The modes of Earth and Sky in Le Guin's 'Always Coming Home'

I want to make some notes on something I picked up on from Ursula Le Guin’s unusual book, Always Coming Home, which I recently helped to organise a reading group session on with the New Cross Commoners. My reflections are some distance from that discussion, and instead are more concerned with considerations that have arisen from my investigations into bat detection.

The book is part novel, part archaeology of the future. More plainly, it can be seen as a collection of fictional ethnographic material created about a people called the Kesh, who will live in a valley in what is now California in the far future. It has been collected and edited by a character called Pandora, whose identity and relationship to the society is unclear.

This material includes details on the language and traditions of the Kesh. What I wanted to note is how the Kesh differentiate between the ‘Five Houses of Earth’ and ‘Four Houses of Sky’. The houses can be thought of metaphorically as domains, though in the cases of the houses of earth they have literal manifestations in the form of the ‘heyimas’. This distinction is embedded in their language – they have an Earth and Sky mode in their speech that involves modifying nouns and verbs. It is only speech that is changed in this way – curiously, all writing is in the sky mode, including dialogue of real or fictional individuals who might have otherwise spoken in the Earth mode.

It’s worth recounting in full the lists of those who dwell in the houses:

Those who live in the Five Houses of the Earth are the earth itself, the moon, all rocks and landforms, all fresh waters, individual animals and human beings currently alive, plants used by human beings, domestic and ground-living birds, game and domestic animals. (46)

Those who live in the Four Houses of Sky are most birds, sea fish, shellfish, wild animals that are not hunted for food (puma, wildcat, feral cat, coyote, wild dog, bear, ringtail, mouse, vole, rat, woodrat, squirrel, groundsquirrel, chipmunk, mole, gopher, skunk, porcupine, otter, fox, bat), reptiles, amphibians, insects; any plant or animal considered as the species or in general; human beings as the species, people, tribe, or nations; the dead, the unborn; all beings in stories or dreams; the oceans, the sun, the stars. (47)

You can make some rough generalisations here – the Houses of Earth seem to contain those things that correspond to domestic human life, while the Houses of Sky contain those things which lay outside it. But this isn’t so clear cut; the moon belongs to the Houses of Earth while the sun belongs to the Houses of Sky – both equally impinge on and lay outside human life. Those things in the past belong to the Sky, as do those of the future; what’s more anything as species or class appears to belong to the Sky regardless of domain. And any individual animal appears to belong to the Earth, despite a number of creatures being listed as specifically belonging to Sky (whilst all animals as species belong to Sky anyway).

What to make of this? I don’t think it’s necessarily productive to think we can untangle this (I take it from the volume that a certain element of Kesh life and beliefs is supposed to lay on the edge of our understanding) but it might be generative to reflect a little. It’s the distinction between the individual and the generic I want to think about for a moment. It resonates with the comments made by Tim Birkhead in his foreword to Sidekick Books’ Birdbook II, in which he observes that the poems in the volume deal with birds as species, not as individuals. Individual wild animals are difficult for us to get to know, because we cannot distinguish between them, unlike the scientific ornithologist who has not only expertise but techniques like tagging, which allow individuals to be traced precisely.

Thus the non-specialist might be left interacting only with what the Kesh might refer to as the animals kin-soul. We might want to call this its species-being. For some animals this might be a two-way relation with humanity - they might not be able to identify individual humans, though some wild animals certainly can. Is this also how the Kesh relate to other animals? The agrarian Kesh would certainly have a more intimate relationship with the wild animals surrounding their towns, and indeed at points do appear to have repeated interactions with an individual animal. The most brutal might be the killing of a bear that has started causing great disruption, and in the songs of the Kesh such a bear is referred to in the particular. Such a creature can be said by its action to have entered the Houses of Earth, which makes it permissible to kill it (so long as the ‘death words’ are spoken, which must accompany any killing of an animal). Nevertheless, such relations to wild animals, if not exceptions, appear not to be the norm; in that way, their positioning in the Houses of Sky might bear a deeper relationship to the belonging of all animals as species within those Houses.

