Making a home for hope
An interview with Rebecca Solnit
Editor’s Note: The following article, though presented in a question-and-answer format, is actually a boiled-down version of Laura Paskus' original interview with Rebecca Solnit. Paskus condensed the interview in order to make a very long exchange fit into the allotted space, and to add clarity.
After the interview first appeared on www.hcn.org, Ms. Solnit contacted us to express her dissatisfaction with the end result. She feels that important statements had been left out and that her words had been taken out of context. HCN has offered Solnit the opportunity to air her concerns and clarify her statements in both our print edition and on the Web site. Read her response at the end of the article.
What are the stories of the West that most compel you?
The single most important and transformative story for me is something I wrote about in Savage Dreams: Yosemite National Park and the fiction of virgin wilderness was manufactured by making Native Americans disappear.
The park management made Native Americans disappear from photos, from the record - and that's how white people think about nature. They imagined it as static and stable and without human intervention and fire. We all know that story now, but in 1991, when I was writing about it, it was quite radical.
Then there are the grimmer stories, nuclear stories like Yucca Mountain, which is as far away from opening as when it began. And the Nevada Test Site. One of the battles right now is uranium mining is starting up again because there is that unfortunate belief that nuclear energy is the clean, green solution.
And water, of course. It is clear that it was Coyote, not Yahweh, who made these places like Glen Canyon Dam, which ran out of water in only 40 years. People thought they were saying goodbye forever, but it turns out there isn't enough water. You can't store water if the Southwest is going to drink it all as soon as it comes. Canyons reappear, and they don't look as bad as people imagined. Not that that's a hopeful story, but it's a funny one.
Even when you're writing about pretty overwhelming topics, I feel like you avoid surrendering to despair. Do you have hope for the future?
Cheerfulness and hope are a form of ferocity for me. I feel that tone (of despair) is a conventionality of the left and the environmental movement. Most environmental fundraising works by telling people, "All these bunny rabbits are going to die if you don't write a check immediately." You don't hear a lot of victory stories. Terrible things are happening, but they're not all that's happening. The West is full of stories like Mono Lake, where the water is rising because of the Mono Lake Committee.
I think that we're on a pretty grim course with climate change, subtle pollution, plastics, but there is also a lot of hope for what gets saved, and what gets changed. The fact that things could be a lot worse is evidence that we have power.
In Storming the Gates of Paradise, you write of eating dinner with some Europeans when the topic of love for country comes up. For you, what does it mean to love one's country?
Conservatives imagine the government is the father to whom we are obedient.
Radicals see the government as the child we're trying to raise right ... potty train, keep from sticking its fingers in the light socket. You need to keep your government under control, keep it from its course of destruction.
I think it's also part of that stubborn part of me - I'm not going to give up my country to them. I think you also need perspective, and despite having the worst government we've ever had in this country, in this really scary, imperial century, there are some remarkable possibilities there. This is the country that gave birth to a lot of the ideas around the environmental movement, and the liberatory movement worldwide. Some people will still say that the civil rights movement didn't succeed, but it changed the world profoundly. There are lots of valuable tools that matter. There is a creative legacy here. Then there are the landscapes. There is a lot to love.
Another essay I loved in Storming the Gates of Paradise was titled "Making It Home: Travels outside the Fear Economy." For you, what does it mean to be at home in the West?
You don't inherit rights to be in a place. You earn them. So you can become, if not native, then local, by knowing where you are and participating. By knowing where you are - for me in San Francisco, that's knowing that all my showers are snowmelt from Hetch Hetchy - knowing those here before us, knowing these things is part of what it means to call a place home.
So many people nowadays live in an airport-like limbo of chain stores and transnational trends - a CNN bubble world, where you could be anywhere, and don't have a strong sense of spaces.
A more specific sense of being home is the sense of being a pedestrian. We live in an era where people don't go anywhere except by car and are afraid of strangers, or ill at ease outside. Or there are those who are okay with being outside in wilderness, but not okay in public. Democracy rests with having faith in strangers, becoming more reliant on them.
The author writes from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The work of both women can be found in the new book, The Future of Nature: Writing on a Human Ecology from Orion Magazine.
Rebecca Solnit responds:
Dear Editors, I know the intentions were good, but the interview with me in High Country News was damagingly distorted. Readers should know that the conversation was not recorded, but reconstructed from the interviewer's notes and should keep in mind that even the absence of a single word or change of tense of a single verb can invert the meaning of a sentence. Many statements attributed to me appear to be garbled or condensed down beyond coherence. For example, I am quoted as saying: "The park management made Native Americans disappear from photos, from the record - and that’s how white people think about nature. They imagined it as static and stable and without human intervention and fire. We all know that story now, but in 1991, when I was writing about it, it was quite radical." I always say and believe that I said that what is radical is not the old story of virgin wilderness untouched by man, but the new one of a long-inhabited continent that calls into question the old dichotomy between humans and nature, civilization and wilderness. This revision of the non-indigenous way of thinking about American landscapes emerged from the political discourse around the Columbian Quincentennial of 1992 and the resurgence of Native American visibility and political power. Park management did not make Native Americans disappear from the photos with some metaphysical airbrush. Many forces, including the old environmental imagination as embodied by John Muir, the language of the Wilderness Act and the ideals of uninhabited landscape as represented by Ansel Adams's work, made Native Americans largely invisible in key sites such as national parks (this invisibility and its consequences are the subject of the second half of my 1994 book Savage Dreams and the profound changes in visibility and imagination over the past fifteen years are discussed at great length in my 2006 book with the photographers Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe, Yosemite in Time). Both High Country News and I have revised our interview policies as a result of this unfortunate incident. I appreciate the cooperation of the staff in trying to amend this situation. I have been both a subscriber and an admirer of the publication for many years.