Fractal Myth

The Word for World is Forest - Ursula K. LeGuin.

[Michelle Chapman ©2001]

The Word for World is Forest (Berkely Publishing Company 1972).

In The Word for World is Forest, Ursula LeGuin leads her readers to reconsider their place in the world, and the impact of humans on the world they inhabit. Set on an alien planet in an uncertain future, her human characters are rapidly repeating the mistakes that have turned the Earth into a "desert of cement" (p.5) The story contrasts ideas like desert and forest, male and female, war and peace, life and death, forcing us to reconsider our expectations about what is right and what is normal. We begin the story sympathising with the strong and masculine Davidson, and the image of the planet we receive through his eyes stays with us even though our sympathies are gradually withdrawn from him. This allows us to compare different ways of interacting with the planet, as the alternative viewpoints of groups and individuals are superimposed on each other, building into a final collage where the inevitability of change is acknowledged, and human impact on the environment and other species is considered. Ursula LeGuin's writing is deft and subtle. Instead of sledgehammering us into submission, she allows us to draw our own conclusion by gently pointing out the myriad inconsistencies in our value systems:

"But men were here now to end the darkness, and turn the tree-jumble into clean-sawn planks, more prized on Earth than gold. Literally, because gold could be got from seawater and from under the Antarctic ice, but wood could not; wood came only from trees. And it was a really necessary luxury on Earth." (p.7)

In this quote, Davidson is justifying the need for and utility of his presence on the alien planet, and yet the logic which he uses inevitably suggests an alternative logic which has no place in his militaristic, racist viewpoint. To Davidson, trees are simply a commodity, and he sees nothing paradoxical about his description of wood as a "really necessary luxury". However, if something is a luxury, then it is not necessary. Earth must be able to survive without deforesting this alien planet. But if it is a necessary, then Earth has squandered its own needed resources. The novel preserves a poignant sense that 'Earth was once like this, but no longer' through its descriptions of this new living growing world, under threat from human 'harvesting'. In this novel, the interaction between people and the planet is as important as the interaction between the humaniod races. Not even Davidson is immune to the natural influences, though by the end of the novel his paranoia, madness and suspicion lead him to suspect the atmosphere of being drugged or poisoned, as his own malevolence turns an otherwise benign awareness into something threatening:

"There was something about this damn planet, its gold sunlight and hazy sky, its mild winds smelling of leafmold and pollen, something that made you daydream." (p.8-9)

The last thing Davidson wants is to surrender his worldview and think about alternative possibilities. He is completely incapable of empathising with anyone who does not exist on exactly the same wavelength as himself. In the first chapter, Ursula LeGuin uses Davidson to introduce the 'creechies' to us, because through his eyes they are alien, subordinate and sub-human. In the second chapter, we are introduced to the creechies, or more properly, the Athsheans, on their own terms, and the change in outlook is signalled by a changed attitude to the forest. Suddenly, instead of being a commodity to be cut down, the trees are described with the flowing colours of poetry:

"All the colors of rust and sunset, brown-reds and pale greens, changed ceaselessly in the long leaves as the wind blew. The roots of the copper willows, thick and ridged, were moss-green down by the running water, which like the wind moved slowly with many soft eddies and seeming pauses, held back by rocks, roots, hanging and falling leaves. No way was clear, no light unbroken, in the forest. Into wind, water, sunlight, starlight, there always entered leaf and branch, bole and root, the shadowy, the complex. Little paths ran under the branches, around the boles, over the roots; they did not go straight, but yielded to every obstacle, devious as nerves. The ground was not dry and solid but damp and rather springy, product of the collaboration of living things with the long elaborate death of leaves and trees; and from that rich graveyard grew ninety-foot trees, and tiny mushrooms that sprouted in circles half an inch across. The smell of the air was subtle, various and sweet. The view was never long, unless looking up through the branches you caught sight of the stars. Nothing was pure, dry, arid, plain. Revelation was lacking. There was no seeing everything at once: no certainty. The colors of rust and sunset kept changing in the hanging leaves of the copper willows, and you could not even say whether the leaves of the willows were brownish-red, or reddish-green, or green." (p.25-26)

