An essayist and activist who makes eloquent connections
By Sarah Fay
June 1, 2007
Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics by Rebecca Solnit (University of California Press, $24.95)
Sierra Club founder John Muir once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Although Muir was referring to the environment, he could have been talking about the 36 essays in Rebecca Solnit’s vibrant new book, Storming the Gates of Paradise. Written over the past decade, the essays serve as a retrospective of Solnit’s career, a display case of essential writings and opuscula in which seemingly disparate subjects are “hitched” together until all categories and divisions dissolve. What is left is the quintessential Solnit essay: a delightfully borderless, peripatetic piece of writing—equal parts memoir, reportage, political commentary, historical investigation, and art and literary criticism. Storming the Gates of Paradise covers myriad topics, including immigration, nuclear testing, the mythology of the Old West, Susan Sontag, the abundance of ravens and crows in American cities, and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but what is most striking about these essays is the way they engage the reader beyond mere advice and urging.
Solnit, a public intellectual and self-proclaimed global justice advocate, is often pigeonholed as a landscape writer, but these essays highlight her versatility and range. She writes as eloquently about the homeless in San Francisco’s UN Plaza and Walter Benjamin’s walks through Paris as she does about the Pacific Ocean and Devils Tower National Monument. For Solnit, “the environment” includes urban plazas and parking lots. The world is made up of systems, not isolated parts. Early in her career, while protesting nuclear experiments at the Nevada Test Site, she learns that radioactivity cannot be contained because it seeps into the water system. She experiences “a great collapse of categories,” and limitlessness becomes her credo as an essayist:
Since then, I have been fascinated by trying to map the ways that we think and talk, the unsorted experience wherein one can start by complaining about politics and end by confessing about passions, the ease with which we can get to any point from any other point. Such conversation is sometimes described as being “all over the place,” which is another way to say that it connects everything back up.
Connections—or as Muir would say, hitches—are the fulcrum of Solnit’s essays. She links New Mexico’s 1999 ban on light pollution to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and, in doing so, avoids “prizing what can be pocketed and possessed” in favor of “phenomena whose value is inseparable from their location and their role in larger systems.”
If Solnit’s essays pivot on connections, they focus on the complexities that arise as a result. She avoids easy solutions and never tries to convince the reader that this or that cause is worthwhile; instead she questions whether what is occupying our attention really deserves it. In the essay “Locked Horns,” she recounts a visit to the local science museum, where she sees two pairs of stag skulls—their antlers locked. She realizes that they died “face to face, probably of hunger”:
I quickly reviewed my own life to see if any conflicts were so intractable and vowed not to let any so consume me. A lot of people have died of being right, and some of them have taken their opponents with them. Everyone’s encountered bad divorces, noise-obsessed neighbors, monomaniacs who let a grievance take over their lives to the exclusion of everything else, a sort of psychological starvation.
Skeptical of “right” answers, Solnit entreats the reader to view the stag skulls as a metaphor. Unlike definitions, metaphors are “like constellations, navigational tools to travel by.” They allow us to see ourselves in a different, more complex, light.
Occasionally, Solnit succumbs to stereotypes that prevent her from seeing the whole picture. In describing the Free Trade Area of the Americas demonstrations in Miami, she compares the protesters to the “pretty, lamblike Eloi” and the police to the savage, cannibalistic Morlocks in H. G. Wells’s Time Machine. She takes a similar tack in describing the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. Solnit barely mentions the fact that after the labor unions and most demonstrators had made their point and gone home, anarchist, or “black bloc,” protesters destroyed property in Seattle as if on a wild binge. (True, the media tend to obfuscate such events, but I was there.) The mind-numbing proliferation of Starbucks coffee shops is frustrating, but Solnit’s role model, the writer and activist Henry David Thoreau, insisted on nonviolent civil disobedience and would never have made an exception for throwing a rock through a window.
But these moments are few and far between. Solnit writes with humor and grace. When she discusses the harmful effects of gold mines in the Sierra Nevada foothills, she drolly suggests that rather than having children don historical dress and pretend to pan for gold at tourist sites, they should “play at testing for clean water” and imitate “mercury-poisoning madness.” As she reminds us that our “highest goals” need not be efficiency and convenience, her prose turns dreamy and lyrical: “The desire to go home that is a desire to be whole . . . to awaken from sleep, to rest from awakening, to tame the animal, to let the soul go wild, to shelter in darkness and blaze with light, to cease to speak and be perfectly understood.”
One of the most powerful—and personal—essays is “Justice by Moonlight.” In it she recounts what she did on her summer vacation, which includes protesting at an oil refinery in California and traveling around the West with friends. By equating these two things, Solnit unassumingly invites us to view the world as she sees it:
Maybe what’s so important to me about my summer evenings under the open sky is being out in the wide world, not just moving busily through it from one place to another, not doing what most of us in the industrialized world do most of the time, looking through a window or remaining in our boxes, but sitting with nothing between me and heaven and everything else on earth.
Solnit once simplified the act of writing to its essence: “You write your books. You scatter your seeds,” but Storming the Gates of Paradise is evidence that she is doing much more than that.
Sarah Fay is an essayist whose work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, and BOMB.
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