Migratory Institutions – Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Changing Planes” – Part 5

Ursula K. Le Guin is greeted in a beachy retreat with beautiful golden sand and green-blue waters by a man seven feet tall with a beak for a nose. An envoy for the Ansarac, he assists tourist in describing the Way of the Ansarac people.

The Way of the Ansarac is not unlike that of migratory birds. As the lengths of years on their plane is 24 times as long compared to Earth, reaching the age of three is a large achievement indeed, especially considering that, each year, the entire people migrate North and South depending on the overly long seasons. There is a city in the fall and winter, and lush and verdant fields in the spring and summer. The Ansarac seem sexless in the city, preferring companionship, collaboration, and intense learning. But arriving at these verdant Northern fields is another thing entirely. The power and draw of sex explains their mating season. Some children grow up and reach schooling age in these fields before ever setting eyes upon the city they migrate to. The children keep rock collections and plead with their parents to take them with them on the migratory journey. When they are told “no” they hide their rocks for when they come back, not thinking that when they do come back, they will be well past adolescence.

Their Way is not the only way. The Bayderac, in a similar comparison perhaps to that of Western Civilization conquering native tribes here in the United States, offer strange new customs, as well as powerful technologies and medicines. “Why go on dangerous migrations each year,” they ask, “when you can build highways and travel faster?” That way mating could continue year round. That way a mother could stay home with the children, and a father could go and work to build these highways, creating “jobs”. For a while the Ansarac try this new way, but ultimately they drop them for their own biannual customs. Were it not for the Interplanatary Agency, the Ansarac likely would have been conquered, just as many of our tribes were in the United States, but here the Bayderac are forced to leave.

Strange in fact that many of the people here in our modern civilization do not abide the same routines that our climate provides. In some cases this is easily the better option, as we have central heating to care for us through the winter, so we can continue to maintain a level of productivity if we have some sort of office job, or clerical work, or teach in a classroom. And in summer some of us are lucky enough to have air-conditioning. But when we consider the separation from “change” as constant as the seasons, there is an anxiety. Especially with the coronavirus pandemic, the unchanging days in a solitary place, separated from the people we love (or even hate), draws us to the realization that the fluctuation of life as it is lived is very important indeed. It is not until we see it from this outside perspective – restaurants abandoned, bars closed, libraries with limited time requirements – that we come to understand the importance of the public. And now that companies have begun to lean in on privatization of our forums, whether that be because of closing stores, or Warner Brothers streaming their movies on HBO Max, (the death knell for theaters), or virtual learning as a appetizer for “more efficient” education, and we seem less willing to engage in the necessary components of migratory culture. Whatever happened to the ambling bar crawl? Whatever happened to spontaneity?

Perhaps when all this is over, like the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds of the Lost Generation, we might return to long nights and cheap drinking and blog posts written with hangovers. We might see the migratory nature of being pinned down in our homes contrast to “coming out” and celebrating once we have reached a level of herd immunity. But this will only be an overcorrection. While the Ansarac stake their livelihood on the migratory patterns of their behavior, we have chosen a more static road. More efficient, sure, but away from the predilections of our genes.

The good and bad of this tradeoff are not so cut and dry. And the Ansarac during “mating season” have difficulties of their own, but like good science fiction it presents a difference that gives us pause to the nature of our habits. Why do we commute to work each day, for five days a week, for most of the weeks in a year? Why do we view home ownership in the United States as the pinnacle of middle class existence?

There is a time for everything. And perhaps most obvious to me in this time is the immense weight that has been lifted since Joe Biden has taken office. I spend less time on Twitter, and I have done a quick review of Biden’s many executive orders, before french pressing my coffee. The World Health Organization? Check. The Paris Climate Accord? Check. Well…very good then…carry on.

More and more the past four years will seem like a fever dream, the kind of necessary pressure valve releasing to assuage illiteracy and unsubtle taste and vehement golf-playing until everyone is happy. Once that is done, it’s time to replace the Christmas tree.

Perhaps, even in our modern nation-state, we do have migratory tendencies, but these have been relegated to our institutions, not our norms. Those changes in morals take much longer, perhaps decades, and are unclear until we compare them to its context.

I have said everything I need to say in this post, and I’m trying to wrap it up. There is no resonant line coming up, no powerful product. Perhaps that in itself is the point. Migratory thinking is cyclical, not linear. I’m sure we’ll all be back at this point some day. Once we’ve gotten out of this pandemic’s dark winter. Fifty years from now, perhaps we’ll be back, and we’ll have more to say.

Or, God willing, less.

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