We miss amazing Ursula! This blog post is included in: No Time to Spare — Thinking About What Matters
by Ursula K. Le Guin Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Last week my friend Roger and I went out to Bend, the Eastern Oregon city where a lot of retired people in search of sunlight and a dry climate have been settling since the 90’s. From Portland the shortest road is over Mount Hood and through the vast Warm Springs Reservation. It was a bright late October day, with the big broadleaf maples making masses of pure gold in the evergreen forests. The blue of the sky got more intense as we went down from the summit into the clear air and open landscapes of Oregon’s Dry Side.
Bend is named, I guess, for the bend of its lively river in which it sits. The Three Sisters and other snow-cones of the Cascades tower up over it in the west, and the vast expanses of the high desert sweep on out eastward. In recent years the city grew and thrived with the influx of settlers, but it hit hard times with the recession. Too much of its prosperity depended on the construction trades. Downtown is still pleasant, but there are gaps, with several fine restaurants gone, and it looks as if some new resorts out toward Mt Bachelor are paralysed at the platting stage.
We stayed at a motel there on the west side of the river, which is built up at intervals, with bits of juniper forest and sagebrush plain in between. The long, wide boulevards go winding around in curves, crisscrossing each other at three- and four-exit roundabouts. It appears that the people who laid out the roads wanted to imitate what happens when you drop noodles on the floor. Though Tina at Camalli Books had given us careful instructions with all the road names and all the roundabout exits on the way to and from our motel – and though a western skyline of six- to ten-thousand-foot mountain peaks would seem to provide adequate orientation — we never once left the motel without getting lost.
I learned to dread the Old Mill District. As soon as I saw the sign saying Old Mill District I knew we were lost again. If Bend were a big city instead of just a far-flung one we might still be there trying to escape from the Old Mill District.
Roger and I were there to do a reading and signing of our book Out Here at the bookstore Friday evening and at the High Desert Museum Saturday afternoon. The Museum is on Highway 97 a few miles south of town. A bit farther on is Sunriver, one of the earliest and biggest resort developments. Roger suggested we have lunch there. Given the money that flows through those residential resorts, I was expecting something on the gourmet side; but the bar and grill served the same huge piles of heavy food that you get at a bar and grill anywhere in America, where the idea of a light lunch is a pound or two of nachos.
I haven’t stayed at Sunriver, but have spent a few nights at other high-end resorts in the area. They are laid out artfully to blend into the austere and beautiful landscape. Built of wood and painted or stained in a repetitive range of muted colors, the houses are unobtrusive, with plenty of space around them and trees left standing between them. All the streets curve. Straight streets are anathema to the resort mind. Right angles say City, and resorts are busy saying Country, and that’s why all the boulevards west of the river loop and swoop about so gracefully like noodles. The trouble is, since the juniper trees and the sage bushes and the buildings and the streets and the boulevards all look pretty much alike, if you don’t remember just where Colorado Drive connects with Century Drive before the roundabout exit to Cascade Drive, if you don’t have a good inner or external GPS system, you get lost.
Staying a couple of years ago at one of these resorts in a granny flat in somebody’s condo, I could get lost within a hundred yards of the house. All the curvy streets and roads were lined with groups of houses in tasteful muted earth tones that exactly resembled the other groups of houses in tasteful muted earth tones, and there were no landmarks, and it all went on, over and over, sprawling out, without sidewalks — because of course the existence of such a place is predicated entirely on driving, on getting to it, from it, and around it by car. I don’t drive.
Bend is, I believe, the largest city in America with no public transportation system. They were fixing to do something about that when the bottom fell out of the building trade.
So, after getting lost a couple of times walking, because I couldn’t tell which tastefully muted house on which curving road was my house, I was uneasy about going out again. But if granny didn’t go for a walk she was trapped in the granny flat. And that was pretty bad. When you first walked in, you thought, oh! very nice! — because the whole inner wall was a mirror, which reflected the room and the big window, making it look large and light. In fact, the room was so small it was almost entirely filled with bed.
