A Paradise Built in Hell, Redux

ParadiseBuilt

I thought this would be a good time to repost my thoughts on Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster as we take on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reading this post, and Rebecca’s Paradise, which highlights how strong, healing communities spontaneously arise in disaster, is mind-boggling, because now we are challenged to build community in isolation.

Can this be done? Will disaster utopias arise even as we remain apart?

I haven’t begun to unpack these questions, but I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. What do you think about community in this time of pandemic? Do Solnit’s thoughts and research hold true now?

(I will say one thing: listening to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily press briefings has been extraordinarily bolstering. This growing community of virtual listeners has quickly come to extend well beyond the boundaries of New York State.)

Here is what I wrote a year ago:

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.)

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.”

So what do you think? Does this hold true even as we stay home, communicating not face to face, but via screens and smartphones? Tell us what you think in the comments.

If you are looking for a new nonfiction author to read during the pandemic’s long hours, I highly recommend Rebecca Solnit. Her other titles include:

Wanderlust: A History of Walking

A Field Guide to Getting Lost

The Faraway Nearby

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

 

Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter

Hannah Coulter Book Cover

“She was a good cook, but she also did the main work that kept us eating. She made the garden, and all we didn’t eat fresh she preserved and stored for the winter. She took care of the hens and the turkeys. She milked two cows. My father was in charge of the meat hogs, but Grandmam was the authority and head worker at the butchering and sausage making and lard rendering and the curing of the meat. In the summers she, and I with her, roamed the fencerows and woods edges and hollows to pick wild berries for pies and jam. She was always busy. She never backed off from anything because it was hard. She washed and ironed, made soap, sewed and patched and darned. Every Saturday she carried a basket of eggs and a bucket of cream to the store at Shagbark.”   Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry

 

Hannah Coulter is a great book club choice. I think that reading Wendell Berry’s novels, essays, and poetry over several months could spark conversations so relevant to our times.

I read somewhere of a woman who began inviting liberals and conservatives to occasional dinners after the election. Maybe forming a book club of this nature, and reading the work of Wendell Berry and others (J.D. Vance‘s  Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein come to mind) could be one way to help us better understand one another and heal our cultural divide.

As I wrote in my previous post, Berry doesn’t subscribe to strictly liberal or conservative thinking. Influenced by this Baptist faith and deep bonds with the Kentucky farming community of his birth, he has over a lifetime and in a large body of work mapped out a moral code for living ethically on this earth, with compassion toward each other and a deep understanding of what the land we live on requires of us.

At eighty years of age, Hannah Coulter looks back on her life. When she was a girl, her mother died and was soon replaced with an uncaring stepmother. When Hannah was a young wife and mother-to-be, her husband, Virgil, was killed in World War II. A few years later, Hannah married Nathan, a war veteran who fought at Okinawa. Together they raised three children. Hannah’s is a story of farming and family in a close-knit Kentucky community, a way of life that she recognizes is vanishing.

Or is it? The ending of this short but powerful novel offers signs of hope that maybe it is not. Even though I haven’t lived the farming life, I care about its preservation and resurgence, so I loved the ending of this novel.

Hannah Coulter spoke to me on many fronts, and left me unsettled, too.

After 20+ years in our home raising two children, we’ve been getting ready for a garage sale and deciding what to part with. These words resonated:

“And then we got married and moved in.

Those were fine days. Everything we did seemed to start something that was going to go on and on. I’ll never forget the feeling it gave me just to make this house clean, to fill it with fresh air and the good smell of soapy water, to wash the dingy windows and see the rooms fill with light, to get here one morning and find that Nathan had mowed the yard, sparing the day lilies and the rambler rose. I cut a few blossoms and stuck them in a jar of water in the living room.”

By far, though, one of the most powerful sections of Hannah Coulter for me was when, after Nathan’s death, Hannah goes to the library so she can find out what the Battle of Okinawa was all about. Nathan had never spoken of the war or that terrible battle.

I understand Hannah’s impulse to want to know this about her husband. Writing my memoir, I’ve found it challenging to write intelligently and fairly about my parents in a full-bodied, compassionate way. Parents keep stories from their children and remain enigmas long after they are gone.

A few years after my father died, we went to Metz, France, a town he helped liberate in World War II when he was about my son’s age. We saw the countryside where he was wounded and visited the American cemetery with thousands of white crosses as far as the eye could see. My father always told war stories that fascinated me, but I’d never really known much about the Battle of Metz–what a suicidal mission it was. That day in France, when we found the grave of a young man in my father’s battalion who was killed the same cold November day Dad was wounded, I realized in a way I never had before how much my father must have been censoring when he told his stories.

When Hannah goes to the library, she wants to know what Nathan experienced during the Battle of Okinawa. She wants details: what he saw, heard, smelled, touched, and tasted. Wendell Berry gives these to her, in spades. He reminds her, too, of the Japanese farmers and their families who were there when the bombs rained down.

Wendell Berry isn’t keen on runaway capitalism and the industrialization of farming, and I think this powerful chapter about Hannah researching the Battle of Okinawa is, in part, an indictment of the military-industrial complex.

