Illustration by Charles Burns

Rebecca Solnit

[ESSAYIST]

“I STILL THINK THE REVOLUTION IS TO MAKE THE WORLD SAFE FOR POETRY, MEANDERING, FOR THE FRAIL AND VULNERABLE, THE RARE AND OBSCURE, THE IMPRACTICAL AND LOCAL AND SMALL.”
How to avoid moralizing without rendering yourself totally ineffectual:
Humor
Self-awareness
The language of persuasion and inclusion

Rebecca Solnit is the author of twelve books. She is a journalist, essayist, environmentalist, historian, and art critic; she is a contributing editor to Harper’s, a columnist for the environmental magazine Orion, and a regular contributor to Tomdispatch.com and the Nation; she’s also written for, among other publications, the L.A. Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the London Review of Books. Over the past two decades, her inventive and accessible style has found a readership across the wide public-to-academic spectrum. To give an indication of this appeal, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (2003)—her book on the history of photography, the dawn of the cinematic West, and more or less the annihilation of space and time—was awarded both the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism (on the public side of the spectrum) and a prize from the Society for the History of Technology (those tenure-wise academics).

Throughout her career, Solnit’s emphasis has been on the political qualities of art and the environment, the artistic elements of nature and politics, and the meanderings of humans in and out of those combinations. Maybe that was a rhetorical flourish on my part, but the bigger picture of her work is this notion of meandering. If nothing else, Solnit was born a wanderer. You find it in the “walking” theme of Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000), the intellectual wandering theme in A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005), and the implicit physical and metaphysical meandering that is the topic of dozens of her essays and stories. We corresponded about all of this by email last year, as she was working on her new book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, released this August. Our main challenge was to set that wandering theme into her body of work in just the right way. But it’s a challenge in a good way for readers, encouraging them to follow along on literary tours and to find new vistas by turning unexpected corners.

—Benjamin Cohen

I. ON BACKGROUND AND IDENTITY

THE BELIEVER: I’ve seen you referred to as an art historian, a landscape writer, and an art critic, if not more. How do you consider your own work and writer’s identity?

REBECCA SOLNIT: In Wanderlust, I wrote, “This history of walking is an amateur history, just as walking is an amateur act. To use a walking metaphor, it trespasses through everybody else’s field—through anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, religious studies—and doesn’t stop in any of them on its long route. For if a field of expertise can be imagined as a real field—a nice rectangular confine carefully tilled and yielding a specific crop—then the subject of walking resembles walking itself in its lack of confines.” I have a very clear sense of what I am here to do and what its internal coherence is, but it doesn’t fit into the way that ideas and continuities are chopped up into fields or labeled. Sometimes I say I’m an essayist, because that’s an elegant, historically grounded—if sometimes trivialized—mode of literature, while nonfiction is just a term for the leftovers when fiction is considered to be paramount, and creative nonfiction is even more abject a term.

BLVR: In what way, or for whom, do you figure these labels matter?

RS: Well, people want to call you something, and saying you’re just a writer is not enough. Not that I’m comparing myself to them, but Orwell wrote memoir, fiction, polemics, beautiful essays, reviews, ruminations, and tirades; Sontag wrote mostly essays, a few at length, some dealing with broader ideas and genres, some dealing with politics and ethics—and then there are her novels. I love best the nonfiction of a lot of people celebrated mostly for their fiction, from Virginia Woolf to Jamaica Kincaid. The best part about the critical training I got in the visual arts is that it was really just about reading things carefully and asking questions about meaning. The subject could be an artwork, but it could also be the history of nuclear physics or national parks or the representation of Native Americans or the perceptual and spatial changes the railroad brought.

BLVR: Maybe it’s all an artifact of the critic or analyst or bookstore clerk trying to pick labels.

