Posts Tagged ‘utopia’

When you first meet a place in fiction…

June 10, 2011
1st ed of Always Coming Home + Boatman’s Valley, New Zealand

The summer I turned 16, my mother gave me a book that has fuelled a life long obsession with place and landscape. That summer (like every summer of my childhood) was spent in a hummocky gold-stripped valley on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. The valley had a creek running through it, and forest that crawled up the sides of the valley (both plantation pines and the old growth beech forest native to New Zealand’s South Island). To the west was the formidible bulk of the Paparoa mountains, and past that… the sea.

This was my valley – my Secret Garden, my Wild Cat Island.

And in Ursula K Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, I discovered a fictional valley that felt deeply familiar.

It gets confusing… to know a place so well, feel like you have discovered the same place in fiction, only to learn that that place is also somewhere else.

Le Guin set her experimental utopian novel about a people ‘who may or may not live a very long time from now, in Northern California’ in place that was also very dear to her: the Napa valley of her own childhood. She did so because (as she explains it) she was ‘simply trying to find a people that would treat The Napa Valley properly.’ The people of her Na valley tread lightly on the land, and are very attuned to their surroundings. Things move slowly. When living in the valley, you find that you must ‘pick your way around the root of things’.

When I encountered this fictional valley, it seemed almost identical to my own.  There were scrubby foothills surrounding a central valley.  There was a river.  There was long grass and fields and small scattered dwellings. There were children who walked long distances and knew every tree and stone.  There was so much that was similar, and the novel had such an intense and fully realised sense of place – as pure and detailed as the idea I held of my own small valley.  I didn’t care that where the people of the Na valley had scrub oak and manzanita, I had manuka (NZ tea tree) and prickly gorse bushes.  I didn’t care that where they had quails underfoot and coyotes in the canyons, I had swallows flying through the old mine pits, and the call of spur winged plovers and ducks at night.  In the valley captured in Always Coming Home, I envisioned the kind of future that I wanted – one in which people paid attention to and valued where they were here, now.  I saw a place that I wished to preserve (even though it didn’t exist yet).  I wanted the future that Le Guin offers us.

I visited the landscapes that inspired Always Coming Home in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys of Northern California in 2006.  It was something of a pilgrimage for me – to be able to visit the place that had lived in my imagination so long, and landscapes that I associated so closely with the valley that I myself held dearly.

But I think the important thing is that Le Guin’s Californian valley lives on in my mind, as does my little New Zealand valley. My family’s summer home has since been sold and moved off the property. For all I know our little house is still sitting in two pieces, covered by a tarpaulin on a railway siding just outside of Reefton. But I think about that valley every day, and of Le Guin’s future valley. Together they kickstarted my deep geographical sensibility and my landscape values; a concern for environmental issues, both global and local; and a continuing philosophical interest in the idea of utopia – why we long for better futures and how to find them.

Sometimes you meet a place in fiction and it reminds you of that which you hold most dearly, and wish to preserve. Sometimes that is all that matters.