Ursula Le Guin: Always Coming Home

always-coming-home-2016Ursula Le Guin

Always Coming Home

1985, republished by SF Masterworks in 2016

Always Coming Home is a wonderful book but it challenges easy categorisation. Like most of Le Guin’s work, it belongs somewhere in the ‘science fiction and fantasy’ area, but there’s very little science in it and even less fantasy. It is not even a novel, nor a collection of short stories, but an anthology including short stories, poems, play-scripts, an excerpt from a novel, myths and (the longest item) an autobiography.

Between them, they give us a richly textured introduction to a rich, exotic culture – much as an anthology of Kazakh folk tales and literature might do. But which culture?

Le Guin introduces it thus: “The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California. The main part of the book is their voices speaking for themselves. … The difficulty of translation from a language that doesn’t yet exist is considerable, but there’s no need to exaggerate it. The past, after all, can be quite as obscure as the future. … The fact that it hasn’t yet been written, the mere absence of a text to translate, doesn’t make all that much difference.”

The people are the Kesh, and they live in small communities, farming and hunting, celebrating a cycle of seasonal festivals, enjoying visits from groups travelling players, and so on. Their technological level is roughly equivalent to that of early twentieth century America or Australia, but they have chosen to remain at that level for centuries, a choice entirely in keeping with the balance they have maintained with the resources of their land.

By the end of the book, the reader feels like a traveller who has spent enough time in a new country to feel comfortable there and, in my case at least, is keen to visit again. It’s a nice place, with a great sense of community and a carefully managed work/life balance. One key to its success is a worldview (I hesitate to call it a religion) which sees ‘human people’ as just one kind of ‘people’ among many, each with particular roles to play in the landscape.

But Le Guin, as always, is using her fiction not merely to entertain but to illuminate our own reality. What would it be like to live in a community where women were the acknowledged heads of the household? What would it be like to live in a society where sex is treated as openly and non-judgementally as carpentry? Where everything is somewhat sacred but dogma is unknown? Where there is no concept of ‘progress’ but everyone knows that life is good and happily expects that it will continue the same way?

In the hands of a lesser writer, the whole project might have been stiflingly didactic but the answers emerge naturally from the vivid stories before we’ve even thought of asking the questions. To me now, the most important questions are about sustainability. Thirty years ago in America, when the book was new, they may have been about feminism or alternatives to monotheism or capitalism. But that’s the beauty of travel: we encounter different ways of thinking about all sorts of things, and can adopt whatever we find valuable.

A new local gecko

young morning gecko
Mourning gecko

I spotted this little lizard on the trunk of our poplar gum a fortnight ago and took photos because I had never seen one quite like it before. Its size (3.5 – 4 cm) and proportions told me it was only a baby, and its feet and smooth skin told me it was a gecko, but its markings are not at all like the two geckos we usually see here, the Dtella and its nearly identical Asian rival.

A little research allowed me to identify it as a Mourning Gecko, Lepidodactylus lugubris. Like our other geckos, the species is nocturnal, not very big (10 – 11 cm), and feeds on small insects. It also feeds on flower nectar; I’m not sure whether our others do that but it’s not unlikely.

Beyond that, the Mourning Gecko is an interesting little beast: it’s a hybrid, and it’s parthenogenic.

In other words, the ultimate ancestor of my little lizard was a female produced by the mating of two geckos of different species, and the family consists of an endless mother-daughter sequence. Adults are known to engage in female-female pseudo-copulation which apparently stimulates egg production, but even that is not necessary: one female on her own can and will lay viable eggs, usually two every few weeks.

As if that wasn’t strange enough, “The species consists of a number of clonal genetic lineages thought to arise from different hybridization events,” i.e. the ancestral species successfully hybridised on several different occasions, so there are variant ‘families’ of Mourning Geckos, each as closely related to the others as members of normal species are, but each producing a succession of genetically identical daughters.

But there’s more! “Surprisingly, parthenogenetic females of this species occasionally produce male offspring, which are thought to be the result of non-genetic hormonal inversions. While these males are anatomically normal, they produce abnormal sperm and are sterile.”

Those snippets are from wikipedia’s article on parthenogenesis in reptiles. The Reptile Database provides more information on the ancestral species if you’re curious.

mourning gecko
Another view of the same baby gecko

As Steve Wilson notes in A Field Guide to Reptiles of Queensland, the fact that it doesn’t need to mate to produce viable offspring has no doubt contributed to the Mourning Gecko’s success as an island coloniser, since a single stowaway can produce a whole new population. Wherever and whenever the species arose, it is now widespread across the islands and coastal areas of the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.