RS: I think so, since I have always worked in multiple genres: the more personal essays exist all along, and I’m not done with writing about the visual arts; I’ve been as much an urban as a nature writer this past decade and more; and part of the point of [the book] Wanderlust is that these don’t have to be distinct genres. The track record in print is not a perfect guide to the life. My big breakthrough was at the Nevada Test Site. I realized there that the genres—first-person lyrical essay, reportage, critical analysis—couldn’t be separate, that I needed all the tools to describe a place so complicated, a place where all kinds of cultures, histories, and ideas converged and collided, filtered through my own experience camping out with the antinuclear activists. That breakthrough led to Savage Dreams and the mixed, meandering style I’ve mostly used since. It was breaking through genre, in some ways.

BLVR: How did you begin your professional career? Your childhood and upbringing crop up in many of your essays, but what of this shift to legitimate professional writer?

RS: My first published pieces were the year I turned twenty-two; I was writing regularly for a music magazine and published a piece on a local punk rocker—this was the early 1980s, when the phenomenon was a little more unpredictable—and, for the local city magazine, simultaneously wrote a report on George Segal’s holocaust memorial still hidden behind some shrubs at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor at Land’s End in San Francisco.

BLVR: What was that?

RS: It’s in the genre of plaster casts of people, his usual style, then turned into a permanent medium. I didn’t think it worked then; twenty-something years later I should perhaps look at it again. I might not like it, but I might be kinder about it.

BLVR: So you weren’t born a writer.

RS: No one is born a writer; literacy is a peculiar mode of being, but I was all about stories from a very early age, before reading.

BLVR: You mean it isn’t possible to be born a writer? Or just that you weren’t?

RS: I sometimes wonder what those of us who are writers would become in a nonliterary culture—storytellers? Hermits? For me, before I learned how to read I was really interested in story and in landscape and nature. I decided to become a writer almost as soon as I learned to read. Then in my twenties I found that the art world was a better home in some ways, because it asked larger and more fundamental questions about making, perception, influence, meaning, interpretation, and the visual remains a home base in many ways.

BLVR: I’m asking because what I’m really interested in is your own sense of transformation. You have an activist past, and then you have an art historian/critic record, and then you have what is more of a nature writer’s bibliography, with the Orion essays perhaps in particular.

RS: I have an activist present too. A lot of people think of political activism as some grim duty, and I think we do have an obligation to be citizens—to be informed and engaged—but it’s not just duty. Public life enlarges you, gives you purpose and context, saves you from drowning in the purely personal, as so many Americans seem to. I still think that walking down the middle of the street with several thousand people who share your deepest beliefs is one of the best ways to take a walk. I’ve also learned by firsthand experience and eyewitnessing that popular power matters—to recognize the power of citizens and grassroots efforts and not be so depressingly, disempoweringly focused on the power of the elected and elite, as so many Americans are. Alone, we’re powerless in many ways that we’re powerful together, and that power is one of the great pleasures and purposes of life we hardly have language for in this culture. The fruits of my adventures in latter-day Indian wars, at nuclear test sites, in the streets of Seattle, San Francisco, and the UK, are evident in Hope in the Dark in particular, but also in Savage Dreams and even in something less direct like A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which extends Wanderlust’s concern with valuing the unstructured, the unquantifiable, the unknown, and the wandering that brings you to these necessities. So for me politics feeds the work directly and indirectly.

BLVR: I want to get back to origins for a minute, because all of the work you just cited followed from what appears to have been a peripatetic childhood roaming the continents. I wonder if that kind of childhood paved the way for your later literary wandering and exploring? A biographer would make some hay out of this, I’m sure.

RS: Well, we lived in four or five places on two continents before I turned five, and then my mother’s Irish-peasant instincts won out over my wandering-Jew father and we settled north of San Francisco for the rest of my childhood and adolescence. So I was and am very rooted in a particular place and ecology. In the movie There Will Be Blood, the most moving passage for me was when they ride to the sea: the rolling California hills hit me like the face of a beloved. Of course Thoreau once remarked that he had traveled widely in Concord, and though I was in Iceland when we first were in touch for this interview and have been to Mexico twice in the past year, mostly I like to travel widely in San Francisco and the larger home that California and the southwest are for me.

