DONNING my first pair of eyeglasses made me realize what I missed in the world.
An incorrigible habit of reading while traveling or lying in bed made me astigmatic by my early teens. As the optometrist made me read letters projected in diminishing sizes on the wall, I was more confused than aided by the frequent changing of lens. Did I see better with this than with that lens?
Yet, when I looked at trees with my first pair of glasses and saw the variegated shades of green in the rippling waves of leaves, I realized how my connection to the breathing, murmurous mysteries existing beyond words and ideas rested on two small discs of glass.
The limits of our way of seeing is explored by Ursula K. Le Guin in her 1972 novel, “The Word for World is Forest.” She describes the “oppressiveness” felt by a Terran walking among wild trees in the fictional world of Athshe.
In Terra, there is no tree left standing. Driven by the obscene price of lumber, Terrans “settle” on Athshe to “turn the tree-jumble into clean sawn planks,” an act of colonization that pits the extractive, macho Terrans against the matrilineal, nonviolent forest-dwelling Athsheans.
Small and covered in green fur, the native “creechies” are treated by the Terrans as “green monkeys” or humanoids. For the Athsheans, the Terrans are just as incomprehensible, no language in the Forty Lands existing for the violence the Terrans unleash on other creatures, the trees, or fellow Terrans.
In her introductory essay, Le Guin said she drew on imagination to create the society in Athshe that studies signs in dream-time to guide decisions made in world-time. A reader of the novel, Dr. Charles Tart, asked her if she had based the Athsheans on the Senoi people of Malaysia, who, at least in 1935, passed from generation to generation a culture of dream-interpretation to solve “interpersonal and intercultural conflict.”
For hundreds of years, the Senoi people have no record of murder or war.
Le Guin reflected that both Terrans and Athsheans dream; they differ in their receptivity to dreams. While the Terrans dream only when they sleep and regard dream-time as “unreal,” the Athsheans dream with eyes open and act guided by their dreams, a seamless crossover uniting the waking and non-waking halves of the same reality.
Dream-fulfillment is a theme this sci-fi pioneer explored in another novel, “The Lathe of Heaven.” In “The Word for World...,” the split in dream-time traps Terrans and Athsheans into a tragic collision.
To dream is to see. Or as the fate of Athshe augurs—whether as metaphor of the Vietnam War or American War (depending on whose perspective) or for present times—we are what we dream.