A Paradise Built in Hell

ParadiseBuilt

 

The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

“Imagine a society where money plays little or no role, where people rescue each other and then care for each other, where food is given away, where life is mostly out of doors in public, where the old divides between people seem to have fallen away, and the fate that faces them, no matter how grim, is far less so for being shared, where much once considered impossible, both good and bad, is now possible or present, and where the moment is so pressing that old complaints and worries fall away, where people feel important, purposeful, at the center of the world.”  A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit

An upside to disaster is that it can create community out of the ashes. Utopia, even, temporary though that might be. And among individuals, a clarified, reinvigorated sense of life purpose.

In light of my last post about David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, it occurred to me that Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell can be an antidote to despair, because it arms us with a deeply optimistic view of human nature. When it was published in 2009, it was named best book of the year by The Washington Post, The New York Times, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, The New Yorker, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Two hundred years from now, when people want to know what it was like to be alive early in the 21st century, they’ll read Rebecca Solnit: journalist, scholar, historian, and immensely gifted storyteller. Solnit’s prose is a joy to read, because she so seamlessly blends deep research with exquisite portrayals of the humans involved in whatever stranger-than-fiction story she happens to be telling.

Solnit is a soulful activist with a decidedly liberal bent, so she may not appeal if you have more conservative leanings. On the other hand, her books are not partisan diatribes, but suspenseful, exquisitely-researched works often drawing surprising conclusions that transcend our tired, inaccurate political and cultural divides. She does so in A Paradise Built in Hell.

We see a handful of disasters: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the 1917 Halifax explosion, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina, among others – and how the government, other well-established institutions, and ordinary citizens responded. Mostly, citizens rose to the occasion magnificently. But, often, the government, the military, and officially designated emergency responders – not so much. Solnit interviews disaster studies experts (it never occurred to me that disaster studies is a well established and growing academic discipline) and other specialists and draws upon what she learned to posit theories as to why might be so.

We also see, up close and personal, overwhelmed individuals who mustered inner resources they didn’t know they had, permanently transformed by the utopian-like goodwill and community that, in the right circumstances, can arise in the days after disaster.

Here’s a passage written by a survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire:

“….everybody was your friend and you in turn everybody’s friend. The individual, the isolated self was dead. The social self was regnant. Never even when the four walls of ones own room in a new city shall close around us again shall we sense the old lonesomeness shutting us off from our neighbors. Never again shall we feel singled out by fate for the hardships and ill luck that’s going. And that is the sweetness and the gladness of the earthquake and the fire. Not of bravery, not of strength, nor of a new city, but of a new inclusiveness.”

Here are the memories of a young woman who survived the London Blitz:

“A bomb fell two streets away. Another landed nearer as they raced inside, came near enough to buffet her with waves, ‘like bathing in a rough sea.’ She found herself clutching the floor as if to keep from falling while dust was everywhere, her mouth was full of plaster….She was taken in by a neighbor who plied her with blankets and a hot-water bottle ‘for the shock’ and when she said she wasn’t in shock her hostess ‘referred darkly to ‘delayed shock.’ And when she was left alone: ‘I lay there feeling indescribably happy and triumphant. ‘I’ve been bombed!’ I kept saying to myself, over and over again – trying the phrase on, like a new dress, to see how it fitted.’ She concluded, ‘It seems a terrible thing to say, when many people must have been killed and injured last night; but never in my whole life have I ever experience such pure and flawless happiness.’

She was young, she’d survived with her love by her side, and she had fifty-five more nights of bombing to endure…..but time and war did not change her memory. Thirty-five years later Harrison….followed up on her story. She had recently become a grandmother, and she looked back on her night of being bombed as a ‘peak experience – a sense of triumph and happiness’ that she compared to the ‘experience of having a baby.’

All is not roses and optimism in Solnit’s book, however. For example, she takes a good, hard look at what went wrong in New Orleans after Katrina. I found the chapters on New Orleans especially moving, a nuanced portrait of a city and its citizens in a years-long recovery, permanently changed. (It would be fascinating to see what Solnit might make of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.)