II. ON THOREAU AND THE PUBLIC

BLVR: Thoreau is a touchpoint for you in many of your writings. What is your relationship with him and his work? Kindred spirit? Admirer? Literary reference point? Misunderstood actor? Inspiration?

RS: Yes, (F), all of the above! I think he’s a great example of someone refusing the categories: he thinks about leaves changing color and he also thinks about, and talks about, and cares about, slavery and John Brown and the war on Mexico. In the introductory essay to Storming the Gates I write about the way he’s so insistent that when he got out of jail the morning after that founding act of civil disobedience, he went huckleberrying. It’s an insistence that pleasure and commitment, landscape and politics, the big and the small can and do coexist. He’s himself a great refuser of genre. And a founding father of insurrection against what the founding fathers gave us, and a great writer with an aphoristic way of describing that comes back again and again.

BLVR: Not to mention that “Walking”—his essay about both the pleasures of knowing the landscape from walking it and the future possibilities of an America defined by walking away from the constraints of society—resonates strongly with your work.

RS: Well, actually in Savage Dreams I tore into that essay for changing its mind halfway through about the conquest of the American land and praising the settlers as ax-swinging Adams in a new Eden. But Thoreau as a whole I love—lately I’ve been quoting, as I did earlier, his “I have traveled a great deal in Concord.” Part of my agenda in Wanderlust was to make it clear that you can wander widely on foot within miles of home or go around the world and never travel in any way that matters. I am still struck by how much unknown San Francisco contains after a quarter century in residence there. And I am a homebody in that my main urge is to deepen my knowledge of known and loved places and regions rather than jump into entirely new territory.

BLVR: I’ve also heard your work characterized as that of a public intellectual, and maybe Thoreau—even though he didn’t have much public fame in his own lifetime—also has that image of a public intellectual. This could be another connecting thread.

RS: Well, I want people to read my work. I want it to have value for others. I occasionally regret not writing simpler narratives around more tightly defined subjects when I’m admiring one of the better best sellers out there. But I am apparently here to make wide-ranging connections and lateral moves. I don’t think my work has to be loved by everyone, and it’s loved by enough people that I’m grateful and able to keep going. Thoreau was more of a public secret in his day, and he encourages the truly obscure with a career that bloomed and bloomed after death.

BLVR: You wrote an essay in 2008 called “Men Explain Things to Me” (which appeared in truncated form in the L.A. Times). In it, you tell the story of a man at a party who told you about a book you really should know about that turned out to be the book you wrote, River of Shadows. The essay hit on issues of gender and authority, but it also seems to be tied to this matter of audience and how you are read and by whom.

RS: And you know what? He hadn’t even read the book. First, I don’t feel that I’ve been really handicapped by my gender as a writer, at least not directly—taking my own aspirations seriously and asking others to did involve overcoming my upbringing. After that it’s more the personal, face-to-face stuff when I get squelched, dismissed, insulted, and presumed ignorant by silly men in passing. And as I made clear in that piece, I’ve had really fantastic male editors through much of my writing life, so I have been very well respected and supported by men: “men” is not a tidy category here. I wrote that piece because my friend Marina said that young women needed to hear it, to know that these silencings are widespread and they are not alone. And of course there are people, men mostly, who get huffy that I take on subjects like the history of cinema and technology that aren’t supposed to be, apparently, my turf.

BLVR: It’s a whole different challenge to this idea of a public intellectual.

RS: That term public intellectual: all I know is that I stayed home alone for almost two decades, writing, before it became oddly visible and audible. Oddly, because it came out of silence and introversion, but it’s useful to be able to advocate for things I believe in, if not quite what I signed up for. And I’m still spending a lot of time home alone writing. Talking to people and going places is also a part of the work, but staying home alone is crucial.

