Three years ago, I bought Rebecca Solnit’s essay collection, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics, on a lark.
At that time I was beginning to write, trying to find my voice. Three years before that, I had moved from the Midwest to Colorado with the boy I would much later marry. I took a gamble then: I didn’t know what the future would bring, but I had an inkling that it would be in the West. We moved to arid Colorado at the height of summer, when the grasses were dry and brown. But when we drove up the Rockies, along rivers curling at the bottom of deep canyons and snowy peaks that dissolved into the sky, I knew this was where I needed to be.
One of my first attempts to write was of the San Rafael Swell in Utah, on the road to Los Angeles. We assumed that that Utah and Nevada would be desolate and planned to speed through at a hundred miles per hour. Instead, we found ourselves in the red lands where canyons scallop to the horizon and rocks form towers and arches. The land is stark and arid, dotted with tiny shrubs and the occasional juniper. I tried to write about the openness of this land, the clarity of the light, and the sense of expanse and disorientation. I had no idea how to say what I wanted to say, but it was in these efforts that I began to write. I continued trying to write about the western landscapes, but I kept finding myself at the gates of Nature. Nature, as I knew then, was a paradise to be fenced off from the ugliness of the world.
I had seen Solnit’s byline in magazines such as Orion and The Nation. Her wide range of subjects, unorthodox conclusions, and the beauty of her language had all impressed me. In an Orion piece published just before the Beijing Olympic Games, she writes not about China’s human rights abuses or intrepid celebrations of athletics, but that the sleek beauty of athletes’ bodies are “co-opted by a culture that wants to be seen as natural, legitimate, stirring, beautiful.” Nations use the bodies of their athletes as masks to cover up abuses of power elsewhere. These themes of the politics of nature and the body had begun to surface in my work, so when I happened upon Storming the Gates of Paradise on the shelves of the Boulder Bookstore, I picked it up without hesitation.
“It was a place that taught me to write,” Solnit writes in the introduction. In the late 1980s, she had gone to the anti-nuclear demonstrations at the Nevada Test Site. There she camped in a spectacular desert, made friends with artists and visionaries, and played tag with the authorities, an experience that led her to make the connections between nature, politics, history, and memory. She wrote of her experiences in a polyphony of voices we often think of as disparate: as a journalist, an art and cultural critic, and a memoirist. She wove these voices into a compelling portrait of a place we think of as desolate, and investigated how our stories of this place reflect who we are.
In Storming the Gates of Paradise, Solnit writes of the Nevada desert and the histories of San Francisco, where she has lived for most of her adult life; she wonders what our stories about the sky and about America’s heavily militarized border with Mexico have to say about us; she explores the impacts of mining and of the constraints on women’s freedom to roam. She writes about thunderclouds gathering above the New Mexico prairie, promising rain that never seems to arrive, as well as about the existential wastelands of suburban Los Angeles. “Paradise,” she writes, “is a Persian word that originally meant an enclosed garden.” In these essays she explicates the ways we fence off our gardens and seeks ways to tear these fences down.
The first essay, “The Red Lands,” is set in the Nevada desert. I have read this essay a dozen times and I still find surprises. She begins at Lee Vining, in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada, where she overhears a man on a pay phone trying to make amends with his wife. From here she segues into the desert ecology, the scale of the landscape, the effects of nuclear testing, the ongoing wars in faraway deserts, the cowboy mythos, and the seductiveness of it all. “The evils in this country tend to generate their opposites,” she writes. “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.”
Solnit does not expound. She invites the reader into the conversation. In the weeks after I first read the essays, I walked around disoriented, as if the ground under my feet had turned to quicksand. I felt as if I had been gifted with lenses with which I could begin to see below the surfaces of things. The trees and rivers and grasslands, the roads and buildings and alleys of my everyday life became rich with meanings and associations. I tried to respond, to engage with Solnit. In these scribblings my voice and opinions were tentative, but I began to understand my beliefs and find the subjects about which I wanted to write.
My breakthrough came when I visited Alcatraz Island the following spring. On that trip I had wanted to go to Angel Island instead, the immigration station and detention center on the West Coast in which, from 1910 to 1940, Chinese immigrants were detained under the provisions of the 1886 Chinese Exclusion Act. Under this law, only Chinese who already had immediate family in America were allowed to enter the country. These immigrants were detained on Angel Island for weeks and sometimes months as they tried to prove their blood ties. In this limbo, many of the detainees carved poems into the barrack walls.
My friends and I missed the ferry to Angel Island that day and went to Alcatraz instead. Despite the different itinerary, I still had the Angel Island poems in mind. I was then in the middle of my own immigration journey, one fraught with the possibility that no matter how hard you work and adhere to the rules, your visa could be denied solely based on a lottery or quota. On Alcatraz, as I stood at the top of the prison block and looked at the San Francisco Bay from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge, I saw the connections between landscape and belief. The cold bay waters were the walls of the maximum security prison, and by extension, the immigration station.
Each time I come back to Storming the Gates of Paradise, I feel like I am returning home. I find nuances I have not noticed before. I find answers to questions I have been asking. I find new ways to ask the questions that matter most to me, about place, about identity, about journeys. Many times I start to write a new piece in my head. Sometimes I read an essay or two for inspiration. In reading this book I began to build my own encyclopedia of images and meanings, a ground upon which I can venture into the world. Lately I have been writing pieces that riff off Solnit’s aphorisms, pieces that I hope make the connections between nature and culture, cities and landscapes, the personal and the political, pieces in which I wrestle with the complexities of my journeys.