Our class took a break one sunny afternoon and hiked along the McKenzie River in the Willamette National Forest of Oregon. Our teacher, Ursula Le Guin, led the way, naming the trees, shrubs, ferns, and groundcovers. It was the summer of 1995, and I was lucky to have landed a spot in her writing workshop at Flight of the Mind, a week-long retreat for women writers. In class, we were discussing the first chapters of our novels.
I was in awe of Le Guin, whose work I had been reading since adolescence. On the first day of class, which met in the cottage where she was staying, I had gone into the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. This is Ursula Le Guin’s toothbrush, I thought. This is Ursula Le Guin’s lotion. As the week went on, I listened closely to her critiques of first chapters. She was brutally direct with a student who was writing science fiction: “You haven’t imagined this world yet. I don’t believe it.” When it was my turn, every muscle in my body tensed. But she liked my chapter; she liked it a lot.
On the hike, I angled discreetly among the dozen or so students for a spot close to Le Guin so I could hear every word. She looked up and saw, where I saw only towering trunks, hemlock and Douglas fir. She looked down and saw, amid the blur of small green leaves, Oregon grape and salal. “You don’t really know a place,” she said, “unless you can name the plants that grow there.”
I returned to Seattle and resolved to know this place where I had spent many of my growing-up years. I read up on native plants and troweled them into my garden — the clover-like Oxalis oregana; kinnikinnick, with its tiny, tough leaves; the delicate-branched Pacific dogwood and vine maple. I also kept working on my novel. I took a pair of scissors to Le Guin’s comments on my draft and framed them with a picture of her signing a book for me. The chapter she read became a middle chapter of Half-Moon Scar, published five years later.
We never communicated again; I have read in many tributes that she was a generous correspondent. But she touched my life and my writing, not only that week on the McKenzie River, but through her body of work. One summer I read all of her Hainish cycle novels in order, appreciating the interlocking universe they created. I am re-reading The Dispossessed now, and what strikes me is how elegantly Le Guin weaves a classic quest tale with a novel of ideas — about power, sexism, political systems, and ethics.
In moments when my own writing seems pointless, self-absorbed, unnecessary — a kind of fiddling while Rome burns — I remember the fierce intelligence of Le Guin’s work and how powerful words, stories, histories, and visions can be. I want to walk with her and others like her, naming the leaves and stars.