A Coherent Landscape

S.F. writer Rebecca Solnit crosses boundaries to capture

Storming the Gates of Paradise is an oddly bombastic title for the new collection of essays by San Francisco thinker Rebecca Solnit. The thirtysomething activist, intellectual, and writer is a force all right, a restless investigator into the shadows and sunspots of American history, culture, and identity. But over the course of 10 books, Solnit's success has been her ability to nimbly slip back and forth across boundaries, gathering ephemeral facts and observations from odd corners of history, art, and her own life, stringing them into quietly stunning essays.

Storming's subtitle is "Landscapes for Politics," a much more apt description of the common thread binding these nearly 40 essays — the roles of place in our lives and culture, from urban histories to environmental disasters to the way we observe and pin memories to the Earth.

On a recent afternoon in Solnit's ridiculously adorable Panhandle apartment, she explained how the theme also holds her own thoughts together. "One of the ways I manage to convince myself that I'm perfectly coherent and not all over the place — if those things are opposed at all — is to imagine my body of work as a landscape, my interests as a landscape — sometimes I'm over here in the swamp of urbanism, sometimes I'm over here in the meadow of wilderness debates.

"I was calling [the collection] Democratic Vistas," she continued, "which is a Walt Whitman title I liked because it conveys landscape and politics in an interesting way. But [my editor] thought it sounded like a social studies paper." It's a valid concern for an editor to have, since Solnit is definitely an egghead (a worn little book called Fragments of Anarchist Anthropology was sitting next to my mug of tea that afternoon) whose work is both all over the place and perfectly coherent. But for all the hours of library legwork that go into one of her essays, the result is always utterly readable, unpretentiously fascinating, and gently mind-bending.

Her wide reputation as an activist cheerleader is mostly a result of a manifesto called "Acts of Hope," which circulated widely on the Internet in the run-up to the Iraq War, and later became her book Hope in the Dark. In a city prone to much misguided public silliness under the mantle of "activism," this rep could make Solnit seem an automatic hero, or an automatic fool, depending on your point of view.

Her work on San Francisco makes you glad to be a reader, and glad to be a San Franciscan. Take the opening to "The Metamorphosis":

"San Francisco is bounded on three sides by water and on the fourth by the San Bruno mountains, a small kingdom whose heights lift you up above the concrete to see the hills, the bay, the sea beyond, with a grid of straight avenues that become lines to the horizon, light shafts, and axes: You always know that there's a beyond to this city ... "

The essay goes on to examine the ways "everything [here] used to be something else," one example being the convoluted and pained history of SOMA as viewed by Kerouac, the 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, Hitchcock, and the Yerba Buena Center ("a strangely dislocated place with an airportlike atmosphere"). Solnit's approach to the history of S.F., the Bay Area, and the American West is so endlessly entertaining and challenging because she simply refuses to let any story travel a straight line. It's a less-confusing version of the trick that Greil Marcus (and she's a fellow lover of '70s punk rock) pulls in his identical quest to chase ideas of history and identity all over his map: Both writers haul seemingly unrelated people and concepts onto a frequency only they can tune in to. At the end of one of Solnit's essays, you feel like you've been swung through an arc of history at the bottom of a butterfly net.

"I find that linear narratives usually leave the really important things out," Solnit said about her wide-angle technique. "What's meaningful for me is the way things connect to each other, and the official rules about how a story gets told don't allow for a lot of the lateral moves that I find make things meaningful. There are important patterns you can only perceive on a larger scale, if you're willing to look at not a moment, but a decade; not a city, but cities; not a person, but people. Or a decade and a person and a city."

The American West has had its boundaries erected and erased so frequently in the last few centuries, from the various destructions and redevelopments of S.F., to the territory fights between nations and indigenous peoples, to the battles over natural preservation, and all these give Solnit a complex vista to amble, plumb, and report back from. "This country seems singularly dialectical," she writes in "Uneven Terrain: the West," "for its evils tend to generate their opposites. And the landscape of the West seems like the stage on which such dramas are played out, a space without boundaries, in which anything can be realized, a moral ground, out here where your shadow can stretch hundreds of feet just before sunset, where you loom large, and lonely." Solnit's landscapes are just as magnificently open.

 
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