III. ON POLITICS, KNOWLEDGE, AND MYSTERY

BLVR: On the one hand, then, you write strong activist tracts—against nuclear power, for example, but others too. It’s an appealing, respectful kind of activism rooted in knowledge. On the other hand, though, you have these very literate, complex exploratory essays that talk about being lost, about being surprised, about the wisdom of not knowing—or at least of recognizing the inherent limits to knowing. Somewhat of an enchantment theme, though not so-labeled. So, how thus reconciled?

RS: I think it’s important to be clear about what we know and what we don’t. We know that nuclear waste is a big problem. And we don’t know quite what forces move even those we love best or exactly what the consequences of our actions are. Writing can travel in both territories, like a lens that can focus or widen, zoom or back up to the big picture. In his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell declared—and the passage and a bit more of it is on the wall near my desk at home—

I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and I do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.

There’s also a wonderful essay of Orwell’s called “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray,” where he writes about a racy ballad, planting trees, and other pleasant subjects, and you get a taste of the writer he might have been had he not been so compelled by the bleak politics of his time.

Yet even this piece is a reflection on legacies and the good or bad effects we can have long after our own time—particularly when it comes to planting trees (and you get a rare glimpse of Orwell the gardener). Orwell’s moral imperative hasn’t gone to sleep—it’s just contemplating milder topics than totalitarianism and propaganda. But the planting of trees matters, to him and to the world—and in our time, as politics have become more and more about gender roles, food, the environment, culture, and representation, in part because we’ve become more politically sophisticated, every topic matters and is political in some sense. In that wonderful Orwell statement, he makes it clear that pleasure is a part of his life and work too, a necessary part. Of course there are less immediate and sensual pleasures in a life of purpose and engagement.

BLVR: That sounds more like a matter of engagement versus disengagement than knowledge and ignorance.

RS: Maybe so. But we tend to think of politics as a tiny fenced-off arena of unpleasantness, which most Americans avoid—except for the horse race of a primary season or fun moral questions often centered in irrelevant individual crimes and acts. But politics is pervasive. Everything is political and the choice to be “apolitical” is usually just an endorsement of the status quo and the unexamined life.

BLVR: You’re making a challenge there to the politics of art, of writing.

RS: Apolitical is a political position, yes, and a dreary one. The choice by a lot of young writers to hide out among dinky, dainty, and even trivial topics—I see it as, at its best, an attempt by young white guys to be anti-hegemonic, unimposing. It relinquishes power—but it also relinquishes the possibility of being engaged with the really interesting and urgent affairs of our time, at least as a writer. The challenge is how can you not be the moralizing, grandstanding beast of the baby boomers but not render yourself totally ineffectual and—the word that comes to mind is miniature. How can you write about the obscure things that give you pleasure with a style flexible enough to come round to look at more urgent matters? Humor matters here, and self-awareness, and the language of persuasion and inclusion rather than hectoring and sermonizing. You don’t have to be a preacher to talk about what matters, and you don’t have to drop the pleasures of style. If you can be passionate about, say, Russian dictionary entries from the early nineteenth century, can you work your way up to the reconstruction of New Orleans? And can you retain some of the elegance and some of the pleasure when you look at big, pressing topics? I think you can. It’s what I’ve tried to do. I still think the revolution is to make the world safe for poetry, meandering, for the frail and vulnerable, the rare and obscure, the impractical and local and small, and I feel that we’ve lost if we don’t practice and celebrate them now, instead of waiting for some ’60s never-neverland of after-the-revolution. And we’ve lost the revolution if we relinquish our full possibilities and powers.

BLVR: Savage Dreams (1994) and, more recently, Storming the Gates of Paradise (2007) show that span, right?