The bed was piled with ornamental pillows. I counted them, but have forgotten how many there were — say twenty or twenty-five ornamental pillows, and four or five enormous teddy bears. When you took the bears and pillows off the bed so you could use the bed, there was no place to put them but on the floor around the bed, which meant there was no floor space, only pillows and bears. There was a tiny kitchen on the other side of a divider. No desk, no chair, though there was a blessed window seat to sit in, with a big view of trees and sky. I lived in the window seat, making my way through the bears and pillows when it was time for bed.
A door, which could not be locked, led down a corridor to the owners’ apartment, which was occupied. I put my suitcase and eight or ten of the pillows and the hugest, most obese teddy bear against the door as a barrier against absent-minded intrusion by my unknown hosts. But I didn’t have any real faith in that bear.
Roger and I kept passing that very resort on our noodly way to re-finding our motel, and I winced every time I saw it, afraid we might somehow get into it and get lost in it again.
I feel vaguely guilty about preferring a mere motel to a carefully planned, upscale residential resort. But the guilt is vague while the preference is clear and categorical. I like motels. Exclusivity isn’t my bag. “Gated communities” are not communities in any sense of the word I understand. I know that a great many of the people who own or timeshare or rent places in these Dry Side resorts go there not for the exclusive company of other middle-class white people, but for the marvelous air and light of the high desert, the forests, the ski-slopes, the spaciousness and silence. I know. That’s fine. Just don’t make me stay in one. Especially not one equipped with giant teddy bears.
But all this is merely preparation for getting to the lynx.
The lynx lives at the High Desert Museum. You can see a picture of him and read his story at Wild Cats of the West.
Briefly, when he was a kitten somebody pulled out his claws (“declawing” a cat is the same as pulling out a human being’s fingernails and toenails or cutting off the last joint of each toe and finger.) Then they pulled out his four great cat-fangs. Then they pretended he was their itty bitty kitty. Then they got tired of him, or got scared of him, and dumped him. He was found starving.
Like all the birds and animals at the High Desert Museum, he is a wild creature who can’t survive in the wild.
His cage is inside the main building. It is a long enclosure with three solid walls and one glass wall. It has trees and some hiding places, and is roofless, open to the weather and the sky.
I don’t think I’d ever seen a lynx, when I first met him. He is a beautiful animal, chunkier and more compact than a mountain lion. His very thick dense fur of a honey-buff color has a flowing scatter of dark spots on legs and flanks and goes pure white on belly, throat, and beard. Big paws, ever so soft-looking, but you wouldn’t want to be at the receiving end of one of those paws, even if its fierce, hooked weaponry has been torn out. Short tail, almost a stub – when it comes to tail, the mountain lion has it all over the lynx and bobcat. Lynx ears are rather queer and charming, with a long tip; his right ear is a bit squashed or bent. A big squarish head, with the calm, enigmatic cat smile, and great gold eyes.
The glass wall doesn’t look like oneway glass. I’ve never asked about it. If he is aware of the people on the other side of the glass, he doesn’t let them know it. He gazes out sometimes, but I have not seen his eyes catch on anything or follow anyone on the other side of the glass. His gaze goes right through you. You are not there. He is there.
I found and fell in love with the lynx during the last evening of a literary conference a couple of years ago. The writers at the meeting had been invited to a banquet at the Museum to meet and mix with people who supported the conference with donations. This kind of thing is a perfectly reasonable attempt to reward generosity, though, knowing what writers are like, it must often be terribly disappointing to the donors. It is also an ordeal for many of the writers. People like me who work alone tend to be introverts and, indeed, uncouth. If piano is the opposite of forte, graceful chitchat with strangers is definitely my piano.
During the hour of wine and cheese before dinner, all the donors and writers milled about the main hall of the Museum talking. Being no good at milling and talking, and noticing a corridor off the main hall with no people in it, I sneaked off to explore it. First I found the bobcat (who must wake up now and then, though so far I have only seen him asleep). Then, getting farther away from the chatter of my species, going farther into dimness and silence, I came on the lynx.
He was sitting gazing out into the dimness and silence with his golden eyes. The pure gaze of the animal, Rilke called it. The gaze that is purely gaze: that sees through.
For me, at that moment of feeling inadequate and out of place, the unexpected, splendid animal presence, his beauty, his perfect self-containment, was refreshment, consolation, peace.