(Her portrayal of Katrina reminded me of the riveting Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink, about a New Orleans hospital forced to cope on its own, with disastrous results. I wrote about this on Books Can Save a Life when I was a medical librarian and interested in the issue of medical rationing during disasters, something we’ll be hearing more about in the coming years.)

In the epilogue of A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit writes:

“The paradises built in hell are improvisational; we make them up as we go along, and in so doing they call on all our strength and creativity and leave us free to invent even as we find ourselves enmeshed in community. These paradises built in hell show us both what we want and what we can be….

In the 1906 earthquake, a mansion burned down but its stone portals remained standing. A photograph shows that suddenly, rather than framing the entrance to a private interior, they framed the whole city beyond the hill where the ruins stood. Disaster sometimes knocks down institutions and structures and suspends private life, leaving a broader view of what lies beyond. The task before us is to recognize the possibilities visible through that gateway and endeavor to bring them into the realm of the everyday.”

 

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I found Solnit’s San Francisco Atlas when I traveled there to visit our son and attend a memoir conference. Her Infinite City series includes New York and New Orleans. Not your standard atlases, but quirky reinvented ones, an acquired taste that conceives of cities as complex layers of culture, history, architecture, trends, personal stories, you name it. Intriguing, but somewhat text-heavy for my taste. Compiled with the help of cartographers, artists, and writers, the San Francisco Atlas includes a map called “Dharma Wheels and Fish Ladders” that pairs ancient/current salmon migrations with Zen Buddhism arrivals.

 

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My son gave me Solnit’s The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, though I haven’t read it yet. Here’s a passage from the essay, “Detroit Arcadia: Exploring the Post-American Landscape.” (I’m all for Rust Belt writing.) Solnit is often funny, always astute:  “….the lobby was bisected by drywall, the mural seemed doomed, and the whole place was under some form of remodeling that resembled ruin, with puddles in the lobby and holes in the walls, few staff people, fewer guests, and strange grinding noises at odd hours. I checked out after one night because of the cold water coming out of the hot-water tap and the generally spooky feeling generated by trying to sleep in a 413-room high-rise hotel with almost no other guests….but….as I have explored this city over the last few years, I have seen an oddly heartening new version of the landscape it [the mural] portrays, a landscape that is not quite post-apocalyptic but that is strangely – and sometimes even beautifully – post-American….This continent has not seen a transformation like Detroit’s since the last days of the Maya.”

I highly recommend getting to know Rebecca Solnit, especially if you’re restless to find a new nonfiction writer who is entertaining and spot-on when it comes to portraying our current culture, or if you need to become re-enchanted with the world. I have my eye on reading these books by her someday:

Wanderlust: A History of Walking

A Field Guide to Getting Lost

The Faraway Nearby

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

Coming up on Books Can Save a Life:

From the dark specter of an uninhabitable earth, to Solnit’s redeeming vision of community and resilience to, next up, a book well on its way to becoming a classic: one that shows us how to constructively turn inward, live slowly, and cultivate an authentic, deeply felt creativity that can be our gift to a world that sorely needs it. Hint: the author is Christian McEwen.

What are you reading now? Fiction? Nonfiction? Books worth your time, I hope. Please let us know your recommendations in the comments.

Wendell Berry’s Our Only World

Our Only World
“I can tell you confidently that the many owners of small farms, shops, and stores, and the self-employed craftspeople who were thriving in my county in 1945, did not think of their work as ‘a job.’ Most of these people, along with most skilled employees who worked in their home county or home town, have now been replaced by a few people working in large chain stores and by a few people using large machines and other human-replacing industrial technologies. Local economies, local communities, even local families, in which people lived and worked as members, have been broken.”     
Wendell Berry, Our Only World

Ten Essays by The Mad Farmer, an American prophet

A few days before I wrote this post, people in our government were planning to vote on a cruel, senseless health care bill that would have meant insurance companies would no longer be required to cover outpatient care, emergency services, hospitalization, pregnancy, maternity and newborn care, mental health and substance abuse treatment (mental health is a cause especially close to my heart), prescription drugs, rehabilitation, laboratory and diagnostic tests, preventive and wellness services and pediatric care.

I thought about all the working poor and those without jobs in Ohio, where I grew up. This health care bill would have wrought only further misery and suffering, and yet many of those who would have been adversely affected had voted in the current administration.