RS: I hope so. In Savage Dreams, for example, I have a very strong polemic about the nuclear wars—for nuclear testing in Nevada was a war, against the desert and its inhabitants—and the unfinished Indian wars. Politics rise out of culture, and you can change some particular consequence through legislation and opposition, but to change the causes is cultural work—people are not less homophobic in this country because we have better legislation; we have better legislation because people—even the Supreme Court a few years back—are less homophobic. The political changes matter immensely, but they come out of cultural changes—which doesn’t mean you don’t need activists inside and outside electoral politics; it just means that everyone who came out of the closet to their friends, family, and schoolmates or coworkers was also engaging in a political act, and the rise of nonscary, nondamaged queer characters in entertainment mattered, that representations and the war against cliché mattered. Even Melissa Etheridge and Ellen DeGeneres mattered, and that two-hankie movie about queer cowboys.

BLVR: Aren’t those all calls to know more? Not to appreciate mystery?

RS: It isn’t so neat. Fundamental causes of the troubles that engage me are metaphors of control, beliefs in the supreme value of convenience, efficiency, and speed, fear of the unknown, compartmentalization, moral and otherwise, and the belief that things as they are are inevitable and there’s little we can do about changing them. So a book like Field Guide is not a polemic, but in celebrating the unknown, wandering, and going beyond your limits, it is swimming upstream in the currents of our time. Of course Savage Dreams also had a lot of descriptions of beauties and pleasures; I don’t think you can or should leave those things out, and I tried to make it a pleasure to read. Pleasure can be radical. In a divided culture, being undivided and synthesizing and connecting across broad areas can be an act of resistance, just as being slow—as in doing things deliberately, walking or biking or cooking from scratch or gardening or sitting around and swapping stories, not being dilatory or sluggish—in a sped-up culture is an act of resistance akin to the work slowdowns that were one form of factory strike.

And there’s no firm dividing line between passionate political engagement and epiphany and pleasure. At the core of my writing is a desire to dissolve most of the cultural Berlin Walls running through our imaginations. After all, it was through that Nevada Test Site experience that I discovered that the sunset is just as beautiful when you’re in handcuffs, and a holding pen can be a very good place from which to watch it.

IV. ON NUCLEAR POWER

BLVR: That formative experience with nuclear power often comes up in your work, and it’s a particular area of interest for me. Given your own history of involvement in nuclear issues, what strikes you most about the fervor with which recent advocates have claimed that “nuclear is the only answer”? I hear this a lot. But if “nuclear is the only answer,” then I mostly wonder in return, what is it “the answer” to?

RS: Well, the first problem is that they still think like big science—that there is “the answer.” In fact, there are hundreds of little answers that don’t include nuclear, including scaling back our consumption and travel and building better and using a lot of the elegant new engineering to do everything more efficiently and actually doing something about all the renewable energy sources that are out there—maybe having a new renewable/sustainable energy project like the Manhattan Project or race to the moon if they want some big-science action. A lot of what people are trying to hang on to when they embrace nukes is the opportunity to do things pretty much the way they’ve always done them: sloppily, wastefully. Nukes are the last best chance of not changing. Or so they think. My friend Chip Ward—a brilliant, uproarious writer and antinuclear/environmental activist in Utah—points out that, presuming we’re looking for “the answer,” nuclear power isn’t it. It takes insane amounts of carbon-producing endeavor to mine and refine the uranium ore, build the power plants, and if we started tomorrow they wouldn’t be online anywhere soon enough to make a difference in the narrow window we’ve got. So even in carbon-emissions terms and the race to stop screwing up the climate, they’re not the answer.

BLVR: And that says nothing of the laundry list of environmental problems nuclear energy exacerbates.