I hung out with the lynx until I had to go back to the Bandar-Log. At the end of the party I sneaked back for a moment to see him again. He was sleeping majestically in his little tree-house, great soft paws crossed in front of his chest. I had lost my heart for good.
I saw him again last year when my daughter Elisabeth drove me around Eastern Oregon for four days (a grand trip, of which I hope to put a record in words and pictures on my site, if Elisabeth and I can goad each other into getting it together.) She and I saw the displays and the otters and the owls and the porcupine and everything else at the Museum, and ended in a long contemplation of the lynx.
And last week, before the reading, while Roger was doing all the hard work getting the books to sign into the Museum, I could spend another half hour with him. When I came, he was pacing about, very handsome and restless. If he had a tail that was worth lashing he would certainly have been lashing it. After a few minutes he vanished through a big metal cat-flap into some kind of back room not on view to the public. Fair enough, I thought, he wants some privacy. I went on to look at the live butterfly exhibit, which of course was lovely. The Oregon High Desert Museum is one of the most perfectly satisfying places I know.
When I came back down the corridor the lynx was sitting quite close to the glass eating a largish bird. A grouse, was my guess. At any rate a wild bird, not a chicken. He had a tail-feather hanging down from his chin for a while, which might have reduced his dignity in the eyes of beholders, but he does not acknowledge beholders.
He worked at his bird with diligence and care. He discussed his bird, as they used to say of people eating lamb chops. He was quite absorbed in discussing it. Lacking all four fangs, he was pretty much in the position of a human lacking incisors: he had to go at it sideways, with his molars. He did this neatly. It slowed him down, I am sure, but he never grew impatient, even when all he got was a mouthful of feathers. He just put a big soft honey-colored paw on his lunch and went at it again. When he got seriously inside the bird, some children who came by squealed, “Eeeyew! he’s eating the insides!” and other children who came by murmured with satisfaction, “Oh look, he’s eating the guts.”
I had to go away then and do the reading and signing, so I could not see him finish lunch.
When I came back after an hour or so for a goodbye glimpse, the lynx was curled up comfortably asleep in his tree-house bedroom. One wing and a beak lay on the dirt near the glass wall. On three tree-stumps, the servants of the lynx had laid out three dead mice — an elegant dessert presentation, as the fancy restaurants say. I imagined that later, when the Museum closed, when all the primates had finally gone away, the big cat might wake up and yawn, and stretch himself lithely down from his treehouse, and eat his desserts one by one, slowly, in silence, all by himself in the darkness.
There is a connection that I am groping for, a connection between the resorts and the lynx. Not the noodly streets that took us from one to the other, but a mental connection that has something to do with community and solitude.
The resorts are neither city nor country; they are semi-communities. Most of their population is occasional or transient. The only day-workers are gardeners, janitors, people doing upkeep. They don’t live in the nice houses. Most of the people that do are there not because their work takes them there but to get away from their work. They’re not there because they have common interests with others there but to get away from other people. Or to pursue sports such as golf and skiing, which pit the individual against himself. Or because they long for the solitude of the wilderness.
But we aren’t a solitary species. Like it or not, we are the Bandar-Log. We are social by nature, and thrive only in community. It is entirely unnatural for a human being to live long completely alone. So, when we get sick of crowds and yearn for space and silence, we build these semi-communities, pseudo-communities, in remote places. And then, sadly, by going to them, swarming into the desert, all too often we find no true community, but only destroy the solitude we sought.
As for cats, most of their species are not social at all. The nearest thing to a cat society is probably a troop of active lionesses providing for the cubs and the indolent male. Farm cats sharing a barn work out a kind of ad hoc social order, though the males tend to be less members of it than a danger to it. Adult male lynxes are loners. They walk by themselves.
The strange fortune of my lynx brought him to live in an artificial environment, a human community utterly foreign to him. His isolation from his natural, complex wilderness habitat is grievous and unnatural. But his aloofness, his aloneness, is the truth of his own nature. He retains that nature, brings it among us unchanged. He brings us the gift of his indestructible solitude.
Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her most recent book is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, co-authored with photographer Roger Dorband.
She contributed an original poem, “In England in the Fifties,” to Book View Cafe’s anthology Breaking Waves, which benefits the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.