I was afraid to look at the news on Friday, and relieved and thankful when I finally did. There had been no vote on the bill. The fate of health care in the United States would be determined another day.

For some reason, it seems we are forcing ourselves to sort everything into the categories of liberal or conservative, and pro-government or anti-government, when of course the world is far more complex, and far more beautiful.

To keep myself sane and as a balm when I’m tired of all the vitriol, I’ve been reading Wendell Berry. I’ve wanted to dive into his writing for a long time. Needless to say, Berry doesn’t give much credence to strictly liberal or conservative world views.

He is a long-time Kentucky farmer and a devout Christian who writes poetry, short stories, novels, and essays, brilliantly. Affectionately known as “the mad farmer,” Wendell Berry is an American prophet, a voice of reason, humility, and humanity who has been compared to Emerson and Thoreau. If every person in America, young and old, read a few of his poems or stories, maybe we’d be in a better place.

Our Only World, a collection of ten essays, is a good choice if you want a concise introduction to Wendell Berry. (The book pictured above refers to eleven essays, but my copy had only ten, so I assume an essay was removed before publication.)

There were so many passages I wanted to quote, it was hard to choose. When I read the passages below, I thought of the economic devastation I’ve seen in my home town and in my home state of Ohio:

“….the disposability of people….is one of the versions of ‘creative destruction,’ which is to say the theme of heartlessness, heartbreak, and permanent damage to people and their communities….We now use ‘Luddite’ as a term of contempt, and this usage, often by people who consider themselves compassionate and humane, implies a sort of progressivist etiquette by which, in the interest of the future (and the more fortunate), we are to submit passively to our obsolescence, disemployment, displacement, and (likely enough) impoverishment. We smear this over with talk of social mobility, upward mobility, and retraining, but this is as false and cynical as the association of ‘safe’ with the extraction, transportation, and use of fossil and nuclear fuels.”

“The ruling ideas of our present national or international economy are competition, consumption, globalism, corporate profitability, mechanical efficiency, technological change, upward mobility – and in all of them there is the implication of acceptable violence against the land and the people. We, on the contrary, must think again of reverence, humility, affection, familiarity, neighborliness, cooperation, thrift, appropriateness, local loyalty. These terms return us to the best of our heritage. They bring us home.”

“If one accepts the 24th and 104th Psalms as scriptural norms, then surface mining and other forms of earth destruction clearly are perversions. If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare and its unavoidable massacre of innocents as a most shocking perversion? By the standard of all scriptures, neglect of the poor, of widows and orphans, of the sick, the homeless, the insane, is an abominable perversion. Jesus taught that hating your neighbor is tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors as a matter of policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so. Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term? And yet none of these offenses, not all of them together, has made as much political-religious noise as homosexual marriage.”

Even more than mental health and health care, I care about our earth and climate change. Here are some things Wendell Berry has to say about our relationship to the natural world:

“…. the limited competence of the human mind… will never fully comprehend the forms and functions of the natural world. With the development of industrialism, this misfitting has become increasingly a contradiction or opposition between industrial technologies and the creatures of nature, tending always toward the destruction of creatures, creaturely habitat, and creaturely life. We can respond rationally to this predicament only by honest worry, unrelenting caution, and propriety of scale. We must not put too much, let alone everything, at risk….

….all our uses of the natural world must be governed by our willingness to learn the nature of every place, and to submit to nature’s limits and requirements for the use of every place.”

A poet and writer I know writes of “the daily bread of language,” and lately I’ve enjoyed partaking of the daily bread of Wendell Berry. One of my blog readers suggested that I look at Berry’s fiction, too, so next week I’ll write about Hannah Coulter and a few other novels that take place in Port William, a fictitious Kentucky town.

The Bill Moyers interview below is a wonderful introduction to Wendell Berry. Listening to him measuring out wisdom in his musical Kentucky cadence calms the mind and soothes the soul.

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By the way, the march for climate, jobs and justice, sponsored by the People’s Climate Movement, will take place in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 2017, together with thousands of Sister Marches around the world. My husband and I are planning to march in Washington or New York City. Will there be a march near you?

Have you read Wendell Berry? Which of his books would you recommend? Are you a fan of other writers of a similar nature?

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