RS: That’s right. It leaves out the incredible contamination that takes place at every stage of the nuclear cycle, from mining to waste disposal, even when there aren’t major accidents—and if you expand the scale of nuclear operations, you expand the chances of an accident. The state of Nevada, which has been ferociously fighting the efforts to put a totally unsafe dump for all the reactor waste in its southern deserts, estimates that if you actually ship all that waste to Nevada from all over the country, the waste routes pass within half a mile of 50 million Americans, and there would be ninety to five hundred accidents during the thousands of shipments. And, once it gets there, things can go very seriously, apocalyptically wrong for the subsequent hundred thousand years before the stuff becomes less dangerous. That’s way too many problems to be a solution to anything. It’s also a way of robbing the majority who are the future for the minority who are the present.

BLVR: Yet I keep hearing it.

RS: Don’t you think when they say, “Of course, but… we have to go nuclear,” they sound like those unconvincing, unclear people who six years ago were saying, “Of course I am against war and… but we have to invade Iraq before those terrorists get us”? They want to have their cake and not think about it too. And they’re wrong. And uninformed.

V. ON BEAUTY

BLVR: You write, and we’ve talked about, the political content of art and writing. You also bring up a point about beauty that struck me—that we prefer beautiful images of nature, of the pristine wilderness, over what are considered corrupt or ugly ones. The big, glossy periodicals will thus devote full-page spreads to a mountainscape, but only a small corner-image of a polluted area or an abrupt but aesthetically unpleasing vision of rocks or dirt. “Understanding politics through place,” you write in the intro to SGP. So there’s that. What I wonder is what place and value does beauty have in environmental action and legislation? We deify beauty and ignore the ugly as less worthy of attention. Do dirty, unpleasantly aesthetic places deserve protection? In terms of the political content of visual arts, in what way does a dirty picture do work as compared to a beautiful one?

RS: Well, there are two separate beauties here: beautiful places and beautiful pictures. Richard Misrach upset a lot of people in the late 1980s when he started making beautiful color photographs of ugly places—livestock dumps, bombing sites strewn with old bombs and wreckage, the Enola Gay bunker in Utah. People wanted the good and the beautiful to be synonymous. Edward Burtynsky’s work comes straight out of Richard’s work, even though he gets more attention for it. On the other hand, everyone who’s ever taken a point-and-shoot to a national park knows you can make quite uninteresting, if not outright ugly, pictures of beautiful places.

One of the nice research adventures I had was an assignment to write in depth about Eliot Porter, the guy who kind of invented color nature photography as the technology of color film was advancing to make the medium more viable for people who weren’t the superb lab technicians he was. An influential artist’s work is easily recognizable. An even more influential artist’s work is not: it becomes not what but how we see—Porter created a vision of what we want to see in wilderness and pretty nature spots generally, and has been imitated, wittingly or not, by nearly every color nature photographer since. Most of them have souped up and dumbed down his complex, thoughtful pictures into the calendar stuff we all know too well.

BLVR: Do I confess here that I have an Eliot Porter address book? Or is that best left unstated?

RS: Well, there’s room for a lot of kinds of beauty and thoughtfulness. But I think we need to free people up from the clichés of that way of seeing. And we need to look not at ugly places—the only ugly places are man made anyway, and even the airports and oil refineries and parking lots are pretty interesting in, for example, Michael Light’s brilliant aerial work. One of the things that I love about his aerials of southern Los Angeles is that you can see the docks, the refineries, the freeways, the suburban residential layouts with little cul-de-sacs and curving streets and the huge amount given over to cars in motion or parked—on that scale you really see systemically what the petroleum landscape is. It’s not exactly ugly—it’s too fascinating—but it doesn’t make you feel comfortable, it makes you feel alert and engaged. I don’t think the environmental movement needs to abandon beauty, but I think they need more innovation and visual sophistication in teaching people to see. There are a lot of kinds of beauty.

Benjamin Cohen teaches at the University of Virginia and lives near Charlottesville with his wife, Chris, and two children. Their exceptionality continues unabated. His book, Notes from the Ground: Science, Soil, and Society in the American Countryside, is being published this fall.

Illustration by Charles Burns

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