. When I think back to Oregon, I remember an atmosphere that I have not been able to access since, and a gift of places one cannot speak of. They exist beyond a field of words. ◉