Early this year, the writer Ursula K. Le Guin looked on in dismay as Ammon Bundy and his “bullyboys” occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. Le Guin had fallen in love with that hard country—with its high desert and the treeless basalt ridges of Steens Mountain—some 50 years ago, on a road trip. It was a difficult drive over gravel roads with young children in the backseat. But the landscape bowled her over. She’d never seen anything like it, yet it felt familiar.
“Now here comes the slightly woo-woo part of it,” Le Guin warned me as we sat on her porch in Portland on a warm afternoon in July. Recently, thumbing through a packet of family papers, she discovered that as an adolescent, her grandmother Phebe had helped her great-grandfather drive 350 head of cattle through the Black Rock Desert in Nevada and onto the eastern flank of Steens Mountain, where they’d homesteaded for several years in the 1870s. Perhaps Le Guin was drawn to the landscape by some primal sense, the way a salmon finds its river.
To much of America, Harney County was as unfamiliar as Gethen, the snowbound planet Le Guin created in her radical 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. The Bundy event could itself have been a Le Guin tale: The rough peace of a strange desert in winter disturbed by the arrival of armed outsiders; a community fractured but kept from breaking fully apart by the good sense of the county sheriff, whom Le Guin described as her “hero.” The occupation raised many of the same questions Le Guin has asked throughout her career: about the meaning of freedom, and of belonging; about the value of the natural world; about humanity’s capacity for destruction, and for peacemaking.
Le Guin hasn’t been back to Harney County since the occupation. She’ll be 87 this month and doesn’t have the stamina for long trips, nor for much writing. She’s stopped writing fiction completely—a deep personal loss, as there’s nothing she likes better than “making up stories.” It’s a public loss, too. Le Guin is one of America’s most influential living writers, and one of literature’s most subversive and generous imaginations. Since receiving her first rejection letter at the age of 11 (from Astounding Science Fiction magazine), she’s published 10 story collections, six volumes of poetry, 13 children’s books, four translations, numerous essays, and 20 novels. Le Guin brought us to wizarding school (in the Earthsea series, published long before Harry Potter), to a dystopian Portland where one man’s dreams change reality (The Lathe of Heaven), to a planet where gender is unfixed and the king is pregnant (The Left Hand of Darkness), to a drought-stricken anarchist planet (The Dispossessed), to a postindustrial Napa Valley (Always Coming Home), and, most recently, to Bronze Age Italy (Lavinia). For Le Guin, “elsewhere” has always been a lens magnifying the vexations of our own time and place, including militarism, sexism, governance, and ecology.