This in turn relates to my experiences exploring bat detecting. In particular, I recall my excitement when I took my bat detector out on a peninsula within the Norfolk broads and heard lesser horseshoe bats for the first time. They were distinguishable because of the high frequencies of their calls. I was very excited to have experienced them – but after a few minutes I began to question my experience. Why does it matter that I’ve encountered a new species – why not the same excitement at encountering each new bat? The ability to distinguish them, or rather my perceptions of them, elicited an emotional response, maybe even a sense of value.

Is this attribution of special ethical worth justified? (Is it worth thinking of the etymology of ‘special’ here as well?) I’m not sure, but it does connect to the distress that the extinction of a species prompts in us now. We couldn’t be further from Aristotle’s worldview, where all species are eternal constants of the world that have always, and will always exist. Perhaps the attribution of worth stems not only from the distinguishing of different beings, but also that they possess a certain precarity or vulnerability. Perhaps it is not possible to fully make sense of our notions of value without recourse to precarity, though this would preclude certain religious sensibilities which place highest value upon the eternal.

One thing that has worried me in my time in London is the inability to clear articulate in this way the value of the various communities that exist here, communities that are threatened by development, gentrification and displacement. That is to say, by a violence that is wrapped into a system of thought and a set of economic practices within the property market and beyond. While wild animals are sometimes difficult to keep in sight as individuals (but not always – just look at Cecil the lion), their identification as species is relatively clear. For urban humans, individual identification is provided for by a set of administrative procedures as well as the fabric of human sociality, but identification of the communities on which such individuals might rely and contribute to is more difficult. Such collective beings are porous, their edges are fuzzy, their designation as something distinct is challenging. Such claims also impinge on relations of power, would prevent capital from exerting its full might over the city. But so might claims of the worth of species-being, which still seem easier to articulate and defend. So something else is at work here.

It might be good to note a that confusion might arise here; it is not being suggested that a given community must be maintained in all circumstances, at all cost. We might want to echo here what Le Guin’s archivist says of books (in ‘Pandora Converses with the Archivist…’ pp.314-316), that communities are mortal, they are an act, they are a relation. Le Guin enacts a death of a community in a dispute within the warrior lodge of Sinshan, which has been in contact with the patriarchical monotheistic people of the Condor, and have begun to internalise some of their mindset. The way out from this is far from clear, with much of the accusations turning on who is ‘sick’. Is it those who have adopted Condor beliefs, is it those who believe that those thus ‘contaminated’ must seek healing or be driven out? Ultimately there is no resolution to be had of this, and so the result is the dissolution of the lodge, with some leaving to join the Condor and others finding occupation elsewhere in the community.

It goes without saying that this differs greatly from the forced dissolution of a community, even if the dissolution was prompted by the presence of outsiders. We can of course figure violence as the interruption of a process rather than an outcome (all living things die, fewer are killed). Another difference is the clear delineation of the community as a ‘lodge’ within a wider social frame of the town; many communities do not have such definite form. In some cases the everyday networks of care around us may only come to be identified as communities once they are under threat and forced to justify their existence. And perhaps a network of care is a better designation here – one without the connotations of social conformity that community can imply.

Is such a network an individual? I think the answer, surprisingly, is yes, in that once a such a network is divided into its component parts it is no longer the network; nor does not consist of instantiations of itself like a species.

Such consideration may be of little value in the abstract – at some point I might try to re-explore this matter through the lens of the many conflicts that are taking place in London at present (such as the fight of the E15 mothers and others against the levels of social cleansing that currently abound). It seems clear to me that any practice that tried to affirm the identity of a network of care would be contested by the powers that be, or else co-opted. That isn’t to say such thoughts couldn’t be used to generate ideas for practical tools and techniques – or rather to propose directions of inquiry that could produce them.