Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics

Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics

by Rebecca Solnit

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Rebecca Solnit has made a vocation of journeying into difficult territory and reporting back, as an environmentalist, antiglobalization activist, and public intellectual. Storming the Gates of Paradise, an anthology of her essential essays from the past ten years, takes the reader from the Pyrenees to the U.S.--Mexican border, from San Francisco to London, from open sky to the deepest mines, and from the antislavery struggles of two hundred years ago to today’s street protests. The nearly forty essays collected here comprise a unique guidebook to the American landscape after the millennium—not just the deserts, skies, gardens, and wilderness areas that have long made up Solnit’s subject matter, but the social landscape of democracy and repression, of borders, ruins, and protests. She ventures into territories as dark as prison and as sublime as a broad vista, revealing beauty in the harshest landscape and political struggle in the most apparently serene view. Her introduction sets the tone and the book’s overarching themes as she describes Thoreau, leaving the jail cell where he had been confined for refusing to pay war taxes and proceeding directly to his favorite huckleberry patch. In this way she links pleasure to politics, brilliantly demonstrating that the path to paradise has often run through prison.

These startling insights on current affairs, politics, culture, and history, always expressed in Solnit’s pellucid and graceful prose, constantly revise our views of the otherwise ordinary and familiar. Illustrated throughout, Storming the Gates of Paradise represents recent developments in Solnit’s thinking and offers the reader a panoramic world view enriched by her characteristically provocative, inspiring, and hopeful observations.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520941786
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/18/2007
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 429
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Rebecca Solnit is the best-selling author of ten books – among them Wanderlust, Savage Dreams, and Hollow City – and countless articles, for which she has received numerous awards and accolades. In 2003 she won the prestigious Lannan Literary Award. Also in 2003 she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for River of Shadows.

Read an Excerpt

Storming the Gates of Paradise

Landscapes for Politics
By Rebecca Solnit

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-25109-0

Chapter One


The Red Lands [2003]

The West began at the pay phone at the gas station in Lee Vining, the little town next to Mono Lake on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, too remote for cell phones. I was standing around in the harsh golden light at seven thousand feet waiting to make a call when I realized that the man on the line was trying to patch up his marriage, and the task wasn't going to be quick or easy. "You just aren't going to let us get back together, are you?" he said in a tone at once supplicating and truculent. I thought that maybe she had her reasons and wondered how far away she was on the other end of the phone line.

At Lee Vining, named after a miner and Indian killer, the rain shadow begins: the Sierra, which are just a hair shorter than the Alps, scrape off the Pacific clouds and keep everything east of them arid. There are few real boundaries in nature, and this is one of the most astounding: from the west, you can hike up a green mountain slopeand come to the divide, where you face the beginning of a thousand miles or more of desert, stand in patches of deep snow from the winter before, and look at a terrain where only a few inches of moisture a year arrive. In most of California, all water flows west to the Pacific, including that of the western slope of the Sierra; but on the Sierra's other side, it goes east, into salty bodies of water like Mono and Pyramid lakes, into sinks and subterranean spaces, into thin air. The Great Basin, so-called because its scanty water doesn't drain to any sea, is mostly a terrain of north-south-running ranges, sharp-edged raw geology, separated by flat expanses of sagebrush.

In the desert, plants grow farther apart to accommodate the huge root systems they need to collect enough water to live, and so do communities and ranches. Few but the desert's original inhabitants found it beautiful before cars. The extremes of heat and cold, the vast scale, and the scarcity of water must have been terrifying to those traversing it by beast or on foot. On a hot day, water is sucked straight out of your skin, and you can feel how fast dying of thirst could be; but this aridity is what makes the air so clear, what opens up those fifty-mile views. What feeds the soul starves the skin. Now, with air conditioning and interstates and the option of going several hundred miles a day with ease, desert austerity is a welcome respite from the overdeveloped world. The aridity and the altitude-the lowlands are mostly more than four thousand feet high-make the light strong, clear, and powerful; and the sky in these wide places seems to start at your ankles.