It seems to be a very recent arrival in Australia. The distribution map at The Australian Reptile Online Database shows a coastal distribution in Queensland but Fitzsimons, in ‘Southward range expansion of the Mourning Gecko Lepidodactylus lugubris on mainland Australia and nearshore islands’ (2011, available here), goes into more detail. He analyses Australian records of the species to come to the conclusion that its range is extending southwards quite rapidly, from Port Douglas and Mission Beach to Townsville in the late 1990s and now Bowen, Gladstone and Heron Island. As he notes, this, “may be important for conservation, as the Mourning Gecko has the potential to compete with native Australian geckos.”

Dry-country goanna

Australia has just over twenty species of goanna (aka monitor lizard) but if anyone talks about seeing ‘a goanna’ they usually mean the largest local species. In our case, that’s the Lace Monitor, Varanus varius, which happens to be the second-largest in the country. (The Perentie of the central deserts is a little larger, growing to 2.4m as against the Lace Monitor’s 2.1m.)

The normal colour scheme of our Lace Monitors (I’m simply going to call them ‘goannas’ from here on) is dull grey-black with a generous spattering of creamy spots, as in my photographs of goannas at Wallaman Falls, on Whitehaven Beach and in the hills above Mission Beach (scroll down each page for the pics).

Crossing open ground. The tip of the tail is right on the edge of the photo.

When we saw this reptile crossing the back yard of a weekender on Hervey’s Range we were surprised enough to check the reference books. It was close to two metres from nose to tail, so there weren’t many possibilities.

This strongly-banded sand-and-charcoal goanna is, in fact, still Varanus varius, although the ‘Lace’ name doesn’t suit it very well at all. It is known as ‘Bell’s form’ or ‘Bell’s phase’ and is more common in the drier inland than on the coast.

Noticing that s/he has been noticed

The Hervey’s Range property is just on the inland side of the crest of the range, although with a higher rainfall than regions further West, so a Bell’s form goanna is not too far out of its normal territory. That said, Wikipedia has one from the Fraser Coast (Hervey Bay – Maryborough) in its Lace Monitor gallery, so the geographical separation can’t be too strict.

Camouflage test

Oliver James: The Selfish Capitalist

selfish-cap-300Oliver James: The Selfish Capitalist – origins of Affluenza

Vermilion, March 2008

In this sequel to his Affluenza (2007), Oliver James argues that capitalism as practised recently in the richer English-speaking countries – that includes Australia – is making us miserable. His ‘affluenza’, a portmanteau word fusing ‘affluence’ and influenza’, is the pattern of chronic over-work, debt, anxiety and waste induced by our obsession with goods and income, and James traces its cause to economic policies.

He defines Selfish Capitalism as the neoliberal Thatcherism adopted in the 1990s and finds that, despite the ‘trickle-down’ rhetoric, those policies made the rich very much richer while leaving the rest of us no better off financially and significantly worse off in other ways. Labour market deregulation undermined job security and held down real wages, the media joined business in successfully promoting perceptions of relative poverty even as real levels of consumption reached new highs, and debt increased enormously. (In Australia, mortgages rose from 2.8 to 4.2 times average annual income between 1994 and 2004 while other personal debt tripled).

If Selfish Capitalism is so bad, what is Unselfish Capitalism? Simply capitalism moderated by social policies and structures which support equality and social cohesion, as practised in Japan and mainland Europe.

James is a clinical psychologist and he focuses on levels of ‘distress’ – basically unhappiness and mental illness. Others have presented similar arguments blaming unrestrained capitalism for social inequality, family breakdown, declining moral standards, teenage crime and many related problems. They may all be right.

Convincingly untangling all the causes and effects might be impossible – there are just too many factors to consider – but Oliver James does a good job, supporting clear arguments with good evidence.

* * * *

This review was written and originally published in 2008 but the book is still very relevant and, like The New Nature Writing, has continued to come up in my conversation. Its relevance to me now is more to do with sustainability than with mental health: if we are to avoid environmental disaster, we have to reduce our consumption – drastically – and this book presents other reasons for doing just that, and points towards solutions. David Wann (see below) has been heading in that direction, too.  

The ‘Further Reading’ list extends and updates a reference and reading list I compiled at the time but didn’t publish.

Further Reading: Affluenza

Affluenza is the title of three books written between 2001 and 2007, each with a different subtitle, focus, and country of origin.

• Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2001) by John de Graaf, David Wann and Thomas H. Naylor, ISBN 1-57675-199-6.

These three Americans, author and film-maker De Graaf, environmental scientist Wann and economist Naylor, defined affluenza as ‘a painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more,’ six years before James wrote his first book. Here’s their book on Wikipedia. Wann has followed up with two more books on sustainability, Simple Prosperity and The New Normal.

• Affluenza: when too much is never enough (2005) by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss. Allen & Unwin, ISBN 1-74114-671-2. The book on wikipedia.

The authors, both economists, are now best known for their leadership of The Australia Institute.

• Affluenza: How to Be Successful and Stay Sane (2007) by Oliver James. Vermilion, ISBN 9780091900113. Author homepage and Wikipedia page

For an overview of the concept of affluenza and links to more related ideas, see Wikipedia/Affluenza.