Once upon a time there was a little town by a big ocean. It was a wise little town. Long ago it had looked at its dunes and beaches, its big trees, its marsh where the redwing blackbirds sang, in little streets and little grey shingle shops and houses, and said: This is all good. My people like me, my visitors like me, and I like me. This is what I am and what I want to be.
Busy people kept coming to the little town and scolding it. You are foolish, they said. You don’t understand progress. You don’t even have neon! There are no corporations here! We will bring you golden arches and make you rich!
No, thank you, said the wise little town. My people own my shops. People come to me because they like those shops, and because at night my streets glimmer very softly in the dark.
But busy people kept coming to the town and scolding it. Look at you! they said. All these little funky shingle homes! You should be ashamed. You need immense houses.
What for? asked the town.
For rich people, said the busy people. People like us. We cannot live in funky cottages with gardens. Let us tear these down and build many immense houses, surrounded by immense rocks, and then everyone will see you are a town of rich people and admire you immensely.
I see, said the little town, and it thought about this. It thought long and hard. It had no objection to rich people. Rich people had done it a lot of good, over the years. But then, so had not-rich people.
My people, thought the little town, whether they are artists or cleaning maids in motels, whether they work or are retired, whether they live here or come here whenever they can, all have a big love for me, a big love for the little grey houses, the quiet streets, the great beach, the marsh where the blackbirds sing. My houses are little, but my people are big. I wonder if making the houses bigger might make the people smaller? And how will immense houses fit my little, quiet streets? Do I want to be rich, or do I want to be what I am? Do I want to be admired, or do I want to be loved?
The sea of course paid no attention to such foolish questions, and the blackbirds had nothing useful to say. All the little town could do was ask itself, and hope that it was wise enough to find the answer to its questions. It was not a little question, and the answer would not be a small one, either.
Author Ursula K. Le Guin, a part-time resident of Cannon Beach, died Jan. 22. “Little and Big” was originally printed in the Cannon Beach Citizen in 2003. It is reprinted with the permission of Charles Leguin.