Because wild creatures too are spread far apart and often operate at night, because the colors and changes of the plant life can be subtle, it often seems as though the real drama is in the sky-not exactly life, but life-giving, the light and the rain. Summer thunderstorms in the arid lands are an operatic drama, particularly in New Mexico, where the plot normally unfolds pretty much the same way every day during the summer monsoon season: clear morning skies are gradually overtaken by cumulus clouds as scattered and innocuous as a flock of grazing sheep, until they gather and turn dark; then the afternoon storm breaks, with lightning, with thunder, with crashing rain that can turn a dusty road into a necklace of puddles reflecting the turbulent sky. New Mexico is besieged now by a horrendous multiyear drought, and, watching the clouds gather every afternoon as if for this dionysian release that never came, I felt for the first time something of that beseeching powerlessness of those who prayed to an angry, unpredictable God and felt how easy it would be to identify that God with the glorious, fickle, implacable desert sky.

Every summer I go to live in the sky, I drive into this vastness whose luminousness, whose emptiness, whose violence seem to give this country its identity, even though few of us live there. It's hard to convey the scale of the empty quarter. The Nevada Test Site, where the United States and the United Kingdom have detonated more than a thousand nuclear bombs over the past half century, is inside a virtually unpopulated airbase the size of Wales. Nevada is about the size of Germany and has a population of a million and a half, which wouldn't sound so stark if it weren't that more than a million of them live in Las Vegas and most of the rest in the Reno area, leaving the remainder of the state remarkably unpopulated. At one point, the state decided to capitalize on this and named Highway 50, which traverses the center of Nevada, "the loneliest highway in America."

From Mono Lake, I drove about forty miles on 120, crossing from California to Nevada at some point along the way; then a stretch along the Grand Army of the Republic Highway, Route 6, over to the small town of Basalt; and another hundred or so miles up to 50. At first, the country was high enough that it was green, beautiful, stark, and treeless. Then the altitude climbed a little into piñon pine and juniper country, before dropping down into the drabness of most of the Great Basin, the color of sagebrush and the dirt in between. A grove of trees is a sure sign of a ranch house and irrigation, though there are entire valleys-and a valley means a place five or ten miles wide and several times as long-in which no such ranch is to be seen. Highway 50 traverses a dozen of these valleys and passes; driven in a day, they pass like musical variations, with their subtle differences of color and form. One range looked like mountains, another more like cliffs, with tilted layers of strata clearly visible. One valley was full of dust devils, those knots of swirling wind that pick up debris and move it across the land, funnels that are the visible sign of the wind's entanglement in itself.

Most of California is west of the West: the vast arid expanses come to an end at the Sierra Nevada, the long wall of mountains on the state's eastern edge. West of the Sierra, a dramatic change in scale takes place, and the infolding, the lushness, the variety of the terrain seem to invite the social density and complexity of California, with its thirty-something million residents from all over the world. The two coasts often seem to me to be a pair of parentheses enclosing the inarticulate, unspoken, inchoate American outback, this part of the country colored red for Republican in the voting map for the last presidential election, when the coasts were Democratic blue.

The red lands are an outback, a steppe, a Siberia, far removed from the cosmopolitanism of the coasts. When I live out here, as I have for a week or so now and again over the past dozen years, it seems hard to believe in cities, let alone in nations, in anything but the sublimity of this emptiness. The Great Basin is wide open topographically but introspective in spirit, turned in on itself; and news from outside seems like mythology, rumor, entertainment, like anything but part of what goes on here, or doesn't, out here where the sparse population is interspersed with sites for rehearsing America's wars. A lot of people became preoccupied with Area 51, an off-limits part of the eastern periphery of the Nevada Test Site where aliens were supposed to have landed, or been captured, or had their flying saucers tested, and the logic behind the beliefs seemed to be equal parts creative interpretation of military secrecy and a sense that everything from outside was alien. But the absences resonate as much as the presences.

On another road trip a few years ago, we'd gotten on Interstate 50 farther west and driven through the part of the highway that is also the Bravo 17 Bombing Range, past the electronic warfare installations, past the fake town they practice bombing, to Dixie Valley, a ranching community whose population was forced out by sonic-boom testing in the 1980s. Fallon Naval Air Station-a naval base in this driest of the fifty states-was testing the military uses of sonic booms on livestock, school buses, and homes. Animals stampeded and aborted, windows shattered, people went off the roads, and the navy solved the problem by eliminating the population in this oasis where clear spring water breaks the surface of its own accord.

