On Solnit

Rebecca Solnit will give a live presentation titled “The Speed of Thoughts: Parades, Marches, Strolls, and Other Journeys Through Places and Ideas” at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 9, in Nunemaker Hall at Loyola University New Orleans. The event is free and open to the public.

By Nathan C. Martin

I’m tempted to say that what attracts me most to Rebecca Solnit’s writing is its pitch—it’s poised, and drives relentlessly through her myriad subjects. Her prose reminds me of a dancer whose supreme athleticism is most obvious in its flourishes, but who truly impresses in her ability to sustain grace through a long routine. Her words move with force and fluidity as she layers description upon observation, history atop personal sentiment. Her voice is disarmingly intimate—I felt I knew it before I ever heard her speak.

Then there’s her style—the meandering, associative way in which she scatters out subjects and gathers them back up, neatly or not, in the span of an article or book. A Field Guide to Getting Lost exemplifies this approach. It morphs from memoir to criticism to history, never at once being any of those single things. Really, the book is a long personal essay, shifting from descriptions of a love affair in the New Mexico desert to reflections on Alfred Hitchcok’s Vertigo with little more rationale for the transition than “This made me think of that.” The chapters that are meant to moor the book are all titled “The Blue of Distance,” in which Solnit considers blue as a color and concept through art, science, and her own experiences. Beside her more “serious” works, like her staggering biography of Eadweard Muybridge or her accounts of land wars in the American West, Field Guide is a feel-good pop hit—in fact, some speculate that Beyonce named her kid after it.

But really, it’s Solnit’s content that’s most attractive, the worlds she cracks open to guide us through—worlds where walking is of supreme significance, where disaster brings out the best in human nature, worlds full of under-told histories of conquistadors and secret military facilities, where mad inventors reinvent themselves and use technology to obliterate time and space. It’s appropriate to think of Solnit’s work as exploring worlds, since her writing is so succinctly tied to physical places. She moves effortlessly between urban and rural realms, finding beauty and meaning—and, often, politics. Her first major book, Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West, begins with Solnit driving to join a group of activists camped near the Nevada nuclear test site. From there she proceeds to lay out a Cold War saga on American soil from a first-person perspective, augmented by a body of research that encompasses frontier explorers and the creators of the H-bomb (before moving on to another war, between the U.S. government and the Native Americans who lived in what’s now Yosemite National Park).

Close up, the strength of Solnit’s writing seems often rooted in the way it grounds a reader in a specific land- or cityscape. From a distance, one can see the importance of physical space in the arc of her oeuvre persist, if not increase. It’s unsurprising that she has begun to create books that rely heavily on cartography. Her 2010 Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas pairs essays with imaginative maps of the Bay Area (where Solnit lives) that overlap butterfly habitats with queer public spaces, sources of food with sources of pollution. The maps provide spatial representations through which the essays lead the reader. She has repeated this project in my home state, Wyoming (though the results are not published in book-form), and Solnit is currently at work with a team of New Orleans writers and artists to publish a follow-up collection of maps and essays on our city. Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas will be published by University of California Press, which also put out Infinite City, sometime late this year. (Its cover, like Infinite City’s cover, will feature artwork by Alison Pebworth, whose exhibition Beautiful Possibility opens at the Antenna Gallery on Saturday, Jan. 12).

For a writer so deeply embedded in activism, Solnit is great to quote in love letters. I recently included a passage from A Field Guide to Getting Lost in a note to a woman in Paris. It’s from the book’s first “Blue of Distance” chapter, in which Solnit explains that distant things look blue—like mountains or the sky—because light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us, and gets “lost”:

We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance.

It’s a simple thought: Learn to cherish desire. But I also remember being acutely struck by it the first time I read it, and I relish sharing it. Besides its obvious applicability to a long-distance love affair, it provides precisely the type of thing that art and philosophy are supposed to—a sense of possibility that we can feel another way, that our world can be different. Solnit’s writing provides this sentiment on many levels, from politics and ecology to the tiny lives we intertwine. She excels at drawing out the strands that run between the great and the small, illustrating the points at which they connect, and pulling them tight and strumming them so that they seem to sing.