Possibilities of Hope

Rebecca Solnit reads at the UA from her politically charged works

Rebecca Solnit's books are like courses of a fine meal. You linger at the warm bread and sweet butter, fill up on appetizers and sometimes skip right to dessert.

The essayist, by her own admission, moves here and there, in a similar fashion. Her eight books mirror this meandering. They've also garnered a pocketful of awards--from the prestigious Lannan Foundation Literary Award to the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism.

I discovered Solnit's writing with Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism (Verso, 2001). But that was a decade after she'd written several other books that braid disparate themes: What place means to us, who screws up the environment, why we need to see the world at 3 mph (the speed of walking), how technology informs our everyday life.

As a grazer in ideas, what reins her in?

"I believe that portrays me as a horse. I'm more of a nomad, as is evident in my books. Nomads aren't lost. I'm very grounded in place, actually. I'm not an academic, but if I were, I think I'd find myself in the geography department," she says in a recent phone conversation from her home in San Francisco.

Her latest foray is into the wild possibilities of hope. But Solnit is no new-ager. Her recent, and slimmest, tome began life in May 2003 as an essay posted on Tom Engelhardt's Web site, www.tomDispatch.com (where she's since posted insightful essays, including a parody of the color-coded alert system imposed on this country after Sept. 11). Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Nation Books, 2004) offers a respite since the beginning of the Iraqi invasion.

"At that time, there was intense despair about the war. On one side, we had the Bush dynasty doing truly horrific and despondency-causing activities. On the other, the Democrats had unleashed the likes of Howard Dean," explains Solnit.

Unlike her other books--lyrical prose massaging sinewy topics (literary, aesthetic, scientific, biographical, historical)--Hope is more abstract, yet more global in its focus. It's the book we all need to get us through these dark times.

"It's my valentine to everyone who cares for these things, but for those who are feeling despondent about the political struggles," offers Solnit.

The book tells stories of victories--15 years of millennial arrivals--and it explores the role of activists, artists and DIY media makers, and how unlikely alliances can help us muddle along (say, between the Nature Conservancy and Western ranchers).

So, Sept. 11, 2001, holds forth as an important juncture in our world (though Solnit thinks the Bush administration missed the possibility of fomenting citizen-based communion by injecting fear into our every patriotic muscle). But other junctures are meaningful, too, like the fall of communism or the shutting down of WTO meetings or the rising up of the Zapatistas.

"People don't take stock of how much the world has changed. They can become all too comfortable with despair."

Solnit has spent a good deal of wordage over the years on the conquistador take-over of Western desert lands and has spent more than a decade stomping those grounds in anti-nuclear protest.

"We stopped official above-ground nuclear tests in '91, and the Nevada Yucca Mountain dump site was (dealt a setback) by a judge this July. However, Bush wants to resume tests. It's an ongoing thing," she says.

"You have to realize about testing and the desert. Twenty years ago, they figured we weren't going to be fighting any more jungle wars, so U.S. testing focused on the desert. This isn't a fact; it's just what happens when you make connections between certain activities and military realities."

Solnit's mind works like a spiral. Her 2003 book, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (Viking) picked up from Savage Dreams: A Journey Into the Landscape Wars of the American West (University of California Press, 1994); they both looked at technology, but one investigated photography while the other zeroed in on the atom bomb. Hope in the Dark spirals off from that earlier book. And Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Penguin Books, 2000), exploring how we perceive place and time, related back to the Muybridge book.

She's made discoveries along the way, like how the whole American West could be her home with all its political crises and problems and obligations that go with it.

Solnit's newest project, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, comes out from Viking next summer. "It's a very introspective, melancholy book. This contrast happens to me a lot. So with Hope in the Dark, it was about how we find a way to celebrate the political victories that provide a map. Field Guide functions in a world where you don't know where you're going.

"But they're really just flip sides of the same coin."

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