The few dozen houses had been burned to the ground, and tanks used for aerial target practice were scattered between them. As we looked at the ruins of one ranch house, an extraordinary sound erupted behind us. The best way I can describe it is as the equivalent of a chainsaw running up one's spine, a noise so powerful it seemed more physical than sound. I turned just in time to see a supersonic jet disappear again, after buzzing us from about two hundred feet. It came from nowhere and went back there almost immediately, as though it had ripped a hole in the sky. 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.

Once, driving a back road in Nevada, I was stopped for half an hour by a road construction crew. The woman in the hard hat who'd flagged me down spoke wistfully of San Francisco when I told her where I was from. She'd visited once in high school and spoke as though the seven-hour drive was an impassable distance, and perhaps it was, for her. Her town was called Lovelock, and it had a few casinos but no movie theater or bookstore. When I think of how Americans could fail to measure the carnage caused by hundreds of bombs in one city by that of two hijacked airplane crashes in another, I think of her.

And I think of the wars fought for our cheap gasoline, the wars that make viable not just my summer jaunts but year-round homes sixty or seventy miles from the grocery store (to say nothing of military flights measured not in miles per gallon but gallons per mile). When the freeway clotted up with roadside businesses south of Salt Lake City, this seemed verified by an auto dealer with a flashing signboard: "Our Troops. God Bless Them." And maybe all the talk about freedom means freedom to drive around forever on cheap petroleum, out here in a terrain just a little less harsh than Afghanistan. Thomas Jefferson was afraid of the red lands, afraid that where the arable soil ended so would his arcadian yeoman ideal and Europeans would revert to nomadism. There's something roving and ferocious about the white West that suggests he's right; the United States is really more like the lands it's been bombing lately than like Europe.

Red for a kind of cowboy ethos that society is optional and every man should fend for himself. This vast space was where people stepped out of society when their domestic lives failed or the law was after them. The ethos, of course, ignores the huge federal subsidies that support cattle raising, logging, and mining, just as Republican tax cutters overlook the fact that the military they wish to expand consumes the lion's share of tax revenue. Western and action movies concoct endless situations in which belligerence is justified and admirable, in which a paranoiac autonomy is necessary; and the current president, like Ronald Reagan before him, portrays himself as a representative of these places and their cosmology, an act of self-invention as bold as that of any renamed outlaw. Reagan went from the Midwest to Hollywood; Bush is a product of East Coast privilege, even if he did go to flat, dry Midlands, Texas, to cultivate his insularity and a failed oil business.

Maybe the seductive whisper of these empty places says that you don't have to work things out, don't have to come home, don't have to be reasonable; you can always move on, start over, step outside the social. To think of a figure in this vast western space of the Great Basin is to see a solitary on an empty stage, and the space seems to be about the most literal definition of freedom: space in which nothing impedes will or act. The Bonneville Salt Flats-a dry lake bed in northern Utah-where some of the world's land speed records have been set, and Nevada's Black Rock Desert dry lake bed, where more speed records were set and the bacchanalian Burning Man festival takes place every September, seem to have realized this definition in the most obvious ways: speeding cars, naked, hallucinating, tattooed love freaks partying down. And, of course, the U.S. military training for foreign adventures. (In the first Gulf War, the commanders referred to the unconquered portions of Iraq as "Indian Territory.")

Easy though all this is to deplore on moral grounds, the place is seductive. There's a sense for me that all this is home, that every hour, every mile, is coming home, that this isolated condition of driving on an empty highway from one range to another is home, is some kind of true and essential condition of self, because I am myself an American, and something of a westerner. There's a bumper sticker that says, "I love my country but I fear my government," and, more than most nations, the United States has imagined itself as geography, as landscape and territory first, and this I too love.

A year ago, I was at a dinner in Amsterdam when the question came up of whether each of us loved his or her country. The German shuddered, the Dutch were equivocal, the Tory said he was "comfortable" with Britain, the expatriate American said no. And I said yes. Driving across the arid lands, the red lands, I wondered what it was I loved. The places, the sagebrush basins, the rivers digging themselves deep canyons through arid lands, the incomparable cloud formations of summer monsoons, the way the underside of clouds turns the same blue as the underside of a great blue heron's wings when the storm is about to break.