I have quoted this passage in full, due to its beauty, and the very important sense it gives of the forest as an interconnected web of living things, existing together in a harmonious symbiosis. Here, things are not black and white, clearly delineated and simple. Here things are complex, interrelated and interdependent. The world is muddy and tangled. Natural confusion and chaos abounds. It has not been stripped bare, denuded of its mystery and loveliness. It is intact, whole, and most of all, alive. Having seen the 'creechies' through human eyes, Ursula LeGuin now lets us see the 'yumans' through Athshean eyes, bringing into focus the similarities and differences between the two species:

"In the dream the giants walked, heavy and dire. Thier dry scaly limbs were swathed in cloths; their eyes were little and light, like tin beads. Behind them crawled huge moving things made of polished iron. The trees fell down in front of them." (p.28)

The Athsheans have a matriarchal society. Their culture places great importance on dreams and the need to unite the conscious and sub-conscious worlds. In this, the Athsheans are similar to many of Earth's indigenous peoples. As they speak to each other about the problems caused by the 'yuman' invasion of their planet, I am reminded of the words of Chief White Cloud, a Native American Indian:

"You have judged us without understanding, only because our prayers are different. But we are able to live in harmony with all of Nature. All of Nature is within us and we are part of all Nature."

The majority of the creechies find the majority of the yumans to be completely incomprehensible, and vice versa. Just like the humans, the Athsheans face the trap of focussing on the 'otherness' of the alien species, instead of recognising their similarities. Even those few who make a supreme effort for understanding can only advance towards a superficial knowledge of each others' language and beliefs, as the reality of culture is shown to be as chaotic and complex as this forest-covered planet. Ursula LeGuin reinforces our sense of a double perception, seeing through both human and Athshean eyes by using humour to expand our vision:

"Until the men make a fit place for the women? Well! they may have quite a wait," said Ebor Dendep. "They're like the people in the Elm Dream who come at you rump-first, with their heads put on front to back. They make the forest into a dry beach" - her language had no word for 'desert' - "and call that making things ready for the women? They should have sent the women first." (p.43)

This humour can have a sharp bite to it at times, which really drives home the hypocritical xenophobia of the humans. When some more supremely civilised humanoid aliens enter the plot, their viewpoints starkly demonstrate how thin the veneer of civilisation is for the humans. We have already had hints of this in the differing treatment of women. The only human women in the story are either dismissed as 'Colony Brides' or welcomed as 'Collie girls', sexual volunteers who arrive to satisfy the 'natural' sexual desires of the colonists. Like the wood which is sent back to Earth, these girls are a 'necessary luxury'. The men can survive without them, but they do not want to. Lyubov, perhaps the only human who truly makes an effort to understand the Athsheans on their own terms, reflects sadly on this defect in the human community. He regrets the lack of older women on the colony, who would act as a restraining influence on the men, instead of "all those nubile fertile high-breasted young women ... it'll be forty years before she'll say anything to a man..." (p.98) Ursula LeGuin uses sex to illuminate some of the most important themes in her novel. It is Davidson's rape of and the subsequent death of the Athshean, Selver's, wife that enrages Selver and forces him to break the peaceful conditioning of his people. By showing us this incident through the eyes of a third alien species, we are given a way to break our own complacent conditioning, and asked to think about humanity in a new, and not very comfortable, way:

"Captain Davidson," said the Cetian, "do you consider the native hilfs human, or not?"
"I don't know."
"But you had sexual intercourse with one - this Selver's wife. Would you have sexual intercourse with a female animal? What about the rest of you?" he looked about at the purple colonel, the flowering majors, the livid captains, the cringing specialists. Contempt came into his face. "You have not thought things through," he said. By his standards it was a brutal insult." (p. 64)

The brutal insult may have washed over those at whom it was explicitly aimed - those seated around the conference table - but it sinks deeply into those at whom it is implicitly aimed - the readers of Ursula LeGuin's novel. We cannot ignore the environmental and personal destruction which she so forcibly reminds us that our species is capable of. Nor can we simply slip back into our comfortable daily routines, thinking that it is not our problem. Instead, we are boldly confronted with Lyubov's evolution of responsibility:

"But even the most umissionary soul, unless he pretend he has no emotions, is sometimes faced with a choice between commission and omission. 'What are they doing?' abruptly becomes, 'What are we doing?' and then, 'What must I do?'" (p.107)

In the face of the overwhelming evidence of humanity's faults that Ursula LeGuin presents us with, there is nothing that we can do except rethink our position on the Earth, and the damage which we are wreaking on the few natural habitats that remain. We are also led to think about interspecies and interracial relationships, and to assess our own position in relation to such important questions.

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