“Want of imagination makes things unreal enough to be destroyed. By imagination I mean knowledge and love. I mean compassion. People of power kill children, the old send the young to die, because they have no imagination. They have power. Can you have power and imagination at the same time? Can you kill people you don’t know and have compassion for them at the same time?

Over Easter weekend, I heard someone report, with great satisfaction, of the rising ISIS death toll from our “mother of all bombs,” as troops cleaned up and found more bodies.

Some final, true, and thankfully uplifting words, from Hannah Coulter: 

“The world is so full and abundant it is like a pregnant woman carrying a child in one arm and leading another by the hand. Every puddle in the lane is ringed with sipping butterflies that fly up and flutter when you walk past in the late morning on your way to get the mail.”

I’m better off for having read Hannah Coulter. I draw inspiration from these words about Grandmam, and have written them in the notebook where I record and track my creative work:

“She never backed off from anything because it was hard.”

One of the Wendell Berry novels recommended by readers of this blog is Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, As Written by Himself, so that is the Berry novel I plan to read next.  (Jayber has a few cameo mentions in Hannah Coulter.)

Here is an in-depth discussion of Hannah Coulter on The Diane Rehm Show:

https://dianerehm.org/shows/2010-11-24/readers-review-hannah-coulter-wendell-berry

 

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Hemlocks at dusk in our neighborhood. Wendell Berry’s fiction is infused with vivid imagery of nature and the land.

Tribe

Bigmanstool

Big Man’s Stool from the middle Sepic River region of Papua New Guinea. This was a wedding gift to us many years ago from my husband’s uncle, an expert on Melanesian art.

 

Tribe“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.

It’s time for that to end.”

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger

I was fascinated by David Brooks’ recent column in The New York Times, “The Great Affluence Fallacy,” in which he says that, back in the day, many Americans joined Native American tribes, either voluntarily or because they were captured. Often, whites who were allowed to return to their original culture chose to stay with Native Americans.

This rarely happened the other way around: Native Americans never willingly chose white society.

David Brooks read about this phenomenon in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger, (Junger is the author of The Perfect Storm and War) which inspired me to read this short, well written extended essay on the plight of the lonely, autonomous individual in modern American culture.

I highly recommend Tribe if you feel that we’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way in our relentless pursuit of autonomy and self-actualization, and if you feel we’re in need of a course correction. At about 130 pages, it is a quick but memorable read.

Here are a couple more quotes that spoke to me:

“A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day–or an entire life–mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.”

“We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” – Sharon Abramowitz

Family Reunion

Speaking of tribes, connection, and meaning, this summer I went to a family reunion held every three years or so by my husband’s large extended family of Irish descent. It’s always a great time, and through the years I’ve enjoyed watching four generations gather from the east and west coasts and many places in between. At the reunion we had a memorial tribute to my husband’s uncle, Peter, who recently passed away.

As a young man, Peter emigrated to Australia, started out in advertising and, beginning in the 1960s, spent three decades traveling deep into the interior of New Guinea and collecting tribal art. Eventually, Peter became one of the world’s foremost experts on Melanesian art.

Reading through Peter’s autobiographical material on display at the reunion, I found this:

“…he would spend months at a time traveling in remote areas, living amongst the people and studying their culture and traditional art….he would spend weeks traveling to small, obscure villages…No place was too far. There were trips to the most remote regions of Milne Bay, the Dampier and Vitiaz straits, off the beaten track in the Highlands, even an eleven month trip which delivered a major Kula canoe from Kitava Island to the South Australian Museum.”

Peter’s catalog descriptions make for fascinating reading. I love the vivid, succinct descriptions and the precise words. It’s almost like poetry. Here is one:

IMG_3634A Wood Mask, Kandrian Sub-District, Wosom Village, the oval white face with an hollowed mouth showing teeth and tongue, hollowed eyes, pierced ears, and the high forehead with three cylindrical shafts issuing feathers, strands of shells and pig teeth hanging from the ear lobes, painted with white, black and red pigments. Height 63 cm. (24 3/4 in.) 

This type of dance mask, called ‘Waku,’ was used in circumcision festivities.”

It strikes me that Peter’s fascination with Aboriginal art and life may have been inspired, in part, because he admired their community values and human bonds that ran deep…which is what Sebastian Junger writes about in Tribe. Peter must have resonated with their deep connection to nature, too.

So much knowledge and wisdom can be lost with the passing of intrepid individuals such as Peter. Fortunately, much of his knowledge and many of his experiences have been preserved in books and photographs, which we were able to see at the family reunion. As time goes on, the grandchildren and great grandchildren will be left with some sense of Peter’s remarkable life.

For him, no place was too far.

 

TribeWelcome.jpeg

One of the old photos Peter left behind. I have no way of knowing what tribe this is or which village. Can you imagine pulling up in your canoe at some remote river location and receiving such a warm welcome? Or, maybe it was posed…either way, everyone looks happy.

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Dance 1

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Art by Sammy Clarmon of the Lockhard River Art Gang, in Gatherings II: Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art from Queensland, Australia. This is one of the Keeaira Press books designed by Great Uncle Peter. These esoteric, small press books about tribal culture are invaluable; they preserve glimpses of a past way of life and a unique body of wisdom for future generations.

Are there fascinating figures in your family history? Do you agree with Sebastian Junger that modern society makes people feel unnecessary?

 

 

 

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