Beyond that, for anything you can say about the United States, you can also say the opposite: we're rootless except that we're also the Hopi, who haven't moved in several centuries; we're violent except that we're also the Franciscans nonviolently resisting nuclear weapons out here; we're consumers except that this West is studded with visionary environmentalists; and on and on. This country seems singularly dialectical, 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.

The Postmodern Old West, or The Precession of Cowboys and Indians [1996]


The most breathtaking moment in the Road Runner cartoon show came when Wile E. Coyote set a trap for Road Runner. The trap poised on a mesa's edge was a billboard-like image extending the mesa's dead-end road into a different landscape, so that the coyote's prey would crash through the paper image and fall to its death. But the indomitable bird ran straight into the picture and vanished up its road. Representation had become habitable space, and it was no coincidence that the landscape represented was the arid terrain of the Southwest. In much the same way, Ike Clanton escaped the Earp brothers' assault at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, by jumping inside the adjacent photography studio; and the events he had just survived made their own entry into the picture-into literature, moving pictures, and TV. This habit of walking into pictures is the defining cultural habit of the American West, a habit that could be called identity-shifting, self-mythologizing, self-reflexive, simulationist, and a host of other words more often associated with the present moment. But if postmodernism had a birthplace, it was in the Old West.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as tourism sociologist Dean McCannell points out, roving herds of theorists-Umberto Eco, Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson among them-invaded California, which they described as the capital of postmodernism, the place where the future had arrived. Had they spent as much time reading the region's history as they did staring out car windows and watching TV, they would have found that theme parks and drive-by shootings, rogue cops and actor politicians, amnesia and identity-laundering were nothing new; they were in fact Western heritage, just as the toxic waste wars and technology booms bore a strong family resemblance to the previous century's Indian wars and gold rushes. And if this cowboy postmodernism had a mother, it was Jessie Benton Fremont. She played a willing Wile E. Coyote to her husband, John C. Fremont, who disappeared into the picture of the West she made, and a whole nation followed after him. Out of that picture a century later came a cowboy movie star president who transformed the whole nation into his vision of the Wild West: more weapons, more punishment, more mythology, less regulation, less social welfare, less memory (and another publicly adoring wife, Nancy Reagan, parenthetically pulling the hero's puppet strings). In that version of the West, past and present, identity is infinitely malleable, and history is indistinguishable from fiction.


Excerpted from Storming the Gates of Paradise by Rebecca Solnit Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Photographs
Introduction: Prisons and Paradises

1. Uneven Terrain: The West
The Red Lands
The Postmodern Old West, or the Precession of Cowboys and Indians
The Struggle of Dawning Intelligence: Creating, Revising, and Recognizing Native American Monuments
The Garden of Merging Paths

2. Borders and Crossers
A Route in the Shape of a Question
Thirty-Nine Steps Across the Border and Back
Nonconforming Uses: Teddy Cruz on Both Sides of the Border

3. Trouble Below: Mining, Water, and Nuclear Waste
The Price of Gold, the Value of Water
Meanwhile Back at the Ranch
Poison Pictures

4. Reaching for the Sky
Excavating the Sky
Drawing the Constellations
Hugging the Shadows
Justice by Moonlight

5. Landscapes of Resistance and Repression
Fragments of the Future: The FTAA in Miami
Jailbirds I Have Loves
Making It Home: Travels outside the Fear Economy
Mirror in the Street
Liberation Conspiracies
Sontag and Tsunami

6. Gardens and Wildernesses
Every Corner Is Alive: Eliot Porter as an Environmentalist and an Artist
The Botanical Circus, or Adventures in American Gardening
A Murder of Ravens: On Globalized Species

7. Women’s Place
Tangled Banks and Clear-Cut Examples
Seven Stepping Stones down the Primrose Path: A Talk at a Conference on Landscape and Gender
Other Daughters, Other American Revolutions

8. Infernal Museums
California Comedy, or Surfing with Dante
The Wal-Mart Biennale
The Silence of the Lambswool Cardigans
Locked Horns

9. City at the End of the World
The Orbits of Earthly Bodies
San Francisco: The Metamorphosis
The Heart of the City
The Ruins of Memory
Gaping Questions

Coda: The Pacific
Seashell to Ear


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