In Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows (2003), the life of Eadweard Muybridge initiates an expansive meditation on technology, the motion-picture industry, Leland Stanford, Silicon Valley, and, ultimately, the Western landscape. It is terrain that Solnit likewise seeks in her other books, among them Savage Dreams, Wanderlust, and A Field Guide to Getting Lost. So it is unsurprising that in her agile, impassioned collection of essays, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics, Solnit returns to familiar ground—the California earth blasted away by the devastating hydraulic mining of the gold rush, and Nevada’s dry, alkaline lake beds, home to Burning Man and the US military. Even when she travels to the Pyrenees to retrace Walter Benjamin’s last walk before his death at the French-Spanish border, she sees familiar topography: “The terraced vineyards like a leaner, steeper version of Sonoma or Napa, the hillsides above like the coast north of San Francisco where I hike all the time, even down to the live oaks, rattlesnake grass, and fennel.”
These nearly forty essays written over the past twelve years, some previously published in the London Review of Books, Sierra, The Nation, and other journals, go a long way toward providing fresh vantage points on old territory. Solnit is a master of unexpected, revelatory associations between history, science, politics, art, and nature. In an essay on Edward Burtynsky, she not only examines the work of the artist—whose photographs of “luridly red-orange rivers of water saturated with oxidized iron at a nickel quarry” and ruined, grounded oil tankers being dismantled inspire an almost sublime mix of pleasure and terror—but also reflects on photography itself, a medium so toxic, she remarks, that Kodak is the largest polluter in New York State.
There is delight to be had in following a nimble mind as it goes sideways, ducks back in on itself, then jets off again. “The straight line of conventional narrative,” Solnit asserts, “is too often an elevated freeway permitting no unplanned encounters or necessary detours.” In one aside about the communication patterns of American men, Solnit begins with John Wayne’s monosyllabic speech, considers the syntax of AIDS activism (SILENCE= DEATH) and the questionable grammar of George W. Bush, and ends with the opening verses of Dante’s Inferno as adapted by Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders for use in their artwork. And when Solnit visits the Getty Museum, it isn’t Richard Meier’s architecture, Robert Irwin’s garden, or the art she remembers, but the parking garage. Her glancing meditation on the Mission Bay railyard in San Francisco invokes Jack Kerouac, Frank Norris’s The Octopus, Kim Novak in Vertigo, and the Ohlone Indians. (Before the Spanish missionaries, the pioneers, and the forty-niners, the Ohlone inhabited what is now California, and they haunt Solnit’s most recent exploration of the West—as do Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, nature photographer Eliot Porter, and Benjamin.)
“Borders don’t exist in nature, but they can be made,” Solnit observes. If we look long enough at geography—or simply close enough—other shapes emerge. Writing of the nonarable soil of the Nevada military bases, she notes that “the wars fought in the Middle East have been fought here first, in strange ways that could make those wars more real but instead make them more removed.” With Solnit as guide, the land does not end.